Exclusive: The Coen Brothers Tackle True Grit

Joel and Ethan Coen have long been fan favorites of movie lovers who enjoy distinctive writing and innovative filmmaking with a 25-year-plus career in which they’ve tackled a variety of genres from crime comedies to gangster flicks to moody noir thrillers. With True Grit, they try their hand at the Western genre, and if that title sounds familiar, it may be due to the popular John Wayne movie of the same name from 1968. Instead of doing a straight remake, the Coens went back to the original novel by Charles Portis and adapted it in their own unique way.

The novel and movie tell the story of Mattie Ross, played by Hailee Steinfeld, a young girl who sets off on a quest to find and bring to justice the man who killed her father, bringing along a bounty hunter named Rooster Cogburn, a role that allowed the Coens to reunite with this year’s Oscar-winning actor Jeff Brigdes for the first time since The Big Lebowski, and a Texas Ranger, played by Matt Damon. The man they’re after, Tom Cheney, is played by Josh Brolin, who starred in the Coen’s Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men.

Knowing that the Coens don’t do a ton of interviews and rarely do much beyond a press conference, we didn’t bother to chase after an interview with them, so imagine our surprise when roughly 24 hours after seeing the movie, we get a call from our editor asking “Hey, can you talk to the Coens?” It’s not something any sane movie writer would say “no” to and less than two minutes later and with no time to prepare, we were on the phone with Joel and Ethan to interview them. The Coens aren’t known to be loquacious interviews but things went well as the conversation flowed fairly freely even sans our normal amount of preparation.

ComingSoon.net: I hope I’ll be able to tell your voices apart when I transcribe this.

Ethan Coen:
Oh, don’t worry about it. You can attribute any quote to either of us or anyone else you’d like.

CS: Well, if one of you tells a really funny joke, make sure you say, “This is Joel saying this…”

Okay, well, that won’t happen but…

CS: I talked to you guys for “A Serious Man” last year when you were first adapting it and I remember you mentioned being fans of the book rather than the movie, but you also weren’t sure if this was going to be your next project or not. What got you going to move forward and make the movie?

Yeah, I guess we didn’t know then because…

Joel Coen: I guess we didn’t know what the studio was going to…

Ethan: I think we’d written a script but ultimately, it was the decision of the studio, because it was something we didn’t control. Paramount made the original movie and owned the rights to the story, so they had to decide on whether they were going to go ahead or not, and of course… they did.

CS: And getting Jeff to play Rooster was a fairly early decision and that was part of the package?

Jeff was the first person that we cast or that we asked to do the movie and–now I’m trying to remember–but probably what we sort of brought to the studio was we wanted to do this adaptation of this property that Paramount had with Jeff, and I think then the rest of the people were cast after that.

CS: Was it always an intention to do it more from Mattie’s point of view, that was how the book told the story?

Yes, exactly. In the book, she’s the narrator, it’s told in her voice, it’s a first-person story told her, that’s part of what makes the book so… whatever it is, very funny and just compelling, it’s her voice.

CS: With that in mind, was there any consideration into finding an established younger actress to play her rather than finding someone new? Or was it important to find someone new for that role?

Well, neither. I mean, there aren’t a lot of actors that age who have done a lot of work, not that we would have held that against them if we found such, but we were just looking for somebody who would be comfortable with the part and had the chops to do it, and again, for that age, that’s a pretty tall order. I’ll tell you. Frankly, we were worried that there wasn’t such a person (laughs) because that could have happened too. We were very relieved, as you might imagine, when we found Hailee, who was immediately at ease with the language, totally self-possessed, a real actor who knew what she was doing. She wasn’t playing herself. She’s nothing like the character in the story or the character in the movie.

CS: It must have been a blast to work in this genre, not only for you guys, but also some of the actors. I’m not sure Matt has ever done a Western before, so was it easy to get someone like Matt on board because it was a genre he hadn’t done before?

Well, Matt certainly was enthusiastic about doing it from the beginning. I’m not sure what his reasons were, but yeah, it wasn’t difficult enlisting the actors that we wanted to use in the movie. Yeah, I guess there aren’t that many of these kinds of movies. They are fun to do. There’s something about what the actor gets to do in the context of this kind of movie that’s a lot of fun. There are a lot of big outdoor action kind of movies with horses and six-guns and all the rest of it, but it’s just like anything else, first and foremost, the actors can look at how interesting is the character and if it’s something I can sink my teeth into.

CS: How about developing the character of Rooster with Jeff? Obviously, the John Wayne version is so iconic. Did you try to put that completely out of your mind and do something completely different?

It didn’t really take any effort to put it out of our minds. We hadn’t seen it since we were kids, since it came out, and basically didn’t remember it.

Ethan: It was more of an effort not to put it BACK in our minds. (laughs) There’s a temptation to go, “I wonder how they shot this scene.” So it wasn’t a factor for us and I don’t think a factor for the actors.

Joel: Matt said he hadn’t seen it. Jeff must have seen it but I don’t think he’d seen it all in decades or recently.

Ethan: Yeah, the movie was pretty much done by anyone without reference to the other version.

CS: You guys have a very distinctive sense of humor and you’ve been able to bring that into gangster movies and noir films. You guys aren’t from the South or Texas so was it hard bringing that type of humor to a Western?

Well, the humor really comes from the book, the humor that’s in the story. The book is quite funny. In fact, there’s loads of stuff in the book that obviously never made it into the movie ’cause you can’t get everything in or because it involves literary aspects of the book that are untranslatable, but the book is quite funny and we certainly wanted to reflect that sense of humor in the adaptation. So no, it wasn’t difficult from that point of view because it felt totally naturable.

CS: Was “O Brother” a good precursor to making this? It’s not so much a Western with horses but it is a period piece and locations.

Not really. We’ve done a few period things but horses are their own particular problem that was a big deal, bigger than you might imagine in terms of this movie. “O Brother” was a precursor to this in that was largely an exterior movie so we dealt with some weather, but this was much more difficult in terms of weather and even the degree to which we had even more exterior stuff. Actually, the main difficulty with this movie and nothing had really prepared us for that. We hadn’t that much weather anxiety. We had some in “No Country for Old Men.”

Joel: But better luck…

Ethan: As much exposure but better luck in that, yeah.

CS: Were all the actors fairly comfortable with riding horses already or did they have to do a bit of training?

Matt and Jeff really ride. Josh really rides superbly I’m told, but we actually didn’t call upon him to ride.

Joel: His one riding thing was done by a double… It wasn’t him for reasons of where we were shooting.

Ethan: Matt and Jeff can really ride and we would have been screwed if they had not been able to. Hailee had been on a horse but she took riding lessons and became a rider. That was not a problem. The actors and the horses were not a problem.

Joel: Hailee was just completely unphased and fearless in terms of the horse and the riding and that enabled her to do everything we needed her to do and it enabled the wranglers to teach her essentially how to ride. While she had ridden a little bit before the movie, she was not an expert rider, but she really was able to do everything we needed her to do.

Ethan: Barry Pepper also rides. The horse problems were not actors on the horses, it’s just that they’re horses. They don’t hit marks, they don’t do specific actions. It’s all just really difficult dealing with animals.

CS: One thing I always love about your movies and this one especially is the way you use character actors in key scenes like the one where Mattie is negotiating with the horses, I’m sure we’ve seen him in many movies but you used him in such a great way. When you’re casting these other roles, do you have a lot of specific faces or names in mind?

Well, not those roles specifically so much. Occasionally, if there are smaller subsidiary roles that are very important, we have someone in mind, but mostly we just go out and we meet lots of people. In this case, Dakin Matthews who did Stonehill in that scene where Mattie is negotiating is a really interesting, fantastic actor. Yeah, you just look until you find the right person.

CS: Both this and “A Serious Man” have these great characters and I think you’ve said before that you can’t necessarily cast known actors in those roles or big stars.

No, it tends to be a little distracting where if it’s a smaller role than that, the person is too recognizable. Sometimes it’s fun to do that, though, but usually you’re right.

CS: What are your hopes for “True Grit”? I assume you’re going to have your normal fanbase as well as those who liked the original movie interested in seeing it for sure.

This movie was really designed to be a movie that could be seen… you could almost call it a family movie. (chuckles) It’s something that we very much wanted to appeal to adults at the same time that we wanted it to be something… it’s a movie about a 14-year-old girl. We wanted 14-year-old girls to be able to see it, we want younger kids to be able to go see it in general, so it’s an adventure story. That’s sort of the hallmark of the kind of movie that it is. In that respect, we’re hoping that it has that potential audience.

CS: I know you’ve had a lot of dealings with the MPAA but was it tough getting this down to a PG-13 with some of the violence in it?

Not really.

Joel: They were pretty predictable, yeah. It was always conceived as something we wanted to do to be fairly mainstream in its appeal so we knew that it didn’t seem right that the movie would be violent in the way that perhaps some of the other stuff that we’ve done is.

CS: I’m going to miscount but this is basically you’re third or fourth adaptation if you include “O Brother”?

I guess.

Joel: If you’re including “O Brother,” sure! (laughs)

CS: So how are you feeling about doing more adapted works? Do you feel like you need to do a couple original things in between as you did after “No Country”?

Yeah, no, original maybe, I dunno. We’ve been talking about adapting The Bible but that’s been done once before, too.

Joel: Those things you can take more liberties with like Homer. People are less uptight (about it) and you don’t have the author… well, actually I guess in the case of The Bible the author is still alive… or around.

Ethan: Depending on who you ask.

CS: “The Coen Brothers’ Bible” would be interesting although it would have to be six hours long…

I dunno. I don’t think we could do a six-hour (movie)… even of The Bible.

Ethan: How long was John Huston’s?

Joel: That wasn’t more than a couple of hours, he got it down there. He was able to condense it pretty tightly.

Ethan: It was John Huston, right?

Joel: Yeah, it was John Huston, he took on the big ones… The Bible, “Moby Dick.”

CS: It would be a challenge but other than that, this has been your fourth movie in four years which is a solid track record for anyone.

It’s exhausting, but…

Joel: Woody Allen does that. He does one a year.

Ethan: And he actually runs the marathon because he’s done one a year for like 30 years; we’ve done one a year for like four years.

CS: Do you have another script ready or that you’re working on to direct next year?

No, we’re gonna I guess just take it a little slower and figure out what would be good to do next.

CS: Are you ever asked to direct someone else’s script?

Scripts, not so much to be honest, but we do get approached to do other material. We did do somebody else’s script a long time ago.

Joel: Yes, we did, we did. We did “Intolerable Cruelty.” That was something that was brought to us by a studio, originally to rewrite and we did rewrite it for the studio and then several years later, I guess it was still in development and they asked us if we wanted to make it.

CS: Was “The Ladykillers”…?

Oh, that’s another one! It was based on another movie, uh huh.

CS: So a studio brought that to you to do, that wasn’t something you developed on your own then pitched to them?


Ethan: A random friend brought it to us.

Joel: Barry Sonnenfeld was going to make that movie for a studio, so he hired us to write it and then he dropped out and the studio asked us to do it.

And then we got the wrap-up sign and our 15 minutes had passed before we even realized it!

True Grit opens nationwide on Wednesday, December 22.


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