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The Coen Brothers interview – True Grit 0

by Joe Utichi for Paramount Pictures

Thirteen years ago, brothers Joel and Ethan Coen wrote, produced and directed The Big Lebowski and cast Jeff Bridges as The Dude, a character since permanently inked into the pages of pop culture history. True Grit, out in UK cinemas on 11th February, marks their first collaboration with the actor since that cult classic, and comes a year after Bridges’s Oscar-winning turn in the critically-acclaimed film Crazy Heart.

“It was pretty clear to us as soon as we’d finished the script on True Grit, that here we had something that really was going to be very interesting for Jeff to play,” says Joel Coen. “He was the first and only person we called in connection with the part.”

For the Coens, who frequently work more than once with favoured collaborators, the reason for the delay in reteaming with Bridges was simply a case of finding the right part. “We’ve seen Jeff a lot in the intervening years, and we’ve talked about doing something again, but it wasn’t until we came up with this that we thought it was right,” continues Joel. “There just hasn’t been anything in the interim where we thought, Well, we’re doing something that really makes sense for Jeff.”

Adapted from the modern classic novel by Charles Portis, and set in the late 19th Century Wild West, True Grit is the tale of 14-year-old Mattie Ross (played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) who hires Deputy US Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) to help her track down the man responsible for the murder of her father.

Convincing Bridges to take the role was harder than they thought, admits Joel. Portis’s novel has been brought to the big screen before, and legendary star John Wayne won his first and only Best Actor Oscar for his turn as Rooster Cogburn in the 1969 version by Henry Hathaway.

“When we first mentioned it to Jeff, he was a bit leery of it, for the obvious reasons.”“Funnily enough, when we first mentioned it to Jeff he was a little bit leery of it for the obvious reasons,” Joel explains. “But Ethan said, ‘you really should go back and look at the book, because that’s the reason we want to do this.’ I think once Jeff did that he said, ‘Ok, I understand this will be something that’ll be interesting and that I can do.’ That’s kind of how it came about.”

The original film wasn’t as much of a concern for the brothers, who weren’t particularly impressed with its focus on the Cogburn character over the lead character in the book, Mattie Ross. “I don’t think either of us remembered the original film very well,” explains Ethan. “We’d both seen it, but only when it came out – in other words, when we were kids – and not since.“

He continues: “We read the novel and we were enthusiastic about it. We didn’t remember the first film as being something terribly special in any regard. We felt we had license to make our version of the novel.”

For Joel, the appeal of the novel was very specifically in the gutsy power of the Mattie Ross character. “It was the voice of the 14-year-old girl who narrates the novel that attracted us,” he remembers. “It’s told in the first person narration of this 40-year-old woman retrospectively looking back on these incidents that happened to her; this adventure that she had when she was 14 years old. It’s a very funny and very interesting and unique voice, and I think that was the thing that drew us to the story initially.”

The role would have been a challenge for any young actress, and so the Coens, in collaboration with their casting directors, scoured the country for performers capable of meeting the demands of the part. “We were aware that the success of failure of the movie hinged to a great degree on whether or not we were able to find a young girl to play that part,” Joel explains. “We didn’t even know that however hard and long we looked that even a such a person existed! We were certainly nervous about it.”

The casting directors carried out open calls across the country looking for girls aged 12-17, launching a website to try and attract as many candidates as possible. “We didn’t see that many girls compared to the casting people,” laughs Joel. “They looked at thousands. We only saw the ones that passed a pretty high threshold of being able to handle the language and having some basic ability, which honestly most don’t.”

Hailee Steinfeld leapt out, he says. “It wasn’t, really, until quite late in the process that we saw a tape from Hailee. It was probably four of five weeks before we started shooting. We saw her a couple of weeks later in LA with Jeff and some of the other actors in the movie, and that’s when we decided to cast her.”

Mattie’s curious chemistry with Rooster represents a good part of the story’s tone, so auditioning Steinfeld with Jeff Bridges allowed the brothers to see first-hand how their interaction would play.

But the real decision to cast the then-13-year-old had to do with her ease on the film’s set. “I’m not really aware that we made many, if any, concessions to her age and greenness,” says Ethan. “She hadn’t done much, but that didn’t really faze her. She had a comfort with herself and she had chops as an actor. She quickly became another actor and her age became a non-issue.”

The film has drawn comparison to the pair’s 2007 movie, No Country For Old Men, similarly set in the West, albeit some 100 years after the events of True Grit. But Joel disagrees. “I think there’s a tendency to link them just because they happen in the American West and the protagonists in each of them wear cowboy hats, but beyond that they’re sort of different,” he argues. “Both in terms of the kind of story they are and just what they’re about and how they’re treated stylistically in terms of both the novels and the movies.”

The two films bookend a period of intense production for the brothers, who have made four films in as many years. 2008’s Burn After Reading was a contemporary comedy set in a farcical world of espionage and intelligence gathering. 2009’s A Serious Man was the 60s-set story of a hapless Jewish physics professor whose personal and professional life falls apart. It’s fair to say the Coen brothers aren’t fond of repeating themselves.

“To the extent that you’re conscious of it and you’re able to, I think we both sort of want to change things up from movie to movie,” explains Joel. “As an exercise in not repeating ourselves and keeping things interesting.”

He laughs: “The depressing thing is that as you get older you realise you do repeat yourself a lot! But certainly, not by design; the design is more that you’re trying to mix it up and do different things and keep it interesting.”

Their busy workload is deceptive, he says. Three of the four scripts produced were written before they’d started shooting No Country for Old Men. “It may appear, retrospectively, that we jumped from one thing very quickly to the next,” Joel explains. “But the scripts were there, we’d written them over a period of time, and just the order in which they got done was kind of arbitrary.”

In picking projects, the brothers always approach their work with a view to entertain, explains Ethan. “We’re doing it for an audience and although the audience isn’t specific in our minds, we’re thinking about what’ll work in terms of scenes, the whole story and whether X or Y or Z is going to work,” he says. “We think in those terms instead of self-expression. We’re not self-expression people.”

And he disputes the notion that there’s a common tone to a Coen brothers piece, explaining that if the pair strive for anything consistently, it’s to serve the particular story they’re telling. “It’s very particular,” he argues. “You do a story you’re excited about and want to get across, and all of the decisions you make are particular to the matter at hand. We’re not really aware or any overriding tone, and we certainly don’t try to impart some special flavour of our own to each of the movies.”

The brothers are less certain of what’s next, and quick to confirm that there won’t be a new film in 2011. “We’ve just started writing something,” Ethan explains. “We’re actually kicking around a couple of ideas and since we have just started they’re so unformed at this point that we couldn’t say anything with any specificity. There isn’t any specificity yet.”

Whatever they’re planning, it’s safe to assume it won’t be like anything they’ve done in the past.

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