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Color, giant props, moving trees — creating the many moods of the Coen brothers' 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs'

Color, giant props, moving trees — creating the many moods of the Coen brothers' 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs'
The title episode of “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” stars Tim Blake Nelson in a story straight out of the singing-cowboy Gene Autry and Roy Rogers era. (Netflix)

You can always rely on the films of Ethan and Joel Coen to have eye-popping visuals and exquisitely detailed production design. Their frequent collaborator Jess Gonchor, who received Academy Award nominations for his work on “True Grit” (2010) and “Hail, Caesar!” (2016), joined them again as production designer on this year’s quirky western anthology, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.”

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“When you first read the script, you think about all these grand vistas and try to figure out how to put your own stamp on the movie,” Gonchor says in a recent interview. “It turns out that a western is actually one of the hardest things you can work on. You just don’t get to a beautiful canyon or a prairie to shoot. It involves a lot of work and planning.”

You’ve become the go-to guy for westerns, having worked on movies such as “No Country for Old Men,” “True Grit” and “The Lone Ranger.” What made this project different from your previous experiences with the genre?

This was an anthology, so it was like six movies in one. The brothers didn’t really discuss the common theme between the six stories, but after working on them for a few months, you begin to realize that they’re all about characters dealing with loneliness and mortality. I had to come up with a quick visual identity for each of the six stories. Some were based on classic westerns, but others were just pulled out of thin air.

Concept art of the cantina from "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs."
Concept art of the cantina from "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs." (Courtesy of Jess Gonchor)

Can you walk us through some of the visual influences for each of the sections?

Well, the first story, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” is the most color-saturated one, which looks like a grand Hollywood western. We were thinking of the films of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, and the “Singing Cowboy” era (B-movies of the 1930s and ’40s). “Near Algodones,” which stars James Franco and Stephen Root, was more of a “High Plains Drifter,” a Clint Eastwood western set in a dusty prairie town, monochromatic and wind-swept. “All Gold Canyon” is really its own thing, based on a Jack London story. John Wayne’s “The Big Trail” inspired us for “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” We had to build those huge wagons from scratch, because nothing that big really exists. “The Mortal Remains” featured a higher-altitude gypsy wagon, theatrical show, something like “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” set in a damp, high-altitude Colorado town.

Concept art of wagon train from the "Girl Who Got Rattled" section of "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs."
Concept art of wagon train from the "Girl Who Got Rattled" section of "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs." (Courtesy of Jess Gonchor)

Which section was the toughest to prepare for in terms of production design?

The “All Gold Canyon” section, which stars Tom Waits as a miner, was one of the most difficult ones to shoot because we had to build a lot of the elements. We had to build a gold-mining pit and shoot it. Constructing the wagon trains for “The Girl Who Got Rattled” was also challenging. They were honestly 30 or 40 feet long. People used to bring their entire houses with them when they were moving across the country. We shot all of “The Mortal Remains” on a stage in New Mexico. I still don’t know whether the characters in that story are dead or alive or just living in the afterlife. The Coen brothers didn’t discuss it. We built these monochromatic super facades, which were lit from behind. It was a storybook version of what the afterlife might look like.

Tom Waits as the Prospector in the "All Gold Canyon" section of "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs."
Tom Waits as the Prospector in the "All Gold Canyon" section of "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs." (Netflix)

One of my favorite parts of the job was creating the hanging tree from the “Near Algodones” section. We found this cottonwood tree in the middle of the desert, and it had the right character. We had to cut down the tree into 25 parts and transport it 50 miles to another part of New Mexico, and then bolt it together. It looked a little bit alive and a lot dead. We also had to build some give into it, because it was very windy there. We cemented it 16 feet deep into the ground. It was quite an engineering feat.

The Coen brothers asked you to work with them after seeing your work in the 2005 movie “Capote,” and you’ve collaborated on seven very different movies together since then. What sets them apart from many of their contemporaries?

You know, if I could put my finger on it, I’d bottle it and sell it to everyone. They create such a pleasurable working experience. We also share the same sense of humor, so we get along very well. The pre-production experience is always exciting because you’re trying to figure out this unique puzzle. They have a way of making the mundane very exciting. For this movie, the idea was to do almost everything in camera and have it look as real as possible. After people see their movies, they tell me, “Oh, you must have used CG,” and I tell them, “No, it was mostly real.” And they don’t believe me. I love the movies and watch them over and over again, but I do enjoy the journey more than the destination!”

Concept art of the town from "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs."
Concept art of the town from "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs." (Courtesy of Jess Gonchor)
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