'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs' unfolds in six parts. Here's how it was put together.
Anthology films are a tough racket. Not all segments are created equal, and if you start off with the "wrong" one that negatively alters the feng shui of the viewer, it can be tough sailing winning them back. The goal of an anthology film is to present different stories brought together by theme and, as is the case with a structure such as this, favorites will emerge.
The batting average of Joel and Ethan Coen's The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is incredibly high, with six stories tied together by its setting: the early American Frontier. Melancholic and absurd, intense and bucolic, morose and lighthearted, the film is a comedy in which the deliciously oddball, quirk of the Coens intercedes with the very real implications of the American Western. The most successful serve as ruminations on death and mortality; each of the six stories features a body count of some kind.
A homicidal maniac with musical gifts (Tim Blake Nelson), a bank robber caught between a tree and a hard place (James Franco), a lonely prospector searching for gold (Tom Waits), a young woman who recently lost her brother and is about to be married (Zoe Kazan) are just a few of the memorable characters we come across throughout our comfy 130-minute stay with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and the film's cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel is perfect at capturing the green-infused countryside and the dry, orange mountains of the dusty deserts fit for a parched cowboy.
As The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is currently streaming on Netflix and playing in theaters in limited release, No Film School spoke with Associate Editor Eyal Dimant about his working relationship with the Coens, the hardest segments to craft, and whether or not the film was ever destined to become an episodic series.
No Film School: I wanted to begin our conversation by asking you to define the role of an Associate Editor...
Eyal Dimant: It's a weird role. I think whenever anyone talks to me about what I was doing on this particular film, it's not a job that really exists on any other editorial team. I'm not speaking of the job of Associate Editor, but the particular job I was doing, because we had a First Assistant and a Second Assistant (or an apprentice) editor and we had a Visual Effects Editor and we had a Music Editor and a Sound Editor. These were all roles for turnover and for logging and arranging stuff. That was taken care of by them. I initially set up the workflow between the editorial and "rest-of-post" teams, along with our post supervisor, Catherine Farrell.
I would break down my job into two parts. Before the end of production, Catherine and I were the only ones watching dailies and making sure everything was coming in correctly. Then after dailies, I was tasked with sitting day-to-day next to Joel and Ethan Coen as they were cutting in their very particular method of editing. This served two purposes. One was technical. If anything needed to be done on Premiere, i.e. set up new projects, bring in visual effects, do temp visual effects before they went to the visual effects editor, do split screens, do any kind of particular sound editing, things like that, that I was tasked with. Joel and I actually shared [his] computer. He had his mouse and keyboard and I had my own mouse on his computer and we would literally tag team. He would say, "Can you do X,Y?" Instead of reaching over him, I used my mouse to go from right next to him on the same computer.
The second task was just as a sounding board, as they were cutting or as Joel would cut scenes. Ethan would pull selects, and eventually, it all combines with the both of them working together. In the rough stage, Ethan would pull selects and Joel would cut on the timeline. I was a sounding board. He would turn around after an edit and ask opinions or if I saw something that I strongly disagreed with, which was rare as they are pretty fantastic editors. I would then give my opinion and if we needed to discuss it, we would discuss it. It was all technical, creative, and more than anything, educational for me.
"Find the boundaries of communication and learn either how to communicate whatever your ideas are or how often to communicate them, to get your thoughts across."
NFS: Since you were working so closely with the Coens in the editing room, what do you find are the keys to a successful working relationship between an editor and director?
Dimant: I think it's not just with the Coens, but I think for any editor, so much of it is about sensibility, about sharing a sensibility with whomever you're working with. Find the boundaries of communication and learn either how to communicate whatever your ideas are or how often to communicate them, to get your thoughts across. Again, Joel and Ethan have been doing this for so long and are so good at what they do. They are very precise filmmakers. They don't roll on takes. They don't use a lot of improv or let people ad lib. They shoot what they need. They shoot what is in the script. There is not a huge range within the takes. When they shoot, they know what they want and they go to zero and negative-one and plus-one as opposed to from zero to negative-100 and plus-100. It's all there. It's very minute differences.
For each scene that we are cutting, they will watch all the dallies shot for that scene. They have a codebook, which they will take notes on. I can see in the notes what their approach is and what they're hoping to achieve and I try to adjust my thinking to that. As they're cutting, there are also things that they do that I don't spot or I didn't see that I'm like, "Oh, okay, that was their whole intention for this scene." I try to readjust my thoughts to, "Okay, now that I know more of what they want, do I have any ideas that can help? Can I try to participate in a helpful way? If I have something that is really worth saying, do I contribute?" I think a lot of people try to contribute or speak to hear themselves speak. I think a good way to be a good editor is to really edit yourself as well and wait for the right moment to sell your pitch and sell your ideas.
NFS: How did you get involved with the production of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs?
Dimant: I had worked with the post supervisor on the last Ang Lee movie, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. I had been working at what is now Sim (and what used to be called Post Factory) as a staff colorist. I've worked as an editor and as a colorist for the last 20 years. I knew the post supervisor from there and I knew their Associate Editor from there. When the Coens's last Associate Editor moved on to another position, the post supervisor asked me if I was available, as she thought, and again I think this goes back to sensibility, that Joel and Ethan and I shared a sensibility. Beyond an editing sensibility, it was about: can you be in a room with two people for a year? I jumped at the opportunity.
NFS: I believe the project was originally commissioned and announced by Netflix as a series. Did this change anything about your approach to the material?
Dimant: No, it was never going to be a series! I got the script about three or four months before production started and the script was a 120-page feature script. It had the six acts in it and the fictional book [that the stories are featured in]. The book was in the script. The descriptions of the illustrations were in the script. The descriptions of the lines and the camera moves and the page-flipping and going into the scenes that they were going into were in the script. There were not six scripts for six episodes. When we received dailies, it was shot with that in mind and when we set up our scene board, it was set up as a feature. We treated the stories as reels in the edit, but they were always intended to transition from one into the other, to never be broken apart.
"I feel like it's a privilege to be able to edit in order, as opposed to when you're normally editing dailies and you're getting scene five and then you're getting scene 95 and then you're slowly filling in the pieces."
NFS: Each story possesses slightly different tones, and given that they're not outright connected to one another, did this affect your work at all? Were you looking for seamless transitions from one story to the next or was that thrown out the window from the very beginning?
Dimant: For the most part, they were all shot, I believe, for actor scheduling and location scheduling. The first vignette, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, was shot over, whatever it was, 10 days, and then they moved onto a new location. They shot Near Algodones [next] and then moved to a new location and shot the next one, etc. etc. It wasn't shot and mixed in that sense. During dailies, we didn't get scenes from Buster one day and then scenes from The Gal who Got Rattled the next. We were getting each movie, one at a time. In the edit, it was the same.
This is something that I've mentioned a few times to other people: I feel like it's a privilege to be able to edit in order, as opposed to when you're normally editing dailies and you're getting scene five and then you're getting scene 95 and then you're slowly filling in the pieces. It's quite a privilege to edit starting from scene one and going to scene 110, all the way through, doing everything in order.
I think there is more than subtle differences in tone between the vignettes. Some of them have quite drastic differences in tone. I think this all was made easier because we didn't have to jump back and forth. We weren't cutting a little bit of Buster and then jumping into Mortal Remains and then to Meal Ticket, from a funny one to a depressingly sad one. That would have been very difficult. Because we shot Buster, got through Buster, and then we finished Buster and moved onto Near Algodones, it made it a little bit easier to get yourself in that headspace and deal with them separately.
"There are a lot of reaction shots there. You look for the best and funniest one. You sculpt it."
NFS: In the first story, our title character Buster Scruggs is both a charming chap and a homicidal maniac. It's also a key Coens' character in that he makes you laugh even as you fear him. Could you take us through having the tone of this particular story match the character and how tone can be created in the edit?
Dimant: Tim Blake Nelson is a fantastic actor. I think he was the first person to be cast for this and he was, I think, always going to be Buster. He's just a fantastic performer. I think he got it in his performance perfectly, the homicidal maniac you want to be friends with.
So much of it is in the writing and in the performance. We base it in the edit and we try to make it as funny as possible. There are some reaction shots in there, in the cantina scene, for example, when he walks into the first cantina and sees the four angry men that are drinking, there are a lot of reaction shots there. You look for the best and funniest one. You sculpt it. I think very little of the performance needed help in the edit.
NFS: Repetition is also a key to several of the stories, none more so than in All Gold Canyon, in which a prospector repetitiously searches and searches his bucolic surroundings for gold. Taking that story as a specific example, what were the challenges you faced having to get that across while slowly revealing his intentions to the audience?
Dimant: It was very important for Joel and Ethan to show that. What you see in the movie is very much how they panned for gold in the 1800s. The method that Tom Waits uses, finding the pocket and triangulating, is how they searched for gold. That story actually comes from Jack London's short stories and I think was the only one that was adapted (and not originally written) for the film. That stuff is in the book and it is how you do it: You go in the river and you dig a hole. You find a certain number of pieces of gold and then you go left and if the number goes down until you get to nothing, you turn around and you go in the other direction, until you get back to nothing. Then you move up the mountain. You start triangulating slowly to find the actual point.
That one was actually probably the most challenging in terms of what we ended up cutting down because it was a lot of him digging and panning and looking and reading, etc. The challenge there was just, how do you show and explain that method to people without too much explanation, to bring it across so that the audience understands what he's doing without boring them to death? There had to be repetition, but they're some of the quickest cutting (outside of the battles scenes in the film), where he's going back and forth and up and down, that we did.
NFS: Which was the most challenging segment to edit?
Dimant: I think the two battle scenes in Near Algodones and The Gal who Got Rattled took the longest, if you're looking at edit time per-minute of footage. That's because it's difficult to film a battle scene. I think we had 20 or 30 horse riders and maintaining the geography and again, keeping it moving and getting across everything that needed to come across in each of those battles [was difficult]. There is a point and a purpose to every shot, and making it the most efficient, cutting in the most efficient way that maintains your geography within the battle and maintains the audience interest, is always difficult. It has to be fast and it has to be interesting and it has to be fun.
I also think All Gold Canyon was quite challenging because there is so little dialogue and because it's Tom alone in there. It has such beautiful scenery, but what is the most interesting way to convey this? We had to get through three days of him doing this stuff. What are we showing in those three days? That was the one that was more, I would say, most structured in the edit, that we had the most room to play with in the edit.
NFS: You edited the film on Adobe Premiere Pro?
Dimant: Yeah, it was on Premiere as Joel and Ethan had previously used it on Hail, Caesar. This was their second time using Premiere.
NFS: Is that your preferred editing software of choice? What does it bring to your workflow?
Dimant: Well, I'm software agnostic. I've used Premiere for years. When Final Cut was around, I used Final Cut. I've used Avid since the late 1990s. I actually used Premiere as well as early as, I think, the late 90s before it was proven, and then Final Cut and then back to Premiere when it went to Premiere Pro. As I mentioned earlier, I do a lot of stuff in post. I do color, I do editing, I do short form, I do long form, I do a lot of spots editing, I do a lot of branded content, I do features, I do reality, I do documentary, and I think there is room for every edit system. Every edit system has its strengths and weakness. I think a lot of clients just have the edit system that they have and I think, for any editor, it's good to know that you don't need to be a pro at everything, but to be able to come into a job, jump onto an edit system, and be ready to go with a client. It's a useful skill.