Inside The Coen Brothers’ True Grit
When tackling a classic film such as True Grit, a movie that won legend John Wayne an Oscar, every filmmaker and actor involved must tread lightly. Maybe must is too strong of a word -- many directors would go at the effort with complete disregard of the previous story’s incarnation on screen. That is exactly what the Coen brothers did with their latest contribution to their film library.
Joel and Ethan Coen felt a strong connection to the book that the 1969 film was loosely based on and given the fact that the original film strayed heavily from the written page, the Coen brothers wanted to pay tribute on screen to the story's true origins in Charles Portis' novel.
Joel and Ethan, having been enraptured by the source material, found that putting words to page as screenwriters came easily. What else came easily was zeroing in on the talent they wanted to fill the film's iconic roles. "Josh Brolin and Matt Damon we thought would be very interesting," Joel Cohen said. "With a lot of these things, casting movie stars like Matt and Josh, you think about them and then it's the process of sorting out whether or not it's actually going to work in terms of their availability."
The third actor in the Coen brothers' trifecta of talent was an old friend of the pair -- Jeff Bridges. The Oscar-winning actor famously hooked up with the brothers Coen on their film The Big Lebowski. Bridges created a movie icon with his performance as The Dude. But, when it came to remaking a beloved movie, Bridges initially had some pause over tackling the character of Rooster Cogburn.
Showing True Grit"When the Coens first mentioned the idea of making True Grit, I said, 'Gee, didn't they make that movie? Why do you want to do it again?' They said, 'We're not remaking the film. We're making a version of the original book by Charles Portis.' So I read the book and I immediately saw what they were talking about," Bridges said. "It seemed like the perfect story for the Coens to make into a movie. And since they have never made an actual Western adventure before, it was going to be a surprise."
Damon immediately fell in love with Portis' novel after it was gifted to him by the Oscar-winning brothers. "I'd never read the book until the Coens gave it to me, but it's a fantastic American novel that deserves to be recognized as that," Damon said.
Then, when Damon read the Coen brothers' script for True Grit, he was eager to get filming and tackle the role of Texas lawman LaBoeuf. "Their adaptation was just great. They used so much of the original dialogue and captured Charles Portis' ear for the way people really spoke. I was just floored by it. Yet you always feel the Coens' voice because they're such powerful artists."
Jeff Bridges on Matt DamonBridges, who had never worked with Damon prior to True Grit, got a complete delight in the experience of sparring on screen with the actor. Bridges took particular pleasure in watching Damon tackle his role. "He makes for a terrific Texas Ranger," Bridges said. "He brings a lot of comedy and character to it, and he rides beautifully. His acting was just superb and whenever you work with an actor who brings so much to it like that, it improves your own game and everybody else's."
Matt Damon on Jeff BridgesAs for Damon, he saw the opportunity to star with Bridges as a career must. "Jeff makes for a classic American protagonist because he is so perfectly imperfect," Damon said. "He's funny, he's dynamic and he brings a joy to his work that is infectious."
When it came to the movie's characters, the power came from both Portis' book and the Coens' script. Damon plays LaBoeuf and Bridges inhabits Cogburn. Both actors reveled in how their parts didn't quite get along. "They're like oil and water," said Damon. "Rooster doesn't see much value in LaBoeuf and LaBoeuf is very proud. He's trying to impress Rooster yet he is also irked that Rooster clearly doesn't appreciate what it means to be a Texas Ranger, which to him is a very big deal. It's one of those fun relationships, with this macho thing going on whenever they're in front of each other -- yet then you also see the reality of who they are when they're not trying to strut their feathers."
Mattie makes movie magicCritics have been raving [SheKnows did!] about the young actress who plays the girl who hires Bridges' Rooster to track down the man who killed her father. Hailee Steinfeld even has Oscar buzz surrounding her for her stunning portrayal of Mattie Ross. "She gives an incredible performance, which is also a testimony to Joel and Ethan, and how well they directed her. They talked to her like they talked to Jeff or to me, because they knew she could handle it," Damon reported.
Bridges could not agree more. "Mattie is the most challenging role in the film. The whole screenplay is centered around her," Bridges said.
"I was worried at first about Hailee because this is her first movie, but by the end of the first day of filming, I just said, 'Oh, God, did we luck out with her!' She has a wonderful sweetness but then she overlays that with the hard edge of this character. She pulled it off so well, she didn't require much advice."
Damon adds that the crux of the film's power stems from the dynamic between his, Bridges' and Mattie's characters. "It's a really interesting dynamic between Mattie, Rooster and LaBoeuf. She's coming of age in this hard world and they are kind of like big brothers or fathers to her, both trying to impress her, to show that they're in charge, and yet both turn out to be truly honorable to her," Damon said.
At the heart of the Coen brothers' film is Bridges' character, once embodied by the late, great John Wayne. When asked what aspect of the iconic role Bridges found most compelling, his answer came as quickly as a pistol being drawn at high noon. "Rooster Cogburn kind of straddles the law, he's got one foot on the side of the law and one foot entirely against it," Bridges said. "But Mattie is looking for a man who has true grit, and that, he certainly has in spades. He's got that thing where no matter how tough the situation is, he's going to see it through to the end."