Joel and Ethan Coen finally went digital for their Netflix Western anthology, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” but it was more out of necessity than aesthetics. Still, it’s a stunning, hyper-real achievement for cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s second go-round with the Coens (Oscar-nominated “Inside Llewyn Davis”), who convinced them that it was the only cost-effective way to make their movie.
“Because it was for Netflix and there was no theatrical, they wanted to try it,” said Delbonnel, “especially after hearing how fantastic digital was from so many people, including Roger Deakins, who doesn’t want to shoot on film anymore.”
Delbonnel, who shot with the Alexa Studio, invited the Coens to take a sneak peek of “Darkest Hour,” and they admired how he was able to capture light and shadow with digital tools. “But it was hard at the beginning,” he said. “They’re not used to watching dailies and seeing how it will look.”
While Joel Coen told the cinematographer, “When I watch dailies, the movie’s talking to me and I can see where I’m going,” said Delbonnel, “with digital, he knows the path and doesn’t have to think about it. So he was overwhelmed. But when we were finished, they said there was no way we could have done this movie on film. It would’ve been too expensive and time consuming and we had a lot of visual effects shots. It doesn’t cost much and you can do take after take and we were doing a lot of stunts. Joel and Ethan didn’t change: they still said ‘roll’ and ‘cut.'”
Adapted from a collection of short stories written by the Coens throughout their career, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” was conceived as a six-part series. During development, they fashioned the material into a movie anthology unfolding like chapters in a book. In fact, each segment opens with a hand turning pages prefaced by illustrated pictures, and the visual look was inspired by those illustrations. In typical Coen fashion, though, death becomes the unifying theme of these tall tales on the old frontier, alternating between the comically absurd and the morbidly tragic.
It begins with “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” in which Tim Blake Nelson plays a singing gunslinger, who disarms with his songs before dispatching any adversary with grisly, cartoony violence. “It was the most colorful and over-the-top short,” said Delbonnel. “But when I was pre-lighting it, Joel and Ethan came in and said it was too dark. They wanted it more like ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ and I was trying to be moody. They told me not to be so serious.”
To make it more garish, the cinematographer pushed the red layer in the digital intermediate while reducing the yellow layer. “We looked at 25% less, 35% less, it was very delicate,” Delbonnel said. But then he had to pull back in “All Gold Canyon,” in which Tom Waits plays a likable prospector who hits the mother load until he’s bushwhacked by a thief. “I pushed the colors and it was too much,” he added. “We had to go back to a ‘National Geographic’ look, but keeping in mind that illustrated quality. It shouldn’t be too real but still believable.”
Delbonnel riffed on Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” for the opening of “Near Algodones,” in which wannabe bank robber James Franco gets caught in a trap by a teller (Stephen Root) armed with weaponized pots and pans. “I started with the bank in the middle of the frame and Franco in front of the well on the right side,” he said. “Then I went over-the-top again.”
In the macabre “Meal Ticket,” in which Liam Neeson’s laconic carriage driver exploits a limbless actor (Harry Melling) who recites Shakespeare and “The Gettysburg Address” from town to town, Delbonnel was able to go very dark and moody. But in the more straight-forward romantic drama, “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” in which Zoe Kazan tries to cope with adversity along the Oregon Trail, he went for Remington beauty.
Then, in the existential finale, “The Mortal Remains,” with the uptight matron Tyne Daily sharing a stagecoach with Brendan Gleeson and Saul Rubinek, the cinematographer turned creepy. “The whole scene was 20 minutes long and took three days to shoot, and we shot every take all the way through, which would’ve been impossible on film,” Delbonnel said. “It was wonderful for the actors, and for that purpose, digital was fantastic.”