I believe it was around the year 2000 that Joel and Ethan Coen mentioned they'd written some short Western screenplays. Even though HBO had expressed an interest in making these short films, it was clear the likelihood was remote. Short films have limited distribution opportunities. Then, at the start of 2017, they told me Annapurna, who'd helped make True Grit, was backing the project and soon Netflix come on as well. The press assumed the project was a "series" but Joel and Ethan viewed it as a feature film, an anthology or portmanteau film.
When they gave me the script it contained five stories, the first three of which I remembered from our earlier discussions. After the fifth chapter there was a placeholder for a sixth story yet to come. Just before they left to shoot, they gave me the last story, "The Mortal Remains."
As we generally do, we had a brief conversation about the score (or scores) before shooting. They described the songs in the first chapter, "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," including the one Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings had written, and Brendan Gleeson's song "The Unfortunate Lad" in the last. After considering what score might contribute to each story, the question was raised - how might music tie the stories together into one film?
No character appears in more than one story, and no storylines overlap. And, as became clear when they started showing me footage, each chapter also has a distinctuve look. I suggested that perhaps there was some small motif that could be shared with different instrumentation in each chapter. Perhaps.
After the shoot Joel and Ethan were much more determined that music somehow tie the chapters together, making the case that this was one film, not six.
So as they started editing, one chapter at a time, I started looking for that common musical thread. After a few weeks I had a number of themes but honestly each spoke to one chapter or another rather than the whole set. By design eacvh chapter was different from the others in tone, look and story. Failing to find a common theme, I asked the boys what they felt tied these stories together other than their being Westerns. Joel's summary was that they all involved "non-accidental death."
After some time fruitlessly looking for an overall theme for the film, I had to put that aside in order to start addressing the individual chapters, which were being cut in order of their appearance in the film. Ultimately the closest I got to tying it all together was to use "The Unfortunate Lad", an 18th-century folk song told by a dead man, as an opening and closing theme to bookend ther film. And the spaces between chapters, illustrated with the turning pages of a book, are used to guide the listener into the next story.
Death, non-accidental or not, is a theme in many of the Coens' films, since the first, Blood Simple. In the case of Buster Scruggs, having written the first five stories over many years, they decided that death should hang over the entirety of the sixth and last story,, "The Mortal Remains," leaving the viewer to wonder if the characters are dead even from the outset.
The score works from the melody of "The Unfortunate Lad," but the chords move on their own, sometimes refusing to budge just as the characters refuse to accept their fate. In the last phtase in the last chapter of the film, the strings harmonize in a lyrical flourish, the last note hitting as the last character doffs his top hat and accepts his fate with aplomb.
Written, Directed and Produced by Joel and Ethan Coen
Composed, Orchestrated and Conducted by Carter Burwell
Music Editor: Todd Kasow
Recording Engineer: Michael Farrow
Contractor: Susie Gillis for Isobel Griffiths
Starring Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck, Tyne Daly
U.S. Release November 9, 2018
The soundtrack is available from Milan Records. For demo purposes here are some excerpts:
"The Coens’ newest Western might be their bleakest work of all, and one of their richest... Carter Burwell’s score is perhaps his most achingly beautiful. The actors give crisp, stylized performances that go from gleefully cartoonish (Nelson) to radiantly open (Kazan, who is lovely). This is the sort of film that traditionally marks the start of an artist’s 'late phase' — one in which old motifs are brought back in different keys and tested, and in which the bounds of realism are loosened. For the Coens, it’s a thrilling new frontier." - David Edelstein, Vulture, Nov. 9, 2018.
"Redeeming the erratic material is the constant pleasure provided by the splendid team of Coen collaborators. Carter Burwell’s wonderfully resourceful score is abetted by no end of Western tunes that have been neatly worked into the flow of events." - Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter, Aug. 31, 2018.
"Bruno Delbonnel’s camerawork amplifies these tales’ old-timey, mythic qualities, while composer Carter Burwell delivers another of his superb Coen scores — actually, several of them, as his music moves from plaintive to menacing, depending on the story." - Tim Grierson, Screendaily, Aug. 31, 2018.
"The starry credits for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs crawl dirge-like across the screen to a particularly mournful, but mood-setting, instrumental of 'Streets of Laredo' and then—thanks to the uncharted creativity of the inestimable Carter Burwell—zip schizophrenically into the Sons of the Pioneers perennial 'Cool Clear Water,' sung here by only one son-o’-a-gun as he moseys across the majestic Monument Valley." - Harry Haun, Film Journal International, Nov. 9, 2018.
"a handsomely made picture, with a richly plausible musical score by Carter Burwell" - Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, Aug. 31, 2018.
"Carter Burwell‘s original compositions are one reliably excellent aspect in the whole film." - Jessica King, The Playlist, Aug. 31, 2018.
"Its pleasures—the endless succession of perfect shots of remarkable scenery, the gorgeous music by Carter Burwell and others that swells and dips like the landscapes themselves—are real, and acknowledged as such, but there’s something more real underneath it all." - Glenn Kennry, RogerEbert.com, Nov. 9, 2018.