The Ballad of Buster Scruggs actor Tim Blake Nelson first received the script for the Coen brothers-directed project back in 2002. Private Life director Tamara Jenkins revealed she wasn’t sure she wanted to broach the topic of infertility before embarking on Private Life. And Maggie Gyllenhaal said she needed to own the role of an educator obsessed with her student’s genius in The Kindergarten Teacher.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs from Joel and Ethan Coen had a long gestation. The filmmaking duo completed a number of other projects before turning back to Scruggs with Tim Blake Nelson in the saddle as Buster. “I like to say Buster Scruggs is a great friend, but you wouldn’t want him as an enemy,” said Nelson. “The real task in playing the part was to make it all seem effortless… That’s just what you do for Joel and Ethan.”
Initially tipped as a miniseries before joining Netflix’s feature lineup, the Western motif and the recurring moments of a hand flipping through pages of a book are binding elements among the six vignettes that comprise the feature. Taking a page from that cinematic construct, production designer Jess Gonchor found visual inspiration through simple objects. Buster Scruggs is one of a half dozen Coen titles in which Goncher has charted the aesthetic groundwork.
“There really wasn’t a common thread visually through all of the stories,” said Gonchor, who joined Nelson along with actors Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck at the DGA. “I’d take something like a scoop of clay or a broken wagon wheel to start with something simple.”
In Private Life, infertility binds an East Village couple played by Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn in Oscar-nominee Tamara Jenkins’s film. Jenkins admitted trepidation at tackling a crisis faced by many couples.
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to approach the subject,” she said. “I had my own version of it with my husband” (Oscar-nominated writer, Jim Taylor). She nevertheless crossed that threshold, debuting the film at Sundance in January. Jenkins is nominated in both the directing and screenplay categories at the Independent Spirit Awards in 2019.
“We didn’t need to talk about it. Everything was on the page,” said Giamatti. Added Hahn, who plays spouse Rachel, “I, myself, have rarely been asked to play a part that is this rich and complicated, and I hold this very close to my heart. It lives in that place that rides that line between comedy and drama.”
The Kindergarten Teacher examined raising two children in New York. Maggie Gyllenhaal was delighted to shoot her latest feature film project close to home. The actor, who also served as a producer of the film, directed by Sara Colangelo and co-stars Gael García Bernal, as well as the young Parker Sevak, said she purposely did not want to watch the 2014 Israeli original film of the same title by Nadav Lapid.
“I felt scared to see it. I wanted it to be mine and come from unconscious places and inside of me. I think [my character] is a poet and artist, but she was told all her life that what she had is enough. I think everyone of us has lived some aspect of that. And women at this moment in this country are waking up and are not satisfied with what we’ve been told to accept.”
Gyllenhaal plays Lisa, an educator who becomes obsessed with one of her students, whom she is convinced is a poetic child prodigy, and goes to extensive lengths to protect his talent.
“This woman is starving for artistic and emotional interaction and is so confused and lost that she looks to find it in a five-year-old child,” said Gyllenhaal. “So she decides he’s a [poetic] genius. It’s told in such a myopic way. You’re in her head. I think you could read it that even the poetry is coming from her…”
As an actor and producer, Gyllenhaal is a building her multi-hyphenates on the big and small screens (she also stars and is a producer of HBO’s The Deuce), giving her some segue to channel the woman at the center of The Kindergarten Teacher. “It was was helpful to play this woman who is being [pushed] in so many ways.”