The Making of True Grit: A Chat with Chief Location Scout Tyson Bidner
In 1969’s True Grit, a Hollywood icon established one of the most memorable characters in film history. John Wayne portrayed Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, a grizzled, corpulent, whiskey-guzzling U.S. Marshal, who sported a distinctive eye-patch. Throughout Wayne’s career, he had created a screen image as a wholesome, reliably straight-laced hero. Ironically, Wayne garnered his only Oscar in this decidedly atypical role.
Now comes the Coen brothers’ version of the revisionist Western. The siblings have directed from their own screenplay, which is adapted from the novel of the same name by Charles Portis. Jeff Bridges is in the lead role; last year, Bridges won an Oscar of his own for playing another dissolute, over-the-hill protagonist in Crazy Heart.
True Grit is set on the American frontier in the 1880s. For a film of this genre, locations are crucial. Tyson Bidner, the chief location scout for True Grit, says, “For me, finding the right locations for the film began when I read the book a few years ago, before we started the scouting process. From the book, I could feel the tone and get a feel for the era. Once I received the script, we were able to roll up our sleeves and start scouting.”
New Mexico became the location of choice–a state where both the Coen brothers and Bidner had worked before. The Coen brothers shot No Country for Old Men in New Mexico, and Bidner had used locations in the state for Did You Hear About About the Morgans? “Once in New Mexico, it became apparent right away that we could find what we were looking for,” said Bidner. “The Coens know what they want. Planning and story boarding is a huge part of their pre-production organization. They will push me to keep going until it is right, never compromising.”
As Bidner began looking for specific sites, he "was able to get some great local scouts and we fanned out to find the pieces to this puzzle.” The film was based in Santa Fe, and though Bidner tried to find locations as close to Santa Fe as possible, “In the end we ended up spread out and quite a distance from Santa Fe for most of the shoot.”
Scouts weren't the only locals who helped in New Mexico. “Finding the right location relies on looking at things that don’t quite work, and asking the locals for what you need,” says Bidner. “For instance, I had recalled that the radio personality, [Don] Imus, had a large ranch in New Mexico for sick kids. We called him up. Although his ranch didn't have what we were looking for, he recommended the Buena Vista Ranch for some of the sweeping views we needed."
Once the locations were found, shooting wasn't always simple. “The real trick to many of our locations was access," says Bidner. "Although it might be possible for a 4x4 SUV to get to some of these out of the way locations, getting large trucks and equipment would be difficult. Let’s just say I got us stuck more than once having too much confidence in my car getting to these locations.” Bidner actually had to lobby for e construction of basic infrastructure. “Negotiating for roads to be built to get crew and equipment parked in variable weather conditions became a big part of my job.”
You won't see those new roads at the sites today. Bidner is keenly concerned with restoring locations to their original condition after the shooting concludes. “What is always critical in the success of a shoot is making sure that in the end the property looks exactly as we initially found it," he says. "It’s very important to always think of the environmental impact.”