Texas keeps working for Coen brothers

6:23 p.m Sunday, Feb. 27, 2011 Movies

Maybe a little bit of that Texas magic has rubbed off on filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen.

The last time the brothers took a movie they shot in Texas to the Academy Awards (2007's "No Country for Old Men"), they walked home with arms full of Oscars.

The Coens return to the star-studded festivities tonight with "True Grit," nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including nods for best picture, director, actor and supporting actress. The film trails only the 12 nominations for "The King's Speech."

Parts of the movie, starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, were shot in Granger, Austin and Blanco last spring.

The brothers, who also serve as producers on their films, say they chose Texas for the terrain and congenial atmosphere for production talent as well as its tax incentives — which are under attack in the current legislative session.

Known for movies such as "Fargo," "The Big Lebowski" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou," the Coens were first drawn to Austin to film their debut feature, "Blood Simple," after Joel Coen's one-semester graduate school stint at the University of Texas, where he studied film.

The 1984 noir thriller caused a sensation in the indie film world when it was released, winning the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

Like "No Country for Old Men," "True Grit" is that rare Coen Brothers movie based on source material that is not their own. But rather than a true remake of the 1969 movie starring John Wayne, their film is more loyal in tone and narrative to the 1968 novel of the same name by Arkansas native Charles Portis.

The Coens say they were turned on to the author's works years ago by actor John Goodman but didn't consider movie possibilities until Joel Coen decided to share "True Grit" with his son.

"The movie actually came from Joel rereading the book a lot to his son," Ethan Coen recently said by phone. "And it got him thinking about it as a movie."

While "True Grit" is undeniably a Western in the strictest sense — the ruthless meting out of justice, the rustic setting and horses are all genre staples — the brothers did not necessarily see it as such, and simply fell in love with Portis' language and the adventure of the story.

Horse-blinkered by the desire to make the film, they didn't stop to consider that the Western genre is a notoriously risky endeavor — the list of recent box office hits is a short one.

"In a strange way, I don't think we were thinking about it even as a Western, exactly," Ethan Coen said. "We weren't even aware or thinking, 'Oh, this is a popular genre or an unpopular genre; it's commercially easy or it's commercially not.' That, actually, we were made aware of when we got a little farther down the road and started actually trying to get the movie financed. That was more something that we sort of discovered through the attitude of the studio. \u2026 Short answer is we really maybe idiotically weren't thinking about it."

Joel Coen wryly rejoined, "Nobody can say being idiots hasn't worked for us."

Indeed it has. "True Grit" is poised to become the highest-grossing Western of all time — it trails only 1990's "Dances With Wolves" in domestic box office receipts at $165 million.

Not bad for a couple of New Yorkers.

Though the period in which the story takes place is new ground for the filmmakers, the Portis novel shares several of the Coen brothers' hallmarks: surprising and intense bouts of violence, a facility with language and rhythmic dialogue and a bone-dry humor. The result is a family-friendly film with an edge, and arguably the Coens' most accessible work.

Set in Arkansas before the turn of the 20th century, "True Grit" tells the story of Mattie Ross, an indefatigable girl seeking to avenge the murder of her father at the hands of a man named Tom Chaney. In pursuit of the killer, Mattie (Steinfeld), enlists the help of a Texas Ranger (Damon) and a crotchety old drunk of a U.S. marshal (Bridges, in yet another Oscar-nominated role).

This surprising band of brothers (two dichotomous uncles and a niece?) sets out from Fort Smith into Indian Territory in search of Chaney, who has taken up with a gang of outlaws.

Lovers of the book and astute observers of geography could be excused for being a little confused by the landscape in the Coen brothers' film. Though set in Arkansas and Oklahoma, the movie was shot in Texas and New Mexico, in land that in no way resembles the story's actual setting.

"It was a conscious cheat," Ethan Coen said, citing the nondescript terrain and their desire to film in the snow, which is a feature in the book. "So we kind of opted for what people expect in a Western as opposed to what people might expect who know their geography and know this book.

"We also felt we could get away with the fact that she crosses this river and goes into this sort of wild Indian Territory, and events become more violent and weirder and more dangerous. We almost looked at it as a sort of Alice 'Through the Looking Glass' sort of thing. Given that, we thought that also lets us take some license with the landscape."

After a nationwide search and months of open casting calls, the Coens found their "Alice" at the last minute. The film hinges on the quick-talking, self-reliant character, and the casting of Steinfeld ended up being a stroke of luck and genius.

In her first feature role, the now-15-year-old actress, who was selected from thousands, gives a beyond-her-years performance that earned her an Academy Award nomination for actress in a supporting role.

With "The King's Speech" and "The Social Network" garnering most of the pre-Oscar buzz, the Coens have tempered expectations of walking home with Oscars of their own but find satisfaction in the attention the film has brought to their cast and crew.

"First of all, it's not going to happen," Ethan Coen said bluntly about the brothers' chances of winning their second Oscar for achievement in directing. "To be quite honest, the thing that's really nice about this round of Oscars is we've been there and done it and won it, and that's great to be nominated again.

"But it's really very gratifying to us that some people that we worked with and have for many, many, many years — like (costume designer) Mary Zophres and (production designer) Jess Gonchor, (cinematographer) Roger Deakins again — have gotten nominations. Because so much of the success of the movie is attributable to what they did. That's pretty cool."

As for whether the Coens saddle up for a return to Texas, the answer might rest in the hands of lawmakers.

The Texas Film Commission says the Coens have applied for incentives for filming "True Grit" here, but the commission declined to answer questions Thursday about how much money they were seeking. The American-Statesman was asked to file an open records request, which it did. Such requests typically take two weeks for a response.

With Texas facing massive budget shortfalls, the state's tax incentives — which are actually smaller than New Mexico's, where other parts of the movie were filmed — have faced intense scrutiny in the state Legislature.

In January, both the House and Senate proposed $10 million in funding for the incentive program to be spread out over 2012 and 2013 and administered by the Texas Film Commission. That amount is well short of the $66.5 million the commission wants.

Another proposal, from the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute, recommends an end to the incentive program.

"If they go away everywhere, it levels the playing field. And they might," Ethan Coen said of state tax incentives. "If they go away some places but stay others, it is absolutely certain in my opinion that those places where they stay will attract huge amounts of production.

"When you deal with movies really at any level, at the low-budget level — or even at the very high-budget level — it makes a big difference as to where these movies wind up, and in some cases whether they get made or not."

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