Joel and Ethan Coen have written, directed and produced some of the smartest and most iconic movies of the modern era, from cult comedies such as “Raising Arizona” and “The Big Lebowski” to Oscar-winning crime thrillers such as “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men.”
Now the Coens have the biggest hit of their careers with “True Grit,” a Western remake that is nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including three for the brothers’ disparate duties.
We recently spoke by phone with Joel (the taller and older one who is married to actress Frances McDormand) and Ethan (a poet and short-story writer) about the craft of turning words into movies.
Q: Until “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” which you cheekily co-credited to the Greek poet Homer, all of your scripts were original ideas. But then you adapted an existing story for “Intolerable Cruelty,” and “The Ladykillers” was a remake of a classic British comedy, and you won a slew of Academy Awards for “No Country for Old Men,” which was based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy. Now you’ve done “True Grit,” which is a remake of a John Wayne Western that was based on a Charles Portis novel. Why did you choose that project?
Joel Coen: We had both read the novel many years ago, when we were in college, as well as several other novels by Charles Portis. Then, a few years ago, we reread it and were really taken by the humor and by the voice of this 14-year-old girl who narrates it. We thought, “This is something we haven’t seen before.” Of course, we had seen the original movie with John Wayne when we were kids, but that seemed so distant in our memory, while the novel seemed so fresh. It’s a very lean revenge story, with three characters pursuing some interesting bad guys. The lines are very clean.
Q: Every character in “True Grit” is a kind of horse trader, from the bounty hunters to the frontier dentist to the lady who runs the boarding house and charges Mattie a nickel for a sack to carry her dead father’s gun. There’s even an actual horse trader who gets outwitted by Mattie. Is that a theme that you developed in the script?
Ethan Coen: It’s even stronger in the book. On almost every page, Mattie talks about the price of provisions or how she negotiated a deal. Everybody is pursuing their own interests. The agendas of Marshal Cogburn and Mattie and the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf are close but not identical. So there’s an interesting friction between the three of them.
Q: Even the roughest characters in “True Grit” have a distinctively colorful way of speaking, with no lazy, modern slang or contractions. Was that part of your design?
Joel Coen: That’s very much taken from the novel. According to the research that we had done, that’s probably pretty close to the way people spoke in Arkansas and Texas a century ago.
Ethan Coen: A funny thing happened on the set — occasionally a contraction would slip by and an actor would come up to us and confess that he had said “can’t” instead of “cannot,” and we’d have to shoot the scene again. So sometimes the contraction police were nodding off.
Joel Coen: As filmmakers, you have to make some really tough stylistic choices. Sometimes you see films that take place in a foreign country, and everybody talks in what John Hurt called “the foreign chappy accent” — as opposed to actually speaking the various languages. They best thing to do is a “Quest for Fire” thing or what Mel Gibson did in “The Passion of the Christ” and “Apocalypto” with those ancient languages. That helps you go into that world and creates a stronger sense of the period and the culture.
Ethan Coen: Unless you’re Mel Brooks making “A History of the World.”
Joel Coen: When the movie is “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,” which is set in Italy during World War II, and everyone is speaking English, that’s a problem.
Ethan Coen: In “Where Eagles Dare,” Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood are Americans behind the lines in Nazi Germany, and at some point they have to switch from speaking English to speaking German — because, of course, all clever American soldiers speak fluent German. So what they do for the benefit of the audience is speak English in a German accent!
Q: You were both born in the ‘50s in Minnesota. Where did you see movies like the original “True Grit”?
Joel Coen: Most of the movies we watched were on late-night television. But there was the Cooper Cinerama, which was built around 1962, where we saw high-end epics like “How the West Was Won.” And there were places in downtown Minneapolis like the State and the Orpheum that showed the latest Hollywood films.
Ethan Coen: That was before multiplexes, when theaters only had one screen and movies were movies.