Debra Granik: Winter’s Bone

“Winter’s Bone” came charging out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival with two big awards and much word-of-mouth buzz — all deserved. In director Debra Granik’s adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel, a Missouri Ozarks teenager tries to find her missing meth-dealer dad in time to prevent eviction from the house he put up for a bail bond before disappearing. The feminism, like the regionalism, comes naturally in this textured, character-driven thriller, with standout performances from Jennifer Lawrence as the indomitable heroine and John Hawkes as her speed-freak uncle. Here’s some of what Granik recently had to say about it.

What’s the right way to make a place-sensitive movie?

Representation of a place is a complicated affair. Especially as an outsider. You don’t want people to think that everything you’ve said about this place is absolutely the reality. Nor do you want to pin certain things on the place. That was sort of the biggest concern with the meth aspect. I think many people write about the Ozarks, and people who live there look at its representation nationally and historically and through literature and legend, from moonshine to marijuana to meth, and it’s like, “When does it stop? Oh lord, here comes another one….” You always hope that the community where the film was made feels like the film does right by them on some level. And that gets distorted even more because sometimes there’s even a forgiveness, or because for some people that were in the film, there’s a novelty of being in a film. There’s a novelty of meeting a bunch of crew and cast from a different place. So I feel like there are quite a few people in the community who have a very proprietary feeling about the film. Even if it has some warts in it, so that maybe on a different day they might say, “Oh, God, we wish that you could have told the story without involving meth.” But once they got inside the film and actually helped with it, they saw that Ree was a hero they could stand by. There’s nothing wrong with Ree Dolly by anybody’s standards, I feel.

Have you had any challenges from audiences?

In Europe that was interesting because at one point one woman raised her hand and she was like, in this big accent from somewhere, “Is Ozarks a matriarchy?” And I was like, oh man, what have we done? Have we exoticized this region so that all of a sudden this person — from, I don’t know, maybe she’s Austrian — actually would get this impression that women have some kind of really amped-up powers and are particularly fierce in the Ozarks? So I was really trying to sort that out.

The film doesn’t explain itself much at all, yet it’s still so specific. How’d you manage that?

Jen had to look at the land, meet these kids, meet the animals, meet the family members and start to make her own kind of marriage between fiction and the actual live location where we were filming. And the novel did articulate some of her backstory, very much so, and her interior thinking, and that does get lost in a screenplay. Unless one chooses voiceover. In this film, what helped with that was, because it’s taking place within a short time period, it’s like you have to get caught up in the here and now. You almost can’t ask too many questions because the pressure on Ree to move forward with her search is so relentless — we wanted it to feel relentless — that you may not get it. And yet, like Ree, you sort of end up deducing…you get little clues. But it’s a lot of work for the viewers. Anne Rosellini — who I wrote the screenplay with, who also produced the film — and I, we’re always rooting for American films to have more space for active participation on piecing things together. We feel like our film culture sometimes errs on the side of trying to spell things out too much.

You mentioned the animals — whose presence seems significant. Can you talk about that?

They were like the diplomats. They allowed the crew to meet the families. People can bond over animals. People from very different backgrounds and life experiences…most people can respond to animals with a certain kind of intensity, and it became literally a subject matter that was very neutral and became a great meeting ground. Every member of the crew could ask the names of dogs, could become affectionate, could feed the dog a snack, could query about the health of a certain dog, could advocate for getting certain dogs spayed. Four dogs were adopted by the end that were the offspring of the pets. There was a way for you to be so authentic with the children around an animal. On another level, I felt that wild game had a very important role. Many of the people have a relative who’s Native American, and I didn’t want to aggrandize it, but I felt like I was seeing a very different version of hunting than I’d ever been exposed to. I had to learn a lot about it, and to open my mind. So the presence of animals, both as pets and as a very, very important part of the woods — that are both respected and valued by people — ended up being a kind of heavy aspect to the film.

How was your experience at Sundance this year?

One thing that was very rich for me at Sundance was this feeling that a huge amount of people in the audience feel really excited about seeing really intense work from American actors that haven’t been overexposed to them. And I feel like audiences did show Jen and John a huge amount of love. You go in not knowing how something will swing, what people are ready for. It made me sad, I remember, seeing a remark where somebody said, like, “relentlessly grim.” And I was like, oh shit, that is the nail in the coffin. I was like, oh, this isn’t gonna go so well, actually, and then maybe two days later you see something that says, “Wow, they went out of their way to make people seem really poor.” And I’m like, you come back down and look at the house, you come see where we filmed. So there were moments where I got defensive because I didn’t want it to get put in some kind of really bad box that it couldn’t get out of. That would have negated the parts of the film that actually are hopeful by virtue of witnessing certain forms of resilience that come in a hardscrabble life. It’s not that you want a perfect scorecard. Not everyone has to love the film. It’s more certain kinds of comments could actually put it in a place where it could curtail people’s interest. But then, that’s where the Jen-John thing started to really take its hold, where people really do go out of their way to endorse performances that really move them. That was a really positive outcome of the festival.