The Coen Brothers Return to Berlin With 'True Grit'

Plagued by bad weather, writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen weren't sure they could finish True Grit in time for its Dec. 22 U.S. release. Since then it's earned $150 million and an Oscar best picture nomination. On the eve of its first film-festival appearance, opening the Berlin International Film Festival Feb. 10, the Coens talk about their biggest hit with The Hollywood Reporter's Tim Appelo.

The Hollywood Reporter: When were you last in Berlin?

Joel Coen: We haven't been there since The Big Lebowski. We've known [festival director] Dieter Kosslick for a while and like him, so we're looking forward to it.

THR: What are your Berlin memories?

Ethan Coen: It's gray and cold. Most of the other festivals are more like you're off conventioneering someplace.

Joel: We were there with John Goodman at a press conference and had just been subjected to the usual paparazzi battery of exploding flashbulbs and the first question was, 'What do you think of Berlin?' and John said, 'I've noticed a lot of cameras.' [laughter]

THR: In THR on Dec. 1, I said True Grit's last-minute Dec. 22 release wasn't a smart move. In 13 days it made more than your first 7 films did in 13 years. I guess it was a smart move.

Joel: They didn't have a choice. We barely made it. The big surprises came fast and furious this year. We were not expecting the movie to perform as it did commercially. And, honestly, we thought there wasn't going to be a slew of Oscar nominations either.

THR: Sources say Stalin sent an assassin on a botched mission to Hollywood to kill John Wayne in 1943. If he'd been successful, there would have been no 1969 True Grit. Would your movie be any different?

Joel: Oh, it wouldn't be. That's the thing. Our movie is from the Charles Portis novel.

THR: So there's no influence at all?

Joel: Bits around the edges.

Ethan: It's been remarked that Dakin Matthews [who plays the horse trader] is reminiscent of Strother Martin, who played the role in 1969. I have a vague memory of Martin in that role. It's a chicken or egg thing -- what comes from the book and whatever distant memory of the movie we have.

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: Did Wayne's iconic performance cast a shadow on your True Grit?

Joel: Jeff kinda didn't care. The one person who might have been put off by it. He just kinda didn't give a shit.

Ethan: A lot of people might take umbrage, but I'm not sure that was the iconic performance of John Wayne. To think of it as iconic largely because of the Oscar is a mistake.

THR: Wayne got it for being John Wayne.

Ethan: Joel had a theory he learned about acting by watching his horses. Like a lot of big guys, like John Goodman, he had incredible physical gracefulness, like a dancer.

THR: Garry Wills says Kim Darby made the Mattie role too childish in 1969, perhaps because she was actually a 21-year-old mother.

Ethan: That's interesting, the idea that she might've been trying to compensate for her age, pushing it the other way.

THR: She's following Wayne's character, in second place.

Ethan: That was never a problem with Hailee. She definitely understands she's driving the truck, the truck being the expedition. That's the central joke of the book: she's the grownup.

THR: When I interviewed Steinfeld she sounded a lot like Mattie - confident.

Ethan: She does have this in common with her character. I asked Rusty the wrangler if she could ride. He said, 'She's gonna be fine -- she's totally unafraid of the horses.'"

THR: Charles Portis' newspaper colleague Tom Wolfe called him "the original laconic cutup." That sounds like you. It seems your movies went from the cutup style (Lebowski) to the laconic, in your never-filmed adaptation of James Dickey's novel To The White Sea, about an American B52 pilot who speaks no Japanese and crashes during the 1945 Tokyo firebombing, and No Country for Old Men. What's the influence of The White Sea on No Country?

Ethan: A formal or stylistic one. It's very, very nonverbal. Both are about predation. The hunter and the hunted.

THR: So was Fargo, and True Grit.

Ethan: Yeah, in a very different way.

THR: But True Grit is the opposite of No Country -- talk about being verbal.

Joel: Oh, totally verbal.

Ethan: One hallmark of Portis's books is they always have a gasbag.

Joel: We're drawn to gasbags.

THR: The language of True Grit has been called artificial, but didn't people really talk that way?

Ethan: Ron Howard said that. According to research he'd done, that formal mode of speech is fairly accurate to the period. An era when people were more conversant with the bible.

THR: One last question. What are you going to do with all that money?

Joel: What is Paramount gonna do with all that money is the better question.

Ethan: We're glad the studio is doing really well.