For Joel and Ethan, this tale of a young girl’s quest to seek justice for the death of her father – aided by two, vivid, colourful hard-bitten lawmen – provided all the raw ingredients for a classic western. “It’s a very simple story, it’s just a girl going to avenge her father’s death,” says Ethan. “But actually, like No Country For Old Men, it’s a pursuit story. They are going after the bad guy and it just seemed like very promising material for a movie. It’s funny and it has really strong characters, particularly the young girl, who is a very determined character who refuses to give up.” Joel adds: “It’s very interesting that the main character is a kid and it’s a movie that kids can go and see. We hadn’t done that before and it has a different kind of flavour. And like Ethan says, it’s very simple – the kid goes off looking for her father’s killer. We liked the power of that story. It made it very attractive to us.”
True Grit is set in the rugged, brutal un-tamed American West of the 1870s. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl determined to seek vengeance for her father who has been murdered by the 'coward' Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). She hires a trigger happy, drunken Marshall, Rooster Cogbugn (Jeff Bridges) to track Chaney down and bring him to justice. Cogburn has the quality she is looking for – as she puts it, he has “true grit.” They then discover that a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (played by Damon), is already chasing the killer and is determined to take him back to his home state and collect a handsome reward.
Casting the young girl who would play Mattie Ross was crucial because the story is driven by her quest. The Coens admit that after a sweep that had seen the production audition thousands of young hopefuls they were beginning to get a little anxious about finding the right actress for the part. And then Hailee Steinfeld walked in and their search was over. She is, they say, a “natural” who handled the pressure on her slender shoulders with ease. “Yeah, we were kind of getting worried,” says Ethan. “It’s funny, we saw some interesting girls, and it’s so important to get that role right. And you start convincing yourself that, ‘oh this girl is good’ or ‘she’s interesting..’ And you sort of force yourself to think that would work, even when they are not perfect. And then we met Hailee at kind of the 11th hour and she was perfect and she’s great, so that was a big relief because then you can stop trying to convince yourself that Plan B is good enough.”
Hailee is relatively inexperienced actress and True Grit marks her feature film debut. In the past, she has appeared in commercials and had a role in Kelsey Grammar’s short-lived television series, Back to You. She also made a TV pilot for Nickelodeon. “So she had done a little bit, but not a lot, a small amount of stuff,” says Joel. “She wasn’t a rank amateur in the sense that you know, a kid from the middle of nowhere who had never been in front of the camera before but on the other hand it was very limited.
“But she’s only 13, so how much experience could she have? I guess there are 13 year olds with lots of experience. In fact, we saw some of those and you have to be careful sometimes with too much experience at that age. But, she’s certainly a natural in terms of being comfortable in her stuff and she wasn’t intimidated by anyone or by the process. I think we sort of knew when we cast her that that was going to work, and then there was a certain amount of relief when we started filming and she was
The Coens had memorably worked with Jeff Bridges twelve years ago on one of their best-loved films, The Big Lebowski. Bridges had played The Dude, a bowling loving, dope smoking slacker who gets mixed up in a kidnap plot. The film, which also starred John Goodman and John Turturro, has gained cult status amongst its legions of fans all over the world. “We had talked about it working with Jeff again but it’s just always the question of finding the right thing,” says Joel. True Grit was the perfect project, they felt, and Bridges was their only choice to play the gnarled lawman Rooster Cogburn, who has gone to seed, physically, but is still a force to be reckoned with. “Jeff was obvious really right off the bat once we actually started thinking about it, because actually, to tell you the truth, the list is not long when you get into that age, that kind of physicality,” says Joel. “And Jeff, because we’d worked with him before, was the first person that we thought of. We thought, ‘why look any further?’ Because he’d be really good in this part and we asked him to do it and fortunately he said yes.”
Bridges, who won the Best Actor Academy Award in 2010 for his performance as a washed up country musician in Crazy Heart, embraced the part of Rooster Cogburn with gusto, tackling many of his own stunts. “It’s really funny because it’s a very specific age and condition, not as specific as it is with the girl, where like two years either way means she’s wrong,” says Ethan. “But Jeff is like, well he’s great first of all, but he’s like old enough, fat enough. I mean, he’s not in perfect shape and you can’t have a perfect health, fitness and beauty gym rat body because that would be wrong but he also had to be robust enough to do the part because it’s demanding stuff.” Joel adds: “Jeff did most of his own riding and he did most of the stunts - most of what you see happening in that movie is Jeff, with the exception of some of the riding where there was no reason to use him because he was too far away.”
Matt Damon plays LaBoeuf, the talkative Texas Ranger who rides with Cogburn and Mattie on the trail of Tom Chaney and the gang of outlaws he’s with. Damon is a leading man in his own right but he’s also a character actor who takes pride in losing himself in a role. “We had seen Matt in The Departed and it was one of those kinds of roles where he was playing a character that wasn’t the classic The Green Zone character he does so well,” says Joel. “He wasn’t the leading man or Bourne Identity guy.
“He’s a guy that we’ve wanted to work with for a long time because he’s great, a very interesting actor. I think Ethan suggested him first of all, very early on.”
Brolin had worked with the Coen Brothers before, on their Oscar winning drama No Country For Old Men. “Once we thought of Jeff for Rooster we couldn’t think of anybody else because he was so perfect. And Matt was the same,” says Ethan. “We didn’t want to think about alternatives and fortunately they both wanted to do it so we didn’t have to. And with Josh Brolin we just assumed that he would be something in the movie, although we couldn’t figure out which role for a while. We knew we wanted him to be one of the bad guys and for some reason we thought he should be the coward,” he laughs.
True Grit was filmed on location in New Mexico and West Texas. It was, they say, a tough shoot with bad weather making conditions far worse than they anticipated. “It was a difficult movie. It’s very much an exterior movie and the weather was terrible, we had to scramble around,” says Ethan. “And everything involved in a Western is, of course, difficult – the locations, the horses – but it ended up not being as bad as we feared. The horse wranglers were great and they did a great job.” Joel adds: “We were out in snow, 50 mile an hour winds, it was a harder movie from a production point of view, than O Brother or No Country for Old Men. The weather was less cooperative, the conditions were more difficult and the elements were more extreme.”
Both the Coen brothers are fans of Portis’s novel, which was first published in 1968. There was also a 1969 film of the book, starring John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn. “We had seen the movie when we were kids, so we knew it, although we hadn’t remembered it very well,” says Joel. “We remembered enough of it to know that whatever it was, it was sufficiently different from what we were doing, that we didn’t really have to worry about it. People ask about whether the previous movie was a factor at all, whether it was intimidating in any way, but honestly, we weren’t thinking about it much – we were thinking about the novel and really didn’t care that they’d made a movie about it with John Wayne.”
Joel, 56, and Ethan, 54, were born and raised in St Louis Park, Minnesota, and started making movies on a Super 8 camera as children. Joel studied film at New York University and Ethan is a philosophy graduate from Princeton. In 1984, the brothers wrote and directed Blood Simple, a noir thriller set in Texas. Three years later they made Raising Arizona, starring Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter, which was screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival and established their reputation as two of the most innovative filmmakers working today.
Their other films are Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo – which was nominated for seven Oscars, winning two (Best Actress for Frances McDormand and Best Original Screenplay) – The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers, No Country For Old Men – nominated for 8 Academy Awards, winning four including Best Picture – Burn After Reading and A Serious Man.
Watch the trailer here. True Grit opens on Friday, February 11th.
Article courtesy Paramount.