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?