True Grit: Coens are still calling the shots

As the remake of True Grit hits our screens, the Coen brothers tell James Mottram why this acclaimed version of the classic Western is among their best work
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The Independent Culture

It's early February, but the Coen brothers are acting like it's a lazy summer afternoon. Never mind that the Berlin Film Festival, which began this week with their new film, True Grit, as the curtain-raiser, is just around the corner. Or that it opens in the UK on Friday. Or that the Baftas and Oscars (the film has eight and ten nominations, respectively) are almost upon us. Perhaps it's the calm before the storm, but shouldn't they be overwhelmed right now? "Everyone says that and I always kind of agree," laughs Ethan, who at 53 is three years junior to Joel. "Why argue? Let them think you're busy."

If anything, the Coens are currently sheltering in their New York office from the howling Hollywood gale that's been banging on their door ever since their bleak, violent Cormac McCarthy adaptation No Country for Old Men surprised everyone (and themselves) and snagged three Oscars – including Best Picture – back in 2008. It's certainly difficult to imagine these two wonderfully idiosyncratic directors "campaigning" for an Oscar win. "There's always a tug-of-war over how much we'll do to promote at this time," sighs Joel, who enters the room a couple of minutes later.

No stranger to awards ceremonies – their fourth film, Barton Fink, won three awards in Cannes, including the Palme d'Or back in 1991 – their first experience of the Oscars was when Fargo won Best Original Screenplay. "I don't recall doing a single thing in connection with that," says Joel. "It was just a different time to a certain extent, in terms of the whole craziness of it. I don't believe we did a single interview or went to a single Guild thing or lunch thing or any of the rest of it. It's changed very much and I think it's all become a little crazy."

At this point, I get treated to a little double-act from the duo, as they start playing verbal volleyball with each other, tossing ideas up, hitting them back and forth and guffawing loudly.

Ethan: Now you go to this stuff, and you see the other poor bastards who've been roped into doing it.

Joel: Everyone has a glazed look.

Ethan: Yeah, like 'What are you in for buddy?'

Joel: 'I didn't do it I swear!'

Ethan: I just read the DGAs [Directors Guild Awards] were six hours long.

Joel: I think something like 3000 people went in and only 158 came out!

Needless to say, I can't get a word in edgeways. Recalling the 1940s Hollywood they depicted in Barton Fink, with its Wallace Beery wrestling pictures and old-school movie moguls, theirs is an irreverent sideways glance at the industry. But like a great aunt suffocating you with an unwelcome kiss, Hollywood has embraced the Coens of late. So does it feel strange? "Yes it does... is the short answer to your question," says Joel. And the long answer? "We're the man now," giggles Ethan. "It's horrifying in a way," nods Joel.

In some ways, nothing has changed. The Coens have worked in Hollywood as far back as their second movie, 1987's screwball comedy Raising Arizona, which was bankrolled by Twentieth Century Fox. On their overlooked 1994 comedy, The Hudsucker Proxy, they even worked with über-producer Joel Silver, shortly before he struck up a partnership with two other brothers – the Wachowskis – and delivered The Matrix. Arguably, it's just that with 15 films behind them – all of which they've co-written and co-directed – they're no longer regarded as some bigwig producer's pet project. They are, as Ethan so rightly puts it, "the Man".

What they haven't experienced until recently was a hit of any significance. Fargo was their biggest of the 1990s – grossing $60m worldwide. In the last decade, however, coinciding with a more A-list approach to casting, the cash registers started ringing. Marital comedy Intolerable Cruelty (2003), CIA spoof Burn After Reading (2008) – both featuring George Clooney – and No Country all scooped well over $100m around the globe. Even their 2004 remake of the Ealing classic The Ladykillers – arguably their weakest film – took a healthy $76m.

Yet none can hold a candle to True Grit. Having taken $155m in the US alone, when it rolls out across the rest of the world in the coming weeks it will certainly eclipse their highest-ever global gross (No Country's $171m) with ease. Ethan suddenly pipes up. "I just found out Bill Clinton really liked it. And Dick Cheney! They've given it the thumbs up!" Perhaps they should be on the poster – Clinton and Cheney together at last? Joel starts laughing uncontrollably. "The next person we've got to get in there is Hosni Mubarak! He may have some time on his hands soon."

So what does this mean? Have the Coens gone mainstream? Hardly – their last film, A Serious Man, was a black-and-white tale of an anxious 1960s academic that took them back to their Jewish Minnesota roots. "We like to think the rest of the world has come round to our point of view," says Joel. "That may be a little naïve." Maybe so, but it's hard not to see the influence of their 1990 gangster pic Miller's Crossing, for example, feeding into the new Martin Scorsese-produced HBO series Boardwalk Empire – not least in the casting of one-time Coen regular Steve Buscemi in the lead.

Still, quite how No Country won Best Picture – given its nihilistic tone, ultra-violence and what Ethan calls its "strange unresolved ending" – will remain a mystery. "The point is – and I don't want to sound defensive – we don't want to be blamed for having gotten the award," says Ethan. His brother smiles, quipping: "You do sound defensive." The irony is, their latest effort is the more accessible film and therefore more Academy-friendly. Joel nods in agreement. "True Grit is more of a mainstream entertainment than No Country for Old Men. I think the commercial success of the movie bore that out. But they're two different animals, really."

Rather than a remake of the 1969 film that won John Wayne the only Oscar of his career, True Grit is a return to the original novel, by Charles Portis. The brothers had seen the Wayne film when they were kids, but never revisited it. "It was not a recent memory for us," recalls Ethan. "And we just figured it was a distant memory for most other people too." Inevitably – just as their ill-advised retread of The Ladykillers provoked comment – so did this. "There's a lot of uproar about the fact that there was a previous movie," sighs Joel. "We honestly didn't think about it or care."

While their version is the most classical piece of film-making of their careers, the significant change comes in relegating the Wayne character, Marshal Rooster Cogburn (here played by a gloriously drunken Jeff Bridges), to a secondary player. Instead, the book's narrator, the resolute 14-year-old Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld), who hires Cogburn to track and kill her father's killer, goes centre stage. "That was an ambition for the movie," says Ethan. "That kids of the protagonist's age could enjoy it." It might be wishful thinking that a modern-day teen will go to see True Grit over the new Justin Bieber movie – but you never know.

It also offered the brothers' first reunion with Bridges since he played the Dude in their 1997 cult stoner tale The Big Lebowski. Despite persistent rumours – not least from one of its stars, Tara Reid – a sequel is not in the works. "We've been asked many times to revisit that material," says Joel. "We actually turned it over in our heads at one point. This was years ago.

A sequel where the Walter character [John Goodman] was employed by Halliburton and went to Iraq shortly after the invasion. And the Dude went with him. We thought that might be interesting – those two mucking around in the Green Zone."

Perhaps a sequel would be a step too far for a pair who thrive on originality. Yet believe it or not, it seems the next Coen project to hit our screens will be another remake. The film is Gambit, a reworking of the 1966 Michael Caine caper movie, and will star Colin Firth. "It's funny – it's ancient history for us," says Ethan. He and Joel were writers-for-hire on it several years back. Only now – presumably due to the heat surrounding The King's Speech Oscar favourite Firth – is the film set to shoot, with the Coens writing but not directing.

At least nobody could accuse them of hypocrisy. In 2009, Chinese director Zhang Yimou remade their first film, the violent neo-noir Blood Simple under the title A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop. So how does it feel to have the tables turned? "We were thrilled," admits Joel. "It was a mind-bending experience for us to watch in ways that would be mind-bending only for us," adds Ethan. So it didn't take you back to your roots? "Well not exactly," says Joel, dryly, "because it was all Chinese." They both start snickering again. Listen hard enough on Oscar night and you might hear that laugh again – particularly if they win.

'True Grit' opens on Friday