Debra Granik: How we made 'Winter's Bone'
Director Debra Granik takes us on a voyage into the dark heart of America in her formidable new film ‘Winter’s Bone’. David Jenkins hears exactly how she did it
If cinematic pigeonholing is your game, you might place Debra Granik’s superb, Sundance-conquering adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s rustic survival novel ‘Winter’s Bone’ into the slowly expanding ‘post-noir’ genre, alongside such oddities as the Coen brothers’ ‘The Big Lebowski’ and Rian Johnson’s hardboiled highschooler, ‘Brick’. This is an odd threesome for sure, but each builds on the tradition of sending an unconventional sleuth into a world populated by liars, cheats and self-serving grotesques in search of dark truths. ‘I see it as a little like a German or Scandinavian fairy tale,’ ponders Granik, ‘one of those old stories where a person ventures deep into the woods to retrieve an emblem of their courage.’
Set in the Ozark Mountains in Missouri, where the inhabitants live in rusted trailers at the bottom of mossy tracks strewn with the husks of burnt-out cars, the atmosphere of tense foreboding that the film conjures is in no small part down to director Granik’s decision to shoot on location. ‘Daniel Woodrell showed us the locations that had inspired the novel,’ the director says. ‘What struck me was that so many of the characteristics of the area went against the cultural grain of what we believe to be the US in 2010. In this world, survival has become a way of life.’
Kentucky-born actress Jennifer Lawrence deserves attention for her turn as Ree Dolly, the poverty-line princess burdened with the task of locating her meth-cooking papa before the bondsmen foreclose on their homestead. ‘In Hollywood, only a female who’s massively damaged is interesting,’ says Granik. ‘We asked, could there ever be a tough western hero in a girl’s body?’
Granik remembers that Lawrence was one of the few leads who didn’t struggle to relate to the script. ‘We knew straight away she would be invested in this,’ she says. ‘I’d interviewed an actress who you might call an It Girl, and the ambivalence on her part was was so tense it was intimidating. We were doing a low-budget film on location in the Ozarks; you can’t go there with even an ounce of ambivalence.’
The film’s commitment to realism means that it functions as a well-oiled genre picture while delivering a subtle commentary on a side of America that rarely makes it to screens. ‘Films set in 90210 are ten a penny. But there’s rarely room to make films about a different postal code, to show the lives of ordinary Americans who have to live with very limited material resources,’ Granik observes. ‘Why is the country so big if you’re not going to show other parts of it? What a waste of civilisation!’The idea of depicting this side of America didn’t make the film an attractive economic prospect. ‘It was unappealing to any financing entity, even those open to socially relevant material. It’s risky to show poor Americans. People see it as a downer. But I really wanted to make a tightly wound piece of storytelling that also happened to explode the myth of American affluence.’
While pre-production anxieties were rife, the finished product paints an altogether different picture, one where a distinct sense of community and culture has emerged from the hardscrabble lives of these people. ‘There is a difference between poverty and impoverishment,’ notes Granik. ‘You can be impoverished of soul, of legacy and of history, but then there’s generational poverty, in which families have learned how to survive, how to use the resources, how to live off the land and how to hunt for food in legal ways.’
The film snagged the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and was released to rave reviews across the board in the US. But Granik is sceptical about the film’s affiliation with Robert Redford’s annual mountaintop showcase, conscious that movies which scoop the big awards there are often dismissed as worthy and trite. ‘Has Sundance contributed to my career? Yes, particularly the training and support it offered me. I just don’t want people to see this film because of the Sundance stamp. For me, I just think the idea of A Sundance Movie produces a weird hate filter over some people’s eyes.’
Considering the Herculean effort it took to get ‘Winter’s Bone’ made, I ask Granik if she wants to continue to make films in the US. ‘Sometimes I struggle with being American,’ she admits. ‘Just the whole goddamn circus that it is. When it comes to diversity and cultural tolerance, it’s crazy. I’d still love to do something about, like, gay Mormons. You name it, it’s there. It’s so poignant and so rich and so intense! It’s just a story that needs to be told!’
Author: David Jenkins
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