The Coens are back in the Wild West

The film-making brothers have a new offering - and it's on Netflix. James Mottram met them.


When it was first announced that the Coen Brothers’ next work was for Netflix, the shockwaves were audible. Joel and Ethan, the Jewish-raised sibling filmmakers behind such cinematic treats as Fargo and No Country for Old Men, turning to television? The very thought!

Of course, it’s never quite as simple as it seems. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a blistering western-themed anthology, wasn’t specifically designed for TV in the way, say, Woody Allen’s Amazon series Crisis In Six Scenes was.

A series of short films, which the Coens started writing casually over a quarter of a century ago. The first penned was the titular opener, which now stars Tim Blake Nelson as the eponymous sharp-shooting singing cowboy in the Roy Rogers mould. But as they wrote these brilliantly constructed gems, they were never quite sure what to do with them. “We like movies, all kinds of movies, including short movies,” explains Ethan, during the Venice Film Festival. “But it’s hard to find [a] commercial market for that.”

Eventually, they hit on the idea of a portmanteau movie inspired by anthologies like 1962’s Boccaccio ’70, in which Italian directors like Fellini, Visconti and De Sica directed stories based around morality and love. “Nobody’s doing that kind of thing anymore,” adds Joel (ironically, the brothers contributed to Paris, je t’aime, the 2006 anthology with shorts inspired by the French capital; theirs starred Steve Buscemi as a tourist at Tuileries metro station).

Contacting Annapurna Pictures – the company behind such touchstone movies as Phantom Thread and American Hustle the brothers realised they (almost) had enough to complete a six-part film. They hurriedly wrote the final episodes and the script was complete. It was only then that it was picked up by Netflix, although the project never changed its shape. “The version’s the version,” shrugs Joel. “Nothing was done specifically for [Netflix].”

In many ways, the Coens are getting the best of both worlds. They’ve always been more cult than commercial their biggest hit was their only other western, 2010’s remake of True Grit, which took $252 million. But streaming platform Netflix has subscribers in over 190 countries, meaning more people than ever will get a taste of their idiosyncratic genius. What’s more, Buster Scruggs is getting a limited theatrical release too. “We’re movie people,” says Ethan, “and it’s important to us that people who want to see it on the big screen are able to do so.”

Joel, who turns 64 at the end of November and is older than Ethan by three years, welcomes the arrival of Netflix. The outfit recently worked with the likes of such acclaimed filmmakers as Paul Greengrass (July 22) and Alfonso Cuarón (the upcoming Roma), bankrolling films beyond the usual blockbuster fare. “The fact there are companies that are financing and making movies outside of the mainstream is very important,” he says. “It keeps the art form alive. The more, the merrier.”

In the case of Buster Scruggs, it reads like a whistle-stop tour of the Coens’ career. The aforementioned opener and the second short, Near Algodones (a Spaghetti western-style tale which stars James Franco as a luckless bank-robbing varmint), are both flush with the exuberant cartoon violence that characterised their early work; notably 1987’s sophomore baby kidnapping comedy Raising Arizona, which itself was inspired by the Looney Tunes animations of old.

The third story, the gothic Meal Ticket, sees Liam Neeson as a freak-show peddler and Harry Melling as an armless, legless man who recites the writings of Shelley and Shakespeare to a paying audience. Its inherent strangeness recalls Coen films like Cannes-winning Barton Fink or the black-and-white film noir The Man Who Wasn’t There.

The fourth short, All Gold Canyon, taken from a Jack London story and starring Tom Waits as a prospector, is a reminder that the Coens have spent the latter part of their career adapting from others — whether it be remakes (The Ladykillers, True Grit), parodies (Homer’s The Odyssey worked its way into the 1930s chain-gang comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou?) or straight-up adaptations (Cormac McCarthy’s violent saga No Country For Old Men, which won them Oscars for Best Picture, Director and Screenplay).

When it came to the order of the shorts, “There wasn’t a recipe for it,” says Joel, “[But] I think we had a clear idea from the beginning what the sequence of stories was.” Overall, the progression starts out overtly comedic and becomes “increasingly sombre as they go on”, he adds. In particular the fifth tale, The Gal Who Got Rattled, which stars Zoe Kazan as a shy traveller who finds love on a wagon train with a handsome cowboy (Bill Heck), is a gut-punch.

The final film, the stagecoach-set The Mortal Remains, featuring Tyne Daly and Brendan Gleeson among others, is — like the opener — full of music. From The Big Lebowski, with its show-stopping Busby Berkley-style number, to down-on-his-luck folk-singer tale Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens have frequently burst into song. Once again, the brothers worked with Carter Burwell, who has scored nearly every Coen film since 1984 debut Blood Simple.

With six different shorts, all different moods, it made scoring the film tricky. How do you bring together a sextet of films with one piece of music? “It was a puzzle for us and Carter — to what extent the score could tie them together, to what extent it should or shouldn’t,” says Ethan. “And it was solved like many of the puzzles we confront — by stopping talking about it and wringing your hands. It’s what intuitively feels right.”

The film also features one original song written by Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings, sung by Willie Watson and Tim Blake Nelson. But for the most part, the cast are singing old standards that, typically, show the extent of the Coen Brothers’ encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema.

As Joel notes, “One of the songs was based on an old cowboy song, Little Joe The Wrangler, which was re-written for Destry Rides Again [the 1939 western starring James Stewart as lawman Tom Destry Jr] and sung by Marlene Dietrich and then re-written again by us and sung by Tim in the first chapter of the movie.” Re-worked as the hilarious Surly Joe, it’s one of several reasons why the soundtrack is a gem in itself.

“What’s really amazing about Joel and Ethan [is] how specific they get, and how meticulous and how researched and how deliberate everything you see is,” remarks Nelson, the Jewish actor who previously worked with them on O Brother, Where Art Thou? He points out that the opening number Cool Water was shot in three locations over three days “because of absolutely specific backdrop images that they wanted…one of the reasons they’re so extraordinary is they put in that depth of work.”

Despite the quick-fire nature of the shorts themselves — each lasting somewhere between ten and 30 minutes — the Coens spent a long time in production. “We did want to have very specific and different landscapes for each of the stories,” explains Joel. Journeying from the Rocky Mountains in Colorado to New Mexico and the Nebraska Panhandle, “There was a lot of travelling around and finding all kinds of really iconic-looking western landscape…that was an important part of the undertaking for us.”

One familiar criticism back with this film is that the Coens are being arch with their subject. Not true, says Ethan. “People attribute levels of irony to us that aren’t usually there. We have an enthusiasm for those movies. It’s not very self-conscious is what I’m struggling to say.”

In his eyes, Buster Scruggs is symbolic of what they did as kids — “make-believe and playing cowboy”, as he puts it. “Anytime you do a movie [you’re] creating a world. This is a specific world and there are lots of different ways you can play in that specific world. There are different genres within the genre and it’s a form of play and experimentation. And, more than anything else, that’s the impulse for the whole thing. That’s what we were doing with this.”

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is in cinemas and available on Netflix from November 16.

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