Joel and Ethan Coen, 'True Grit'
Writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen weren’t sure they could finish editing their hit Western True Grit in time for its Dec. 22 release. Since then it has made $150 million, more than their first nine films did in 16 years — combined. They tend to deflect questions about their work with fusillades of wisecracks, but with some prodding they reveal a peek or two behind the curtain of their creative process.
The Hollywood Reporter: What has this round of awards-season hoopla been like for you? Do you care about awards?
Joel Coen: We care deeply. We were as surprised as — well, there were two, the big surprises for us, they came fast and furious this year. Firstly, we were not expecting the movie to perform as it did commercially, and that was genuine surprise. Honestly, we thought it made kind of sense that there wasn’t going to be a slew of Oscar nominations, either. And it was sort of the consensus among the people who were writing about those things, and it also made perfect sense to us too, so that was the other big surprise.
Ethan Coen: Although not that shocking because everybody knows it’s a weird, fluky business. So a weird, fluky thing happens, so it’s fluky, and yet it’s not fluky. Because fluky things happen.
THR: What was your writing process on True Grit?
Joel: It’s kind of the same on every movie: We sit around. There’s a certain amount of discussion that precedes any actual writing, I guess. You just kind of jump into it, and screenplays we kind of start at the beginning and, as much as possible, just work our way through it. We generally don’t outline it. Especially in the case where you’re doing an adaptation. It’s not like we sit down and do a lot of research — or any research, really. There’s research, obviously, that gets done all over the place, from an art department point of view or from a costume point of view. You get into that to a certain extent with the people who were doing it. At the time that they’re doing it, you’re actually designing the movie.
Ethan: And also, Charles Portis obviously did a lot of research. The book didn’t come out of nothing.
THR: Do you write in longhand or on computers?
Joel: We’re old enough that we used to use typewriters.
THR: Can you point to anything in True Grit and say, “Joel came up with this, Ethan with that”?
Joel: Well, it’s all pretty much a mush because what really happens is, there’s a discrete Idea A and discrete Idea B and C and so on that gets dumped into the movie. It’s one person says something, then the other person — it gets batted back and forth and modified.
THR: Do you take notes from actors?
Ethan: Oh yeah. Like when we’re rehearsing and go through the script. Sure, sometimes.
Joel: Not in a huge way. Not “the third act needs to be rewritten.” But lines, “I don’t know — this doesn’t feel right,” areas where it could be better.
THR: Do you like being on the set?
Joel: We both like being on sets. Having said that, we don’t like to overstay our welcome on the set. After a number of months, you’re ready to go home. We’re not the kind of filmmakers who would relish the thought, or would be happy shooting for 110 days. That does not sound like fun to us.
THR: What was the major technical challenge in making True Grit? The weather? Or maybe it was a blessing — get in, get out fast?
Joel: No, it wasn’t merciful. It was a pain in the ass, the weather.
Ethan: Oh yeah, the weather was horrible. And also, frankly, even given what Joel said, we didn’t feel like really we had enough days. It was just hard, and the weather made it harder.
Joel: The shoot ended up being roughly 60 days. Maybe 58 or 59, something like that.
THR: How long did the project last for you, beginning to end?
Joel: Fast for us, about a year from beginning to end, give or take a month or two.
Ethan: We finished it fast because the studio — for good reason, they wanted a Christmas release.
Joel: It was, for us, a very abbreviated postproduction schedule. We ended up finishing the movie the beginning/middle of June, and we had to deliver the movie for a Christmas release, being done by Thanksgiving. That’s very close but not insane, except for the fact that we don’t cut while we’re shooting, unlike most movies. Because we do the editing, we don’t actually start cutting a frame of film until we’re done shooting.
THR: Which of this year’s other nominated films would you like to have written and why?
Joel: Toy Story 3. Absolutely. For the guild residuals.