The Coens are a slippery interview subject. They might lie to you about their intentions, and they won’t ever talk about theme or purpose. But that’s the fun of talking to them. For the press conference of True Grit, Ethan and Joel Coen were joined by stars Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Josh Brolin, and Barry Pepper, and cinematographer Roger Deakins. The room had a jovivial air, and the questions went down reasonably well.
True Grit opens today, and will surely make a number of top ten lists (including mine). Here we go:
Hailee, this is your first big movie, I wanted to know what advice that especially the actors might have given you that you took to heart?
HAILEE STEINFELD: I think the best advice that the actors have given me is to not take anything too seriously but to have fun and well, take it somewhat seriously, right? But just to have fun with things.
Jeff, You have a very iconic character in this movie. Why has the eye patch been moved from the left eye to the right eye?
JEFF BRIDGES: I’m a Commie. (laughs) No, no. The right eye felt good. Put it on the left eye, not so good. Put it on the right eye “this feels good.” “What do you think guys?” We went back and forth like that .
JOEL COEN: Yeah, I know we went back and forth but I didn’t know that at the end of the day we ended up switching.
It wasn’t intentional?
BRIDGES: Sometimes I would forget to put it down for the scene so I would be very pleased with the take and I’d say what do you think guys and they’d go (points to his eye).
ETHAN COEN: It was an early idea discussed – since it is the second version – we’d have two eye patches.
I just wondered did you have any hesitation initially taking on a role that was made famous by The Duke himself?
BRIDGES: Well I was curious why these guys wanted to make that movie again and I think it was Ethan who I talked to first and he corrected me and said “no, we’re not making that movie. We’re making the book as if there wasn’t another movie ever made kind of thing.” We were just referring to the book and I wasn’t familiar with it. He said “check that out and tell me what you think” and I read it and then I saw what they were talking about because it’s such a wonderful book and it suited them so well. And God, what a great character! Most westerns have that strong silent type and here’s this boorish guy. So that was going to be a lot of fun.
What was the most challenging part in making this film?
ROGER DEAKINS: The schedule.
JEFF BRIDGES: There you go, good, good, yeah.
JOEL COEN: Well, yeah, that’s true because it’s a largely exterior movie and we were shooting in really difficult places and the weather was very uncooperative and so we were really trying to get a lot done in terms of like the number of setups we usually do or tried to do during the day, the number we had to do to stay on schedule and then fighting weather and other issues that were peculiar, animals, dealing with horses, production issues that were specific to this movie that made it difficult to shoot it on such a short period of time.
FRED TOPEL: For Jeff Bridges and for the Coens, Maddie hires Rooster because he has true grit and it made me think wow, should I have more true grit as a man? What qualities of Rooster do you think men should aspire to?
JEFF BRIDGES: True grit, I believe, this is my definition of it is, seeing one thing through to the end. That’s a good thing. I aspire to that.
ETHAN COEN: I agree, yeah.
You gentlemen have done other genre films before, the screwball comedy, a detective movie with Mr. Bridges, what about the western specifically did you want to convey or for that matter refute by making this film?
ETHAN COEN: I don’t think we thought about it as a genre movie so much or so much as you might think. It was interesting in the Charles Portis’ novel, it is a western inarguably. There are guys with six guns on horses but it’s not a Zane Gray story. It’s not a western in that sense and really we were thinking about the story, we were thinking about the novel more than doing a western per se.
Can you talk a little about the iconic scene that everybody waits for when you’ve got the reins in your mouth and you’re riding? It looks similar to the John Wayne version. I wondered did you consider doing it differently and can you talk a little about doing that scene? It was great.
BRIDGES: Yeah, thanks. I remember that day well and right in the beginning of the day Joel coming over to me and saying what do you think about really trying this deal? And I said “oh, well that’s kind of interesting, yeah.” A little anxious, a little fear. I mean, I ride myself but to do it in my teeth? So we did it that way and it wasn’t as tough as I thought actually. It was kind of cool.
Did you consider doing it differently? Leaving it out? I mean because it’s such an iconic moment in the original
JOEL COEN: Leaving the scene out? No, no, we never considered leaving the scene out. 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 reins 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 and the right horse and all the rest of it. It wasn’t 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 was things that Jeff had to do that were really difficult to accomplish but it was also a very complicated scene in terms of coverage and actually being able to physically shoot this stuff on uneven terrain, getting the camera in certain places, it all had to be broken down as a rather complex thing and done over actually a series of days.
JEFF BRIDGES: Yeah and it was windy.
ETHAN COEN: 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 if the other actors – did you think about that at all?
BARRY PEPPER: It’s such an intrinsic part of the novel. I mean I think in order to have a faithful adaptation, you couldn’t righteously avoid it. I mean it’s beat for beat in the novel that way. And he – Rooster’s character – describes how he did it in a previous shootout and then he emulates it again in the final shootout. So I think that the brothers were destined to…
JOEL COEN: Because you had the idea of your character having the rifle as opposed to…
JOEL COEN: and I actually don’t remember in the original what it was or how it’s even described in the book.
BARRY PEPPER: I just thought it would be such an interesting visual to be galloping without your reins and having to fire and ratchet a rifle would be quite a challenge. It would show the horsemanship of men of that period and so yeah, you guys did change it that way.
Can you talk a little about the importance and the challenges of getting those sort of iconic western landscapes filmed for this movie and then also was there any thought given to actually filming in Arkansas and Oklahoma which is where I’m from?
JOSH BROLIN: It’s her pick. Anybody who might want to do a film in the future.
BARRY PEPPER: Next we’re doing Rooster Cogburn.
JOEL COEN: We looked in Colorado and we looked in Utah, right? Utah originally, actually.
BRIDGES: Is there a tax break in Arkansas and Oklahoma?
JOEL COEN: New Mexico does have a lot of incentives to film there. There was another thing actually about Arkansas. The time of year we were filming, we knew we wanted to have snow in the movie but when we wanted to have reliably enough snow that and to be shooting in a place where, the truck was snow but not too much snow and we weren’t sure we were reliably going to get any snow at that time of year in Arkansas. That actually was a consideration. I don’t think it was the main consideration but it was one of them. And it was certainly the reason why we moved the show from…
DEAKINS: Utah and Colorado where we were going to get too much snow or we were going to get 10 feet of mud at that time of year so there was a lot of reasons we set on Santa Fe, really.
And the importance of capturing those western landscapes for the story
ETHAN COEN: That’s one thing that’s not faithful to the novel. I mean 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 COEN: And it’s the whole pictorial idea of the movie would have been much different in a place like Arkansas.
DEAKINS: But it’s also, it’s really a film about characters. I’m not sure that it’s a landscape western in the traditional sense of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid or something.
JOEL COEN: Yeah, well that’s true. It’s about the characters and it’s, I mean the honest answer is it becomes this mish-mash of different considerations that go into sort of where you’re shooting and how you want to sort of treat the landscape. They’re a little bit hard to sort out after the fact but everywhere from sort of the practical to just what does the movie want to be about.
Roger, ever since Barton Fink you’ve sort of been the third Coen brother in a way. What is it about these guys that keeps drawing you back to worth with them?
DEAKINS: They ask me.
Jeff, last time we talked was a year ago about Crazy Heart. And you were like very far away from this film. I’m wondering at what point did you nail this character?
BRIDGES: Very far away from?
From really being able to articulate it?
BRIDGES: Was I hired on for this movie at that time or no?
I think so, I think so ‘cause you did acknowledge that you were doing it. But I’m wondering at what point in putting the character together did you actually nail him and then I have a follow-up to that. I mean was it somebody that was like him or something?
BRIDGES: Yeah. Gosh, each scene is an opportunity to show a different facet of the person you’re portraying. But I began developing a character pretty much, the same way every time. You’re looking at the script or if you’re lucky enough to have a book, you’re looking at that material and seeing what other characters say about your character, what you say about yourself, what the author says about you and that tells you quite a bit. And then one of the first things you do when you’re hired on to make a film is you work with a costume designer, in this case it was Mary Zophrees who was also the costume designer on the Big Lebowski and that’s one of the cool things about making movies. It’s a collaborative art form so you have all these other artists who are concerned about just specific areas. It might be what the room your character lives in, what it looks like and the clothes look like. So the first people you meet is the costumer because they have to make all those clothes. So Mary has these wonderful books that she brings out. And now here’s a hat like this, like this and the character starts to fall in place and as you dress it, you’re looking in the mirror. And there comes a time when the character starts to tell you what it wants and you might prefer oh, this scarf looks nice . And the character may stick. You say oh, okay. And probably the same thing happens when you’re making a movie, too. Sometimes you want to do something it just doesn’t, it’s not what the movie wants and that’s a wonderful time when that happens and I’m not sure if there’s one particular time it happens. It’s just kind of a slow process of coming into focus. As far as the models, I used to love it when my dad would play a western. When he appeared at the front door all dressed up in his cowboy clothes it was , a thrill to me so I guess there was some of my dad in there.
And did you know that Hailee was such a sassy girl?
BRIDGES: I didn’t really, . Because she such, she’s got a very sweet side as well.
Did she intimidate you?
JEFF BRIDGES: Sometimes… we played a lot of pigs, pass the pigs. “Bo Bacon” was her pig name and she would be very intimidating. she would throw those leaning jowlers, double leaning jowlers occasionally and scare me.
Tell me if I’m reaching here, but the more I thought about the movie, the more I realized it’s less a western than it is a really, really dark comedy. For the actors, you were dealing with a script that was very stylized, can you talk about tackling the dialogue?
JOEL COEN: 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. And we wanted the humor in the book to sort of come through in the movie. That was important.
ETHAN COEN: And the dialogue, too. I mean the kind of formality of it and the floweriness of it also is just from the book. Again, that might be a question for the actors. Jeff, that was the first thing Jeff mentioned, noticed and liked, the kind of foreign sounding nature of the dialogue and the 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.
PEPPER: Yeah, it was more like doing American Shakespeare. There’s almost an iambic pentameter. There’s a musicality and a rhythm to the dialogue. It’s so specific that you’re working with what’s on the page. There’s not endless rewrites throughout production. It’s such a specific script that it’s about trying to hit certain notes, maybe in a reverent falloff at the end of a line, it’s such a gift to be able to give some sort of lateral idea to an actor that oh, I didn’t hear the musicality of the line like that and just the scene blossoms, completely changes and becomes darkly humorous or odd or quirky or wonderful, bizarre. But it’s a very structured piece I found in that respect. Charles Portis has such a specific vernacular of the period. It’s so authentic, in my mind. Because most people were probably pretty illiterate back then. They were maybe schooled on the King James Bible and that really infused the way that they spoke and I think a lot of westerns missed that.
BRIDGES: I agree. He said it perfectly. It was a fun challenge to take on. Every once in a while we’d allow a contraction to slip and it felt right musically .
HAILEE STEINFELD: When I first got the script that was like the first thing that I really had to work on was making sure that I understood what everything meant. And then I had to go back through and make sure that I understood what everything meant to me emotionally and how I could relate to it in my own life. And then with the accent, that kind of just, I mean just after getting on set and kind of everyone, talking and it kind of happened naturally.
JOEL COEN: Yeah, one of the things that when we first saw the first tape of Hailee doing a scene from the movie, 99.9% of the hundreds or thousands of girls who read for this part, didn’t have the facility, they washed out at the level of not being able to do the language. And that was something which was never an issue with Hailee. Right from the beginning it was clear that she was completely comfortable with the language. And the language isn’t, as everyone’s pointed out, our language. So that was the sort of threshold level at which we, you could sort of hope to do the part but Hailee had it right from the get go in a very, very natural way.
ETHAN COEN: Barry’s right. You feel even more strongly reading the novel. The frame of reference for her character who narrates the novel is told in first person by her character is the King James Bible. It does seem clear that’s where the kind of style derives from.
Yeah, this is for Josh Brolin. In the film you’re obviously playing a violent simpleton, a mongrel. Where do you have to go as a man, as an actor to sort of find that, to sort of bring that out?
JOSH BROLIN: I wasn’t in the film. I don’t know what you’re talking about. They just asked to use my name… When I came I talked to Joel and Ethan about it in the beginning and they said something about “he’s sort of a dim bulb” and I thought no, he’s more like a broken bulb with no filament at all. And I liked the idea of doing this duality of a guy who’s talked about throughout the whole movie so when you see him, you expect a monster. Especially when he turns around the first time, that shot from the horses. He’s got that look and whatever he’s doing. I’m not sure what the look is personally but and then he starts talking and it’s a different kind of guy, it’s like “so what are you doing here? I don’t understand what you’re doing over here.” It’s almost conversation. I like that better because it’s different than the methodology of what’s been created through the movie is ripped from you, whatever pigeon-holing that you’ve created in your mind of what a sociopath is and then you see it come back when he’s alone with her. Then you see that great low shot that they do of that transition that happens of “I’m not taking this shit anymore” and now I realize I’m out in the middle of nowhere and now I have to manifest this rage again. So you realize it’s true, a true sociopath. And it was fun. It was fun to be able to do that, talking about the language before, we were doing rehearsals and it’s very, I think a lot of things came together in rehearsals. Because I don’t think anybody really knew how to do the language. And then you see, you see Jeff come in and (he growls). And then you think, “I can say mine like that, too.” And then Barry comes in and then you go “oh, so I can pull off the no contractions by doing that” and it’s true, you do, you do and then you start to find this. Because I thought when I did the voice I thought this is going to stick out so horribly. It’s too much. I think I did too much. And then I saw everybody else in the film. You don’t even notice it. Does that answer your question?
Bridges: Don’t forget the bear man.
Whenever I see the western movies, I kind of feel dirty and the clothes are so kind of filthy and they’re kind of oily, so what’s kind of fun things for you doing western movie, especially Jeff, you did Tron, it’s so clean. This is so dirty.
BRIDGES: Well that’s the fun of my job that I get to play all different kinds of guys. We did a reshoot for Tron about a week after we completed True Grit and I had the same make-up guy, so going from Rooster, all the dust and the grime and the dirty teeth, a few days later, back in the chair, him putting a hundred little black dots on my face to have motion capture done. it was bizarre but that’s the gig. That’s the fun of it.
HAILEE STEINFELD: The riding was fun. The horseback riding was fun. I used to ride English a couple years ago so to be able to pick up back on that, that was fun.
In talking about this movie, somebody pointed out that Maddie’s in peril but not in real danger until she kills a man, until she takes a life and then she falls into the pit and awakens the sleeping serpents. So in telling the story, was that something, the sense of consequence, something that was important to you to relay? Is that something that was attractive?
JOEL COEN: No, I think that’s, I don’t think that’s a real – and certainly not the reading that we were giving to it. somebody mentioned earlier we were talking just a little bit about this sort of western genre, how sort of conscious that was and 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 sort of this youthful adventure story or kind of fitting into the genre of what you might call young adult adventure fiction or something like that and frequently in those kinds of stories – there was something that was real 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 kind of action at a certain point where one thing just leads to another and that’s the way the end of the novel felt to us which was that she almost gets strangled, there’s a big shootout in a field and she almost gets strangled and then she shoots again and then she falls into a pit with snakes and then and then she rides so that’s I think closer to the way we were looking at it.
So it’s not a morality tale?
JOEL COEN: Well that’s certainly an element of the story and the novel but I wouldn’t associate it with her killing a guy and then felling into a pit with snakes. Yeah, I mean I wouldn’t, I don’t think that’s where it comes in.
For the Coen’s, while you were trying translate the novel to the screen, were there things about the original film that you really admired and wanted to at least pay homage to or maybe carry through in small way for this one? And for the actors as well if there was anything performance wise you wanted to kind of nab?
ETHAN COEN: Not for us, not the negative either. We had seen the movie, I think as Joel said, when it came out but we were kids then and we haven’t seen it since and only really vaguely remember it.
Roger, Ethan’s protestations that this is not a western, not withstanding, there are certain visual elements that do bring to mind the western. What did you, how did you approach that? For instance, so much of the film is by firelight or lantern light or the light of a stove, did some of that enter into the, I guess the cinematic language that said to you yes, we are shooting a western?
DEAKINS: Well, it just posed different situations for trying to create a realistic look: firelight, oil lamp, night light. I mean the biggest challenge for me was all the big night exteriors which is like a cinematographer’s nightmare because you’re out in the middle of nowhere and really it’s in this film, it’s supposed to be about to snow so therefore there shouldn’t be a moon therefore there really should be a lot of black space there because you wouldn’t have seen anything. I tried to make it as realistic as possible because I felt that’s where the film was but at certain times you have to stretch it into a more – hopefully – poetic kind of thing. But to me it was, whether it was a western or whatever, that wasn’t important. It was the script and the sense of realism that the script sort of demanded really.
JOEL COEN: Yeah, I mean in one of those nighttime scenes I remember a rancher kept coming up to me and Ethan saying in the original they shot this during the day and they did.
DEAKINS: and then it cuts to daytime in the back as it’s arriving. It’s like I know why they did that.
For the Coen brothers, you have a great visual style. At what point would you say visuals enter into your screenwriting process? Is it something that you maybe do a storyboard or use reference material while you’re writing or is that reserved specifically when you go into director’s mode?
JOEL COEN: Well, it really depends. I mean there’s sometimes, I guess it really depends. There’s some places where when you’re writing the script, you are thinking aloud about what it’s going to look like and other times when you’re just writing and thinking “Roger will figure out.” It’s all over the map, obviously.
Hailee, you’re just sensational in this and I don’t think I’ve ever seen you before. So where did you come from? How did you get this movie? And you said you’ve been horseback riding before. what else did you have to learn to do Maddie so terrifically?
STEINFELD: I had to learn how to shoot a gun and roll a cigarette. Those were the two main things I had to learn but I mean where did I come from? How did you find me?
Had you been acting?
STEINFELD: Yes, of course. I’ve been acting since I was 8.
ETHAN COEN: If we’d only known. Hailee’s from Thousand Oaks. We like looked all over the country. There were two casting people that spent basically 18 months going everywhere, just everywhere seeing young girls in that age range and it’s a very narrow range and they saw thousands of girls and they could have stayed in L.A.
Josh and Hailee, the scene by the campfire is such an amazing scene. How did you guys prepare? How much rehearsal went into that? That was pretty intense.
STEINFELD: Like 15 minutes after I met you for the first time we were rehearsing that and you were like on top of me with a knife to my neck.
BROLIN: How did we – I don’t know how to answer that question really. I mean she’s so precocious and amazing and present and just kind of went with it. I think it was more nerve-racking for me than it was for her. She’s very comfortable in her own skin. And that scene was about her talking and being super confident and this little man-child hating the purity of her. And Josh loves her purity, loves it. I mean I’m so taken by her in every which way. I just think she’s incredible so it was much harder for me. Everything she did was easy. The rest of us make it really hard. But it was great. I had a really good time and then other than the cursing – between me and Matt and Barry and Barry doesn’t curse so much. How much did you earn? I think the F word was $5 and the S word was a buck? Yeah, she made about $100,000. An incredible experience though. We had a great time, really, really great time. I can’t really tell you the process because it was a fairly easy process. In rehearsal it was different. We really searched a lot in rehearsal for character and all that but she had already had it; she was the one person who had it down before the rest of us really started.
Hailee, can you tell me how did you, how was it being the only girl amongst all these dudes that’s pleasant, how was it and how did you learn how to shoot a gun and did you do your own stunts?
STEINFELD: I did most of them. There aren’t really many besides the falling down the snake pit, that was the only, that was the biggest stunt, right? Other than that I mean –
ETHAN COEN: Hailee did all of the riding except some of the riding in the river but all the other riding.
STEINFELD: So there wasn’t too much of that but I learned to shoot a gun. Before I went on location, that was like one of the things that I wanted to make sure I had a clue of what I was doing so I had my dad take me to a shooting range with a friend of ours who is an LAPD officer so he kind of told me everything I needed to know As for the cast, it wasn’t bad. They’re awesome; they’re amazing. And I mean I really wasn’t, I mean I was surrounded by women the entire time. the hair, make-up people and wardrobe. My mom was with me, my tutor. And so I mean it was – I mean I was surrounded by women the entire time but I mean I feel like all of them are like big kids so it was a lot of fun.
I just wondered, at the beginning of the movie, I haven’t read the book yet so I don’t know if you guys are drawing from that a lot, at the beginning of the film when you open with like a quote from Proverbs and the girl has like a sort of divine sense of mission to get revenge or justice for her dad, was that something that was inherent to the book? It seemed kind of new for your guys’ work. Was anything like common on that level of the story line?
JOEL COEN: Yeah, it’s in the book. I mean the opening voiceover is taken directly from the book. The reference to that particular Proverb is in the beginning of the book, not as an epigraph but in the context of her speaking and her narration. And the divine sense of mission is definitely a big part of the story. So yeah, I mean in every respect the answer’s yes from the book.
Going across the panel, can you tell me about what kind of research, more detail about specific kinds of research you did for any characters, for getting into the spirit of the times?
JOSH BROLIN: How would you answer that if you were to answer that?
ETHAN COEN: Well, we left all the research to Charles Portis. I mean the book was obviously very, 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 and we were happy not to do any work we didn’t have to basically. That’s from our point of view in writing.
JOSH BROLIN: I think there’s a couple of things that happens and one is that I think being authentic is really important but authenticity in place of fluidity seems to – know what I mean? There’s like wow, that movie is perfect and they didn’t do anything wrong. And I’m bored out of my mind. there has to be a fluidity there and I think that’s what happens in rehearsal where you go yes, you’re authentic and you’ve done – listen they wouldn’t have that gun. That’s 1871 and that actually wasn’t issued until 1873 and I – you’re like are you joking? there’s a few people out there that it really matters to a lot and I do think it’s important and that you have amazing props people like Keith Walters who is extremely wound up about that stuff and that’s great. And that’s his job and I love him, on the set. But when you do – you try to create these composite things. you get in rehearsals and you go how does this work and , even with my character and I’m not in the movie very much but you go well what works? , what I came in with wasn’t working at all and we all knew it and it wasn’t – there was no damming going on but , we’re like okay that doesn’t work. Well what do we do? Well I don’t know – let’s just keep mixing it up and keep mixing it up and then the little voice thing comes out and Joel goes oh, what was that? And Ethan goes I like that or I heard Ethan in the background (imitates Ehtan’s laugh). And then things start to come together. And I think that’s it. Instead of the western, perfect, authentic, this is what they say to do – let’s make that.
And with that, we were led out.