True Grit’s Joel and Ethan Coen open up about their “mushy” writing process, why they chose to remain faithful to Charles Portis’ classic novel, and what they do when they get lost in the narrative woods.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
If you don’t know, the brothers Coen, Joel and Ethan, makers of some of the crispest, most original American cinema of the last two-plus decades, are not known to love publicity interviews. The filmmaking duo behind a fistful of classics from Blood Simple to Fargo to No Country for Old Men can get austerely laconic when press mics are on.
At a recent press conference for their film True Grit, which faithfully adapts Charles Portis’ classic novel, rather than remaking the lovably mawkish John Wayne classic (the pair insist neither even re-watched the 1969 film during the making of this one), a kind of white-knuckle endurance of media questions is on full display. So in a one-on-one sit-down afterward, there is little reason to expect an easy flow of affable quips.
And at the start, none come.
Joel, now 56, is the taller, darker, elder sibling. He is polite but can seem aloof in a way that masks how keenly he’s watching and listening. Ethan, the reddish-brown-haired younger brother, is more slight in stature and, initially at least, a tad more facile at fielding questions that would otherwise just hang silently and awkwardly like some unspecified olfactory misfortune.
But as the interview goes on, the full nature of the brothers emerges when their wary guard is eventually outmatched by their unavoidable passion for storytelling and filmmaking. When they become engaged, it’s clear – the Coens’ taciturnity is not a product of arrogance but rather of real shyness and a seriously thoughtful intelligence about their art.
During their Q&A with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site, they slowly warmed up to a wide-ranging discussion of everything from the genesis of True Grit, which stars Jeff Bridges in the role Wayne made famous, alongside Josh Brolin, Matt Damon, and widely heralded newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, to how they realized they were adapting The Odyssey after they’d started writing O Brother Where Art Thou?, and what they do when they get lost in the narrative woods.
You guys have been talking about doing a classic Western for a long time and you’ve also talked about having projects that you start writing and then have to put down for a while. How long were you writing True Grit?
Photo: © 2010 Paramount Pictures
Jeff Bridges in True Grit.
Ethan Coen: I think Joel suggested it. We had both read the book about three or four years ago. It was after we shot No Country for Old Men and before it had come out.
Was this a fairly uninterrupted writing process?
Joel Coen: Oh, no. That was when we thought that it might be an interesting thing to adapt, and we approached Paramount. There was some interest, no one was bowled over by the idea. As these things often do, it kind of hung there for a while. At a certain point Scott [Rudin] got involved, so we reapproached Paramount, and they said, “Well, let’s write it [first].” So we wrote it, and that took a while.
What’s “a while?”
Ethan Coen: Not terribly long. As you know, or might know, it’s a fairly faithful adaptation.
How much of the dialogue is directly from Portis’ novel?
Ethan Coen: At least three quarters or more. I don’t know, most.
They are, in many ways, totally disparate stories, but to what extent do No Country and True Grit feel like they’re in a similar ether?
Joel Coen: Not at all.
Sure, on the face of it, they’re not so similar, but I was curious if creatively they came from a similar place at all.
Ethan Coen: No, really. It’s funny, I kind of want to say yes, but not as a writing thing. They’re both kind of exterior movies and weather movies.
Ethan Coen: Yeah, more of a production thing.
Joel Coen: What links them in our, or in my mind anyway, they’re both adaptations of books that don’t need a lot of embellishment or decoration from the book [to script]. They’re both [cases where] we felt there’s nothing wrong with the book. The idea is to do the book, not to do something else.
To not screw up the book?
Joel Coen: To not screw up the book, right.
You guys are known for your distinctive knack for humor. How did you want to balance the humor of this piece with the stark drama and sentiment?
Ethan Coen: I don’t know that we thought about any of those things you’re talking about really, even though there are those different qualities to the novel. We wanted to serve the novel.
So that was your sole guide, there was no game plan in terms of…?
Joel Coen: No, you work your way through the novel in terms of how the story feels as you’re adapting it. And, as Ethan said, that’s kind of the map as opposed to, “We need a little bit more of this,” or, “We seem to be losing the humor or the drama or the sentiment.” You just kind of feel your way through it scene by scene.
Are there any pros and cons of the adaptation process for you guys?
Joel Coen: The pros are the obvious one, that you have this guide. If it’s a novel like True Grit or Cormac’s novel or To the White Sea, which is an adaptation we did of a James Dickey novel, the exercise is to, as you said, not screw up the novel. You have something that is the essential guide to the whole thing, which you don’t have with other scripts.
I guess the main con is the obvious one, too; that there are things that can be achieved in a literary format that aren’t necessarily achievable [in film]. It isn’t a one-to-one correspondence between a novel and what you might do in a movie, or it might even be antithetical to what you can do in a movie, and you have to find a solution for that.
Then there’s the editing aspect. You can’t put everything in.
Was there any glaring translation issue here that jumps out in terms of getting this novel into a filmic version? Any great sacrifices you had to make?
Ethan Coen: Kind of, and actually, here’s a point of similarity with [No Country for Old Men]. Cormac’s book is told in first person – well, actually it checkerboards the first person monologues of the sheriff with third person omniscient storytelling, [but] we knew, sadly, that we’d lose some of the humor and digressiveness of those monologues because you just can’t carry it on to that degree in a movie with voiceover.
Similarly [with True Grit], part of the power of the story and character is derived from the digressive and often very funny things [Mattie Ross, the film’s young female protagonist] says in her first person narration. You’re aware in both cases that you’re losing a lot, and you’re just trying to put those points across, to the extent that you can, in dramatic scenes as opposed to interior monologues.
Joel Coen: And you’re trying to get the flavor of it, because the flavor of the novel is so much her voice.
Ethan Coen: That really is a strong a similarity between the two processes, in terms of writing, that is peculiar to these two novels because they are so interesting as first person narration.
Related to that, I was going to ask, in terms of casting, how much of Hailee Steinfeld’s casting as Mattie had to do with her actual physical voice, because she has a very strong one.
Joel Coen: That’s true, she’s got a great voice. It’s one of many things you notice that’s just part of the package.
It’s youthful but mature beyond…
Joel Coen: I have to say, that’s very true. There are some immediate things you notice in any casting, just the physical presence of the actor, and the next thing is probably their voice.
Ethan Coen: Especially an actor of that age. There are a lot of things that can prevent an actor from working at that age, but a little girly voice clearly…
Would have been a problem here.
Ethan Coen: Exactly.
Joel Coen: It’s interesting how important that is in almost every casting context. There’s either something right or something wrong about the quality of the voice that conveys so much. It doesn’t really have anything to do with skills as an actor necessarily, it’s just part of the instrument, you know? It’s the instrument it gets played on that’s most important.
You guys generally don’t outline, right?
Ethan Coen: Yeah.
So with an adaptation, do you go through and pick your plot points and decide what scenes you’re gonna do or do you just plow through?
Joel Coen: It’s much more the case that there’s a discussion about what comes next extending a certain way into the script that often gets batted about verbally and then just gets written as opposed to writing it all down with one subset of A, B, C, D, and E, you know? It’s like, “Okay, this will happen, and it will lead to this, and then we don’t know what.”
Ethan Coen: That’s true. It’s kinda mushy. We don’t do an outline in terms of mapping out the whole thing but then, on the other hand, we don’t exactly write scene A and then stop and say, “Ok, what’s scene B?”
Joel Coen: Yeah, it might be, “Ok, this will happen and lead to this and this and then we get here, and we’ll figure it out.”
It’s kind of a floating outline?
Ethan Coen: Yes, a floating outline. If we’re writing scene B, we have some clear idea of what scene C might be and a slightly fuzzier idea of what D might be and a vague idea of what the ramifications of that might be – or maybe not. It just kind of falls off into darkness.
Don’t you ever walk into the woods that way and find yourself lost?
Joel Coen: Well, yeah, that’s the classic thing. We joke about this all the time. When we were writing Fargo, we wrote the script to the point where it literally said “FADE IN. SHEP’S APARTMENT. Carl is humping the escort.” It stayed that way for like four months. We would occasionally look at the last thing we wrote, and that’s what it said, and we didn’t know where it went from there. And we went off and did something else and eventually we somehow managed to write beyond that.
Ethan Coen: On O Brother, Where Art Thou? we wrote through to, well, not very far. It begins with three escaped guys chained together, and we wrote through what became George Clooney’s monologue on the train to the hobos, and then we put it aside for three or four years and did a couple movies and came back to it.
So when you hit a narrative cul-de-sac you need about two or three years?
Joel Coen: Sometimes. Two or three months is common. Two or three years has happened.
So what was the stem-to-stern length on the writing of this?
Joel Coen: Well, [Fargo and O Brother] were [not adaptations] – well, I guess we had The Odyssey, but at that point we didn’t know we were adapting The Odyssey.
Ethan Coen: That’s an interesting screenwriting phenomenon; when you’re doing an adaptation but aren’t aware of it.
Especially of The Odyssey, for God’s sake.
Joel Coen: For Christ’s sake, it’s The Odyssey!
Ethan Coen: Yeah, at some point we looked at each other and said…
Joel Coen: “Call someone and find out if the rights are available!”
But you obviously don’t have quite that problem when you’re doing an adaptation of a novel. You know what comes next, at least theoretically, or at least you know where you want to get to roughly, eventually.
Ethan Coen: And then there’s the other related, or really opposite phenomenon of doing an adaptation but not telling anyone. We did a film called Miller’s Crossing that was basically Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key, but we didn’t tell anybody.
Joel Coen: It was sort of a combination of The Glass Key and Red Harvest – if you kind of mushed those things together. But we were like, “We don’t want to do a Hammett exactly, but we want to do it almost.”
Almost Hammett. That’s hard to do because Hammett is so Hammett.
Joel Coen: Right. To be honest with you we like everything except the plots.
Ethan Coen: Yeah, the plots get a little cheesy. The more you think about how you’d make the movie, the more they don’t hold up.
His plots can be demonstratively complex.
Joel Coen: Yes.
I’m more of a [Raymond] Chandler man myself.
Joel Coen: His plots can get complex, too.
That’s true. You guys are very writerly filmmakers. How much do you read? Is it a voracious thing?
Joel Coen: I have to say it ebbs and flows like going to the movies a little bit, you know? I have no idea, honestly, how much I read compared to the average college graduate or something…
Ethan Coen: Probably compared to the average college graduate, more than most, but that’s probably setting the bar pretty low.
Do you guys ever fight during the writing process?
Ethan Coen: You just don’t because whatever works, works. Most of the time with writing, you’re just trying to think of something that works.
In the Time magazine interview you did with Cormac McCarthy you said that your emotional ups and downs during the making of the film are almost on a schedule, the first rough cut being one of the lowest points. Is there anything like that with your writing process?
Ethan Coen: I would say no, just what everybody’s familiar with – you feel good when it’s going well and bad when it’s not, and that doesn’t have a predictable rhythm to it.
Joel Coen: And the other thing I would add to that is, at the writing stage of the movie, you’re at a stage where the possibilities of what you ultimately do are still infinite as opposed to when you’re cutting a film, you’ve got the footage, and that’s what you’ve fucking got to deal with, you know what I mean? Emotionally, it’s very different.
Ethan Coen: The despair isn’t as deep writing because you can always fix it.