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‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’: Pushing the Limits of Western Authenticity in Coen Brothers’ First Netflix Movie

Death becomes the Coens' new Western anthology, and the production and costume design help bring period life to the old frontier.

Tim Blake Nelson is Buster Scruggs in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a film by Joel and Ethan Coen.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”

Netflix


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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” marks Joel and Ethan Coen’s deepest dive into Western mythology, wrapped around the inevitability of death. The six-part Netflix anthology about a singing cowboy, a wannabee bank robber, a pair of travelling performers, a gold prospector, a wagon train, and a final carriage ride contains a wide range of looks inspired by illustrations in a book that opens each segment.

However, when it came to the production and costume design, the challenge was to push the limits of authenticity for Coen Brothers’ regulars Jess Gonchor and Mary Zophres. “When I read the script, I tried to figure out how I was going to put my art director stamp,” said Gonchor. “It was like six different movies and one of the hardest things I’ve ever done because there was nothing off the shelf. Everything had to be manufactured, down to the nails and the hardware.”

Read More:‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’: Why The Coen Brothers Finally Embraced Digital for Their First Netflix Movie

“We made 90 percent of the clothing and thank goodness for these re-enactment companies and places that specialize in period fabrics because the manufacturing of wool in this country is practically nil,” added Zophres, who relied on museums, diaries, and photographic research for historical accuracy in dressing characters from the mid to late 19th century.

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”

Courtesy of Netflix

Definitely the most pushed and caricatured story is the eponymous opener, which finds Tim Blake Nelson as a singing cowboy who’s deadlier than he looks, dispatching adversaries with grisly, cartoony violence. “I knew that one was going to be the most colorful with a little more fantasy,” Gonchor said. “We shot in New Mexico, and the dusty town was very Hollywood. We built the little cantina as though it was a mushroom growing out of the Monument Valley [backdrop]. Swinging doors, playing the piano, red wallpaper. We just wanted to set up the whole gunfight at the end.”

Zophres knew from the script that Buster’s outfit was white and leaned heavily toward the singing cowboy movies of Gene Autry, but she gave him chaps and added piping to provide texture. “It opens with his silhouette against Monument Valley and I cut a figure in that landscape,” she said.

For the episode shot in Telluride, “All Gold Canyon,” with Tom Waits as a crafty gold mining prospector, Gonchor had to find a Valley with the perfect stream and art direct around pocket mining, which he knew nothing about. “It was like working in triangulation away from the stream and digging of holes until you found where the vein was leading to the gold,” he said. “Everything in the hole was done on stage. We built a giant dirt pit that split off into six different places for digging up and down, made out of dirt and foam. We shot for two days on that stage in the middle of nowhere.”

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”

Courtesy of Netflix

Zophres, of course, was inspired to dress the legendary Waits. “Joel and Ethan asked him to grow his hair as long as he could and he was horrified at first, but then got into it,” she said. “I felt very strongly about broad plaid pants and we sourced fabric for his wool shirt from a place that recreated the look of the Civil War. We made his boots, pants, suspenders, hat, shirt, jacket, long underwear. His hat was aged and the fun was developing the layering.”

For Gonchor, “The Gal Who Got Rattled” wagon train episode proved the most challenging to design. He studied Raoul Walsh’s influential Western, “The Big Trail” (1930), starring John Wayne, to get tips about the iconic Conestoga wagons along the Oregon trail. “They were like Mac trucks and we built 14 of them by scratch, ranging from 30 to 40 feet-long,” he said.

“I’m talking about the axles, wheels, canvas zone, body, all the hardware. It was a massive undertaking. We made them in a blacksmith shop in New Mexico and then loaded them onto flatbed trailers, two at a time, and sent them to Nebraska. But having a bunch of empty wagons going across country wasn’t enough. We had to put actors in them and at night they would circle the wagons.”

Zophres provided male leads Bill Heck and Grainger Hines with a red kerchief and green wool coat to help them stand out, but she particularly zeroed in on heroine Zoe Kazan. “We plotted out her changes and I wanted to bring out the blue in her eyes, so a lot of her dresses were intended to help with the romance of love story, which is new to Joel and Ethan,” she said.

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