When Melissa Leo went home for Christmas last year, she took a copy of “Frozen River” to show her family. It was a month before the film would go on to pick up the Grand Jury Prize for drama at Sundance, but those closest to Leo wasting no time in observing that “this is different.” Therein lies part of the charm of Courtney Hunt’s debut feature, a thriller that veers with the same reckless abandon in its narrative as its two leads do behind the wheel of a rickety Dodge Spirit, ferrying illegal immigrants across the St. Lawrence River in the trunk. “Homicide” alum Leo and Misty Upham play Ray and Lila, the prickly pair of single mothers/smugglers who struggle to make ends meet by forming an unlikely partnership that utilizes Ray’s car and Lila’s status as a Mohawk protected from the cops by her residency on tribal land. As a director, Hunt had to be even more resourceful in translating “River” from its previous incarnations — first, as a poem, then a short film — into a feature that could be shot over 24 days in sub-zero conditions in Plattsburgh, New York. The result is a chick flick that Quentin Tarantino could love — and does, as Hunt, Upham and Leo recently told me during a sit-down at, ironically enough, the Los Angeles Film Festival.
How did the short become the feature?
Courtney Hunt: I wrote a poem, I had a central image — women driving across the ice. There’s a smuggling culture that exists at the border up there and I was fascinated by why people would do that. The poem came out as an interior monologue of Ray’s character, and I went up and shot the short with Melissa and Misty and then we waited to see…is this going to catch on? Are we onto something here? We went to the New York Film Festival and I got a strong sense that there was an idea there people wanted to hear more about, so I went home and just poured out the idea as it was kind of coming together in my head. I threw out the short and started over again and wrote the story from beginning to end.
Was the chemistry there between you two from the start?
Misty Upham: The first night of the short when we met and we spent time together, I think I fell in love with her immediately and through the short, we really just became sisters.
Melissa Leo: We really bonded as actors. There were a lot of dimensions to our relationship — teasing each other, being hard on one another, being gentle and kind — all those different colors. Ray and Lila have certain ways they deal with each other, but Misty and Melissa dealt with each other on all those [levels]. It was a great working relationship.
This film almost plays like a heist film in terms of its energy, and I remember seeing an interview where you mentioned you were disappointed with how female-driven films were usually referred dismissively as “character studies” or “relationship dramas.” How did that impact what you ended up putting on screen?
CH: I was concerned with that because sometimes women-driven films are criticized for being too talky or too concerned with relationships and not committed to just [telling] a good yarn that keeps you on the edge of your seat. When I stumbled upon the situation of these women who smuggled, I was like this is good, because they’re doing something. I had to work backwards and figure out why, so I could put the relationship in. The action part of it appealed to me first, even though it’s not an action picture.
ML: Oh! I thought it was!
CH: It was…[both laugh] because she did all the driving. [points to Leo] But the action part of it, you set it up that way and then the relationships take care of themselves. You set up the motivation, you set up the action.
And because of the budget level, I’m assuming you had to do your own driving.
ML: That was primarily why Courtney cast us. We had a driving test and she and I both passed. [laughs] She lucked out she had Misty and me behind the wheel.
CH: She’s good. [nodding towards Upham]
ML: People driving in films are…it’s a scary thing. Misty did a remarkable job.
MU: I used to race illegally in Seattle in high school, so…
ML: When Misty got behind the wheel, I thought oh, put me to shame.
CH: But the truth is there’s so much car stuff in the movie and there are situations where you really have to just [direct the car] — “can you move the car back and over just a hair?”
ML: The car is a beloved character in the film.
Courtney, what were the worst case scenarios running through your head before production started?
CH: The ice melting…[slight laugh] Mainly we wanted to make sure that we made our days. It was a lot of scheduling…we started days, we worked into nights, we went back to days — that’s really hard because you go from being a daytime creature to a nocturnal creature and then back. [That was] my main worry, personally, and for the cast and crew, that the weather would somehow run us down because you know how bitter cold can slow you down. Your engine has to really warm up, except if you’re her… [points to Leo] Her engine’s always warm.
ML: I went in a sauna to raise my internal temperature so I didn’t have to work so hard keeping warm. I was training my body to keep warm while we worked. Part of our difficulty was as you’d shoot, it would snow in the morning, it would be bright sunshine by noon, and snow again in the afternoon.
CH: It would start snowing between a two-shot. We’d do her close-up, snow…no snow.
ML: But that’s how the days go up there. What might seem incontiguous is in fact how the weather goes up there by the lakes. The crew liked to call the film “Frozen Feet.” I was well-prepared for it. Playing the role, having my focal point be on that character and not the weather was very important to me. Ray lives in that cold weather. She survives it. I just put myself in her shoes with it. There was an arduousness to the shoot, [which] I as an actor choose to use for the role, much in the same way as shooting in Western Texas on “Three Burials [of Melquiades Estrada].” The climate informs the character.
Quentin Tarantino famously remarked when he gave you the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “It put my heart in a vise and proceeded to twist that vise until the last frame.” Were you surprised by the attention?
MU: That was the cherry on top.
ML: He’s a cherry, isn’t he?
CH: He is a cherry on top.
MU: He’s so behind the film and us as a trio. I can’t say enough how grateful I will be to him for plugging us that much. But yeah, Tarantino has [put the film] on a level that’s almost surreal, with the amount of attention, devotion and support he’s given us. It’s amazing how much he cares and how much he wants us to succeed.
CH: I didn’t even know he was a juror [at Sundance] because I didn’t look to see who the jurors were because it’d make me nervous. I walked by him at the director’s brunch and I thought “oh God, he’s going to hate this movie.” And I was soooo wrong.
[Photos: “Frozen River,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2008]
“Frozen River” opens in limited release on August 1st.