Published in the Guardian on February 26, 2011.
There’s a scene in Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik’s award-winning “country noir” thriller, in which the teenage heroine, Ree Dolly, teaches her younger siblings how to skin a squirrel. It only takes a minute, from Ree asking “you guys want these fried or stewed?” to her brother, Sonny, tugging out the intestines and wondering if they’re good to eat.
Granik is an authenticity addict, so it troubled her when people from the Ozark forests, in Southern Missouri, where the film is set, complained that the scene misrepresented their way of life. One blogger pointed out that no-one goes to a supermarket in the movie, as if people in this insular community only eat animals that they kill themselves. Others said the incision was too small and the labour too short.
“There’s a family up the street from where we shot, with six or seven deer hanging outside,” Granik says. “This gentleman, who does really beautiful, hygienic, adroit work skinning animals, gave us a workshop. And I think there was some disappointment that in the editing, we minimised the arduousness of skinning a squirrel.”
Winter’s Bone won the Grand Jury prize for drama at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. It is in the running for four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actress, for its young star, Jennifer Lawrence. But the reaction that mattered most to Granik was at screenings in the Ozarks. Amateur taxidermy aside, they loved it. One man “bred and buttered” in the backwoods told Granik: “I recognised the land you showed me. I knew it had been shot in my region without a doubt and it felt powerful to see it on screen.”
Granik studied at New York University, under the Latvian director Boris Frumin, who taught her minimalist, realist film-making. Many of her cinematic idols are British: Tony Richardson, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, to name three.
Her first paid job was making health and safety videos, teaching checkout workers how to avoid getting carpal tunnel syndrome or pest controllers how to put on their protective clothing. She filmed one man as he prodded a ceiling panel in a Boston council estate and a swarm of cockroaches fell on his head. “I loved the surrealism: it wasn’t Trainspotting, it wasn’t Bunuel, it was just a day in this man’s life, raining cockroaches,” she says.
Winter’s Bone is adapted from the novel by Daniel Woodrell, who grew up near the Ozarks. Granik and her creative partner, Anne Rosellini, were attracted by the book’s resilient central character, but they faced one major problem: as urban liberals, how could they make a film about one of the most remote and proudly independent areas of the United States without coming across as voyeuristic or condescending?
Getting it right took years of research. They hired an Ozarks tour guide, Richard Michael, to act as their liaison. He introduced them to local families, played them bluegrass, picked through the script for false notes and drew up detailed maps of pastures, hickory groves and burned out homes. “We were able to build Ree’s world within a ten mile radius of his house,” Granik says.
Most importantly, he found a family, the Laysons, to serve as “life models” for the Dollys, lending their house, its contents and its stories. A few metropolitan critics have accused Winter’s Bone of inhabiting an unreal, poetically distressed landscape, but cinematographer Michael McDonough shot the rusted machinery and dogs running wild as he found them. “In front of their barn was a big mound of tyres, so of course we filled our frame with the texture of their yard,” Granik says.
They paid acting students at Missouri State University to test the dialogue, later casting several of them. Most of the minor roles are played by locals, rather than professional actors. After attending a biker church, Granik followed a bearded, tattooed minotaur into the carpark, to ask him if he’d consider auditioning for the part of clan patriarch, Thump Milton. He was willing.
Winter’s Bone is essentially a fairytale, about a girl on a quest to find her missing father, but its ogres are methamphetamine cooks, addicts and dealers. For generations, the Ozarks has been known as a lawless place, producing moonshine, then marijuana and now meth, the drug of no choice in poor communities across the United States.
People in Southern Missouri are tired of hearing that they live in the meth capital of America. Whole towns have been hollowed out in Iowa, Oregon, Nevada, New Mexico: anywhere old economies have collapsed and wages have been driven down. Where people once worked hard, smoking meth to get through long shifts, they now cook meth for a living, mixing decongestant pills with fertiliser in bathtubs and plastic bottles. Although we never see a batch being made, Winter’s Bone is a kitchen sink drama, of sorts.
“One woman felt so disheartened, because her family had had a brush with meth,” Granik says. “She asked me ‘couldn’t you make it about moonshine,’ and I felt so cruddy, as if we were coming down to the Ozarks to make a film about hillbillies.”
The movie is built around an astonishing performance from Lawrence, as a seventeen-year-old girl holding her family together, in lieu of an absent father, presumed on the run or dead, and a catatonic, medicated mother. “She’s from Kentucky, so people around her speak in a way that is very related to Southern Missouri,” Granik says. “I just believed her.” Whether or not she wins the Oscar, Lawrence is destined to be a star. The immediate reward for her naturalistic work in Winter’s Bone is a part in the new X-Men movie, as Mystique, dressed in nothing but blue body-paint.
Granik has a knack for spotting acting talent. In her first film, Down To The Bone, she cast Vera Farmiga as a bored young mother with a cocaine addiction, coaxing a convincingly desperate portrayal from her that’s even more impressive in the light of her glamorous, wise-cracking fling with George Clooney in Up In The Air, five years later.
Down To The Bone won two awards at Sundance in 2004, for Best Director and Best Actress, and Granik was soon being assailed with scripts about abused, self-destructive women trying to rise above their circumstances. “What seemed to make women interesting was the degree to which they were distraught or incapacitated,” she says. “I need and want to see capable women. I don’t like to see them weep all the time.”
Although she isn’t nominated in the directing category at the Oscars, she says Kathryn Bigelow’s win last year, for the Hurt Locker, gave her a tremendous shot of optimism. At film school, her class was roughly half boys, half girls, but even now, only one in ten movies is directed by a woman. “To me, the quiet work is being done,” she says. “In the independent world, there’s just a crew of men and women working together. On the ground, day to day, you don’t have to wait for a Bigelow effect.”
The top films at Sundance picked up fourteen Academy Award nominations this year, more than ever, thanks primarily to Winter’s Bone and The Kids Are All Right, which also got four. Does this mean it’s a golden age for independent film? “Oh God, no, that would be premature.” Raising the film’s $2 million budget was a struggle. Signing a distribution deal was a triumph in itself.
Now that it’s brought in $6.4 million at the box office, in the USA alone, Granik is hot property. Studio financiers who have apparently not seen her films, or at least not digested what makes them good, are suddenly keen to throw money at her next project. She wants to make a movie about bomb-sniffing dogs that return from Iraq with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, centred on a family coming to terms with the death of their son, but the people that own the rights can already hear patriotic strings swelling in the background.
“They want to see completeness, tied-up-ness, the dad healing. They said to me ‘with the money that we’re offering you, you can have five hundred people at the Purple Heart ceremony at the start of the film.’ I told them I wasn’t going to have a Purple Heart ceremony and they said ‘well, how do you show that the loss of his life was meaningful?’” She wonders if becoming a bankable, Academy-endorsed name will make it harder to do what she does best, without studio interference.
For one night only, Granik will set her wariness of Hollywood aside. “If this interview were never to be published in English I could tell you my true feelings about the Oscars,” she says. “But I’ve been incredibly co-operative. I have obtained a garment. I must keep a vow, which is that I’m going there to watch a circus. This year it’s a celebration of all kinds of films, which is beautiful.”