Oscar-winning brothers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen are a rarity among A-list filmmakers because they haven’t done sequels and they have done only one remake so far: “True Grit,” which the Coens say isn’t so much a remake of the 1969 film “True Grit” as it is a faithful adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel of the same title. The Coen Brothers’ adaptation of “True Grit” has been getting high praise from most critics, and the movie is expected to get multiple Oscar nominations.
The 2010 version of “True Grit” keeps the story intact: In the 1870s, just after the Civil War, a spunky 14-year-old named Mattie Ross (played by Hailee Steinfeld) travels to Fort Smith, Arkansas, to find Tom Chaney (played by Josh Brolin), the man murdered her father. Along the way to seek justice, Hattie teams up with a hard-drinking U.S. Marshal named Rooster Cogburn (played by Jeff Bridges) and a Texas Ranger named LeBoeuf (played by Matt Damon), who both have different reasons for wanting to capture Chaney.
At the Los Angeles press conference for “True Grit,” directors/writers/producers Joel and Ethan Coen sat down with Bridges, Brolin, Steinfeld, Barry Pepper (who plays Lucky Ned Pepper, the leader of Chaney’s outlaw gang) and director of photography Roger Deakins to talk about what it was like to do their version of an iconic film. They also revealed why they decided to change certain things from the 1969 “True Grit” movie, as well as which elements they felt were necessary to retain from the book. A week after the press conference took place, Bridges and Steinfeld received nominations for the 17th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards in the field of theatrical motion pictures: Bridges is nominated for outstanding performance by a male actor in a lead role, while Steinfeld’s nomination is for outstanding performance by a female actor in a supporting role.
Hailee, “True Grit” is your first big movie. What advice did the veteran actors give you?
Steinfeld: I think the best advice that the actors have given me is to not take anything too seriously but to have fun and … Well, take it somewhat seriously, right? But just to have fun with things.
In the first “True Grit” movie, Rooster Cogburn’s eye patch was on the left eye. Why has his eye patch been moved to the right eye in this remake of “True Grit”?
Bridges: [He says jokingly] I’m a Commie.
Did you think about that?
Bridges: No. We put it on the right eye, it felt good. Put it on the left eye, not so good. Put it on the right eye, “This feels right. What do you think, guys?” We went back and forth like that.
Joel Coen: I remember going back and forth, but I didn’t know that at the end of the day, we’d ended up switching. That was pointed out to me recently, but I never actually realized it.
So it wasn’t intentional?
Bridges: No, no, not at all.
Ethan Coen: We did talk occasionally about switching from eye to eye, scene to scene.
Bridges: Sometimes I would forget to put it down for the scene. So I would be very pleased with a take and I’d say, “What do you think, guys?” They’d just go [he points to the eye patch.]
Ethan Coen: There was an early idea discussed but not for long, since it is the second version of the movie, to have two eye patches.
Did you have any hesitation taking on a role that was made famous by John Wayne, the Duke?
Bridges: Well, I was curious why these guys [Joel and Ethan Coen] wanted to make that movie again. I think it was Ethan who I talked to first and he corrected me. He said, “No, we’re not making that movie. We’re making the book, as if there was no other movie ever made kind of. We’re just referring to the book.” And I wasn’t familiar with the book and he said, “Well, check that out, and tell me what you think.”
And then I read the book and then I saw what they were talking about because it’s such a wonderful book. It suited them so well I thought, “God, what a great character.” Most Westerns have that strong, silent type and here’s this boorish [character], so that could be a lot of fun, I thought.
What was the most challenging part of making this film?
Deakins: Sticking to the schedule.
Bridges: There you go! Yeah!
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. We’re trying to do during the day the number we had to do to stay on schedule. And 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.
What qualities of Rooster Cogburn should men aspire to have?
Bridges: Well, true grit, I believe — this is my definition of it — is seeing one thing through to the end. That’s a good thing. I aspire to that.
Ethan Coen: I agree.
Joel and Ethan, you’ve done many genres of films — screwball comedy, film noir, detective stories. What did you want to convey or refute about the Western genre by making “True Grit”?
Ethan Coen: 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 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.
The iconic scene with the reigns in Rooster Cogburn’s mouth was similar to how John Wayne did it in the original “True Grit” movie. Did you consider doing it differently?
Bridges: I remember that day well. Right at the beginning of the day, Joel coming over to me and say, “What do you think about really trying this deal?” I said, “Oh, all right, that’s kind of interesting.” A little anxious, a little fear, I’m going to ride myself, do it in my teeth. And we did it that way. It wasn’t as tough as I thought, actually. It was kind of cool. We had a horse that kept the rhythm well. That’s basically it from my point of view.
Did you consider doing that scene differently or leaving it out of the movie?
Joel Coen: 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.
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 Roger 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.
Bridges: Yeah, and it was windy.
Ethan Coen: 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, as Jeff was saying. So no, we didn’t think about changing it to distinguish ourselves from that. I don’t know about the other actors. Did you think about that at all?
Pepper: It’s such an intrinsic part of the novel. I think in order to have a faithful adaptation, you couldn’t righteously avoid it. It’s beat for beat in the novel that way. Rooster’s character describes how he did it in a previous shootout, and he emulates it again in the final shootout. So I think that the [Coen] brothers were destined to adapt it the way it was.
Joel Coen: Actually, one thing that may have changed was because you had the idea of your character having the rifle. And I honestly don’t remember in the original what it was or how it’s even described in the book.
Pepper: I just thought it would be just such an interesting visual to be galloping without your reigns and having to fire and ratchet a rifle would be quite a challenge and would show the horsemanship of men of that period. You guys didn’t change it that way.
What were the challenges of filming iconic Western landscapes? Was there any thought to filming the movie in Arkansas or Oklahoma?
Joel Coen: We looked in Colorado and Utah, originally.
Bridges: Is there a tax break in Arkansas or Oklahoma?
Joel Coen: New Mexico does have a lot of incentives to film there. There was another thing actually about Arkansas. The time of year we were filming, we knew we wanted to have snow in the movie, but when we wanted to have reliably enough snow that you know and to be shooting in a place where, the trick was snow but not too much snow and we weren’t sure we were reliably going to get any snow at that time of year in Arkansas. That actually was a consideration. I don’t think it was the main consideration but it was one of them. And it was certainly the reason why we moved the show from …
Deakins: Utah and Colorado where we were going to get too much snow or we were going to get 10 feet of mud at that time of year so there was a lot of reasons we set on Santa Fe, really.
And what about the importance of capturing the Western landscapes?
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.
Joel Coen: The whole pictorial idea of the movie would have been much different in a place like Arkansas.
Deakins: It’s also really a film about characters. I’m not sure that it’s a landscape Western in the traditional sense of “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” or something.
Joel Coen: That’s true. It’s about the characters. The honest answer is it kind of becomes this mish mash of different considerations that go into where you’re shooting and how you want to treat the landscape. They’re a little bit 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.
Roger, you’ve done several movies with the Joel and Ethan Coen. What draws you back to working with the Coens?
Deakins: They ask me! It’s as simple as that
Jeff, at what point did you nail the character of Rooster Cogburn?
Bridges: Gosh, each scene is an opportunity to show a different facet of the person you’re portraying. I began developing a character pretty much the same way every time. You’re looking at the script, or if you’re lucky enough to have a book, you’re looking at that material and seeing what other characters say about your character, what you say about yourself, what the author says about you. That tells you quite a bit.
And then one of the first things you do when you’re hired on to make a film is you work with a costume designer. In this case, it was Mary Zophres who was also the costume designer on “The Big Lebowski.” That’s one of the cool things about making movies, there’s a collaborative art form so you have all these other artists who are concerned about just specific areas that might be what the room your character lives in, what it looks like and what the clothes look like.
The first people you meet is the costumer, because they have to make all those clothes. So Mary has these wonderful books that she brings out and so you look at. “Here’s a hat like this, like this,” and your character starts to fall in place. You dress as you’re looking in the mirror. There comes a time when the character starts to tell you what it wants and you might prefer, “Oh, this scarf looks nice, let me see” … And [sometimes] it won’t stick.”
Probably the same thing happens when you’re making a movie too. Sometimes you want to do something, it’s not what the movie wants. There’s a wonderful time when that happens. I’m not sure there’s one particular time it happens. It’s kind of a slow process coming into focus.”
Jeff, did you know anyone in real life who inspired how you played Rooster Cogburn?
Bridges: As far as the models, you know I used to love it when my dad would play a Western. When he appeared at the front door all dressed up in his cowboy clothes, it was a thrill to me so I guess there was some of my dad in there.
And did you know that Hailee was such a sassy girl?
Bridges: I didn’t really, you know. Because she such, she’s got a very sweet side as well.
Did she intimidate you?
Bridges: Sometimes we played a lot of pigs, pass the pigs and sometimes she’s known as Bo Bacon was her pig name and she would be very intimidating. You know she would throw those leaning jowlers, you know double leaning jowlers occasionally and scare me.
Is this version of “True Grit” less a Western and more a dark comedy? And how did the actors perform the stylized dialogue?
Joel Coen: 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.
Ethan Coen: 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 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.
Pepper: It was more like doing American Shakespeare. There’s almost like an iambic pentameter. There’s a musicality and a rhythm to the dialogue. It’s so specific that you’re working very much with what’s on the page. There’s not endless rewrites throughout production. It’s such a specific script that it’s about trying to hit certain notes, maybe an irreverent falloff at the end of a line, and just how you musically sort of [say the words].
That’s where the brothers were so amazing. It’s such a gift to be able to give some sort of lateral idea to an actor like, “Oh, I didn’t hear the musicality of the line like that.” The scene blossoms, completely changes and becomes darkly humorous or odd or quirky or wonderful, bizarre.
But it’s a very structured piece I found, in that respect. Charles Portis has such a specific vernacular of the period. It’s so authentic in my mind because most people were probably pretty illiterate back then. They were maybe schooled on the King James Bible and that really infused the way they spoke. I think a lot of Westerns missed that.
Bridges: I agree. He said it perfectly. It was a fun challenge to take on. Every once in a while we’d allow a contraction to slip, if it felt right musically.
Steinfeld: When I first got the script, that was the first thing I really had to work on was making sure that I understood what everything meant. Then I had to go back through and make sure I understood what everything meant to me emotionally and how I could relate to it in my own life. With the accent, just after getting on set and everyone talking, it kind of happened naturally.
Joel Coen: I have to say, one of the things when we first saw the first take of Hailee doing a scene from the movie, 99.9 percent of the hundreds or thousands of girls that read for this part didn’t have the facility to [do the dialogue correctly]. 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.
Ethan Coen: I’m sure Barry’s right. You feel even more strongly reading the novel, the frame of reference for her character, who narrates the novel, as told in first person by her character is King James Bible. It does seem clear that’s where the style derives from.
Josh, where do you have to go as an actor to find a violent simpleton in you?
Brolin: Well, it found me, didn’t it? I wasn’t in the film, I don’t know what you’re talking about. They just asked to use my name. When I came, I talked to Joel and Ethan about it in the beginning and they said something about he’s sort of a dim bulb and I thought, “No, he’s more like a broken bulb. No filament at all.”
I like the idea of doing this duality of a guy who he’s talked about throughout the whole movie so when you see him, you expect a monster — especially when he turns around the first time, that shot from the horses. He’s got that look, whatever he’s doing, I’m not sure what the book is, personally. Then he starts talking and it’s a different kind of guy. It’s like, “So what are you doing here? I don’t understand what you’re doing out here.” It’s almost conversational. I like that better because it’s different than what you [might expect].
The mythology of what’s been created from the movie is ripped from you, whatever pigeonhole that you’ve created in your mind of what a sociopath is. Then you see it come back when he’s alone with her. You see that great low shot that they do of that transition that happens of, “I’m not taking this shit anymore and now I realize I’m out in the middle of nowhere and now I have to manifest this rage again.” You realize it’s true, a true sociopath. It was fun. It was fun to be able to do that.
But talking about the language before, we were doing rehearsals. I think a lot of things came together in rehearsals because I don’t think anybody really knew how to do the language. Then you see Jeff come in and [he makes a gnashing noise]. Then you go, “Oh, I can say mine like that too.” Then Barry comes in and says [he makes a gnashing noise]. “Oh, so I can pull off the no contractions by doing that,” and it’s true. You do, you do. Then you start to find this, because when I did the voice I thought, “Oh, this is going to stick out so horrible. It’s too much. I think I did too much.” And then I saw everybody else in the film. You don’t even notice it.
What’s fun about playing in a dirty Western compared to “Tron: Legacy,” which is clean?
Bridges: Well, that’s the fun of my job that I get to play all different kinds of guys. We did a reshoot for “Tron” about a week after we completed “True Grit.” I had the same makeup guy, Thomas Nellen, was on both. So going from Rooster with all the dust and the grime and the dirty teeth, a few days later back in the chair, him putting 100 little black dots on my face, to have motion-capture darts. It’s bizarre, but that’s the gig. That’s the fun of it.
What’s fun about Westerns?
Steinfeld: The riding was fun. Horseback riding was fun. I used to ride English a couple years ago, so to be able to pick up back on that was fun.
What was done if anything to reduce the carbon footprint of the movie? Anything that you did to reuse, recycle or leave the environment the way you found it?
Joel Coen: To leave the environment the way we found it?
Pepper: I can answer this for you. One of the most extraordinary things that I found it was the first film I ever came on board where I was given a stainless steel water bottle with a note on it and it had you know, beautiful embossed with “True Grit,” and it was a gift to all of the crew and cast. And it said, “By utilizing this stainless steel water bottle, we’ll have pumping stations of clean water everywhere you go. We’ll save 30,000 plastic water bottles in the course of this filmmaking.” That was the first experience I had with that. And since then I went on to several other films, Terrence Malick’s film and others and everyone’s doing it. And I thought that was really cool.
Brolin: The trash that we saw there we left there. We didn’t change
When Mattie fell into the pit with the snakes, was that a consequence of her killing a man?
Joel Coen: 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 context 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.
So it’s not a morality tale?
Joel Coen: 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.
Were there things about the original film you admired and wanted to pay homage to in this remake?
Ethan Coen: Not for us; not the negative either. We’d seen the movie, I think as Joel said, when it came out, but we were kids then. We hadn’t seen it since and only really vaguely remember it.
Roger, how did you approach the Western visual elements, such as firelight or lantern light or the light of a stove?
Deakins: It just posed different situations for trying to create a realistic look, firelight lamp or night light. The biggest challenge for me was still the big night exteriors, which is a cinematographer’s nightmare because you’re out in the middle of nowhere. In this film it’s supposed to be about to snow, so therefore there shouldn’t be a moon, therefore there really should be a lot of black space there, but you wouldn’t have seen anything.
I tried to make it as realistic as possible because I felt that’s what the film was. At certain times you have to stretch it and certain times you obviously, like Blackie’s journey, then you stretch it into a hopefully more sort of poetic kind of thing. For me, whether it was a Western or whatever, that wasn’t important. It was the script and the sense of realism the script demanded, really.
Joel Coen: In one of those nighttime scenes, I remember Roger kept coming up to me and Ethan and saying, “You know, in the original film they shot this during the day.”
Deakins: They were lit by firelight and then it cuts to daytime and the bad guys arriving. I know why they did that!
Joel and Ethan, what point do visuals enter into your screenwriting process?
Joel Coen: 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 when you’re just writing and thinking, Roger will figure it out. It’s all over the map, honestly.
Hailee, how did you get this movie? And you said you’ve been horseback riding before. You know what else did you have to learn to play Mattie so terrifically?
Steinfeld: I had to learn how to shoot a gun and roll a cigarette. Those were the two main things I had to learn but I mean where did I come from? How did you find me?
Had you been acting?
Steinfeld: Yes, of course. I’ve been acting since I was 8.
And how old are you now?
Steinfeld: I turn 14 [on December 12, 2010].
Ethan Coen: If we’d only known. Hailee’s from Thousand Oaks. We like looked all over the country. There were two casting people that spent basically 18 months going everywhere, just everywhere seeing young girls in that age range. And it’s a very narrow range, and they saw thousands of girls, and they could have stayed in L.A.
Josh and Hailee, how did you prepare for the campfire scene?
Steinfeld: Like 15 minutes after I met you for the first time, we were rehearsing that and you were on top of me with a knife to my neck. So it was kind of interesting, but I don’t know.
Brolin: I don’t know how to answer that question, really. She’s so precocious and amazing and present and just kind of went with it. There was never any moment. I think it was more nerve-wracking for me than it was for her. She’s very comfortable in her own skin, you know? That scene was about her talking and being super-confident and this little man-child [Tom Chaney] hating the purity of her.
Josh loves her purity. He loves it. I’m so taken by her in every which way. I just think she’s incredible, so it was much harder for me. Everything she did was easy. The rest of us make it really hard, but it was great. I had a really good time. Other than the cursing, between me and Matt and Barry, Barry doesn’t curse so much. How much did you earn? I think the “f” word was $5, the “s” word was …
Steinfeld: Every other word was a dollar.
Brolin: She made about $100,000. An incredible experience though. We had a great time. Really, really great time. I can’t really tell you the process because it was a fairly easy process. In rehearsal it was different. We really searched a lot in rehearsal for character and all that, but she’d already had it. She was the one person who had it down before the rest of us really started.
Hailee, how did you learn to shoot a gun? Did you do your own stunts?
Steinfeld: I did most of them. There aren’t really any, besides the falling down the snake pit. That was the biggest stunt, right?
Ethan Coen: That was the biggest stunt, per se. Hailee did all the riding, except some of the riding in the river, but all of the other riding.
Steinfeld: So there wasn’t too much of that, but I learned to shoot a gun. Before I went on location that was one of the things that I wanted to make sure I had a clue of what I was doing, so I had my dad take me to a shooting range with a friend of ours who’s an LAPD officer. He kind of told me everything I needed to know.
Hailee, how was working with a mostly male cast?
Steinfeld: It wasn’t bad. They’re awesome. They’re amazing and I really wasn’t [the only girl]. I was surrounded by women the entire time. The hair and makeup people and wardrobe. My mom was with me, my tutor. So I was surrounded by women the entire time, but I feel like all of them are like big kids so it was a lot of fun.
At the beginning of “True Grit,” when you open with like a quote from Proverbs and Mattie has a divine sense of mission to get revenge or justice for her dad, was that something that was inherent to the book? It seemed kind of news for your guys’ work.
Joel Coen: Yeah, it’s in the book. I mean the opening voiceover is taken directly from the book. The reference to that particular Proverb is in the beginning of the book, not as an epigraph but in the context of her you know speaking and her narration. And the divine sense of mission is definitely … a big part of the story. So yeah, I mean in every respect the answer is, “Yes, it’s from the book.”
What kind of research did you do for the characters?
Joel Coen: We left all the research to Charles Portis … He was 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.
Brolin: I think there are a couple of things that happens. One is that being authentic is really important, but authenticity in place of fluidity seems to you know what I mean? There’s like, “Wow, that movie is perfect. They didn’t do anything wrong and I’m bored out of my mind.” There has to be a fluidity there and I think that’s what happens in rehearsal when you go, “Yes, you’re authentic. Listen, they wouldn’t have that gun. That’s 1871, and that actually wasn’t issued until 1873.” You’re like, “Are you joking?”
There are a few people out there that really matters to a lot and I do think it’s important, and you have amazing props people like Keith Walters, who is extremely wound-up about that stuff. And that’s great. That’s his job. I love him on the set but you try to create these composite things. You get in rehearsals and you go, “How does this work?” Even with my character, and I’m not in the movie very much but you go, “Well, what works?”
What I came in with wasn’t working at all. We all knew it. There was no damning going on but we were like, “OK, that doesn’t work but what do we do?” “I don’t know. Let’s just keep mixing it up and keep mixing it up.” Then the little voice things comes out, and Joel goes, “Oh, what was that?” Ethan goes, “I like that,” or I heard Ethan in the background like [he makes a laughing sound]. And then things start to come together. And I think that’s it. Instead of the Western, perfect, authentic, “This is what they say to do. Let’s make that.”
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