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TRUE GRIT

Stunts And Horses
Mattie's rollicking journey into the Indian Territory with Rooster Cogburn and LaBoeuf is punctuated by moments of sudden ambush and violence. Coordinating the film's gunfights and horse chases was stunt coordinator Jery Hewitt, who used the cast as much as possible in the sequences.

His biggest challenge was the shootout between Rooster and Lucky Ned's men in the meadow – as Rooster rides at Ned's gang, reigns in his teeth, a six-gun in each hand -- which required special rigs, mechanical horses on crane arms and stunt doubles for wide shots. But at the heart of it, was Bridges himself, who did his own riding and the double-fisted shooting.

Each of the actors surprised and impressed the crew with their abilities to handle stunts, from Hailee Steinfeld, who'd never done anything like this before to Matt Damon, veteran of the high-action Bourne films. As for Josh Brolin, Hewitt says: "Here's a guy that definitely could have been a stuntman. He's probably one of my top five favorite actors because he completely understands a stunt. Something new to him, doesn't matter. He's just a natural athlete.”

Hewitt goes on: "Barry Pepper was a surprise on the horse and the other thing that he did really well was the scene where he manhandles Hailee when they come from their first gun fight with Rooster. He has to grab her and throw her to the ground and put his foot on her neck. He did a great job, and Hailee did as well because it was her controlling that foot.”

As for Hailee, she was completely game to try anything, from firing a pistol and jumping in the river to falling into a snake pit and being hoisted into the high treetops on a harness. "I was amazed at her acting,” says Hewitt, "but then when it comes to her abilities doing some of her own stunts, she was equally brilliant.”

One of the most difficult stunts, which took preparation and training for the stunt rider and the horses, was the river crossing that demarcates Mattie's journey into the territory of legends, as Mattie and her horse Little Blackie take an unlikely swim to the other side.

Horses, of course, are known to loathe water. "I think there are circumstances where horses grow up in an environment that requires them to swim, and they get good with it – but not often,” laughs veteran wrangler Rusty Hendrickson, who oversaw the film's horses. "It's a dangerous situation for people to be on a horse in deep water.”

With safety the biggest concern, a special effects diving team scouted the river first, to assure the bottom was free of debris, and a consistent depth. Then they created a special ramp on the far bank where it was too muddy and steep for the horse to climb out. Teaching the horses to swim started at a facility near Austin where they swim racehorses to condition them.

"We started there,” explains Hendrickson, "and then we increased the distance they swam each day. When we got to where they could swim double the distance of the river with the saddle, and pulling the rider, then we thought, okay, we're ready.” Once they cross the river, Mattie finds herself in a world she has never experienced – raw, brutal and spiritually tough, but also breathtaking and, at times, spirit-lifting.

It is this essence of what Portis wrote – the moments of unexpected beauty, humanity and even tenderness that suddenly burst into a comic-tinged, hard-edged Western adventure -- that the lead actors says the Coens have captured with their adaptation. "The movie has an incredible look,” says Matt Damon. "The locations and the composition give you this sense of a passage into another world.”

"The light and the geography, everything was just beautiful,” Jeff Bridges concludes. "Everyday, the Coens showed up in cowboy hats, which was comic, but there was also something about the image that set a wonderful environment, that set that certain mood for True Grit.”

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