As western True Grit has taken off as the surprise hit of the Christmas season (topping a field of weak contenders), and has emerged a strong awards contender (with recent PGA and WGA nods), the usually taciturn Joel and Ethan Coen are on the promo trail. Here’s a taste of their sound bites from various interviews.
Joel: If you went back and looked at the initial response to a lot of our movies, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve read, ‘this is different type of Coen brothers movie, or this is a Coen brothers movie for people who don’t like the Coen brothers.’ That response becomes weirdly the norm. We don’t really think about it that way. It’s just another story we’re telling.
Ethan: It’s a weird thing, it’s not as if we pee on a movie to make it ours and we refrain from peeing on this one. It’s hard to know what to make of it. It’s whateva.
On why True Grit didn’t get Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild attention:
Joel: “I don’t know, they’re all peculiar institutions, aren’t they. There’s particular momentum to a season and there’s kind of career momentum. The weird thing is you become invested in certain parts of the business that you ignore for years and years. It’s like going to Cannes. When you’re first starting out you want your movie to go to Cannes, and then you get a movie in and you become part of that culture.”
Ethan: “The weird thing is not that we get [or don’t get] nominated for Globes…To us it’s weird that we still get nominated for these things. I remember being at the Oscars last year, down in the pit, and I looked around and thought, Jesus,” expletive, “I actually know most of these people! I’m a Hollywood insider, that’s kind of bizarre.”
As for being mainstream filmmakers with box office success:
Joel: I said to Ethan at one point, I guess this is the one really weird thing that hasn’t happened to us yet. It’s like real cliché – I’ve seen everything now!
The brothers: It’s in-arguably a Western. There are guns and people riding around on horses, but it’s not a Zane Grey story – it’s not a Western in that sense…[it’s more of a] beautiful young adult adventure story [in which Mattie Ross has a] divine sense of mission.
Ethan: Genre is always a big deal with writer/journalists. But you know… I guess inarguably [True Grit] is a western but it kind of is and is not. I mean the book… is it or isn’t it? It’s not a Zane Grey story, you know, that’s a western.
Joel: Part of what was so compelling to us about the novel is that you’d almost call it young adult adventure fiction. It has that element which is very strong. It seems to be stamped more strongly with that than the western genre to me in many ways.
On what happens if you miscast the Mattie Ross character:
Ethan: You’re totally screwed…We were well aware that if we got that wrong we were totally screwed.
Joel: And she was cast late. If it was more than a month before we started shooting, it couldn’t have been much more. It’s funny because casting people looked all over the country at thousands of other girls and we ended up casting this girl who was from Thousand Oaks, California – basically from L.A.
Ethan: We actually thought about not casting her just because otherwise it meant we were wasting the time and hard work of all these casting directors…[However] we’d seen an audition tape so we knew she was serious and that she was really good so we brought her in with Jeff Bridges and Barry Pepper (Lucky Ned) and Dakin Matthews who plays Colonel Stonehill. She read scenes with each of them and she was great.
Ethan: The dialogue…the formality of it and the floweriness of it also is just from the book…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.
Joel: I have to say, one of the things, when we first saw the first take of Hailee [Steinfeld] 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 as we needed them to]. 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.
Joel: We left all the research to Charles Portis. The book was, obviously, 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.