It has been said that the Western, as it once was, is dead. At one time, Westerns operated as studio staples, much like superhero and alien invasion event movies do today. Studios would produce a certain number of Westerns a year in order to guarantee profits, and then leave room for other less market rich genres.
At a recent press junket for Joel and Ethan Coen's latest film, True Grit (read our review), we got a chance to talk to the filmmakers, as well as star Jeff Bridges, Josh Brolin, Hailee Steinfeld, Barry Pepper, and cinematographer Roger Deakins, about the pressures of making a Western film for a modern audience.
True Grit opened this last weekend to rave reviews but in the last several decades, Westerns have been rare - and often received a relatively soft box office response, even in the face of high critical praise.
2007's 3:10 To Yuma was budgeted at $55 million and generated only $70 million in worldwide theatrical sales. True Grit, however, has nearly recouped its entire $38 million production budget in the first five days of its release. Of course only half of the $36 million dollars in theatrical sales can be truly considered profit – the other half goes to the theaters screening the film.
Still, this is a significant win for a risky genre.
So why did brothers Joel and Ethan Coen choose to remake this 1969 John Wayne classic? Well, according to them they didn't. The directors' ambition was to adapt the Charles Portis novel as if the previous film had never been made.
They go so far as to say that “they never really referenced the previous film at all,” and were strictly referencing the book. In fact, they were “thinking more about the novel” when they decided to make the film, rather than about the Western as a genre.
“It's in-arguably a Western,” the brothers clarify “there are guns and people riding around on horses, but it's not a Zane Grey story – it's not a Western in that sense.” The novel appealed to them more as a “beautiful young adult adventure story,” wherein the heroine has a "divine sense of mission."
True Grit, the film, is in fact a "young adult adventure story" told as only the Coen brothers could imagine.
When they approached actor Jeff Bridges about the role, he questioned the remaking the much beloved film. The brothers referred Bridges to the novel, and he was hooked, citing the unique appeal of portraying Rooster Cogburn.
“You know, most Westerns have that strong silent type” the actor says, and he liked the idea of playing a more loquacious gunslinger, a man who, as Bridges says, just can't help but “blah,blah, blah...”
He “blah, blah, blahed” with a very unique vocal cadence, that included absolutely no contractions, as did the rest of the cast.
When asked about the challenges of creating the rather clipped, and yet still rhythmic, pattern of speech used in the film the brothers said “Well that may have been more of a problem for the actors, we just lifted it from the text.”
Barry Pepper, who delivers a stand out performance in a film filled with tremendous performances, as (the coincidentally named) Ned Pepper compared the dialogue to “doing American Shakespeare. There is a musicality that is so specific, that is about trying to hit certain notes. It's so authentic to my mind, most people were probably pretty illiterate back then and educated on the King James bible, so it added something to the role that I think a lot of Westerns miss.”
Josh Brolin says a lot of the language was found in rehearsals. He jokes that “you see Jeff Bridges come in and say 'RAR', and you go 'oh I can say mine like that too', and then Barry comes in and says 'KATORARA' and it's 'oh! I can pull off the no contractions by doing that.'”
He goes on to laughingly say that he was initially worried that his vocal interpretation would stick out as being “too much”, but then he “saw everybody else in the film", and realized no one would notice -- especially when compared to, what those of you who have seen the film, will remember as "bear man."
The ability to handle the language was a crucial factor in gaining the phenomenally talented young actress, Haillee Steinfeld, the role of Mattie Ross.
One interesting aspect of the film is that as much as it offers a sense of authenticity, it also delivers surprises, character choices and turns that one would not necessarily expect from the genre.
Our hero is not just a drunkard, but a chatty Cathy who often stumbles clumsily about - and our villain, Tom Chaney, is not just “a dim bulb” as Josh Brolin who plays Chaney says “but a broken bulb.”
The actor correctly assesses that the audience is expecting to see some amalgamation of Beelzebub and the bogeyman when we finally meet Chaney towards the film's mid-point; but instead are greeted with “a broken bulb with no filament at all....and whatever mythology you've created in your mind, whatever pigeonholing you have done about what a sociopath is, is ripped from you – and then you see it come back.”
In terms of how Bridges developed the singular Rooster Cogburn, the actor says that his process is organic - reading the script (and novel in this case), seeing what his character says about himself, and others say about him, and then working with the other artists on the film (the directors obviously, but also costume designers, props, art directors and so on) until the point comes when his character is “telling him what it wants.”
Though he did utilize some more traditional Western characters to help him model the Marshall, he infused Rooster with some of the Western roles that his father (the late Lloyd Bridges) has played.
One of the elements that attracted the brothers to the story was the humor that was inherent in the novel. Humor that is often both dark and deadly - as so much of the humor in Coen brothers films is.
When asked what he felt True Grit represents, Bridges stated that it was “seeing one thing through to the end.” Perhaps True Grit is also the will to do what you feel is right, without becoming crippled by the opinions of others - or as Josh Brolin says "sacrificing fluidity for the sake of (perceived) authenticity."
For rather than attempting to mimic a cinematic style of the past with a remake, Joel and Ethan Coen chose to focus on utilizing the most appropriate tools available - in order to tell a story they found compelling. By ignoring the assumed dictates of the Western, in favor of focusing on story and character, they may just have revived the genre.
True Grit is in theaters now.