THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS | The Coens go way out west…
Fun fact: the Coen brothers’ 2010 remake of the John Wayne classic True Grit was the biggest hit of their career. “It was wildly successful in the States for some damn reason,” shrugs Ethan Coen. “Nobody expected that.” Especially as the western is the genre that the industry perennially claims is out of fashion, despite making sporadic re‑appearances. “It’s hard to kill it,” argues Joel. “Maybe this movie will!”
He’s referring to their latest, The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs – a Wild West-set anthology of six shorts. The first episode – the titular tale of a singing, sharp-shooting cowboy, played here by Tim Blake Nelson
– was written as far back as 25 years ago, which may explain its comic-book violence, à la early Coen movies like Raising Arizona. “It does feel like a throwback,” admits Joel, “but something we were perfectly happy to re-engage with.”
Over the years, they wrote further stories – including ‘Near Algodones’ (which stars James Franco as a luckless bank-robbing varmint), the gothic ‘Meal Ticket’ (Liam Neeson as a freak-show peddler) and ‘All Gold Canyon’ (a Jack London adaptation, with Tom Waits as a prospector).
“[We took] little breaks to work on other movies to pay the bills!” laughs Ethan, though in truth they had no idea what to do with the shorts.
Eventually, the idea of an anthology arose – and they promptly penned the final two episodes, wagon train yarn ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled’ and the stagecoach-set ‘The Mortal Remains’. While Netflix got involved, Joel is swift to point out that the project was never meant as a TV series, despite media reports. “It was a bit of a perfect storm of confusion,” he says. “We never went back, modified, re-wrote, re-cut or re-organised what we were doing.”
With the Coens shooting from Nebraska to New Mexico, it became one of the most difficult projects of their career, despite being surrounded by their usual collaborators. Take ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled’, which stars Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck. “The logistical parts of that are just unbelievable,” says Joel. With wagons, livestock and extras to wrangle, “something is going to go wrong!” says Ethan. “Every take, it was always something… it was a fucking pain in the ass!”
While it’s not as if the Coens had to whittle down a dozen or so stories to the final six, they do reveal that there is one short that got left unmade, ‘The Warden’s Hobby’. “It’s too advanced even for this movie,” says Ethan. “It was one of the sub-genres we didn’t do – the Yuma prison western.” Joel adds, “It was about a warden” – he glances at Ethan – “but we’re not going to talk about that!” His brother starts snickering. “You couldn’t handle it!”
ETA | 16 NOVEMBER / THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS IS AVAILABLE ON NETFLIX NEXT MONTH.
best western Liam Neeson as the Impresario, in ‘Meal Ticket’; Tim Blake Nelson as the titular Buster (below).