Empire (Australasia) - - Contents - WORDS JOHN NU­GENT IL­LUS­TRA­TION THE RED DRESS

Sad­dle up! The Coens (Joel, Ethan, and the third brother they don’t like to talk about, Tris­tan) are back with this Western an­thol­ogy.

The work of the Coen brothers is packed with riffs on the Western genre. As they go full horse opera with new film The Bal­lad Of Buster Scruggs, they take us on a gal­lop through the ins and outs of cow­boy flicks

Walk­ing into a room with Joel and Ethan Coen is a lit­tle like walk­ing into the sa­loon of a one-horse town where no­body knows your name. The mu­sic seems to stop. There is an un­com­fort­able si­lence. Drinks are put down (in this case, Joel’s mug of herbal tea). Search­ing eyes as­sess you. No­body’s quite sure how this one’s go­ing to go down.

But then you get the brothers talk­ing about West­erns, and it’s as if the honky-tonk pi­ano starts play­ing again. “Mak­ing West­erns some­how seems con­nected to that play that you used to do as kids,” says Ethan (younger, shorter, more prone to gig­gles). “It’s cer­tainly part of the plea­sure of do­ing this kind of movie,” con­curs Joel (older, taller, wilder hair, hid­den be­hind a pair of sepia-tinted 1970s shades). The fa­mously re­served brothers rarely give in­ter­views, but while they rig­or­ously main­tain a lack of eye con­tact through­out our con­ver­sa­tion in a Venice ho­tel suite, it’s clear they have deep af­fec­tion for the Western genre, an en­dur­ing slice of Amer­i­cana. It’s an af­fec­tion they’ve chan­nelled fre­quently across their 35 years of film­mak­ing — from the op­pres­sive vis­tas of No Coun­try

For Old Men to the folksy charm of True Grit; from The Big Le­bowski’s mys­te­ri­ous, mous­ta­chioed nar­ra­tor to Hail, Cae­sar!’s singing cow­boy — and never more so than in The Bal­lad Of Buster Scruggs, their new an­thol­ogy film.

De­spite widely be­ing re­ported to the con­trary, they con­firm to Em­pire that Buster Scruggs was al­ways in­tended as a film. “We would never ac­tu­ally do a TV se­ries,” as­serts Joel. “In terms of what we did, it never changed.” The six short sto­ries, some of which res­ur­rect scraps from 25 years’ worth of un­used story ideas, span every dusty cor­ner of the Western, em­brac­ing the genre even as they sub­vert it. Like gen­er­a­tions of Amer­i­can sto­ry­tellers be­fore them, they’re clearly be­witched by the ro­mance and rough­ness of the Amer­i­can fron­tier as it was, and wasn’t. So we at­tempt to tease a few in­sights on how to put to­gether a cow­boy movie from the most in­scrutable brothers in cin­ema. Pull up a chair, part­ner: we’re headed west.


THE COENS GREW up in sub­ur­ban Min­neapo­lis, a solid thou­sand-or-so miles from any­where that might look like a Western; you’d have to ride west, three weeks or more by wagon train, to find the arid wilder­ness of the Great Basin Desert, or the prairies of the Great Plains. But the myth of the Western gripped them from an early age. Vo­ra­cious con­sumers of film and tele­vi­sion, the young Coens in­dis­crim­i­nately watched the grand, op­er­at­i­cally vi­o­lent Spaghetti West­erns as of­ten as they watched the faintly ridicu­lous thigh-slap­ping singing cow­boys. All points of the Western spec­trum can be seen in Buster Scruggs, which opens with a white-stet­soned

Tim Blake Nel­son, as the ti­tle char­ac­ter, declar­ing, “That puts me in mind of a song!” at every avail­able op­por­tu­nity — even as his cheer­ful war­bles are in­con­gru­ously, hi­lar­i­ously pit­ted against the bloody vi­o­lence more likely found in a Leone flick.

Joel: There was a funny pe­riod in West­erns, when we first started go­ing to movies. As very small kids, it was

[films like] The Mag­nif­i­cent Seven.

Ethan: They were pretty cheesy. Though we didn’t make those qual­ity dis­tinc­tions, and still don’t.

Joel: Then Ser­gio Leone came along with Once Upon A Time In The West, and that was, of course, a mind­blower.

Ethan: Even when we were youths, I think we recog­nised: “Yeah, this is good shit.” Joel: So there was a re­ally great pro­gres­sion in the Western that we were around for. In­ter­est­ingly, we didn’t come to John Ford un­til much, much later — ex­cept I think I saw The Man Who Shot Lib­erty Valance on tele­vi­sion when I was a lit­tle kid.

Ethan: We knew [singing cow­boy]

Roy Rogers.

Joel: We knew him from the tele­vi­sion show. We knew him from his [coun­try mu­sic group] Sons Of The Pi­o­neers. And then we knew him from the ham­burger place [a fast food chain licensed to use the Roy Rogers name]. There was one in Times Square, when we were cut­ting our first movie.

Ethan: Such a great pro­gres­sion!

Joel: I have to say, singing cow­boy movies have had more of a hold on our imag­i­na­tion [as adults] than when we were kids. I think when we were kids, we prob­a­bly thought they were corny.


OUR MAN ROY Rogers once said that when his time came, he’d like to be stuffed and mounted on his beloved horse, Trig­ger. Cow­boys rarely speak as lov­ingly as they do about their trusty steeds and the same can be said for the Coens, who talk with atyp­i­cal an­i­ma­tion about their favourite horse chases from clas­sic West­erns. Bring up The Searchers in their com­pany, for ex­am­ple, and they’ll mar­vel at the risks John Ford took to stage his dar­ing chase se­quence across the San Juan River. Buster Scruggs fea­tures plenty of dar­ing horse se­quences, in­clud­ing a cou­ple of in­tense show­downs be­tween cow­boys and Na­tive Amer­i­cans. Tim Blake Nel­son strad­dles a gleam­ing white horse as Buster Scruggs opens, re­quir­ing five months in train­ing prior to film­ing, learn­ing the duel skills of rid­ing and play­ing the gui­tar — at the same time.

Ethan: We had phe­nom­e­nal stunt rid­ers. Joel: These kids — some of them were teenagers, some in their twen­ties, not much older than that — were all bare­back rid­ers, rid­ing with­out sad­dles, as the Na­tive Amer­i­cans did at that time. It’s un­be­liev­able.

Ethan: It’s weird: for all the hor­ri­ble pro­duc­tion night­mares, of which there were many, the horse stunts were easy. I mean, they just did ’em.

Joel: What those guys did went off like clock­work. Those guys were in­cred­i­ble. What was per­mis­si­ble [on older

West­erns] was very dif­fer­ent from what is per­mis­si­ble now on a movie set. You look at this un­be­liev­able amount of stuff they were do­ing with ac­tors — there was real dan­ger.

Ethan: Oh my God. That’s what’s strik­ing. You look at it again and you go, “Wow, that’s good.” Ward Bond’s a pretty good ac­tor but fuck, he could ac­tu­ally ride.

Joel: John Wayne was a great rider. Though he hated horses. Glenn Ford was a great rider. You look at these Glenn Ford movies and he’s do­ing this stuff ef­fort­lessly, which would be such a big deal.

Ethan: It used to be the skill that ac­tors have. Like elo­cu­tion.

Joel: We’ve ac­tu­ally worked with some ac­tors that ride re­ally well. Josh Brolin is a re­ally great rider. He has that skill. He grew up on a ranch.

Ethan: Matt Da­mon is very good. Jeff [Bridges] is very good — to­tally at ease. Joel: In the old days, they used to trip horses with wires. But it was dan­ger­ous for the horse. They would break its neck. It’s be­come more re­stricted, for good rea­son. In fact, quite hon­estly, there are more strin­gent rules about horses and animals than peo­ple.

Ethan: It’s weird. In True Grit, we had Hailee Ste­in­feld, who was 13 at the time, rid­ing a horse across the river. The Amer­i­can Hu­mane peo­ple were there, and there’s a rule about what tem­per­a­ture the water can be. It can’t be too cold for the horse. But the 13-year-old girl — no rule about that!


THE BAL­LAD OF Buster Scruggs opens like a thou­sand West­erns be­fore it: in the vast, iconic panorama of Mon­u­ment Val­ley, the land­mark made fa­mous by John Ford in Stage­coach, and a short­hand for the Wild West ever since. It’s the Coens con­sciously nod­ding to Ford and his Vis­tavi­sion widescreens, bor­row­ing iconog­ra­phy that sets the tone in a sin­gle frame, even if it’s ge­o­graph­i­cally in­con­gru­ous. The end of Stage­coach sees John Wayne leave Lords­burg, New Mex­ico, by way of Mon­u­ment Val­ley, Ari­zona, 450 miles to the north; in a pleas­ingly sim­i­lar bit of cre­ative li­cence, Scruggs has

New Mex­ico dou­bling for Ari­zona, the fa­mous sand­stone mesas and buttes of Mon­u­ment Val­ley dig­i­tally in­serted be­hind Tim Blake Nel­son in post­pro­duc­tion. Per­haps more than any genre, the land­scape is like a char­ac­ter in these films: tough and in­dif­fer­ent, but also aching with beauty and mys­tery. Re­flect­ing the di­ver­sity of the Amer­i­can fron­tier, the Coens’ multi-chap­ter Western darts across the coun­try, from the Great Plains of Ne­braska to the dusty deserts of Ari­zona to the lush, pas­toral val­leys of Colorado’s Rocky Moun­tains.

Ethan: I saw Stage­coach again be­fore we shot this movie. I thought: “Wow, they are trav­el­ling around Mon­u­ment Val­ley for many days in this stage­coach!” At that point, you’re kind of fa­mil­iar with the lo­ca­tions, hav­ing been to Mon­u­ment Val­ley. You go, “Huh!” We ac­tu­ally didn’t go [to Mon­u­ment Val­ley] when we filmed this — that’s Tim dig­i­tally in­serted into a plate. The stuff that’s live ac­tion was shot near Santa Fe in New Mex­ico.

Joel: The land­scapes were cer­tainly im­por­tant to us here, as they have been in other movies. We wanted each of these sto­ries to have a dis­tinc­tive and dif­fer­ent land­scape. Ethan: For the Tom Waits one [‘All Gold Canyon’] we needed the Rocky moun­tains Joel: That one is an adap­ta­tion of a Jack Lon­don story, and it so specif­i­cally de­scribes this val­ley that he goes into. We weren’t ac­tu­ally sure it was even find­able. Or at least, find­able in the way you can bring a movie crew. Af­ter a lot of look­ing all over, the lo­ca­tion scouts found this val­ley near Tel­luride, in the Colorado moun­tains. It was re­ally per­fect. Beau­ti­ful box canyon to get into. Very high. Be­tween 10,000 and 11,000 feet high.

Very dif­fi­cult to work up there

— the air’s very thin. But beau­ti­ful. Ethan: Tom sucked a lot of oxy­gen be­tween takes.

Joel: Fine, un­less you’re re­ally ex­ert­ing your­self. Which he was. It re­ally takes its toll.

Ethan: I remember that you’d have to go pee at the top of this rise. I’d labour up the hill, and be in the porta potty pee­ing, and gasp­ing for air. There’s thin walls in those porta pot­ties — I could hear the guy in the next porta potty gasp­ing for air, too. [Laughs]


THE COENS HAVE al­ways leaned to­wards black-as-the-night hu­mour; even at their most se­ri­ous or som­bre, their films are drip­ping in ironic wit. The Old West, then, seems like a com­fort­able fit for their sen­si­bil­i­ties, where a wry re­mark is of­ten of­fered in the same breath as a deadly shot. In fact, the sec­ond tale in Buster Scruggs, en­ti­tled ‘Near

Al­go­dones’, boasts a spot of lit­eral gal­lows hu­mour, with James Franco gen­er­at­ing dark laughs from a hang­man’s noose — in­clud­ing a killer punch­line to boot, which we won’t spoil here, but one of which the Coens are rightly proud.

Ethan: That’s a good gag, right? Fuck yeah, that’s a good gag. James [Franco] re­ally ap­pre­ci­ated it. It was well done. Joel: I for­got that we did this: right af­ter James says his line, the guy [next to him on the gal­lows] goes: “Uh-huh.” He was funny. That whole thing is a bit of a shaggy-dog story. James is very funny in it.

Ethan: It harks back to those West­erns like Ser­gio Leone and Clint’s ’70s West­erns, when the Western was more free. [Laughs] You could be free!

Joel: You want West­erns to be free! It’s what gives it its vi­tal­ity.

Ethan: Clint is so weird ’cause he’s such a rock, and yet he’s free and beau­ti­ful. The Out­law Of Josey Wales — there’s some weird shit in that.

Joel: [Tom Waits’ char­ac­ter] is re­ally the only one who gets out alive. The sto­ries on ei­ther side are pretty dark. Ethan: You gotta raise the lit­tle bit of hope so you can dash it again.

Joel: Is that story struc­ture?

[Both laugh]

Ethan: We’re do­ing one of those mas­ter­classes. Like Werner Her­zog.

Joel: [In Her­zog voice] “Zis is my mas­ter­class.” [More laugh­ter]


AS MUCH AS they em­brace a well-trod­den genre, the Coens are just as in­ter­ested in turn­ing it on its head. Every story in Buster Scruggs fea­tures fa­mil­iar hall­marks — es­sen­tial cin­e­matic vo­cab­u­lary that would be in­stantly recog­nis­able to even a ca­sual viewer — but each one scur­ries down a sur­pris­ing route, too, go­ing darker and more gothic than Hol­ly­wood’s Golden Age ever dared. Re­vi­sion­ist West­erns, the kind that came into vogue in the 1960s and ’70s, like Robert Alt­man’s 1971 mas­ter­piece Mccabe & Mrs. Miller, serve as an im­por­tant in­spi­ra­tion for the aes­thetic of the third tale, ‘Meal Ticket’ — but that rev­o­lu­tion­ary ap­proach proved an im­por­tant fore­bear as a whole. The fi­nal tale, ‘The Mor­tal Re­mains’, ends the film on a mys­te­ri­ous, bleak note, send­ing a group of strangers into an un­known fate. It is dark, sur­pris­ing, sav­agely funny, and uniquely Coen-y.

Ethan: [For the fi­nal story, ‘Mor­tal Re­mains’], we were think­ing about in­ter­est­ing sub­gen­res: peo­ple thrown to­gether in a stage­coach who have to deal with each other. Dis­parate per­son­al­i­ was writ­ten con­sciously think­ing, “Okay, this is go­ing to be the last one, so how should it end as a col­lec­tion? And how does that work?” Not in any lit­eral way, but just in terms of feel­ing. How did we want the whole thing to wind up?

Joel: Mccabe & Mrs. Miller is fas­ci­nat­ing.

Ethan: We men­tioned Mccabe & Mrs. Miller as a ref­er­ence for ‘Meal Ticket’ when talk­ing to Bruno [Del­bon­nel, di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy].

Joel: In try­ing to get that grim, muddy... Ethan: Shit-town.

Joel: ... Shit-town look. There’s some­thing a lit­tle gothic about it, it’s true. Ethan: Mccabe & Mrs. Miller is in­ter­est­ing be­cause it is what ev­ery­one says we do: “We’re go­ing to up­date the West.”

Joel: And put Leonard Co­hen songs in. Ethan: And put Leonard Co­hen songs in. [Di­rec­tor Robert Alt­man] ac­tu­ally did, though.

Joel: That’s a bold move, you know? Put­ting Leonard Co­hen against the Old West. You look at it now and it seems kind of rad­i­cal.

AND WITH THAT, the Coens ride off into the sun­set. Or rather, shuffle qui­etly out of a ho­tel con­fer­ence suite. Though not be­fore bat­ting away any sug­ges­tion that they could make a Buster Scruggs se­quel. “You’d think that — they’re self-con­tained sto­ries — but all our movies, you go, ‘We did it. So we’re not go­ing to do it again,’” as­serts Ethan. They may re­main fairly in­scrutable, but if they do de­cide to dip their toes in the Western sand­pit again, one thing’s for sure: it’ll be kind of rad­i­cal.


Above: Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nel­son) croons a bal­lad from atop his trusty steed. Left, top to bot­tom: Ho­bie Doyle (Alden Ehren­re­ich) gets his singing cow­boy on in Hail, Cae­sar!; Jeff Bridges as Reuben J. ‘Rooster’ Cog­burn with Joel and Ethan Coen on the set of True Grit; Llewe­lyn Moss (Josh Brolin) gun­tot­ing in No Coun­try For Old Men.

Clock­wise from above: Joel and Ethan Coen with DP Bruno Del­bon­nel and Bill Heck on lo­ca­tion for seg­ment ‘The Gal Who Got Rat­tled’; Tom Waits plays a gold prospec­tor in the ‘All Gold Canyon’ seg­ment; ‘The Gal Who Got Rat­tled’ seg­ment sees Zoe Kazan team up with Heck.

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