THE COEN BROTHERS TALK ABOUT TRUE GRIT
True Grit is a mythic Western adventure story of vengeance and valor from Academy Award® winning filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, whose stirring adaptation hones in on the plain-spoken humor, bold storytelling and rough beauty of Charles Portis' classic American novel.
The time is the 1870s, the setting frontier America just after the Civil War, and the taleteller is Mattie Ross, who at 14 years-old journeys to Fort Smith, Arkansas determined to extract justice for the death of her father, shot in cold blood. Highlighted by a cast that includes Academy Award® winner Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart), Academy Award® nominee Matt Damon (Invictus), Academy Award® nominee Josh Brolin (Milk), Barry Pepper (Saving Private Ryan) and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as one of literature's most stouthearted young heroines, True Grit is written for the screen and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen and produced by Scott Rudin, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. The executive producers are Steven Spielberg, Robert Graf, David Ellison, Paul Schwake and Megan Ellison.
Mattie Ross (STEINFELD) arrives in Fort Smith as her family's sole representative, in search of the coward Tom Chaney (BROLIN), who is said to have killed her father for two gold pieces before setting out into Indian Territory as a fugitive. Beholden to follow Chaney and see him hanged, Mattie enlists the help of a man rumored to be the most ruthless U.S. Marshal in town -- trigger-happy, drunken Rooster Cogburn (BRIDGES), who, after many objections, agrees to hunt Chaney. But Chaney is already the target of the talkative Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (DAMON), who also aims to catch the killer and bring him back to Texas for an ample reward - which brings the trio to collide on the trail. Each willful and stubborn, each driven by their own rough moral codes, this unlikely posse rides towards an unpredictable reckoning, as they find themselves enveloped in the stuff of legend: mischief and brutality, courage and disillusion, doggedness and unalloyed love.
The film's distinguished production team is made up of collaborators from many of the Coen Brothers past projects including Oscar-nominated director of photography Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC (The Man Who Wasn't There, O Brother Where Art Thou?) production designer Jess Gonchor (Capote, No Country for Old Men) and costume designer Mary Zophres (Catch Me If You Can, O Brother Where Art Thou?). The editor is Roderick Jaynes and the composer is Carter Burwell.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
"People do not give it credence that a young girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood, but it did happen."
TRUE GRIT, by Charles Portis
In 1968, The Saturday Evening Post published a serial novel that riveted readers with a story that immediately felt like a grand and timeless American legend, and kept them hungering for more. This was Charles Portis' True Grit, the tale of an unusually stalwart young girl seeking to avenge her father's death with the aid of a washed-up, frontier lawman and a forthright Texas Ranger who all set out into Indian Territory to find the killer. Laced with deadpan humor, rife with ruggedly individualistic characters, and cut through with richly American themes, the novel would take on a life of its own.
Like Mattie Ross, it would cross the river into that realm where real life events turn into tall tales and legends, becoming both a bestseller and an enduring literary classic, passed from reader to reader and writer to writer, over the decades. The book was soon being taught in schools, became a 1969 movie starring John Wayne, and the title was woven into the very fabric of the language.
The words "true grit" came to represent the kind of single-minded, cocksure gutsiness that can see a person through incomprehensible circumstances - a concept at the core of the American spirit. But Portis' story was about more than courage. Narrated by the starkly unsentimental spinster that Mattie Ross becomes in the wake of her escapade, it also probed the restlessness of the American character, with its conflicts between the yearning for adventure and the need for home, between the desire to right injustices and the cost of such retribution to body and soul. The characters of Mattie, Rooster Cogburn and LaBoeuf clash in big ways not just with each other and the outlaws they're after, but with their own hearts as they veer between the untamed and the righteous.
What lends the novel its timelessness and transcendent quality most of all is Mattie's voice, which stands apart in literature. Best-selling author George Pelecanos in a 1996 NPR interview, explained: "Mattie's voice, wry and sure, is one of the great creations of modern fiction. I put it up there with Huck Finn's and that is not hyperbole . . . Most importantly, it can be appreciated by readers of various ages, education levels and economic backgrounds. It's an egalitarian work of art."
Portis ultimately wrote five novels (True Grit was his second, after Norwood), and over the years, readers have fallen in love with his alchemical blend of comic folksiness and bold archetypal themes. Among those who came to admire Portis' works were Joel and Ethan Coen, who themselves have spun some of the most compelling motion picture tales of our times, starting with the noir classic Blood Simple and including Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, the Oscar®-winning Fargo, The Man Who Wasn't There, O Brother Where Art Thou?, the Oscar®-winning No Country For Old Men and A Serious Man.
"We'd read Charles Portis' books but this one seemed especially amenable to have a movie made from it," says Ethan of their decision to adapt True Grit.
The brothers were drawn to Portis' daring decision to place an irrepressible young girl at the center of a novel rife with brutality, irony and harsh realities, which appealed to their sense of the unusual. Mattie's story is certainly full of the raw humanity and ink black wit that have often characterized the Coens' cinematic vision, but at the same time, True Grit is a departure for them, featuring their most unabashedly literary, emotional and direct storytelling.
"The story is definitely in that weird genre of young persons' adventures," says Joel.
"It's told by this very self assured 14 year-old girl," adds Ethan, "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."
Ethan continues: "That's another thing about the book -- 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."
The novel is also decidedly a Western, a genre that the Coen brothers wanted to tackle outright for the first time. Although some might want to put No Country for Old Men in that category, for Joel and Ethan that film was a modern thriller. The tones of the two films diverge. "No Country For Old Men was set in Texas," explains Joel, "but it was a contemporary movie. Nobody rides a horse in it except in the respect that people still ride to get into the backcountry. We never really considered that a Western. That was in our minds something different."
The screenplay stayed faithful to Portis' construction of the novel, which keeps Mattie at its core and brings her full circle as a tough, old woman searching for Rooster Cogburn in a faded Memphis Wild West Show. Echoing Portis, they aimed to give Mattie's voice - as plain, unflinching and sonorous as an old ballad - its full due on the screen, and to paint the equally mesmerizing Rooster Cogburn and the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf through the light of her recognition -or hope -- that they all might be connected by something gritty and honorable in their spirits.
Jeff Bridges, who was cast in the role of Cogburn, says it was the idea of mixing the book's authentic cadence and rollicking yet moving tone with the Coens' cinematic approach that got him so excited to tackle an iconic character in a fresh way.
"When the Coens first mentioned the idea of making True Grit, I said 'Gee, didn't they make that movie? Why do you want to do it again?' and they said, 'We're not remaking the film, we're making a version of the original book by Charles Portis'. So I read the book and I immediately saw what they were talking about. It seemed like the perfect story for the Coens to make into a movie. And since they have never made an actual Western adventure before, it was going to be a surprise."
Adds Matt Damon, who plays LaBoeuf, "I'd never read the book until the Coens gave it to me, but it's a fantastic American novel that deserves to be recognized as that. Their adaptation was just great. They used so much of the original dialogue and captured Charles Portis' ear for the way people really spoke. I was just floored by it. Yet you always feel the Coens' voice because they're such powerful artists."
Concludes Barry Pepper, who plays the outlaw Lucky Ned, and works with the Coens for the first time on True Grit: "The dialogue in the novel is like cowboy poetry done by Shakespeare. The Coen brothers got that rhythm, that precise musicality. What's remarkable about their adaptation is how specific and true the language is. The way they have re-interpreted and then visually expanded on what Portis did in his novel is something quite beautiful and special."
CAST AND CHARACTERS
Driven as much by the dynamics of character as action, True Grit's casting would be crucial -- and, as with many of the Coen brothers' films, the screenplay drew a decorated roster of actors. However, carrying the film would be an absolute beginner: Hailee Steinfeld, who turned the larger than life tenacity, forbearance and spunk of the book's heroine-narrator Mattie Ross into the flesh and blood of an unusual child who doesn't varnish her opinions, or relent on her intentions, for anyone. Read more
SETTING & DESIGN
The dueling themes encompassed by True Grit - justice and revenge, wilderness and sanctuary, individualism and loyalty, real life and legends -- may be outside of time, but the action takes place in a very specific era and place that has long enraptured the American imagination: the last days of the true frontier West. The tale begins in 1878, when Mattie sets out across the river on her first, and greatest, adventure. At that time, the U.S. consisted of only 38 states and the town where Mattie's father died -- Fort Smith, Arkansas -- was the very westernmost border of the nation, the last "civilized" town before the formal United States faded into an untamed and feared wilderness. Read more
The 1870s time period of True Grit also challenged and exhilarated costume designer Mary Zophres in her 10th collaboration with the Coen Brothers. Zophres' intensive research and deep consideration of character was greatly appreciated by the cast. Read more
STUNTS AND HORSES
Mattie's rollicking journey into the Indian Territory with Rooster Cogburn and LaBoeuf is punctuated by moments of sudden ambush and violence. Coordinating the film's gunfights and horse chases was stunt coordinator Jery Hewitt, who used the cast as much as possible in the sequences.
His biggest challenge was the shootout between Rooster and Lucky Ned's men in the meadow - as Rooster rides at Ned's gang, reigns in his teeth, a six-gun in each hand -- which required special rigs, mechanical horses on crane arms and stunt doubles for wide shots. But at the heart of it, was Bridges himself, who did his own riding and the double-fisted shooting. Read more
ABOUT CHARLES PORTIS
Charles Portis' five novels are each classics of the literature of the Deep South, celebrated for their inventive and comical observations on American culture and character. While four of the novels are set in contemporary times, his second novel, True Grit (1968), stood apart. It hearkened back to the "Wild West" Arkansas of the 1870s, as a spinster recalls an extraordinary quest of vengeance, and the unlikely friendships with a US Marshal and a Texas Ranger, she made as a determined and inexperienced young girl who set out into the wilderness with an absolute sense of right and wrong. At once a grand, genre-busting, coming-of-age adventure and a study of steadfastness of spirit in all its forms, the book is widely considered Portis' great masterpiece, often compared to Mark Twain for its quintessentially sharp, raucous humor, its free-spirited heroine, and its sprawling American themes.
Originally serialized in The Saturday Evening Post, the book has gone on to sell millions of copies around the world and to be taught in schools. It was also adapted into a 1969 hit movie, for which John Wayne won an Academy Award®. Numerous writers, from Walker Percy, Larry McMurtry and Roy Blount, Jr. to Nora Ephron and Donna Tartt have praised the influence of Portis on American fiction. Writing in Esquire in 1998, journalist and author Ron Rosenbaum concluded: "Reading Portis is one of the great pleasures - both visceral and cerebral - available in modern literature."
Portis' first novel was Norwood (1966), the story of a naïve Texas Marine taken in by a New York City con man, which was filmed in 1970 starring Glenn Campbell in the title role. His additional novels are The Dog of the South (1979), about a hapless Arkansas man on the trail of his runaway wife in Central America; Masters of Atlantis (1985), an account of the rise and fall of a fictional American cult; and Gringos (1991) about the loners, eccentrics and mad romantics living as American expatriates in Mexico.
Today, Portis still lives in Arkansas, where he was born (in El Dorado) and educated. He served in the Marine Corps during the Korean War and afterwards, became a reporter. He wrote for the New York Herald-Tribune, at a time when Tom Wolfe, Lewis Lapham and Jimmy Breslin were all cutting their teeth there, and was later the paper's London Bureau Chief. He left journalism in 1964, returned to Arkansas, and dedicated himself to fiction.
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
JOEL COEN (Director/Writer/Producer) was honored by the Cannes International Film Festival in 2001, as Best Director for The Man Who Wasn't There, and in 1991, as Best Director for Barton Fink. He was honored as Best Director by the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Board of Review, and the BAFTA Awards for 1996's Fargo; and also won the Academy Award® for Best Original Screenplay for Fargo, which he co-wrote with his brother Ethan. The screenplay for O Brother, Where Art Thou?, also co-written with Ethan, was nominated for a BAFTA Award and the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Other films that he has directed and co-written are Intolerable Cruelty; The Big Lebowski; The Hudsucker Proxy; Miller's Crossing; Raising Arizona; and Blood Simple. He co-directed and co-wrote the 2004 comedy The Ladykillers with Ethan. Joel & Ethan Coen's 2007 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men brought them the Directors Guild of America, BAFTA, and Academy Awards; the Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay; Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay from the New York Film Critics Circle; and Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay from the Oscars and the National Board of Review. The film's cast was voted the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture, and Javier Bardem won the Screen Actors Guild and Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor, among other accolades. Joel & Ethan Coen's film, Burn After Reading, was nominated for the BAFTA Award and the WGA Award for Best Original Screenplay and their most recent film, A Serious Man, received Academy Award® nominations for Best Picture and for Best Original Screenplay and was also nominated for the BAFTA Award and the WGA Award for Best Original Screenplay.
ETHAN COEN (Director/Writer/Producer) Ethan Coen has produced and co‐written such critically acclaimed films as Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, which won the Palme d'Or [Best Picture], Best Director, and Best Actor (John Turturro) Awards at the 1991 Cannes International Film Festival; and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which was nominated for two Academy Awards, five BAFTA Awards, and two Golden Globe Awards (winning one).
One of 1996's most honored films, Fargo, which he produced and co‐wrote, received seven Academy Award nominations and won two, including Best Original Screenplay for Ethan and his brother Joel. Among the other films that he has co‐written and produced are Blood Simple; Raising Arizona; The Hudsucker Proxy; The Big Lebowski; The Man Who Wasn't There; and Intolerable Cruelty. He co-directed and co-wrote the 2004 comedy The Ladykillers with Joel.
Joel and Ethan Coen's 2007 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men brought them the Directors Guild of America, BAFTA, and Academy and Awards; the Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay; Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay from the New York Film Critics Circle; Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay from the Oscars and the National Board of Review. The film's cast was voted the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture, and Javier Bardem won the Screen Actors Guild and Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor, among other accolades.
Joel and Ethan Coen's film, Burn After Reading, was nominated for the BAFTA Award and the WGA Award for Best Original Screenplay. Their most recent film, A Serious Man, received Academy Award® nominations for Best Picture and for Best Original Screenplay and was also nominated for the BAFTA Award and the WGA Award for Best Original Screenplay.
"Almost an Evening," comprising three short plays by Ethan Coen, was staged in 2008 off‐Broadway by Neil Pepe at the Atlantic Theater Company's Stage 2 and then at the Bleecker Street Theater; in 2009, the same director and company staged his three new short plays under the title "Offices."
THE ART OF ADAPTATION