OSCAR: Joel And Ethan Coen Q&A On 'True Grit'

Considering they’ve rubbed out characters memorably by feeding them through a wood chipper (Fargo) or with a pneumatic cattle slaughtering gun (No Country For Old Men), setting Joel and Ethan Coen loose with a revenge story in the Old West seems a recipe for mayhem. In fact, True Grit turns out to be the most mainstream audience-friendly film they have made in years. Sticking close to the 42-year Charles Portis novel and not even watching the first movie that won John Wayne his Oscar in 1969, the Coens have made a PG-13 adventure film that gives the starring role to teenager Hailee Steinfeld, and surrounds her with such seasoned actors as Jeff Bridges as salty U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn, Matt Damon as the blowhard Texas Ranger LaBeouf, and Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper as the ornery outlaws they are chasing. The film opens today, and could add intrigue to the Oscar race.

DEADLINE: How did you find your way to a 40 year old book you’d have been hard pressed to find in a bookstore?
ETHAN COEN: We both knew the book, and we’d both read it, amongst other Charles Portis novels. A few years ago I read it out loud to my son and that was the point we began talking about it, thinking this might be interesting to do.
JOEL COEN: Fully aware there of course there had been this previous movie. But we hadn’t seen that since it came out, and didn’t really remember it very well.

DEADLINE: The book focuses more squarely than the film did on young Mattie, the bright, headstrong teenager determined to see the man who shot her father swing from a rope. What potential did you see in that that overcame the inevitable comparison to a film considered somewhat iconic?
ETHAN COEN: That is what we liked about the book, that it was told in the first person narrative told by the 14-year old character, Mattie Ross. It’s just a very funny book. It has three really great, really vivid characters. Her, Rooster Cogburn and LaBeouf, the Texas Ranger. And it’s a simple pursuit revenge story. It all just seemed promising material for a movie. Which might sound funny because, as you say, there was this iconic movie. Which we were aware of but which we didn’t remember very well.
JOEL COEN: We didn’t revisit it, either.
ETHAN COEN: And in the course of remaking the movie, we didn’t watch the first one. We weren’t much worried about it, though. You say it’s iconic, and that’s very true. But on the other hand, I must say it’s probably iconic for people our age and older. And we’re not the moviegoing demographic anymore. I don’t think younger people have much of a connection to John Wayne, at all. So it didn’t feel like we were trespassing and we didn’t worry about it. We just had this enthusiasm for the novel.

DEADLINE: I should qualify iconic. It’s called that because John Wayne won an Oscar, but many feel that statue was a reward for a career and not that role.
JOEL COEN: That’s what I’ve read about it too, that it was a kind of valedictory thing.
ETHAN COEN: You’ve been around a long time, we love you, here’s an award.

DEADLINE: How did adapting a book like True Grit compare with adapting Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men?
ETHAN COEN: Not dissimilar, actually. In the Cormac book that we did, we had this similar issue. There was a lot of the humor in Cormac’s book, less than True Grit certainly, but there was some. And there was also this first person narrative voice in every other chapter of the book. It was the voice of the sheriff [played by Tommy Lee Jones]. Whenever you have a novel written that way, you have to figure out, what are you going to do with that? It was an issue with both books, made them a similar adaptation problem.
JOEL COEN: There were ways they were not similar. The narrative for No Country For Old Men, there were three different characters, who never met, except once, when Josh Brolin’s and Javier Bardem’s characters almost meet tangentially. That was an exercise in keeping those three different balls in the air, keeping the audience connected to each of those three characters, and touching base with them at appropriate moments. True Grit is a lot more linear, in terms of a story. It’s not a parallel thing.
ETHAN COEN: What’s interesting, as you say that, is, that was the problem with No Country. In True Grit, conversely, the characters after a certain point never part. What we did in the movie was, we had them split up, in a way that does not happen in the novel.

DEADLINE: True Grit felt like it could very well have been an adaptation of a Larry McMurtry Western novel. The characters aren’t that smart, and  they aren’t really evil, but kind of wander into trouble. The lead outlaw played by Barry Pepper in True Grit is actually nice to the little girl. In Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, Javier’s character was overtly evil. You really had guys wearing white hats and black hats in that film, but Portis’ characters are…
ETHAN COEN: Somewhat sympathetic. Especially Barry Pepper, in the way he played that part. It was really interesting. I agree, it is closer to Larry McMurtry.

DEADLINE: Did you look at this as an opportunity to give the characters a gray shading, which was not possible in No Country for Old Men?
JOEL COEN: We didn’t really relate one to another when we were making the movie, though it is interesting to consider in retrospect. When we were writing and making the movie, we were just trying to render and do justice to the characters of the book.
ETHAN COEN: But that element is attractive when you read that book. You go, this will be fun in the movie, because of that way this character comes off the page. How do we translate that? We did respond to the fact that there were gray areas.

JOEL COEN: That is very different from the Cormac book. Javier’s character is not only evil in a clear-cut way, he’s almost abstract. He’s almost not human. He served his purpose in the story, but he was almost not a real character.
ETHAN COEN: That was a very divergent adaptation problem from True Grit. The characters are very vividly drawn. But you’re right. In No Country For Old Men, that character that Javier plays is never even physically described.
JOEL COEN: He was more an idea than anything. A personification of evil.

DEADLINE: When you took on this project, the Western genre couldn’t have been more cold. This is PG-13, aiming for a mainstream audience. Did you pull back showing the violence of the Old West to get that rating?
JOEL COEN: Not really because we followed the nature of a novel that was more of a Huckleberry Finn, teen-adventure story feel to it. As opposed to a hardcore, something very violent, or even something that is more classically Western like a Zane Grey story.
ETHAN COEN: Also, thinking about the violence. Comparing it to Cormac’s book, there is some violence in True Grit, but the context is so less bleak than in No Country For Old Men.  As Joel suggests, this was more young adult adventure violence as opposed to whatever you would call Cormac. She shoots a bad guy off a cliff, then she trips and falls into a pit where there are snakes. Everything follows willy nillly, it’s all a bit heightened in an old picture book way.

DEADLINE: The role of Mattie was a very tough part for a young actress. What was the biggest challenge in getting that performance out of Hailee Steinfeld?
JOEL COEN: Well, she brought that herself. The real challenge was in the casting. It was the needle in the haystack thing. She is 14 years old, but a very sophisticated actor. She brought her own ideas and choices, and her attitude and confidence with her. She didn’t need help with any of that. I think the challenge for us was, we weren’t sure such a girl really existed. It was possible there would be no needle in the haystack and you’re just not going to find that person.

DEADLINE: So what would have happened if you didn’t find her?
JOEL COEN: In the back of our mind, we did think, if we don’t find that right person, boy, what do we do? We didn’t allow ourselves to think it through all the way. We cast her very late. I don’t think we saw a tape of her until four or five weeks outside of production.
ETHAN COEN: But it’s important when you’re making a movie that you do not give yourself an escape hatch. Whether it goes well, poorly or completely south, you just have to do it. So no, we didn’t allow ourselves to consider calling it off if we could not find the girl.
JOEL COEN: Even though we were aware, who knows, we might find her and we might not.

DEADLINE: Did you have Jeff Bridges in mind for Rooster Cogburn when you were writing, and was it hard to convince him to take on a role played famously by John Wayne?
ETHAN COEN: We were concerned that he might be concerned, when we first offered it to him. Jeff was the natural person for us to go to, off the bat. We didn’t really think about it when we were writing, but after, we did. We know him, and he is really a natural for it. It did cross our mind that he might resist playing the part because of all the John Wayne history. He was surprised that we were doing it, until he took our suggestion to just read the novel. That was important because it was the starting point for us. When he read the novel, he said to us since that it made it clear what we might be doing, and that it might be fun. From then on, anyway, I don’t think he gave it a second thought.

DEADLINE: Following the logic of what you said about the demo that sees movies, is it conceivable that The Dude from The Big Lebowski is more of an iconic figure than Rooster Cogburn anyway?
JOEL COEN: Exactly. I kind of think that’s true, certainly with kids 20, in that generation. I’ve asked people who are in their 20s, had they heard of True Grit, and they were like, yeah, but what is it? No real contact with the other movie.

DEADLINE:  LaBoeuf the Texas Ranger isn’t a huge role and you got Matt Damon. Josh Brolin’s Tom Chaney is even smaller. How do you get guys who are carrying other films to come and play?
ETHAN COEN: I think it’s a relief for them. They get to play a very different kind of character that doesn’t have to be a leading man but they can have a lot of fun with. They don’t have to carry the movie, and they don’t have to work as much, in terms of the schedule. And it can be just fun. They’re all actors, so the dream of the profession has to be to play lots of parts. We don’t generally encounter a “that part’s not big enough for me” attitude.

DEADLINE: George Clooney told me once that he would work for you on anything. Who turns you down?
JOEL COEN: Well, there are a lot of actors we want to work with still, but we have been turned down. I don’t want to say who or where but it does happen, you know? It’s not for everybody, what we do. But generally we’ve had pretty good luck with that. And yeah, there are lots of people we’d like to work with. It’s always this weird question. Here’s what happens, with very well known actors, or actors we know well but have never worked with who are not well done. You always have these people in the back of your mind and they occupy this space in the back there, and as you’re writing and coming up with new material, you’re waiting for that moment when it all fits and the match between the actor and the character seems right. Or, as often is the case with us, somehow thinking about that actor and what they can or might do somehow stimulates us thinking about them as a character in a story you’re making up. And you end up writing a part for them.
ETHAN COEN: Jeff is kind of a good case in point. We worked with him 14 years ago and have wanted to work again with him since, but the part didn’t present itself until this movie.
JOEL COEN: Also, we pretty much wrote that Big Lebowski part for Jeff, he was in the back of our mind when we were thinking about it. Without even knowing him, he was somebody we were thinking about at that time.

DEADLINE: Is it more common that you have the actor in mind when you write a character you tailor for George Clooney, John Turturro or one of the other actors you work with frequently?
JOEL COEN: In the case of this and No Country for Old Men, we wrote without thinking about specific actors because these were adaptations and the characters were already given to us by the authors. We didn’t need the crutch of playing who might embody a certain character in order to invent that character. There was no invention going on so we didn’t need the Greek chorus that said, well, is this something Turturro might play, or whoever. In the case of movies that are originated by us, we do that frequently. We start thinking about who might play them to help formulate who the character is.
ETHAN COEN: I’d say it’s half and half, when we’re writing our own stories. Half the characters were referencing actors in our minds.

DEADLINE: The two of you don’t seen outwardly affected by these awards season accolades. What did winning Best Picture and Best Director on No Country For Old Men mean to you?
JOEL COEN: We had made a deal for our next two movies before all that happened, so it didn’t have an effect in terms of going out into the marketplace.
ETHAN COEN: When we got the award for No Country For Old Men, and then we made A Serious Man, and there was a review in Variety that said, “This is the movie you make after you’ve won an Academy Award,” or something like that. But the fact is, that movie had been written and the deal to finance it had been put in place before we even made No Country For Old Men. The fact we didn’t make that first was an arbitrary thing that had to do with the schedule of actors and productions coming together. People assume a causation there that is really not correct, often. They see a pattern, a design or cause and effect that doesn’t really come into play.
JOEL COEN: All it really meant to us was a mad evening. That was worthwhile. It should happen to everyone, once.
ETHAN COEN: It’s nice to be invited to the party, you know?

  1. Hey Mike,

    I’ve loved this whole series of interviews for this years award season. Great stuff. And the Coen’s don’t talk enought about their work so this is a real treat.

    Thanks!

    PS – It was a cattle gun used in No Country for Old Men not a nail gun. No nails involved just a retractable bolt powered by oxygen.

  2. OK, nitpick time. Buscemi’s character was already dead when Stormare’s character ground him up in the “wood chippah.” And it was a compressed air-powered cattle slaughtering device, not a nail gun that Bardem’s Chigurh used to commit his murders (that became a specific plot point, so it’s not a minor nitpick). Details aside, good interview …great film.

  3. Nice interview. In fact, all these interviews are good to read. They’re like the good side of the business, as opposed to the snarky stuff or the political stuff, or the money stuff. The only thing that surprised me here was the description of Javier Bardem’s character in No Country as a “personification of evil.” It sounds so simplistic or simple minded, like something George Bush would say. There’s so much more to say about that character, in terms of what he represents, as an idea etc… Though I’m sure he must be someone’s idea of the “personification of evil,” whatever that is…

  4. “You’ve been around a long time, we love you, here’s an award.” shows as lttle understanding of John Wayne as it’s possible to have. (it does however seem to reflect rather accurately M Scorsese and his award for Departed). The Coens seem to not realize that their forced ignorance on the earlier film also is reflected in their ignorance of 1970/71 in general.

    Wayne was loved by a huge portion of Hollywood but part of the reason he won the award was because he did a great job playing a character very diferent from his usual one, which was playing John Wayne more than anything else. I love the Coens and most of their flms but I wish they and the media would get over themselves. One thing I agree with them on however is that True Grit is a great American novel. It’s entirely possible that it can be the basis for more than one great western film.

  5. I don’t believe a word about them not “remembering” the original film or the Duke’s performance (“That’s what I’ve read about it too, that it was a kind of valedictory thing.”) Bullshit (even some of their camera set-ups look similar to the original). That phoney assertion, along with subtly dismissing Wayne’s stellar work, let’s them pretend with critics and the public that they’re working on an entirely different plane than a mere remake.
    And Jeff Bridges’ performance is terrible: all fake posturing and a put-on, faux-grizzled, cartoony voice (he might as well be “Gabby Johsnon” from Blazing Saddles with his “authentic frontier gibberish.”)

  6. What a bunch of d-bags. True Grit is a John Wayne movie, they’re trying to diss him and make a remake of his film because he was a Republican. Boycott this film!

  7. Mike – have enjoyed your interviews (and posts). Wondering if next year you could start earlier and and include interviews for films/performances further off the typical tightly bunched Hollywood awards radar screen – include some discoveries before the top 5 or 6 or 7 usual suspects are rounded up?
    Also – have been a fan of the Coen’s since I saw Blood Simple. Looking forward to their take on True Grit and their venture into family-friendly fare.

  8. Harkin, they said that’s what they heard, was that Wayne got the award because it was his time. And that’s exactly why he got the award. John Wayne is an American icon but let’s face it, he was a one-note actor. Jeff Bridges is far superior. How do the Coens need to get over themselves for calling it like most people call it? John Wayne won for being John Wayne. He beat superior performances given by Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy because he was the Duke and it was purely a sentimental win. Most people will tell you that.

    Anyway, good interview. They are doing more press than usual for this film. I can tell they want it to do well because they made it more for a mainstream audience than any of their previous films. The Coens are IMO the best American filmmakers working today. We should celebrate that they are around in an age of mediocrity and forgettable garbage. We have real artists here.

  9. I have to concur with the other posters. These interviews are among the most interesting content on this site and my hope is that they could continue with filmmakers not just at award season, but throughout the year. The process of the filmmakers and their success stories are much appreciated.

  10. Ten years ago I met Ethan Coen and saw his brother when they came to Mississippi to shoot Oh Brother Where art thou? remember that one? Well I worked as a movie extra and since then I’ve kept up with the Coens.
    Just last night I saw the original John Wayne True Grit on Turner Movie Classics and I have the portis novel which I’m looking forward to reading. Anyway I’m looking forward to see thier version of True Grit to see where it varies from the original classic film. I’ve seen Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn in the trailer. It’s going to be interesting to see his interpetion of the charactor.
    Still the original True Grit can hold it’s own too. It spawn the sequel Rooster Cogburn with Katherin Hepburn and it was his next to last western film. His last wester film was the Shootist.

  11. The Coen Bros TRUE GRIT is a fully realized movie that serves the story and honors the novel and author Charles Portis. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is expert film making, but the story is fatally flawed by the Josh Brolin character’s failure to kill the sole wounded survivor of the shootout that opens the film. The mantra “Don’t leave any witnesses” is the gold standard bad guy creed, and the Brolin character’s failure to kill the only witness to his theft of the money simply isn’t credible.

  12. When I heard that TRUE GRIT was being remade, I thought to myself, “Who has the balls to try that?” Well, when I heard it was the Coen Brothers and that Jeff Bridges was playing Rooster Cogburn, I thought, “Hmm. Okay.” Then I saw the trailer and was excited to see the film!

    I’m one of those people who always thought Wayne deserved the Oscar for that film. Not just for the great dialogue from the novel, not because he’s John Wayne–I just loved watching his expressions throughout the film. Watching him play cards early in the film, or falling off a horse, drunk, to establish that night’s camp, he wasn’t the Duke, he was fat, one-eyed drunkard with a badge and just enough grit to still be lethal.

    I’m looking forward to seeing the new version now.

  13. Oh, come on. John Wayne did a great a job with True Grit, but how can anybody think he deserved the award over Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy?

    1. We could go back and forth all night over “who shoulda won.” Dustin Hoffman wasn’t robbed in 1969, he was robbed in 1982 when he didn’t win for TOOTSIE.

  14. Camille, please read my comments again, you missed it the first time but John Wayne won the award as much for NOT playing a typical John Wayne character. Did you know Charles Portis wrote the character hoping not only that it would be made into a John Wayne film but that he would play it as ornery as possible?

    Once again, these folks who think they know everything not based on their own experiences but by what ‘they read’ from someone else’s lame opinion crack me up. And I love Jeff Bridges but he’d have to stand on the Coen’s shoulders just to kiss the Duke’s a$$. Top ten box office star for over 30 years, Dustin Hoffman lol.

  15. A few things which weigh on both sides of what in future will probably be seen as a silly debate.
    (1) Wayne was doing Wallace Beery, not Wayne. That was his “departure” from John Wayne. The patch may have led his thinking to Beery as Long John Silver. Silver and Rooster are dishonest rogues but courageous when they have to be. Wayne acknowledged the Beery idea later. It was not a bad one. “Channeling” someone else, which isn’t quite mimicry, is universal in the arts and as true among composers as movie stars. (2) The scriptwriters of the 1969 film read Portis, too. A lot of hoopla has been raised because the new film captures the peculiar Portis device of no contractions in speech. Sorry, but the first film got there first.
    (3) Lately I’ve heard alot about Portis wanting John Wayne as Rooster. But I well recall, after Paramount paid his bills around the country in a publicity tour, his telling a Chicago Daily News interviewer he’d have preferred a “more distinguished actor like George C. Scott” playing the lawman. Contrary to conventional wisdom, knocking Wayne was not suicidal to one’s career in the movies or in writing novels.
    (4) Henry Hathaway may have been picked to direct by Wayne if Wayne was the first priority in the packaging of the movie. But if it was the other way around the results would have been the same. Hathaway no less than Ford or Hawks was a primary Wayne director.
    (5) Let us not forget that Kim Darby, star of two Portis film adaptations, “True Grit” and “Norwood,” was a terrific Mattie. Several critics felt her contribution to the former as strong if not stronger than Wayne’s. Somewhere in this dust storm she’s been forgotten.
    (6) Joel and Ethan Coen are great visionary filmmakers, and I am eager to see what they’ve done with this story. They are also wonderful audiences, as I discovered playing the Irate Customer for them in “Fargo.” I told them at the time I was writing a piece for the Chicago Tribune about Hathaway’s “Call Northside 777,” in almost every way a different kind of film than his later Westerns. Joel or Ethan asked which of Hathaway’s films I thought his best. Of course I said “Call Northside 777.” If they decide to remake that one there’ll be no book they can call a direct source.

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