Director Courtney Hunt discusses 'Frozen River'

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Courtney Hunt is a Tennessee writer and director whose debut film, ‘Frozen River’, received two Oscar nominations: Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay. She talks to Time Out about getting it right first time...

Do you still enjoy discussing ‘Frozen River’ even though it premiered at Sundance in 2008?
‘It was released in the States 18 months ago. I’ve just had a big break from it, but at the time of the Oscars, if somebody asked me about it then I just wanted to smash their face in!’

Do you have a vivid recollection of the premiere at Sundance?
‘Completely. I can remember every breath I took, where I was sitting, who was there and when the audience laughed; it is seared on my memory. The first time we saw it with an audience was at Sundance. When you have a test screening, the whole purpose is that you get an idea of what the audience is responding to. We had none of that. We couldn’t go back and change it. You know that every person is going to walk out and tell five people exactly what they thought about it. Of all the things that happened with “Frozen River”, that’s the thing I remember.’

The film won the grand jury prize at the festival. Were you scared of the Sundance hype?
‘I’d heard of The Sundance Curse: if you win then all this bad stuff’s going to happen to you. I’m not superstitious, I don’t believe in that, so no.’

Are you pleased that the success of ‘Frozen River’ will allow you to work with bigger budgets? Or would you be happy to do another small film?
‘After I completed “Frozen River” and it had premiered at the Sundance Festival in 2008, I was talking to the director Alexander Payne and I asked him: “Is filmmaking always going to be this hard?”. He replied with absolute certainty: “No, they’re going to get easier and easier and easier.” I’m slightly sceptical about that idea, but I think it’s going to be easier when you don’t have to say to your crew: “Sorry guys, we’re having beans again because we can’t really afford anything else.” I think it’s going to be harder in the sense that I was absolutely autonomous on this film: nobody told me nuthin’. There was nobody holding purse strings or pulling my strings at all. There’s a gift in that poverty.’

Has it always been your ambition to write and direct?
‘I made two shorts, I did a documentary for hire, I have a daughter, I’m a trained lawyer and I also went to film school. That pretty much sums up the last ten years, but yes, I’ve wanted to get in to the film industry for quite a while.’

Where did you go to film school?
‘Columbia University in New York’

Is it a place you would recommend to aspiring filmmakers?
‘I think it depends on who you are. I had no connection to the film industry. I was kind of shy. I needed the context of film school and to be around people in the industry so I could understand how they worked. They didn’t help me so much as they shared their experience. I think people should pick up making movies by watching movies. David Mamet told me that I was an idiot to go to film school and that I should take my forty grand and spend it on making a movie. “Don’t be a chicken” is what he literally said.’

Surely it gives you a technical grounding?
‘Exactly. I wanted to prove to myself that I could load a camera, that I could be a DoP, that I could cut negative, that I could do all of those attendant skills crucial to making a film. You could do all this on your own, but I think I needed the film school to make me feel good about it. I wish I had been braver.’

Were there many other women in your class at film school?
‘Yeah, it seems like it was 50/50.’

That’s not really reflected in the films that are actually being made.
‘Oh no. It’s more like a 95/5 split.’

Why do you think that is?
‘I don’t think it’s because women are not pushed in to the director’s chair, I think it’s that they’re more easily talked out of the director’s chair. I think women have a universal problem where they can be talked out of things more easily than men. Also, I feel that women are more like lemmings in the sense that they follow other women in to the secondary and smaller roles on set.’

I understand that you hoped to make ‘Frozen River’ earlier, but that 9/11 swayed your plans. Is that true?
‘Yeah, 9/11 made me think that no one would ever want to talk about immigration and would never sympathise with a smuggler. There was a six-month art freeze after 9/11, but part of me thinks I should have done it and got it out there then. I was scared that people were going to think that I was making something that would help people get in to the country.’

You’re in the process of writing another film now?
‘I’m attached to – very loosely – a project which is based on a book by Willy Vlautin called “Northline”.’

Are there any other filmmakers who inspire you?
‘My current favourite is the Argentinean director Lucrecia Martel who I met at Sundance. She is just a genius. I’m looking forward to seeing her new film, “The Headless Woman”.’

Quentin Tarantino is a fan too.
‘We’re actually married! No, just kidding. He just liked the film. He was on the jury at Sundance where they awarded my film with the grand jury prize. Afterwards, I sent him a mug which I had made up with “Frozen River” written on it and tilted picture of a car on it. He never got back to me.’

Author: Interview: David Jenkins



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