If you watch the end credits of the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs carefully, one credit pops out: “Gunslinger — Joey Rocketshoes Dillon.” It’s not hard to guess that “gunslinger” is a jokey credit for gun trainer, but you might be surprised to learn that “Rocketshoes” is not a nickname: Dillon legally changed his middle name after a teen stunt that involved tying tiny rockets to his shoes to run faster. A self-described “freak Western enthusiast” and quick-draw champion, Dillon’s a busy man, with a résumé that includes participating in Old West–reenactment shoot-outs, crew work as a props master, and an increasingly formidable array of training on movies and TV shows sporting lots of firepower.
Dillon first worked for the Coens on Hail, Caesar!, training a pre-Solo: A Star Wars Story Alden Ehrenreich to play cowboy actor Hobie Doyle, but he wasn’t on set for production. On Scruggs, Dillon only worked on the first segment, but it’s a doozy, with Tim Blake Nelson’s singing cowboy gunman quickly revealing himself to be a master of the Coens’ rapid-fire stylized dialogue — and a deadly, psychotically quick shot, a bad dude who’s not to be messed with. This time, Dillon was with the production both before and during shooting. After reading the script, he made a video showing himself doing the tricks as described in the screenplay, offerings different options for each. Once the Coens had made their choices, Dillon got to work with Nelson about a month and a half before production started.
Gunplay mastery is necessary for any Western; here, the latter’s arguably used against itself, with nearly all of the film’s six segments showcasing a variety of situations in which the ready availability of firepower precipitates violence that simply wouldn’t occur otherwise. The cagey Coens would be unlikely to admit to any such motivation, averse as they are to providing explanations in their interviews, and it’s ironic that the film depends on Dillon’s mastery of the quick draw and other feats of artillery heroics.
Dillon’s work on the first segment is a highlight of a career that includes work on Westworld, Looper, Godless, and the forthcoming Deadwood movie. Taking time between shooting on the latter to talk, Dillon walked us through ten notable performers he’s worked with and stunts he’s helped pull off, plus discussed the ways gunplay informs character — and the cheats necessary to make inauthentic gunplay look real.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The actor: Tim Blake Nelson
The stunt: The second of two street shoot-outs between Nelson’s Buster Scruggs includes a challenger to his quick-draw reputation — which means his draw needs to be even quicker.
The problem: Nelson had mastered the quick draw but couldn’t cock the hammer on his pistol fast enough to capture the motion in one smooth take. Normally, a change of camera angle between drawing and firing would have solved the problem, but, explains Dillon, “the Coens were adamant that it had to be one smooth, continuous draw.”
Dillon’s solution: Dillon stepped in as a hand-double, standing in front of a green screen “so I didn’t have to keep firing full-load blanks at [a double for actor Willie Watson’s] face.” Because Dillon is considerably larger than Nelson, he couldn’t fit fully into the actor’s clothes; he managed to squeeze into the right pant leg and shirtsleeve, while the costume’s left side was pinned to his body. “The Coens joked that we both had the same ass, so it looked great on camera,” Dillon laughs.
The actor: Alden Ehrenreich
The stunt: Ehrenreich’s cowboy Western star Hobie Doyle is introduced in one of his films, firing, twirling, and then holstering both guns simultaneously.
The problem: If you’re not ambidextrous, performing simultaneous gun movements with both hands doesn’t come easily.
Dillon’s solution: When training himself, Dillon has found that “trying to do both hands at once” is preferable to “trying to teach the off hand.” For whatever reason, “if you’re doing it in tandem with the right hand that does know what it’s doing, if you’re trying to mirror it, it seems to go a little bit easier.” That worked for Ehrenreich, whom Dillon didn’t have a lot of time to train, but, he laughs, “I hope it helped him with his blaster in Star Wars.”
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The actor: Tim Blake Nelson
The problem: During both street shoot-outs, Nelson was only using his shooting hand.
The actor had a common problem, where the non-shooting hand “starts to turn into this rigid claw slightly in front of their hip. It’s obviously not going to look good for their character.”
Dillon’s solution: Find something plausible-looking for the free hand to do. In this case, it made sense for Nelson’s free hand to grab his belt buckle: “His character was such a jolly cowpoke that it was a perfect posture anyway. That was part of [Nelson’s] posture already, so its wasn’t a stretch to get him to specifically do it. It actually looked better.”
The actor: Christiane Seidel
The stunt: At the climax of the Western series, a massive shoot-out includes Seidel’s widow character. The actress had to forward roll two six-shooters before charging down a hotel’s stairway in a wedding dress, repeatedly cocking and firing both guns.
The problem: Seidel mastered the trick of deploying both guns equally well, but wanted to find a way to collect herself and focus on the stunt before launching into it.
Dillon’s solution: To integrate the gun work into the character’s behavior, Dillon told Seidel, “Your character’s about to go down the stairs and probably die. You’re jumping right into hell. A moment of collection and blowing out some air to settle yourself would fit the scene, let alone do what you want to do.” Seidel integrated the idea, giving her a second to focus before pulling off the trick.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The actor: Tim Blake Nelson
The stunt: Scruggs unholsters and spins the gun, positions it behind his back, then shoots.
The problem: Nelson’s Colt Nelson requires making sure the gun is cocked to fire before every bullet — and, in this case, the actor couldn’t look at the gun.
Dillon’s solution: As with Seidel, finding a moment for Nelson to focus was essential to fire off the blanks without looking. As Dillon notes, “A lot of these tricks aren’t just to make the gun spin around and flash in the lights; it’s so that the spin can actually incorporate your fanning the other hand or using your thumb to cock the gun.” Fortunately, the script specified that Scruggs takes a moment to smirk before firing, keeping Nelson in character while executing the movement.
The actor: Ed Harris
The problem: The oft-fired weapon of choice for Harris’s Man in Black throughout the series, a LeMat, is a large revolver. The LeMat’s hammer is difficult to pull back, both because of the amount of tension and the unusual distance from thumb to trigger.
Dillon’s solution: Harris’s credits as a director include the Western Appaloosa, in which he starred (and whose gun work in the film Dillon was a big fan of). Obviously, Harris had handled guns plenty of times before, but “Ed had some trouble with it,” Dillon observes, because “anyone would have trouble with it.” Scenes of Harris firing multiple shots had to be cheated by changing guns between long shots and close-ups. For long shots where the weapon wasn’t clearly visible, the prop department took some single-action guns and put a non-operable LeMat front on for long shots. For close-ups, the real thing (albeit a replica, because originals are expensive) was swapped in.
The actor: Noah Segan
The stunt: During a sit-down with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s hit man Joe, Segan’s Kid Blue keeps twirling his gun, a Magnum Research BFR. (No one knows what that stands for; the running joke, Dillon says, is “Big Effin’ Revolver.”)
The problem: Kid Blue thinks of himself as an old-fashioned gunslinger (in Dillon’s words, “I’m Clint Eastwood, look at me”), and Segan had his revolver-spinning skills mastered. But at this moment, the character needs to fail.
Dillon’s solution: Dillon wasn’t on set, but tells Segan’s story of how that day went: “They did the take of him spinning the gun over and over. He had nailed all the tricks, but he got to a point where he screwed up a little bit with the routine, and that’s the take they wanted. The purpose was getting him fatigued to screw up a little bit because his character thinks he’s a badass, but he’s not necessarily a real badass. It was good-natured, but his joke was, ‘I spent all this time becoming an expert at it just to have the world see me not being an expert at it.’ I think it was a good choice.”
The actor: Jack O’Connell
The stunt: O’Connell shoots a snake that’s about to attack a baby.
The problem: Figuring out where to place the gun so that O’Connell could grab it and fire without looking.
Dillon’s solution: Dillon first had to figure out where O’Connell would grab his gun from: “He’s sitting in a chair, his back to the mantelpiece where the gun’s hanging, and when the scene starts, he’s already clocked where the gun is.” O’Connell had to reach back with his left hand, grabbing it from behind his left shoulder, then spinning it so the handle would be in position for his right hand to fire while the left hand cocks the hammer. “We spent a lot of time practicing that while he was sitting in the chair,” Dillon says. “I would hold the gun in different positions in the holster that it was hanging on the mantel until I figured that it had to be a left-handed holster, the way the gun had to hit. So we decided that the kid’s deceased dad had to be a left-hander, and then held it on the mantel in an advantageous position for him to jerk the gun out of the holster without it leaving the mantel.”
The actor: Merritt Wever
The stunt: Learning how to naturally hold and handle an exceptionally heavy Winchester rifle from 1876.
The problem: Heavy or not, training actors on how to look natural while they’re holding and firing weapons means “making sure they don’t hold out their arm like a chicken wing while they’re holding a rifle up and things like that.”
Dillon’s solution: Wever’s widow needed to look natural while holding an exceptionally heavy Winchester model from 1876. “For her to hold the front half up with her left hand while she’s working the lever action with her right hand to fire was definitely exercise,” Dillon notes. “There were moments where she wondered if she would be able to hold that up and steady and look believable.” That meant specialized muscle training, with Dillon encouraging Wever to “hold something up in the air for a while, as if you’re a waiter holding a tray in your left hand at shoulder level. If you do that for different periods of time on your own time, it will strengthen your arms to hold something up like that. Holding a rifle is sort of that tray position. She nailed it.”
The actor: Rodrigo Santoro
The stunt: Santoro’s Hector Escaton sports both a pistol and a cut-down Winchester made famous by Steve McQueen on his breakout TV show Wanted Dead or Alive. At peak moments, Santoro needed to have both cocked and ready to fire.
The problem: For certain tricks, the Winchester can only fire one round at a time before it needs to be reloaded, and when it’s being spun, the shape of the gun makes it likely that the loaded bullet will fall out.
Dillon’s solution: Cutting between each shot fired helped get around the bullet-ejection problem. That’s one example Dillon cites of everyday “movie magic,” and it’s less of a stretch than how the gun was handled by McQueen. On Wanted, the actor’s gun belt held “45-70 rounds, like what the BFR takes, because they’re huge and look awesome, but that rifle is actually chambered for ammunition that’s maybe less than half the size of the 45-70. It’s kind of a farce, but it looks cool.”