Upon seeing Charlie Brafman and Magnus McCullagh’s anthology western The Rabbit’s Foot for the first, it was hard not to think of the Coen Brothers’ Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Brafman and McCullagh capture the very essence of the Coen’s darkly observed humour, paired with a trio of striking and memorable characters each defined by their individual relationship to the titular rabbit’s foot, it’s a comparison worth the merit. Brafman and McCullagh have crafted a superb western that plays to the genre’s beloved attributes whilst bringing something fresh to the table. Not bad for a couple of Brits, eh? DN is delighted to premiere The Rabbit’s Foot online today, and spoke with the directing pair about the Coen’s comparison, taking their actors through the motions, and much more
How did the both of you initially form this idea of a Western centred around a mystical rabbit’s foot?
The Rabbit’s Foot is the first short film we have directed together. When we first wrote it five years ago, we were spending all of our time writing specs and material for other directors, one of whom was a friend of ours based in Australia. He was keen to have us write a short for him and we jumped at the opportunity to make narrative use of a frontier setting. We’re both based in London and would never have attempted to write a Western otherwise, but speaking as two filmmakers that started in the world of theatre, there’s something about the genre that speaks so quintessentially to the medium itself, of the things which make cinema what it is and makes it so appealing to us.
Due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, the Australian production stalled, but we still really liked the script we’d written. So, when a couple of years later we set our mind to directing something ourselves, The Rabbit’s Foot came up for discussion. We looked into the costs of shooting in Spain, found that transporting the cast, crew and kit across the continent wasn’t quite as scary as we’d imagined and took it from there.
As for the central theme, ‘luck’ seemed like something which was multi-dimensional enough to warrant exploration on its own whilst also having particular pertinence to the genre.
There’s something about the genre that speaks so quintessentially to the medium itself, of the things which make cinema what it is and makes it so appealing to us.
Tonally, I’ve seen you’ve had a lot of comparisons with the Coen brothers, are they an influence at all? And, if not, are there any other filmmakers, films or styles you draw from when creating?
We’re huge fans of the Coen brothers and are flattered by the comparison. We completed our film in June 2018, two months before the Coens first screened The Ballad of Buster Scruggs at Venice, so it was quite surreal when we watched it and discovered that they had made a series of fable-like Westerns. We absolutely loved Buster Scruggs though and if some people see our film as a worthy companion piece to that anthology then we’re extremely flattered!
The Coens’ earlier works were an influence as were Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, the writings of Patrick DeWitt and Donald Ray Pollock, smart modern horrors and films made by the three Sergios, all of which featured prominently in our thinking.
Structurally, why did you decide to set the story over three chapters?
For us, the spaghetti Western shares a lot of similarities with picaresque fiction. Kubrick’s aforementioned Barry Lyndon is a great example. The story is often a series of exciting, surprising and often amusing episodes, across which a morally questionable anti-hero can plough a furrow of gleeful chaos. The episodic nature of the story largely derived from that.
In addition, we feel that there are things the audience needs to witness in the first part in order to be able to get the best out of the ending. This kind of story isn’t about nuanced character development but rather about playing with expectations and we felt like we were best positioned to do that by telling the story in the way we did.
Was there ever a point where you had more stories you wanted to incorporate?
At one point we were planning a post-credits scene in which Barleycorn’s horse would stumble out of the desert laden with gold, but cuts made due to complications during production necessitated us scrapping it. Beyond that the narrative would be pretty hard to extend. By the end, the foot is the only constant and although there’s lots more that could be explored around the theme it represents, we’re not sure how far we could stretch the narrative without a more fleshed-out character at the story’s heart.
Could you talk about the animated sequence? Was that more of a narrative decision or due to the practicalities of your production budget?
Being a flashback, some degree of stylistic separation from the rest of the film seemed appropriate and we realised that by making it an animation we would have the freedom to introduce a range of additional characters and locations without having to factor in the cost of each and every one of them. If there was any doubt in our minds about how to execute this part of the narrative, the rabbit itself was the clincher: CG or animatronics would have been the only other ways to create the effect we intended and both were so far out of reach that we didn’t waste any time considering them. So, without knowing exactly how we were going to get it done, we wrote ‘Animation Sequence’ in the script and focused on making the rest of the film.
It wasn’t until we had a rough cut of everything else that we started looking for an animator, our thoughts being that if we already had something impressive to show, we’d be more likely to get someone talented for cheap. We’re not sure whether this was a sound strategy or if we just lucked out, but finding Chiara was one of the best things that happened throughout the making of the film. She’s an incredible talent and it was a privilege to have been able to work with her. We encourage everyone to check out more of her work on her site.
You really put your actors through their paces, how did you find constructing the more physically demanding scenes, both on the page and on set?
Our actors were amazing. Conditions all round were tough but special mention must go to Kevin and Farren for lying in that river all day. We took a dip ourselves and can verify that it was bitterly cold.
This kind of story isn’t about nuanced character development but rather about playing with expectations.
It was very important to us that we were very clear with all of our actors from auditions onwards that this would be a physically demanding role. From there, the actors essentially selected themselves. Barleycorn is the toughest guy in the toughest place on earth and the Prospector is pain manifested. We’re delighted with our casting choices, shoutout to Sue Odell our fabulous casting director!
It was a treacherous location to shoot in regardless. For safety purposes we kitted our whole cast and crew with crash helmets and scuba shoes. A hidden scuba suit and knee pads also played a role in making the cold and the crawl across the riverbed slightly less torturous.
What’s next for the two of you?
As we alluded to earlier, our main gig is screenwriting and there are a few exciting things going on on that front. Rookie, a feature we wrote together with the film’s director, Lieven van Baelen, shot in the summer becoming the first feature screenplay of ours to make it through to production. It’s actually a Flemish language movie, Lieven having translated our script from English into his mother tongue (which as you might imagine, made things a little strange for us on set!) People coming off the back of The Rabbit’s Foot might be a bit surprised as it’s a very different offering, being a social-realist family drama set against the backdrop of the world of semi-pro motorcycle racing, but we like to work from a varied palette. Produced by CZAR, the film stars Tribeca 2013 Best Actress award-winner Veerle Baetens and is due to be released in cinemas throughout Belgium and the Netherlands in 2020 following a festival run.
We have a couple of other things in the pipeline, including a spec of ours having recently been picked up, but it’s too early to say more about any of that. So, as far as directing goes, we don’t have another short planned just yet but are looking to get one underway towards the end of next year.