In the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Zoe Kazan plays Ms. Alice Longabaugh, the title character of ‘Chapter V. The Gal Who Got Rattled’. Alice is the vulnerable young sister of Gilbert, a business failure whose latest hair-brained scheme entails taking them along the Oregon trail in a stagecoach accompanied by his inconveniently vocal dog, President Pierce. Supposedly Oregon holds the promise of employment for Gilbert and a marriage proposal for Alice, but since Gilbert has exaggerated the nature of opportunities in the past, Alice is dubious, but helpless to change her circumstances.
In the 34 years since the Coens first etched out a world for themselves, they’ve been giddily inhabiting it with misguided heroes, characters of shade, well-meaning buffoons, buffoons of malicious intent, and so forth. One word that has been in the canon since day one is ‘simple’. Blood Simple may describe an act that is anything but simple, but the film is nevertheless populated with ordinary folk caught in a web netted by a wicked world.
The Coen saints also reflect this simplicity, but rather than an intellectual simplicity, characters like Marge Gunderson along with her husband, Norm - and now Alice Longabaugh - reflect a divine simplicity, in which purity radiates from their good nature. In an especially wicked era of this wicked world, Kazan’s Alice is the personification of purity and decency. She is an innocent. The Norm ‘Son of a’ Gunderson to her Marge is Billy Knapp, played gently by Bill Heck in a performance cut from the same tonally perfect cloth as Kazan’s. The courtship of Alice Longabaugh and Billy Knapp is the sweetest onscreen romance of 2018.
In an anthology built of six impeccable-in-their-own-right chapters, ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled’ is the film’s bittersweet centerpiece and rightfully so. Even more so than the other five Western parables, it’s a story that resonates deeply, and that’s largely thanks to the soulful qualities of its leading lady, Zoe Kazan.
Last month at the New York Film Festival, I greatly enjoyed discussing the beacon of hope in a cruel world that is Ms. Alice Longabaugh with the radiant Ms. Kazan.
ScreenAnarchy: When did you first hear of this project called BUSTER SCRUGGS?
Zoe Kazan: Yeah... Via my agents receiving an audition notice. I auditioned for the Coens’ No Country For Old Men for like a small part the first year that I was out of school and was so thrilled just to be able to send in a tape. You know?
That did not change in the 10 years intervening. They still are really in the pantheon for me, so even before I read the script or knew anything about the part I was like, "Yes, yes, yes. Please get me in." And then, reading it I felt like ... I only read my chapter first and I didn't know what the rest of it would look like, but I felt totally certain that I understood this character.
Its only happened a handful of times in my career that I felt like, this one's mine. "I know her, I think I know what you're looking for, I think I can give it to you." You just hope you get lucky enough.
When was that? Considering the project's almost 20 years old?
Yeah... I would've been a little kid... No. Nowhere near that long ago. I'm gonna guess last June. Like May or June of last year that I started auditioning and I think I got the job in July, maybe?
Obviously professionally you've gone a long way since you auditioned for NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, but I can imagine that you were still pretty floored to get this role?
Yeah. Are you kidding? Yes. Actually, I was at a friend’s house out walking her dog with her and I never leave my phone at home, but I left my phone. And then, when I got back to her apartment, where I had left my phone, I had 20 missed calls and was like, "What is this about?"
I thought someone had died. Yeah. I think I actually jumped up and down for joy, which sounds like a euphemism, but I actually think I did on the streets of Brooklyn.
At that point, had you only read sides?
I had only read sides the first time I auditioned for it. And then, I read the whole thing before I went in for my callback - the whole chapter and also the whole script. I got to understand what the whole picture looked like.
What was your reaction to the material itself?
Like I said, some deep tug of recognition. Like, "Oh. This is a person that I somehow know inside of me." Like I said, it doesn't happen that often. It's happened maybe three or four times in my whole career. You hope when you have that feeling that you get to play it, because when you don't it's really heartbreaking.
Was there a quality to Alice Longabaugh that you related to or did you just generally feel like you could do her justice?
Well, the writing is so clear and it's so cinematic. Right? Like, you read the script and it reads like you're watching a movie. And so, I think it just seemed really clear to me. It's like when you read a play. What I mean is it happens more often when reading a play than it does reading a movie, because usually those parts are richer, where you feel like, "Okay. There's a whole person on the page and I might not know what that person is yet, but they're there and I just have to go and excavate them."
That's rare in itself and it's even rarer to look at it and be like, there's a whole person there for me to excavate and I think specifically my gifts, and my life experience, and everything can go through there.
With Alice, I think I felt a little bit like... First of all, I've been really interested in pioneers my whole life, so I knew a lot about women on the trail. I'd just done a ton of reading. One of the things I thought really early was, "Oh. She never smiles. She's not like a nice person, she's like a good person." You know?
There was something about how literal everything was for her, and then also she's like a little bird or something that has never been let out of its cage.
Early in the chapter the cage door opens and she doesn't know how to exit the cage. Watching her learn how to exit the cage, it just seemed so beautiful to me. And then, when I went in for my callback I was in the lobby of the building and I saw Bill (Heck) from behind.
Bill and I did Angels in America together seven years before. We played husband and wife. I knew his back, he didn't even have to turn around. I was like, "Oh. It's Bill." I felt this weight come off of my shoulders, because I was so scared for my callback and scared I'd fuck it up. I really felt like, "Oh. If it's Bill I know I'll be fine." Even if I don't get it I know whatever happens in that room will be fine, because we know each other, and we know how the other person works, and we could be there for each other.
It was such a leg up when we were actually shooting it to have someone that I felt that deep trust with. You can't do Angles in America for six months together and not just feel deeply intimate with the other person. Even though we're not close friends in life, we've been through a little skirmish together. Not a war. I don't know. It was a huge leg up.
Do you have favorite Coens film?
I think Barton Fink is my favorite. I love them best. I re-watched all of their movies with - I left out two or something, before going off to shoot this. Because, I felt like I wanted to have their language in my brain and in my body.
Also, because the tone of this is very delicate and there's such tonal shifts between each chapter. I felt like I needed to identify for myself where this chapter lived tonally in their sort of-
Yeah. I think No Country is a masterpiece and Fargo's a masterpiece. There's a kind of perfection to them that reminds me of the perfection of Boogie Nights. Like, perfect.... But, of PTA's movies my favorite is probably Punch Drunk Love.
Fargo is almost like looking at a perfect statue or something. You just stand and marvel at it, but... I don't know. To say Fargo is my favorite Coen Brothers film would be like saying Michelangelo's David is my favorite piece of art. It's just perfect. Anyways, the mystery and squirrely-ness of some of their films... Like A Serious Man and A Hudsucker Proxy, those films give you a new entry point every time.
Tell me about day one. You're on the set of a freaking Coen Brothers film. How did that feel? Did it live up to whatever expectations you may have had?
Well, between getting the role and going to shoot it I don't think I had any contact with them. I was pretty scared and I had done a lot of preparation, as you might expect. I had, had my costume fittings with Mary Zophres who's their longtime collaborator. I felt like she was my conduit to them in a way. They already had sketches and materials picked out and I was just receiving what they chose. That was, in a way like a piece of direction.
And then, showing up… I shot one day in Santa Fe. We shot the boarding house scene that starts my chapter there. And so, I did all of my kind of camera tests and everything in Santa Fe before we went to Nebraska.
Bill wasn't there yet. He wasn't shooting in Santa Fe, so he came straight to Nebraska. I was alone and I had never really been to Santa Fe before, so I was doing a lot of walking around by myself. I taped all of my dialogue - the other piece of it - so that I could practice my lines. I was just walking like a crazy person around Santa Fe.
Around that square?
Yeah, yeah. Like, talking to myself. Pretending I was talking on the phone. Just hoping to be as off book as possible, because I just didn't know how to prepare.
And then, I got to start having contact with them and I was so scared. I was scared shitless. I was really terrified. I was really scared that first shooting day. I think my hands were shaking. It was helpful to me that (Alice) is very shy and really not in her element in that scene.
You could use that?
I could use it. It was helpful. Also, dinner scenes are horrible to shoot.
Is that right?
They're horrible to shoot.
Do you have to eat a lot?
Well, there's that. But, also you have to shoot so many angles. And so, it's always like a squeeze. No matter who the filmmaker is, that day is a hard day. So, I knew that going into it, because I shot enough dinner table scenes and was like, "Okay. This is not gonna be your favorite day of filming." I gave myself permission to feel like I had failed that day.
And then, when we got to Nebraska it felt almost like a reset button a little bit. Where it was like a new place, Bill was there, Grainger (Hines) was there. I got to meet Grainger for the first time. We had half a day of rehearsal where we ate donuts, enjoyed coffee, and read the scenes out loud, and talked a little bit about what they had in their brains.
The other thing that was really helpful was that every day on set they have the storyboards attached to the back of the sides.
You're involved in the filming?
Yeah. You can know, "Okay. This is how they're gonna cut it roughly and this is what they're gonna use."
So, that was helpful. And then, the only other thing that's really such a strong memory is that the first day on set in Nebraska was my birthday and everyone, including the brothers, sang happy birthday to me. The caterers had made this big cake and put a covered wagon with an oxen on top of it, which I took home and now lives on my bookshelf. But, that was truly surreal. We were shooting on these cattle ranches that were once prairies.
So, you're shooting on this 40 thousand acre cattle ranch with no service in the middle of nowhere. It was a night shoot that night and the Coen Brothers singing happy birthday to you. It was really odd.
Okay. You were already really into the Oregon Trail or had a fascination and now you get to essentially walk it, or pretend to... How far did you walk? How did that feel?
I mean, honestly doing Meek's Cutoff was a lot more like being on the actual Oregon Trail.
Wait, what? You were in MEEK'S CUTOFF??
Whoa… I did not realize that.
I love that film, but I haven’t seen it since it came out in theaters in 2010.
Totally. I'm in that and that really felt like it. We were in Oregon on the salt flats. I mean, like true independent filmmaking. You know? This was much tamer.
But, it was so freeing to be in the middle of nowhere without service... I did a lot of embroidery on set to keep my hands busy, so that my brain didn't go insane.
The other thing is I read a lot of Willa Cather while I was there, and then it turned out that Ethan had also been reading Willa Cather.
What was your favorite day or moment from the whole shoot?
Oh my God.
Did you have one that jumps out at you?
Yeah, actually. I feel like it speaks to how beautiful compromise can be in collaboration.
The last campfire scene before the dog comes back and Alice goes missing, that scene where they talk about spirituality. That scene, we were supposed to shoot on a night when the weather got too bad and we had to cancel that shoot that night.
They kept trying to reschedule it for other things, but the cattle take up a lot of time and weather was not always...
Exactly. And so, we ended up having to shoot that on our second to last day of shooting. They squeezed in a weekend day of shooting and we shot it in the closest thing they could find to a studio. Like a studio space in rural Nebraska, which was a barn.
They had thrown grass down on the ground and lit it really dark so that it would feel like outside. I was really bummed about not getting to shoot it outside. Like, there's something about being under that big sky. I felt like, "Ugh. This is not right... "
You want every moment to feel so big and so good, but then once we started filming it... To be totally honest, the wind was so crazy on those plains in Nebraska that when we were actually outside we were always contending with smoke coming from the fire. So to be in this very quiet space felt really sanctified in some strange way; like a special circle, like a tiny circle of light.
Bill and I, having had done this play together, we knew what it was like to be in a little space together in the dark.
It was familiar.
It was familiar and I feel like we got to do a different kind of work that day than any other day. It felt so good and it felt so good to just have him, and I, and no extras around.
I don't know. It really shocked me and I cried when I went home that day, because I was like this is kind of the apex. It's not gonna get better than this.