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An interview with Winter's Bone director, Debra Granik

American Gothic

Initially the world doesn’t seem that much different from our own. Two children play in a back yard. The weather is dreary, cold, and they’re dressed for it but otherwise unbothered by it. The little girl bounces happily on a trampoline, the boy, a bit older, rides his skateboard.

But the world of Winter’s Bone is in fact quite a bit different from our own. As we move out from that back yard to a place where there are more cars, most of them rusted and immobile, than there are roads, we find that we are in the Missouri Ozarks, a hard place to live.

The kids are in the care of their sister Ree (Jennifer Lawrence). Just 17, she has to care for the family with no help from her withdrawn, mentally ill mother and her mostly absent father Jessup. Things get worse: she learns that Jessup has been arrested for running a meth lab. After putting up the house for his bond, he disappeared. Ree has a week to find him before the house is taken away.

Given that nearly everyone nearby is related to her in some form, it should be easy to at least find Jessup. But that insularity excludes her needs. In a culture that doesn’t want outsiders looking into its business, even a daughter can raise their wrath if she starts asking questions they don’t want to answer.

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Drama at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Winter’s Bone is the most acclaimed independent film of the year, with an unforgettable sense of place and a star-making performance from Lawrence.

It is the second feature directed by Debra Granik, whose earlier Down to the Bone starred Vera Farmiga as a housewife battling drug addiction. In a recent telephone interview, I asked Granik, who grew up in Cambridge and Washington DC, why she and co-writer Anne Rosselini thought they might be able to do justice adapting Daniel Woodrell’s novel of the same name.

“We didn’t know at first,” she replies. “After my first film, we were bombarded with scripts about other dysfunctional women. So we responded strongly to this female protagonist after a year of reading about damaged characters. Ree is modeled on a western hero in a teenager’s body, and that was such a treat, to have a worthy, ballsy character with enough diversity that she felt compelling, to wrap our minds around.

As a first step they met with author Daniel Woodrell, who has lived in Missouri all his life. “You can’t just walk into these areas and say, Hi, we’re here, talk to us. So Daniel introduced us to important veins, people in the community who could steer us and answer our numerous questions. So that access to information and texture was the sign that we might be able to do it right.”

One stumbling black was the issue of meth, a real blight in this region but one many feel has become a stereotype. Once they became more familiar with the story, Granik, says, “They were excited that Ree character was invested in not doing meth—she’s alienated from it. She embodied a lot of traits these people hold in high regard. And she represents a sociological fact, that there are young people who have to live in spite of it and figure out how they’re going to get past it.”

Gaining that trust was the sine qua non of making the film, Granik says. We had people watching our backs the entire time. When we needed to know what a 17-year-old in that community would wear, we went to people who had children that age who would show us their wardrobe. And often our costume designer would trade them new clothes for their used clothes.

“We also used a couple people in this inner sanctum, asking them to look at takes. We asked them not to mince words, to tell us, did you buy that. And if someone said, no, we don’t say it like that, we would change the dialogue.”

A lot of the smaller parts in the film were taken by locals, an idea that seems smart for getting authenticity but one that isn’t always workable. “We hired some young people who had gone to Missouri State University and trained as actors who helped me a lot. They did improvs with locals to test their ability to answer and concentrate and not get scared.”

It was a worthwhile investment, paying off in scenes like the one where Ree visits an Army recruiter to see if an enlistment cash bonus might solve her problems. The man she speaks to is an actual Army recruiter, born and raised in the area, and the scene is improvised based on questions the character would need to know.

Granik and her crew also tried to use the landscape as it was without making any cosmetic changes. For the scene in which Ree visits a house that burned down after a meth lab exploded, the filmmaker says that there were no lack of appropriate houses they could have used. “But we didn’t want to use one where there had actually been a meth lab, because that leaves a lot of toxins that you don’t want to be exposed to. So we used a house that had burned in a non-toxic way.”

Some might feel that the ruined buildings and sites littered with old cars and other junk perpetuate a stereotype about the Ozarks. Granik points out that, aside from needing to keep to an atmosphere appropriate to the novel’s dark tale, this is a reality that needs to be understood.

“If a family owns property with a ruined house and the have the means to they will clean it up, but nature does take over. The amount of social services here means it’s not always easy or even possible to get rid of trash, especially in large amounts.”

And one man’s trash is another’s investment. “There’s a cultural law in the region, you’ll often see it on a plaque on the walls: ‘Use It Up, Wear It Out, Make It Do or Do Without’. People may look at that wrecked car as a usable windshield they’ll have need for some day.

“The hill regions have always stood outside America historically in that material acquisition was not the goal, it was not how people determined their lives. That’s what often makes [city] people freak out about them—are they undermotivated, lazy, weird or what?

A graduate of the NYU film school, Granik entered the program after years working in educational media making.

“I made training tapes for trade unions, so I would interview and film agricultural workers, postal workers, cafeteria employees. I was permitted access to places you don’t get to see as a civilian. I loved what I was doing, but I would always get interested in the whole lives of these people, what they do when they get off work. So I came to film school with a real gratitude and a vision for what I wanted to do.

“We had a really intense mentor, Boris Frumin, an exiled European filmmaker, who turned on generations of us on to neorealist filmmaking and , proselytized the idea that we should all try hard to start your work from an observation of life—go to a place where you’ve never been and make a portrait of an existence that isn’t your own.”

I note that shooting in an area like the Ozarks gives a filmmaker an advantage in that many Americans have a voyeuristic interest in seeing the area even though we would never want to go there; at the same time, that advantage is balanced by the responsibility that comes with the film defining the reality of that place in the minds of people who will never have first-hand experience of it.

Granik agrees, and admits that it was a particular burden in a story as dark as this one. “We showed the film recently in Europe, and in the Germanic countries they understood a little better the fairy tale aspect of it, that the forest is a place where you go to test yourself and bring back a token of proof. From Antigone to Hansel and Gretel, the woods signify a place that is treacherous

“[In the US], people are more resistant to the notion that this could just be another scary image of the Ozarks. We didn’t want to get outside the book, but on the DVD we’ll showcase a lot of cultural aspects of the residents. You could make a divine holiday for yourself just going to these picking sessions where musicians get together to play. And they’re everywhere—you don’t have to go to a heritage festival.”

With unanimously glowing notices from critics (according to, only Toy Story 3 among current films has gotten better reviews), Winter’s Bone is getting to a wider audience than most independent films ever reach. It’s even breaking out of the art house “ghetto.”

“It’s crossing over—it’s gotten some attention in the heartland, and playing in some places where the only theater is a multiplex facility. In Europe they have these traveling theaters in 18 wheel rigs, to promote cinema going in small villages. I’d love to have a summer like that, with a cinemamobile that just goes around to small communities to show your film. There are some outstanding dentists in Kentucky whose dental clinics are mobile, so there’s precedent.”

Watch the trailer for Winter's Bone

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