Interview: Debra Granik; director of Winter’s Bone.

Interview: Debra Granik; director of Winter’s Bone. By Simon Miraudo.

Although she only has two feature film credits to her name, director Debra Granik is emerging as one of the most important voices in American independent cinema. Her first film – Down to the Bone – is a harrowing tale of a woman battling drug addiction. Her latest – Winter’s Bone – offers us a glimpse into the harsh realities of those living in the Ozark Mountain Region. The latter picked up the highest honour at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, and young star Jennifer Lawrence – playing a determined young gumshoe on the hunt for her bail-skipping dad – is touted for an Oscar nomination. I spoke to Debra about “American stories”, seeing her film play in Australia, discovering Jennifer Lawrence and details on the final instalment of her inadvertent “bone trilogy”.

SM: I’m interested in breaking in stories, so I’d like to ask how you got into filmmaking.

DG: I actually started more in documentary and educational filmmaking. Do you mean how I got involved in narrative filmmaking?

SM: No no, from the very beginning.

DG: The very beginning. I was trained up in Boston at a time when community access to equipment like a camera was extremely common and available. So I got trained that way on the actual shooting side of things. Then I got jobs working on that side of the community; documentary workplaces and very much non-fiction and educational and ended up working for documentary filmmakers in that area. Finally, after a lot of years of filming, I was quite limited – the subject matters were really rich; there were a lot of locations that were photogenic and I witnessed a lot of things that I wouldn’t normally unless I had this job. There was no way to develop the stories further. All they needed from me was this kind of very straightforward documentation. So I ended up putting myself back through film school and made a trip down to New York to do that, and I was very lucky to come across a very inspirational mentor; an Eastern European filmmaker who had come to New York. He was trained in Moscow and he exposed us to filmmakers from around the world, first starting with what he knew back in the films of the Soviet era and so forth, so he really ended up influencing our first foray really dramatically in what we chose to shoot and how chose to proceed.

SM: Winter’s Bone is based upon Daniel Woodrell’s novel of the same name. How did you first come across it?

DG: That book was circulating prior to publication, because Daniel was an author who was interested in having his novel adapted for the screen, and so he gave filmmakers a chance to look at the material. My creative partner and I looked at it and read it and we were very drawn in; we hadn’t read anything quite as strong and well-structured in a very long time. It felt like a strong tale from the woods of the United States that wasn’t characteristic of the kind of picture presented in the past and felt really lucky to approach Daniel, and meet him and talk about it and present ourselves. That worked out, and then from there he was familiar with our prior work and felt that it could be a good match. We proceeded with it, connecting with him and going forward was not hard; he was very willing.

SM: Was there something in particular that drew you to it, or was it that sense of place in the Ozark that you mentioned? That American story?

DG: There were a lot of things that struck us hard. First and foremost this female protagonist Ree Dolly; finding her to be untrusting and multi-faceted, and we enjoyed the way she answered people, thinking and trying to make her move, and she has these obstacles in front of her. Could she ever prevail? Could she ever see them through? It was a very stark story in that way, and very easy to write a traditional, well-honed story technique. Watching a character in dire circumstance almost be clever and resourceful, where she has to think to keep herself alive. Absolutely the details in the novel of her daily life and the real circumstances of her life were really rich and evocative in the novel and yet unknown to me and my colleague who are coastal urban people – we knew nothing of this region let alone the majority of the sort of ‘American heartland’. We became equally encouraged to check that part out; we weren’t sure if the story was contemporary, because it was not common for us to hear about certain parts of her life, her daily existence. Is that really common? Is that practiced in 2010? That required going down and finding the right models; a family that fit closely to the description of Ree’s life, and actually ask them if we could take these notes and fact-check with them. Is your house really heated this way? And if so, how do you do that? How do you get your timber and how do you know when to hunt, and what do you hunt? Asking them to read the book and asking if they think it’s a realistic portrayal of this girl’s life. What would you change? That aspect became the process of having to marry the book as a novel to real living circumstances in that region in 2009/2010.

SM: You started talking about the character of Ree, and I think it would have been very easy to have miscast her. It’s a big role for a young actor; a lot is demanded of Jennifer Lawrence. How did you find Jennifer?

DG: Jennifer came in when we were doing auditions, and I had no prior knowledge of her, and she read like all the other young women, but there was a very prominent difference, which she was born and raised in Kentucky, and so when she was reading the script she had a very lyrical and convincing way of speaking it based on her time in the neighbouring state. She didn’t stumble over the script; so many people did because it was so alien to them – as it was to us. So that was a concrete sign; if I closed my eyes in that audition, I could believe I was hearing Ree Dolly for the first time. And then it got even better when I realised that Jen was very aware of the nature of the shoot and that it would be arduous, and there would be no amenities, and that she was very poised to do that; very hungry to do that. So many directors are looking for someone to be actually willing to go down there and collaborate; not go down there just because it would be a good career move, or that it’s gonna be a breeze or they can call it in. It’s more like she understood and was still very motivated.

SM: Well, parts of Ree certainly come across like a hard-boiled detective, and you said that it came so naturally to her, but before going into production, did you give Jennifer a reading list of films and performances to observe?

DG: You know I had done that in my previous film. I worked with an actress called Vera Farmiga and we had at the time a film with a female performance that I was really relishing and I showed that to her. And Vera found it very useful and she really liked it and was inspired by it. With Jennifer, I did not do that. In fact, I felt like it would be helpful for Jennifer to be immersed down there; for her to do that work directly. To walk on that gravel, learn how to use that wood-splitter, become friendly with the girl who was playing her sister and living at the house where we would be filming, meet those dogs, learn from a hunter about wild game and how that’s done. The best thing I could think of was for her to do that; to have these real tasks in front of her so she would feel and imagine being Ree on this particular land.

SM: It’s interesting to watch the film as an Australian, and see this completely foreign environment. Were you concerned at all whether this Mississippi story would work internationally?

DG: Oh, that’s an interesting question. You can never know ahead of time ever who your film might work for, or if it will work for anybody…

SM: Right.

DG: And I guess that what can be mind-blowing about festivals, especially very large international ones, to see that people are quite receptive to some of the things they haven’t seen before. There will be an inherent interest in lives that far away from our own and … God you can’t calculate that or figure that out ahead of time, I think because there is some kind of mystery why someone feels something for a character. I do think there is some universal themes and emotions that we share and that is so evident in film as an international communication form. There are certain things I’ve been told, like, saving one’s house is a big deal in Australia as well. Like that’s a very concrete image almost that people can latch on to, and gave the illustration to how significant people feel if you put a lot of their life and energy into having this important shelter in their life, becomes very valued, and I feel like to a certain point there can be identification across borders.

SM: I can ease your worries somewhat. As an Australian viewer I confirm that it very much does work in Australia.

DG: I will say I have been inspired after the last film. It was definitely one positive side of encouragement I got from being in European festivals, comments that were not so uncommon saying that they appreciate seeing working class America or other aspects of American existence; the lives of ordinary Americans against those that always flash everyone with their affluence and imagery of their luxurious California lifestyle. That was one thing that I have been aware that it feels fresh or helpful to people outside of the United States to have it recall for them our country is really large and of course experiences there are going to be super diverse, and that’s not what’s exported normally.

Debra Granik accepts the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic Film at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival from Parker Posey.

SM: Winter’s Bone and Down to the Bone played at Sundance, and both took a couple of the top prizes. What’s your relationship to that festival?

DG: Well Sundance is really crucial in the North American continent for making known that films were made outside of the larger system; that they were made outside of the industry so to speak. So, it is the only existing covered, journalist-intensive forum for that discussion and that circulation. It’s literally the annual event, if you will, for both moving images – narrative and documentary. And that doesn’t mean it’s sponsored by Showtime, it doesn’t mean they get funding from HBO or larger entities. What it does mean is that the larger percentage of films that are shown there are broke; they don’t have a larger corporate affiliation, they don’t have a product line and prequels and sequels and they often introduce new talent. And in that sense, it does serve an extremely crucial function. There would be no other way to create knowledge and awareness of these films. Then the institute itself is one of the more rigorous training opportunities in the United States that are set up to be rigorous and have ambitious ideals about resuscitating certain parts of filmmaking that were getting lost in the industry, like the idea of rehearsal, the idea of work-shopping a film, the idea of road testing a script, reading a script out loud. These are all things the institute will facilitate, so you sort of truly put your script through the ringer before you try to make it, because you’ve looked at it and scrutinised it and see where it’s improving and found out parts that aren’t working or what not. That’s a kind of academy; a training program that is a very treasured place as well. And not just for directors but editors, for DOPs, certainly actors themselves.

SM: Well Debra, I just wanted to ask what you’ve got going on next.

DG: Well there’s always the possibility of the “Osteo Trilogy” continuing.

SM: (Laughing) Yeah?

DG: Of course the third one, I didn’t name it either, it’s the name of the novel, but it also has the word bone in it. And it’s a distinct possibility. I don’t know if the author sought me out because of the word bone, but that’s a strong option right there. And there’s a couple things that I’m very drawn to that, again, I am someone looking for American storytelling that is soulful and is rich and does look at niches of life in the country that are strong to them and meaningful to them, so I’m always on the hunt for that. Being down there also informed me a lot, given that it’s not my region I was able to meet some other writers from that region and I hope to do another film that is extremely regional and being very specific about a place that isn’t often heard about.

SM: Debra best of luck with any future projects and with Winter’s Bone.

DG: Well thank you very much and thank you for your time.

Winter’s Bone opens in limited release across Australia November 11, 2010. Check out my review here!

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