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


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.

GROSS: The use of the word disordered is so interesting in it. Like, what did she say? She disordered my body and...

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

GROSS: Yeah. That's...

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.

COEN: Yeah.

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


COEN: Right. Other ways of treating syphilis.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. So and, 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...

COEN: Yeah.

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

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"?

COEN: Of course.

GROSS: Called "Streets Of Miami" - it's really horrible.


COEN: We're really - no, we're really big on that one.


COEN: No - yes, he was an absolute giant in our youth.

GROSS: (Laughter) Do you remember the lyrics?

COEN: Vaguely.

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

GROSS: He stays at the Fontainebleau, (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.

COEN: (Laughter) Sixty dollars a day.

GROSS: 'Cause he's expensing the trip (laughter).

OK. Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guests are Joel and Ethan Coen, and they have a new movie that's a Western anthology. It's a series of stories set in the Old West, and it's called, "The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs." We're going to take a short break then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are Joel and Ethan Coen, and their new movie, which is now streaming on Netflix, is called, "The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs." It's an anthology of stories set in the Old West.

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?

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 - and 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 have 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 - looks like, like, a mile of wagons with people walking alongside of them and there's, like, horses and oxen (laughter) and it's, like, a lot.

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).

COEN: ...The last wagon can start moving, and you 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.

COEN: Yeah, but no cats.


GROSS: But it seems to me like you set yourself up for trouble.

COEN: Yes, we did.

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

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

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

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

COEN: Many. I don't even - you know, it varied. In 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. You know, sometimes, they play ball, and, sometimes, they don't.

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

COEN: Oh, Travis, the oxen wrangler. Great guy. But, 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).

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

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

COEN: Exactly. There a considerable - or...

COEN: There's a lag time.

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


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

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

GROSS: You know, the dog is a staple on a lot of westerns. Of course, there is, like, "Lassie," which isn't a Western. But Lassie's 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 you usually think of as an apartment dog.


GROSS: 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. Were you trying to, like, subvert the Western dog?

COEN: No, we weren't thinking about the Western dog, although I know you mean. There is a Western dog. But it is interesting what you say about how the dog classically rescues people. And not to give anything away, but this one does kind of the...

GROSS: Does not (laughter).

COEN: Does not (laughter).

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

COEN: Oh, yeah.

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

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

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.

COEN: The journey - yeah, 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 because that's all there was. And it became - you read about it, and it's clear that 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 - oh, 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 carriage company. He was vague about his connection with Mr. Vereen and about his own perspective 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, the 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 - to ask you to marry me.

GROSS: The dialogue that you wrote for this is so much more formal and now old-fashion sounding than the way people speak now. I don't wish to slight my brother's memory. I submit this in respect. How did you get into the language? Did writing "True Grit" help with that?

COEN: You know, it's kind of a - I don't know. It's just kind of a diction that's kind of familiar to you from reading 19th century, you know, fiction.

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 he - at one point, Bill Heck says, if I were to meet a widow or a 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: Charles Portis wrote the novel "True Grit" that your movie "True Grit" was adapted from.

COEN: Yes.

COEN: Right.

COEN: Right. Charles Portis had clearly done a lot of research, read a lot of literature - well, literature - ephemeral literature of the period, like the newspapers, magazines. And he was - I mean, that - I don't even know if it's real, but it sounds so real - the dialogue in "True Grit."

GROSS: More with the Coen brothers after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with the screenwriting, directing and producing duo, brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. Their films include "Blood Simple," "Fargo," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" "No Country For Old Men," "A Serious Man," "True Grit" and "Hail, Caesar!" - a satirical film about Hollywood in the late 40s and 50s. We'll talk about "Hail, Caesar!" a little later. Their new film "The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs" is a sometimes comic homage to Westerns. It's an anthology of six stories set in the West. It's showing in theaters and streaming on Netflix.

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

COEN: Video - well, digitally.

GROSS: Digitally. Digitally, I should say.

COEN: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

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

GROSS: Right. Were you used to shooting digitally?

COEN: No, this is the first thing we shot not on film - first time for us.

GROSS: And is this because it's streaming on Netflix?

COEN: No, no. How it actually ends up getting put out - although it's also coming out theatrically in a few cities. No, it was - I don't know what it was. It was partly convenience, partly a matter of, 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.

COEN: It was an experiment, really. We hadn't done it before. And, you know, it's becoming overwhelmingly the norm. And this seemed like a reasonable movie to give it a try.

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. It's not necessary, but it's more convenient. I think that at the end of the day, we're very happy with the way the movie looks. The sort of getting there isn't as much fun. But the end result is, in certain ways, more convenient. And it's certainly just as good.

GROSS: Does it change how you watch rushes?

COEN: Very much so.

GROSS: What's the difference?

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. And that - what it reveals is interesting, and it's sort of unfolding as you go through the process. 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. I mean, we almost stopped watching them. We've seen them on the monitor as they were being shot.

COEN: Yeah, it's a funny thing. Shooting on film, you're actually making decisions and committing to how it's going to look to a large degree. And shooting digitally, you're - it's more like you're capturing information, and you're deferring all those decisions. And you're going to decide later how it's going to look. So that's kind of a...

COEN: Yeah.

COEN: As Joel is saying, that's kind of - it makes watching dailies pointless because you haven't decided anything. You don't - you haven't - you haven't - nobody actually took a picture. They just captured some information that they're going to turn into a picture later.

GROSS: Is this because, like - why are you calling it just information when you're shooting digitally...

COEN: Well, because what you're doing is you're...

GROSS: ...As opposed to having a look? Yeah.

COEN: Because boy, there's so much latitude in what you're capturing, you can make it look like pretty much anything later in terms of contrast, in terms of color, in terms of pretty much everything in terms of, you know... Really, half of what you think you're doing when you're composing a picture, you're sort of deferring decisions about how it's going to look until later because when you capture it on film, there's - it's actually in the grain of the negative. And what you're - it's actually in the negative. And when you're capturing it digitally, you're just sort of recording pixels, all of which are negotiable later.

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

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).

COEN: Because they actually know what they're getting on the set. And - but from my point of view, it's - that's not necessarily a good thing.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Joel and Ethan Coen. And they wrote and directed the new movie "The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs," which is an anthology of stories set in the Old West. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are Joel and Ethan Coen. They wrote and directed the new movie "The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs," which is an anthology of stories set in the Old West. And it's now streaming on Netflix.

I wanted to talk with you about the movie that you made before "The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs." But I never got the chance to do it, so I'm going to take this opportunity to talk to you a little bit about it now. And it's a movie from - what? - two years ago called "Hail, Caesar!" And it's also, like, an homage to movies in the same way that, like, your new movie is an homage to Westerns. This is set in Hollywood, in a Hollywood studio where there's an epic being made called "Hail, Caesar!" And it's a biblical epic starring George Clooney. And George Clooney is a Roman who is becoming a believer of Jesus in Jesus' time.

But while he's shooting the movie - while the George Clooney character is shooting the movie, he's kidnapped by Hollywood screenwriters who are communists and want to destroy Hollywood because it's a capitalist system. And they give him "Das Kapital" to read, Karl Marx's critique of the capitalist system. Herbert Marcuse the philosopher is, like, one of the characters in this who's trying to indoctrinate him. (Laughter) And in this scene, the George Clooney character - the actor is telling a studio exec, played by Josh Brolin, about everything he's learned about how, you know, destructive and exploitative the Hollywood system is.


GEORGE CLOONEY: (As Baird Whitlock) These guys are pretty interesting, though. They've actually figured out the laws that dictate everything - history, sociology, politics, morality - everything. It's all in a book called "Kapital," with a K.

JOSH BROLIN: (As Eddie Mannix) That right?

CLOONEY: (As Baird Whitlock) Yeah. And you're not going to believe this. These guys even figured out what's going on here at the studio because the studio is nothing more than an instrument of capitalism.

BROLIN: (As Eddie Mannix) Hmm.

CLOONEY: (As Baird Whitlock) Yeah, so we blindly follow these laws like any other institution - laws that these guys figured out. The studio makes pictures to serve the system. That is its function. That's really what we're up to here.

BROLIN: (As Eddie Mannix) Is it?

CLOONEY: (As Baird Whitlock) Yeah, it's just confirming what they call the status quo. I mean, we may tell ourselves that we're creating something of artistic value or there's some sort of spiritual dimension to the picture business, but what it really is is this fat cat Nick Skank out in New York, running this factory of serving up these lollipops to the - what they used to call the bread and circuses for the - the...


BROLIN: (As Eddie Mannix) Now, you listen to me, buster. Nick Skank and this studio have been good to you and to everyone else who works here. If I ever hear you badmouthing Mr. Skank again, it'll be the last thing you say before I have you tossed in jail for colluding in your own abduction.

CLOONEY: (As Baird Whitlock) Eddie, I wouldn't - I would never do that.


BROLIN: (As Eddie Mannix) Shut up. You're going to go out there. And you're going to finish "Hail, Caesar!" You're going to give that speech at the feet of the penitent thief, and you're going to believe every word you say.


BROLIN: (As Eddie Mannix) You're going to do it because you're an actor, and that's what you do, just like the director does what he does, and the writer and the script girl and the guy who claps the slate. You're going to do it because the picture has worth. And you have worth if you serve the picture. And you're never going to forget that again.

CLOONEY: (As Baird Whitlock) I won't forget, Eddie.

BROLIN: (As Eddie Mannix) You're damn right you won't - not as long as I run this dump. Baird, go out, and be a star.

GROSS: That slapping around you heard was the Josh Brolin character, the studio exec, slapping around George Clooney's character, the actor. You know, it's as if this story is based on what the people who were blacklisting actors actually believed or said they believed about the dangers of communism - you know, that these communist sympathizers (laughter) or screenwriters - they're going to, like, overturn the studio system in the country. And they're going to, like, kidnap you and brainwash you. And we'll all be destroyed. It's kind of hilarious in that respect. Did you think of it that way?

COEN: Yes.

COEN: Yeah. We thought of it in more, like, global apocalyptic terms. Well, that's kind of global and apocalyptic. But it's - you know, Eddie Mannix is the studio chief. But he's a good Catholic who believes in the system. And the system is being threatened by communists - yeah, communist writers.

COEN: Who are godless.

GROSS: Right, yes. Have you met any of the blacklisted writers? Have you read a lot about the blacklisting era and the fears that were behind it, the fears that ruined so many lives, the fears that were spread, you know, around people who weren't even communists?

COEN: Yes, we have - met them, not so much. But certainly we've read lots about them. And we're very familiar with the period and the - you know, and what was going on then. Look, obviously we have a lot of sympathy for the writers that - and directors and everyone else. Lots of other people were involved in the film business at that time and in entertainment in general - lots of other businesses and other parts of life that were victims of the McCarthy era.

On the other hand, this was interesting to us sort of given what we had sort of set up metaphorically in the picture, with the sort of believers and the nonbelievers, that the people who were - who were kidnapping this character were the - were the nonbelievers, you know, the communists, and also playing around with this idea that to - in certain respects, what people were worried about or thinking about, what their paranoia was about was - there were certain respects in which it was actually true.

It's interesting because I have - I know people whose - they're actually the sons and daughters of Hollywood screenwriters from that period. And two of them have said to me (laughter) that they remember those meetings in their homes in the Valley during that time. And they thought that we captured what got said very accurately. (Laughter) So, you know, we were having a little bit of fun with that aspect of it.

GROSS: OK, let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guests are Joel and Ethan Coen. And they have a new movie that's a Western anthology. It's a series of stories set in the Old West. And it's called "The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs." We're going to take a short break, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with filmmaking brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. Their new film, "The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs," is streaming on Netflix. When we left off, we were talking about their 2016 film, "Hail, Caesar!", which is set in Hollywood in the late 1940s and '50s and is a satire about the studio system, musicals, biblical epics and blacklisting. George Clooney plays an actor who's starring in a biblical epic set in the time of Jesus.

I want to play another scene from this sequence. So George Clooney and his friend, Gracchus...


GROSS: ...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!"


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 suckle. He saw suffering, which he sought to ease. He saw sin and gave love.

CLANCY BROWN: (As Gracchus) Love, Autolochus?

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 a son of the one God, the God of his far-flung tribe. Why shouldn't God's anointed appear here, among the 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 truth but a new one?

BROWN: (As Gracchus) A new truth.

CLOONEY: (As Baird Whitlock) A truth beyond the truth that we can see, a truth beyond this world, 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 - have but faith.

CLOONEY: (As Baird Whitlock) Faith.

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

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

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

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

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


GROSS: Breaks me up every time.


GROSS: 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.

COEN: Yes.

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

COEN: "Intolerable Cruelty."

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


COEN: Just to identify everybody, George Clooney was giving the stirring speech, and Clancy Brown was his skeptical Roman sidekick.

GROSS: Did you have fun writing that - like, writing, like, biblical epic language?

COEN: Yeah, you know - we've seen those movies, too. Let me tell you most of those movies are pretty boring and pretty stiff.

GROSS: I've noticed that.

COEN: Yeah, it's...

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

COEN: Oh, yeah.

COEN: Yeah.

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

COEN: Yeah, so we tried to recreate that really boring dialogue.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COEN: I think we did pretty good.

GROSS: I still love watching "The Ten Commandments," though. I kind of grew up on that film because it was always on TV around Easter or Passover.

COEN: Well, he's get a good beard, Chuck.

GROSS: (Laughter) So how did you prepare yourself to write biblical, epic speech?

COEN: We kind of remember - as you do. You know, you remember that stuff. And that style - it's not like you really have to prepare. You've kind of sat through enough of it.

GROSS: So anyway, so you felt you didn't have to go back and rewatch them, rewatch the biblical...

COEN: Well, no, we did rewatch them.

GROSS: Oh, you did?

COEN: But we rewatched them - we watched a lot of them, actually. It was primarily for, you know, that opening scene where we see the, you know, the Roman legions marching down the Appian Way to Rome and how those were done in past sort of movies and, you know, the scene with the crucifixion of Christ. We were looking at how those were sort of lit and how they were sort of - what the sets were like in those movies because we were trying to recreate a version of them. So yes, we did watch them.

COEN: And yeah, we actually watched a bunch of different kinds of movies for when we were - not for writing but, as Joel said, kind of figuring out how we were going to shoot the counterparts in "Hail, Caesar!" We saw some - you know, we looked at Esther Williams movies again. We looked in a lot of song and dance things, a lot of musicals. It was interesting seeing the unbelievable stuff that they did practically in the '50s - 40s and 50s in Hollywood in terms of musicals, water ballet. And, you know, even the Bible epics, some of them are - boring as they are, they have some beautiful photography. "Ben-Hur" that - it's "Ben-Hur" with the water battle, right?

COEN: Yes. "Ben-Hur" has the big water battle. And, you know, it's this idea of this funny exercise when you're doing a movie like "Hail, Caesar!" where you're essentially reverse engineering - you know, the way these things were done is lost. The way the sort of - in the Esther Williams movies, the way these water ballets, the Busby Berkeley-esque parts of them anyway, were done. It's just irreproducible now.

The exercise is - as I said, it's sort of, how do you reverse engineer those things with modern technology and digital effects so that you can make them look like they were? But the performers aren't there anymore, for instance and a lot of the tricks they used. And even the facilities - you know, the tanks that they used that were built to shoot these things, which you need to actually shoot them, no longer exist.

GROSS: Because you needed to shoot them as if the camera was underwater. You need to see their size and their bottoms as they're submerged.

COEN: Yes. Not only underwater, but - correct, yes. We actually ended up uncovering the tank in the largest soundstage at Sony.

COEN: Sony was MGM.


COEN: So it was actually the Esther Williams tank.

COEN: So we actually shot in that tank, which had not been shot in in quite some time. But yes, you can't actually find either the physical sort of plant to do it in that was constructed for these types of shots or the know-how of, you know, actually how they accomplished certain things. So you then are in this funny position of trying to sort of figure out how to make it look like what they did.

GROSS: Yeah. And just to explain to anyone who isn't familiar with Esther Williams musicals, she was actually a great swimmer, in my opinion a kind of mediocre singer. But (laughter) - but there were musicals in which instead of, like, a big dance number for her there would be, like, a big swimming musical sequence for her. And a lot of it was, like - you know, highly choreographed stunt swimming with instead of a chorus of people other swimmers in the pool. And...

COEN: It's kind of...

GROSS: Yeah.

COEN: It's another example of a kind of demented genre. Who invented the genre? Like singing cowboy, why would there be water ballet musicals? It's just very odd.

GROSS: I know.

COEN: (Unintelligible).

GROSS: I know. And just to explain, the reason why there are so many, like, musical - different kinds of musical genres in "Hail, Caesar!" is because it's set 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, oh, 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 late '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, just, like, every (laughter) - every trope from those dance numbers is in this except with much more, like, gay overtones and double entendres. So...

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 song. So this is Channing Tatum. And he's doing his own singing, right?

COEN: Yeah.

COEN: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

COEN: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: And did you write the song?


COEN: No. In fact, a couple of friends of ours, Willie Reale and Henry Krieger, wrote this song.

GROSS: OK, well, let's hear it.


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-loo.

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 Gurney) Can you beat it?

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

TATUM: (As Burt Gurney, singing) We are heading 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 Gurney, singing) No dames.

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

TATUM: (As Burt Gurney, singing) No dames.

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

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

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

GROSS: So did you love those old musicals?

COEN: Yeah.

COEN: Yeah. Unlike looking at the biblical epics again, looking at those musicals again was a pleasure. I mean, they're great.

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.

COEN: Thank you.

COEN: OK, thank you.

COEN: It was a pleasure for us, too.

GROSS: Joel and Ethan Coen wrote and directed the new film "The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs." It's showing in theaters and is also streaming on Netflix. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about what it's like to climb a vertical rock thousands of feet high using little cracks and edges of the wall on which to hold on and balance your body weight. Our guests will be Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson. Their historic free climb on El Capitan's notorious Dawn Wall in Yosemite is the subject of a new documentary. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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