The Coen brothers chat with EW about their Western's awards-season buzz and (almost) losing their indie cred

By Chris Nashawaty
January 14, 2011 at 05:00 AM EST
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Their revenge-fueled Western is winter’s first breakout hit. Now the Coen brothers are gunning for Oscar. The directors chat with EW about the awards-season buzz and (almost) losing their indie cred.

EW: Congratulations, True Grit is the biggest box office success of your careers. Are you surprised? Do you ever know which of your movies will connect with audiences?
Ethan Coen: Honestly, no. In a very broad sense you recognize that this one or that one might have the potential to cross over and be a mainstream movie and certain ones don’t. Like Barton Fink — we weren’t waiting to see if that would open to a $20 million weekend.

EW: But this one is clicking with men and women, young and old. It’s a four-quadrant hit.
Ethan: That’s the hope, but you never delude yourself that it’s likely.
Joel Coen: You make movies like A Serious Man and you go, ”Look, we know this isn’t a four-quadrant movie.” [Laughs]
Ethan: It’s not even a one-quadrant movie!
Joel: Can we get a half quadrant?

EW: One of the biggest surprises is that a Western is doing well considering that folks are always declaring that they’re dead. Then a film like Unforgiven or this comes along…
Joel: People write the epitaph for Westerns every decade or so. But it’s a very sturdy genre. I’m not sure it’s ever going to disappear entirely. It just may not be quite as sturdy as other genres, like vampire movies…

EW: How much has its PG-13 rating helped?
Joel: It seemed obvious to us that because it’s a movie where the main character is a 13-year-old girl, 13- and 14-year-old girls should be able to see the movie. That’s just logical.

EW: True Grit has now become an Oscar front-runner. How do you feel about that?
Ethan: It’s all great regardless of what happens. People talking about the movie helps it commercially. You make movies for people to see. It’s not for us, we’re sick of it. Once we’re done with the movie, we’re not going to look at it again.

EW: Some people have compared Jeff Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn to another one of your collaborations, the Dude. Do you see any similarities?
Joel: I don’t think they’re too much alike other than being inhabited by the same personality. Jeff is kind of a transformative actor — he can go a long way to the left and a long way to the right.

EW: You looked at 15,000 girls before casting Hailee Steinfeld. How did you know she’d be able to pull it off?
Joel: Hailee could handle the language, which is where most of these kids fell short. She came into the room with Jeff and she wasn’t at all fazed. She just went for it.

EW: You’ve had plenty of commercial ups and downs in your careers. Does a hit like this take any pressure off moving forward?
Ethan: It always helps. At this point, we’ve done enough so it’s not game-changing or life-changing, just because we have a long history. But being more successful means you have more freedom. It makes things a little easier on the next one.

EW: You won Best Picture for No Country for Old Men. If you win again, are you worried that you’ll lose all of your anti-establishment street cred?
Ethan: [Laughs] We were at the Oscars last year, and I was sitting in the mosh pit with all of the other nominees and I was looking around thinking, ”I’ve been here several times and I know most of these people. Am I now a Hollywood insider?” And you kind of relate to Alec Guinness at the end of The Bridge on the River Kwai when he goes, ”What have I done?”
Joel: There’s a point where you realize that you’re part of the establishment and there’s nothing you can do about it. But you don’t necessarily want to be Henry Kissinger.

EW: Do you know what’s next?
Ethan: No idea.
Joel: Probably something that’s impossible to get made. [Laughs]
Ethan: Like a talking-horse movie.

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