Interview: Tim Blake Nelson on "Old Henry" | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Thursday, October 21st, 2021  

Tim Blake Nelson on his leading role in “Old Henry”

The Great Western Range

Sep 27, 2021 Web Exclusive
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The actor who played Buster Scruggs keeps the guitar he strummed in that cartoonishly over-the-top Western on a rack next to his desk. Right beside it sits another six-string he was given while shooting a new Western, Old Henry.

“I coveted this newer one in a Nashville guitar store, and my wife bought it as a present for me,” says Tim Blake Nelson with the eloquence you’d expect, given the veteran character actor’s Juilliard training— except he forsakes any pretension for the rugged grace of a well-read rancher. The newer guitar “is easier to play than the Scruggs guitar, whose action is really high, and strings are kind of cheap. I need it to be easy to play, because I’m not very good. I just play cowboy chords.”

Best known as the acoustic strumming, pistol-trick adept, monologue-inclined title character in the Coen Brothers’ critically acclaimed frontier anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Nelson plays a completely different type of cowboy in Old Henry. A darkly understated anti-Western in the vein of Open Range or Unforgiven, Old Henry tells the story of Nelson’s equally restrained Henry. He hopes to escape his mysteriously violent past by retreating to rural farming, despite the gripes of his rebellious son. Henry’s peaceful reprieve is trampled by a violent posse led by the grandstanding Ketchum (‘90s heartthrob Stephen Dorff, continuing a character actor comeback that began with his guest turn on True Detective).

The movie’s balance of viscerally realistic violence and lyrical Western mythology is deftly crafted by up-and-coming writer-director Potsy Ponciroli, whose potential is “fairly unlimited” in Nelson’s view. That’s high praise, considering Nelson’s experience working with legendary auteurs like the Coens (on Scruggs and O Brother, Where Art Thou?), Steven Spielberg (on Minority Report and Lincoln), Terrence Malick (on The Thin Red Line) and more.

In a recent interview, Nelson told us more about Ponciroli’s on-set prowess; his fascination with realistic Western gunfights; Old Henry’s homages to genre titans as varied as Kevin Costner, John Wayne, and Akira Kurosawa; and more.

So Old Henry is about as far from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs as you can get, and still be a Western. I liked seeing the breadth of your range within this genre.

I’m really glad you mentioned the disparity between the two characters, because it’s absolutely true. I really feared that people would say “Oh, it’s Tim Blake Nelson doing another hick, or another Western character.” Which obviously would’ve been bad for the movie. I didn’t want to saddle the movie with that kind of derogation. And I told that to Potsy.

So we decided: no pistol tricks. None. Until one spin, at the very end, as a punctuation. And that spin wasn’t some sort of nod to Buster, but instead a nod to Henry’s history, to who he actually was.

There’s one other little flourish in the movie: when I hand a gun to the Curry character, who’s played by Scott Haze. And that’s an homage to Rio Bravo. There’s a moment in that movie when John Wayne does that with his pistol, when he’s handing it over. And I wanted to quote that, because I just love Westerns.

I believe that any genre movie is also about the genre. And Potsy was doing that in this movie, in his filmmaking approach. Stylistically, it’s a very straight-ahead, meat-and-potatoes Western. And it presents itself as that, from the opening music to the wardrobe, to the rhythm, to the sound design. And so, I felt that quoting a John Wayne movie, even if nobody ever noticed it, was good for his movie.

But other than that, this is a character who is about restraint and concealment, whereas Buster Scruggs is all about performance and theatricality. So, they’re completely different characters. Buster Scruggs tells you everything about himself and everything that’s on his mind. Henry sees every revelation about himself as a vulnerability, and therefore he inhibits himself from that.

The movie is quite restrained indeed. Until the gunfights start. The climactic shootout – where you and Dorff weave in and out of trees, none big enough to give adequate cover – was gritty, but also eloquent. What was it like to choreograph and execute that?

I’ve gotta give all credit to Potsy. We had three hours to shoot that scene, because we were losing daylight. And it was Stephen Dorff’s last day. But Potsy knew exactly what he wanted, and had choreographed it and designed the shot sequence that would give him what he needed, editorially. Then we just went and did it, and took his orders. It was a remarkable lesson in filmmaking. And I make movies, I’m a director as well, yet I learned so much from the way that Potsy approached shooting that scene. Because what should’ve taken a day was done in under three hours.

And there’s another aspect to that: my character has been shot. So he’s limited in the use of his arms. But there’s a gunfight in Open Range, the Kevin Costner movie, that really taught me a lot about how a duel isn’t so much about the quick draw. Because mostly you miss. Instead, there’s a kind of stand and deliver aspect to gunfighting, where if you’re going to shoot somebody, often involved with that is exposing yourself for them to shoot at you. And I love that about the gunfights in Open Range: these guys standing out, exposed to one another, but sort of moving around so that they’re not an easy target. That caused me to read a lot about gunfights, and have what I saw in the Costner film confirmed. Which is: there was something messy and open about gunfights, that was more akin to fighting with swords. I tried to bring that into Potsy’s choreography.

Right! The gunfight does seem Kurosawa-esque, while also evoking classic anti-Westerns. It was an interesting combination.

Ya know Kurosawa, more than any other filmmaker, taught us that Westerns don’t have to take place in the American West.

And when you mention Potsy— I was unfamiliar with him, he’s not nearly as experienced as other directors you’ve worked with like the Coens or Steven Spielberg. Yet, his direction of Old Henry really is masterful. How does working with him compare to those legendary auteurs? Does he have the potential to reach their heights, given what he pulled off on Old Henry with a limited budget and timeframe?

I think Potsy’s potential is fairly unlimited, and he’s proven it with this movie. And I’m proud to be a part of it. It’s very much his movie. I get to play the lead, and the title character. And I’m very proud of my work. But I see this as Potsy’s film. He’s the writer-director.

In terms of juxtaposing him with Spielberg, or the Coens, or Guillermo Del Toro, those guys were once making their first and second movies. So, I like to pay directors who are working early in their careers the same level of respect. Spielberg’s second movie was… The Sugarland Express, is that right? His third was Jaws, I believe. Anyway: I watched Potsy’s first movie, which has nothing to do with what he was after with Old Henry. And I thought: “Huh. Is this going to make sense?” But then I met him on Zoom, along with his producer, and he inspired confidence in me. So I thought: “Well, I’m going to go and do this.”

Old Henry is in theatres Oct. 1. For more information, click here.



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