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Coen Brothers Bring New Perspective to Classic American Western, 'True Grit'

Left to right: Hailee Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross, Matt Damon plays LaBeouf, and Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn in Paramount Pictures’ “True Grit.”
Left to right: Hailee Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross, Matt Damon plays LaBeouf, and Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn in Paramount Pictures’ “True Grit.”


Alan Silverman

Oscar-winners Joel and Ethan Coen set their sights on a classic American western novel for their new film: a story of outlaws and lawmen, murder, retribution and redemption ..…a story that was made into a movie once before. Here's a look at the Coen brothers' new adaptation of True Grit.

Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn is a shambling wreck of a man: a grizzled veteran of a few too many shootouts, he wears a black patch over one eye and has the unmistakable whiff of stale whiskey about him. Mattie Ross is barely a teenager in tightly braided pigtails, but she is determined to get justice.

"I'm looking for the man who killed my father. That man's name is Tom Chaney and I need someone to go after him."

"Do you have a lot of experience with bounty hunters?"

"That is a silly question. I am 14."

Impressed by Rooster's reputation for shooting first, Mattie offers him a reward to find her father's killer, thus beginning the biggest adventure of her young life.

Hailee Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross in Paramount Pictures’ “True Grit.”
Hailee Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross in Paramount Pictures’ “True Grit.”

It's the first film role for Hailee Steinfeld who was 13 when the Coens cast her as Mattie.

"I had to learn how to shoot a gun and roll a cigarette. Those were the two main things that I had to learn," she says.

Steinfeld had to get comfortable with the ornate and formal dialogue that comes right from the pages of the novel by Charles Portis.

"When I first got the script that was the first thing that I really had to work on: making sure that I really understood what everything meant," Steinfeld says,  "and then I had to go back through and make sure that I understood what it meant to me emotionally and how I could relate to it in my own life. The accent, just getting on set with everyone talking, it kind of happened naturally."

Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn in Paramount Pictures’ “True Grit.”
Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn in Paramount Pictures’ “True Grit.”

Oscar-winner Jeff Bridges co-stars as Rooster, a man at ease in the saddle and deadly fast with his six-shooter.

"You know, I used to love it when my dad would play a western," Bridges recalls.  "When he would appear at the front door all dressed up in his cowboy clothes it was a thrill to me, so I guess there was some of my dad in there.

His dad was Lloyd Bridges, whose many western roles included several upstanding men with badges; but as played by Jeff Bridges, Rooster is a different breed of lawman.

Left to right: Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn and Matt Damon plays LaBeouf in Paramount Pictures’ “True Grit.”
Left to right: Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn and Matt Damon plays LaBeouf in Paramount Pictures’ “True Grit.”

"I was curious why these guys wanted to make that movie again and I think it was Ethan [Coen] who corrected me and said 'No, we're not making that movie, we're making the book' as if there was no other movie made from it," Bridges says. "I wasn't familiar with the book and he said 'Check that out and tell me what you think.' I read the book and then I saw what they were talking about because it is such a wonderful book and what a great character. Most westerns have that strong, silent type and here is this boorish guy I thought it was going to be a lot of fun."

Of course, it was adapted for the screen once before and John Wayne - "the Duke" - won an Oscar for his performance as one-eyed, drunken Rooster in the 1969 film.

"I never thought about filling the Duke's boots until somebody asked me 'how do you feel about that?' I wasn't thinking about it when I did it. I just did the best I could with the part - what I always try to do," he says.

Left to right: Directors/Co-Writers Ethan and Joel Coen on the set of their film, TRUE GRIT.
Left to right: Directors/Co-Writers Ethan and Joel Coen on the set of their film, TRUE GRIT.

The Coen brothers insist theirs is not a remake, but a more faithful adaptation of the book which, Joel Coen explains, centers on the journey of young Mattie.

"What we took away from it more than a western was almost the sense of it being this youthful adventure story or kind of fitting into the genre of what you might call 'young adult adventure fiction.' That was something really interesting to us, actually, just in terms of how the story worked," Coen says.

In fact, Ethan Coen only reluctantly calls True Grit a 'western'.

"It is a western inarguably. There are guys with six-guns on horses, but it's not a 'Zane Grey' story. It's not a western in that sense and really we were thinking about the novel more than doing a western, per se," he notes.

"What is your intention, Rooster?"

"I am to kill you in one minute, Ned."

"I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man."

True Grit also features Barry Pepper as the bandit 'Lucky Ned.' Matt Damon plays puffed-up Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, who joins Mattie and Rooster in their quest to find killer Tom Chaney, played by Josh Brolin. The frontier sensibility is captured by cinematographer Roger Deakins, a frequent Coen brothers collaborator, as is musical score composer Carter Burwell.

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