True Grit - Joel Coen, Jeff Bridges and Ethan Coen
True Grit - Director/Co-Writer Joel Coen, Jeff Bridges (as Rooster Cogburn) and Director/Co-Writer Ethan Coen discuss a scene on the set © 2010 Paramount Pictures, Photo by Wilson Webb

Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1007 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men brought them the Directors Guild of America, BAFTA and Academy Awards. Their other movies include Barton Fink, Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Big Lebowski and Miller’s Crossing.

The Coen brothers have now moved into the Western genre with their adaptation of Charles Portis classic novel, True Grit, which was originally made into a movie in 1969, winning an Academy Award for its lead actor, John Wayne.

In the Coen Brother’s version Jeff Bridges takes on the role of US Marshall Rooster Cogburn, who is approached by a 14-year-old girl named Mattie Ross [Hailee Steinfeld] because she wants to hire him to kill the man that murdered her father.

What was it about the novel of True Grit that made you want to make a movie from it?

True Grit - Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon and Jeff Bridges
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), LaBeouf (Matt Damon) and Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) © 2010 Paramount Pictures

Ethan: We’d read Charles Portis’ books but this one seemed especially amenable to have a movie made from it.

Joel: The story is definitely in that weird genre of young persons’ adventures.

Ethan: It’s told by this very self assured 14-year-old girl, 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.

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.

What kind of research did you do to capture the spirit of the times?

Joel: 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.

The dialogue is very unusual in movie can you talk about that?

True Grit - Director Ethan and Joel Coen with Hailee Steinfeld
Directors/Co-Writers Ethan and Joel Coen discuss a scene with Hailee Steinfeld (as Mattie Ross) on the set © 2010 Paramount Pictures

Ethan: Reading the novel, the frame of reference for Hailee’s character, who narrates the novel, is the King James Bible. It does seem clear that’s where the style [of the dialogue] derives from.

Joel: 99.9 percent of the thousands of girls who read for this part washed out at the level of not being able to do the language. When we saw the first tape of Hailee doing a scene from the movie, [it was obvious] that was something that was never an issue with her.

Were there things about the original film that you wanted to pay homage to?

Ethan: Not for us, not in a negative way either. We’d seen the movie when it came out but we were kids then. We haven’t seen it since and only really vaguely remember it.

What was the most challenge part of making this film?

True Grit - Matt Damon and Hailee Steinfeld
LaBeouf (Matt Damon) and Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) © 2010 Paramount Pictures

Joel: Staying on schedule. It’s a largely exterior movie and we were shooting at really difficult places, and the weather was very uncooperative.

We were trying to get a lot done in terms of the number of set ups we tried to do during the day, the number we had to do to stay on schedule, and then fighting weather and other issues, dealing with horses; production issues that were particular to this movie that made it difficult to shoot it in such a short period of time

There’s the iconic scene in the end where Rooster Cogburn rides his horse with the reins in his teeth, shooting at the bad guys. Did you ever consider cutting it out to make your movie different from the John Wayne version?

True Grit - Directors/Co-Writers Ethan and Joel Coen
Directors/Co-Writers Ethan and Joel Coen on the set © 2010 Paramount Pictures

Joel: 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 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 reins in his hands, firing the guns and galloping his horse, very difficult to do. You have to be a really good rider to do that.

Even if you are a good rider you have to have the right training and the right horse, it was not a simple thing, which is why I don’t think they did that in the original. You don’t see it that way in the original movie.

There were things Jeff had to do that were really difficult to accomplish, but it was also a very complicated scene in terms of coverage. There were things that Roger [Deakins, the Director of Photography] had to do in terms of actually being able to physically shoot this stuff, uneven terrain, getting the camera in certain places, it all had to be broken down and was a rather complex scene and done over a series of days.

Ethan: I don’t think any of us thought about it with reference to the first movie, or thought about much of anything in this with reference to the first movie. So, no, we didn’t think about changing it to distinguish ourselves from that.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.