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Coen Bros. On Wet Horses, Kid Stars: It's A Wild West.

Joel and Ethan Coen's latest film is an adaptation of the Charles Portis western novel True Grit. The filmmakers and writers discuss the making of the film and the difficulties of working with both child actors and horses.



Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Coen Brothers On Wet Horses, Kid Stars: It's A Wild West


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guests, brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, wrote and directed the films "Blood
Simple," "Fargo," "The Big Lebowski," "O Brother Where Art Thou," "No Country
for Old Men," "Burn After Reading" and "A Serious Man." Their new movie, "True
Grit," is adapted from the Charles Portis Western novel of the same name. Don't
think of the film as a remake of the John Wayne movie, which strayed far from
the novel's story and tone.

"True Grit" is set in the 1870s. When the story begins, in Arkansas, a 14-year-
old girl named Mattie Ross is setting out to avenge the death of her father,
who was murdered in cold blood by a man working for him. With a determination
and a confidence beyond her years, she looks for a federal marshal willing to
track down the murderer and take her along. The marshal she hires is a one-
eyed, often drunk but very experienced Rooster Cogburn, played by Jeff Bridges.

Mattie thinks this will be an adventure, but as they get deeper on the trail,
she witnesses brutality and death that will transform her. The young Mattie
Ross is played by Hailee Steinfeld.

Let's start with the opening scene from the film. It's a voiceover by the adult
Mattie Ross, telling the story of what happened when she was 14. The adult
Mattie Ross is played by Elizabeth Marvel.

(Soundbite of film, "True Grit")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ELIZABETH MARVEL (Actor): (As Mattie Ross) People did not give it credence
that a young girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her
father's blood, but it did happen. I was just 14 years of age when a coward by
the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down and robbed him of his life and his
horse and two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser pant.

Chaney was a hired man, and papa had taken him up to Fort Smith to help lead
back a string of mustang ponies he had bought. In town, Chaney had fallen to
drink and cards and lost all his money. He got it into his head he was being
cheated and went back to the boardinghouse for his Henry rifle. When papa tried
to intervene, Chaney shot him. Chaney fled.

He could have walked his horse, for not a soul in that city could be bothered
to give chase. No doubt Chaney fancied himself scot free, but he was wrong. You
must pay for everything in this world, one way and another. There is nothing
free except the grace of God.

GROSS: Joel and Ethan Coen, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love your new film. Thank
you so much for coming.

Mr. JOEL COEN (Filmmaker): Oh, thank you.

GROSS: One of the things I love about the movie is that the language is so
formal and from an earlier era, an era before contractions were common, an era
where, like in the book, people - he's more likely to say said he than he said.

And some of the dialogue in the movie comes straight out of the book. Some of
it you've written. Did you have to learn to write in the language that Charles
Portis uses of that era?

Mr. JOEL COEN: Not really. Most of the dialogue is taken from the book, direct
from the book. And in places where it wasn't, where we were kind of, where we
were aping the language of the book because the scenes didn't derive from the
original book, it wasn't a question of learning to - you know, it wasn't a
foreign language. It is a strikingly different use of the English language, but
it was more a question of kind of aping the tone, as opposed to anything more
of an exercise than that.

Mr. ETHAN COEN (Filmmaker): You know, it was a frequent occurrence on the set
that an actor would inadvertently use a contraction, and we would ask them not

Mr. JOEL COEN: There's a special whistle that we blew.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOEL COEN: Not really. But yeah, no, the actors actually welcomed that.
They wanted to - part of what's interesting about the parts is the language,
and they also wanted to be faithful to that.

GROSS: There's a lot of Old Testament language in this, in part because Mattie,
the main character, is very Protestant. And the film opens with a quote from
Proverbs - the wicked flee when none pursueth - which is actually a quote that
ends the first chapter of the Charles Portis novel "True Grit."

And I want to see in which there is more Old Testament references, and this is
a voiceover by the main character, the 14-year-old girl Mattie, and this is a
letter she's writing to her mother, explaining she's about to set out on a
journey to avenge her father's murder.

(Soundbite of film, "True Grit")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. HAILEE STEINFELD (Actor): (As Mattie Ross) Dearest mother, I'm about to
embark on a great adventure. I have learned that Tom Chaney has fled into the
wild, and I shall assist the authorities in pursuit. You know that papa would
want me to be firm in the right, as he always was.

So do not fear on my account. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of
death, I shall fear no evil. The author of all things watches over me, and I
have a fine horse. Kiss little Frankie for me and pinch him on the cheek, and
papa's death will soon be avenged.

(Soundbite of hoof beats)

Ms. STEINFELD: (As Mattie) I'm off to the Choctaw Nation.

GROSS: Oh, that's so stirring.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, I mean, in that, we hear the formality of language we were talking
about but also, you know, Old Testament references. Did you find yourself going
back to the Bible at all to kind of steep yourself in this tone that she would
be steeped in?

Mr. ETHAN COEN: Not really. No, we didn't go back to the Bible, although
clearly in the book, the character is steeped in the Bible. Actually, all the
characters, you kind of assume that part of their speech derives from either
having learned to read from the Bible or, in that probably a lot of them are
illiterate, just having heard a lot of Scripture.

But no, we didn't go back to the Bible. We're kind of - unlike the main
character in the book, we're familiar with it from Hebrew school.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I'm wondering if it was hard for you to find a 13 or a 14-year-old
actress who could handle the kind of language, the kind of formality and the
kind of full-throated voice that she has because so many girls now, you know,
talk really more in their nose than in their chest, and also, everything goes
up at the end like this.

So there's a sense of, like, gravity when she speaks, and she's so - you know,
she's formal, she's grave. She's certain.

Mr. JOEL COEN: Yes. She sounds like a girl who knows her mind, yes. I'd like to
say it was actually harder on other people than it was on us. There was, you
know, a casting director, a woman that we work with named Rachel Tenner(ph) and
we've worked with a lot before, she spent months and months in the South,
traveling all over, doing open calls and seeing thousands of girls and also
looking at auditions that were submitted online.

We, Ethan and I, mercifully, saw only a tiny percentage of those auditions and
submissions. But you're right that to a large extent, well, 99.99 percent of
the girls who auditioned for this role just washed out at the level of, A, all
the sort of vocal qualities that you mentioned; and B, not being able to get
their mouths around the language.

GROSS: Now, I read that you cast Hailee Steinfeld, who plays Mattie Ross, you
cast her just a few weeks before the shoot. What would have happened had you
not found her?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ETHAN COEN: Yeah, that's a good question. We actually talked about it, you
know, in despair some time before we met Hailee because it wasn't a given that
we were going to find the person who could do the movie. And it wasn't a given
that the person existed who could do the movie. You know, it's a great part for
a 14-year-old, but it could have turned out to have been beyond all real-life

But we just figured, I don't know, we'd find somebody, or that it would be a
copout, it would be cheating somehow to abandon the movie or tell ourself that
we could abandon the movie if we didn't find the right person. So we just kind
of pushed on and then mercifully did meet Hailee.

GROSS: Boy, you were taking a big chance. If you hadn't found her, do you think
you would have made the movie with somebody who you settled for?

Mr. JOEL COEN: Well, you know, we probably would have tried to convince
ourselves that the person we had settled for was the right person. You kind of
do that when you have to. But, you know, we didn't have to.

Mr. ETHAN COEN: The problem with sort of taking the attitude of, well, let's
wait and see if we find the right person is the production of a movie is such a
complicated and huge sort of logistical enterprise that there's a point that if
you're going to sort of pull the plug on it, it makes sense, but it makes sense
fairly early in the process. Once you sort of, you know, let the horses out of
the barn, it becomes very, very difficult to put them back in.

And so the decision to sort of abort because you haven't found the right person
necessarily has to happen earlier in the process than seems rational. On the
other hand, yes, in a case like this, you're taking a big chance by pushing it
right up until the - you know, close to the first day of principal photography
without knowing who's going to play the lead.

GROSS: I don't know if this is a conscious decision on your part, but it seems
to me you did not sexualize the character of the 14-year-old girl.

Mr. ETHAN COEN: Well, that's a whole interesting issue. You know, one of the
things which was somewhat peculiar about our recollection, even our distant
recollection of the first movies, you know, we were aware of the fact that that
part was played by Kim Darby, and she was in her early 20s when she played the

But it's so clear from the novel that part of what's interesting - I mean, you
know, what's very interesting about what Charles Portis did in the novel is he
made the protagonist just on the brink of puberty, of, you know, of sort of
sexual awareness. I mean, just on that weird edge between being a child in
between being a, you know, an adolescent or sexual creature.

And it's part of what's interesting about the whole dynamic between her and the
two men in the story. And no, we didn't want to sexualize it, but on the other
hand, there's this sort of sexual element of them and her age is part of the
story and part of what we wanted to be there.

GROSS: My guests are brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. They co-wrote and directed
such films as "Blood Simple," "Fargo," "The Big Lebowski," "No Country for Old
Men" and "A Serious Man." Their new film is "True Grit." We'll talk more after
a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are Joel and Ethan Coen. They wrote and directed the new film
"True Grit." When we left off, we were talking about how hard it was to find a
young actress to portray the main character.

It's really one of the great female roles because she's so strong and
independent and willful and yet, naïve and vulnerable at the same time. Of
course, she was only 13. I mean, it's a role that I think, like, great
actresses would have fought for but they are far too old to play it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So let me play a scene with Hailee Steinfeld as the young Mattie Ross
and Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn, the one-eyed, hard-drinking, hygienically
incorrect deputy marshal for the U.S. District Court of the Western District of

And so she's been trying - in this scene, she's been trying to convince him to
help her track down Chaney, the man who killed her father, so she can avenge
her father's death, and she's been negotiating the price that she would pay
Rooster Cogburn. Here's Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges.

(Soundbite of film, "True Grit")

Ms. STEINFELD: (As Mattie) Can we depart this afternoon?

Mr. JEFF BRIDGES (Actor): (As Rooster Cogburn) We? You are not going. That is
no part of it.

Ms. STEINFELD: (As Mattie) You have misjudged me if you think I am silly enough
to give you $50 and watch you simply ride off.

Mr. BRIDGES: (As Cogburn) I'm a bonded U.S. marshal.

Ms. STEINFELD: (As Mattie) That weighs but little with me. I will see the thing

Mr. BRIDGES: (As Cogburn) (unintelligible) I can't go after Ned Pepper and his
band of hard men and look after a baby at the same time.

Ms. STEINFELD: (As Mattie) I am not a baby.

Mr. BRIDGES: (as Rooster Cogburn) We won't be stopping at boardinghouses where
there's warm beds and hot grub on the table. I'll be traveling fast, eating
light. What little sleeping is done will take place on the ground.

Ms. STEINFELD: (As Mattie) Well, I have slept out at night before. Papa took me
and little Frank coon hunting last summer on the Petit Jean. We were in the
woods all night. We sat around a big fire and Yarnell told ghost stories. We
had a good time.

Mr. BRIDGES: (as Rooster Cogburn) Coon hunting? This ain't no coon hunt.

Ms. STEINFELD: (As Mattie) It is the same idea as a coon hunt.

Mr. BRIDGES: (As Cogburn) No (Unintelligible).

Ms. STEINFELD: (As Mattie) You are just trying to make your work sound harder
than it is. Here is the money. Now, I aim to get Tom Chaney, and if you are not
game, I will find somebody who is game. All I've heard out of you so far is
talk. I know you can drink whiskey and snort, spit and wallow in filth and
bemoan your station. The rest has been braggadocio. They told me you had grit,
and that is why I came to you. I'm not paying for talk. I can get all the talk
I need and more at the (unintelligible) boardinghouse.

Mr. BRIDGES: (As Cogburn) Leave your money. Meet me here at 7:00 tomorrow
morning, we'll begin our coon hunt.

GROSS: That's a scene from "True Grit," and my guests are the writers and
directors, Joel and Ethan Coen.

I think that scene really shows how she's both a girl and mature way beyond her
years at the same time. And did you write this knowing that you'd want to cast
Jeff Bridges in the part of Rooster Cogburn?

Mr. JOEL COEN: Well, we didn't actually write it thinking about Jeff. You know,
sometimes as an exercise, when we're writing a script of our own, just as a
sort of, oh, I don't know, a help, a crutch in figuring out who the characters
are, we imagine specific actors that we know in a part in order to kind of
crystallize what the part is, what the character is.

In this case, that wasn't what we were doing. We were just adapting the book.
The characters were sort of given to us. So we wrote the screenplay as an
adaptation, without really thinking about actors who might play the parts.

When we were done, though, and, you know, beginning to size up, figure out
where we were, Jeff was the first person who suggested himself as, you know,
the person to play Rooster Cogburn, yeah.

Mr. ETHAN COEN: You know, it's a short list, you know, again at that age, that
kind of physicality, I mean, in terms of people who are sort of in that, in the
pocket that could play that. And Jeff just seemed to us the most - I mean,
quite aside from the fact that we'd worked with him before and had, you know,
and really like him, the most interesting in the part.

Mr. JOEL COEN: Plus, he can ride.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Oh, he can ride horses.

Mr. JOEL COEN: Although I must say, we didn't know that at the time. I guess if
we thought about, we knew...

Mr. ETHAN COEN: He had some Western - yeah, he, you know, it was an issue with
all of the characters, really. I mean, they had to spend half the movie on
horseback. But that's a whole other subject.

GROSS: Well, we'll get back to the horses. But did you grow up in the era when
Westerns were all over TV and movies, or did you just miss that?

Mr. ETHAN COEN: No, they were on TV constantly when we were kids, absolutely.

Mr. JOEL COEN: Yeah, we saw a lot of Westerns and a lot of Hercules movies.

GROSS: Oh, yeah. Did you like Westerns, and did they help form your
consciousness of what movies and TV were all about? I mean, I grew up thinking
that, you know, it was just so normal to be a cowboy. I mean, I wanted to be a
cowgirl when I grew up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ETHAN COEN: Yes, to a certain extent we grew up thinking they were a - just
as we thought it was perfectly legitimate to make a movie in black and white,
we thought it was perfectly legitimate to make a movie that was set in the Old
West, where people rode horses and, you know, had six-guns.

Mr. JOEL COEN: But we weren't, you know, cowboy fetishists. Neither of us own
chaps. Or, you know, I remember seeing a friend of ours, T-Bone Burnett, the
music producer, has a picture of himself at seven years old in Fort Worth,
Texas, you know, with the little toy six-guns and cowboy hat. That wasn't us.
Maybe that's the difference between Minneapolis and Fort Worth. But, you know,
yeah, we saw a lot of Westerns.

Mr. ETHAN COEN: I think you had the lumberjack outfit.

Mr. JOEL COEN: Yeah, we had the plaid shirts.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So the mood in your version of "True Grit" comes in part from the
cinematography and the colors that you use. Like, the movie is basically brown,
gray and black with some white snow and some kind of off-white sky. It's cloudy
most of the time. Even the ad campaign is brown and black. So...

Mr. JOEL COEN: Yeah, what's up with that?

GROSS: What's up with that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOEL COEN: What's up with that?

GROSS: Can you talk about deciding that those would be the right colors for the

Mr. ETHAN COEN: Well, you know, it's interesting. We were, and we have worked,
on, like, what, the last four movies with a producer designer named Jess
Gonshore(ph), and sometimes what Jess does before we start is he literally sort
of puts together a piece of paper, which is the palette for the movie. You
know, you can see the range of colors that he wants to use in the design and in
the clothes and, you know, across the board.

That was definitely the case on "No Country For Old Men." I don't remember him
doing that specifically on this movie, but that's very much part of the way he
works and how he sort of organizes his own thinking about how he's going to
sort of design the movie.

Mr. JOEL COEN: In fact, he calls himself a palette Nazi. He used to, although
he's relaxed a bit, he used to give out - everybody in the art department had
the palette on a piece of paper in front of them to make sure that nothing
snuck onto the set that was not sanctioned by the palette.

Mr. ETHAN COEN: Actually, this one, the end of the movie, the palette gets a
little more relaxed. There's some color in the Wild West show at the end of the
movie just because we, Jess and we wanted to sort of - it had to stand apart
from the main body of the movie in some way, and that was a means of doing
that, stand apart in terms of feeling and period.

GROSS: Now, after seeing your "True Grit," I thought, I'll go back and watch
the 1969 version with John Wayne because I'd never really seen it before. I've
seen a couple minutes here and there while channel-surfing, but that's about

And with all due respect to those involved, I really thought it was a bad film,
and it's funny...

Mr. ETHAN COEN: With all due respect to the Duke.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOEL COEN: You know, I must say, we saw the movie when it came out, when we
were kids. We haven't seen it since, although we did see the trailer, and it's
in so many ways shocking.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yes. Well, one of the shocking things is, like, we're talking about how
your film is, like, brown, gray and black, and that's like this Technicolor
film, the bright colors, and she's wearing like an orange skirt or something,
you know, at one point. I mean, it's so...

Mr. ETHAN COEN: Yeah, it's a little assaultive, isn't it, visually?

GROSS: Well, it just seems so wrong. But tell me more reasons why you don't
like it, or why it's shocking, why it's, in your words, shocking.

Mr. ETHAN COEN: There are parts of it that actually seem a little campy to us
now. It's - and again, this is just judging from the trailer.

Mr. JOEL COEN: But yeah, it's - but it's - yeah, it's a curious thing. People
have a real attachment to that original movie.

Actually, we were very tempted at certain points and while we were shooting the
movie to go back and watch it again, and I think at one point, Ethan, you were
actually planning to because we were trying to figure out - we kept saying,
well, I wonder - we were trying to figure out how to set certain scenes up or
shoot certain scenes. You know, you just inevitably sometimes reach the point
where you go, I wonder how they did it in the first one?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOEL COEN: But we never ended up actually going back to it. Roger Deakins,
who shot the movie...

Mr. ETHAN COEN: (Unintelligible).

Mr. JOEL COEN: He did consult it and frequently came up to us when he had -
like, we were shooting something at night, and he'd have, you know, 80 18-Ks on
a ridge up in, you know, the middle of nowhere trying to light this exterior
scene. He would say to Ethan and I, you know, in the original one, they just
shot this during the day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOEL COEN: But we didn't go back and look at it.

GROSS: Joel and Ethan Coen will be back in the second half of the show. Their
new film is "True Grit." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross back with brothers Joel and Ethan
Coen. They wrote and directed "Blood Simple," "Miller's Crossing," "Fargo,"
"The Big Lebowski," "O Brother Where Art Thou," "No Country for Old Men," "Burn
After Reading" and "A Serious Man."

Their new film, "True Grit," is a Western adapted from a Charles Portis novel
of the same name. It's about a 14-year-old girl in the 1870s, out to avenge the
murder of her father. She hires a one-eyed federal marshal to track down the
killer and goes with him on what she thinks will be a great adventure. The girl
is played by Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges plays Marshal Rooster Cogburn.

So you had to work with horses in this film through most of the movie. All the
characters are on horseback, going through the woods looking for the man who
they're trying to capture. And working with horses is probably pretty hard. I
don't know how much you've done that before.

Mr. ETHAN COEN: We haven't done any.

Mr. JOEL COEN: Well, a little bit. A very, very small amount in the past. And
we sort of approached the whole enterprise with a great deal of trepidation. We
were - and they are difficult to deal with for a number of reasons. I should
say however, that we were lucky enough to have the services of probably the
best horse wranglers in the business. And they do do extraordinary things with
the horses. The horses will often hit their marks in ways that you sometimes
wish the actors were capable of doing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOEL COEN: But, you know, we were doing a lot of very complicated things
with the horses and the whole sort of enterprise of doing stunts with horses
now is a lot different than it was when we were watching, you know, the
Westerns that we saw as kids, when those were being made. There are
restrictions on what you can do with animals in general, and horses in
particular, which are there for very good reasons.

For instance, if you want a horse to fall down, that's a much, much different
thing than it was 20 years ago.

GROSS: What's different?

Mr. ETHAN COEN: Well, you used to be able to basically trip horses. You're not
allowed to do that anymore, again as Joel said, for good reason, for perfectly
valid reasons. But it makes it very difficult. The horses have to be trained,
and basically they have to want to fall down.

GROSS: So you had to have stunt horses.


Mr. JOEL COEN: You have to have stunt horses that are trained, that'll fall
down, that are - the ground has to be prepared where they fall. Generally
speaking, they have to be ridden by the trainer as opposed to by sort of, you
know, stuntman X or the actor. There are rules that involve how moving vehicles
- by which I mean, in this context, you know, moving camera cars can approach
horses that are moving towards the vehicle.

Mr. ETHAN COEN: They're even rules - some of them seem actually a little
excessive about we swim a horse in the movie and there are rules about water
temperature at which you're allowed to swim horse which seems odd because, you
know, we were throwing actors in there with the horses, and the actors weren't

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So there's no union rules about the actors?

Mr. ETHAN COEN: No, no, there's frequently things that you can do with actors
that you can't do with animals. I mean, that's actually quite common. You know,
what's the temperature of the water? But the union isn't saying anything about
putting the 13-year-old in freezing water.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: There's a scene where there's a pony that's carrying more weight than a
pony can carry and the pony is played out, it cannot endure anymore and it is
choking and sputtering and coughing. What do you do to get a horse to do that?

Mr. JOEL COEN: Well, that's - boy, that's cobbling together a lot of different
things because you can't certainly distress a horse, certainly not to that
degree. It's a lot of things. It's riding at different paces, we just, you
know, progressively slower. A lot of it is enhanced digitally in the computer
in terms of the lather and its breath. And actually, a lot of it is sound. I
mean, just the sound of the horse's effort which is all fake added later
contributes a lot to the impression of distress.

Mr. ETHAN COEN: And a lot of it is the horse's just sort of apparent movement
through the frame. And also tricks that they do, for instance, to get the horse
to open its mouth, to bear its teeth, to, you know, flare its nostrils, those
types of things which are part of the way you cut it all together to create the
impression that the horse is being ridden down to this point of exhaustion. The
horse was...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ETHAN COEN: The horse was perfectly fine and able to do as much as we
wanted. The horse was actually not experiencing any of that.

Mr. JOEL COEN: You never heard him complain.

GROSS: So you had to take all these precautions with the horses. But the star
of your film is a 13 year old girl. Were there precautions you had to take with
her as a minor? Were her parents on the set? Did she have some kind of guardian
on the set?


GROSS: Are there rules?

Mr. ETHAN COEN: Oh, yeah. There are rules in terms of child labor. The one that
was difficult to deal with just because you're making a movie and trying to
make the day's, you know, get the day's work done, related to her hours on the
set, which are restricted. And you're not allowed to shoot with a minor, with a
13-year-old past midnight.

So when you're doing a night scene especially, it's especially onerous because
it doesn't get dark until 8:00 or 8:30, and the main character leaves at
midnight. That kind of presents a working problem. But, you know, that's - we
knew what we were getting into, shooting a movie with horses and a 13-year-old.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOEL COEN: It makes scheduling a movie enormously more complicated. And it
does force you, unfortunately, in certain situations, to do scenes or the
coverage of Jeff or Matt, for instance, sometimes had to be done with another
actor who was essentially standing in for Hailee at that point because you
still have to shoot the day.

Mr. ETHAN COEN: As a rule, if you’re, in the movie, if you're looking at a shot
of Jeff or Matt over the shoulder of the character Mattie, it's usually not
Hailee but usually an adult double in her wardrobe.

GROSS: My guests are brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. They co-wrote and directed
such films as "Blood Simple," "Fargo," "The Big Lebowski," "No Country for Old
Men" and "A Serious Man." Their new film is "True Grit."

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guests are Joel and Ethan Coen. Their new
movie is "True Grit."

I'd like to talk about your previous film, "A Serious Man," which I think is a
wonderful film and really funny. It's out on DVD. If you missed it in the
movies and want to see it, it's out on DVD. It's set in 1967 in a suburb of
Minneapolis and it's about a man who's beset by problems.

He's a physics teacher who thinks he is about to get tenure until he's
blackmailed by one of his students seeking a higher grade. His wife is leaving
him for another man. His brother seems to be going mad. His son is about to be
bar mitzvahed but is spending more time getting high on marijuana than studying
the Haphtarah. And the TV isn't getting good reception.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, it's about a man who...

Mr. ETHAN COEN: That's a good movie pitch.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. ETHAN COEN: Kid, you've got a picture.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So as everything in his life is falling to pieces, he decides he's going
to seek the advice of his rabbi. He goes to a series of rabbis.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And what they say is, like, not helpful and sometimes it makes no sense
at all. What was the germ of this idea for the film of this man who is beset by
problems, not boils like Job but, like, 1967 kinds of problems and he goes to a

Mr. ETHAN COEN: No boils with his brother has a sebaceous cyst on the back of
his neck.

GROSS: That's right. That's right.

Mr. JOEL COEN: What was the germ? What was the beginning of it?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JOEL COEN: Is that the question?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. JOEL COEN: Well, interestingly, the beginning of it, it proceeded from a
very early discussion we had about possibly doing a short movie about a rabbi
that we did know when we were growing up who was sort of loosely based on the
eldest rabbi, the rabbi that's called Marshak in "A Serious Man," who was a
sort of mysterious figure who each of the bar mitzvahed kids would go in and
see just after their bar mitzvah. But we weren't really quite sure what
happened in that room with this rabbi after you were bar mitzvahed and you went
in and you had a little chat with him.

This rabbi, by the way, wasn't at the synagogue that we went to. It was at
another synagogue in town. We thought, well, it might be interesting to make a
short movie just about, you know, a bar mitzvah boy going into that room to
have that chat with the rabbi.

GROSS: So when you were getting bar mitzvahed, you know, in that era when you
had to study in Hebrew school for the bar mitzvah, would it ever have occurred
to you to ask a rabbi for advice or to turn to a rabbi for...

Mr. JOEL COEN: Oh, as a child?

GROSS: Yes, to turn to a rabbi for...

Mr. JOEL COEN: Oh god, no. No, no, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOEL COEN: No, you know, like most kids you get spiritual instruction,
religious instruction, it was like, it was a chore. It wasn't anything
connected to any real-life problems. No.

GROSS: Did you feel that way about the synagogue in general?

Mr. ETHAN COEN: Oh, yeah.

Mr. JOEL COEN: Yeah, yeah, Hebrew school and going to the synagogue was always,
as I say, a chore. You know, it's something you had to do after secular school.

GROSS: And did you ever feel any different about it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOEL COEN: No. Honestly I, you know, I think we both stopped going as soon
as our parents let us stop. My sister had set a very dangerous precedent by
continuing after her bat mitzvah. So that was something that I remember having
an early discussion with my mother about in terms of, you know, saying I don't
think this is going to work with me. But no I, you know, I don't feel a whole
lot differently about it.

Before then, up through our bar mitzvahs, we had real immersion. We went to
Hebrew school four days a week after regular school and then the synagogue on
Saturday. And, you know, summer (unintelligible), summer camp in the summer. It
was pretty...

Mr. ETHAN COEN: We went to Hebrew school five days a week.

Mr. JOEL COEN: Oh yeah, and Sunday morning as well.


Mr. JOEL COEN: Yeah.

GROSS: One of the things I love about the film is that although the husband-
father character in it, dash college teacher, doesn't connect with the rabbis
he's talking with. At the end, and I don't want to give away the ending so I'm
going to try to talk about this in such a way that I don't give away the
ending. There is something truly...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ETHAN COEN: Surprise ending.

GROSS: Yeah, there's something truly awesome. And I don't mean like, wow,
awesome. I mean, like that creates a feeling of overwhelming awe...


GROSS: the very end. And there's two things actually...

Mr. ETHAN COEN: Again, you’re not giving specific.

GROSS: Without giving specific and at that point...

Mr. ETHAN COEN: Well, part of it's the fact of living in the Midwest and being
there, setting the story in the spring.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ETHAN COEN: You have weather patterns. We'll leave it at that.

GROSS: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But I'm very interested in the way that rabbis seems kind of somewheres
between like odd, out of it, superficial, and yet there is feeling of awe that
you express in the film. And again, this comprehension that we die. And that
awe may or may not be connected to any religion but there is still awe.

Mr. JOEL COEN: Uh-huh.


GROSS: Are you waiting for a question? I don't know what the question is.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOEL COEN: Right. What you were talking about with the ending was something
which we were sort of trying to put in a rational context for the area and the
period and the moment and the scene, something that felt as biblical as
possible at the end. And that helped to sort of contribute to I think, at least
in some emotional way, the things that you were just talking about.

As far as the rabbis were concerned, the rabbis were - they're just like
everybody else. If you have as much experience going to synagogues and Hebrew
schools as we did as little kids you meet a lot of different rabbis and, you
know, there are a lot of characters.

Mr. ETHAN COEN: And also, you know, some of them are almost laughable maybe,
but not just laughable. They're not, you know, I don't think they're

Mr. JOEL COEN: Right. That's true. I mean, to say that they don't do him,
meaning Larry, the main character in the movie, any good is not the same thing
as saying that they're dismissible, as Ethan said.

Mr. ETHAN COEN: Actually, the second one kind of makes sense.

GROSS: Well, when he meets the junior rabbi at one point and the rabbi is so
much younger than he is, it's like...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: know, he's thinking, how can you possibly have wisdom that I
don't? You're young.

Mr. JOEL COEN: Well, you know, that actually is interesting because, you know,
when our mother passed away, we were at home and we were visited - my father
asked the rabbi to come from the synagogue to just pay - and I think it's
something they do customarily, to pay a visit to the bereaved family. And this
kid walked in, looked like he was 12.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOEL COEN: And I remember thinking, wow, you know, you’ve gotten old and
the rabbis have gotten a lot younger.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ETHAN COEN: It's hard to think of him as a spiritual leader. But, yeah.
That was done in the movie by a very funny actor named Simon Helberg. He spent
so much time preparing for it and we shot the whole scene in one morning. We
talked about reconvening every year on the anniversary of the shoot date so he
could redo the scene but I think we've all kind of forgotten about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOEL COEN: Yeah. Simon I think was cast before - we ended up making this
movie "Burn After Reading" before we made "A Serious Man." But we cast Simon in
"A Serious Man" before we made "Burn After Reading." And he comes on the set
and he said, you know, I've been rehearsing this scene every day for a year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOEL COEN: Two hours later, he was out of there.

GROSS: So I want to play a scene from the film, and this isn't a rabbi scene.
This is a scene where the main character, you know, he's learned that his wife
is, wants a divorce and she wants a Jewish divorce - a get. And the man that
she is now in love with is Sy Ableman, who looks like, he kind of looks like if
Allen Ginsberg wasn't a beat poet but he was like a suburban guy who dressed in
pale blue pants and a pale blue polo shirt and was into like stealing your wife
away from you but was also very touchy-feely and sensitivo about it all - that
would be this guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOEL COEN: Yeah. It's all very moist.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. ETHAN COEN: He actually resembles sort of a combination of Francis Coppola
and another Alan, Alan Sherman.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ETHAN COEN: An older Alan Sherman.

GROSS: That's really funny. For anybody who doesn't know Alan Sherman, Alan
Sherman was like in the '60s, during the folk music craze, he did these like
folksong parodies of popular songs but all with like parody Jewish lyrics.

Mr. ETHAN COEN: Right.

GROSS: So you had to be very Jewish I think to think that they were funny or to
even get some of the jokes. They were all about like heartburn and going to
summer camp. But anyways...

Mr. ETHAN COEN: Crab grass and "Harvey and Sheila" was the "Hava Nagila"

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, okay, so here's the scene. So Larry has been forced by his soon-to-
be ex-wife and the man she's in love with now to a diner so that they can work
things out with him. He really does not want to be there. So here he is with Sy
Ableman, his new rival, and his wife.

(Soundbite of movie, "A Serious Man")

Mr. FRED MELAMED (Actor): (as Sy Ableman) Larry, I want to thank you for
coming. It's so important we be able to discuss these things.

Mr. MICHAEL STUHLBARG (Actor): (as Larry) I'm happy to come to Embers, Sy. But
I'm thinking, really, maybe it's best to leave these discussions to the

Mr. MELAMED: (as Sy Ableman) Of course. Legal matters, you let the lawyers
discuss. You don't mix apples and oranges.

Ms. SARI LENNICK (Actor): (as Judith) I have begged you to see the lawyer.

Mr. STUHLBARG: (as Larry) I told you, I'm going Monday.

Mr. MELAMED: (as Sy Ableman) Monday is timely. This is not - please, Embers is
not the forum for legalities. You're so right. No, Judith and I wanted merely
to discuss - practicalities. Living arrangements. After all, this is an issue
where no one is at odds.

Mr. STUHLBARG: (as Larry) Living arrangements?

Mr. MELAMED: (as Sy Ableman) I think we all agree that the children, not being
contaminated with the tension, the most important.

Ms. LENNICK: (as Judith) We shouldn't put the kids in the middle of this,

Mr. STUHLBARG: (as Larry) The kids aren't...

Ms. LENNICK: (as Judith) I'm saying we. I'm not pointing fingers.

Mr. MELAMED: (as Sy Ableman) No one is playing the blame game, Larry.

Mr. STUHLBARG: (as Larry) I didn't say anyone was.

Ms. LENNICK: (as Judith) Well, let's not play he said, she said, either.

Mr. STUHLBARG: (as Larry) I wasn't.

Mr. MELAMED: (as Sy Ableman) All right. Look, look, look. Let's just take a
step back and we can diffuse the situation. You know, Larry, sometimes I find
that if I count to 10 - one, two, three, four...

GROSS: Oh, poor Larry, he's so innocent in this situation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And Sy Ableman is so insufferable. Sy Ableman is putting his hand over
Larry's hand during this scene and this like touchy-feely thing. Can you talk
about creating this character? I love this character.

Mr. JOEL COEN: It was based on - at least in part on a couple of people that we
knew growing up. I don't want to say who for obvious reasons.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ETHAN COEN: But we added a lot of horrible warm empathy...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ETHAN COEN: ...which Fred Melamed, the actor, certainly made hay with.

GROSS: So what did they do that made them insufferable?

Mr. ETHAN COEN: Well, you know, our parents were both academics, and so a lot
of the people that we knew were insufferable.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOEL COEN: Ethan, you just made yourself a lot of friends in the academy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOEL COEN: You know, it frequently happens when - and especially in this
case - I mean because we were writing about a community that we grew up in. A
lot of these characters were sort of amalgamations of a couple of different
people. Although, you know, it's interesting. You talk about sort of
sexualizing characters in the context of "True Grit." But Fred Melamed came in
to do an initial reading of this and he immediately recognized - you know, he'd
read the script and he said - basically what he said was, Oh, I'm the sex guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOEL COEN: And you know, that actually added a whole 'nother dimension.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guests are Joel and Ethan Coen and their
new movie is "True Grit."

Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are brother Joel and Ethan Coen. They write and direct their
films together. Their new film is "True Grit." When we left off, we were
talking about the 2009 film, "A Serious Man," which is set in 1967 in a suburb
of Minnesota.

Since the film "A Serious Man" is modeled in part on the community you grew up
in, were there things from your old home that you saved that you put in the
home of the main characters, of their families, or things that you...

Mr. ETHAN COEN: Not that we saved, but that we found. Absolutely.

GROSS: Okay. What things?

Mr. JOEL COEN: There were certain totems of that period, Jewish middle-class
Jewish household, of that period. We tried to get a copy of - what was it, the
"Abba Eban" book...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOEL COEN: ...every home set that we had.

Mr. ETHAN COEN: "Masada."

Mr. JOEL COEN: "Masada." Yeah. Yigael Yadin's book.

Mr. ETHAN COEN: Yeah. What else did we have?

Mr. JOEL COEN: Didn’t we didn’t get your Kiddush Cup into the movie?

Mr. ETHAN COEN: We, yes, the Kiddush Cup that was - actually, the Kiddush Cup
that I was given at my bar mitzvah...

Mr. ETHAN COEN: Is presented to the bar mitzvah boy at the end of the movie.
But again, Jess Gonchor, the designer of "True Grit," designed that movie as
well, and Jess grew up in the same kind of household in Mamaroneck, not in the
Midwest, but he certainly knew - he knew what we were looking for.

GROSS: So can you tell us something about your bar mitzvahs since "A Serious
Man" has something to do with bar mitzvahs?

Mr. ETHAN COEN: It's probably inevitable that we had to be asked that, because
there is a bar mitzvah scene in the movie where the bar mitzvah boy is high is,
you know, stoned on marijuana. But ours were both - I don't remember anything
out of the ordinary about mine. It was certainly not that. It was just, you
know, you read your Torah portions Haftorahs and, you know, you got your
presents and that was that.

Mr. JOEL COEN: There actually, you know, now that you mention it, there was one
element that does derive directly from our own bar mitzvahs in the habit of the
rabbi that we had at the time. And that was this moment where he gave the bar
mitzvah boy the Kiddush Cup, and you would reach up to take it and he
essentially would grab your hand on it and then hold you captive there while he
finished his spiel.

Mr. ETHAN COEN: Yeah. And that was kind of our first - or mine, probably both
of ours - our first experience to show business because you're standing there
in the rabbi is kind of projecting in your face this speech and smiling at you
and it becomes as you’re his prisoner, as Joel describes, it becomes more and
more artificial and we - I felt like I was high, although I wasn't at the time
- a very strange kind of performance thing. It was - yeah, that was a weird

GROSS: So you both love movies, you both make movies, how did you fall in love
with movies and did you fall in love with them at the same time, or did older
brother introduced them to younger brother?

Mr. ETHAN COEN: Well, we both watched movies on TV just because, you know, you
did. Everyone did. And we both, you know, liked movies. We both fooled around
with movies as kids. You know, we got a little Super 8 camera.

Mr. JOEL COEN: But most of our movie watching, as kids, that was, you know, it
was on television, it wasn’t going to movie theaters.

GROSS: Television was this great repertory movie house then.

Mr. JOEL COEN: It was.

GROSS: It still is, if you want it to be.


GROSS: GROSS: Yeah. There's great stuff on there.

Mr. JOEL COEN: Yeah, it was and it was curated in a peculiar way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOEL COEN: But, you know, actually you sort of retrospect but, you know, if
you look back on it, it's really interesting.

Mr. ETHAN COEN: There was this guy in Minneapolis named Mel Jazz who had a
matinee movie, it was the afternoon movie, and it was very different than now.
Now you have all these choices but here as Joel says, he was the curator. If
you wanted to watch a movies you watched Mel Jazz had programmed. And he would
have, you know, Hercules movies, but he would also have, you know, "8½." He
bought probably the Joel Levine catalog, so he had all the Italian movies. So
that was kind of our high low introduction to movies.

GROSS: That's funny. And did he talk during the movies?

Mr. JOEL COEN: He sold Muntz TVs in the commercial breaks. And he was, you
know, he was the typical, he was sort of a silver haired guy in a...

Mr. ETHAN COEN: In a bad suit.

Mr. JOEL COEN: a bad suit and comfortable chair and you'd come back to
him during the breaks and...

Mr. ETHAN COEN: But, yeah, all the commercials were live and he would do the
pitch but he would also give his commentary on the movie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOEL COEN: He would. And it was, you know, it was a great commentary,
actually. It was very, you know, it was very Midwestern.

Mr. ETHAN COEN: You know, "8½," you go wow, this one's crazy isn't it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Did movies seem magical when you were young and if so, do they seem that
way now that you have to make them and get the budget for them and deal with
the horses for them and, you know, all that?

Mr. ETHAN COEN: You know, we had to look behind the curtain. It's terrible, in
a way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But you love it probably, no?

Mr. JOEL COEN: Yes. But what you’re saying is true that it does, you know, the
magical aspect of it is sort of you can't retrieve that after you've look
behind the curtain.

Mr. ETHAN COEN: Yeah, it's all kind of shocking and powerful that we've become
show folk. We're not yeah, we're not just watching them anymore.

GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. ETHAN COEN: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: It's really been fun. Thank you very very much.

Mr. ETHAN COEN: Yeah, no. It's a pleasure. Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: Joel and Ethan Coen's new movie is "True Grit."

You can see clips from the film on our website,, where you can
also download podcasts of our show.

We'll close with an Iris DeMent recording that's used at the end of "True

(Soundbite of song, "Leaning on The Everlasting Arms")

Ms. IRIS DEMENT (Singer-songwriter): (Singing) What a fellowship, what a joy
divine, leaning on the everlasting arms. What a blessedness, what a peace is
mine, leaning on the everlasting arms.

Leaning, leaning...

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of song, "Leaning on The Everlasting Arms")

Ms. DEMENT: (Singing) Leaning on the everlasting arms. Oh, how sweet to walk in
this pilgrim way, leaning on the everlasting arms. Oh, how bright the path
grows from day to day, leaning on the everlasting arms.

(Soundbite of music)

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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