Interview: Cast and creative team behind True Grit (2010)

Originally published in Picktainment:

Joel and Ethan Coen and the cast of True Grit gathered at the Four Seasons hotel for a frank discussion of this new Western adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel. Though not a direct re-make of the 1969 film starring John Wayne, this new interpretation draws from the same source material to bring out a dark, epic journey into unknown territory in search of a killer. The cast includes the very talented and young Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, in an iconic role that he soon redefines, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper, and cinematographer Roger Deakins.


What advice that the actors in this film gave you did you take to heart?

I think the best advice they gave me was to not to take anything too seriously but to have fun and to take it somewhat seriously.

How difficult was working with the script?

The script as a whole spoke to me. That’s the first thing I had to work with when I got the script. With the accent, it all fell into place, making the language sound natural.

Did you do your own stunts?

I already knew how to ride horses, but I learned the English-style so I had to learn how to ride for the movie.

You were sensational in this movie. Where did you come from and what did you learn?

I learned to ride horses and roll a cigarette. Where did I come from? I don’t know. I’ve been acting since I was 8.

EC: we looked for 18 months and used 2 casting people to look for the right girl and we ended up finding her right here in L.A.


That campfire scene where Mattie and Chaney meet for the first time is so tense and amazing. How did you guys rehearse that?

It was like 15 minutes after I met Josh, we were rehearsing that and Josh was on top of me with a knife.

Josh Brolin: she’s so precocious and amazing and I just kind of went with it. It was more nerve wracking for me than it was for her. She’s very comfortable in her own skin. She’s super confident. It was an incredible experience. I can’t tell you the process because it was a very easy scene.

How was it being the only girl in the film and how did you learn to shoot a gun?

I learned to shoot a gun before I went on location. I went with my dad and a friend who’s an LAPD officer who told me everything I needed to know. Working with all those men… It wasn’t bad. Actually, I was surrounded by women all the time. The hair/make-up person was a woman, the wardrobe, my mom, my tutor. The men, well, they’re like big kids so it was fun.


Did you have any hesitation playing this iconic character?

I was curious why these guys [the Coen Brothers] wanted to make that movie again and I think it was Ethan who talked to me first and corrected me and he said, “no we’re not making that movie, we’re making the book.” I wasn’t familiar with the book so when I read the book and that’s when I saw what they were talking about because it’s a wonderful book and it suited me so well and what a great character. Most Westerns have that strong silent type and here’s this boorish character.

Why has they eye-patch been moved from left eye to right eye? Did you think about it or did it just happen?

We played back and forth with it but at the end of the day it just happened. It wasn’t intentional.

What qualities of Rooster should men aspire to?

My definition of true grit is seeing one thing through to the end. That’s a good thing. I aspire to that.

Can you talk a little about the scene with the reins in your mouth. It looked similar to the John Wayne version. Did you think about doing it differently?

I remember that day well. I was a little anxious. There was a little fear. Me, riding that horse, using my teeth… so we tried it that way and it wasn’t as tough as I thought. It was actually kind of cool. The horse kept the rhythm well and it was pretty simple from my point of view.

JC: We never considered leaving the scene out. It’s the big action climax of the movie. What Jeff was doing just from a riding point of view, that’s what we assumed would be done in the context that would actually show him riding a horse without having the reins in his hands, firing his guns, and riding the horse. There were things in the scene that Jeff Bridges had to do that were difficult and aren’t in the original movie that Roger had to shoot, like getting the camera into certain positions to capture that scene.

EC: I don’t think any of us thought about it with reference to the original movie or thought much of anything in reference to that first movie. So no. We didn’t think about changing it to distinguish ourselves from that.

Barry Pepper: That scene is such an intrinsic part of the novel. In order to have a faithful adaptation of the novel you couldn’t righteously avoid it. It’s beat for beat in the novel and Roosters character describes how he did it in a previous shoot out and he emulates it again in this scene.

At what point did you finally nail this character the way you portrayed him?

Each scene is an opportunity to show a different facet of the character your portraying. I look at the script and the book and see what all characters say about your character and informs you quite a bit. Then you work with the costume designer—it’s a collaborative effort that makes a film. Your character starts to fall into place and there’s a point where it starts to tell you what it wants, rather than the other way around. The same thing happens with the movie, where you want to try to do something but it just doesn’t work because it doesn’t go with the movie you’re trying to make. That’s a wonderful time when that happens.

How difficult was it to speak in that language without contractions?

It was great for me. It was fun to try something new.

Who did you use as a model?

I used to love it when my dad [Lloyd Bridges] would play a Western. He’d appear at the door in his cowboy outfit. It was a thrill for me.

This type of film is a big departure from your other film about to be released, that one being a more clean-cut sci-fi movie.

That’s what is so much fun about my job. I get to play all different guys. We did a re-shoot for Tron a week after we completed True Grit and I had the same make-up guy. We went from Rooster with all the dirt and the grime and dirty teeth to him putting on hundreds of motion-capture dots all over my face. It’s bizarre. That’s the gig, that’s the fun of it.


What was the most challenging part of making this film?

JC: It’s a largely exterior movie and we had to shoot in difficult places and the weather was very uncooperative and so we were trying to get a lot of thing done like in the number of set ups we usually do during the day, we had to stay on schedule. It was difficult to shoot this movie on such a short period of time.

You’ve done all types of genre films from screwball comedies to film noir. What about the Western, specifically, did you want to convey or for that matter refute by making this film?

We didn’t really think of it as a genre film so much. It was an interesting novel. It is a western inarguably, but the story is not really a Western in that sense. We were thinking about the novel more than doing a Western.

Can you talk a little about the iconic elements of the western the landscapes used in them and did you give any thought to actually shooting it in Arkansas?

JC: We looked in Colorado and looked in Utah. New Mexico had a lot of the landscape needed. But we knew we wanted to have snow in the movie. The trick was snow – but not too much snow. We weren’t sure if we were going to get any snow that time of year in Arkansas. The one thing that’s not faithful to the novel is the landscape. We thought people would think it’s a Western and some things you just can’t mess with. There are different considerations that you go into where you’re shooting at night from the practical to what is the movie actually going to be about.

After watching this movie, it feels less a Western and more of a really dark and stylized dark comedy. Is that what you were going for?

JC: There’s certainly a lot of humor in the novel, which really attracted us to adapting it. What was funny in the book came through in the movie. The foreign-sounding nature of the dialogue was not a problem for us. We just lifted it from the novel.

Pepper: it was more like American Shakespeare, this sort of iambic pentameter with a musicality and rhythm to it that you’re working very much with what’s on the page as opposed to working with rewrites. Charles Portis has a very specific vernacular that’s so authentic in my mind. I think it was the way these people spoke back then. A lot of them were illiterate and raised on the King James Bible and that’s the way they spoke. I think a lot of Westerns miss that.

JC: When we first saw the first take of Hailee doing a scene in the movie, she had it.  A lot of the other girls who auditioned couldn’t handle the language. Hailee was comfortable from the start.

EC: The frame of reference for her character in the novel in first person is the King James Bible. That’s the kind of style we adopted.

Was there a sense of consequence in the scene where Mattie falls into the pit of snakes immediately after shooting Chaney?

JC: No. I think that’s certainly not the reading we were giving to it. One of the things that struck us about the novel, just generically, was that what we took from it more than a Western was the sense of it being a youthful adventure story. Fitting into the genre of Young Adult adventure fiction.

Is it a morality tale?

That’s certainly an element of the novel.

While translating the novel, where there things in the original film that you wanted to pay homage to?

EC: Not for us. Not the negative either.

The beginning of the film opens with a quote from Proverbs and Mattie has a sort of divine sense of mission to get justice, was that something inherent to the book?

JC: Yea, it’s in the book. The opening voice over is taken directly to the book in reference to that particular Proverb. The divine sense of mission is definitely a big part of the novel. In every respect, the answer is yes.


What kind of research did you do for the characters to get into the spirit of the time in which the film is set?

JC: We researched Charles Portis. The book was obviously very period. He was steeped into that period. We were trying not to do any work we didn’t have to. That’s our point of view.

Josh Brolin: I think there’s a couple of things that happen. Being authentic is important. But authenticity in place of fluidity can be dangerous. I’ve seen films where they took in all the details and I’ve never been so bored in my life. I think there needs to be some fluidity there and that happens in rehearsal. You try to create these composite things, with what works. What I came in with wasn’t working at all and we all knew it, but we keep mixing it up and then a little voice thing comes up and it clicks and then it works. Everything starts to come together.

At what point do visuals enter into your screenwriting process?

It depends. Sometimes there are some places where you’re writing and you’re thinking about what it’s going to look like. There are others when Roger will figure it out for us. It’s all over the map.

Roger Deakins, Ethan’s protestation that this is not a Western, there are some visual elements that bring to mind the Western. How did you approach that, especially in the use of lighting in this film?

Deakins: It just posed different situations that tried to recreate a realistic look: firelight, moonlight, and late-night exteriors. I tried to make it as realistic as possible because that’s what the film was. But there were instances where you had to stretch it, make it poetic, whether it’s a western or not. That wasn’t what was important. It was what the script demanded.

What was done in this production to reduce the carbon footprint of the production—anything that you did to leave the environment as you found it?

BP: I can answer that one. One of the things we got at the start of the shoot were these stainless steel water bottles with a note that said “By utilizing this stainless steel water bottle, we’ll have pumping station of clean water everywhere you go. We’ll save 30,000 plastic water bottles during the course of this film making.”


In the film you play a violent simpleton. Where do you have to go as an actor to try to find that?

It found me. When I came into the film, I spoke to brothers and we talked about how Chaney was a dim bulb and I said it was more of a broken bulb with no filament at all. I liked the idea of doing this duality of a guy who’s talked about throughout the whole movie. Then when you see him for the first time, you expect a monster, and then he starts talking and he’s a different kind of guy. It was fun being able to do that. A lot of that came together in rehearsals and then you start to find it.


West Side Story

They were going to call it East Side Story. They didn’t, and West Side Story, which opened fifty-three years ago on Broadway, changed the face of musical theater.

Originally this adaptation of Romeo and Juliet was to focus on the anti-Semitism behind the conflict between an Italian-American Roman Catholic family and a Jewish family living in the Lower East Side. Instead, West Side Story centered on the Hells Kitchen area of New York City where a group of immigrants – Puerto Ricans – clashes with the Americans already in the mean streets.

By moving their locale a few miles west and focusing on the quintessentially American struggle with assimilating new cultures and languages, the creative team broke new ground and an American classic was born.

The problem with classics is that the Powers That Be – in other words, producers – tend to develop nervous twitches when innovators want to breathe new life into an old musical. There is a lot that is right with this production, which boasts a recreation of Arthur Laurents’ (he also wrote the book), Broadway direction by David Saint and the original Jerome Robbins’ choreography reproduced by Joey McKneely, but there is a lot more wrong with it. In the end, it’s a hollow museum piece best appreciated for what it used to be rather than what it is.

Is it fair to compare the original to this new production? In other instances, it wouldn’t, but when this new production has gone to such lengths to reproduce the original, it’s hard not to. Beginning with the opening number ballet and moving on to “Dance at the Gym,” the show-stopping “America,” and “Somewhere,” it’s obvious that Robbins’ daring and original movement (for its time) is now quaint and dated.

The Jets and the Sharks are more skilled dancers than warring gang members, and the menace is gone. Thankfully, the powerful love story is still there, with a very strong Tony (Kyle Harris) and a very talented Maria (Ali Ewoldt’s voice is fragile yet determined at the same time). Michelle Aravena’s Anita is a three-dimensional character that is both funny and heartbreaking.

There has been an effort to bring some contemporary relevance to this production of West Side Story – primarily in the book and in some of the lyrics. Lin-Manuel Miranda (of In The Heights fame) was hired to re-work and infuse the bi-racial story with actual Spanish into the text and music. However, it is evident that most of the actors who handled the Spanish, primarily Ewoldt in “I Feel Pretty” and Aravena in “A Boy Like That” had trouble enunciating the lyrics. The Spanish portion of the songs were muffled and hard to understand, even for a Spanish speaker like myself.

For some odd reason, this touring production takes those two songs and mashes them together into a sort of Spanglish that backfires on itself. It doesn’t work as effectively as it does on the Grammy-winning Broadway cast recording that daringly blends “I Feel Pretty” and “A Boy Like That” together presents them completely in Spanish, giving a much-needed cultural authenticity to the whole show.

Leonard Bernstein’s beautiful score and Stephen Sondheim’s witty lyrics are definitely the highlight of this musical. For those who have never had an opportunity to see this on stage, it is an adequate production, if soulless, safe, and by the numbers.

Through January 2, 2011 at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. For tickets and information, please call 1-800-982-ARTS (2787) or visit

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