Capone talks with director Debra Granik about the chilling WINTER'S BONE!!!
Published at: June 14, 2010, 7:38 a.m. CST by Capone
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
Director Debra Granik is a fascinating human being, let's just get that out there at the top of things. She has seemingly boundless energy, and enough stories about the research and making of her second feature WINTER'S BONE that I bet a behind-the-scenes documentary about her process would be just as interesting a the final film. And at least at the time I spoke with her about the movie, she had not grown tired of talking it up in the slightest. She seems more excited about other people seeing her work than practically any other filmmaker I've ever met.
Granik has only ever made one other feature, but it was the underground wonder DOWN TO THE BONE, a film starring a relative unknown named Vera Farmiga in a role that is still getting her work. I've talked to several directors over the years, including Anthony Mighella and Jason Reitman, that all point to DOWN THE BONE as the reason Farmiga topped their casting list. When I interviewed Farmiga herself three years ago, she said this to say about Granik:
"I know that when Debra Granik and I were working on it, I knew it was a brilliant coupling. I knew that we were both really excited to tell this story, and we had a really intense collaboration. And she's someone I really respect and admire and she's set a certain standard for me in terms of work ethic. She's someone I really look up to. I felt that we were both really passionate about what we were doing, and I would only hope that someone would get to see it. No one had even give me the opportunity to play such a role of a woman in such full dimension. No one before that. I didn't have a chance, and that was really the first time I could explore a character to such dimension and form, and no one had given me that responsibility before or entrusted that responsibility to me."
There you go.
WINTER'S BONE is set in the reclusive communities of the Ozark Mountains, so you can imagine Granik's level of immersion before she shot a single frame of the story, which she and Anne Rosellini adapted from the novel by Daniel Woodrell. The resulting film is scarily authentic and features yet another stellar lead female performance by Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly. I'll have my full review up soon, but for now, please enjoy my conversation with Debra Granik…
Capone: Hi Debra. Good to meet you.
Debra Granik: Oh, hi. Likewise.
Capone: My ears popped coming up to this room.
DG: I know, I know. I was really impressed with this situation here.
Capone: Well the view is great.
DG: It’s just that this is exceptionally remarkable to do an interview about this film in a posh space, because I have just gotten back from four days in Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas brining the film to the homecoming screenings if you will.
Capone: That was one of my questions, to ask you if they people in the towns where you shot had seen it. I know that when you showed it at Sundance that you hadn’t shown it in that community, but I was going to ask you if that changed. Tell me about that.
DG: This was it, or at least phase one, and the issues that came out of that are like thinking that there are so many people that worked with us. It really doesn’t enter into their budget to be able to buy a ticket to a movie, so we tried to look at these other theaters in Northern Arkansas that are outside of this chain where the film will play at one branch of a regional chain, but it still wont get to the people that participated really, that live outside the situation--the Fayetteville area. So one of the women that runs a really excellent museum down there, an Ozark heritage and culture museum, a small place but nonetheless important and she was trying to research where the few drive ins are that still exists, and what really small places are still located in a community that… Are there still any really tiny town cinemas that still have projection that work, and she was trying to help us research that and then we were going to lobby [distributor] Roadside Attractions to see if they could go for almost like a literally cultural/political event. Could this film in any way be made accessible? Could it have one place in this big country where it’s not an art house film?
They have been great to the film. They have been amazing and they were very brave and stood up first as distributors, nonetheless I think one of the men who runs their company is sensitive to those issues and I think will help me find a solution of how the film could be seen. These screenings were no-cost screenings. One of them was a big fundraiser, but what I mean is the people that were involved in the film didn’t have to pay to be there in this last week. The way it went over is that we had a very special time in the screening where people recognized their donkey, their dogs, their house, their car parts. That’s a very special kind of screening where there’s a proprietary feeling of among the participants.
There are many things that can help this film sometimes have a route of entry. Initially, we thought it was enough maybe that the author comes from Southern Missouri. That’s the foundation of the whole project and that’s important, and he’s writing from a place of observation and deep love of the Ozarks from it’s natural endowments to it’s cultural issues and legacies. But then we had other participants that added things I think that do help link the film back. Meredith Sisco is the woman that sings in the film, and she ended up curetting the music for the film. She was very gratified, and this was sort of her barometer, in one of the screenings in her hometown that she felt hugely validated, that she had picked the right hymn in this, because at the end people were singing along. Not in any kind of rousing way, but almost just like humming it along, immediate recognition.
So there are some ways in which that is working and I think in as much as Ree Dolly, the main character, expresses some kind of pride in her upbringing despite all of the difficulties she is going through, that resonated. I don’t think people tire of hearing some kind of public murmur of the part of Ozark’s culture that is still very cherished, which would be self-reliance and moxie and standing up for what you think is right, especially when it comes to issues of your own property. So she got a warm welcome, this heroine.
Capone: That’s good.
DG: Yeah. It also can’t hurt when you have had funky representation of your community over like a lot of decades, it can’t help but hurt to have a sort of inspiring hero be up there.
Capone: On that level though, they were appreciative as well--not just the recognition factor, but on the story and the representation their culture?
DG: I think so. The Dolly Gang or Dolly Clan… They are difficult people, no doubt, and Ree has got good members of her family and very gnarly people in her family too, and I think the “and” function there really, like my dream that it would, the “and” is you can have both things in your family. You can have people that act very poorly, very badly, and you can have people that do the right thing. You can have an uncle who gets very messed up in his life, chooses a self destructive path, chemically dependent, whatever difficult adult things happen to people, and you can see his loyalty still and you remember a better day. So “and” is sort of the umbrella under which this whole film has to function or it will not just bomb, but downright perpetuate some stuff that is the baggage that comes with working in a region that has been represented in certain ways over time, and it caused us to dig deep.
Some of the discussions that came from the four days down there were exceptionally cherished by us, because after I had to speak about the word “hillbilly” for almost a year and I’m not one and never can be one, even if I wanted to like fantasize that I could. An urban person cannot, not ever, unless you do your time, so it was rewarding to have people that were involved in the film. We tried our hand at recording a very wide array of definitions of “hillbilly,” by people that had worked on the film--the good, bad, the ugly, but also the sweet and the unknown as well. “What does that term conjure?” “What is the culture behind that term?” and not trying to make it correctness, but just try to get a multivalent expression of that term.
Capone: I remember reading some interviews with you on your first film too that you have a very method way of directing--total immersion. It’s not just a matter of research and reading a few books,. You dive in headfirst before you shoot a single frame of film and that’s not a usual approach I think by a lot of filmmakers. Maybe some of them just don’t have the time, but that’s really unusual. And the results are there on screen, and it makes everything that you have done so far feel very authentic.
DG: The thing that I was going to say is that it’s funny how that goes back to sometimes this comment that it kind of rules my life, which is that we are all born on quite a narrow path, my life is very defined by my race, my class, where I grew up, my geography--huge influence. So that limits me, so in order to actually make films about existences that I don’t know about, I do have to do that. It wouldn’t be enough just to read a book. I did read the book and then I had to go down, because I was like “Is that contemporary?” “Does Ree Dolly today heat her house with a wood stove?” “Is that common? Is that rare?” “Wild game, is that common? Is that exotic?” and “By the way, how is it down?” I’d have to go and see for myself, so I think coming from a very specific place--which was also nowhere, because it was the suburbs. It’s not that I’m condemned, but it’s like it is part of my life mission that I must go seek and look, you know? So that’s what spurs that on.
That’s not just a dogma, it’s more like it’s a necessity that what you don’t know you can’t punch your way through and also you find, when you start getting involved in filmmaking, that you team up with people that share certain kinds of quests or curiosities. I found myself in this place where I feel very fortunate that the woman who produces the films with me, Anne Rosellini, she really desires that. She comes from a really documentary impulse, meaning like “Your life amazes me. Is it possible that I could look at it with you?” And the DP is also very inspired, he doesn’t want to be condemned to working on sets.
Capone: That’s going to be tough to deal with if you ever become a director for hire. Someone is going to ask you, “Can’t you just jump right in here and do this?”
DG: [laughs] And I want to develop that skill. I want to be able to do that. I would like to be a flexible person and there are certain things that wouldn’t require that much research, meaning if I had to do a scene in this hotel… If it was about the housekeeping staff, I would have to definitely spend some time, but that would be so strategic. That would be such a strategic strike, to spend a couple of days or go home with a couple members of the house keeping staff and see where they live in the other greater huge metropolitan parts of outlying Chicago and what their lives are like. But then the minute the story got involved, like let’s just say there’s a person that’s linked up to the Mexican community and has like a new rival, that would then take time to figure out some part of existence in the enormous Chicago Mexican community. Then the research gets complicated, but I’m just saying some scenes I could imagine them, but not for long. But that would never satisfy me, it’s true. Then I would be curious about the housekeeper.
Capone: You would then need six months to prepare.
Capone: Your film confirmed for me something I've always believed about this community. Because of the isolated nature of the community, this is a place where, for the most part, the world outside doesn’t have much of an impact--cultural trends and politics. It just doesn’t really have a direct impact, although I think some people might be shocked to see the drug culture in a setting like this. That clearly has infiltrated this community. Did you get a sense that that was true? That this place exists and evolves on it’s own with very little influence from anything outside of the people that live there?
DG: Yeah. I think historically that’s definitely been true and that’s like all hill cultures, like anthropologically around the world, that there’s a seclusion factor that’s always been so important to why the music has a specificity, why certain dialects get maintained longer than in other places. Homogenization happens less rapidly, literally protected by the earth’s curves, if you will. There are [satellite] dishes in everyone’s yard.
Capone: And I noticed that.
DG: And we didn’t cover them up, because it’s not a historical film; it’s contemporary. Some of those dishes work, some don’t; I guess no one bothers to repossess a dish. Some of them probably aren’t linked to service anymore or are or maybe I forget whether a satellite service can be cut off, because once you’ve got the dish you can receive it. People have what I call “hill lives” and “town lives.” The same person, the matriarch on the property that we lived, she is a greeter in Wal-Mart, but at night when she comes home, her son and some of the people in her family might be skinning one of the four dear that they are entitled to catch, then the preparation eventually will happen, or someone’s gotten squirrels, or a neighbor has come by with extra squirrels. You know, so she knows everything. She’s brought home Hannah Montana t-shirts for her granddaughters, yet her house looks like a prototype of a house that’s existed for quite a few hundred years now and it was hand built and the extensions on it were all hand built, so there’s no two walls that have the same texture.
It is this really rich kind of horn brushing if you will. It’s not that they are oxymorons, but just stark contrasts, but where I think the hills do provide this great bosom, if you will, is in the music making and that something really special is happening and has happened and always has happened and is still happening. That blew our mind, as coastal people, that blew our mind. We actually didn’t have music in this film originally, because we thought “Oh boy, dangerous ground. At any turn someone could either pick up a banjo and either be a crazed loon after they put it down…”
Capone: You’ve got to be careful with banjos in movies like this.
DG: Right, or you have too many people like humming on their porch and all of a sudden it becomes kind of like a fantasy of generationally poor people that just sing all of the time or something and it was none of that, but pickin' sessions occur.
What we found was that was rally tied into this part of the culture that is so outside regular culture, which is living life sometimes for no greater gain. A country that’s built on betterment, more, upsizing, aggrandizing, doing well by virtue of what you can purchase, the Ozarks then of course would seem like a backwards place or a weird place or a place of stasis--the fact that not everyone is striving for material betterment. Maintenance of life? Yes. Being able to provide and sustain life… Literally the word “sustainable” became this fascinating word for us, like “sustainable life.” It’s the same thing with music, you want to sustain your music. You don’t have fantasies of going to Nashville and busting into some larger arena, and sometimes participating in a fiddle contest is like a furlough from the service economy, it’s just a way to win a couple hundred dollars that can keep you from having to return to the service economy right away. That we have reverence for, but it was also really different for us coming from the coast.
Capone: But you also have a taste of heavy metal music too.
DG: Oh God, yeah. That’s alive and well--MTV culture. We went to a high school and Anne and I whizzed around, and we saw this really gorgeous Goth girl walk by. That’s another kind of miracle too, that certain--especially in the Bible belt--to see you are like “Whoa a Goth girl. You know it’s not so easy to do that here probably." And metal kids and what not, so that’s where the outside cultures do come in, of course, And yes that was bread-and-butter metal from the region, so there’s no way in a nano-second, electronic Twittering age that any community can protect itself or preserve itself with integrity. However, you wish that at least the music can continue and if there’s a way to get national recognition for it, outside of the bluegrass circuit, there would be incentive to perpetuate it and there would be for, again, some sustainable way for that to occur.
Capone: Let’s talk a little bit about your actors and your actual characters here. It took me a little while to get a handle on what Ree’s motivation was, other than just keeping her land and keeping her family. Maybe that’s all she needed to do the extraordinary things and the very dangerous things that she does. In your head, what are her driving instincts?
DG: I think the ultimatum that is delivered to her isn’t just loss of house or eviction or foreclosure, even though those things are probably in most people’s lives worth fighting for, but when you are fighting a bank who are you even fighting? In this situation, I feel like she feels like before she gives up, she’s got to turn over the stones. I think the idea of social services coming in and dispersing her family or relatives that she feels would not be appropriate guardians for her siblings, I think that is enough in this character’s life. She has friends. She’s gone to part of high school, but I do think that what has been the dominant vista of her existence is the smaller nexus of her immediate kin.
I also think that Ree doesn’t know how hard it’s going to be. I don’t think she knows she’s going to be met with such blockage. She’s aware that her dad is messed up and is caught up “in the life,” if you will, and that’s unsavory and she knows it involves intimidating characters who are up to difficult, no-good things. I don’t think she thinks that… I don’t think when she sets out that she knows he’s been done in.
Capone: I didn’t.
DG: I think she thinks it’s appropriate to go to Uncle Teardrop’s house and ask him, to seek his help, and in the end she actually gambled correctly. He is upset, he fears for her, he’s trying to get her to not do it herself, and yet she made the right gamble, because ultimately he will proceed to assist her in that crucial time. It’s not just a journey, but trying to solve a mystery basically.
I kind of bought that, I did. Reading Daniel’s novel and trying to figure that out, I kind of had to believe that, because in hindsight knowing what she will face, it’s pretty hard to bite that off, but it was probably the not knowing and for her I think she thought she was going to do it one step at a time. Literally, maybe by the visit to Teardrop it could be solved.
Capone: Teardrop is played by John Hawkes, and I have never seen him play a character like this before. I’ve been a fan of his for so long, and he has just sort of done this wonderful job of never really repeating himself and this is about as not repeating himself as he has ever done. How did you come together with him?
DG: We were so excited to work with him, and I agree with you that… The reason that you don’t know what else he could do is because he doesn’t always get the chance. He probably doesn’t always know, in the sense that he hasn’t been stretched sometimes when I’m sure he’s desired it. I think he also has relished and enjoyed and found meaningful everything he has done. It always leads up to just knowing that you are capable of interpreting lots of carets or degrees of human nature, but he has played very mild people in the past, gentle people. That is his home base--he is a gentle person. I think he was very hungry for exposing himself to research and understanding of someone’s life that is very far from his own and he took it upon himself to do a lot of that research down there.
I think he enjoyed the novel very much and I think he had a lot of… I don’t want to say “compassion,” but I think he was drawn in almost to the raw romantic nature of a tragic character like Teardrop. He is kind of like a quintessential tragic hero in the sense that he makes very bad choices and yet there is a certain kind of nobility in him and John I think really made the right decision and recognized Teardrop’s intelligence. It doesn’t go that anyone who imbibes a really harmful substance or gets addicted to something very pernicious isn’t smart. It’s often that that intelligence, it’s been very hard to find a channel for it and a restless mind, where the rest of them might have sought substances to quiet it or dull it or put it to sleep or to make it high or whatever, and I think Teardrop kind of falls into that category as interpreted by John and myself.
Capone: I went into this movie not knowing any of the cast, I kind of just wanted to see it as uninfluenced by who was going to appear. So I didn’t know Garret Dillahunt was in this film; he's one of my favorite people to see pop up on TV or in movies. Were you a little hesitant to put too many people in it that might get recognized and that might sort of take people out?”
DG: Absolutely, yes. That’s a huge concern of mine and Anne's. She and I share that concern really seriously, because we are taken out when we go to see films when there are these…they're called “added-value cameos,” you know? The idea that you can get a very prominent star to hop into a film, and it doesn’t cost them much because it’s a day or two of shooting and the whole recipe seems so delectable. That’s really a lot of the things that on the West Coast when financing is considered that financiers would be looking for in an independent film. “Could you get someone of that nature in your film to pop up?”
At one point we thought “Oh God, maybe Sissy Spacek for shoot in for [the character of] Merab?”, and it really wouldn’t have helped this film at all I don’t think. The person who played Merab was also seldom seen even though she has had a long working life, Dale Dickey--she’s been on the show called "My Name Is Earl" and she’s in theater a lot in LA, and she was just so right on for the part and she hails from Eastern Tennessee. It would have been so painful to pick someone by their name versus someone who that was really right for the part. That pressure is there, and you have to navigate around it somehow.
Capone: Even with only one other feature under your belt, you have already established yourself as someone who has a real gift for finding unknown female talent. I have talked to Vera Farmiga before and also directors who have hired her literally because of DOWN TO THE BONE. So with Jennifer Lawrence, tell me about finding her and that audition process, because I imagine there was a search for Ree.
DG: Oh there was and it was hard, because that age range is not that abundant and the reality is that at first we were seeing people that were much older and it became painful for us to see grown American women having to impersonate girls. It was not the way we wanted to go, and yet also if you go too young, it’s very hard for an independent film to support that, because if the person is not 18--Jennifer was 18, which was amazing and when we heard that it was like we really were loving her work in the audition and the fact that she was someone who could swing with a rigorous production and not have a lot of stipulations on her work availabilities. She was unknown to me, even though she had been in two huge roles in feature films, THE POKER HOUSE and THE BURNING PLAIN…
Capone: I saw THE BURNING PLAIN.
DG: We hadn’t seen those yet. THE BURNING PLAIN wasn’t available at that moment and for whatever reason, that information never got to us. But I think that was really excellent actually, because we saw her really for the work she did in the room, and the fact that she was from Kentucky meant a huge deal for me as an East Coast person. I really enjoyed the way she spoke, just as her natural way of pronouncing American English.
Capone: She has a great voice, a great cadence.
DG: Yeah and she made it known that she would really work hard on the film. Even with the two prominent roles that she had, she had enough to view things more. She could easily become jaded, and that’s not how she approached this at all, so we were very grateful that for whatever fate had that our paths crossed.
Capone: Debra, thank you so much. It was really great to talk to you.
DG: Likewise, and I appreciate your interest very much.
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