buster scruggs early buzz

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.

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