New Grit

New Grit

Think it's easy to ride into town, declare yerself the law in these-here parts, and try to make the townfolk forgit the greatest Western movie star of all time?

Well, think agin, thar pardner, because writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen faced a herd of hassles remaking one of John Wayne’s final iconic westerns, True Grit.

The movie, which rides into multiplexes Christmas week, is an adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel about Mattie Ross, a tough teen who hires a one-eyed, ornery U.S. Marshal Ruben “Rooster” Cogburn to find her father’s killer.

The 1969 movie earned John Wayne his only Oscar for his portrayal of the Rooster. For the $35 million remake, another Oscar-winner, Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart) takes over. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld plays Mattie, and Matt Damon is the adorable Texas Ranger … er, Glen Campbell.

Instead of trying to reboot The Duke, the Coens focused on Portis’ dark book. “The book is in the voice of the girl and is funnier,” says Ethan Coen. “You’ll find hilarious moments like Rooster forcing Mattie to cut down the body of a hanged man to grant him dignity.” Face it: Anybody who’s seen No Country For Old Men know the Coens have a different sense of humor.

Here’s the dusty trail of how the Coens turned a touchy-feelie ’60s flick into their own-style black comedy.

More Dude Than Duke
Jeff Bridges, who collaborated with the Coens on the 1998 slacker’s Citizen Kane The Big Lebowski, took a different approach than Wayne. Say goodbye to the lovable Duke and hello to a craggy, cold-blooded killer.

The Coens’ costume designer, Mary Zophres, has said that Cogburn “is slovenly and drunk.” His boots are left over from the Civil War cavalry. He’s a mess. Jeff really owned that.”

“I’m supposed to be the meanest and toughest of all the hombres in that town!” says Bridges.

The New Girl
To find the new Mattie, the Coens held casting calls and chose Hailee Steinfeld from 15,000 teen girls to play a kid who could embody Mattie’s mix of toughness and tenderness. Steinfeld had minimal acting experience, but she fit the part to a tee.

“We cast Hailee just before shooting, and were lucky to find her,” says Joel Coen.

Making the Grit
For authenticity, the Coens plunked their cameras in the same Arkansas and West Texas regions where Portis’ book takes place.

The production based the look of the towns on photographs found at the historical society of Fort Smith, Arkansas. They rebuilt the post-Civil War city of Fort Smith in tiny Granger, Texas, outside of Austin, pouring dirt over paved streets to approximate the town. Construction crews turned empty lots and warehouses into old-time saloons and country stores.

They took down stop signs and utility poles, and the residents were used as extras. But the Coens would only cast folks with period-looking beards … and no body builders or women with modern hairstyles.

“They built a gallows in that empty lot and used 500 extras for one scene,” said Dan Johnson, president of the local Granger National Bank.

Past Not Precedent
“When the Coens mentioned the idea of remaking
True Grit, I said, ‘Gee, didn’t they already make that movie?” Bridges said. “And they said, ‘We’re making a new version of the book.’”

In the original, actress Kim Darby was 21 when she played the 14-year-old Mattie. Steinfeld actually was 14 when filming began. Bridges was 60 when he saddled up, a year younger than the Duke was in the first film.

Wayne wore his eye patch over his left eye, in a nod to his friend and legendary Western director John Ford (Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance). Bridges goes for the right eye. We don’t know why … and he ain’t a-tellin’.

One thing has remained from 40 years ago: the flick’s finale, in which Rooster holds his horse’s reins in his mouth as he gallops across a field, firing a pistol in one hand and a rifle in the other and. It’s that scene that likely secured Wayne his first and only Academy Award.

“I practiced those moves on a mechanical horse first before Joel Coen asked if I wanted to try it for real,” says Bridges

The Dude pulls it off beautifully. Now, if he did it while drinking White Russians, he’d probably pick up his second Oscar.


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Tags: Movies


Joe Neumaier is the film critic and film editor at the New York Daily News. He’s written about movies and entertainment for The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, USA TODAY, the London Observer and Fortune. Joe's articles have previously appeared on Style and Tech for Men.