Interview: The Coen Brothers Talk True Grit

Most people recall True Grit as the John Wayne Western where the legendary actor wore an eye patch. In fact, True Grit began its life in pop culture as a novel by Charles Portis. When the Coen brothers set out to make a new True Grit their next movie, their first stab at an all-out Western, it was their love of this novel, not the big-screen adaptation, that inspired them to do so. I sat down recently to talk with the notoriously eccentric Coens about the result of that inspiration that stars Jeff Bridges -- whom I interviewed about Tron: Legacy last week -- as the grizzled Cyclops Marshal Rooster Cogburn and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as the young girl who needs Cogburn's help getting vengeance.

Note: light spoilers near the end.

Cole Haddon: What was the most challenging part of making True Grit? Roger Deakins, your cinematographer, said it was keeping to the schedule.

Joel Coen: That's true because it's a largely exterior movie, and we were shooting in really difficult places. The weather was very uncooperative, so we were trying to really get a lot done in terms of the number of setups we usually do ... to stay on schedule. Then fighting weather and other issues that were sort of really peculiar. Animals, dealing with horses, production issues that were peculiar to this movie that made it difficult to shoot it on such a short period of time.

CH: Following that up, did shooting some pretty damn iconic Western landscapes pose additional challenges?

Ethan Coen: You know what? That's one thing that's not faithful to the novel. The landscape is a total cheat, but we kind of thought people will think it's a Western, and some things you just can't mess with. People want that.

JC: The whole pictorial idea of the movie would have been much different in a place like Arkansas. The honest answer is it kind of becomes this mishmash of different considerations that go into where you're shooting and how you want to treat the landscape. They're a little hard to sort out after the fact, but it's everywhere from the practical to just what does the movie actually want to be about.

CH: You two have done numerous genre movies -- screwball comedies, film noir, detective. What about the Western genre did you want to convey or refute?

EC: I don't think we thought about it as a genre movie so much as you might think. It was an interest in the novel, the story, Charles Portis' novel. It is a Western, inarguably. There are guys with six-shooter guns on horses, but it's not a Zane Grey story. It's not a Western in that sense. Really, we were thinking about the novel more than doing a Western per se.

CH: Would you say this is less a Western then, and more of a dark comedy? Also, how did the actors tackle the stylized dialogue you wrote?

JC: Less a Western than a dark comedy? Well, there's certainly a lot of comedy. There's a lot of humor in the Charles Portis novel. It was one of the things that attracted us to the novel and the idea of adapting it. We wanted what was funny about the book, what was the humor of the book, to come through in the movie. That was important.

EC: The dialogue too, the formality of it and the floweriness of it also is just from the book. Again, that might be a question for the actors. Jeff [Bridges] noticed. That was the first thing Jeff mentioned, noticed, and liked, the kind of foreign-sounding nature of the dialogue and lack of contractions. It wasn't a problem for us. We just lifted it from the book. I don't know how the actors feel about it.

True Grit

JC: I have to say, one of the things, when we first saw the first take of Hailee [Steinfeld] doing a scene from the movie, 99.9% of the hundreds or thousands of girls that read for this part didn't have the facility to [speak as we needed them to]. They sort of washed out at the level of not being able to do the language. That was something which was never an issue with Hailee. Right from the beginning, it was clear that she was completely comfortable with the language. The language isn't, as everyone's pointed out, our language. That was the threshold level at which you could sort of hope to do the part, but Hailee had it right from the get-go in a very, very natural way.

CH: I wanted to talk a bit about your process when it comes to a project like this, adapting a beloved novel that's also already been turned into a movie with a historic fan base. For example, what kind of research did you do for your characters?

JC: We left all the research to Charles Portis. The book was, obviously, very steeped in the period, the language, the periodicals, the weapons, the culture of the period in order to write the novel in such a detailed way. We were happy not to do any work we didn't have to, basically. That's from our point of view.

CH: We discussed the use of landscape, but at what point do visuals, what shows up on the screen, enter your screenwriting process?

True GritJC: It really depends. There are sometimes, I guess. It really depends. There are some places where, when you're writing the script, you are thinking a lot about what it's going to look like. Other times, you're just writing and thinking [your cinematographer] will figure it out. It's all over the map, honestly.

CH: And were there things about the original movie that you admired and/or wanted to pay homage to?

EC: Not for us. Not the negative either. We'd seen the movie ... when it came out. But we were kids then. We hadn't seen it since, and only really vaguely remember it.

CH: But you do re-create the iconic scene where Rooster Cogburn rides into battle with the reigns of his horse between his teeth as he blasts away. Did you consider playing the scene differently?

True Grit

JC: Leaving the scene out? No, no, we never considered leaving the scene out, no. No, it's the big action climax of the movie in a certain respect. It was true that what Jeff was doing just from a riding point of view was not something that we assumed could be done in a context that would actually show him riding a horse not having the reigns in his hands, firing the guns, and galloping the horse. Very difficult to do. You have to be a really, really good rider to do that and even if you are a good rider, you have to have the right terrain, the right horse and all the rest of it. It was not a simple thing, which is why I don't think they did that in the original. You didn't actually see it that way in the original movie, so there were things that Jeff had to do that were really difficult to accomplish. But it was also a very complicated scene in terms of coverage. There were scenes that [our cinematographer] Roger [Deakins] had to do in terms of actually being able to physically shoot this stuff on uneven terrain, getting the camera in certain places. It all had to be broken down, and it was a rather complex thing and done over a series of days.

EC: I don't think any of us thought about it with reference to the first movie or thought about much of anything in this with reference to the first movie. So, no, we didn't think about changing it to distinguish ourselves from that. I don't know about the other actors.

JC: Actually, one thing that may have changed was the idea of the character having the rifle ... and I honestly don't remember in the original what it was or how it's even described in the books.

CH: And because sometimes it's just impossible not to look for meaning in everything you two put on screen, was falling into a pit of snakes a consequence for [Hailee's character] Mattie killing a man?

JC: That's certainly not the reading we were giving to it. Somebody mentioned earlier, we were talking just a little bit about the Western genre, how conscious that was. As we mentioned in other contexts a couple of times, one of the things that struck us about the novel, just generically, was that what we took away from it more than a Western was the sense of it almost being this youthful adventure story, kind of fitting into the genre of what you might call young adult adventure fiction or something like that. Frequently in those kind of stories, it was something that was really interesting to us, actually, just in terms of how the story worked. In connection with that, you often have this kind of Perils of Pauline acceleration of action at a certain point where one thing just leads to another, leads to another, leads to another. That's the way the ending of the novel felt to us. There's a big shootout in a field, she almost gets strangled, then she shoots a guy, and then she falls into a pit of snakes, then she rides. That's, I think, closer to the way we were looking at it.

CH: So one shouldn't look at it as a morality tale?

JC: That's certainly an element of the story and the novel, but I wouldn't associate it with her killing a guy and then falling into a pit with snakes. I don't think that's where it comes in.