One thing you’ll notice when you see True Grit is that the dialogue is a little different. Obviously they don’t talk like OMG, WTF in the Old West, but it’s different than even the Clint Eastwood and John Wayne westerns. Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) speak with English grammar so formal it sounds like a period piece.
“The dialogue, the formality of it and the floweriness of it also is just from the book,” Ethan Coen said at a press conference for the film. “That might be a question for the actors. Jeff noticed. That was the first thing Jeff mentioned, noticed and liked, the kind of foreign sounding nature of the dialogue and lack of contractions. It wasn’t a problem for us. We just lifted it from the book. I don’t know how the actors feel about it.”
Charles Portis wrote True Grit and The Coen Brothers followed his novel more than the John Wayne movie also based on it. Supporting cast like Barry Pepper (as Lucky Ned Pepper), weighed in on the unique language.
“It was more like doing American Shakespeare,” Pepper said. “There’s almost like an iambic pentameter. There’s a musicality and a rhythm to the dialogue. It’s about trying to hit certain notes, maybe an irreverent falloff at the end of a line. It’s such a gift to be able to give some sort of lateral idea to an actor like, ‘Oh, I didn’t hear the musicality of the line like that.’ Just the scene blossoms, completely changes and becomes darkly humorous or odd or quirky or wonderful, bizarre.
Bridges messed around with the script a little. See if you can spot when he dropped an apostrophe into his words. “Every once in a while we’d allow a contraction to slip if it felt right musically,” Bridges said. “It was a fun challenge to take on.”
For a 14-year-old weaned on slang and abbreviations, Steinfeld probably improved her vocabulary the most on this movie. “When I first got the script, that was the first thing I really had to work on was making sure that I understood what everything meant,” she said. “Then I had to go back through and make sure I understood what everything meant to me emotionally and how I could relate to it in my own life.”
Joel Coen revealed that’s actually what won Steinfeld the part. “99.9% of the hundreds or thousands of girls that read for this part sort of washed out at the level of not being able to do the language,” he said. “That was something which was never an issue with Hailee. Right from the beginning it was clear that she was completely comfortable with the language. The language isn’t, as everyone’s pointed out, our language. That was the threshold level at which you could sort of hope to do the part but Hailee had it right from the get go in a very, very natural way.”
The language in the book is based on Portis’s research of the period, so it’s probably more accurate than the westerns we usually see at the movies. Pepper had another theory. “It’s so authentic in my mind because most people were probably pretty illiterate back then,” Pepper said. “They were maybe schooled on the King James bible and that really infused the way they spoke. I think a lot of westerns missed that.”
Ethan Coen agreed. “I’m sure Barry’s right,” he said. “You feel even more strongly reading the novel, the frame of reference for her character who narrates the novel is told in first person by her character is King James bible. It does seem clear that’s where the style derives from.”
True Grit opens Dec. 22