LOS ANGELES — In discussing their new film, True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen are clear about one thing: They have zero interest in talking about the 1969 John Wayne film that was also based on Charles Portis’ novel about a tough 14-year-old girl who enlists a grizzled U.S. marshal and a Texas ranger to track down her father’s killer.
“I don’t think any of us thought about much of anything in this with reference to the first movie,” Ethan says. “We had seen the movie when it came out, but we were kids then. We haven’t seen it since and only really vaguely remember it.”
Instead, the brothers looked to Portis’ 1968 book, which focused more on young Mattie Ross (played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) than the first film adaptation. And while the Coen brothers’ eclectic career has covered a slew of genres, they’ve never done a traditional western before — and they’d argue that they still haven’t.
“I don’t think we thought about it as a genre movie so much,” Ethan says. “It is a western inarguably — you know, there are guys with six-guns on horses. But it’s not a western in that sense, and really we were thinking about the story, we were thinking about the novel more than doing a western per se.”
To find the right teenager to go toe-to-toe with Jeff Bridges’ marshal and Matt Damon’s ranger, they set out on a nationwide search — not they really needed to. “If we’d only known. Hailee’s from Thousand Oaks,” Ethan says with a laugh. “We looked all over the country. There were two casting people that spent basically 18 months going everywhere, just everywhere, seeing thousands of girls — and they could have stayed in L.A.”
According to the Coens, what made Steinfeld stand out was her ability to wrap her mouth around the script’s peculiar dialogue style. “99.9 per cent of the hundreds or thousands of girls who read for this part washed out at the level of not being able to do the language, and that was something which was never an issue with Hailee,” Joel says. “Right from the beginning it was clear that she was completely comfortable with the language.”
Though a distinct dialogue style might seem like a hallmark of the Coen brothers, much of the flowery lines of True Grit actually came from the source material.
“The kind of formality of it and the floweriness of it is just from the book,” says Ethan. “That was the first thing Jeff mentioned, noticed and liked — the kind of foreign-sounding nature of the dialogue and the lack of contractions. We just lifted it from the book.”