Winter’s Bone has garnered critically acclaim since its premiere at this years’ Sundance film festival, and with good cause.
Based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, the films features a star making performance by Jennifer Lawrence as an Ozark teen who navigates the murky and often dangerous world of the drug world in search of her fugitive father.
The film was directed and co-written by independent filmmaker Debra Granik, whose previous work includes the 2004 drama Down to the Bone.
A couple of months ago, Debra graciously leant me some time from her busy schedule to talk about the development, making, and themes of Winter’s Bone.
I hope you enjoy reading our conversation as much as I enjoyed talking to a filmmaker of such honesty and integrity.
What was it about Daniel Woodrell’s novel that compelled you that make a film adaptation?
Debra Granik: Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) was a really attractive protagonist. She had an interesting way in answering people. Reading it I could really tell she was trying to figure things out. She didn’t have it all sorted out, but she knew how to use these resources. I was curious what made her keep going...she filled me with a lot of wonder. What would it be like to be this girl?
I come from a very specific background on the coast, a more urban setting and a different socially class totally. Therefore when you read someone whose life you are not familiar with, and yet a story gives you insight into what they are thinking, why they want to do certain things and what they are going to do, it’s very compelling. You are drawn to another person’s life that you couldn’t know about, unless you somehow have some route of entry. The story was that route of entry.
(Woodrell) describes the region very richly, in great detail with a certain kind of precision that comes in the fact that he is from that region, he is from the Ozark’s, and astute observations about the houses, how they’re built, what they look like...and yet for us that was all just on the word, on the page, so we had to find out what they would really look like, so we had to go. When we met him he was able to show us a lot of things, and then we unabashfully declared our interest in the novel and adapting it.
The fact that it also had a mystery seemed like it would make a compelling story for the screen, instead of just a slice of life, or just a portrait of this girl, there was also something structural about the story that would have possibly make it accessible to a wider audience. It could draw someone to wonder what could happen, what really happened to her family, and you’ll see her house, you’ll see her siblings, you’ll see her daily life, and for those who are attracted to say, a spinning of a yarn, the spinning of a well constructed story, it had that too.
So we felt excited about that, and we thought maybe it could ease out of the ghetto we were in, which was very much like an idea of ...the ability to include some parts of her daily life in this and marry it to an actual structure was thought out by this novelist.
Adapting a novel can be tricky, because you are dealing with another artists work. Did you set yourself any ground rules when adapting the book? Or is it a freewheeling creative process?
We ended up doing a very, very close adaptation because it was really well thought out.
I think there are things everyone knows, the author himself or herself know, and we all know literally don’t translate from book to screen, which is there is unlimited abilities to change time frames in a novel, talk about time before the characters were even born, exposition that we are able to explore in moody and interesting ways and in majestic ways. In a film, my God, we would be left with only one thing which would be voice over, basically. That’s only sort of known way, or flashback.
So we decided to make it very present tense and by doing that...it wasn’t so much that we were changing in that we kind of had to omit or delete in that sense. There were certain things that we added, but we were definitely kind of slow to add things, and it wasn’t willy-nilly in that sense because that last thing we added on was music. There was no music eluded to in the book, and as we started doing this research more and more, being down there, exposed to picking sessions ad hoc music making, was so prevalent and we came across it so often that it felt like a weird deletion actually.
We thought that if we were going to show some of the hard parts in Ree’s life, and life in the Ozark’s, might we not owe it to the depiction to also include a lyrical part of life there, and a part of life that doesn’t rely on financial wealth? They have their instruments, they have their voices, they have their desire and they can execute that, perform that, and make that a part of their life in a kind of a soothing, kind of a medicine to be able to sing the blues.
We took a lot of measures to see people, so we hooked up with a musician who was singing in that scene, and she ended up drawing in her lifelong music friends, you know? So we got a lot of assistance from truly resident cultural advisors of everyday life, so that was one.
The recruiting scene was added. It was eluded to in Woodrel’s novel in a sense that Ree had always wondered if that was a route of exit for her. That was a way to get a salary she could maybe filter back to home. Once we started meeting with recruiters, does discussions were very soulful and really caused us to examine our really coastal assumptions, and our urban attitudes, especially about military service.
Jennifer Lawrence is garnering strong acclaim for her performance. How did you come about casting her in the film?
(Jennifer) was very interested in the project. She had gotten a chance to read the script, so she came into an audition and did a really strong reading, and we were like leaning forward (laughs). She was really catching us in her truth. She has a mesmerising quality, and because she was able to read the script really gracefully...what I mean from that is she didn’t find the dialect exotic, she didn’t stop or mumbled, she really had a Kentucky accent. She is from the neighbouring state of Kentucky and therefore, literally, she was not one of the actresses who had to ask “How do you pronounce that word?” She instead was very hungry to wrestle with the words in the script, and be able to seek out advice from her parents should she need it, in deciphering something she didn’t know. She also was someone that, when she got down there, she was very willing to ask questions. We filmed on a live location, a lived in location of a family, and they made themselves available to answer numerous questions, and allow us to touch and do...take photographs, take notes about different things, be it a wood cutter, be it chopping wood, be it how to prepare a squirrel...they were sort of our instructors...
How to shoot?
Yeah! They were very accomplished hunters, but not sport hunters. It was kind of, what I call, “pragmatic frugal hunting”. Which is argues, actually, since none of it really comes easy if you are doing it that way. And yet it’s very ritualistic, meaning it’s every year. And it’s not sort of optional, it’s... you need those four deer and that’s what you’re gonna put up...used hugely and all different recipes, to the point where luckily spring comes you can change your diet (laughs).
But none the less, (Jennifer) was someone who told me before that she would be willing, and then she proved that to be true. I am kind of deviating from your question which is how did we decide on casting her, but it was really a verbal commitment that she made and I believed her. It was very sincere...she said “I understand what I would be asked to do, and I understand the argues nature of the shoot”, meaning that she would be in every scene, it will be shot very quickly, it will be cold, it will be ling hour and I’ll be there, and it will be live.
So once I got that level of commitment, which every filmmaker is looking for...every filmmaker wants to get down there, and have the person feel like they were being levelled with, and that they understood the expectations were commensurate. The worst nightmare would be to have someone go down there and then blow up and say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t sign up for this!” and feel disgruntled or freaked out. So we were extraordinarily lucky. (Jennifer) was someone who...no one had flagged her and said “Oh, God, you should see Jen Lawrence!”
Well, they will now...
|"Jennifer was very hungry to wrestle with the words in the script, and be able to seek out advice from her parents should she need it, in deciphering something she didn’t know. She also was someone that, when she got down there, she was very willing to ask questions." - Debra Granik
John Hawkes has appeared in a lot of movies, but this film is his breakthrough performance. Was he an actor who was on your radar when adapting the novel?
He was! He was actually someone who we purposely sort out. We had seen him in roles, and Anne (Rosellini, co-writer/producer) and I said to each other many years, “God, it would be interesting to see John do something different”. We liked his look which was so right on for the role. We thought his wiry intensity would be really right, because when we were down there John really didn’t look so different from the men we encountered...
It’s the eyes...
...yeah, and even the wiriness can be...I am not saying all men, but there was a certain, kind of physical stock that was not out of place there, out it that way. And then he took it upon himself to do a lot of research, so when we got down there he was very willing, because he felt like the fact that he was not immediately recognisable allowed him to enter other spaces.
He was able to go to some backwoods bars, and have local men take him places, and escort him to certain things where he could do some observations...basically his actor’s work, his notes about body language and different ways about how he wanted to incorporate things he would see into his work.
(John) was someone who, again, took the opportunity in a really rich way and ran with it. And that was another stellar endowment for this film, that you cannot predict how its gonna jump. But he also really liked the novel.
The fact that he liked it so much and was so focal about that, gave me an inkling that he was into it. I knew it wasn’t a career move, or...you know (laughs). He wanted to do this and stretch himself.
Your film taps into the public’s fear of the Deep South. Where and why do you think people have such a prejudice and fear of southerners?
I think that in terms of hill culture, and that idea of (southern) people quick to violence, and even the question of “Is hill culture more prone to violence?”, that is a big question that comes out of the legends of feuding and families, and Hatfields and McCoys...that one local person we relied on, that was the question we wanted to explore before taking on the film, and he something which we heard echoed a lot...one thing that a lot of American’s don’t remember is that families adjudicate things in their own system there, and they have for years.
There is obviously modern law enforcement, and it is huge and comes down heavy, and all that. But what I’m trying to say is that there was a tradition to adjudicate things from within, because there was a very profound distrust of the federal government. Like many different sectors of disenfranchised Americans, they had been screwed many, many times. There was a President of law enforcement, who was also simultaneously corrupt. So the last person they wanted adjudicating things that were happening in their side of their families was outside entities.
So that was the sort of idea of a system where there might be almost a hearing, like what’s depicted in that barn, and that kind of is a fictionalised expression of the fact there was that tradition, and to some extent there are more families that live in contact and within proximity of each other in that region, than probably in most regions of the state.
There is huge mobility and diaspora throughout most of the sprawling nation, and in hill culture there will be more families still knowing and still in kind of some meaningful relationship with each other.
But in terms of the fear and having the banjo be the insignifier, like this person’s gonna play this intense song and turn on you, and out of every nook and cranny of the woods will come a stone hearted, quick to kill you person, I think that is truly something that served lore and film, kind of like an easy stereotype, and stereotypes serve some very, very important functions. They are an economical way to highlight a few traits, but what they also delete are all nuance, and they delete all variations, and they become one pelletized, black and white, set of images.
In terms of lumping the whole south and where that comes from, I think that’s a kind of classism and racism...north / south divides in a bunch of countries are kind of freaky. I think of Italy. I think of China. I don’t know how it plays out in (Australia), but it’s very easy to make the other something you can depict willy-nilly, and abandon thinking....”God, they must be so different from me and what we are”.
I think Woodrell was very keyed into all that. One thing he did was that he made sure that his characters were complex enough, meaning that Merab (Dale Dickey) puts forward huge amount of obstacles. She commits physical violence against Ree, and yet she is not stone cold. Ultimately she hears this girls plea, and (Dale) brought a lot to that.
She turned to me and said “Jen is really undermining me, her pleas are very convincing, Jen the actress playing Ree is really getting under my skin right now. I’m really having a hard time doing what we discussed.” I loved that she allowed herself to go there. She was just saying “This plea is so convincing, so raw, and so there, that ultimately I can’t deny that I feel a lot for her, and that I see myself in her. I was that kind of girl.” They all know what (Ree) is fighting for is so...no one can refute that. Basically she is in the righteous position in that sense. I don’t mean self righteous, but I mean they understand that, and so I appreciate that (Woodrell) drew this character...I probably would not have made the film if he had not created characters that, though it doesn’t come easy to them, have that capacity.
And I felt the same way about Tear Drop (John Hawkes). He is gnarly, and hostile, and as intimidating as this man is initially, there is no doubt that ultimately he cares about his niece, and he does care about her well being, and he does end up confronting excruciating....it is very hard for him to make that confession to her, for what his brother did do and what it all means. John’s attitude about it was like...he was loving Woodrell did not write the traditional, capital R, redemption scene, which is sort of like obligatory for, a lot of people say, products or films that are associated with Sundance...
The Oscar reel scene...
Yeah, exactly! (John) loved that it didn’t have that. He said: “The way I’m choosing to play this Debra, just FYI, is that I don’t change. I am Tear Drop the whole time, with all of my difficult aspects. What will change, most probably, is how the audience feels about me. Because they spent the whole time with me, and they will see my facets versus only thinking that I am just one thing”. And I think he succeeded in that.
I think he had a certain sense of satisfaction, a good feeling that he stuck to something, you know? I was tempted sometimes to vanilla-ize him, and for all the reasons you just said, I didn’t want to...first of all, it was very important for people to know that he was an intelligent person. That intelligence and being chemically dependent don’t negate each other, in that you can be both. You can have a very hard time figuring how to live your life and make your life meaningful, it doesn’t need to stop because you’re intelligent. It could be that you’re very sensiat and you do not have those channels available to you. I came to see Teardrop that way. I came to see him as a rather noble person, you know?
Those were the qualities, again, coming out of Woodrel’s book that made it so it wasn’t such an easy write off to say, “oh, a bunch of out of control, super violent hill people, that play their banjos and then turn on you”. Had it not had those shades and facets, we would have been scared away from that material. It would have felt like we were aiding and abetting a very bad tradition of slighting a whole culture that’s rich and...the other thing is that people feel really good about Ree from the region. If they had a list of the traits they feel are regional traits, that they feel good about, (Ree) hits a lot of them. Her self reliance...knowing what to fight for and how far to take it....not taking “no” for an answer when it’s an issue of justice....and the fact that she can love and be loved.
Her girlfriend is a very rich character. There are solid, rich friendships...the book actually depicts that in much rich detail the meaning and sustenance Ree gets from her friend.
Even the lyricism of everyday life not related to someone’s actual resources. Kids always can extract lyricism from their existence. They have pets, they have trampolines, they have toys...bleak is a very contingent word. Bleak is an objective assessment. Those children don’t think like they’re worried, and they get increasingly worried as the story goes on. They’re worried about their sister, about what happened to their dad, what will come of them. But when they’re jumping on the trampoline or hunting with the dog, or whatever...I think also the fact that (Ree) appears to be able to do things on their behalf, gives them some form of comfort. I just like that there are all those shades in the book, and that was our job to make sure all those shades are on screen. It’s hard.
|"In terms of lumping the whole south and where that comes from, I think that’s a kind of classism and racism...north / south divides in a bunch of countries are kind of freaky. " -Victoria Thaine
Keeping in mind the stereotype which befalls those from the South, did having a film crew shoot in location bring about resistance with the locals?
This particular community was new to any media people, or filmmakers, or anyone showing up and saying “listen, we would like to...”. But I think in contemporary America you would want anyone to be suspicious about that aspect. But yes, was there an inherent suspicion about outsiders? Yes. In an isolated region? Absolutely. City slickers? Yes. We dress different, we talk different, we don’t know a whole bunch of stuff they know, vice-versa they don’t understand our lifestyle...we’ve got as many questions put to us as we had for them. “Why do you all live so close together?” “Why do you wear black?” There were just really honest questions, that I think some members of that community were just always wanting to ask.
But the biggest thing was that we had a local man interpreting everything for us, and he was held in high esteem, he was trusted, he basically ended up vouching for us, you know? He’s like: “You fuck up, you betray everybody, it’s on you! You’ll lose your film and you’ll pretty much feel awful, because you did get peoples trust through me”. So it’s sort of like the line in that film: “It’s on you now”.
The fact is he also read the content, had people read the content, he explained the protocol how we could proceed...so everything was really by permission. We were not going anywhere, asking anyone, or messing with anyone who expressed any desire to stay private. The other thing was we weren’t investigating meth on any level, we weren’t journalists, so we didn’t actually have to pursue or mess with someone who literally didn’t want to be contacted. But ultimately I think there was some genuine camaraderie.
Filmmaking, when it goes well, actually facilitates camaraderie because it is a long slog. There is a trench feeling, there is a kind of little soldier cinema feeling because it’s cold, long and dark. The fact is you end up eating together in a mess test, you end up asking local people to constantly advise and comment and give you their opinion.
I ended up asking for the non-stop input form one woman, who was the daughter of a property owner where we shot, and I would ask her to look at the monitor with me, and I would turn to her and say: “Kat, did you believe that? Level with me, don’t gas me, was that realistic?” And I remember a day on the fifth take she finally tugged my shoulder and said: “That’s not how we say it” (laughs). I was like “Oh my God!” Later that night I was thinking “you could tell me that on the first take!” (laughs).
It matters to me a lot and that would gives us time to adjust, and what not. So I said “How would you say it?” And she would say it, and then that’s actually the explanation why they’re are 8 additional dialogue credits, because we did have people hugely informing...I mean Daniel wrote in a very beautiful way, and yet some of it had to be altered for people to feel that it wasn’t coming from the mouth of an author, but that it was coming from their mouth. That was very important to us as well.
Some people had no prior acting experience...there is a really strong example that will be included on the DVD of the man who played Thump Milton (Ronnie Hall), who was the older patriarch in the barn. He’s someone we met at a place called the Bikers Church, what is a church which bikers are encouraged to wear their regalia in church, and the pulpit is half of a Harley...
Yeah...and the sermon is extremely soulful, and he is a very soulful person. He actually did a whole take, which was extremely beautiful, but he took a different perspective and variation which Thump is so devastated by how meth has brought them down.
So it was a different take on the distress, which was like: “Look at what this has down, with this girl, is this how low we have sunk?” And he really went on a tirade, and he used this phrase like, oh that I could ever write a line like this, he belts this “If something like this ever happens again I’ll nail your dicks to the wall!” (laughs) I was like...no one from the coast has ever heard that phrase. And John Hawkes couldn’t really respond, he was so startled about the whole thing, in a good way.
But again I was like, had I known and had I worked with him 3 weeks prior, I probably could have integrated that variation. So now it just remains an orphan moment on the DVD as an extra. But that was an example of having a truly fierce input by someone who said, you know.... but in the end it was in some ways a much more nuanced, complex and beautiful take on it.
I’ll have to watch your next film to see if that expression pops up.
(Laughs) I’ll always give (Ronnie) due credit.
The film was shot with the RED Digital Camera. Does the constant upgrade in filmmaking technologies give independent filmmakers more opportunity to bring their vision to life, or are the struggles the same as they were 6 years ago when you did your first feature?
Yes! The RED camera is a really intense tool in the advertising medium making and filmmaking...especially narrative filmmaking, where to get an instrument of that power, a recording device that has 4K resolution, and have it be a camera that very many working DPs, not high falutent megastar DPs, but honest working DPs can actually own...or let’s just say you rent it, which is what we did, the fact is it is not an insurmountable rental to a rental house, this is not a camera that as a lionide in your budget starts to blow your mind and you can’t this many takes or his...it is a really, really accessible device that held up really well.
I’m even charmed that it kind of made an incursion after these huge, long decades of two major electronics companies sort of having the whole show. It’s nice to see an insurgent situation that would...I liken it to Final Cut Pro, which was to me the kind of democratic breakthroughs we’ve all been speculating about, that we’ve all written about, and wondered about within these decades, and here they were. They really worked and they really what they say they were. So that camera helped us hugely on this shoot. It was a workhorse and I would use it again. I felt good about it. It’s not small and it’s heavy (laughs).
We were using time lenses so we still needed an amazing focus puller, so we still needed crew infrastructure to operate that camera. It actually needs a dedicated crew member, the “RED technician” actually, someone adapt at downloading the digital information, being sort of the parallel to the magazine loader. It’s not take it makes your crew immediately smaller, but I’m curious about the Scarlet, which is like the tiny little sister...these advancements make me excited.
It’s pretty cool, because in the Australian film industry we proud ourselves in DIY filmmaking, where our filmmakers have the technology without having the big budgets, to bring their vision to life.
There will be probably a couple amazing cell phone films (laughs). I think that was not lost at the Sundance film festival, where there was a whole section, I’m talking about true DIY filmmaking and using some of these filmmaking technologies. They even have a section for the new technologies.
I think people around the world at several festivals...it’s not unique to Sundance, I think there are really rich festivals that totally celebrate and look at that and encourage it, have sections to showcase it. Of course there is always that pressure, and everyone wags their finger at the mumble core popes and the 18 year old filmmakers and say “Please make sure your story is still good”. It doesn’t matter that you can do cheaply...that is not the only issue there.
But people forget that being real close to home with no travel, no putting crew up in a hotel, no food, but if they find a few outstanding gems of old, coot Australians in their home town who say outrageous things and trusting things, and do it with heart and are not out to make fun of them, or that they have an amazing granny....I’m just saying that there could be really outstanding that comes from that. And the fact is they wouldn’t have to get it green lit from anybody. That’s exciting, and I hope that will come in greater numbers.
What a country could do then is a film tutors or there should be at least workshops that help people get there scripts all in shape, so that when they go and put through all of this effort that they at least had the opportunity to test that script, get input, feedback and criticism.
What do you think about the YouTube Life in a Day project that Ridley Scott and Kevin McDonald have got going on?
I think it’s beautiful. I only feel sickened that I am not home with my 5 year old, helping her make her contribution! (laughs) But I think it is very interesting. I am so curious...hopefully they will extend the deadline. Hopefully they’ll let me upload it the next day!
Winter's Bone will be released on the 11th of November through Curious Distribution.