'The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs' Star Tim Blake Nelson On Working With The Coen Brothers And Preparing For HBO's 'Watchmen'

Tim Blake Nelson plays one of the deadliest and happiest men in the West in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Buster Scruggs isn't a gunslinger who growls and grimaces, but instead sings and dances and enjoys every moment without thinking it'll be his last. Everything is just sunny to the titular character of Joel and Ethan Coen's six-part anthology film, which is a western with all of the joy and misery we love from those filmmakers.

Happiness is hard to come by in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, but Buster Scruggs finds it everywhere he goes. Since the character is a big talker and opens the story, it all begins invitingly with a loquacious character delivering a whole lot of pleasing Coen Brothers' dialogue. During a recent phone interview, Nelson told us about the eloquent character, the experience of working with the Coen Brothers, what he may direct next, and the challenges of HBO's Watchmen series.

I think it's wonderful a Coen brothers movie is now quickly available in so many people's homes, but watching it on a big screen, that was a great experience. How do you feel about movies being experienced through streaming? Does it make a difference to you? 

I'm a 54 year old guy and I prefer my movies in movie theaters. And I still go to movie theaters. And though I'd seen Buster Scruggs three times, I stayed around to watch at least the first half an hour of it at Mann's Chinese [at the AFI festival], so I could see it on that screen. That said, this movie wouldn't have been made without Netflix, and more people will see the movie, because of Netflix, that might have seen it, had it had a traditional theatrical release with one of the studios. Simply because of Netflix's reach all over the world, including to places that don't have movie theaters. So there's the inevitable trade-off here. I think in the end, Joel and Ethan and the rest of us who are in the movie, are on the right side of the ledger here because in addition to everything I just said, without Netflix the movie never would have been made.

I did wonder while rewatching O Brother, Where Art Thou? if it would get made today. 

I think you could get O Brother made today because they would have George or somebody like George, and it's a comedy. They also made O Brother for a pretty good price for what it was. It was a 30-million dollar budget, and so if you called that 40 today, maybe, let's say, 37, I don't know what the inflation rate... what it would exactly be, probably around 35, 37, today, in today's dollars. Yeah, I think that still gets made because it's a comedy.

I'm not sure that Buster Scruggs would ever have been made by a studio, because anthology films are not really that much of a feature in the American cinema landscape, and they never have been. You can think of a few, New York Stories would be one, then you have variations on that like Paris Je T'aime, but I really can't think of any more, and usually those bring in, with New York Stories as an example, a group of the leading directors. So you have one by, I hope I get this right, one by Woody Allen, one by Copolla, and one by Scorsese in New York Stories, so it's Scorsese, Woody Allen, and Coppola. There's Nick Nolte and Rosanna Arquette, I guess in the Scorsese one, and, the Woody Allen one, it's Woody Allen and, I don't know who else.

Mia Farrow.

Okay, Woody Allen and Mia Farrow. And then Buscemi I think is in the Scorsese one, which is, the Scorsese one is Buscemi, and Nick Nolte and Rosanna Arquette. I think Buscemi has a sort of cameo in that. And then the Coppola one is just his daughter at the Carlisle, I think. And I think he wrote it with his daughter, I believe.

He wrote it with her and then she's the lead of it. One of her two performances, cause the other one is Godfather three. So, that wasn't a period piece, and that was done on something of a budget. This was very expensive to make because it's period, it's not one distant location, but three, for them to have done it right, so I'm not sure they ever would have gotten this made with a studio.

Since you've seen the movie three times, what have you taken away from watching it that many times?

I think it's a meditation on storytelling itself, and perhaps one of the most mordant and poignant one that I've ever encountered. That ends up getting summed up in that speech in the end by the Reaper. When he speaks about why we like stories and how they're a distraction from our mortality, so that we're paying attention to the story when the thump comes. From the Brendan Gleeson character, which is death. And then all the stories are about mortality, so it's a beautiful piece of work.

All the more astonishing because it is six different movies. Yeah, each one of them is 15 minutes to 20 minutes long, but each one of them involves a different costume design, a different production design, a different editing and shooting strategy, different locations, music that has a different feel. All the requirements for making a feature has gone in to each 20 minute short. And nothing gets short shrift.

Ballad of Buster Scruggs Review

The Coen brothers usually don't directly answer questions about themes or the mysteries of their movies, but how much do they talk about their motivations or what's underneath it all with you?

There's talk. They won't talk publicly about themes, but I know that they discuss them with one another, to a degree, and I try to push them into those sorts of conversations in the context of our friendship, and sometimes I'm successful and sometimes I'm not. But make no mistake, these are two extremely thoughtful guys. And, while they may do a good deal of what they do intuitively, it's never uninformed.

Of course. Also, as a fan, I'm not sure I would want to hear them explain their movies too much.

I suppose so. So, there's a Philip Roth novel called "Professor of Desire" that has a very Coen-esque feel to it, in particular the way it ends. You honestly don't think it's headed where it heads, and it's denouement doesn't really have to do with plot, but more theme. And essentially you're experiencing these geezers contemplating the Holocaust if I recall it correctly. So would I want to sit and talk with Philip Roth and say, so, how did you get there and why? Yeah, I would, I'm sorry.

Would I want to, and will I, eventually, when it naturally comes up, say, let's talk about, and I have done this, but you know the opening segment of A Serious Man, how can you not want to discuss with them what that is? I'll just say that, because I don't want to quote them about it, because they should just answer themselves if they want to answer and I don't want to... but talking with them about what that opening sequence has to do with the rest of the movie, and how they came up with the ending is something I've gravitated toward, and have really learned a great deal from those discussions. So I think it's always more interesting to know and to understand that they don't entirely know themselves, but they do know a lot more than they let on.

There's always a specificity to all of their shots, their physical comedy, and how characters move in and out of a shot. When you work with them, how exacting are they with the more physical scenes and humor? 

It depends. They're not that controlling. Once they've set the frame, you're pretty free inside of it. But there's an image, there are certain images, that are incredibly important to Joel and Ethan. And when those exist they're gonna make sure you do them. And often you won't understand why, because you won't be seeing what they're up to. An example was, I just didn't get why it was so important for Ethan – it was really important for Ethan – that I smack my chest when I walk through the door of the saloon. And he just kept saying it, and he kept tinkering with it, and then once when I didn't do, he came up and said, "No, you gotta do it," and then I see it, in the film, and literally, there's this ghost of my whole body as I pass through it, and it's like I've created this shadow of myself that lingers in the air and then just dissipates. And it's incredible. And I didn't do that. Joel and Ethan did, because they envisioned it. They said, you know, he'll come in, and he'll pat himself and there'll be this dust and it'll have this really funny impact. And it's just brilliant.

How about getting that shot of Buster Scruggs after he shoots up the bar and is alone with the bartender and he's smiling at him with the gun behind his back?

Yeah, that grew out of the script, because it said, "then puts the gun behind his back to get the bartender in his sights," but the particular angle of it was helped very much by Joey Dylan, my gun instructor, and we developed the choreography of that together, he and I. And then Joel and Ethan just found the perfect shot and the perfect angle. And what they're especially brilliant at is always putting the camera where you the audience member would want to be, and with exactly the perspective you would want. And so they wrote the scene, Joey and I developed the choreography, with Joey taking the lead, and then Joel and Ethan did the rest by finding that perfect camera angle, and Joel giving me the piece of direction that I was very happy to have the guy exactly where I wanted.

Why is Buster Scruggs always smiling? What makes him that happy?

That's just where the language led me, is the best way to put it. He's clearly having a great time. And Joel encouraged it, which of course, Joel and Ethan encouraged it, which of course is the key to the whole setup, because it's funnier if the guy is smiling all the time and killing people, than if he's ornery at all. It's also a lot more funny when he's called the West Texas Twit, and suddenly he goes a little dark.

[Laughs] I read the Coen Brothers gave you a 19-page script for Buster Scruggs 15 years ago, so were there any differences between the draft you first read and the shooting draft?

Not a word. When they've handed over a script, it's done. These are not guys with whom you get lots of different pages when you're working. It's done, it doesn't change, that's it. You shoot the white pages. You shoot the white pages is the term that you would use.

Have you ever seen them in an editing room together? One actor told me once it's really something to see. 

Yeah, a lot. I've seen them do it, you know, in the days of the Moviola and the Steenbeck, so, I've gotten to watch them literally slice up and tape together film, and it was pretty magical. And they're natural editors. Of course, first and foremost because Joel came up as an editor, that's what he did first, and he trained as an editor, and so when they made Blood Simple, they, along with, I don't know if [editor] Tricia [Cooke] edited on that one or not, but when they made Blood Simple, they edited. And they've always done that.

They're editors because they're writers. And in the case of Ethan, they're not just screenwriters, but he's a playwright and also a short story writer. And people who do that, and who do it with the kind of rigor that Ethan applies, are always gonna have a sense of when a scene's too short, when a scene's too long, what perspective you want on a certain moment.

Because it's all rhetoric, and everything's either a noun, a verb, an adjective, an adverb, a conjunction, or a preposition.

And some sentences are really long, some sentences are incomplete, some are simple and some are complex. And then that gets you back around to editing. And you're really doing the same thing with pictures and sound in a movie. So you've got a tremendous amount of brainpower between those two guys when they're cutting something together. They're already doing it when they shoot because they don't shoot complete master shots, they shoot one shot. Usually, we'll establish the geography, and the rest is just bits and pieces.

You just gave an example, but do any other moments come to mind of how they shoot with the edit in mind?

Mainly that one I just said, plus that they storyboard everything. And the storyboards are furnished with your sides in the morning when you get to set. I don't know of any other filmmakers who do that, and they don't deviate from the storyboards, so it's all been decided ahead of time. And yeah, there might be tweaks in the blocking, and they allow you, certainly, a degree of freedom in terms of moving where you want to move and doing what feels natural, but because they're so smart, what they've had in mind is 99 percent of the time exactly what ends up happening.

Talking about the days of watching Joel and Ethan cutting and splicing film together, do you ever miss, whether as an actor or director, working with film instead of digital?

Do I miss it? No, not as an actor. I don't miss it as an actor because you would have rolls out and they wouldn't be able to check stuff as easily, and you were constantly having to wait for the camera to get reloaded. Now, as a filmmaker sometimes I miss it. So as an actor I don't, but as a director, sometimes I do. I think that the discipline of film and the discipline of the danger of there being a roll-out, and the pace of the day that's enforced by the need to constantly stop and reload, the fact that it costs you something to keep shooting, and so, therefore, you have to focus a little bit more on how you're going to spend your time and your footage, all that is pretty good for the process.

And you could end up being really profligate, in ways that are destructive to your process, and unfocused, if you never have to worry about any of that stuff. And I know Joel feels the same way because he was talking about it the other night, basically saying, I'm up for shooting on film because the limitlessness of video doesn't really interest me, is I think the way he put it.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs Trailer

How much do you generally work with a DP, especially on a Coen Brothers' set? Bruno Delbonnel (Amélie) is an incredible cinematographer, so I'm curious, what's the extent of your collaboration with him?  

Well, I'm not a good person to ask. I think an actor responds to the director, and the cinematographer might want to say, "Well, could you move over to the left a little bit there, or don't, you missed your mark", you know, there may be some ad hoc technical conversations that are appropriate between an actor and a cinematographer, but usually, you just mainly want to be talking with the director and let the director and the cinematographer figure out what the movie's gonna look like. And I like that compartmentalization.

Now that said, I talk with the cinematographer constantly because I'm just trying to learn. But it's never about me, or it's never about how the movie's being directed, that's none of my business. Even the way I'm being shot is ultimately none of my business, that's the director's business, and I'm just there to deliver the best performance possible and be where the director tells me to be when I do it. But I love talking with the cinematographer about general stuff. "Why do you and Joel choose to use that lens? Why the Alexa over the Sony or the Red? What's the sweet spot in terms of the ISO for that sensor? What do you think of the Angenieux as a zoom?" You know, I just constantly talk with them about that, 'cause I just want to learn.

And that's been film school for me, is being able to have those conversations, not only with the director on a set, but just asking out of curiosity, and just wanting to learn. But also with the cinematographer, with the sound man, you know about different mics and the way to cover a scene, and the way that boom and lavalier now combine in the mix, and what that's done to film sound, and then going over to the DIT and looking at how they can now do these .... right on the stage, from the set and you can literally see almost what the movie is gonna look like. What the best monitors are. All that stuff. These are conversations that have changed who and what I am. So far as I can remember everything I've learned when I'm also trying to play a part.

You led me to my next question: what are you directing next?

Well, I have a play that I wrote called "Socrates" that's going up at the Public, and that's next for me. I've got Watchmen until March, and that overlaps with the beginning of Socrates' rehearsals at the end of February. And then that's gonna open in the middle of April. So, between Watchmen and Socrates, I've got a lot to think about right now. That said, I have two scripts, lined up to make next year, one of them I won't make, and we'll just see which one of them. One's a smaller movie that I would make in the South, either in Oklahoma or Louisiana or Georgia, and the other one is a bigger science fiction film. And I'm not sure... the science fiction film is Michael Zero, if that's what you were gonna ask, and the other one I haven't announced anything about it yet, because I'm the producer of record on it and I have chosen not to make an announcement about it. Whereas I'm not the producer of Michael Zero, and that's a bigger movie, and it's been announced.

What's the latest on The Gyre?

The Gyre is a big fantasy movie I've written, and I don't know when I'll make that, I don't think that's gonna be next, just because... why isn't that gonna be next? It just feels like more work to get made than I have time to do right now with everything else that's going on. But with Michael Zero, I've just done a lot of the thinking on that, and so, once that gets greenlit, I know what needs to be done to get it going for late next year. And the little movie is just much more of an eight or nine-week prep, it's not a huge task, and I would just go down to the South and make it. So I don't know which is gonna be next, but I would love to be doing something next year. But then again, some acting role might come along and I might decide that it's interesting enough to push directing off a little longer. But I do have something.

That's great. Before you started shooting Watchmen, how did reading the graphic novel prepare you for the show?

I had to learn how to read that book. The book taught me how to read it while I was engaging with it. And I went from being frustrated, suddenly to finding my way into understanding how the medium works. Almost like I was reading a novel for the first time, a text novel as opposed to a graphic novel. I needed to become inured to the terms of the storytelling, and doing that just helped me build with Damon and the costume designer, and the director Nicole Kassell, who and what the character is. I guess reading the book, and learning its aesthetic terms helped me build the character in a pretty profound way.

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is now available to stream on Netflix.