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. (more…)