On the face of it, True Grit appears to be one of the simpler stories that Joel and Ethan Coen have tackled, but “it’s probably the most difficult film we’ve ever done together,” says Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC. Adapted from Charles Portis’ novel of the same name, the film is narrated by 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who tries to track down her father’s killer, Chaney (Josh Brolin), with the help of a one-eyed marshal, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). The two are joined by a Texas Ranger (Matt Damon) who has his own reasons for hunting Chaney, who is hiding in Indian Territory with his gang.
Deakins found Portis’ book “meditative and melancholy, gritty and real,” and the Coens’ script called for a bleak, wintry look. Shooting on location in the Southwest, the filmmakers got what they wished for, but impetuous weather, far-flung locations and harsh terrain created a challenging 55-day shoot. “People were saying, ‘It’s three people and their horses. What could be so difficult?’” Deakins recalls with some amusement.
The pattern was set on day one, when the filmmakers woke up to discover that a nighttime blizzard had dumped 2' of snow on them. “I looked around and thought, ‘What the hell can we shoot today?’” recalls Deakins. Only one scene called for snow, and that location was 150 miles away. Deakins figured he could capture the scene with a Libra head and an electric cart, so the team loaded the equipment onto a stake bed and plowed through the snow. “We managed to make it there just by afternoon, and we got the scene,” he says.
Deakins stayed nimble with the help of his core collaborators, 1st AC Andy Harris, key grip Mitch Lillian, dolly grip Bruce Hamme and gaffer Chris Napolitano. “They were brilliant,” he says. “Under those conditions, you really had to float with it.”
True Grit required extremes of lighting: minimal (flame-lit cabins) and maximal (nighttime gunfights and other action). “Imagine you’re on an electric cart with a stabilizing head tracking with a galloping horse at night, some of it through forest and some of it on an open, empty plain — and you’ve got to light it!” Deakins says, wincing. “The only way to do that is to get as big a light as you can afford and put it as far away as you can.”
That was his approach to a major sequence in which Mattie and her compatriots seek refuge from a snowstorm in a mountain cabin. When they discover that the dwelling is occupied by two members of Chaney’s gang, they set up a stakeout on the surrounding hills. When the rest of the gang arrives, a shootout erupts. The Coens set this sequence entirely at night, requiring Deakins to light a half-mile swath of valley. “I didn’t want a hard, single-source moonlight effect, but something softer because of the oncoming snow,” he says.
Because the sequence comprised three parts, each with a different eyeline, he had to design three separate lighting setups, all without benefit of cranes because of the rocky location. “Rumor went around that I was using 55 big HMIs, and it was partly true, but I wasn’t using them all at once!” says the cinematographer. Rather, they were divided among three hillside platforms, each stretching 120'-150' and holding more than 20 12Ks and 18Ks. The crew then leapfrogged the lights. “We had the first and second sequence ready to go, and then, while we were shooting the second sequence, our rigging crew was moving lights from the first position to the third,” says Deakins.
“It’s hard to move around at night, especially on the side of a rocky hill. That’s when preparation really counts.”