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TRUE GRIT

Setting And Design
The dueling themes encompassed by True Grit – justice and revenge, wilderness and sanctuary, individualism and loyalty, real life and legends -- may be outside of time, but the action takes place in a very specific era and place that has long enraptured the American imagination: the last days of the true frontier West. The tale begins in 1878, when Mattie sets out across the river on her first, and greatest, adventure. At that time, the U.S. consisted of only 38 states and the town where Mattie's father died -- Fort Smith, Arkansas -- was the very westernmost border of the nation, the last "civilized” town before the formal United States faded into an untamed and feared wilderness.

Just across the state line lay the Indian Territory, then not part of any state (but which would in 1907 become Oklahoma), where land had been set aside for the use of Native Americans under the Indian Intercourse Act of 1834. This "no-man's land” drew fugitives, escaped slaves and others hoping to disappear off the map, who often holed up in the woods or the rough-hewn Winding Stair Mountains about 70 miles from Fort Smith. Thus, Fort Smith also became a hotspot for U.S. Marshals, a colorful assortment of whom were posted to bring back escaping criminals, dead or alive.

Considered a kind of gateway between two worlds, a popular saying about Ft. Smith at the time was "There is no law west of St. Louis and no God west of Ft. Smith.”

To recreate life on both sides of this fraught, powder keg of a borderland, the Coens worked with a trusted artistic team, including cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Jess Gonchor, who early on dove into exhaustive research and scouting, searching for remote areas where they could authentically recreate the late 19th Century West as Mattie and Rooster Cogburn would have experienced it. Hunting for a place to shoot a wintry landscape in the late spring, they wound up heading northwest from Arkansas into New Mexico and West Texas.

"The story was written as taking place in Arkansas and Oklahoma Territory but we had a couple of constraints which were, this is a winter movie and we wanted snow in part of it -- on the ground,” explains Joel Coen. "That made us look a little bit further north than either of those locations. We shot most of the exteriors in New Mexico and most of the town of Fort Smith and interiors in Granger, Texas, just outside Austin.”

For Roger Deakins, who recently shot another take on the 1870s West, Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, as well as the Coens' No Country For Old Men – both of which drew Oscar® nominations for his cinematography in 2008 – True Grit was a chance to entwine all that he learned on those two very different films. "To me, this film is a kind of amalgamation of that stark natural realism in Jesse James with the poetic realism of a Cormac McCarthy story,” he explains. "I was very glad I had done both of those films before True Grit.”

Deakins says the folkloric feel of the film evolved organically as he and the Coens began collaborating. "I began by reading the book, which is so poignant and has such a deep sense of the period,” he says. "The idea of this young girl coming of age during a journey of revenge is both harsh and melancholy. But because the whole story is really the memory of young girl, that lends to it a slightly larger than life quality. Then I read the script, and of course Joel and Ethan write in an extraordinarily visual way. They created a path of storyboards but the look of this film really developed as we found it, scene by scene. For example, the scene with the hanging tree is one we looked at again and again. Originally, it was going to be in a completely open, empty wilderness, but then we found this stand of denuded Cottonwoods, literally moments before they were about to bud, and that influenced the whole creation of the sequence.”

Although he and the Coens have developed a rhythm of working together over the years, Deakins say True Grit was something new again. "This film has a very different feel to it,” he acknowledges. "It has a lovely kind of flow as a singular piece. There is nothing tricky or clever or ornate about it and that was the aim. The way the film was lit, the way it was framed, the way the camera relates to the story and the characters, was all very much based on intuition and personal interpretation.”

He goes on: "The biggest challenges were related to the physical scale of the locations and the logistics of lighting so many night shoots. It was important to the boys to show the landscape at night, but it is difficult to shoot that kind of terrain in low light conditions. I also wanted to play a bit with color in the night scenes, keep them more blue than I might normally do, play with the firelight in the campfire scenes, which contrasts the harshness of the day with the mysteries of the night.”

One of Deakins' favorite scenes, however, involves sunlight – the early scene in a Ft. Smith Courthouse as Rooster Cogburn defends his trigger-happy ways, engulfed in the shadows thrown by a massive window streaming light over him. "I love the way Rooster is introduced, where he begins in silhouette and then this shaft of light slowly reveals him to Mattie for the first time,” he says. "Of course, it is one thing to imagine such a thing and quite a bit more difficult to pull it off.”

Production designer Jess Gonchor, too, had his work cut out for him, in turning what he and the Coens imagined into palpably real locations. From the moment he read Charles Portis' book, he knew his biggest task would be trying to place audiences inside the visceral life of Fort Smith, Arkansas, the thriving frontier city where the story kicks off as young Mattie arrives by train, steadfastly determined, whatever it might take, to avenge her father's killing.

Gonchor began what became an intensive journey with a personal research trip to Fort Smith, which today is the second largest city in Arkansas. Once there, he dove into the local historical society's vast treasure trove of photographs and started "getting a feel for the place as it might have once been.” Then, he set off on a five state tour in search of a stand-in for Fort Smith that would be amenable to a major overhaul and set construction. He found what he was looking for in Granger, Texas, a quiet agricultural community outside Austin. The town seemed to have everything necessary: turn-of-the-century brick buildings, sprawling streets and, most importantly, it sat right on a historic train line, with tracks dating back to the days of the Union Pacific.

"Granger was the town that time forgot,” muses Gonchor. "It had post Civil War buildings a lot like the ones I had seen in my research, and it had the train crossing, which is so important because you have to sense that Fort Smith is the last stop on the line as Mattie arrives on the train.”

The town lent Gonchor many options. "You have to keep in mind that Fort Smith was a big city. It wasn't a coal mining town or an encampment, it was a place full of the flavor of a new age coming to America, with these big stream trains rolling through bringing strangers. The tops of the buildings in Granger have fantastic shapes to them, which isn't 100% historically accurate, but it created great lines and shadows. There were also pockets in Granger where we could create whatever we needed to, where I was able to say, ‘Here is where I could put Stonehill's Barn' for example. Tons of work went into remaking the town but it gave us a lot of possibilities.”

Gonchor was ultimately able to turn a t

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