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When the Coen brothers’ Western anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was initially announced, it was believed to be a TV series, with Annapurna’s president of television, Sue Naegle, producing the project that was later acquired by Netflix.
But Joel and Ethan Coen, and their cast, insist that the project was always intended to be a film.
When asked about the possibility that Buster Scruggs was going to be a TV series, Joel Coen told a press conference at the New York Film Festival, “That’s an artifact of just what a strange animal it was. They didn’t know, none of us really knew what to call it, or how to classify it. But aside from the confusion about the classification, the actual what we were going to shoot — the length of each of the stories, all of which vary — there was never anything that we were considering doing any differently. There were never any more stories and they were always intended to be seen as a group.”
Stephen Root, who appears in the film’s James Franco-starring second installment, “Near Algodones,” told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of Buster Scruggs‘ New York film festival premiere, “I think it was always conceived as [a movie that consists of different stories]. People say that it’s going to be chopped up by Netflix and shown as separate parts. That was never going to happen. It’s always been a film of different vignettes loosely set in the 1870s.”
Grainger Hines explained that even though he only appears in one section, titled “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” he, like other castmembers, was able to read the full script, containing all of the various stories featured in the film.
“It was a movie script when I read it. It was always a movie script, and my piece is most of the second half of the film,” he said. “I mean everybody talks about it being a series. I never even thought of that when I looked at it. It was never edited down or any of that stuff either. It was always a movie.”
Indeed, Buster Scruggs does exist as a film, and while it’s now streaming on Netflix, the movie was screened at a number of the fall film festivals — including Venice, where it had its world premiere — and the title got one of Netflix’s rare pre-streaming theatrical releases, which the service is giving selected, awards-contender films this year.
The stories that make up the anthology in the movie, the Coen brothers explain, were written over a period of 25 years, with the order in which they appear being almost the same as the sequence in which they were written.
“They follow, with kind of a couple exceptions, in chronological order in terms of when they were written, roughly,” Joel Coen said of the stories. “And they just got put in a drawer. They were short movies and we didn’t know what we would do with them. We probably didn’t expect to make them until maybe eight or 10 years ago, when we started thinking, ‘Well, maybe we can do these all together.'”
Ethan Coen added, “We didn’t really think of an order. They kind of fell into an order by virtue of the way we wrote them. We looked at ’em and we thought, ‘OK, that’s a good order.'”
Tim Blake Nelson, who plays the eponymous Buster Scruggs in the film’s first story, first got involved with the project in 2002.
“[Joel and Ethan Coen] said, ‘We’re going to be writing some other ones over the ensuing years, and when we have enough we’re going to make a film out of it,’ and I said, ‘Alright, I’m in whenever you do it.’ You know it would nag on my mind now and again. I’d wonder what was going on with that, and then Joel called me about a year and half ago and said, ‘Alright, we’re going to do it.’ We need to meet you for dinner to talk about everything you’re going to need to start preparing: playing the guitar, pistol twirling, dancing — plus all of the words. Then I started preparing.”
While the Coen brothers said they never considered merging the different stories together to make a more cohesive larger narrative, they did notice connections between the various tales, which Joel Coen compared to songs on an album.
“We had all of these stories and they were all Westerns and then they all started to relate to each other but kind of retrospectively, not consciously when we started doing it,” Joel Coen said.
Bill Heck, who stars in “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” said the film is “an ode to storytelling and different ways to tell story, and each one bleeds into the next and opens up the gates for the next one and feels very of a piece to me. I don’t think they’d do nearly as well on their own as they do as a whole.”
His co-star in that section, Hines, added, “The theme is that nobody gets out of here alive: We’re all stuck. That kind of permeates throughout it, and that’s what the film is about.”
Nelson, meanwhile, called Buster Scruggs a “classic anthology movie.”
“I think what separates this one is that a) all of them are really great, in my opinion, so there’s not a weak vignette in there,” Nelson said. “And b) the final story … ties all the stories together and gives you a real reason for watching them … so I think it holds together gorgeously as a cohesive film.”
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