Over the past quarter century Joel and Ethan Coen have created a raft of remarkable, deeply entertaining movies, several of them surely masterpieces (though which ones is up for debate). Now, in "True Grit," they pay loving homage to the Westerns of their youth. Their remake of the 1969 John Wayne semiclassic hews faithfully to Charles Portis' laconically funny novel, adding just a few Coenesque moments of irony, disconcerting violence and grotesquerie. It is, as they said earlier this month by phone, their first family film.
"True Grit," set in the winter of 1873, follows Mattie Ross, a strong-willed 14-year-old from Yell County, Ark., as she hunts down her father's killer, Tom Chaney, with the help of a tough U.S. marshal (the trigger-happy cyclops Rooster Cogburn) and a blowhard Texas Ranger (the vainglorious LaBoeuf). Jeff Bridges plays Cogburn, Matt Damon is the Texan, Josh Brolin is the villain and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld is the rock-ribbed girl avenger. The Coens were drawn to the material not out of nostalgia for the earlier film, which they saw as kids and scarcely recall today. Rather, they were inspired by the Portis novel.
Joel Coen: I don't remember the first one at all. We both knew the novel and whatever the first one was, we figured whatever we did wouldn't resemble it too much. And it would be fun to do an adaptation of the novel.
Q Was it the wonderfully elaborate and flowery language of the dialogue that hooked you?
JC Partly. The way people speak in the novel is very distinctive and interesting. And obviously the voice of the 14-year old girl.
Q On the posters, the film is described as a story of retribution.
JC It suggests a Biblical perspective on the story and on morality, which is true to the novel and the character of the girl, who is the voice of the novel and the main character in the story.
Q She's not immune from retribution either; in the end she suffers quite terribly, though she suffers it stoically.
JC I'm not sure if that's retribution or just fallout. Collateral damage. The Biblical connotations of it sort of fit into the spirit of the quest in the novel and the Protestant character of the main character. It's echoed in the language of Portis' novel when he talks about the wrath that is going to rain down on someone in a certain situation.
Ethan Coen: It's a perspective that all the characters share. The bad men know that they're bad men. Except for Josh's character, who's probably a coward.
JC He's not living an examined life.
Q This is your second film in a row to feature kids in very important roles. Is that just happenstance?
JC Yeah, that's happenstance. We worked with wonderful, interesting child actors in the previous movie, but to a smaller extent. Unlike Hailee, who's in practically this whole movie, those kids were throughout the movie but the actual screen time we spent with them was fairly limited.
Q This is very classical filmmaking, without the in-your-face quirks of some of your films. But it has something in common with them: the reluctant and unprepared and sort of incompetent hero.
JC That's true. I guess we're always looking for a way of handicapping the protagonist, whether they're just a kid or ...
EC Drunken and one-eyed.
JC We were taking a pretty straightforward stylistic approach to the material.
Q There are some odd moments, though. Ranger LaBoeuf almost bites off his own tongue.
EC We added that. Why did we put that in? I dunno. Wanted a few laughs there.
JC This is also something that carries over from previous films a little bit. We do have a tendency to want to beat up our hero a little bit.
EC And when we were writing it we wanted Matt Damon to do it. That was just really appealing that it would be Matt biting his tongue off and speaking with a speech impediment for the rest of the movie.
Q Is it hard to sell a role like that? "You're going to start off as a nincompoop and you're going to end up talking like Sylvester the cat"?
EC It might be hard for some people but not Matt.
JC He really got into the speech impediment. He devised a method to make it severe right after he's bitten his tongue through, to graduating to less severe in the course of the movie. He was really interested in that.
Q Was Jeff Bridges cast before or after the "Crazy Heart" Oscar?
EC Long before.
Q You did a nationwide talent hunt for your star, Hailee, but she has a Hollywood connection. Her uncle is Jake Steinfeld, the movie stars' fitness coach and fitness personality, right?
EC That was pretty funny, ironic, because as you say we looked all over. Two casting people went all over the country for months looking at girls everywhere and we ended up with Hailee from L.A. Funny. But she was the right person. Couldn't argue with it.
Q What was the advantage for going with an unknown rather than a Chloe Moretz or a Dakota Fanning?
EC We weren't looking for an unknown, per se, we were just looking for the best person. The elaborate language, that's something most 14-year-old actors, knowns or unknowns, can't handle. That's something most actors, period, any age, have trouble handling. And Hailee was totally comfortable with it from the beginning, totally understood the sensibility of the character.
JC The other thing about knowns and unknowns tends to become a very funny issue when you're trying to cast someone who's very specific, age-wise. When you need someone who's 13 or 14 but not 16 or 17, the number of known people you can look at is really a tiny, tiny band. Once you work through who those people are and whether or not they're even available, you're working with an even smaller band. So you're sort of forced into looking principally at kids who haven't done a lot.
Q What was the physical work of the production like, recreating a frontier town and Indian territory in the late 1800s? What were the challenges of finding those marvelous locations?
EC There were kind of two. The shoot was split up. We did the more outlying stuff, the stuff that's supposed to be the Oklahoma Territory, the Indian nation, mostly in New Mexico around Santa Fe. That was just the usual problem of trying to find interesting-looking locations where you don't have to deal with highways and cars and power lines and everything. And the other problem was Fort Smith, the town at the beginning of the movie, which we shot in and near Austin, Texas. That was a totally different problem of trying to recreate a city of that period, a city of some scale, not a one-street Western town.
Q Speaking of remakes, what did you think of Zhang Yimou's slapstick Mandarin remake of "Blood Simple"? (Zhang, China's best-known filmmaker, directed "Hero," the nation's most internationally successful film export to date, and orchestrated the eye-popping opening and closing ceremonies for Beijing's Olympics.)
EC That was really fun for us to see. It's weird. Obviously we couldn't look at it as an audience new to the story could have, but it was really entertaining for us. It was kind of mind-bending because it was so similar to our story -- it was our story -- and yet the context was so different.
JC We're actually working on an English-language remake of "Red Sorghum" set in Wichita in the '70s. We're talking to Zhang Yimou about that. We're gonna sex it up.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186