- LOS ANGELES
”You cannot turn down a Coen brothers movie,” affirmed cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, AFC, ASC in explaining why he immediately committed to Netflix’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. “I felt very honored and privileged when they called me after we had worked years ago on Inside Llewyn Davis.
It’s been five years for Delbonnel between his collaborations with directors/writers/producers Joel and Ethan Coen. However, Delbonnel has been most productive during the interim with credits that include director Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour which earlier this year earned the DP his fifth career Best Cinematography Oscar nomination. The prior four Academy Award nods came for Inside Llewyn Davis in 2014, director David Yates’ Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in 2010, and director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement in 2005 and Amelie in 2002. Delbonnel won the ASC Award for A Very Long Engagement, and was nominated for Amelie, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Darkest Hour.
The latter played a key role in the evolution of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, recalled Delbonnel. “Joel and Ethan came to see me in London while we were color grading Darkest Hour. They asked Joe Wright if they could see some images from the film. They couldn’t believe it was shot digitally. It looked like film and kind of changed their minds (about digital).”
Long-time proponents of shooting film, the Coen brothers indeed viewed digital prospects differently upon getting an advance look-see at Darkest Hour. The Coens decided they wanted to experience digital shooting for the first time, helping to seal the deal to take on Buster Scruggs with Netflix.
Still, there was another cinematography hurdle to clear as Delbonnel wanted to use ARRI’s Alexa, a camera which he had deployed successfully in the past, including on Darkest Hour. “It became a complicated decision,” related Delbonnel, “because Netflix asks for 4K. Alexa doesn’t do 4K.”
Delbonnel didn’t want to shoot the movie with the RED camera and the Coens are partial to a certain lens that wasn’t compatible with the Sony F65. As a result, said Delbonnel, the Coens reached out to Netflix to discuss using the Alexa. Eventually the creative choice of the filmmakers won out as Netflix agreed to greenlight Alexa for Buster Scruggs, deploying upgrade technology to bring the imagery to 4K.
Delbonnel noted that he’s neither in the film or digital camp, preferring that the nature of the project dictate which way to go. However, if the choice is digital, he gravitates to the Alexa for several reasons, including its optical finder. “I like to light through the lens. The best way is through an optical finder. I don’t believe in the digital finder. You see what you’re doing with an optical finder. You’re seeing an interpretation of what you’re doing with a digital finder.”
Going by the book
Once the selection of camera was resolved, Delbonnel faced other challenges, the biggest being reaching a creative decision as to how to approach each story within the Buster Scruggs anthology. The stories take place in the 19th-century post-Civil War era during the settling of the Old West, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs follows different frontier folk whose adventures range from the absurd to the profound.
“The first question we asked ourselves is should we have a different look for each story or should we have the same look for all the stories since they’re within the same book?” recalled Delbonnel. “We couldn’t answer that when we started shooting and never fully resolved it until much later. At one point we tried to change the look of every short. But ultimately we found the different looks didn’t really work. The main idea we embraced was trying to find this unifying kind of illustration feeling that runs throughout the stories.”
Meanwhile an external challenge was the weather encountered during the stretch of mid-July through September from Wyoming to Texas, Colorado, Nebraska and New Mexico. “It was monsoon season with a lot of heavy rain,” noted Delbonnel. “We’d often start the day with a beautiful sky and sunlight, and then it would take a turn to overcast conditions, heavy clouds and rain. That made it hard to maintain continuity. The challenge was to shoot as fast as we could and try to avoid the bad weather.”
A postproduction savior for Delbonnel in terms of helping to attain that sought after continuity was color grader Peter Doyle at Technicolor. “He’s a genius. He saved me. He graded my last 10 movies, including Harry Potter and Llewyn Davis.”
Delbonnel also learned on Buster Scruggs much that was new to him relative to American history as well as confirmation of what he already knew in terms of working with the Coen brothers.
On the former score, Delbonnel shared, “I’m a true European and although I worked a lot in the U.S., it was generally in New York, Boston, L.A. or San Francisco. I never got inside the U.S. really, until Buster Scruggs. It was great to learn about the Oregon Trail, the American Indian, the legendary cowboy stuff, people going across from Missouri to Oregon or Washington State and leaving their past behind to start a new life 150 years ago. I got a wonderful education about this country, its community kind of spirit.”
As for the Coens, Delbonnel said that Buster Scruggs reaffirmed for him why it’s “such a pleasure to collaborate with them. I knew it from Inside Llewyn Davis and experienced it again with Buster Scruggs. They are truly amazing directors. The way they block a scene, decide what to shoot, their elegance and simplicity. They tap into drama in a very efficient, simple way. I love embracing simplicity with them.”
This is the first of a multi-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 91st Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, January 22, 2019. The 91st Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 24, 2019, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, and will be televised live on the ABC Television Network. The Oscars also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is written, produced and directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, with Megan Ellison, Sue Naegle and Robert Graf serving as producers. The cast includes Tyne Daly, James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, Bill Heck, Grainger Hines, Zoe Kazan, Harry Melling, Liam Neeson, Tim Blake Nelson, Jonjo O’Neill, Chelcie Ross, Saul Rubinek, Tom Waits, Clancy Brown, Jefferson Mays, Stephen Root, Willie Watson.