Local storyboard artist J. Todd Anderson draws a bead on The Coen brothers’ “True Grit”
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
To tell the truth, rumors of a legendary remake eclipsed the very serious discussion of “A Serious Man,” the Coen brothers’ entry into last season’s prestigious Academy Awards race. During media day at the Toronto International Film Festival, the behind-the-scenes buzz about the hush-hush possibility of the Coens re-uniting with The Dude (Jeff Bridges from “The Big Lebowski”) for a take on the film that earned The Duke (John Wayne) his only Oscar in competition, spilled over into the Q&A sessions, but the brothers cagily avoided making broad pronouncements. What was there to say – no final green light had been granted and while they were supposed to be focusing on “Man’s” philosophical approach to life and the notion of God heaping more suffering and pain on individuals than they could (or should) have to bear, Bridges himself was on the road towards what would be his first Oscar in an acting category after decades of critical recognition as one of the best actors of his generation.
Then, the buzz became fact and things really got gritty. Fans of the original Henry Hathaway film screamed “blasphemy.” “How dare anyone, even the beloved Coens, touch the 1969 John Wayne
classic?” It was as if everyone conveniently forgot that “True Grit” wasn’t strictly a John Wayne western, but an adaptation of a novel by Charles Portis, one that ended up spawning a follow-up (“Rooster Cogburn” in 1975) with Wayne and Katherine Hepburn as well as a 1978 made-for-television re-tread (“True Grit: A Further Adventure”) with Warren Oates taking over the Rooster Cogburn role.
The troubling issue for fans was obviously the iconic presence of Wayne as the one-eyed U.S. Marshall, but the Coens intended to hew closer to the spirit and tone of the novel, meaning that the perspective would belong to the 14-year-old Mattie Ross character, played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who hires the Marshall to bring to justice Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the outlaw who murdered her father.
To re-shape the vision of Rooster Cogburn and “True Grit” into their own image, the Coens worked with long-time storyboard artist (and Dayton native) J. Todd Anderson who has been a visual collaborator with the brothers for more than 20 years, going all the way back to “Raising Arizona,” the breakthrough film for the sibling filmmakers. Along the way, Anderson has rendered the early frames of stories for not just the Coens’ unique, genre-hopping films, but also “The Addams Family” (and its sequel), two films with Jodie Foster (“Little Man Tate” and “Nell”), the indie vampire thriller “Nadja,” and “The Mothman Prophecies” to name a few.
But, it seems as if his closest creative connection is with Joel and Ethan Coen. Over the years, a process has developed through this partnership. In “True Grit,” he even earns a distinctive shout out in the film; one of the many aliases of the outlaw Tom Chaney is John Todd Anderson. So what is it like being the infamous “partner” in this filmmaking band? That’s just the opener for a fascinating discussion with Anderson.
City Paper: When you first hooked up with the Coen brothers, what were they looking for in a storyboard artist?
J. Todd Anderson: They were looking for a set-up for set-up, shot for shot way of pre-shooting and pre-visualizing the movie. Back then, they had used a couple of guys for “Blood Simple” and I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time when they started “Raising Arizona.” I did the scene where Nic (Cage) is chasing the baby under the bed. I auditioned for Joel, since Ethan wasn’t there, and I passed on the merits of Joel appreciating what I was doing and we’ve made some changes over the years, but basically, we still work together the same way as when I first met them. The fundamentals are the same; it’s just that we have a way of doing things a little faster or a little cleaner now that we’re older.
Consider the scene: For audiences entering a multiplex or art house theater on a Friday night, most fail to realize how storyboarding fits into the filmmaking process. Much like the distinctions between producers and grips and many of the other credit lines scrolling before them once the film ends, specific roles get lost or confused. In previous conversations, Anderson has been quick to hammer this point home.
JTA: Well, it’s a process, there’s no doubt about it and it’s an involved process. I’ve done real simple storyboards to very elaborate pre-visualizations. I’m not talking about artwork elaborate, but I’m talking about like where the Coens will rehearse the movie on paper long before they shoot it. So you will see pacing when you turn the (sketched) pages actually, the way we do it. Back with “Raising Arizona,” we did every frame, now we try to put every set-up on a page to keep the continuity and the persistence of vision. It takes two or three movies to really figure out the process. This way, you’re able to shoot more or less what you need and only what you need, instead of shooting far too much, which you then have to edit later.
I always tell people, the script is an intellectual premise because of the language and a movie always has to become visual, no matter what – that’s the rule. You can hang onto the words as long as you want, but eventually it has to become visual. And when I draw a movie that’s the first step into it becoming visual, which is the existential element. We [Anderson and the Coens] have taken the step to visual and existential, one step at a time by simply drawing it. The visual information that people need is right in front of them because the movie has already been shot, just not on a camera.
CityPaper: In this case, did you go back and watch the 1969 film?
JTA: No, absolutely not. We concentrated on the Charles Portis book. That movie has always been on, so it’s not like we were avoiding it, it’s on television, but it [the new film] is more from the point of view of the little girl [newcomer Hailee Steinfeld] and that’s the way I drew it.
CityPaper: You weren’t working with those iconic images from the film, so if you focus on the Mattie Ross character, what were some of the images that captivated you during the process?
JTA: The girl is a big deal often because she always ends up in these dangerous situations and she had principles and she’s going to make things right, which is why she ends up with [Rooster Cogburn]. She had to use a lot of chutzpah to get what she wants and she’s a creative little kid, for a 14-year-old girl. She has to move forward to make things happen and so the best representation of what we were always trying to draw was of her pushing forward to accomplish things. From my visual perspective, in my mind, it was always about her pushing forward.
CityPaper: By the time you came in to work on the storyboards, was the cast completely in place?
JTA: Pretty much, except for the little girl. She wasn’t on until about a week before, so I really didn’t have a reference for her, as far as a person or an actor. I knew Jeff (Bridges) and I knew Matt (Damon). And I knew Josh (Brolin). I know those guys and I know how they work, so it’s easier to draw them. But the girl was a mystery to me.
CityPaper: As a point of clarification, could you describe the difference between drawing frames and actual set-ups?
JTA: Full set-ups are what we call “coverage,” like an over-the-shoulder shot, I don’t need to draw that 15 times. One lighting set-up will do. But if they move in and shoot closer, then that’s another set-up. However, when you’re doing action and you’ve got a lot of effects, you literally have to draw every shot because that stuff has to be processed by special effects people, especially now since they CGI (computer generated images) so much. Making westerns today is not as easy as it was in the ‘40s and ‘50s [or earlier] because with the animals, all the regulations are different. So, they CGI elements in now, like gunshots, where they never had the ability to do that before, and that has to be drawn and documented because it has to go to someone else to get costs for those effects. The better I draw it, the better the cost we get, which makes it very important to draw every shot in an action sequence.
Now when it’s just coverage of a person sitting in a chair with some back-and-forth exchange going on, we limit that to one or two set-ups. At that point, it is “handled.” The Coen brothers are very thorough in their process and that’s one of the reasons why, because they cover everything with a drawing.
CityPaper: From watching the film, I’ve got this shot in my head of Mattie and Cogburn looking down as the Lucky Ned’s gang corners LeBeouf in front of the shack. For that illustration, we’re seeing it from over their shoulders. Once the action kicks in, were there a number of different drawings that you had to render to cover that sequence?
JTA: That scene started with little models on the floor. We had to figure out where everybody was with little clay horses and little clay men in relation to where the mountain was. And then we started drawing it because you’re talking about an expansive plain out there [the full landscape of the scene], that’s a lot of room to work in and you’ve got to move people around pretty quickly. You move a herd of horses through in one take. It’s going to take time to reset things. So that’s why, yes, we’re so detailed in that shot. There’s not a lot of room for improvisation when you’re out in the elements like that and the brothers don’t like to improvise very much on that because you’re dealing with animals [and other factors]. You just do the best you can to document the set-ups, which is what we did.
We started with small toys all over the floor and went to the drawings from there. Joel and Ethan would tell me where the camera was and I would draw until we got it right. And then they went out on locations to make sure they had a snap [good frame] and then there was a revision based on that. Then they put people on different sides, once they figured out where the sun was, so we had to redraw things again because of the elements. That’s how incredibly technical and organized they [the Coens] are about getting what they need in those shots. What you don’t see in the drawings is all of that brainpower.
Anderson never fails to acknowledge the great opportunity of working with the Coens that he has enjoyed over the years. The relationship with them has allowed him access to other filmmakers and the ability to establish strong professional and personal bonds throughout the industry, but at the end of the day, it is clear that he has a well-defined role in their big-picture process.
“Once I get those images on paper, I’m the first person to actually “see” the movie,” Anderson said. “I’m always very proud when I see the movie [after it’s been shot] because they shoot so close to what we’ve drawn.”
It could be argued that he is the perfect translator for the Coens, but Anderson would never draw such a distinction.