EDITOR’S NOTE: Over the two weeks leading up to Oscar, indieWIRE will be republishing a series of interviews and profiles on the nominees for the 81st Academy Awards.
Courtney Hunt‘s “Frozen River” follows Rae Eddy (Melissa Leo), a woman who lives in upstate New York whose husband has left her two days before Christmas. In addition to that, he has also gambled way all their savings, forcing Rae to feed her two sons popcorn and Tang. But when Rae meets Lila LIttlewolf (Misty Upham), she discovers a new way to make money: smuggling illegal immigrants into the United States. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film and now is nominated for six Spirit Awards and two Oscars, including a surprise nod for Courtney Hunt’s original screenplay. indieWIRE talked to Hunt about the film back at Sundance.
Please introduce yourself.
My name is Courtney Hunt. I live north of New York City in a small town. I am 43 and I grew up in Tennessee. After college at Sarah Lawrence, I went straight to law school at Northeastern, but by the second month I knew this was not what I wanted to do. I finished, however, because my boyfriend (now husband) was already practicing criminal law and working with him allowed me to get to know people and places I might not have, otherwise. After that, I entered Columbia Univerisity’s MFA program in Film.
What were the circumstances that led you to become a filmmaker?
I grew up going to art house double features with my mother, a child of the 70s, who allowed me to see way too much, too soon. However, living in Memphis, Tennessee at that time, I guess, it was the only way she felt I would get a sense of the world. Those early films like “Paper Moon,” “The 400 Blows,” and even “To Kill a Mockingbird” were pretty powerful to me as a child.
Have you made other films?
During film school, I worked on the side for my husband reading and summarizing huge transcripts of murder trials. It helped pay the rent, but more than that I learned point of view, witness by witness, as I read the details of crimes. That, and Romulus Linney‘s writing class (which was so great I took it twice) was the core of my training as a screenwriter. For directing, I had Paul Schrader and Bette Gordon. The basic lesson from them both was learn to direct by directing. They forced me to get on my feet and break the inertia of over thinking things. The result was my thesis film, a 20-minute short, “Althea Faught,” about a woman surviving the Civil War siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi. It’s a look at how women survive war, and her point of view is dark, but I think we understand it by the end of the film. The short won prizes and sold to PBS.
What prompted the idea for this film and how did it evolve?
In film school, I often heard the complaint that “women’s films” lacked adventure and this drove me crazy. I grew up with a single mom, who was working and struggling through school and, frankly, paying the rent was an adventure. I first came upon the idea for “Frozen River” when I learned about Canadian-border smuggling on a visit to my husband’s family in Malone, New York. There are several Indian Reservations that straddle the border and this creates an odd jurisdictional situation. When I discovered than some of the Native women were doing the smuggling and that they did it by driving their cars across the frozen St. Lawrence River, I was fascinated. I met two women smugglers back when they were running cigarettes. However, when the cigarette tax in Canada was lowered, some smugglers switched to illegal immigrants, often Chinese and Pakistani people who wanted to come to the U.S. via Canada, which is easier to get it into.
I wrote the script, over time, when I felt I knew the characters well enough. Then, James Schamus brought “21 Grams” to this little film festival in my town and I met Melissa Leo. I’m a little shy, but her performance in that film was so beautiful that I went up to her and told her so. I sent her a script and she agreed to do my short of “Frozen River.” It got in to the New York Film Festival and that gave me the inspiration to develop the feature script. Both Melissa and Misty Upham (who plays Lila) were so compelling in the short that I could not imagine the feature without them. And they stuck by me.
Then I got Chip Hourihan, a numbers maven, to rough out a budget and I approached Heather Rae, a wonderful creative producer, to come on the project. But, there was no money to be found, so my husband wrote a prospectus and circulated it. With the short to show people, he was able to attract several intrepid investors.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film
I like characters that are not immediately appealing and that live in the margins of the culture. I like living with them in the intimacy of a cinema long enough to at least understand them, maybe even grow to love them. I think of films like “Central Station,” “Badlands,” “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” and “Nights of Cabiria.”
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
Early on, the biggest challenge was breaking though the notion that smuggling only occurs on the Mexican border. Once in production, the biggest challenge was the weather. We shot in Plattsburgh, New York, last February and a huge portion of the movie takes place outside, at night. The cast and crew were in a bit of shock the first few days, when it was below zero, but we all adjusted and I think the cast and crew felt good about what we were making and so they were very brave about the cold.
What are some of your recent favorite films?
I loved “Babel,” I loved “Crash,” anything that messes around with point of view. The world is so complex now – and I think we are just coming to know this as Americans – and movies are a powerful way to get to know people beyond our own borders, whether those borders are national, economic or cultural.
How do you define success as a filmmaker? What are your personal goals as a filmmaker going forward?
I think my job is to give the filmgoer a look at someone they might not otherwise notice. My goal is to make another film, and another. When I realized I was going to be a late bloomer as a director, I just kept on writing so I have a few things lined up.
Please tell us about any upcoming projects?
My next film is about a girl in 1904. It takes place on the Lower East Side and is a love story, in the world of immigrants who lived there, block by block, at that time. It also deals with the racism and anti-Semitism of that period . I want to shoot it on the cheap. I want it to feel small scale and real, like “Frozen River.”