The Coen Bros. Reflect On Making A 'Gritty' Western True Grit has been nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Directors Joel and Ethan Coen discuss the making of the film and the difficulties of working with both child actors and horses.

The Coen Bros. Reflect On Making A 'Gritty' Western

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

This year's Academy Award ceremony is two weeks from Sunday. "True Grit" is nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. The film was written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. We're going to listen back to the interview I recorded with them in January, after the film was released.

The Coen brothers wrote and directed "Blood Simple," "The Big Lebowski," "O Brother Where Art Thou," Fargo," "No Country for Old Men," "Burn After Reading" and "A Serious Man." "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 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 fearless 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.

(Soundbite of galloping horse)

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 to.

Mr. JOEL COEN: The actors actually welcomed that. They wanted to - part of what's interesting about the parts, as 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 place a scene 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 Violet's 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 the 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: The mood, 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 or the film?

Mr. ETHAN COEN: Well, you know, it's interesting. We work, 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 a part of the way he works.

Mr. JOEL COEN: 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 it.

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.

Mr. ETHAN COEN: There are parts of it that actually seem a little campy to us now.

Mr. JOEL COEN: And again, this is just judging from the trailer, but...

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

Mr. JOEL COEN: Actually, we were very tempted at certain points and while we were shooting the movie to go back and watch it again, and 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: 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. JOEL COEN: 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 the horse, which seems odd because, you know, we were throwing actors in there with the horses, and the actors weren't complaining.

(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.

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: 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, 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 part.

But it's so clear from the novel that 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: It's really one of the great female roles because she's so strong and independent and willful and yet, naive 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 Arkansas.

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 done.

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.

GROSS: Joel and Ethan Coen wrote and directed the film "True Grit," which is nominated for 10 Oscars. They'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. This is NPR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with more of our interview 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 latest film, "True Grit," is nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.

I'd like to talk about your previous film, "A Serious Man," which I think is a wonderful film and really funny. 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's 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.

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 rabbi...

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: No. We went to Hebrew school five days a week.

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



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 this 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 dismissible.

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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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" parody.

(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 lawyers.

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, Larry.

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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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: My guests are brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. They co-wrote and c-directed the films "Blood Simple," "Fargo," "The Big Lebowski," "No Country for Old Men," and "A Serious Man." Their latest film, "True Grit," is nominated for 10 Oscars."

More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, who co-write and direct their films. Their latest film is "True Grit" is nominated for 10 Oscars. When we left off, we were talking about the 2009 film, "A Serious Man," which is set in 1967 about a physics teacher beset by problems who seeks explanations from rabbis.

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 of 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 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. JOEL 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 what - he knew what we were looking for.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ETHAN COEN: Yeah. You know, I have a friend who also grew up in a similar community at a similar time who came and visited the set when we were shooting in that house and he walked into the house and almost, you know, went into some kind of, you know, anaphylactic shock...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ETHAN COEN: ...from, yeah, from the different things that he recognized from his own household.

GROSS: There's a lot of scenes where people are eating at the kitchen table in their home and it's just like the family - the nuclear family around the kitchen table, and I think this is an era where you usually did not eat out. You eat at home. And everybody is chewing and slurping so loudly in a way that you probably would not do in public but you do in your own home with your family.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Was that intentional?

Mr. ETHAN COEN: Yeah, the soup slurping was kind of the scene.

GROSS: Is that how you remember your family eating, everybody chewing and slurping a little too loud?

Mr. ETHAN COEN: Yes. And it's also true that, right, you never ate out and if you did it was at the sort of local, you know, delicatessen or in this case, we actually used, he says Embers is not the place for legalities and that was kind of the family restaurant down the block that we would go to occasionally.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ETHAN COEN: But yeah, people eating in silence, I mean there wasn't, there's kind of a contemporary thing when you're supposed to talk to your children and everyone's supposed to be engaged. This is before all of that.

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 moment.

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 introduce 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 movies you watched what Mel Jazz had programmed. And he would have, you know, Hercules movies, but he would also have, you know, "Eight and a Half." 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, "Eight and a Half," 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 horrible 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 latest film "True Grit" is nominated for 10 Oscars. The Oscar ceremony is two weeks from Sunday. Our interview was recorded in January.

This is FRESH AIR.

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