It wasn’t the celluloid ghost of John Wayne that inspired the Coen brothers to go off into the dusty ravines and bleak prairie land of New Mexico to make “True Grit,” their 15th feature film and first western. No, this was a project with a storybook beginning.
The Coens grew up in a Minneapolis suburb, the children of academics. And in a house full of books, one of the novels that tugged at their imaginations was “True Grit,” the quirky but intense 1968 western by Charles Portis. The Arkansas author, who turns 77 this month, presented a frontier tale that was neither black nor white but always told in satirical shades of Zane Grey.
The Coens, who have been nominated for 10 Academy Awards (and won in the best director and best picture categories for the 2007 film “No Country for Old Men”), are students of film history but say the 1969 Hollywood version of “True Grit,” which won Wayne his only Oscar for best actor, is a bit of a blind spot.
“We both saw the movie as kids when it first came out, but we don’t really remember it very well, honestly,” Ethan Coen said almost apologetically. “I read the book to my kid, out loud, a few years ago and then we started talking about taking our experience of the book and what we liked about the book and making a movie out of that. It’s an unusual western story, a novel that’s very funny and touching and compelling in many, many different ways. So this wasn’t about the  movie.”
Regardless, the title is the same, and for moviegoers of a certain age, this Christmas Day release from Paramount Pictures will be perceived as a remake. That presented the Coens with the challenge of finding someone who could fill Wayne’s boots in the role of besotted U.S. Marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn. Their answer was Jeff Bridges, a native son of Hollywood who memorably worked with the Coens on the 1998 cult hit “The Big Lebowski.”
Bridges, who at 61 is about the same age as Wayne was in his “True Grit” days, knows the headlines are coming — “The Dude meets the Duke” is hard to resist — but the actor who won an Academy Award of his own for last year’s “Crazy Heart” says the Coens’ script and Portis’ novel have so much gravity of their own that he never felt like he was leaning toward the late Wayne.
“It never crossed my mind when we were making the film,” Bridges said of the shoot in New Mexico and West Texas. “It really didn’t. The Coens mentioned the idea of doing a western to me years ago, and I thought that sounded interesting, and then when I got the script and it was ‘True Grit’ I was surprised. Then I read the book and it made perfect sense. It’s very Coen-esque.”
The core story is the same in the novel and both films: A 14-year-old girl, Mattie Ross, hires a cantankerous, one-eyed lawman to track down a hired hand named Chaney who murdered her father. The youngster goes along for the manhunt, as does a Texas Ranger, La Boeuf, who has motives of his own. In the new film, Josh Brolin, with sullen menace and a dim stare, plays Chaney, while Matt Damon is La Boeuf, a sort of preening dime-novel version of a lawman who seems psychologically ambushed by the savage realpolitik of the Old West.
Bridges may find himself in the Oscar race again this year, but this film lives and dies on the performance of Hailee Steinfeld, working in her first feature film. The Coens knew going in that the whole movie was riding on two things: the way their cast looked in the saddle and the way their starlet — who turns 14 on Saturday — handled herself.
“If the actors had not been great riders, we would have been screwed and if we didn’t have the right person in that role we would have been screwed,” Joel Coen said. “It could have gone off the rails pretty quick. She wasn’t acting in vacuum either; she had to hold her own with Jeff and Matt, two actors who have real chops. There’s a big part of moviemaking that is just being lucky, and we were very, very lucky to find her.”
Two casting directors hopscotched across the U.S. for a year, scouring cattle country for someone who could handle the rawhide requirements of the Mattie role. A lot of rodeo riders and ranchland natives auditioned.
“They looked at thousands of people, literally, through online submissions,” Ethan Coen said. “And we found Hailee in L.A. — she’s from Thousand Oaks. The irony of that was not lost on us. She came in late in the process too, maybe just 10 weeks before we started shooting.”
Bridges admits he was worried about the late arrival: “Right up until the first day of the shooting, I didn’t know if she had the goods. She is a lovely person, but I didn’t know if she could handle this role. You have to have chops. You have to have talent. And she does.”
Steinfeld, talking about her character, could have been describing herself among the “Grit” ensemble: “She’s this tough, witty, savvy girl but — as much as she is all that — she still is a 14-year-old girl away from home. She stands up to these guys and that’s what I love about her most. She is very confident. For me, especially it being a period piece, it was like stepping into another world.”
The Coens are known for blue language and black humor that often runs red with blood; most of their movies to date have been R-rated affairs. “True Grit,” though, is PG-13, and that rating was a purposeful priority for the filmmakers.
“A movie that younger audiences wouldn’t be excluded from — that was important,” Joel Coen said. “There was a recollection I had of reading the book as a kid and there was a reason I read it to my kid. I thought he would be interested in it because the protagonist is a child. For the same reason, I think it could be very interesting to kids as a movie. That was the ambition from the beginning.”
His brother added: “The main character is a 14-year-old girl, and I think it’s a movie that 14-year-olds should be able to see and would want to see.”
There’s something about the story that feels like a Mark Twain adventure — maybe it’s the way Brolin’s character channels the guttural malice of Injun Joe or the way Mattie has a bit of Tom, Becky and Huck in her persona.
“Mattie is a bit more of a pill than Tom Sawyer, a product of rectitude, you know? But they are equally compelling characters,” Ethan Coen said. “She’s a go-getter, she’s no shirker.” Joel Coen added: “They both end up in caves and startlingly close to dead people. It’s really true that in young-adult adventure a lot of time they end up close to dead people — skeletons and creepy things and all that, all very basic in the fairy-tale sort of scary way.”
It’s not clear, however, if the film’s moments of wrenching violence will make it the holiday movie choice for families. And then there’s the language barrier: Dying characters who announce “I am shot to pieces!” may make some contemporary audiences giggle at the wrong moments, and mainstream America might not be as excited as the Coens about Portis’ oratorical curlicues and contraction-free speechifying of the 19th century.
Bridges, however, thinks people will be charmed to hear his crowing Rooster.
“Rooster has all these wonderful long monologues — you think he’d be the strong silent type, but instead he’s this blustering boor in a way. He wants to tell his life story and you can’t shut this guy up. Everybody in the film is a talker, and it’s fascinating stuff, really, these lives and voices that feel like part of another time.”
The film is full of sweeping vistas and haunting textures, much of that the work of Roger Deakins, a cinematographer who has been nominated for eight Oscars but has never won. The Coens used more computer graphics on this project (for action scenes and safety reasons) than on their previous movies and encountered new challenges. As Joel Coen put it: “You know what changes the nature of a production? Working with animals. That was new for us — horses.”
There’s one especially intense scene where Cogburn gallops into gunfire and, facing superior numbers, puts his tether between his teeth so he can use both hands to shoot. It’s a high-adrenaline moment and it was done without a stunt double or CG, a fact that the cast and crew are still talking about.
“For me it was the excitement of being a kid and the fear of falling off, but we did it,” Bridges said. “It was a hot, windy, gusty day. It was one of things I’ll remember about making the movie, that and seeing the Coens in cowboy hats. That put a smile on my face.”
Wearing hats was about as far as western adventure went for the citified Coens. “I did not get on a horse, not once,” Ethan Coen said. “If ever we were going on a horse, this was the time. It didn’t happen.”