THE BAL­LAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS | The Coens go way out west…

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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!”


best western Liam Nee­son as the Im­pre­sario, in ‘Meal Ticket’; Tim Blake Nel­son as the tit­u­lar Buster (be­low).

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