EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a daily December series that will feature new or previously published interviews, profiles and first-persons of some of the year’s best filmmakers, writers, actors and actresses. This inaugural edition is a first person written by Debra Granik, director of Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner and recent Gotham Award winner “Winter’s Bone.” You can also read this interview with Granik from Sundance and this case study of how the film became a financial success story.
“Winter’s Bone” is based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell, about 17-year-old Ree Dolly, a young woman in the Ozarks whose meth-cooking father puts their family home up for his bail bond and then disappears. Ree has one week to track him down, or else she and her family will be thrown out into the Ozark wilderness.
The story is set in the Ozarks of Southern Missouri, and we knew it had to be filmed there if we wanted to accurately present the dialect and details of daily life which are integral to the story.
We started by doing a search for a family living in a setting close to 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, who would let us see them hunt, take care of their animals, and fix day-to-day problems as they arose. We ultimately found a family and a group of neighbors who were willing to answer our questions and show us their day-to-day lives.
We shot entirely on location on currently occupied properties. The costume department exchanged garments with local participants who were willing to trade new Carhartts for well-used ones. Real life is frayed, frugal, dusted with soot from stoves and 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. Also, by casting many roles with people from the area, we had people advising on dialect and watching our backs in general, making sure we didn’t go down any misguided paths.
Ree is focused in her commitment to guide her brother and sister through their childhoods. She is willing to fight to keep her family from falling apart. I see her as a lioness protecting her pride. She is also a teenager who experiences helpless feelings when adults around her make deadly choices and are drawn down into a way of life that harms them.
Like many a movie hero, Ree must struggle. We don’t get to see much of her teenage side. Throughout the story she is single-minded in her focus, because the search for her father is all-consuming. There is a deadline. In this heightened context, we see that Ree does not take ‘no’ for an answer. In matters of justice, I love characters who don’t take ‘no.’ I want to know how they get that resolve. We may not know what fuels Ree, but it is exciting to witness a girl who shows this much strength of character.
In some lives a person makes great strides and reaches great heights. And in other lives it takes an equal amount of resolve and effort to move a centimeter. The cycle of effort, obstacles, trying again…these are the lives that I admire and want to document and portray.
Jennifer Lawrence 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–family that could help 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 for Ree. Though the script had some phrases that were foreign to us, Jennifer was familiar with some of them, having heard similar language growing up.
When she arrived in Missouri before the shoot, she worked closely with the family on whose property we shot the film. She learned how to operate the equipment, learned all the dogs’ names, and bonded with her on-screen siblings. Jen developed her own way of working with the kids–improvising and rehearsing with them to put them at ease. Jennifer is very invested in working with her fellow actors and crew, which means she is always learning, absorbing, and challenging herself. I feel very lucky that we had the chance to make this film together.
A scene from “Winter’s Bone”.
The scene we’ve chosen takes place when Ree first goes to question her uncle Teardrop (played by John Hawkes) to see if he can help her find her dad/his brother. Both Teardrop and Ree’s father, Jessup, are deeply entrenched in the local meth economy, which Ree knows comes with its own code of conduct. Teardrop doesn’t want to talk about his brother’s whereabouts, doesn’t want to give clues, and doesn’t want Ree to investigate, to the point where he threatens her. A warning is issued, and an obstacle is thrown in her path. We learn that Ree’s uncle is gruff, intimidating, volatile, and dangerous to deal with. The tension and secrecy that Teardrop throws in Ree’s path in this scene sets the stage for the uphill battle her search is going to become. The scene comes early in the film, and lets both Ree and the audience know that even though she is a teenage girl from within the family, she’s going to face the same kind threats and violence that would be inflicted on anyone who comes around asking too many questions.
Although it’s tough to understand when faced with our initial, terrifying impression of Teardrop, he claims that his refusal to engage with Ree’s questions is ultimately for her own good. This is a recurring phrase Ree will hear from many sources as she delves deeper into this criminal underworld. And it’s a testament to the talents of both John Hawkes and Dale Dickey (who plays Merab, another of Ree’s obstacles) that they’re both able to convey such outward menace while still demonstrating that, deep down, they may genuinely have Ree’s best interests at heart.
Ultimately, the scene shows Ree beginning to take on the challenge of pushing past the resistance of her close and distant relatives in her quest to discover her father’s whereabouts. Will she find allies, or must she go it alone? Will the hostility she encounters destroy her, or will she prevail?
I’m still in awe of what Jennifer and John bring to this scene, and what the entire cast and crew gave for this film. My hope is that audiences can connect with both Ree Dolly and this cast of strong actors, and are as impressed by them as I have been in the making of the film.
Please come out to see “Winter’s Bone” when it opens in theaters this summer. People like you are keeping independent cinema alive, and we thank you so much for it.