It’s been close to 42 years since we last saw the escapades of Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross on the big screen in True Grit. The original 1969 film was directed by Henry Hathaway and featured John Wayne in his only Oscar winning role. So when the acclaimed directing team of Joel and Ethan Coen decided to adapt the Charles Portis novel of the same name, they had their work cut out for them. When we attended the press conference for this month’s True Grit, we discovered that the directors didn’t look at their film as a remake but a retelling of the book. Find out what the Coens, actos Jeff Bridges and Barry Pepper, and cinematographer Roger Deakins had to say about their journey from the page to the screen…
This is Based on the Book, Not the Film:
You’ve done many genre films: screwball comedy, film noir, detective, what is it about the Western genre that 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 and the story. It is a Western unarguably. There are guys with six guns on horses but it’s not a Zane Gray 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 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 saying, ‘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 ever consider doing it differently or leaving it out?
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’s 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.
EC: 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.
JC: I honestly don’t remember in the original what it was or how it’s even described in the books.
BP: I just thought it would be such an interesting visual to be galloping without your reigns and having to fire 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.
Cheating the Book and The Original Film:
Can you talk about the importance of Western landscapes?
EC: 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 they’re going to — some things you just can’t mess with. People want that.
JC: 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 of the word.
JC: That’s true. It’s about the characters. 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 everywhere from the practical to just, what does the movie actually want to be about?
Making it Their Own:
Is it less a Western and more a dark comedy? And how was it for the actors to perform the stylized dialogue?
JC: Less a Western than a dark comedy. 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.
EC: 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.
Morality Tale [Spoilers]:
Was falling into a pit of snakes a consequence for killing a man?
JC: No, that’s certainly not the reading we were giving to it. We were talking just a little bit about the western genre, and 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 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.
So it’s not a morality tale?
JC: 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?
EC: 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.
True Grit opens in theaters November 22nd. Go See it!