The Coen brothers discuss 'True Grit'

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The Coen brothers talk to Ben Walters about their neo-western remake of 'True Grit'

On the face of it, LA’s amiable acid casualty Jeffrey ‘the Dude’ Lebowski – whom Jeff Bridges played in Joel and Ethan Coen’s ‘The Big Lebowski’  – has little in common with the boozy, kill-or-be-killed Civil War vet Reuben ‘Rooster’ Cogburn, whom Bridges plays in their latest film. ‘True Grit’ is their take on Charles Portis’s novel, first filmed by Henry Hathaway with John Wayne in 1969, in which 14-year-old Mattie Ross hires Cogburn to enact vengeance, despite his dissolute ways. Yet if the Coens were asking something very different of Bridges in some ways, in others…

‘Not really!’ chuckles Ethan. ‘He’s a substance abuser in both movies. Different substances.’ And each role shows that heroism can be found in unexpected places. ‘Right,’ Joel agrees. ‘He plays a left-of-centre hero in both movies.’ ‘It’s kind of the joke of the book,’ Ethan continues. ‘This Presbyterian, schoolmarmish girl sees him as a hero, which he so little looks like. He’s just this fucked-up guy who shoots people. And in the end she’s right! ’The Coens’ take on the story is altogether weirder than Hathaway’s or even Portis’s – their tone is more macabre, their Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) more a girl than a woman, the result more heightened and storybookish. ‘Yeah, that was conscious,’ says Joel. ‘We were thinking of “The Night of the Hunter” – the exaggerated skies, and we even used the same hymn. And we had this idea that once Mattie crosses the river and goes into Indian territory, there’s a bit of “Through the Looking Glass” – that she’s going into a strange, wild place inhabited by almost otherwordly creatures.”

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The character of Mattie is crucial. Previously, she has seemed more or less grown up: she narrates the novel retrospectively as an unmarried 40 year old and was played in Hathaway’s film by 21-year-old Kim Darby. Steinfeld’s Mattie, by contrast, is obviously a child, her intensity and self-assurance set off by puppy fat, too-big clothes and naive moments. ‘Hailee was actually 13 when we made the movie,’ Joel says. ‘We saw girls who ranged from 12, 13 to maybe 17, 18. And, even if they looked like they were 14, once they got beyond the age of, like, 16, you went, “No, this isn’t a little girl any more” and it seemed wrong. It’s not physical, or even puberty, it’s an invisible threshold where you’ve gone from being a child to something in between and it isn’t right.’ Yeah, it’s weird,’ Ethan says. ‘For the same reason that Alice in “Alice in Wonderland” couldn’t be a 17 year old, it was just wrong.’

Yet for all its storybook peculiarities, ‘True Grit’ is arguably the straightest picture yet from filmmakers known for winking at us one minute and pulling the rug from under us the next. The gleeful disregard for genre conventions established in their debut, 1984’s neo-noir ‘Blood Simple’, has been fine-tuned through direct or indirect homage in almost every movie they’ve made since. ‘Quite honestly,’ Joel shrugs, ‘we hear that and we go, “Yeah, that’s all true.” But when you encounter the material you go, “Well, this is a very sturdy story idea.”’

‘It might sound weird,’ Ethan adds, ‘but the whole genre thing interests us less than it interests people who write about movies. In this [case], we were interested in the book. It’s not like we were casting about for a western.’ Joel continues: ‘To the extent that we were thinking about it in genre terms, it was more along the lines of “The Night of the Hunter”, which is not a western, or this “Perils of Pauline” young-adult-fiction kind of thing, you know? There’s a shoot-out in the meadow and then the villain comes back and gets clunked on the head and she shoots him and falls into a pit with snakes…” Ethan concludes: “It has more to do with “Treasure Island” than with “Tombstone”, you know?’

True Grit’ follows both ‘No Country for Old Men’ and ‘The Ladykillers’ as a Coen film adapted from another text. ‘Adapting stuff…’ Ethan muses. ‘Originally, we thought, “We don’t do that. We do our own stuff.” The first movie where we wanted to do it was “To the White Sea”, an adaptation of a James Dickey novel [we attempted] around the time of “The Big Lebowski”, and for some reason our resistance to that idea fell.’ ‘We stopped being so uptight,’ Joel says. ‘We said, “We’ll do whatever presents itself – our ideas, somebody else’s…”’

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Certain approaches, they find, still work best with original material. Bridges is far from the only actor with whom the Coens have worked more than once: their collaborations with the likes of Frances McDormand and George Clooney are among the great pleasures of their films. Joel points out that these faces tend to crop up in the Coens’ own stories. ‘We write with actors in mind for movies that are not based on other material.’ Ethan calls it ‘a crutch for characterisation… In the beginning, thinking about “Barton Fink”, we figured John Turturro and John Goodman together in a hotel room suggested things that went places.’

The American landscape – another pleasure of Coen pictures – can play a comparable role. ‘The location of the story often piques your interest,’ says Joel. ‘Again, you do whatever gets you somewhere: thinking about specific actors in a specific room or a specific geographic place.’ Location, Ethan agrees, ‘is part of the appeal of some of these stories. “The Big Lebowski” was very much about LA and we’d spent lots of time there. Or “No Country for Old Men” – we’d each spent time in west Texas and you go, “This is interesting.”’

Like ‘No Country’ and ‘Blood Simple’, ‘True Grit’ was shot in Texas (and New Mexico), making it the closest thing to a regular Coen location. In the earlier films, the Lone Star State was the backdrop to stories in which characters are disastrously alienated. This time, things are different. You can’t always judge by appearances.



Read our review of 'True Grit' here

Author: Inerview: Ben Walters



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