Wonder brothers Joel and Ethan Coen give their quirky twist to the classic western in their highly anticipated film, True Grit. It is said that the writing/directing team have such a similar vision that an actor can separately ask each brother the same question and get the same answer. Buzzine gets a revealing behind-the-scenes interview:
Izumi Hasegawa: Did you think about which eye to put Jeff’s patch on?
Joel Coen: I remember going back and forth, but I didn't know that, at the end of the day, we ended up switching. That was pointed out to me recently, but I never actually realized it.
IH: So it wasn't intentional?
Ethan Coen: We did talk occasionally about switching from eye to eye, scene to scene...
JC: To see if anybody would notice.
EC: There was an early idea discussed, but not for long, since it is the second version of the movie, to have two eye patches.
IH: What was the most challenging part of making this film?
JC: It's a largely exterior movie and we were shooting in really difficult places. The weather was very uncoorperative, so we were trying to really get a lot done in terms of the number of setups we usually do. We were trying to do, during the day, the number we had to do to stay on schedule. Then fighting weather and other issues that were really peculiar--animals, dealing with horses, production issues that were peculiar to this movie that made it difficult to shoot in such a short period of time.
IH: You've done many genre films–screwball comedy, film noir, detective... What about the western genre did you want to convey or refute?
EC: I don't think we thought about it as a genre movie as much as you might think. It was an interest in Charles Portis's novel, the story. 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.
IH: Why did you mimic the iconic scene with the reigns in his mouth on the horse? Did you consider doing it differently or leaving it out?
JC: No, we never considered leaving the scene out. It's the big action climax of the movie, in a certain respect. It was true that what Jeff (Bridges) 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, 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, and there were scenes that Roger (Deakins) 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.
EC: I don't think any of us thought about it with reference to the first movie. So no, we didn't think about changing it to distinguish ourselves from that.
JC: Actually, one thing that may have changed was because Jeff had the idea of his character having the rifle as opposed to a...and I honestly don't remember in the original what it was or how it's even described in the books.
IH: What were the challenges of filming iconic western landscapes? Did you give any thought to filming in Arkansas and Oklahoma?
JC: We looked in Colorado and we looked in Utah, originally. There are lots of reasons. 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 we wanted to have reliably enough snow that we could be shooting in a place where... The trick was snow but not too much snow. 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.
IH: And the importance of the western landscapes?
EC: 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.
JC: The whole pictorial idea of the movie would have been much different in a place like Arkansas. 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 hard to sort out after the fact, but everywhere from the practical to just what does the movie actually want to be about?
IH: Is it less a western and more a dark comedy? And how did the actors perform the stylized dialogue?
JC: 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 the humor of the book to come through in the movie. That was important.
EC: The dialogue too--the formality of it and the floweriness of it also is just from the book. 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.
JC: One of the things, when we saw the first take of Hailee doing a scene from the movie, 99.9% of the hundreds or thousands of girls who read for this part 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.
EC: You feel even more strongly reading the novel; the frame of reference for her character, who narrates the novel, is told in first person and is King James Bible. It does seem clear that's where the style derives from.
IH: Was falling into the pit of snakes a consequence for Mattie killing a man?
JC: No, I don't think that's a real. That's certainly not the reading we were giving to it. We were talking just a little bit about the western genre, how conscious that was. 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.
IH: So it's not a morality tale?
JC: 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.
IH: Were there things about the original film you admired and wanted to pay homage to?
EC: Not for us--not the negative either. We'd seen the movie when it came out, but we were kids then. We hadn't seen it since and only really vaguely remember it.
IH: There are western visual elements. How did you approach that, like firelight or lantern light?
JC: In one of those nighttime scenes, I remember Roger kept coming up to me and Ethan and saying, "In the original film, they shot this during the day..."
IH: At what point do visuals enter into your screenwriting process?
JC: I guess 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, you're just writing and thinking Roger will figure it out. It's all over the map, honestly.
IH: How did you find Hailee?
EC: If we'd only known, Hailee is from Thousand Oaks. We looked all over the country. There were two casting people who spent basically 18 months going just everywhere seeing girls in that age range, and it's a very narrow range. They saw thousands of girls, and they could have stayed in LA.
IH: Did she do her own stunts?
EC: Hailee did all the riding, except some of the riding in the river.
IH: Was the religious reference in the book the quote from Proverbs?
JC: Yeah, it's in the book. 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 speaking and her narration. The divine sense of mission definitely was a big part of the story. So yeah, in every respect, the answer is yes, from the book.
IH: What kind of research did you do for the characters?
JC: 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.
Paramount Pictures' 'True Grit' is released in theaters on December 22, 2010.