True Grit: Interview with the Coen Brothers

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Joel and Ethan Coen are the writers/directors of "True Grit," the adaptation of the Charles Portis novel of the same name. The film, which stars Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Hailee Steinfeld, is being released by Paramount on December 22.

Adapting Charles Portis' novel


“We’d read Charles Portis’ books but this one seemed especially amenable to have a movie made from it,” says Ethan of their decision to adapt True Grit.  


The brothers were drawn to Portis’ daring decision to place an irrepressible young girl at the center of a novel rife with brutality, irony and harsh realities, which appealed to their sense of the unusual.  Mattie’s story is certainly full of the raw humanity and ink black wit that have often characterized the Coens’ cinematic vision, but at the same time, True Grit is a departure for them, featuring their most unabashedly literary, emotional and direct storytelling. 


“The story is definitely in that weird genre of young persons’ adventures,” says Joel.


“It’s told by this very self assured 14 year-old girl,” adds Ethan, “which is probably what makes the book so strange and funny. But it’s also like Alice in Wonderland because this 14 year-old girl finds herself in an environment that’s really, now-a-days, exotic.”  


Ethan continues:  “That’s another thing about the book — the setting is really exotic but obviously Portis knew the period and the place. He made the details of the setting so vividly real that they became surreal.”


Their first Western

The novel is also decidedly a Western, a genre that the Coen brothers wanted to tackle outright for the first time. Although some might want to put No Country for Old Men in that category, for Joel and Ethan that film was a modern thriller.  The tones of the two films diverge. “No Country For Old Men was set in Texas,” explains Joel, “but it was a contemporary movie.  Nobody rides a horse in it except in the respect that people still ride to get into the backcountry.  We never really considered that a Western.  That was in our minds something different.”


Working with A-list stars


“Josh (Brolin) and Matt (Damon) we thought would be very interesting,” says Joel.  “With a lot of these things, casting movie stars like Matt and Josh, you think about them and then it’s the process of sorting out whether or not it’s actually going to work in terms of their availability.”  Schedules aligned and Damon and Brolin came on board. 


Both brought a bonus beyond their propensity for character: serious riding skills.  “I guess we were aware that they had both ridden but it wasn’t a factor in casting,” says Ethan.  “Yet it turned out it ought to have been.  Oh, my God, it would have been impossible if they weren’t good riders.”


Shooting in the country


“The story was written as taking place in Arkansas and Oklahoma Territory but we had a couple of constraints which were, this is a winter movie and we wanted snow in part of it  — on the ground,” explains Joel Coen.  “That made us look a little bit further north than either of those locations. We shot most of the exteriors in New Mexico and most of the town of Fort Smith and interiors in Granger, Texas, just outside Austin.”