© 2024 WYPR
WYPR 88.1 FM Baltimore WYPF 88.1 FM Frederick WYPO 106.9 FM Ocean City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen On Singing Cowboys And Working With Oxen


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. In anticipation of the upcoming Academy Awards, we'll be listening back to interviews with some of this year's Oscar contenders. We'll start with Joel and Ethan Coen, whose films include "Blood Simple," "Barton Fink," "Fargo," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", "No Country For Old Men," "A Serious Man," "Hail, Caesar!" and "True Grit."

The Coen brothers are nominated for an Oscar this year for best adapted screenplay for their 2018 movie "The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs." It's also up for best costume design. The film is an anthology of six stories, sometimes comic, involving staples of the Western genre - a singing cowboy, gunfights, a wagon train, stage coaches, hangings, a grizzled prospector panning for gold. But what happens within each story is not what you'd typically expect from a classic Western.

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) Dan, can you see 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 me 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've 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 any cause for anger and dismay is just a fool for expecting better. Ain't that right, Dan?


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Joel and Ethan Coen, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thanks for coming back on our show (laughter). So 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, how...


GROSS: ...How long you think you would've lasted?


JOEL COEN: 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 the song set in the Old West where the guy singing the song sees a young cowboy in the streets of Laredo whose 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. So 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?

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

ETHAN COEN: Yeah, well...

J. COEN: And said, you know, take a crack at this. And Brendan sent it back, and we thought, oh, beautiful. 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 does have it.

GROSS: The use of the word disordered is so interesting in it. Like, what does he say? She disordered my body or (laughter)...

J. COEN: Had she but told me before she disordered me...

GROSS: Yeah, that's...

J. COEN: ...I might have got pills - salts or pills of white mercury.

GROSS: Right. I didn't realize it was about syphilis or some STD.

J. COEN: Yeah, it's about syphilis.

GROSS: Oh, yeah. I was trying to figure out what the white mercury pills were about. Like, those are not pills we take anymore.


J. COEN: Right, other ways of treating syphilis.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. So, you know, and you bookend the whole movie with an instrumental version of the "Streets Of Laredo." So it is one of, like, the classic death songs about the Old West. Is that why you chose it? Because there is...

J. COEN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...So much death in the movie.

J. COEN: Yeah, it's a, you know, beautiful elegiac song about death. And it's familiar to almost everyone. At least the melody is. But it was interesting to us to, you know, have it make its appearance in the movie, at least when you hear this song, with lyrics that people weren't familiar with and that probably were more appropriate to the period.

GROSS: OK, stupid question. Did you ever hear the Allan Sherman parody version of "Streets Of Laredo"...

J. COEN: Of course.

GROSS: ...Called "Streets Of Miami?" It's really horrible.


E. COEN: We were really big on Allan Sherman.


J. COEN: Yes, he was a absolute giant in our youth.


GROSS: Do you remember the lyrics?

J. COEN: Vaguely.

E. COEN: I don't remember the "Streets Of Miami" very - no, not really.

GROSS: He stays at the Fontainebleau. He's (laughter) - the Fontainebleau hotel. He's taking a trip with his - instead of, like, a sidekick or something, it's his, like, partner, Sammy. It has the line - and paid to the firm $60 a day. No, no. I mean charged to the firm $60 a day...

J. COEN: (Laughter) Charged $60 a day.

GROSS: ...'Cause he's expensing the trip (laughter). So another story I want to talk about from your film takes place on a wagon train. And that's another trope of Westerns. Why did you want to do a wagon train story?

J. COEN: I think it really was our sort of, at a certain point, rummaging around in the Western genre thinking, well, we haven't, you know - in thinking about the sort of subgenres - well, we haven't done a wagon train movie, or we haven't done a stagecoach movie; that might be interesting. So we came up with that. I have to say that it might've been a good idea on paper. But when we discovered - when we went out to shoot this wagon train movie, and most of it was shot over about a month in Western Nebraska, we realized it was just an incredible pain.

GROSS: Well, sure, 'cause you have, like, nearly - it looks like, like, a mile of wagons with people walking alongside of them. And there's like - there's horses and oxen. And it's like, oh, wow (laughter).

J. COEN: Yeah, and the problem is that you have, you know, essentially, sort of a half-a-mile long chain of wagons. And the camera's in a certain position. And when you say action, the first wagon moves. And 10 minutes later...

GROSS: (Laughter).

J. COEN: ...The last wagon can start moving. And you've finally got everything going together, and then one oxen team will decide to cut sharply over to the right and ruin the shot. So you then have a choice, which is to reposition all of the wagons back where they were in relationship to the camera position, which will take an hour or so, or move the camera back and reposition the wagons but in a not as beautiful camera position for the shot. And this was, you know, over and over and over.

GROSS: Well, I remember after we talked about your movie "Inside Llewyn Davis" where there was a cat who was a co-star of the film. You said you would never work with a cat again. And so now you've put yourself in the position with this film of working with, like, oxen and horses, a dog. There's an owl.

J. COEN: Yeah, but no cats.

GROSS: There's (laughter) - but it seems to me like you set yourself up for trouble.

J. COEN: Yes, we did.

GROSS: Had you forgotten how hard it was just to work with a cat?

E. COEN: The problem is when you're writing it, it's so easy to write. So you just go, OK, you know, wagon train.

J. COEN: Yeah. There are 20 wagons. It's easy to write.

E. COEN: Yeah...

GROSS: How many wranglers did you have working on this?

E. COEN: Many. I don't even - you know, it varied. And the Nebraska thing - there were wranglers for every team and every few horses. But they're great. But the animals are - sadly, they're just animals. They - you know - sometimes they play ball, and sometimes they don't.

J. COEN: What did the oxen wrangler say to you at one point?

E. COEN: Oh, Travis, the oxen wrangler - great guy. I - but I - you know. So I asked him if the oxen could - I don't know what it was - come to a mark and stop or something. And he - it was something that seemed kind of simple to me. And he rolled his eyes with a kind of silent idiot look. And he said, you know, driving oxen is not as self-evident as people think it is.

GROSS: (Laughter).

E. COEN: And I thought, man, that's - yeah. Why should that be different than anything else on a movie?

GROSS: (Laughter) Are oxen responsive? I mean, I've never worked with an ox.

J. COEN: Not exactly. There's a considerable - or you know...

E. COEN: There's a lag time.

J. COEN: ...A specific lag time, yeah...


J. COEN: ...That's between when you, you know, use the little prod or give it a little flick on its rump with, you know, whatever they drive them with and when the oxen actually decides to attend to your wishes.

E. COEN: They got a hell of a neural network there. It takes a while to travel.

BIANCULLI: Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen speaking to Terry Gross last year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from last year with filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen. Their latest film, "The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs," is nominated for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay.


GROSS: You know, the dog is a staple on a lot of Westerns. Of course, there's, like, "Lassie," which isn't a western. But Lassie is always kind of, like, rescuing people. Rin Tin Tin - always rescuing people. Then there's, like, the beloved family dog in a lot of Westerns who's, like, the trusty companion.

In your story, there's a little dog who accompanies this brother and sister on the wagon train. And it's the kind of dog that usually you think of as an apartment dog (laughter). And it's the kind of dog you - like, you're walking down the street. And it's, like, this little dog who's kind of, like, really barking loudly and neurotically (laughter). And so you've got this, like, little apartment dog on the wagon train. And people are complaining about the barking almost as if they live in an apartment building, and the dog's being really annoying.

E. COEN: It is interesting what you say about how that - the dog classically rescues people. And not to give anything away, but this one...

GROSS: Does not (laughter).

E. COEN: ...Does kind of the - does not (laughter).

J. COEN: You know, to be - unless I'm misremembering, we were reading firsthand accounts of...

E. COEN: Oh, yeah.

J. COEN: ...People who had done that trip in the wagons. And there are accounts of fights and altercations and - about pets, about dogs.

E. COEN: Yeah. Actually - right. That's where it came from.

J. COEN: And that's where that came from because there were actually - these arguments did flare up over those things, and specifically about dogs. And we took that from a book of firsthand accounts of these journeys.

E. COEN: The journey - yeah. There - it was kind of interesting because the - you know, it's a traveling group of however many people - you know, scores of people, probably - not hundreds. And they were just a totally little self-governing community 'cause that's all there was. And it became - you read about it, and it's clear that it's as - it became as petty and small-minded as, you know, a condo board. They're out there in the middle of nowhere, making up their own rules. And a lot of people are jerks, and it all gets kind of horrible.

GROSS: I want to play some dialogue from this wagon train sequence. And one of the leading characters in it is a young woman who's gone on the Oregon Trail with this wagon train with her brother. And they're both - I don't know - probably in their 20s, early 20s. And he was the only family she had, and he dies of some horrible cough early on. So she's left on her own. And she owes the person who's driving the wagon all this money that her brother promised, but her brother didn't leave any money. And she was supposed to marry someone who her brother said was his business partner if her business partner found her, you know, attractive enough.

So she's just totally lost. And one of the two wagon masters is being very helpful to her. And in one scene, he says to her that he has, you know, a crackpot idea that might be helpful to her. And so she asks him about it. And this is Zoe Kazan as the young woman, Bill Heck as the wagon master.


ZOE KAZAN: (As Alice Longabaugh) So your crackpot notion...

BILL HECK: (As Billy Knapp) Yes. Before I expose it, may I ask something?

KAZAN: (As Alice Longabaugh) Certainly.

HECK: (As Billy Knapp) What possibilities do you look forward to in Oregon?

KAZAN: (As Alice Longabaugh) I don't quite know. Gilbert knows - knew someone there - a Mr. Vereen who owns an orchard or maybe more than one orchard and a cartage company. He was vague about his connection with Mr. Vereen and about his own prospective position. I don't wish to slight my brother's memory, but he could exaggerate the nature of an opportunity and Mr. Vereen's interest in myself. I fear that may also have been speculative.

HECK: (As Billy Knapp) I see. So this is no definite prospect of marriage, no contract.

KAZAN: (As Alice Longabaugh) No.

HECK: (As Billy Knapp) Well, my idea, then, is this. And I submit it in respect, Ms. Longabaugh. I propose to assume your brother's debt to the hired boy and to ask you to marry me.

GROSS: The dialogue that you wrote for this is so much more formal and now old-fashioned-sounding than the way people speak now. I don't wish to slight my brother's memory. I submit this in respect.

J. COEN: There's another thing that Bill Heck says in that scene, which also came from the same source that we were talking about a minute ago when we were talking about the dog - these firsthand accounts - which was this idea - at one point, Bill Heck says, if I were to meet a widow or maiden of honor, which was an expression that was used in one of these accounts about women who did go out to Oregon with the expectation of meeting a husband.

GROSS: So this was shot in video instead of film. Is that right?

E. COEN: Video? Well, digitally.

GROSS: Digitally. Digitally, I should say.

J. COEN: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.

J. COEN: Yeah, video - not - we didn't go quite that far.

E. COEN: You know, we knew we wanted to do a lot of early morning, late afternoon, evening kind of, you know, magic-hour shooting. And you get a little more in terms of the stop. You get a little more latitude in terms of how much light you need shooting digitally as opposed to film.

J. COEN: You know, there were 800 visual effects shots in this movie. And when you're doing a lot of visual effects shots for whatever reason, it's easier if the raw material, so to speak, has been shot digitally, as opposed to on film.

GROSS: Does it change how you watch rushes?

J. COEN: Very much so.

GROSS: What's the difference?

J. COEN: You know, if you're shooting on film, there's something that happens between when you're actually recording the information on the set and when you see it for the first time. It goes to a lab. It's - you know, it's emulsion - light exposing an emulsion that gets developed, goes to a lab, gets printed, comes back usually the next day or a couple of days later. And in between that, when you finally see it, it reveals something. None of that happens digitally.

You look at a monitor. And you see pretty much exactly what you're, you know, going to get. In fact, watching dailies almost become superfluous. So watching dailies in the old days, if you're shooting on film, used to be a sort of communal thing where at the end of the day or sometimes during lunch, everyone would get together. You would go into a theater, and you would watch the results of the previous day's work with the whole crew or much of the crew. Shooting digitally, you almost stop watching dailies entirely.

GROSS: I've always wondered, though, how directors feel confident that they have a good shot and a good tape when they actually haven't seen the film itself.

J. COEN: Well, you know, that also gets into the - it gets into why DPs are so fond of digital photography. Most of them will say - if you ask them the difference, they'll say they can sleep at night...

GROSS: (Laughter).

J. COEN: ...Because they actually know what they're getting on the set.

BIANCULLI: Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen speaking to Terry Gross in 2018. After a break, we'll continue their conversation. And John Powers will review the new foreign film "Everybody Knows." And we'll remember Frank Robinson, who died yesterday at age 83. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's 2018 interview with the filmmaking brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. Their joint credits include "Blood Simple," "Fargo," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," "No Country For Old Men," "A Serious Man" and "True Grit." They're nominated for a best adapted screenplay Oscar for their latest film, "The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs."

When Terry spoke with them last year, attention turned to another of their recent films - "Hail, Caesar!," a satirical film about Hollywood in the late 1940s and '50s. George Clooney plays an actor who is starring in a biblical epic set in the time of Jesus. I'll let Terry introduce this clip from the film.


GROSS: Clooney and his friend Gracchus are in a crowd at the feet of Jesus, who's being crucified. And George Clooney, a Roman who has become a follower of Jesus, a believer, is making this impassioned speech about Jesus. So here is George Clooney from "Hail, Caesar!"


GEORGE CLOONEY: (As Baird Whitlock) This man was giving water to all. He saw no Roman. He saw no slave. He saw only men - weak men - and gave succor. He saw suffering, which he sought to ease. He saw sin, and he gave love.

CLANCY BROWN: (As Gracchus) Love, Autolycus?

CLOONEY: (As Baird Whitlock) He saw my own sin, Gracchus, and greed. But in His eyes, I saw no shadow of reproach. I saw only light - the light of God.

BROWN: (As Gracchus) You mean of the gods.

CLOONEY: (As Baird Whitlock) I do not, friend Gracchus. This Hebrew is the son of the one God - the God of his far-flung tribe. Why shouldn't God's anointed appear here among these strange people to shoulder their sins? Here, Gracchus, in this sun-drenched land, why should he not take this form, the form of an ordinary man, a man bringing us not the old truths but a new one?

BROWN: (As Gracchus) A new truth.

CLOONEY: (As Baird) A truth beyond the truth that we can see, a truth beyond this word, a truth told not in words but in light, a truth that we could see if we had but - if we had but...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Cut. Cut - faith, had but faith.

CLOONEY: (As Baird) Faith.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Faith, faith.

CLOONEY: (As Baird) Isn't it...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) They changed it.

BROWN: (As Gracchus) Got most of it, man. You're all right.

GROSS: I just can't hear that scene too many times...


GROSS: Breaks me up every time.


GROSS: What - among the things I love about it is that it is a very stirring speech. But it's also, like, such a Hollywood cliche the way it's done (laughter).

E. COEN: George...

J. COEN: Yes.

E. COEN: George Clooney is good at those. We gave him a stirring speech at the end of...

ETHAN COEN AND JOEL COEN: ..."Intolerable Cruelty"...

E. COEN: ...This thing about divorce lawyers. He's - George goes whole hog.

GROSS: (Laughter) Did you have fun writing that? - like, writing, like, biblical, epic language.


E. COEN: You know, we've seen those movies too. Let me tell you. Most of those movies are pretty boring and pretty stiff. They don't...

GROSS: I've noticed that. I know.

J. COEN: Yeah, it's...

GROSS: Like, if you watch them back, there's, like, so much boring dialogue in a lot of them.

J. COEN: Oh, yeah.

E. COEN: Yeah.

J. COEN: Yeah. No, it's hard to sit through "Quo Vadis" or...

E. COEN: Yeah, it's...

J. COEN: ..."Ben Hur."

GROSS: This is set in Hollywood in a Hollywood studio. There are other films in addition to the biblical epic that are being shot there. And we see some of those other films that are being shot. And one of those films is a musical about sailors who are on leave during World War II. And they're about to be called, like, back onto the ship. And they're realizing, like, ah, it's going to be, like, eight months without women. And so Channing Tatum as one of the sailors sings this song about, like, no dames. There's going to be, like, no dames.

And it's a really fun sequence with, like, dancing that is so much like those, like, 40s, early 50s musicals, where, like, he dances with a broom. He dances with a chorus of sailors. He dances on the bar. He does a soft shoe on sand. I mean, it's, like, every (laughter) - every trope from those dance numbers is in this, except with much more, like, gay overtones and...

E. COEN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Double entendres. So...

E. COEN: Yeah. Well, you got singing, dancing sailors. You - see. We're not big on subtext. If there's a gay subtext, we're going to make it text.

GROSS: Right. (Laughter) OK. So let's hear some of the songs. This is Channing Tatum. And he's doing his own singing, right?

J. COEN: Yeah.

E. COEN: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. OK.

E. COEN: Yeah. Yeah.


E E BELL: (As bartender) The Swinging Dinghy is closing, folks - time for me to clean up, time for you to clear out.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) So long, fellas. See you in eight months.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Toodle-oo (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) See you later, boys.

BELL: (As bartender) Eight months.

PETER BANIFAZ: (As sailor) Yeah, we're shipping out in the morning.

BRIAN MICHAEL JONES: (As sailor) Golly, eight months without a dame.

CHANNING TATUM: (As Burt) Can you beat it?

BELL: (As bartender) You're going to have to beat it.

TATUM: (As Burt, singing) We are headed out to sea. And however it'll be, it ain't going to be the same 'cause no matter what we see when we're out there on the sea, we ain't going to see a dame. We'll be searching high and low, on the deck and down below. But it's a crying shame. Oh, we'll see a lot of fish. But we'll never clock a dish. We ain't going to see a dame, no dames.

BANIFAZ: (As sailor, singing) We might see some octopuses.

TATUM: (As Burt, singing) No dames.

JONES: (As sailor, singing) Or a half a dozen clams.

TATUM: (As Burt, singing) No dames.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As sailor, singing) We might even see a mermaid.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As sailors, singing) But mermaids got no gams.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As sailor, singing) No gams.

GROSS: So did you love those old musicals?

J. COEN: Yeah.

E. COEN: Yeah. Unlike looking at the biblical epics again, looking at those musicals again was a pleasure. I mean, they're great. That kind of does hold up. You don't get tired of those.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both for talking with us. Thank you so much. It's always a pleasure to talk with you. Thanks for coming back to our show.

J. COEN: Thank you.

E. COEN: OK. Thank you.

J. COEN: It was a pleasure for us, too.

BIANCULLI: Joel and Ethan Coen speaking to Terry Gross last year - their western anthology film "The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs" is nominated for two Academy Awards - Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Costume Design. Coming up, we remember baseball pioneer Frank Robinson, who died yesterday at age 83. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS' "I'M AN OLD COWHAND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.