November 26, 2018

Production Designer Jess Gonchor on Problem-Solving in 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs'

Scruggs intro
ForJess Gonchor, production design is a perpetual process that goes until the last day of shooting.

The Coen Brothers' latest, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (now streaming on Netflix and playing in select cities) may be one of the more up-close—and genial, and suspenseful, and humorous, and profound, and ambiguous—looks at evil the Coens have ever made. Evil runs through their work, from Blood Simple to Fargo to No Country for Old Men to, heck, even The Big Lebowski. It takes different forms—a theft, a heist, a murder—but it's always there.

In his supremely unified anthology film consisting of six shorter segments, we see it in the film's introductory segment, featuring the titular balladeer (Tim Blake Nelson), whose comfort  with offhand violence is matched only by his verbal facility; we see it in the tough decision a sideshow manager (Liam Neeson) has to make concerning his quadriplegic performer; and we see it in the macabre answer two passengers on a stagecoach give when asked what their profession is in the film's final episode.

It unifies the stories, making them all different views of the same spectacle. A lot of other things unify these stories, as well, most notably the film's attention to detail. If you ever wanted to know what a drinking glass might look like in the days of the Wild West, look here: ditto for a stagecoach, a bed rail in a brothel, and even a hand mirror.

The film, like many of the Coen Brothers' films, is fully visually realized, thanks here to the tireless work of their frequent production director Jess Gonchor. For the release, No Film School spoke with Gonchor about the unique challenges of working on a Coen Brothers film, and this one specifically.

No Film School: One thing I was curious about was if there was any kind of "information-sharing" between this film and True Grit? They are somewhat in the same genre.

Jess Gonchor: They were definitely the same time period, sort of post-westerns. It’s an interesting question. Now that you mention it, there are a couple of similarities, really only with the last story, "The Mortal Remains," which is more Victorian-era. But I think "The Mortal Remains" is much more of a startling, theatrical, almost one-dimensional type of story, more than True Grit was.

Sometimes I'll obviously refer to something that we've done with somebody in the past, i.e. "Oh, we did this in No Country." But there weren't too many comparisons between True Grit and Ballad of Buster Scruggs because really, Buster Scruggs was not like working on one movie. It was like working on four movies, and I had to create a visual identity for each of the stories because we wanted to make them all sort of completely juxtapose and differ from one another.

NFS: I was also wondering how some of the sets and locations evolved. For instance, I was wondering if you could describe how the stagecoach in the final episode developed, from the ground up to the final product. How did you conceive of it?

Gonchor: Well, you know, first I read the whole script, actually in the order that the stories were organized in the anthology and the movie. That ended up as the last story, which I always think it should have been. It sort of sews up the whole journey of anybody's idea of what the movie is about, whether it's about mortality or facing mortality or death. But after reading it, I realized we didn't have a lot of options.

We built and refurbished a couple of western towns for two of the stories, and we didn't want to shoot there again, so I just came up with the idea of doing the entire story on a soundstage and not shooting one bit of it outside, in the real elements. It would have a very theatrical vibe. It's a very intimate story, inside of this stagecoach, going on to the afterlife, or wherever they're going. We shot the whole thing, and Bruno lit it beautifully, and we built a lot of one-dimensional scenery on the stage and never went outside of a dark soundstage to shoot one ounce of that story.

This was a quiet closing to the book. We just decided to do a stylized version of a stagecoach ride, pulling into this town, going into this grand old lobby of a hotel, and up the stairs.

"Buster Scruggs was not like working on one movie. It was like working on four movies."

NFS: When you're deciding on the visual style of, say, the stagecoach, what are you basing the appearance of it on?

Gonchor: Well, I mean, we did build a stagecoach. Those things are actually pretty small. Packing five or six people in there was sort of tough back then and so we had to make it a little bigger. It wasn't so much the stagecoach itself, but rather the idea of the whole thing, having it just be, for a lack of a better word, a theatrical experience. It was the big picture

A sketch of the interior of the stagecoach from "The Mortal Remains."
Sketches of the exterior of the hotel featured in "The Mortal Remains."

NFS: I'm also curious about the book that recurs throughout the movie. How did you chose the book you were using, the typeface, and the art?

Gonchor: Well, a lot of that was completely done after we shot the movie, and I definitely helped assemble all of that. The images were described to a tee at the front of each chapter in the screenplay. We tested a lot of styles of books and formats, because shooting a book is not an easy thing, especially within a film format. It was an evolving process throughout the entire movie. But it really came together in the post-production process.

NFS: How did you choose the illustrations? Those were a very striking part of it.

Gonchor: The illustrations were all original artwork, obviously, to tell each of the stories. I think each illustration was a moment in the story. They didn't really give away what was going to happen in the story, you know what I mean?

NFS: That raises another question. In the film, you see a slice of the text of the story. Is there more text to these stories that exists in the world? What about all the other pages of paragraphs? Do they exist?

Gonchor: I don't know. It's up to you. Do they?

NFS: I just mean, was there another story written that this was a slice of? 

Gonchor: No, it didn't exist. No.

NFS: You’ve worked with a lot of different directors. How do the Coen brothers stand out? What are their defining qualities to you?

Gonchor: I think the main thing about them is that they're so confident and they believe in their idea so much that they don't really drift too far from that. They like to stick to the original plan, which to me is probably always the best.

If you're going to shoot a western and you have a specific thing in mind, yes, it could change a little bit, but you know it's a western. You know it's in a town. You know there's ten buildings. You know somebody's going to walk out of the bar, somebody's going to get shot. They don't all of a sudden try to make it into something else after we're far down the line. I think that's what makes them really unique.

Once they finish writing something, you rarely get new pages, which is a rarity. They don't call me up in the morning and say, "We thought of something last night!" I mean, that'll happen occasionally. You can embellish things and make them better, but I think to change them like a lot of filmmakers do, in the middle is okay, but it's not their style. That's what I enjoy about working with them.

I also enjoy solving the problems that come up in their scripts. They’re the best problems to solve. They're just very unique. They're always going to be visual and creative for a production designer like myself.

NFS: Give an example of something you consider in the script to be sort of a puzzle that had to be solved. I'm sure there were a lot of them, but what would be one example?

Gonchor: There’s the “Meal Ticket” story. I don't know of anything else out there that exists like that. He's standing up in the town at night and doing a show. I'm like, what is this thing going to be? What's going to hold this guy up? Do they live in there all time? Do they sleep in boarding houses? I mean, that was like a whole "What the hell? What is this?" I've never seen anything like it, exactly. How does this guy open up the stage? How does he open and close shop a couple times a night? How does he get around? What is it? How big is it? How big is a one-man show?

It had to be small enough that he could fold it up and go, but it had to be big enough to not be a puppet show. I think that was the hardest thing to solve. In the first story ["Near Algodones"], there’s a hanging tree that took months to build. We had to find something and cut it up and transport it in 25 pieces, getting he right aptitude so that it looked like a character standing against the sky, in a place where we could work.

The early construction of the stage used in "Meal Ticket."
Building the hanging tree in the "Near Algodones" episode.

NFS When you're solving these problems, obviously there's a lot of research involved. For the “Meal Ticket” episode specifically, what kind of research did you do?

Gonchor: The feeling and the vibe of that film would be McCabe and Ms. Miller, because it's a moist, damp, wet, high altitude, snowy, dark sort of film. The show wagon itself, though, is it a medicine car? Is it a gypsy wagon? It's not like any of the other things we had in there, the calistogas or the stage coaches. It was just some unique thing that I had never seen before. I looked a little bit at the old circus freaks movie, Freaks. They had a couple of weird contraptions the carnies rode around in.

Building the vehicle used in "Meal Ticket."

NFS: When you're actually designing all these things, how do you create the workspace? I remember reading that in other films you had big bulletin boards. Is that what you did here?

Gonchor: A certain amount of stuff goes up on the boards. There were a lot of almost full-sized mock ups of things. You could do it on paper, on a computer, but really it's best to just do it out in the open. I built a ton of simple models, from cardboard foam core models for all of the sets to 3D models and sketches, so we could spin them around and look at them.

We really stuck to an older style of filmmaking on this one. A lot of this was like playing with green army men and getting down at their height. Even using my iPhone with a lens, because you can get the Panavision lenses on your phone now. You could just look at everything in miniature. We got our hands dirty. It wasn't like reading the newspaper, The New York Times, online. It was like having the Sunday Times and every section on your kitchen table, touching it and feeling it and going through it.

A model of Frenchman's Gulch.

NFS: How long does it take to design each stage?

Gonchor: It was all done simultaneously. The whole thing took about seven months, from the day I started till the day we wrapped the photography.

NFS: Your part of it, the actual design work, how long does that take?

Gonchor: You're doing it to the last day.

NFS: It changes all the time, while they shoot?

Gonchor: Yeah, you're doing something and you have to get the next thing ready, and the next thing. I always say, it's one thing on paper, but we had to build all those stoga wagons from scratch. We had to build huge, 30-40 foot ones from scratch. That stuff is evolved. There's a lot of R&D involved and then once you see it, you're like, "Okay, we've got to age it or wear it in."

The design process never stops in a film. You're always trying to make something better, either making it look like it's worn-in or making it look new, whatever the script calls for. There's so much that the human eye sees and so many problems that you incur while shooting. Every single day, you're solving problems. It doesn't stop until the last day.

NFS: What happens to all the models you made and all the other parts of the set and those little objects after the shooting is done?

Gonchor: The studio keeps a lot of them. I've definitely pocketed one thing from each movie that I've worked on. The models can be huge but usually, the studio will take them. I'm sure they start to get rid of them at some point, but we always pack them up and send them back to the studio.

NFS: You’ve worked on a lot of different movies with the Coens. Is the process always the same?

Gonchor: It's pretty much the same. There are special circumstances sometimes, but they'll give me the script and then leave me alone for a few weeks. I'll start to figure things out and come up with a few ideas and then we'll start to kick the ball around and figure out where we're going to shoot the movie. The process is usually the same, but it's always a different process, you know what I mean? The action of the process is always the same, but it's always a different adventure. It's always a different thing, about breaking down a script and figuring it out what it is.

NFS: What would you say was the most complex film you've worked on with them? In terms of the problems you were talking about?

Gonchor: Man, there's been a lot. I'm probably forgetting about something but one thing that comes right to mind is the suburban neighborhood in A Serious Man. We had to build a neighborhood on a vacant street that resembled the time before there were sidewalks, in the 60s, in the suburbs of Minneapolis. Just finding the place to do it—look, these movies don't have big budgets. That was definitely one of the smaller budget ones, too, under $10 million. My budget was tiny and I think that was one of the more difficult things to figure out.     

For more information on 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,' click here.

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