There's obviously been some confusion regarding the origins of The Coen Brothers' latest picture, the Netflix Western omnibus The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. In my own (mixed) review of the film, I note the odd genesis of the project in the opening paragraph:
"In various interviews, the Coen Brothers have stated the stories that make up The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – which began as a hazily defined partnership with Annapurna Television (though the Bros. swear it was always intended as a stand-alone movie) – date back to their days crafting odd, absurdist comedies such as The Hudsucker Proxy and Barton Fink. This makes sense, as the tonal variance between the vignettes runs a gamut similar to the legendary siblings’ seminal (and near flawless) body of work. In fact, if there's a direct comparison one could make while trying to sum up their Netflix anthology film, it'd be A Serious Man instead of True Grit. This is a sextet of Western folklore, attempting (in trademark Coen fashion) to make sense out of the senselessness of existence, often coming to the conclusion that these existential pontifications are errands for fools."
Indeed, going back to Variety's initial reporting on the picture, it was somewhat unclear just what the Coens were cooking up with Annapurna:
"Joel and Ethan Coen are the latest auteurs moving into television, with a new event anthology set in the Old West. Annapurna Television is partnering with the Coens on a limited series Western called The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Sources tell Variety that Annapurna intends to pursue an innovative approach that could combine television and theatrical."
That last line is where the lines get kind of blurry: "an innovative approach that could combine television and theatrical". Plus, that initial announcement also contained this nugget:
"It’s still unclear how theatrical distribution could play a part in the project, but the intent is to shoot Buster Scruggs as a miniseries. According to sources, the scope of the project seemed too challenging to be covered in one feature film."
Seeing how, in recent Q&As and interviews, the Coens have stated that many of these stories have been sitting around for a while, it'd make sense that each "chapter" of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Other Tales of the American Frontier (the invented late 1800s anthology text that gives the movie it's rather tidy framing device) could've taken up an hour or so episode. Once Netflix landed distribution on the project, a clearer picture began to come into focus, as one imagined the Coens taking advantage of the company's "binge-watch" business model to tell a bunch of tales they wouldn't have other gotten a chance to via a traditional theatrical platform.
Well, that all changed when The Ballad of Buster Scruggs had its Venice Film Festival premiere announced, as the alleged mini-series had somehow morphed into a 132-minute stand-alone anthology picture. The cheeky statement the Coens issued at the time of this news drop made it sound like cinema was the plan all along:
"We’ve always loved anthology movies, especially those films made in Italy in the Sixties which set side-by-side the work of different directors on a common theme. Having written an anthology of Western stories we attempted to do the same, hoping to enlist the best directors working today. It was our great fortune that they both agreed to participate.”
Alrighty then. Seeing how Scruggs is hitting Netflix this weekend, the question of this Ballad's original length was bound to come up on the press tour. Well, Zoe Kazan - who plays the lead in the film's longest episode "The Girl Who Got Rattled" - has co-signed the Coens' sentiments, blaming bad reporting for the supposed misinformation:
"I think it was just misreported, honestly. And I think, probably, everyone behind the camera didn’t care enough to correct anyone. The script I read is exactly what you see on screen now. I think it’s a very particular genre of film. There aren’t very many films like this in the world, so I’m sure that’s what added to the confusion."
To be fair, there could've been a longer version of the script (or even several scripts) that were cut down before it reached the actors' hands, but this seems pretty definitive (as Kazan also notes that she read her chapter along with the rest of Scruggs to see how it fit with the whole). But, given the timeline of the production (and Netflix's official announcement, which never once uses the word "series"), it seems highly unlikely that this was ever shot as a streaming episodic and then cut down to feature length (which has been the most recent rumor floating around the Internet). Either way, we're glad that got cleared up.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs hits Netflix this Friday, November 16th.