If you missed Debra Granik's Winter's Bone, see it now on DVD. Haunting newcomer (and Oscar buzz-getter) Jennifer Lawrence is a fiercely independent Ozarks girl determined to save her family.
Note: This interview originally ran in June 2010. The film is now available on DVD and via Netflix.
In Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik’s follow-up to her well-received debut film Down to the Bone, we again find ourselves impressed by a strong female lead in a breakthrough performance. (Sundance is also a big fan: actress Vera Farmiga and Granik were both recognized in Park City in 2004 for the earlier film, and this year Granik took home both the Best Screenplay and Grand Jury prizes.)
This time around, Jennifer Lawrence is mesmerizing as 17-year-old Ree Dolly, a self-sufficient, pragmatic, and fiercely intuitive mountain girl raising her brother and sister (and caring for her invalid mother) in the Ozarks of southern Missouri. When her meth-cooking father apparently skips out on bail, leaving the family home as collateral, Ree goes into fearless mother cub mode as she tries to track him down, consequences be damned.
Adapted from the 2006 novel of the same name, Winter's Bone is a bleak and straightforward examination of extreme poverty and the drug culture that pervades the rural countryside. We talked with writer/director Granik to find out how she was able to create such authenticity—in her actors, in her production design, and in the truly terrifying characters Ree encounters on a daily basis.
Tribeca: How did you find the novel and decide you wanted to adapt it for film? What made you want to tell this story?
Debra Granik: I got a pre-publication copy of Winter's Bone and read it on a bench in Washington Square Park in one sitting. I had not done that with any book in a long time. I was in suspense to see how the story's protagonist, Ree, would survive. It felt like an old-fashioned tale, with a character I couldn’t help but root for, and descriptions of a place that stoked my imagination as I tried to conjure Ree's world. Her circumstances are so different from my own that my curiosity was piqued.
Tribeca: You’ve created a community in the film that feels terrifyingly real. Do you have a connection to the Ozarks, or was the territory unfamiliar to you?
Debra Granik: It was totally unfamiliar to me. To launch this project, the producer/co-writer Anne Rosellini, the cinematographer Michael McDonough and I met with the author of the novel, Daniel Woodrell, in his home base in southern Missouri, and embarked on our first scout. We were aware that it was a geologically rich part of the country, with rolling hills and hollers above ground and an extensive system of caves and underground rivers below. So it already had a resonant, mythic quality for me, because of this above and below ground topography. We photographed homes, yards, roads, creeks and caves.
The visual power of nature is manifest in the landscape filled with vines, brambles, thick woods and dramatically gnarled trees. In this first Missouri journey, we were introduced to singers, storytellers, and folklorists steeped in Ozark culture. We also had an informative and disturbing discussion with the local sheriff, about what the meth problem has been like over the last two decades.
Tribeca: You shot on location in southern Missouri. How did you find the locations? Were they real homes?
Debra Granik: With the help of our local guide and location scout Richard Michael, we started by searching for a family living in a setting like the one described in the book. We knew we had to find a family who would let us see their house, their clothes, their objects, their dinner table, who would let us see them hunt, take care of their animals, and fix day-to-day problems as they arose. Eventually we found a family and neighbors who were willing to answer our questions, show us things, and advise us on the script.
In order to put on screen accurate details, we shot entirely on location on currently occupied properties. The costume designer Rebecca Hofherr exchanged garments with local people who were willing to trade pristine Carharts for a well-used ones. Real life is frayed, frugal, dusted with soot from stoves, heavy dust from the hardscrabble surface of the earth in these Southern Missouri counties. We had to work with these potent forces of the environment.
The housing stock in this area has tremendous texture. Many houses are made from several different kinds of materials—wood, vinyl, stone, metal. And the geometry of these hand-built houses is interesting and unique. The production designer, Mark White, primarily used objects found in the locations, working from careful observation and visual notes on what he found. The dogs, cats and donkey that appear in the film belonged to their locations, and these four-legged actors were willing to saunter across the frame at random, and to greet the biped cast members authentically as they entered and exited.
Tribeca: The music is also authentic. Can you talk about the soundtrack?
Debra Granik: Originally the story didn't have music, but as we spent time in the Ozarks we kept hearing stunning music, a lyrical element in the fabric of Ozarks life, and we were determined to put that into the film. Daniel Woodrell brought us to a picking session at a friend's house, and there we met the singer Marideth Sisco and some of the other musicians who would eventually appear in the house party scene in Winter's Bone. We found the bar band, White River Music Company, through an audition process. These musicians led us to others, some of whose work is heard in other scenes.
The composer Dickon Hinchliffe was inspired by the regional music and shaped his score around these Ozarkian idioms. The film's closing instrumental, Hardscrabble Elegy, is the fruit of that process. Since the film wrapped, the musicians have recorded a collection of music from and associated with the film, which will be available soon.
Tribeca: I know it’s been said before, but Jennifer Lawrence is a revelation, and so young! How did you find her? (I also thought she was amazing in The Burning Plain—she stayed with me long after the screening.)
Debra Granik: Jen came to us through the audition process. She was very focused and committed from the start. She took this role into her heart and worked very hard to enter Ree's world. She used what she's got from her Kentucky roots—kin who helped her with hunting, wood chopping, and other skills she wanted to have for the shoot. And to my ear, she already had a beautiful way of pronouncing American English that seemed right on for Ree. Though the script had some very foreign phrases for us, Jen was familiar with some of them, having heard similar phrasing growing up.
When she arrived in Missouri before the shoot, she worked closely with the life models and the family on whose property we shot the film. She learned how to operate the equipment, learned all the dog's names, and bonded with the kids. In her role, she plays an older sister to two kids. Jen developed her own way of working with the kids—she made things real for them. She could also improvise and rehearse with them to put them at ease. Jen is very invested in working with her fellow actors and crew, which means she is always learning, absorbing, and challenging herself.
Debra Granik: We wanted to cast actors whose work we love, and who haven't necessarily had many chances to show their full range. John Hawkes read Daniel Woodrell's novel and, like Jennifer Lawrence, he became deeply committed to telling this story. For John, it involved spending time with people in the region, studying their mannerisms and speech, and during production, two hours of applying tattoos and markings each day. He had very thoroughly worked-out ideas about the story, one of which is that his character, Teardrop, doesn't really change, but the audience's perception of his character evolves over the course of the film. That meshed well with the way Michael McDonough and I were approaching the material.
Dale Dickey was absolutely fierce in the auditions, able to conjure the whole atmosphere of a scene from scratch. She wasn't someone Anne and I were familiar with, but we saw quickly that we wanted her as Merab. She comes from Tennessee, and has aunts and other family members whose characteristics she used in defining her role. One thing that we kept finding in the Ozarks is that people often have reserves of wisdom, of courage, of deeply held principles which are not immediately obvious from their self-presentation. Merab is really about that, I think.
By casting many roles with actors from the area, we had locals advising us on dialect and watching our backs in general, making sure we didn't go down any misguided paths. The participation of the location families also helped the lead cast members to finesse the details. It was exhilarating to watch the cast members who came from elsewhere immerse themselves in the story and take on the rhythms and accents of the region. They watched and listened closely to what people did and how they spoke. Ultimately, the out-of-state cast blended with the Ozarks-based cast members.
Tribeca: And what about the two kids? Were they local? They were terrific.
Debra Granik:Isaiah Stone came to us via an audition at his school in Forsyth, MO. He began rehearsing with Jen, and their interaction seemed believable and unforced. Ree's younger sibling is also a boy in the novel, and we were having a harder time casting that role. Meanwhile, during rehearsals and auditions that we held on location, I would turn to the six-year-old daughter of the family who owned the property, Ashlee, and ask her if she could show me or the boys how to do certain things. Every time we reviewed these rehearsal tapes, I was drawn in by Ashlee's presence with Jennifer Lawrence playing Ree, and the way she could be in the house and on the land with a natural ease—she was literally at home on the set. The decision to cast her as Ree's youngest sibling was a last-minute change, and a lucky one for the production
Tribeca: What is the most important lesson you learned from making Winter’s Bone?
Debra Granik: To do a film like this, you have to have a really professional, super-dedicated crew. I didn't learn that the hard way—we were blessed on this project with a dream team that wouldn't quit ‘til we had what we needed.
Tribeca: What’s up next for you? Will you write again as well? What kinds of stories do you want to tell?
Debra Granik: Our team is currently looking at a number of projects that we'd like to develop, documentaries as well as fiction films. I'd like to do a story with a male protagonist. I'd like to do comedy. I want to do a film for children. I'm not sure yet which of these will be our next production.