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Behind the Scenes of 'True Grit' with Jeff Bridges and the Coen Brothers

And Hailee Steinfeld, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper and Roger Deakins

By

Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit photo

Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld in 'True Grit.'

© Paramount Pictures
December 17, 2010 - Charles Portis' novel True Grit returns to the big screen in 2010 with Jeff Bridges in the role of hard-drinking, straight-talking U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn, Hailee Steinfeld as tough-as-nails 14 year old Mattie Ross who's out to avenge the murder of her father by Chaney (Josh Brolin), and Matt Damon as a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf who throws a wrench into Mattie's plans by wanting to bring in Chaney alive. Portis' book was brought to the screen back in 1969 with John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn (a role which earned him his only Oscar) and Glen Campbell as La Boeuf, but the writing/directing team of Joel and Ethan Coen say their film isn't a remake of the 1969 film. They've kept faithful to the book while weaving their film version of Portis' Western tale.

Together for a press conference in Los Angeles in support of the Paramount Pictures film, the cast, the Coens, and cinematographer Roger Deakins discussed the challenges of making the 2010 True Grit.

True Grit Press Conference: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, Writer/Directors Joel and Ethan Coen, and Cinematographer Roger Deakins

Hailee, what advice did the actors give you for your first big movie?

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."

Why is the eye patch on the other eye now as opposed to the first film?

Jeff Bridges: [Laughing] "I’m a commie."

Did you think about that?

Jeff Bridges: "No. We put it on the right eye, it felt good. Put it on the left eye, not so good. Put it on the right eye, 'This feels right. What do you think, guys?' We went back and forth like that."

Joel Coen: "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."

So it wasn’t intentional?

Jeff Bridges: "No, no, not at all."

Ethan Coen: "We did talk occasionally about switching from eye to eye scene to scene."

Jeff Bridges: "Sometimes I would forget to put it down for the scene. So I would be very pleased with a take and I’d say, 'What do you think, guys?' They’d just go [point to the eye patch.]"

Ethan Coen: "There was an early idea discussed but not for long, since it is the second version of the movie, to have two eye patches."

Did you have any hesitation taking on a role that was made famous by The Duke?

Jeff Bridges: "Well, I was curious why these guys wanted to make that movie again. I think it was Ethan who I talked to first and he corrected me. He said, 'No, we’re not making that movie. We’re making the book, as if there was no other movie ever made kind of. We’re just referring to the book.' And I wasn’t familiar with the book and he said, 'Well, check that out, tell me what you think.'"

"I read the book and then I saw what they were talking about because it’s such a wonderful book. It suited them so well I thought and god, what a great character. Most Westerns have that strong, silent type and here’s this boorish ra ra ra, so that could be a lot of fun I thought."

What was the most challenging part of making this film?

Roger Deakins: "Sticking to the schedule."

Joel Coen: "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."

What qualities of Rooster Cogburn should men aspire to have?

Jeff Bridges: "Well, 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."

You’ve done many genre films – screwball comedy, film noir, detective – what about the Western genre did you want to convey or refute?

Ethan Coen: "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?

Jeff Bridges: "I remember that day well. Right at the beginning of the day, Joel coming over to me and say, 'What do you think about really trying this deal?' I said, 'Oh, all right, that’s kind of interesting.' A little anxious, a little fear, I’m going to ride myself, do it in my teeth - so we did it that way. It wasn’t as tough as I thought, actually. It was kind of cool. We had a horse that kept the rhythm well. That’s basically it from my point of view."

Did you consider doing it differently or leaving it out?

Joel Coen: "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 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 about the other actors. Did you think about that at all?"

Barry Pepper: "Well, it’s such an intrinsic part of the novel. I think in order to have a faithful adaptation, you couldn’t righteously avoid it. It’s beat for beat in the novel that way. Rooster’s character describes how he did it in a previous shootout and he emulates it again in the final shootout."

Joel Coen: "Actually, one thing that may have changed was because you had the idea of your character having the rifle...and I honestly don’t remember in the original what it was or how it’s even described in the books."

Barry Pepper: "I just thought it would be just such an interesting visual to be galloping without your reigns and having to fire and ratchet a rifle would be quite a challenge and would show the horsemanship of men of that period. You guys didn’t change it that way."

What were the challenges of filming iconic Western landscapes?

Ethan Coen: "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 Coen: "The whole pictorial idea of the movie would have been much different in a place like Arkansas."

Roger Deakins: "It’s also really a film about characters. I’m not sure that it’s a landscape Western in the traditional sense."

Joel Coen: "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."

Roger, what draws you back to working with the Coens?

Roger Deakins: "They ask me."

Jeff, at what point did you nail this character?

Jeff Bridges: "Gosh, each scene is an opportunity to show a different facet of the person you’re portraying. 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. 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 Zophres who was also the costume designer on The Big Lebowski. That’s one of the cool things about making movies, there’s a collaborative art form so you have all these other artists who are concerned about just specific areas that might be what the room your character lives in, what it looks like and what the clothes look like."

"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 so you look at here’s a hat like this, like this and your character starts to fall in place. You dress as you’re looking in the mirror. 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 [spits], it won’t stick.'"

"Probably the same thing happens when you’re making a movie too. Sometimes you want to do something, it’s not what the movie wants. There’s a wonderful time when that happens. I’m not sure there’s one particular time it happens. It’s kind of a slow process coming into focus."

Is it less a Western and more a dark comedy? And how did the actors perform the stylized dialogue?

Joel Coen: "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 Coen: "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."

Barry Pepper: "It was more like doing American Shakespeare. There’s almost like an iambic pentameter. There’s a musicality and a rhythm to the dialogue. It’s so specific that you’re working very much 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 an irreverent falloff at the end of a line and just how you musically sort of [say the words]. That’s where the brothers were so amazing. It’s such a gift to be able to give some sort of lateral idea to an actor like, 'Oh, I didn’t hear the musicality of the line like that.' 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 they spoke. I think a lot of Westerns missed that."

Jeff 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, if it felt right musically."

Hailee Steinfeld: "When I first got the script, that was the first thing I really had to work on was making sure that I understood what everything meant. Then I had to go back through and make sure I understood what everything meant to me emotionally and how I could relate to it in my own life. With the accent, just after getting on set and everyone talking and it kind of happened naturally."

Joel Coen: "I have to say, one of the things when we first saw the first take of Hailee doing a scene from the movie, 99.9% of the hundreds or thousands of girls that read for this part didn’t have the facility to [speak correctly]. They sort of washed out at the level of not being able to do the language. 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. The language isn’t, as everyone’s pointed out, our language. That was the threshold level at which 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: "I’m sure Barry’s right. You feel even more strongly reading the novel, the frame of reference for her character who narrates the novel as told in first person by her character is King James Bible. It does seem clear that’s where the style derives from."

Josh, where do you have to go to find a violent simpleton in you?

Josh Bridges: "No stretch. Well, it found me, didn’t it? I wasn’t in the film, I don't know what you’re talking about. They just asked to use my name. [Laughing] 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. No filament at all.'"

"I like the idea of doing this duality of a guy who he’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 with the horses. He’s got that look, whatever he’s doing, I’m not sure what the book is. 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 out here.' I like that better because it’s different than what you [expect]."

"The mythology of what’s been created from the movie is ripped from you, whatever pigeonhole that you’ve created in your mind of what a sociopath is. Then you see it come back when he’s alone with her. 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.' You realize it’s true, a true sociopath. It was fun. It was fun to be able to do that."

"Talking about the language before, we were doing rehearsals. I think a lot of things came together in rehearsals because I don't think anybody really knew how to do the language. Then you see Jeff come in and raaashaaa. Then you go, 'Oh, I can say mine like that too.' Then Barry comes in and says rashararara. 'Oh, so I can pull off the no contractions by doing that,' and it’s true. You do, you do. Then you start to find this, because when I did the voice I thought, 'Oh, this is going to stick out so horrible. 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."

What’s fun about playing in a dirty Western versus Tron which is clean?

Jeff 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. I had the same makeup guy, Thomas Nellen was on both. So going from Rooster with all the dust and the grime and the dirty teeth, a few days later back in the chair, him putting 100 little black dots on my face, motion capture darts...bizarre, but that’s the gig. That’s the fun of it."

What’s fun about Westerns?

Hailee Steinfeld: "The riding was fun. Horseback riding was fun. I used to ride English a couple years ago, so to be able to pick up back on that was fun."

Was falling into the pit of snakes a consequence for Mattie killing a man?

Joel Coen: "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 Coen: "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 Coen: "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."

There are Western visual elements. How did you approach that, like firelight or lantern light?

Roger Deakins: "It just posed different stipulations for trying to create a realistic look, firelight or night light. The biggest challenge for me was still the big night exteriors, which was a nightmare because you’re out in the middle of nowhere. 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 - but you wouldn’t have seen anything. I tried to make it as realistic as possible because I felt that’s what the film was, but at certain times you have to stretch it. [...]For me, whether it was a Western wasn’t important. It was the script and the sense of realism the script demanded, really."

Joel Coen: "In one of those nighttime scenes I remember Roger kept coming up to me and Ethan and saying, 'You know, in the original film they shot this during the day.'"

Roger Deakins: "They were lit by firelight and then it cuts to day time and the bad guys arriving. I know why they did that."

At what point do visuals enter into your screenwriting process?

Joel Coen: "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."

Josh and Hailee, how did you prepare for the campfire scene?

Hailee Steinfeld: "Like 15 minutes after I met you for the first time, we were rehearsing that and you were on top of me with a knife to my neck. It was kind of interesting...but I don't know."

Josh Brolin: "I don't know how to answer that question, really. She’s so precocious and amazing and present and just kind of went with it. There was never any moment. I think it was more nerve-wracking for me than it was for her. She’s very comfortable in her own skin, you know?"

"That scene was about her talking and being super confident and this little man-child hating the purity of her. Josh loves her purity. He loves it. 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. Other than the cursing, between me and Matt and Barry, Barry doesn’t curse so much. How much did you earn? I think the F word was $5, the S word was..."

Hailee Steinfeld: "Every other word was a dollar."

Josh Brolin: "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 was the one person who had it down before the rest of us really started."

What was it like being the only girl and how did you learn to shoot a gun? Did you do your own stunts?

Hailee Steinfeld: "I did most of them. There aren’t really any, besides the falling down the snake pit. That was the biggest stunt, right?"

Ethan Coen: "That was the biggest stunt per se. Hailee did all the riding except some of the riding in the river, but all of the other riding."

Hailee Steinfeld: "So there wasn’t too much of that, but I learned to shoot a gun. Before I went on location that was 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’s an LAPD officer. He kind of told me everything I needed to know."

And working with the guys?

Hailee Steinfeld: "Right...it wasn’t bad. They’re awesome. They’re amazing and I really wasn’t [the only girl]. I was surrounded by women the entire time. The hair and makeup people and wardrobe. My mom was with me, my tutor. So I was surrounded by women the entire time, but I feel like all of them are like big kids so it was a lot of fun."

What kind of research did you do for the characters?

Joel Coen: "We left all the research to Charles Portis. The book was, obviously, 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. We were happy not to do any work we didn’t have to, basically. That’s from our point of view."

Josh Brolin: "I think there’s a couple of things that happens. One is being authentic is really important but authenticity in place of fluidity seems to... There’s like, 'Wow, that movie is perfect. 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 when you go, 'Yes, you’re authentic. Listen, they wouldn’t have that gun. That’s 1871 and that actually wasn’t issued until 1873.' You’re like, 'Are you joking?'"

"There’s a few people out there that really matters to a lot and I do think it’s important, and you have amazing props people like Keith Walters who is extremely wound up about that stuff. That’s great. That’s his job. I love him on the set but you try to create these composite things. You get in rehearsals and you go, 'How does this work?' 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. We all knew it. There was no damning going on but we were like, 'Okay, that doesn’t work but what do we do?' 'I don't know. Let’s just keep mixing it up and keep mixing it up.' Then the little voice things comes out and Joel goes, 'Oh, what was that?' Ethan goes, 'I like that,' or I heard Ethan in the background like [laughing]."

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