To hear Joel and Ethan Coen tell it, the making of their new movie, True Grit, which comes out on Wednesday, was an exercise in passivity.
They read Charles Portis’ Western novel about a plucky young heroine determined to avenge the death of her father, liked it, and adapted it into a screenplay. Or, as Ethan said at a press conference at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles recently, “We just lifted from the book.” As for the earlier film version of the novel—which came out in 1969 and is most famous for winning John Wayne his first and only Academy Award—they didn’t bother to re-watch it, having seen it years ago when they were kids.
“It’s weird,” Joel said, in an interview held in one of the hotel’s suites earlier in the day, where his tall, wiry frame was sprawled out on a sofa, one long leg propped up on a coffee table. With his thick-framed glasses, graying beard, and wild, shaggy hair, he looked like a professor on his coffee break. “I remember a couple points in production, actually saying, ‘You know, I should rent the movie and see it.’ And I just never got around to it. It’s really funny. It sounds unbelievable, but I just didn’t get around to it.”
“Yeah,” chimed in Ethan, the quieter of the two, who seems more like a grad student, with short, curly hair, and less prominent spectacles, “We just weren’t interested enough.”
But to take the Coens at face value is to participate in their eccentric brand of brainy looniness. They are, after all, America’s masters of cinematic irony and understated hilarity, whose films and characters—Marge Gunderson in Fargo; Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man—are always teetering on the border between the deadly serious and the hysterical. Somewhere, there is always a joke, however veiled it is in weighty portent and meaning. Or, as the case is right now, insignificance.
Though in person, it is admittedly hard to locate the joke. The brothers, who grew up in an academic household in Minnesota and both have prestigious degrees (Ethan studied philosophy at Princeton, Joel pursued film at New York University), really do sound serious, even earnest, when they say that they never watch their films out of “lack of interest” and that the story of how they work together is “boring.”
“Whoever’s closest to the question, answers it, that’s really the extent of it,” Joel says dryly.
Naturally, when asked if there has been any evolution in their filmography, conscious or not, they say they don’t know. Nor do they seem to care.
Joel Coen: “In the press they go, ‘They’ve been withholding this.’ I’m going, ‘The movie didn’t exist!’”
But it’s hard not to sense a new direction, or perhaps maturation, with True Grit, which is the closest the writer-directors, who have been steadily churning out films since the mid-1980’s, have come to making a straight, i.e., non-ironic film. Rest assured, there is plenty of Coen-style absurdity throughout, mostly in the script’s dialogue, which is a blend of King James Bible verse and showy cowboy talk (Matt Damon as a Texas Ranger is particularly amusing), but there are many points at which the film plays like a straight Western. The violence is, for the most part, not funny. And the film’s heroine—played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld—is a much fuller, more flesh-and-blood character than, say, the more outlandish caricature that was The Dude.
Speaking of Jeff Bridges, who immortalized that philosophical beach bum in The Big Lebowski, he reunites with the Coens in True Grit, in the role of Rooster Cogburn, a curmudgeonly U.S. Marshall, who dominates the screen with his bear-like physicality and voice that sounds like a crank that hasn’t been oiled, or used, in decades.
“He was natural for this part,” Joel said of the casting choice, which is already garnering Oscar buzz.
Ethan’s more Coen-like explanation: “I think both parties assumed we’d do another movie together, and in the movies we’ve done, there wasn’t anything for Jeff, and in this one there was.”
As for whether Bridges, or anyone, paid much attention to the fact that he was stepping into Wayne’s iconic boots, “Really not,” Joel said. “You would be surprised to the extent nobody was really thinking about that stuff.”
At the press conference when Bridges—who is still looking very much like Bad Blake, the Crazy Heart character for which he won an Oscar earlier this year, with shoulder-length tresses and a full beard—said that the Coens made it very clear that they were not remaking the movie, but Portis’ novel.
“I read the book, and then I saw what they were talking about,” Bridges said in his signature gravelly voice. “It’s such a wonderful book, and it suited them so well, I thought. And God, what a great character. You know, most Westerns have that strong, silent type, and here’s this boorish blab-blab-blab [character], so that was fun.”
By now, 26 years after the Coen’s made their feature debut, Blood Simple, it’s taken for granted that, come Oscar time, there will be a Coen Brothers film making the rounds. They’ve had one Best Picture winner and one Best Director winner ( No Country for Old Men), been behind winners in the acting categories (Frances McDormand, Joel’s real-life wife, in Fargo; Javier Bardem in No Country) and nominations in major categories for O Brother, Where Art Thou, and A Serious Man. They are the nerdy New Yorkers Hollywood loves to love—even more so than Woody Allen, now that his work has taken a mostly underwhelming turn (and gone abroad).
Considering this, it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t until Fargo, which won Best Original Screenplay in 1996, that the Coens’ offbeat humor and sensibility finally resonated with the old, stodgy guard at the Academy. Until then, they were consummate outsiders, continually snubbed by Oscar voters, despite some rather fine work, such as Raising Arizona, Blood Simple, Barton Fink, and Miller’s Crossing.
Ethan’s thoughts on this 180-degree shift: “Yes. That’s really weird.”
Joel: “Yeah. Who would’ve thunk?”
Ethan: “Then it’s weird. Then you become vested and you go off and make a little movie where a guy smokes dope with Mrs. Samsky (a character in A Serious Man) and fantasizes about having sex with her, and they nominate that for an Academy Award!”
Indeed, so synonymous are the Coens with Academy Awards that Paramount asked the brothers if they could fast-track the making of True Grit in order to have it ready for the holidays—i.e., Oscar release season. This meant that the film wasn’t finished—and Paramount brass didn’t see it—until, literally, a few weeks before its release.
The delay in screenings sparked rumors that Paramount was keeping the film under wraps for other reasons, and being coy with a film that critics and awards prognosticators were champing at the bit to see.
“They decided before we started shooting the movie, they said, ‘We’d like you to get this ready in time for Christmas, can you do that?’” said Joel. “We went, ‘Er, OK. That’s very short, but we think we can.’ And then it was a big crunch to get it through. But it is interesting, in the press they go, ‘They’ve been withholding this.’ I’m going, ‘The movie didn’t exist!’
And now that it does exist?
“We don’t actually think about our movies once they’re done,” said Ethan. “We think about them in a very specific way when we’re doing them, which is how to do them. Once they’re done, they’re done. We certainly don’t look back.”
Joel nodded his head. “With True Grit, we won’t even watch it again.”
He paused. “Honestly.”
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.