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From one book discovery to the next – The Ballad of Buster Scruggs screenplay

One of the enjoyable aspects of reading, is that in the process of sniffing out a particular book or author you could stumble upon another author whose work is similar and as enjoyable. It’s like a treasure hunt – who knows what you might find? While watching The Ballad of Buster Scruggs on TV, I noticed a piece of fictional fiction on the set, namely the old book from which the stories in the film had been taken, also called The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Like in the classic Disney animated films, The Jungle Book, the Aristocats, Pinocchio, etc., the film starts with a big old book falling open to a story, and then proceeds with the telling of that story, like when you read a book of fairy tales. (The Official Disney Fan Club has a lovely collection of “page-turner” sequences.)

The fake book prop featured in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

For the classic Western-style title sequences used in the film, a fake book was created as a prop. And the published screenplay actually contains reproductions of the fantastic illustrations featured in the title sequences.

“For “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”, Joel & Ethan Coen chose to create the opening and narrative transitions with cinematic vignettes, featuring a real storybook. Their long time collaborator for main titles, Randy Balsmeyer of Big Film Design, invited cinematographer and technical director Christopher Webb to help find the best approach.

Chris and the team at his studio, FX WRX, did practical tests with a variety of setups to offer the Coens production methods that fit their specific creative style. This included evaluating traditional and motion control camera movement systems, as well as lighting and lens options. The team chose to work with the Techno Dolly motion control camera crane because of its intuitive workflow and graceful motion. This was fitted with a RED 6K camera and a classic 40mm Arri Macro lens.

Master bookmaker and prop artist Dave King hand-crafted the period storybook to the Coens’ exacting specifications. The book not only had to look the part, but also had to move well as it was manipulated. The Coens then worked with Chris at FX WRX to shoot each carefully choreographed vignette. The camera was guided by veteran Techno Dolly operator Anthony Jacques.” (Christoper Webb, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: Main Title & Chapter Cinematography, Vimeo)

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Screenplay by Joel & Ethan Coen (Paperback; publisher: Faber & Faber; December 18, 2018; 128 pp.)

Textual and visual descriptions

In the screenplay the descriptive passages are often as entertaining and metaphoric as the dialogue, and requires the cinematographer to read more into the scene than just the action:

“The black-clad judge is St-Sebastianed full of arrows and tumbles off his horse, his fall snapping arrowshafts. Unmounted now, the horse takes off, grazing the strung-up cowboy’s horse as it gallops past to take the stirrup-tangled body of the judge on a prairie sleigh ride. “ (p. 22)

Here the reference to St. Sebastian means that the judge has arrows through every part of him – from his calves to his neck – and that his eyes are rolling up in his head, just like in the  paintings of St. Sebastian by the Italian Early Renaissance master Andrea Mantegna. It also means he doesn’t fall all the way off the horse, but drags head-first on the ground, with his feet tangled in the stirrups, and that this has him bouncing along like a passenger in a sleigh. It’s jaunty but at the same time gruesome. The Coens had to evoke and suggest a great deal with very few words and short sentences. One can see why they included six illustrations from the book prop in the screenplay edition.

Introduction to the colour plates section

The screenplay text also describes the book prop that is used to introduce each scene – forming a sort of meta-text:

“…we are dissolving to the last lines of this story on the page. The page turns, to a new title page: MEAL TICKET And then to a new illustration: Close on a man orating. His face is painted with stage make-up, his hair coiffed Roman-senator style. He is bottom-lit by warm footlights, his eyes are cast heaven-ward. We pan down to the picture’s caption: ‘The quality of mercy is not strained…’” (p. 29 – refer illustration, below)

One of the beautiful paintings for the film and the screenplay, by Gregory Manchess.

And now for the next author…

Now that’s what I call a book prop with style. I say thank you to the Coen brothers for their well-developed sense of aesthetics that led to the commissioning of the paintings. And these six paintings led me to the discovery of another author and artist, Gregory Manchess, who painted the illustrations for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. More on Manchess and his work in the next post!

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