True Grit 2010 – BEHIND THE SCENES
BEHIND THE SCENES – with Jeff Bridges & Matt Damon
In 1968, The Saturday Evening Post published a serial novel that riveted readers with a story that immediately felt like a grand and timeless American legend, and kept them hungering for more. This was Charles Portis’ True Grit, the tale of an unusually stalwart young girl seeking to avenge her father’s death with the aid of a washed-up, frontier lawman and a forthright Texas Ranger who all set out into Indian Territory to find the killer. Laced with deadpan humor, rife with ruggedly individualistic characters, and cut through with richly American themes, the novel would take on a life of its own.
Like Mattie Ross, it would cross the river into that realm where real life events turn into tall tales and legends, becoming both a bestseller and an enduring literary classic, passed from reader to reader and writer to writer, over the decades. The book was soon being taught in schools, became a 1969 movie starring John Wayne, and the title was woven into the very fabric of the language.
The words "true grit" came to represent the kind of single-minded, cocksure gutsiness that can see a person through incomprehensible circumstances – a concept at the core of the American spirit. But Portis’ story was about more than courage. Narrated by the starkly unsentimental spinster that Mattie Ross becomes in the wake of her escapade, it also probed the restlessness of the American character, with its conflicts between the yearning for adventure and the need for home, between the desire to right injustices and the cost of such retribution to body and soul. The characters of Mattie, Rooster Cogburn and LaBoeuf clash in big ways not just with each other and the outlaws they’re after, but with their own hearts as they veer between the untamed and the righteous.
What lends the novel its timelessness and transcendent quality most of all is Mattie’s voice, which stands apart in literature. Best-selling author George Pelecanos in a 1996 NPR interview, explained: "Mattie’s voice, wry and sure, is one of the great creations of modern fiction. I put it up there with Huck Finn’s and that is not hyperbole . . . Most importantly, it can be appreciated by readers of various ages, education levels and economic backgrounds. It’s an egalitarian work of art."
Portis ultimately wrote five novels (True Grit was his second, after Norwood), and over the years, readers have fallen in love with his alchemical blend of comic folksiness and bold archetypal themes. Among those who came to admire Portis’ works were Joel and Ethan Coen, who themselves have spun some of the most compelling motion picture tales of our times, starting with the noir classic Blood Simple and including Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, the Oscar-winning Fargo, The Man Who Wasn’t There, O Brother Where Art Thou?, the Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men and A Serious Man.
"We’d read Charles Portis’ books but this one seemed especially amenable to have a movie made from it," says Ethan of their decision to adapt True Grit.
The brothers were drawn to Portis’ daring decision to place an irrepressible young girl at the center of a novel rife with brutality, irony and harsh realities, which appealed to their sense of the unusual. Mattie’s story is certainly full of the raw humanity and ink black wit that have often characterized the Coens’ cinematic vision, but at the same time, True Grit is a departure for them, featuring their most unabashedly literary, emotional and direct storytelling.
"The story is definitely in that weird genre of young persons’ adventures," says Joel.
"It’s told by this very self assured 14 year-old girl," adds Ethan, "which is probably what makes the book so strange and funny. But it’s also like Alice in Wonderland because this 14 year-old girl finds herself in an environment that’s really, now-a-days, exotic."
Ethan continues: "That’s another thing about the book — the setting is really exotic but obviously Portis knew the period and the place. He made the details of the setting so vividly real that they became surreal."
The novel is also decidedly a Western, a genre that the Coen brothers wanted to tackle outright for the first time. Although some might want to put No Country for Old Men in that category, for Joel and Ethan that film was a modern thriller. The tones of the two films diverge. "No Country For Old Men was set in Texas," explains Joel, "but it was a contemporary movie. Nobody rides a horse in it except in the respect that people still ride to get into the backcountry. We never really considered that a Western. That was in our minds something different."
The screenplay stayed faithful to Portis’ construction of the novel, which keeps Mattie at its core and brings her full circle as a tough, old woman searching for Rooster Cogburn in a faded Memphis Wild West Show. Echoing Portis, they aimed to give Mattie’s voice – as plain, unflinching and sonorous as an old ballad – its full due on the screen, and to paint the equally mesmerizing Rooster Cogburn and the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf through the light of her recognition –or hope — that they all might be connected by something gritty and honorable in their spirits.
Jeff Bridges, who was cast in the role of Cogburn, says it was the idea of mixing the book’s authentic cadence and rollicking yet moving tone with the Coens’ cinematic approach that got him so excited to tackle an iconic character in a fresh way.
"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?’ and 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. 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."
Adds Matt Damon, who plays LaBoeuf, "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. 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."
Concludes Barry Pepper, who plays the outlaw Lucky Ned, and works with the Coens for the first time on True Grit: "The dialogue in the novel is like cowboy poetry done by Shakespeare. The Coen brothers got that rhythm, that precise musicality. What’s remarkable about their adaptation is how specific and true the language is. The way they have re-interpreted and then visually expanded on what Portis did in his novel is something quite beautiful and special."
Driven as much by the dynamics of character as action, True Grit’s casting would be crucial — and, as with many of the Coen brothers’ films, the screenplay drew a decorated roster of actors. However, carrying the film would be an absolute beginner: Hailee Steinfeld, who turned the larger than life tenacity, forbearance and spunk of the book’s heroine-narrator Mattie Ross into the flesh and blood of an unusual child who doesn’t varnish her opinions, or relent on her intentions, for anyone.
The task of casting Mattie was complex. The character is on a very short list of epically courageous female characters in classic American literature, and even on that short list, is quite unique. She has been compared to Huck Finn (by Walker Percy, Donna Tartt and George Pelecanos, among others) for her stark individualism and encapsulation of American qualities – and yet she is most assuredly not a boy. Smart, feisty, sharp-tongued and dead true, Mattie is a force to be reckoned with – and yet, she is undeniably a child. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, Mattie is a long, long way from home – and yet the way back must be extracted in blood.
The challenge at hand was to find an actress who could imbue Mattie with equal parts innocence and insolence, who could get at both the girlish tenderness and the unassailable grit in her being. Casting directors Ellen Chenoweth and Rachel Tenner spent months crossing the nation, holding open casting calls and watching thousands of girls.
Then, at the very last moment, they found it. The needle in the haystack was 13 year-old Hailee Steinfeld who struck the filmmakers not only with her vivid personality, but her apparent fearlessness.
"After seeing people from all over, ironically we ended up choosing a young girl from the Los Angeles area so it just goes to show," comments Joel. "We cast Hailee pretty much just before we started shooting, and we were very lucky to find her."
"Kind of like the character, she’s totally imperturbable and unintimidated," Ethan says.
Steinfeld is forthright about her love of the character. "Who wouldn’t be attracted to Mattie?" she asks. "She’s tough, she’s witty and she’s just fourteen, which is incredible. She has one goal, to find the killer of her father, and she tells herself she will not go on with her life until it is done – and then she goes for it.
That’s the main similarity between us: that we would both stop at nothing to get what we want."
Hailee so wanted the part that she turned up at her final audition in a burlap skirt and outfit her mother had handcrafted from Salvation Army clothes. "I read with Jeff Bridges and Barry Pepper and I felt really prepared and ready. That was a good feeling," she recalls.
There was no trepidation involved. "I was more fascinated by the Coens than intimidated by them," she explains. "They, and all of the actors, were so humble that they didn’t come off as intimidating at all. They all treated me like one of their own."
Still, there was a lot for Steinfeld to learn, especially in the way of riding and shooting, Mattie being unusually skilled at both for a young girl. Hailee already knew how to ride, but in the English style. "I took lessons to get me in the zone of Western riding," Steinfeld recalls. "And shooting a gun was completely new to me, so my Dad took me to a shooting range so I could get more familiar with it. It really helped because I learned about the kickback. There’s no kickback with a blank gun, but Mattie gets knocked back and had to know what that felt like."
For Steinfeld, one of the biggest surprises turned out to be her fellow actors’ performances. "You know, you read the book and you have a vision in your mind of what it’s going to be and then these guys do it and it’s completely different and not at all what you might expect. It was really amazing to experience that because it’s how I want to be as an actor," she muses.
In one scene, Steinfeld had to endure an epic spanking from Matt Damon’s LaBoeuf, but even then, she was unflappable. "After every take, Matt would say, ‘oh my gosh, are you OK? I didn’t hurt you, right? You promise you’ll tell me if I do.’ But I thought it was fun," she admits, "and also funny."
She concludes: "For me it was a lot to comprehend that I was making a movie with this amazing group of actors. I just felt blessed and thankful to be exactly where I want to be."
The casting of the key men in the story fell into place more directly. From early days, the Coens knew they wanted Jeff Bridges for the role of Rooster Cogburn. Bridges, who had just won an Academy Award® for his role as a down-and-out country singer in Crazy Heart, had previously worked with Joel and Ethan in 1998 creating the iconic character The Dude in The Big Lebowski.
A self–described "one-eyed fat man," Cogburn might carry a fearsome reputation that attracts Mattie, but he does not present an initial portrait of competence. Whiskey-doused, disobliging and leading a sketchy, degenerate’s life living in the back of the General Store, he hardly seems like Mattie’s savior when she comes to seek his much-rumored tracking expertise. And yet he manages, in the midst of alternately enchanting and disappointing Mattie, to become her respectful, unwavering, and poignantly devoted, partner on the trail.
Bridges came fresh at the role, leaving entirely aside John Wayne’s performance in a very different kind of film from a very different era of moviemaking. Instead, he brought to the part his long-lived love of the Western genre (his father Lloyd starred in many) and his extensive riding experience (he rode as a child and has mounted steeds in numerous films), then focused all of his energies on etching out the grainy layers of perhaps his most hard-scrabble character yet.
"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 wryly observes. "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."
For Bridges, a big part of the pleasure of playing Cogburn was getting to quibble, quarrel and ride side-by-side with Hailee Steinfeld as the girl who pushes Rooster in ways he might not have known he could be pushed. "Mattie is the most challenging role in the film," Bridges states. "The whole screenplay is centered around her. 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."
With Bridges set as Rooster, Academy Award® nominee Matt Damon, most recently seen as a South African soccer star in Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, was chosen in a departure as the self-possessed Texas Ranger LaBoeuf. Then, the Coens chose to reunite with Academy Award® nominee Josh Brolin, who had a breakout role in No Country for Old Men, as Tom Chaney, the craven killer who sparks the film’s epic chase.
"Josh and Matt we thought would be very interesting," says Joel. "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." Schedules aligned and Damon and Brolin came on board.
Both brought a bonus beyond their propensity for character: serious riding skills. "I guess we were aware that they had both ridden but it wasn’t a factor in casting," says Ethan. "Yet it turned out it ought to have been. Oh, my God, it would have been impossible if they weren’t good riders."
Damon had wanted to work with the Coens for a long time, but never had the chance until he was approached to play LaBoeuf. The character intrigued Damon immediately. "He’s a Texas Ranger who’s little full of himself and he’s a bit of a windbag, a guy who can really hold court," he observes. "He reminded me a bit of Tommy Lee Jones, and we also thought of Bill Clinton, people who are classically fun to listen to expound on any subject. His talkativeness becomes a running joke as it slowly drives Rooster Cogburn crazy, and it is taken to an extreme consequence when he nearly bites off his tongue, yet even that does not cause him to cease talking." (For the latter part of the film, Damon would double over his tongue and hold it in place with a hair rubber band to evince his speech impediment.)
As they each seek Tom Chaney for their own purposes, Cogburn and LaBoeuf become disputing, bickering, rivalrous partners bent on one-upmanship, their young charge notwithstanding. "They’re like oil and water," says 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."
Working with Bridges brought out the rivalry in original ways, says Damon. "Jeff makes for a classic American protagonist because he is so perfectly imperfect," he muses. "He’s funny, he’s dynamic and he brings a joy to his work that is infectious."
Damon was particularly impressed with how Hailee Steinfeld held her own amid the repartee. "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," he says.
He goes on: "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."
Bridges took particular pleasure in watching Damon tackle his role. "He makes for a terrific Texas Ranger," he comments. "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."
Likewise, Barry Pepper, who plays Lucky Ned, leader of the Tom Chaney’s outlaw gang, says working with Brolin was something rare. "Watching Josh create his character was intriguing because Tom’s this real simian-like thug and when Josh steps into him there’s just absolutely no remnant of his former self left. He was willing to present the character as he is in all his wrinkles and flaws. I was really, really impressed with that."
Barry Pepper, the Canadian actor who came to the fore in Saving Private Ryan and was most recently seen in Casino Jack, was a later addition to the cast. "Barry was someone we didn’t have in mind when we first set out to cast the rest of the movie but he was wonderful and his whole look came together in a great way," says Joel. "He is really interesting in the part."
Pepper explains his character as "the chief of a gang of scallywags and no-good train robbers and bandits. He’s crossed paths with Rooster in the past, and was shot in the face, so he’s, uh, very intriguing looking. But he’s always managed to escape, so that’s how he got his moniker."
Yet, Lucky Ned also possesses layers beyond villainy. "He’s not a cold-blooded killer," notes Pepper. "He’s more of a wolf in, uh, wool chaps. I think he really comes to admire Mattie and is secretly impressed with her because she’s so bold and she just stands up to him. He is cut from a different cloth than Tom Chaney, and that’s ultimately why they go separate ways, and why he gives Mattie back to Rooster Cogburn. In his own way, maybe Ned shows a modicum of true grit."
To evince Lucky Ned’s broken teeth and busted jaw, Pepper wore a facial prosthetic created by makeup designer Christien Tinsley. "He molded a prosthetic piece that was just amazing blended in with a Custer-like goatee and mustache. When I’d step out of the trailer in the morning, people didn’t recognize me. It also informed the sound and delivery of Ned’s dialogue," he explains.
Rounding out the cast are also Mike Watson, Bruce Green as Harold Parmalee; Elizabeth Marvel as the adult Mattie Ross; Domnhall Gleeson and Paul Rae as the renegades Moon and Emmit Quincy; Ed Lee Corbin as the mysterious traveler Bear Grit and Dakin Matthews as Colonel Stonehill, who Mattie goes to see about her father’s ponies.
The dueling themes encompassed by True Grit – justice and revenge, wilderness and sanctuary, individualism and loyalty, real life and legends — may be outside of time, but the action takes place in a very specific era and place that has long enraptured the American imagination: the last days of the true frontier West.
The tale begins in 1878, when Mattie sets out across the river on her first, and greatest, adventure. At that time, the U.S. consisted of only 38 states and the town where Mattie’s father died — Fort Smith, Arkansas — was the very westernmost border of the nation, the last "civilized" town before the formal United States faded into an untamed and feared wilderness.
Just across the state line lay the Indian Territory, then not part of any state (but which would in 1907 become Oklahoma), where land had been set aside for the use of Native Americans under the Indian Intercourse Act of 1834. This "no-man’s land" drew fugitives, escaped slaves and others hoping to disappear off the map, who often holed up in the woods or the rough-hewn Winding Stair Mountains about 70 miles from Fort Smith. Thus, Fort Smith also became a hotspot for U.S. Marshals, a colorful assortment of whom were posted to bring back escaping criminals, dead or alive.
Considered a kind of gateway between two worlds, a popular saying about Ft. Smith at the time was "There is no law west of St. Louis and no God west of Ft. Smith."
To recreate life on both sides of this fraught, powder keg of a borderland, the Coens worked with a trusted artistic team, including cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Jess Gonchor, who early on dove into exhaustive research and scouting, searching for remote areas where they could authentically recreate the late 19th Century West as Mattie and Rooster Cogburn would have experienced it. Hunting for a place to shoot a wintry landscape in the late spring, they wound up heading northwest from Arkansas into New Mexico and West Texas.
"The story was written as taking place in Arkansas and Oklahoma Territory but we had a couple of constraints which were, this is a winter movie and we wanted snow in part of it — on the ground," explains Joel Coen. "That made us look a little bit further north than either of those locations. We shot most of the exteriors in New Mexico and most of the town of Fort Smith and interiors in Granger, Texas, just outside Austin."
For Roger Deakins, who recently shot another take on the 1870s West, Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, as well as the Coens’ No Country For Old Men – both of which drew Oscar® nominations for his cinematography in 2008 – True Grit was a chance to entwine all that he learned on those two very different films.
"To me, this film is a kind of amalgamation of that stark natural realism in Jesse James with the poetic realism of a Cormac McCarthy story," he explains. "I was very glad I had done both of those films before True Grit."
Deakins says the folkloric feel of the film evolved organically as he and the Coens began collaborating. "I began by reading the book, which is so poignant and has such a deep sense of the period," he says. "The idea of this young girl coming of age during a journey of revenge is both harsh and melancholy. But because the whole story is really the memory of young girl, that lends to it a slightly larger than life quality. Then I read the script, and of course Joel and Ethan write in an extraordinarily visual way. They created a path of storyboards but the look of this film really developed as we found it, scene by scene. For example, the scene with the hanging tree is one we looked at again and again. Originally, it was going to be in a completely open, empty wilderness, but then we found this stand of denuded Cottonwoods, literally moments before they were about to bud, and that influenced the whole creation of the sequence."
Although he and the Coens have developed a rhythm of working together over the years, Deakins say True Grit was something new again. "This film has a very different feel to it," he acknowledges. "It has a lovely kind of flow as a singular piece. There is nothing tricky or clever or ornate about it and that was the aim. The way the film was lit, the way it was framed, the way the camera relates to the story and the characters, was all very much based on intuition and personal interpretation."
He goes on: "The biggest challenges were related to the physical scale of the locations and the logistics of lighting so many night shoots. It was important to the boys to show the landscape at night, but it is difficult to shoot that kind of terrain in low light conditions. I also wanted to play a bit with color in the night scenes, keep them more blue than I might normally do, play with the firelight in the campfire scenes, which contrasts the harshness of the day with the mysteries of the night."
One of Deakins’ favorite scenes, however, involves sunlight – the early scene in a Ft. Smith Courthouse as Rooster Cogburn defends his trigger-happy ways, engulfed in the shadows thrown by a massive window streaming light over him. "I love the way Rooster is introduced, where he begins in silhouette and then this shaft of light slowly reveals him to Mattie for the first time," he says. "Of course, it is one thing to imagine such a thing and quite a bit more difficult to pull it off."
Production designer Jess Gonchor, too, had his work cut out for him, in turning what he and the Coens imagined into palpably real locations. From the moment he read Charles Portis’ book, he knew his biggest task would be trying to place audiences inside the visceral life of Fort Smith, Arkansas, the thriving frontier city where the story kicks off as young Mattie arrives by train, steadfastly determined, whatever it might take, to avenge her father’s killing.
Gonchor began what became an intensive journey with a personal research trip to Fort Smith, which today is the second largest city in Arkansas. Once there, he dove into the local historical society’s vast treasure trove of photographs and started "getting a feel for the place as it might have once been." Then, he set off on a five state tour in search of a stand-in for Fort Smith that would be amenable to a major overhaul and set construction. He found what he was looking for in Granger, Texas, a quiet agricultural community outside Austin. The town seemed to have everything necessary: turn-of-the-century brick buildings, sprawling streets and, most importantly, it sat right on a historic train line, with tracks dating back to the days of the Union Pacific.
"Granger was the town that time forgot," muses Gonchor. "It had post Civil War buildings a lot like the ones I had seen in my research, and it had the train crossing, which is so important because you have to sense that Fort Smith is the last stop on the line as Mattie arrives on the train."
The town lent Gonchor many options. "You have to keep in mind that Fort Smith was a big city. It wasn’t a coal mining town or an encampment, it was a place full of the flavor of a new age coming to America, with these big stream trains rolling through bringing strangers. The tops of the buildings in Granger have fantastic shapes to them, which isn’t 100% historically accurate, but it created great lines and shadows. There were also pockets in Granger where we could create whatever we needed to, where I was able to say, ‘Here is where I could put Stonehill’s Barn’ for example. Tons of work went into remaking the town but it gave us a lot of possibilities."
Gonchor was ultimately able to turn a town with a population under 1500 into a bustling city on the rebound after the Civil War. "We did a little bit with visual effects to extend the town, but not much," he remarks. "We were constantly looking for ways to make it feel bigger. When we put the dirt down in the roads — that was the turning point. It put just the right touch on things and gave everything more scale. That’s when I said, ‘We’re going to be able to do this.’"
Ultimately, Stonehill’s Barn, one of several evocative interiors in Fort Smith, where Mattie haggles over returning her father’s ponies, was created in an empty lot that had been an auto body repair shop. "They cleared out their junker cars and we created Stonehill’s Barn," says Gonchor.
Likewise, the undertaker’s shop was a gutted out old building, which Gonchor filled with pine boxes to become Mattie’s first accommodations; and the boarding house where Mattie upgrades to sleeping with a snoring grandmother, was recreated in one of Granger’s Victorian houses.
Another favorite set from Fort Smith is Rooster Cogburn’s bedroom in the back of the General Store, built on a soundstage near Santa Fe. "Even though it was a stage set, we wanted it to feel very organic," Gonchor explains. "You have this guy living on a sagging bed, amongst the carnage of all these things people bring back there to store. The idea is that it was all about layers, so we just kept putting more things in there and when people moved them, we left them where they were, to give it a real hodge-podge feeling like it would have in real life."
Then, there is the courthouse, where Mattie first sees Rooster, which was unearthed in Blanco, Texas in the Texas hill country 45 miles north of San Antonio. "The building we found was a functional hall for town meetings and it was a diamond in the rough," recalls Gonchor. "It was perfect for creating what was a very informal kind of court from that time."
Though much of the rest of the film is shot in exterior, Gonchor notes that the locations became no less essential to the story’s fabric – and no less challenging. For example, a key, atmosphere-setting locale is the river crossing where Mattie dodges a ferryman and fords the river on the heels of Cogburn and LaBoeuf.
Finding just the right spot was anything but elementary. "That’s the first place we arrive coming out of the city into the wilderness," Gonchor observes. "We needed just the right crossing, the right length that a horse could swim, and where we could contrast two looks – manicured on one side and a much rougher on the other. A lot of work went into that."
One of Gonchor’s favorite sets is Bagby’s Outpost, the trader’s cabin where goods and, more importantly, information are exchanged as the woods give way to the Winding Stair Mountains. Gonchor calls it "the most rustic thing in the movie."
"I love it because it really shows you’re no longer in the city," he comments. "We found the perfect spot to build it new, Las Vegas, New Mexico, and I was inspired by a house I’d found in my research with a pole through the middle of it. I’ve never seen anything like it, and it was just what we needed to get the right shots. You never see the inside, just as you never see where Mattie comes from, and I like the mystery of that."
A more makeshift cabin was crafted for Greaser Bob’s place, where Mattie and Cogburn are almost ambushed. After a lot of searching, Gonchor came upon a box canyon on the San Cristobal Ranch in Lamy, New Mexico that had all the right stuff. "It was this oblong ravine surrounded by a rocky cliff and we decided we would kind of bury our cabin among the falling rocks," he recalls. "The place had to look like a real hideout, and I researched quite a few of them. The priorities were always a place that could be kept warm and protect the people inside."
While shooting the sequence at Greaser Bob’s, the production lucked into snowfall, which allowed for the stirring shot of several snow-dusted bodies leaned against the outer wall of the cabin.
The Rock Ledge where Lucky Ned and his gang make camp and the Meadow where Rooster has a shootout with the gang was found on the Charles R Ranch outside Las Vegas, NM. The Santa Fe Trail runs through the ranch and the ruts made by the wagons many, many years ago can still be seen, adding to the atmosphere.
This is also where Mattie falls into the infamous pit of snakes, which Charles Portis based on real-life Rattlesnake Cave – the historic site where in the late 1800s, Deputy Marshal John Spencer became a legend after an epic battle with a pack of rattlers while gathering evidence for a murder trial. While the exterior of the pit was an old turquoise mine, the interior was built on a stage in Austin. "We needed somewhere stable and safe to shoot, because there are so many close-ups," the production designer notes. "We created a massive set that was about 60 feet high, the biggest single set in the movie, and carved the whole cave out of foam. It had to be narrow and frightening, and allow the camera to capture Mattie’s perspective as the snakes slither out of the skeletal remains."
The final scenes of the film brought the production forward in time as a grown Mattie looks for Rooster Cogburn in a Memphis Wild West Show. Gonchor was cognizant of how much the world would have changed in quarter of a century since Mattie came of age in the wilderness.
"Even when we were creating Fort Smith, I was thinking about Memphis, and the contrast in time, going ahead 25 years," says Gonchor. "In that one shot where Mattie arrives on the train, you see the buildings now have curved arches, are more expansive, and the city feels more technologically advanced. Then, she finds the Wild West Show, which takes her back into her memories of the past."
Gonchor explored the rich history of Wild West Shows, which glamorized and exaggerated the Western lifestyle for Eastern audiences, existing somewhere between authentic reproductions and playful fabrications. "They were like a Western version of the traveling circus," he says. "The beautiful part for me was creating all these wonderful, old side-show banners and the great wagons. We really wanted to create the kind of dusty, sun-worn, tired Wild West Show that Rooster Cogburn would wind up in, nothing fancy, shiny or glamorous. Everything looks like it sat through ten years of sun and rain. It’s just enough to take Mattie back to the feelings she’s held so long about Rooster."
In the end, it was all these carefully considered, smaller details in the visual design that allowed the story to take on the vast, rambling feel of an American legend.
Summarizes Roger Deakins: "The fantastic part of this film was that no matter how hard the days and the nights were, we all knew at the end of it, we were working on something very special, and we also know that no one was working harder to create this world than the Coens."
The 1870s time period of True Grit also challenged and exhilarated costume designer Mary Zophres in her 10th collaboration with the Coen Brothers. Zophres’ intensive research and deep consideration of character was greatly appreciated by the cast.
"I worked with Mary on The Big Lebowski and I sure admired the expertise she brought to this," says Jeff Bridges. "She gave me wonderful books to look at with all the styles a guy like Rooster might have worn. Then, together, we picked just the right hat, just the right eye patch, just the right boots – the boots are very important – and the it really brings you back into those times."
"Just putting on the clothes made a real difference that affected the performances," adds Hailee Steinfeld.
Barry Pepper was awed by the big, white, wooly chaps Zophres custom-created for him. "I was worried about wearing these monstrous chaps but she explained to me that they would get all dressed down and washed out very much in the Coen Brothers way of making things as realistic as possible," he recalls.
"Then we started picking out hats, belt buckles and spurs, all of which make a statement about the character."
Although Zophres summarizes that there are two keys to a Western – "hats and aging," she offers – she started the process of True Grit by jumping into the most meticulously detailed research she’s yet done for a film.
"The book was awesome – we’d read it in my book club," Zophres explains. "After a brief conversation with the brothers, I started to do massive amounts of research. I went to the Western Research Library every afternoon, and the great librarian there also got in touch with the Ft. Smith Historical Society. I looked at every piece of material from the period that I could get my hands on."
Photographs from the period were helpful, but Zophres notes that she had to keep in mind the artifice of 19th century photos. "There were very few candid shots in those days, almost everything was posed portraits," she says. "I found a lot of pictures of bad guys and criminals, but again, they had to be taken with a grain of salt. So, in addition to looking at photographs, I did a lot of written research, reading diaries and historic accounts. I also used The Calico Chronicle, which is a great reference for women’s Western fashion in the late 19th Century. I really took the time to do a lot of reading, then I made boards for each character and bounced around ideas with Joel and Ethan."
True Grit takes place in an era when clothing was largely utilitarian in nature, designed for maximum warmth and durability, certainly not comfort or cultural statements. And yet, in Zophres’ work, the resonant personalities of the story’s characters are writ into their outfits. "I had in mind a very specific silhouette for each person," she comments. "I can give you a reason and a history for every single scrap of clothing in the film."
For Mattie, Zophres expected that she would be traveling to Fort Smith in a dress her mother made for her. "Her dress is plaid wool and typical of what children would wear," she says. "We also made silk stockings for Hailee, which are beautiful but my poor costumers were constantly darning them. When Mattie heads out on the trail, she wears her dad’s pants and coat and that big Stetson. I loved her hat, because no matter how far away she is, you can always tell it’s Mattie."
Zophres notes: "Mattie wears what was known as Stetson’s Boss of the Plains hat, which was a wider brimmed hat popular in Texas. Really, there were no true ‘cowboy hats’ in that period. They were all city hats that looked different because they got completely messed up in the elements."
Rooster Cogburn is the very antithesis of a man of appearances, but he also cuts his own distinctive figure. "Rooster is slovenly and drunk, doesn’t care what he looks like and doesn’t have a lot of clothes," Zophres explains. "He has one outfit he wears when he has to go to court and he keeps it on a hook and pulls it out whenever he has to testify. When he hits the trail, he wears a basic pullover that they made 11 million of and were common military issue, and then he wears what was called an Ulster Coat or a Great Coat, which was split up the back for riding horseback, and a hat that looks like it’s been soaked too many times by the rain. His boots are Civil War cavalry boots, but the pulls are too long. There’s nothing about him that’s refined. He’s a mess and Jeff really owned that."
One of his most distinguishing features is his eye patch, for which Zophres presented Bridges with several choices based on her research. "Jeff instantly gravitated towards the most raw one – it looked like a piece of leather he had tanned himself and stuck on his head," she laughs. "Joel and Ethan then let him decide which eye Rooster had lost."
Zophres adds: "Jeff is someone who like to get into costume very early on and really work with it. The way that Jeff paid attention to the clothing really meant a lot to me."
Matt Damon’s LaBoeuf is the stylistic opposite of Rooster Cogburn in every way. "He’s the film’s only dandy, the one guy who cares about what he looks like," Zophres observes. "That’s why we used the fringed buckskin for Matt. There was no uniform for Texas Rangers then, that came later, so they could wear whatever they wanted. With LaBoeuf, we made a real concerted effort to make sure no one else in the picture looks remotely like him. Even his hat has a real swagger to it."
For the coward Tom Chaney, on the other hand, Zophres imagined that he would "wear a jacket he stole off someone." She goes on: "That jacket is so ill-fitting, it actually changes his posture. It wasn’t comfortable, but Josh Brolin was really into it."
One of the biggest challenges came in dressing the enigmatic stranger known as Bear Grit, who first appears to Mattie and Rooster as the implausible, spitting image of a bear on a horse.
"He’s described in Charles Portis’ book, and Joel and Ethan had this idea that they wanted him to look like a 19th Century homeless person, like a real vagabond. Ed Corbin, who plays him, is a very tall man, so we had to use about 4 bearskins to cover him – which resulted in an emergency trip to a taxidermist in Albuquerque! In many ways it was the hardest costume in the movie because it had to be carved just the right way. We even hired a special craftsman to weave claws and teeth into his moccasins, and these are the kinds of craftsmen who you can’t rush or ask for Fed Ex. You have to do things on a different time scale."
"But," she adds, "the impact of the costume is one that is jarring and funny. I think it’s everything Joel and Ethan wanted."
Authentic details are also imbued into the clothing of secondary characters. "Every single person who appears in the film wears something that tells a bit of their story," says Zophres. "Even the ferry man who tries to stop Mattie has a very specific outfit – a rubber coat that Goodyear started making in the 19th Century and that seaman’s hat that was immortalized on the Morton Salt label."
The realistic details went right down to the guns. Propmaster Keith Walters, a veteran of many Westerns and a historical firearms expert, hunted down reproductions of the Colts, Winchesters and Sharps that the men carry. Cogburn, as an ex-confederate guerilla, carries on his saddle two hefty, four-pound pistols that are remnants of the Civil War — Dagoon models from 1847. He also carries a .45-caliber revolver, the famous Colt Single Action Army, known as the Peace Maker, which was adopted as the standard military revolver in the late 1800s. As a sharpshooter, LaBoeuf carries a Sharp Carbine. For Lucky Ned’s fancy pistols, Walters custom-designed guns just for the character.
Another essential element in the film was facial hair – lots of it. "That period in the West was all about facial hair," notes Zophres. "If you could grow it, you had it. It was a sign of virility. So, long before we started shooting, we told all the male actors to start growing their beards."
Sums up Zophres: "In many ways this was the most difficult film I’ve done with the Coens, but it was also the most awesome design experience I think I’ve had."
Mattie’s rollicking journey into the Indian Territory with Rooster Cogburn and LaBoeuf is punctuated by moments of sudden ambush and violence. Coordinating the film’s gunfights and horse chases was stunt coordinator Jery Hewitt, who used the cast as much as possible in the sequences.
His biggest challenge was the shootout between Rooster and Lucky Ned’s men in the meadow – as Rooster rides at Ned’s gang, reigns in his teeth, a six-gun in each hand — which required special rigs, mechanical horses on crane arms and stunt doubles for wide shots. But at the heart of it, was Bridges himself, who did his own riding and the double-fisted shooting.
Each of the actors surprised and impressed the crew with their abilities to handle stunts, from Hailee Steinfeld, who’d never done anything like this before to Matt Damon, veteran of the high-action Bourne films. As for Josh Brolin, Hewitt says: "Here’s a guy that definitely could have been a stuntman. He’s probably one of my top five favorite actors because he completely understands a stunt. Something new to him, doesn’t matter. He’s just a natural athlete."
Hewitt goes on: "Barry Pepper was a surprise on the horse and the other thing that he did really well was the scene where he manhandles Hailee when they come from their first gun fight with Rooster. He has to grab her and throw her to the ground and put his foot on her neck. He did a great job, and Hailee did as well because it was her controlling that foot."
As for Hailee, she was completely game to try anything, from firing a pistol and jumping in the river to falling into a snake pit and being hoisted into the high treetops on a harness. "I was amazed at her acting," says Hewitt, "but then when it comes to her abilities doing some of her own stunts, she was equally brilliant."
One of the most difficult stunts, which took preparation and training for the stunt rider and the horses, was the river crossing that demarcates Mattie’s journey into the territory of legends, as Mattie and her horse Little Blackie take an unlikely swim to the other side.
Horses, of course, are known to loathe water. "I think there are circumstances where horses grow up in an environment that requires them to swim, and they get good with it – but not often," laughs veteran wrangler Rusty Hendrickson, who oversaw the film’s horses. "It’s a dangerous situation for people to be on a horse in deep water."
With safety the biggest concern, a special effects diving team scouted the river first, to assure the bottom was free of debris, and a consistent depth. Then they created a special ramp on the far bank where it was too muddy and steep for the horse to climb out. Teaching the horses to swim started at a facility near Austin where they swim racehorses to condition them.
"We started there," explains Hendrickson, "and then we increased the distance they swam each day. When we got to where they could swim double the distance of the river with the saddle, and pulling the rider, then we thought, okay, we’re ready."
Once they cross the river, Mattie finds herself in a world she has never experienced – raw, brutal and spiritually tough, but also breathtaking and, at times, spirit-lifting.
It is this essence of what Portis wrote – the moments of unexpected beauty, humanity and even tenderness that suddenly burst into a comic-tinged, hard-edged Western adventure — that the lead actors says the Coens have captured with their adaptation.
"The movie has an incredible look," says Matt Damon. "The locations and the composition give you this sense of a passage into another world."
"The light and the geography, everything was just beautiful," Jeff Bridges concludes. "Everyday, the Coens showed up in cowboy hats, which was comic, but there was also something about the image that set a wonderful environment, that set that certain mood for True Grit."