Joel and Ethan Coen are behind some of today’s most refreshingly original and unique feature films – “Blood Simple”, “The Big Lebowski”, “Barton Fink”, “Raising Arizona”, “The Hudsucker Proxy” and “No Country for Old Men”, to name but only a few. Their latest isn’t an original piece, in fact both cinemagoers and literary buffs are already well versed in it’s yarn, but with “True Grit” the filmmaking brothers prove not all remakes encompass an impenetrable unwelcome stench.
Why is Rooster Cogburn’s eye patch on the other eye now as opposed to the first film?
Joel : I remember going back and forth, but I didn’t know that at the end of the day we’d ended up switching. That was pointed out to me recently, but I never actually realized it.
It wasn’t intentional?
Ethan: We did talk occasionally about switching from eye to eye scene to scene. And there was an early idea discussed but not for long, since it is the second version of the movie, to have two eye patches.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins said the most challenging part of making this film was sticking to the schedule…
Joel: That’s true because it’s a largely exterior movie and we were shooting in really difficult places. The weather was very uncooperative, so we were trying to really get a lot done in terms of the number of setups we usually do. We’re trying to do during the day the number we had to do to stay on schedule. Then fighting weather and other issues that were sort of really peculiar, animals, dealing with horses, production issues that were peculiar to this movie that made it difficult to shoot it on such a short period of time.
You’ve done many genre films – screwball comedy, film noir, detective – what about the Western genre did you want to convey or refute?
Ethan: I don’t think we thought about it as a genre movie so much as you might think. It was an interest in the novel, the story, Charles Portis’ novel. 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.
Why did you mimic the iconic scene with the reigns in Rooster Cogburn’s mouth on the horse? Did you consider doing it differently? or leaving it out?
Joel: Leaving the scene out? No, no, we never considered leaving the scene out, no. No, 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 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. There were scenes that Roger 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.
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, as Jeff was saying. So, no, we didn’t think about changing it to distinguish ourselves from that. I don’t know about the other actors.
What were the challenges of filming iconic Western landscapes?
Ethan: You know what? 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
Joel: The whole pictorial idea of the movie would have been much different in a place like Arkansas.
It’s a film about characters…
Joel : 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 it’s everywhere from the practical to just what does the movie actually want to be about
Is it less a Western and more a dark comedy? And how did the actors perform the stylized dialogue?
Joel: 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 what was funny about the book, what was the humor of the book to come through in the movie. That was important.
Ethan: The dialogue too, the formality of it and the floweriness of it also is just from the book. Again, that might be a question for the actors. Jeff noticed. 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.
Was falling into the pit of snakes a consequence for Mattie killing a man?
Joel: That’s certainly not the reading we were giving to it. Somebody mentioned earlier, we were talking just a little bit about the Western genre, how conscious that was. As we mentioned in other context a couple of times, 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.
It’s not a morality tale?
Joel: 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.
Were there things about the original film you admired and wanted to pay homage to?
Ethan: Not for us – not the negative either. We’d seen the movie, I think as Joel said, when it came out. But we were kids then. We hadn’t seen it since and only really vaguely remember it.
At what point do visuals enter into your screenwriting process?
Joel: “It really depends. There are sometimes, 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 when you’re just writing and thinking Roger will figure it out. It’s all over the map, honestly.
At what point do visuals enter into your screenwriting process?
Joel: It really depends. There are sometimes, 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 when you’re just writing and thinking Roger will figure it out. It’s all over the map, honestly.