Busting Out West

Dominic Corry takes in the Coen Brothers’ latest opus, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs starring Tim Blake Nelson, at the New York Film Festival.

“It is true, I have to say, you do a Western, you spend 90% of your time dealing with and thinking about the horses.” —⁠Joel Coen

The Coen brothers unveiled their latest work The Ballad of Buster Scruggs at the New York Film Festival last week, and it’s yet another masterpiece from the peerless filmmakers. Perhaps even more so than their acclaimed True Grit (2010), which garnered ten Oscar nominations, Buster Scruggs betrays their extreme affection for—and deep knowledge of—the Western, cinema’s first and longest-lasting genre.

The Netflix-backed project was erroneously initially reported to be a TV series, but according to the brothers it was always planned as an anthology film comprised of six individual stories. Each one embodies and gently subverts a particular Western sub-genre, from the singing cowboy films typified by those starring Gene Autry, to the fatalistic grime of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, to a wagon train drama, with multiple stops in between, ending on a dark tale that wouldn’t be all that out of place as a Twilight Zone episode.

It’s funny, tragic and savagely ironic in the manner only the Coens seem to be able to pull off. The stories feature a host of amazing actors doing fantastic work, including, but not limited to: Liam Neeson, Bill Heck, Zoe Kazan, Tom Waits, James Franco, Stephen Root, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson and the great Clancy Brown (albeit briefly), whose presence elevates anything he appears in. The only person missing was the late Walter Brennan, the Western genre’s all-time greatest old coot who I am confident is smiling down upon this film from wherever he may currently reside.

Zoe Kazan, Joel Coen, Tim Blake Nelson and Ethan Coen at NYFF 56. — Photographer… Evan Agostini
Zoe Kazan, Joel Coen, Tim Blake Nelson and Ethan Coen at NYFF 56. Photographer… Evan Agostini

Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) is absolutely hilarious as the title character (the aforementioned singing cowboy), whose story kicks off the anthology. He joined the Coens on stage following the screening for a discussion of the work. Here’s some highlights:

On the origins of the project:

Joel Coen: The first story [we wrote] was the first story in the movie. These are stories that were written over 25 years really, so that goes way back, that one. They follow, with a couple of exceptions, in a kind of chronological order in terms of when they were written, roughly. They just got put in a drawer because they were short movies and we didn’t know what we were gonna do with them. We probably didn’t even expect to make them until maybe eight or ten years ago when we started thinking, “well, maybe we could do these”. They could be seen as a sequenced series of stories or tracks on a record album or something like that. It’s a weird animal in terms of the format.

On whether or not they considered merging the stories into one larger narrative:

JC: No. Like I said before we had these stories, they were all westerns so there was that and then they seemed to relate to each other, but kind of retrospectively, rather than consciously when we started doing it. There was never the impulse to [combine them] but as I said it’s kind of a strange form but it grew out of just the odd nature of how they came into existence.

On the experience of the actors:

Tim Blake Nelson: We all got to read the entire script before we shot our individual constituent parts, unrelated to the others, but I think probably as actors we all felt a responsibility toward the genre of each film in which we appear. Because what I think is astonishing about this is it’s six different movies within the Western genre but then each one is in the vernacular of a sub-genre in and of itself. And that, at least for me, and I’m pretty sure with the other actors, just underscored one’s responsibility to appear indelibly within the genre in which you appeared. And so understanding that and then getting to see the successes of the others, it was just really rewarding to encounter that in all the stories. So that’s what was most gratifying about seeing the whole, was experiencing the success of others.

On the public confusion over whether or not this was a series or a movie, and whether or not any stories got culled:

JC: I think that’s an artifact of what a strange animal it is. None of us really knew what to call it or how to classify it. Aside from the confusion about the classification, what we were going to shoot, the length of all the stories, which vary, there was never anything we were considering doing differently. There were never any more stories, and they were always intended to be seen together as a group.

On the large presence of animals in the film, which prominently features a dog and and owl, among other critters:

JC: Flies are very hard to work with. There are a lot of animals. We do tend to load the movies up with domestic animals don’t we? It’s a Western, there are horses. It is true, I have to say, you do a Western, you spend 90% of your time dealing with and thinking about the horses.

Ethan Coen: And the oxen. The oxen were new to us. I asked Travis, who was the oxen wrangler, we wanted the oxen to do something specific for a take, and I asked him if he could do that and he just sighed. He looked at me like I was an idiot and said, “Driving oxen is not self-evident”.

On collaborating on this film with longtime composer Carter Burwell:

EC: As Tim said, they’re all Westerns but they’re such different kinds of stories, we would talk about to what extent the music should play off those different [genres] and to what extent it should tie the things together. It’s a question we confronted. They’re so different. How much are you gonna accent the differences and how much are you gonna say it’s all the same movie [with the music]?

JC: It’s something that wasn’t just limited to the music, it’s an issue that came up in terms of the shooting styles and the color timing look of the movie, and how much to differentiate between the different stories and how much not to. How much to push that and how much to pull back a little bit in terms of your original instincts about it. And that went through a lot of iterations. It’s the kind of thing that’s very easy to iterate and re-iterate now that color timing is done in a computer as opposed to photo-chemically, so that went back and forth a little bit too and sort of found its place.

On how Joel and Ethan have evolved over the years as filmmakers:

TBN: Yeah they finally know what they’re doing. They figured it out on this movie. [Big laughs from the crowd.] At a previous Q&A I suddenly realized the oxymoronic nature of who and what Joel and Ethan are as directors and filmmakers, because they’re incredibly, unbelievably, in an unparalleled way, meticulous and prepared as filmmakers. So that when you get to the set there really are no decisions being made during the shooting time that could’ve been made earlier, and that rigor pays off in an interesting way because it allows for the actors inside of that meticulous preparation, to be utterly free, to have all the time an actor could possibly want. So I think it’s the amount of preparation, with which I became familiar on O Brother, and I’d never encountered before in any movie I’d done with any director, or directors. And it’s repeated once more here, with the added challenge I think for Joel and Ethan that they were making effectively six films with six different linguistic principals inside the language of the Western and I found the specificity with which they were working on the one I’m in, unbelievable in terms of its extremes and its fearlessness. And the way that they were pushing me, and in certain cases allowing me to do certain stuff. And then seeing the whole movie, watching five other versions of that, was truly astonishing. So what I guess I really mean to say is that the opposite of my joke is true: they continue to be unparalleled in terms of the work they put in, the preparation they do, and the specificity borne out of the shooting and also in the result.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ is available on Netflix and in select theaters from November 16. Letterboxd recommends seeing it on the big screen if you can!


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