Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen On Singing Cowboys And Working With Oxen ~ Terry Gross Interview


The Coen brothers pay homage to old Westerns with their new film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The movie is a collection of six stories that often subvert the expectations of the genre.



This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. My guests are brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, who wrote and directed such films as “Blood Simple,” “Fargo,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, “No Country For Old Men,” “A Serious Man” and “True Grit.” Their 2016 film “Hail, Caesar!” was a comic homage to Hollywood in the late ’40s and ’50s, including the biblical epics and musicals the studios produced. Their new movie, “The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs,” is an homage to Westerns. The film is an anthology of six stories, sometimes comic, involving staples of the Western genre – a singing cowboy, gunfights, a wagon train, stagecoaches, hangings, a grizzled prospector panning for gold. But what happens within each story is typically not what you’d expect from a classic Western.

Reviewing the film in The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, the brothers have tended to treat whimsy and fatalism as sides of the same coin. The jokes that the universe plays on hapless human creatures may be cruel, but they’re also funny. And the Coens are skilled and wily metaphysical pranksters.

Let’s start with the opening voiceover from the first story in the film, in which singing cowboy Buster Scruggs is riding through the desert on his horse. His hands are not on the reins. They’re wrapped around his guitar because he’s a singing cowboy. Buster Scruggs, played by Tim Blake Nelson, sings and introduces himself to us.


TIM BLAKE NELSON: (As Buster Scruggs, singing) And can you say that big green tree where the water’s running free, and it’s waiting there for you and me?


NELSON: (As Buster Scruggs) Whoa. A song never fails to ease my mind out here in the West, where the distances are great and the scenery monotonous. Additionally, my pleasing baritone seems to inspirit old Dan here and keep him in good heart during the day’s measure of hoof clops. Ain’t that right, Dan?


NELSON: (As Buster Scruggs) Maybe some of y’all have heard of me. Buster Scruggs, known to some as the San Saba Songbird. I got other handles, nicknames, appellations and cognomens, but this one here I don’t consider to be even halfway earned – misanthrope. I don’t hate my fellow man. Even when he’s tiresome and surly and tries to cheat at poker, I figure that’s just the human material. And him that finds in it cause for anger and dismay is just a fool for expecting better. Ain’t that right, Dan?


GROSS: Joel and Ethan Coen, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thanks for coming back on our show. So how did this movie come together? Like, how did you end up stringing together several different stories of the Old West in one film?

ETHAN COEN: Well, we started writing them – well, they weren’t even them when we started. We wrote the first of what turned out to be this collection at least 20 years ago. And it’s actually the first one in the movie – the Tim Blake Nelson, singing cowboy one. We just wrote it, kind of on a lark, not really thinking about what we’d with it or that we would do anything with it ’cause you know, there’s not much of a market for short movies, and it was a short standalone story. But then we found ourselves – we wrote a couple more over the years, and at a certain point, we thought, there’s almost enough that they kind of make sense together, and maybe we’ll write a couple more and make a feature – you know, an anthology feature out of it.

JOEL COEN: But, you know, the genesis of it was pretty pure in the sense that we were writing them without any real expectation or intention of making them. And yeah, at a certain point, we said well, we have a – there’s these, you know, four or five stories in the drawer, and they all happen to be Westerns. And what if we did make them all together? And what would that be?

COEN: It’s interesting you said our motives were pure because we weren’t thinking about anything (laughter).

COEN: Yes, it true. But they weren’t dirty by the marketplace (laughter).

COEN: Vincent Gallo self-financed it – I think his last movie, and he decided not to release it because he didn’t want to – and I think this is a verbatim quote. He didn’t want to expose it to the “dark energies of the public.”


GROSS: Westerns usually end with the surviving good guys vanquishing the bad guys and restoring order to the town. But your stories don’t end that way in this Western anthology. Death can come suddenly, no matter who you are. Did you ever ask yourself, while you were writing and directing it, if you think you might have survived living in the Old West? Like…


GROSS: How long you think you would’ve lasted?

COEN: (Laughter) We just barely survived living in the Midwest.


GROSS: That’s funny. So each story is told as if it were a short story from a collection of Western stories. In one of the stories, it’s set in a stagecoach. And we slowly – it’s like a series of monologues within the stagecoach in which each character tells us something about who they are and what they believe. And one of the characters, played by Brendan Gleeson – without giving much away about who they really are – one of the characters, played by Brendan Gleeson, sings a version of the “Streets Of Laredo” that I’ve never heard before.

The lyric I’m familiar with is a song set in the Old West where the guy singing the song sees a young cowboy in the streets of Laredo who’s wrapped up in white linen as cold as the clay. And the young cowboy explains that he’s done wrong. He’s been shot in the chest, and he knows he’s dying. And he instructs the other man how he wants to be buried and what to tell his mother. Gleeson sings a different version of it. This version is sung by a man killed by his lover. I just want to play some of that song. So this is Brendan Gleeson.


BRENDAN GLEESON: (As Irishman, singing) As I was a walking down by the Lock, as I was walking one morning of late, who should I spy but my old dear comrade, wrapped up in flannel, so hard is his fate. I boldly stepped up to and kindly did ask him, why are you wrapped in flannel so white? My body is injured and sadly disordered all by a young woman, my own heart’s delight. Oh, had she but told me when she disordered me, had she but told me of it at the time, I might have got salts or pills of white mercury, but now I’m cut down in the height of my prime.

GROSS: I think that’s pretty beautiful. Did you know he could sing?

COEN: No. We sent him this song probably a month or two before we started shooting, wasn’t it?

COEN: Yeah. I hope.

COEN: And said, you know, take a crack at this. And Brendan sent it back, and we thought, oh, beautiful. We knew that we wanted this song sung in the sequence, but whether or not it was actually going to be Brendan who did it or – you know, or we were going to replace it somehow, if he wasn’t a – you know, couldn’t sing it. We didn’t know. But it turned out, no, he sang it quite beautifully.

That’s the original – well, I don’t know about the original. These are – you know, these are like folk songs. That ballad goes way back. That’s an early version of that song about a man who is – well, it’s about a man whose lover gives him a venereal disease, and he dies of it.



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