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Coen Brothers Don’t See the Appeal of Making TV Because It’s Too Open-Ended

Despite the rumors, "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" was never envisioned as a television series.

Joel Coen and Ethan Coen'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs' premiere, BFI London Film Festival, UK - 12 Oct 2018

Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

David Fisher/REX/Shutterstock

When Joel and Ethan Coen first announced “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” there was some confusion over whether or not the filmmaking duo was planning a new feature film or their first television series. The first press release from Annapurna referred to “Buster Scruggs” as “an anthology project” and nothing more, and it wasn’t until the film was announced to compete at the Venice Film Festival that fans realized the Coen brothers had a new feature on their hands.

In a new interview with the Los Angeles Times, the directors confirm “Buster Scruggs” was never envisioned as a television series. The origin of the project was as simple as the brothers writing individual short films over several years and one day realizing they could be packaged together into an anthology film. The last chapter of “Buster Scruggs,” for instance, was written last and created as a means of bringing the entire project to a close.

“There was a discussion about what the format should be, but it was always the intention that they be seen together,” Joel said. “There’s been all this stuff in the press about how it was originally a TV series and we restructured it. No, we had a script. The script is exactly what we gave Annapurna and exactly what we shot. That never changed.”

Annapurna was the company to bring “Buster Scruggs” to Netflix, which the Coen brothers did not object to because they knew it was probably the only place where they would get the proper budget to make something like “Buster Scruggs” in the first place. “We never even went to a movie studio with it because we knew that a studio would never finance this,” Ethan said.

“Our feeling was great, honestly,” Joel added when asked what it was like working with Netflix. “Look, they’re the people who are investing in these kinds of movies now. I mean, there’s a lot of discussion around the way the movies are shown…but I think the more fundamental thing is that they’re the people who are stepping up and spending money on movies that aren’t Marvel comic movies or big action franchise movies and that type of thing, which is pretty much the business of the studios now. We can’t argue with that.”

The Coen brothers went on to say they are “as conflicted as everyone else” about the Netflix debate regarding theatrical releases and streaming releases. Netflix released “Buster Scruggs” in theaters last week, giving it a one-week window to play in theaters before it becomes available to stream. Joel said the ideal is for their to be a mix like this so that all the hard work that goes into a film is not lost if it only is available to stream.

“In terms of the actual labor you put into making a movie — the hours and days and years you spend struggling over details and the sound and the way it looks and the whole thing — that really is appreciated in a different way on a big screen,” Joel said. There also is something really fundamental about having the chance to see movies in a community of strangers, not just your friends in your living room. You don’t want that to go away. So in that respect, no, I wouldn’t be happy if the only way you could see movies was on your television.”

When asked whether or not they would move into the television space and direct a series, Joel made it clear the medium just isn’t attractive to the brothers. The duo is famous for being meticulous filmmakers that almost always have each feature mapped out shot-by-shot before the cameras start rolling. This method of filmmaking just wouldn’t apply to a television series, they argued.

“The thing about TV series that I don’t understand and I think is hard for both of us to get our minds around is, you know, feature films have a beginning, a middle and an end,” Joel said. “But open-ended stories have a beginning and a middle — and then they’re beaten to death until they’re exhausted and die. They don’t actually have an end. And thinking about that in the context of a story is rather alien to the way we imagine these things.”

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is available to stream on Netflix starting November 16.

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