The Coen Brothers’ True Grit begins with a long, enigmatic shot of a lit porch at night that slowly fades into view to reveal a dead body. It’s gorgeously done, and it sets the tone for the rest of the film. But True Grit almost had a significantly different opening sequence.

I recently had the chance to chat with long-time Coen Brothers collaborator Roger Deakins, who was the cinematographer for True Grit. While my full interview with him won’t be published until tomorrow, I thought I’d share a tidbit about how the opening shot of True Grit came together. Hit the jump to hear the details.

As storyboarded, the opening was originally supposed to be at least four separate shots:

The Coen brothers tend to storyboard everything in the film, and that might evolve. And in this case, I think the opening was going to be four or five shots. Four shots, maybe. We were shooting overnight to get this shot, the horse riding away, passing the dead body outside the boarding house, and we were going to be looking down the street. And I was trying to get a way of silhouetting the horse as it rode away, and we couldn’t do it, so we decided to do the shot as a dawn shot. So we were setting up, we were waiting for dawn, and I said, “Well, as we’re waiting, why don’t we do this other shot, side on and tracking in towards the boarding house as an alternative?”

And we did, we did one or two takes of that shot. And in the end, that was the shot they used, and they didn’t use the other shots we did. The thing about the shot is it’s much more simple. It’s more about the body than the horse riding away, that first shot. But it’s also much more simple in terms of its elements. The boarding house, the snow, the body in the street, and the horse passing across the frame very briefly. It’s just a very simple sort of picture-book telling of that scene, that story point. So I know that’s why they used it.

I remarked on how fortuitous this was, that an off-handed remark of “let’s give this a try” resulted in the film getting its opening shot. Deakins commented:

Well, it’s that thing. Sometimes, you know, happy accidents. Conrad Hall used to talk about things like that. I mean, things just sort of happen and something comes on the day that is “okay, well we didn’t think of that.” We knew we wanted to do the scene in a certain way, but we didn’t think of doing it completely in this way, and that’s what happens when you’re working on a set with a number of people. It’s just how things have evolved.

On his website, Deakins goes a bit more into the technical aspects of the opening shot. [Thanks to Corey for suggesting this question.]

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