A DAUGHTER’S TALE: DEBRA GRANIK’S “WINTER’S BONE”
This piece was originally printed in the Spring 2010 issue. Winter’s Bone is nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (Jennifer Lawrence), Best Supporting Actor (John Hawkes) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini).
The Ozark mountain holler that is the setting for Debra Granik’s fierce and extraordinary Winter’s Bone seems carved away from much of what signifies as “contemporary America” in cinema today. The movie, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year, dwells in a landscape that imbues it with the starkness of classic Western frontier drama. Seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly is the single-minded heroine who has to venture into the wilderness to save her family home — the dwelling of her younger brother and sister and infirm mother — from repossession. To do so, she must find her wandering father, who, after a prison stint, is rumored to have died in a meth-lab explosion. Relying on little more than information meted out by her father’s estranged brother, Teardrop (superbly played by John Hawkes), and confronting a group of meth producers who do not want their secrets poked into, Dolly takes us into a world that is both of this country and defiantly sheltered away from it. Her journey, of course, is something of a coming-of-age tale, but Granik shies away from any of the genre’s more sentimental flourishes. Dolly’s efforts do lead to her father, but the film is as much about her education in the ways of the criminal subculture she’s been brought up around and the family ties that may keep her from ever entirely escaping it.
Winter’s Bone is Granik’s second feature, premiering in Park City six years after her debut, Down to the Bone. In that similarly tough-minded film Vera Farmiga played a mother struggling to kick her drug addiction while holding down low-wage work and raising her children. With this new film, Granik and her producing and writing partner Anne Rosellini enlarge their canvas considerably, venturing into an Ozark community that has rarely been portrayed so realistically on screen. Shot on the RED One in chilly blues and grays by Michael McDonough, the film memorably captures the desolation and flashes of spare beauty in this landscape. But Granik also manages the harder job of depicting the people in this community without condescension or judgment.
Eschewing any trace of Hollywood glamour, Kentucky native Jennifer Lawrence (The Burning Plain), 19, gives a star-making performance in Winter’s Bone; the supporting cast who include actors like Hawkes and Sheryl Lee, blend seamlessly with the local hires; and there’s a scene on a boat that I think is the best scene I’ve seen in a film all year. The film will be released by Roadside Attractions in June. I spoke with Granik a few weeks after her Sundance win.
You’ve made two films about women and their relationships with drug culture. What attracts you to those worlds, those stories?
You know, it never starts with something so overt. It’s almost like the drug aspect was the burdensome reality I encountered in both of those stories. Down to the Bone started from [the story of] a family that I was interested in and their central struggle was whether they as adults in that family structure could become sober. I [didn’t choose the story] because I relished taking on drugs or addiction but because their story was inherently suspenseful. And in Winter’s Bone, that’s the backdrop of Ree’s family. That [aspect of the story] frightened me the first time I read [the book] and contemplated what it means for a kid to be growing up with family members who are involved with meth. So, I didn’t go seeking those [stories and milieus] — they were attached to the lives of the two females that I was interested in.
How did you find the book? Had you been reading lots of novels and spec scripts looking for your next project after Down to the Bone? Did you know Daniel Woodrell?
My producing partner, Anne Rosellini, and I had been reading a lot of scripts. We’d been getting them in the conventional ways, through what I call “the general pipeline” — or, “the general colon.” [laughs]
Were these from an agent?
We had representation at Anonymous Content; manager Shawn Simon was looking for stuff for us. Of course, the majority of stuff had female protagonists, but… I don’t know how to say it but [reading all these scripts] stoked a kind of disheartened misogyny within myself. [laughs] Because if [all these female characters I was reading] weren’t cutting themselves, they were collapsing psychiatrically; if they weren’t collapsing psychiatrically, they were having a bad time in a psychiatric institution; if they weren’t doing that, they had other devastating illnesses or pathologies. I mean, at the end, Anne and I felt like this big being female Homo sapiens. And then along comes Ree Dolly, okay, and who couldn’t resist her? I mean, just even on the level of fantasy — a female hero, a girl with moxie? An old-fashioned kind of Western gal? She appealed to us literally on the level of relief and fun. Even though her life has superhard elements, we had pleasure imagining her. We enjoyed her strength, her quick-witted responses. She’s got interesting relationships with the men and women in her life. And [Daniel Woodrell] told such a damn good story. I read it three years ago in Washington Square Park in one sitting — on a hard bench! I hadn’t done that since I was a teenager.
So your manager sent you the book. I presume it had been shopped to the studios too.
Yeah, exactly. I mean, the book went out widely. A lot of Daniel’s other material is out in the world and some very prominent people have adapted his books. Daniel’s not our discovery by any means.
Once you decided you wanted to do it, what was that process like? Was it still a process to get Woodrell to agree to give you the book?
He felt positively about Down to the Bone and so was predisposed to us being the people who might do the next interpretation of his work. Initially it was probably a blow to see that it would be a very humble production because he was used to something quite big with very prominent American stars being involved. He had to take a huge leap of faith.
And then what about the adaptation? Was he involved?
We would sometimes ask him to interpret for us or just to clarify things that were ambiguous or had multiple meanings. We’d ask him things like, “What were you thinking here? Did you think Teardrop was fronting? Was he being sincere?” And we asked certain questions about the sheriffs, how they work. He was very forthcoming with the research that he had done.
One thing I was fascinated by in your film was the milieu and how removed it is from the usual signs of contemporary American life we see in films. It felt like it could almost have been a period film while it’s clearly very much a film of today.
Well, there were satellite dishes.
What? I’m trying to remember them.
It’s okay. They were there just because they really are there, and we weren’t going to cover them up or take them down. In the cattle-auction scene, there was a man on his cell. But, you know, for me it was unusual to meet a family where wild game was being consumed for dinner, and then that same family has a grandmother who works as a greeter at Wal-Mart. That grandmother is bringing stuff home for her granddaughter, who actually plays Ashley, the granddaughter in the film. She does have pop icons on her T-shirts, and there are figurines in that house that represent the contemporary things that are being sold at Wal-Mart. So that stuff is there. It’s in every nook and cranny.
I guess I just missed a lot of that. It felt like this was a world that is resisting the homogenization that’s going on in American culture.
Well, visually [those cultural signs] are not heavily represented [in the film]. I like that really contemporary stuff isn’t shown, but it was also because of [clearance issues]. The way [modern culture] is actually being absorbed the most [in this region] is with the loss of some of the actual turns of speech, the phrases that are unique. Linguistic homogenization happens very rapidly, I think.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that the whole film rests on an understanding of “and.” Ree’s family has good people and really difficult people. Her uncle has a serious chemical dependency and he has a certain kind of nobility to him. And he does fucked-up things [laughs]. And he’s surly and difficult. There is meth in this story and Ree Dolly doesn’t want to use meth. If “and” isn’t the umbrella under which the film can be perceived, I always feel like I’m cooked, because there’s some particularly sensitive material in this film.
I was fascinated by how cut off the region feels, but at the same time, I didn’t think you exoticized it as a filmmaker. Was that a worry, that you’d exoticize the Ozark people?
Yes, it was a big concern. And hillbillies have already gotten an extra dose of that [in film]. My husband showed me early films from 1919, 1920 where they’d get a bunch of so-called “mountain people” together on a primitive film set and they’d be shooting at each other. As a Northeastern, upper-middle-class urban woman, I was such a foreigner. But before [Anne and I] even really contemplated going further with the project we had to go down there. We had to do the visual anthropology and those trips helped hugely. That’s when we started to get confidence. When people gave us access [to their homes] and allowed us to take the several hundred photographs of almost every detail of their existence, that’s when we could say, “I believe Ree’s family could live in this holler. I believe Ree could live in this house. I believe this is the high school she would go to.” Someone down the road would show us how squirrels are caught and prepared for consumption. It felt all-important to us to get the details right, to actually be instructed, and we had some really indispensable guides who did that.
What was your relationship with your production and costume designers like with regard to these issues? Yours is a contemporary film that almost had to be approached as a period or historical film in terms of its research.
With wardrobe, [costume designer] Rebecca [Hofherr] was really into it. She ended up being a very openhearted anthropologist of wardrobe, of clothes, of class, of circumstance, of winter. And she got access to so many people’s wardrobes. Her questions about them were very novel, and she was able to perform an exchange in [many cases]. We had new Carhartts and we’d exchange them for old and tattered ones. We didn’t have to distress a lot of the wardrobe. That was her major technique — swapping clothes.
What about with production design?
Mark White, the production designer, he took very astute notes, and there were [locations] we knew we didn’t really have to touch. Many props utilized in the film came from houses that we were filming in. Mark was very invested in making sure that he wasn’t recreating something differently [than it was in real life]. He wanted to just preserve — to keep the continuity and precision of place. That’s not to say that [the art department] didn’t do anything. Everything still had to be in its place, had to make sense. It’s all very much organized with great care, but there was a spirit to how and what was chosen to be there.
I think to the film’s credit it didn’t seem to have overly obvious references in terms of its visuals. A lot of times you see movies about rural America and certain influences, like Walker Evans, or Days of Heaven are obvious. Maybe it’s because of the RED camera, maybe it’s because of the wintery palette, the grays and blues, but I didn’t feel those things.
Well, you know, it’s funny, but you put three children on a porch in clothing that is well used and you’ve got Walker Evans!
Was that shot a direct reference, then?
It wasn’t a direct reference, but we did look at [Walker Evans]. Our tear book was rich, though. I mean, we weren’t drawing just from one [source]. But really, does any frame [in a film] ever really look like [a director’s] tear book? The tear book is to get yourself so amped up [to make the film], and almost to praise the people that you’ve loved.
What else was in yours?
Oh God, you know, in terms of actual camerawork, [d.p.] Michael [McDonough] and I adore how the Dardenne Brothers work with a moving camera, that kind of balletic camerawork that is not gratuitous in its movement but is designed to keep up with the actors. Paul Greengrass and his unusual framing. Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA for its palette of winter and smoke and smokestacks and its long lens work. And there were some photographers who shot in Appalachia and other mountain settings, stuff that’s both immediately accessible and stuff that’s actually provocative and concerns us. Shelby Lee Adams has been around the block with the controversies that surround his image-making, and we felt like some of that was really relevant to what we were about to do.
Did meth as the subject matter affect any of your relationships in the community as you shot it?
Absolutely. We had to make sure people read the book. We had to say, “This has this content in it. You need to read this before you even consent to say that you’ll shoot with us.”
You mean the extras, the locations, the —
Yeah, especially the primary location, where we were involving every member of a family. We were asking their 7-year-old granddaughter to [play a character in the movie]. It was imperative. They had already had life experiences that made them feel very concerned and saddened by meth. They had a real-life understanding of the way it can insidiously work its way through a community and the lives it can touch. Meth is a fact of existence in many communities, but it’s what a character chooses to do to get away from it or to navigate around it that counts in the end.
Tell me about the actors. You mentioned the Dardenne Brothers, who famously work with non-actors. How did you take your Hollywood actors and blend them so seamlessly into this other world?
To a huge extent, that is about relying on what the actors are willing to do. In the case of John Hawkes, I think he feels challenged by research opportunities. Because he’s not so necessarily recognizable in certain circles he feels he’s totally free to go into a bar, hang out, listen really carefully to how people are talking, the humor that’s being used, the cadence, the sound. He’s able to pick up on stuff. He’s able to ask questions. He’s able to be in a place, to absorb it and make his notes. I think he relished the opportunity. Jen [Jennifer Lawrence] really tried to do the same, but she had a leg up because she comes from Kentucky. Again, not in those circumstances — she would be the first to say that. But she had relatives who probably spoke with quite a pronounced accent, so she was open to the actual dialogue. Nothing felt very foreign to her. Another thing: with her on-camera [locally cast] siblings, she was able to create a little world for them. She was able to be a big sister and then to close down their world so they weren’t so aware of the whole production. She made a more hermetic setting for them. That can be something too that an actor brings.
What kind of director are you with your actors? What’s your approach to directing actors?
At the Sundance Lab, one mentor preached something that stayed with me forever. First and foremost: What is an actor bringing already? What’s been their note-taking, their imagination when they read the script? First, see what they’re bringing, and usually that becomes the foundation. Maybe that’s why casting is so intense: it’s because you’re already getting a vibe of what parts of their life experience they are going to bring [to a part]. I’m deeply, deeply interested [in my actors]; it’s not like I am more knowledgeable or more insightful [than them]. Next, I want them to listen to the world around them. I especially like it if an actor is open to working with either a non-experienced actor or a real-life professional who is performing their real-life job in the film. Like in [Down to the Bone] the court-appointed attorney was just a real guy from New Paltz court. [laughs] Actors like Vera [Farmiga] and Jen — they are so willing to listen, to really respond and just be present in that exact moment. They don’t get unhinged that each take is different, that a question might occur that they haven’t been asked before. That [attitude] to me is just gold because it allows for chance occurrences. But obviously, I can’t be willy-nilly. I’ve learned, painfully sometimes, that when every take is unique there’s hell to pay in the editing room. And yet, you know, the joy then is finding an editor who can swing with that irregularity.
It sounds like once your actors are in that space, they’re in their characters and there are not a lot of adjustments or changes.
Exactly. I feel like my adjustments are really tiny. [laughs] I go through huge phases in all parts of production — this is not me being coy or falsely humble — where I literally lose my way about what the director’s role is. I just feel like I’m a coordinator. I mean, Michael [McDonough’s] off doing genius work, the actors are busting their asses and I’m just vibing off them at the monitor. I’m just sort of checking [laughs] that things are going well. There are times when I feel like the director thing has this very uncertain quality to it, like my role just sometimes feels very malleable, you know?
It’s interesting to hear you say that because I’ve talked with a lot of directors who would never say something like that.
I’d love to know what’s inside their minds sometimes, you know? I think where this feeling comes from is when filming gets rough — when it’s a night shoot or a long day or it’s cold — you can’t believe that [your crew] don’t just quit on you. They stick with you. And then after that feeling is “we.” “We” made this.
Was it a tough shoot? Was the environment difficult?
The winter was a lot less brutal than we thought it would be. The shoot was not arduous on the level of keeping our crew biologically warm and okay, but arduousness came from, I think, the speed.
How long was your shoot?
Twenty four-and-a-half days.
Were you moving around a lot?
Seventy percent of the film is shot in one holler. That was like our soundstage, if you will, because our big trucks parked at the entrance to the holler.
A holler is…?
There are hills and hollers. A holler is sort of a low-line piece of family property, an enclave where several dwellings from one family or close-knit people will all be assembled. There might be a shared animal pen and ATVs — all-terrain vehicles. The numerous dogs that are in the film were
the dogs that belonged to that piece of property, that holler.
Let’s talk about the film’s relationship to genre storytelling, because it’s a lot more of a defined narrative than Down to the Bone. I mean, on one level, it’s the oldest story in the book. It’s “they’re coming to take away the farm.”
It’s older than that. It goes back to German fairy tales. Tales from the woods are even older than losing the farm. And then, of course, issues of trying to bury your father are even older, right? Daniel, I felt, did a great job of getting some throbbing essential storytelling elements and making them cohere beautifully in his setting. But, yes, the actual structure that was given to us — a mystery that has to be solved, a time frame, an urgent deadline — who doesn’t love that? I mean, especially a gal like me who could make observational films for the rest of her life.
You don’t hammer those points, though. It never felt that it had any artificial dramatic quickening or something heavy-handed to amp up the drama.
Yes, but at one point we got severe with [the edit]. In a couple of the edits, we took out even more of the quotidian material to try to please this “mistress of suspense.” And then it did feel a little unrecognizable. I was like, “Oh God! What did we originally like when we went down there? What did we originally photograph?” [Editor] Affonso [Gonçalves], Fonzie — he was my dream collaborator because he so wanted to defend that stuff. He didn’t want to lose that [material] either.
The “mistress of suspense,” was there some outside force advocating for a different rhythm? A faster pace? More melodrama? Or was it just your own idea that it should be —
There was no outside entity telling us [to cut more]. Maybe it was our own need to see how far we could go. You can get in this really brutal mind-set that’s actually kind of painful. Once you don’t need some things that you love, once you’ve got rid of some of your favorite scenes, you get on this roll where it’s like, “Well, we did without that, so we can just do without this.” But you can get too brutal. It was almost like once it got sparse, it had to go even sparser. And then I missed certain things, and so did [Affonso]. And we knew that we had to go back and make peace with our own taste. In the end it felt good. The thing that tormented me until the end, though, was how to end the film, because there were two really viable ways to end — I’m talking about the very final notes of what happens to Teardrop. There was a very concrete ending and there was a much more open-ended situation. We filmed it both ways. We went with the more concrete, which is that Teardrop sort of does indicate overtly to Ree at the end of the film that he’s still very troubled. There was another way in which he didn’t actually enunciate that in lines, and you weren’t sure. But I had a real split in the people near and dear to me, people who really love the classicism of a tragic destiny — Teardrop as a more conventional tragic hero, where there is a destiny that he feels compelled to play out. And maybe the vanilla in me, the wuss in me, the female in me, whatever, [felt otherwise]. [laughs]
But you did wind up going with the tragic.
One scene in your film is, I think, the best scene I’ve seen in a movie all year. I’m speaking of the scene on the boat. Character, plot and theme all converge in a single scene. The sound design is also innovative in the way background noise drowns out Ree’s reaction, which makes it even more powerful.
That scene was always a daunting, daunting aspect of this project. The scene was written that we’d be cutting through ice, and we came very close to doing that. At times there were really heavy-duty suggestions. When a larger production company was involved in the movie early on, they were contemplating doing that scene on a soundstage with technology and special effects and whatnot. All that was foreign to me; I said, “I am open to that” even though it felt like I was going farther and farther away from a zone I knew how to operate in. I would have had to rely heavily on the special effects person to be the co-director of that scene with me. I can’t storyboard with that kind of precision — that’s just not how my brain functions. And luckily once freed from the larger entity, [laughs] we had to go poor man’s process and do it rolling on a lake, on a pond. We did have one really significant production concern, which was we had to do it day for night, because we didn’t have a budget for condors. We didn’t have any way to light. So that was difficult. The actors had to apply a lot more concentration. Dale Dickey, who plays Merab, was so fabulous in this scene. Her solemnity, her focus brought Jen [into the scene]. And then there was the fact that [the actors] had real tools to actually operate. We had to go through safety protocols to figure out how to actually do that. The filming was topsy-turvy. The operator was in waders. But people rose to[the challenge]. We shot the rest of the scene that evening, which really helped. Getting the actual black sky behind her, that was done on shore. So we did it half on a boat and half on shore next to a pond.
How do you work with your producer? Because your producer’s also your screenwriting partner, right?
Yes. That relationship is really healthy. We don’t always see eye to eye, but it’s really healthy.
She was also a producer on your other film, right?
What’s it like for you to have someone who is dealing with the practical side of filmmaking also be your artistic collaborator?
Well, she also brings order and semblance to that process. She’s a taskmaster in a great way — in a way that I so flourish under. In our writing sessions, there’s no funny business. I value how she brings the focus in. Also she reads [material] copiously and quicker than I do. She’s vetting and trying to find the information and the stories, the articles. She also loves documentary, so we’re always trying to sniff out, are there documentary ideas that could lend themselves to some form of growth or expansion through a narrative? She’s just a hungry, interested, alive person who’s constantly trying to read and look. But she also wants [production] to be qualitatively a rich, lived experience. Filmmaking has so much pain in it, and she doesn’t want it to drag us down to the point where we can’t make more films.
How did you get this one financed? Private equity?
Yeah. You know, the first time it was canceled two months out from production. It took us a huge amount of time to actually bounce back to where we were not feeling extremely deflated. This was the year before we made it. It was October, Halloween night when we got the pink slip. And —
This was the bigger company?
Yeah. It was very hard to bounce back because it had gotten so close. And then there was a whole period [when people would say], “If Keanu Reeves is Teardrop, maybe we can get you some money.” Oh my God! What kind of film would’ve come from that! That recipe of thinking — first of all, it never really comes true, and second, most of those films don’t work.
Let me ask you a final question about the role of the director today in terms of promoting a film. A lot of people are writing and blogging that the director has to be an active marketer of his or her film. The director should be blogging and Twittering and directly engaging with the audience. Is this something you have thought about doing?
I think there’s a lot of credence to that. I wish some of the cast and crew were involved with Twitter. I would sanction them. I would say, “Please Twitter!” But that’s not a talent that I have. I think I hesitate too much in like — I mean, if I could write it in broken sentences, I’d be happy, but like actually, you know… my list of who I even want to e-mail is so long right now. I don’t know how to manage! And actually look for a new project? I almost feel like I need to like get a really rambunctious young Twitterer and pay them a stipend.
That’s what celebrities do.
Oh God, they do?
Not all of them, but many of them do not really write their tweets.
That’s so disingenuous. I think [the idea of the filmmaker as marketer] has a lot of credence. But how to enact that and perform it is a whole other question.