Interview: Melissa Leo, Misty Upham and Courtney Hunt on “Frozen River”

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07292008_frozenriver1.jpgBy Stephen Saito

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.

07292008_frozenriver2.jpgThis 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?

07292008_frozenriver3.jpgCH: 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.

Hyde That 70s Show

Hyde Rocks

Think You Know Hyde? Take Our That ’70s Show Character Quiz!

Catch That '70s Show Mondays & Tuesdays from 6-11P on IFC.

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That ’70s Show‘s resident snarkster Hyde represented the rebellious counterculture of the 1970s. But how well do you know the man who stood up to The Man? Take the ultimate Hyde fan quiz below and find out.


D Gets Animated

Hit the Road to Festival Supreme with Tenacious D’s New Animated Shorts

Festival Supreme hits Los Angeles Saturday, October 10th.

Tenacious D Animated

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Tenacious D is very animated about this year’s Festival Supreme, which returns to Los Angeles for a third awesome year on Saturday, October 10th. With a line-up that includes Amy Poehler, The Kids in the Hall, a Mystery Science Theater 3000 reunion, Aubrey Plaza, The Darkness and many more, can you blame them?

Now all they have to do is get to Festival Supreme in time to get the party started. And you can follow along as Tenacious D hit the road in a new animated mini-series.

In episode one, tragedy strikes when The D finds out the IFC jet has been double booked. (Maron strikes again!) How will they get to Festival Supreme now?

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As the dynamic duo makes their way to California, someone crashes their road trip—literally.

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The Kids in the Hall may have forgotten to get their passports, but that will never stop them from making it to Los Angeles’ Shrine Expo Hall & Grounds by Saturday, October 10th.

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Will the gang be able to make it to Festival Supreme in time? Watch below, and be sure to grab tickets and follow IFC on Twitter for more updates on Festival Supreme 2015.

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Stephen's Lavish Life

Stephen Merchant Has Big Real Estate Dreams on This Week’s Comedy Bang! Bang!

Comedy Bang! Bang! is all-new Thursday at 11P with guest Stephan Merchant.

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Stephen Merchant says “Hello Ladies” on this week’s Comedy Bang! Bang!, dropping by to tell Scott all about the lavish lifestyle that comes with having cocreated The Office.

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The British actor and comedian sits down with Scott and Cudi to talk about his many homes and what he has in common with Elton John. Learn all about how Stephen rolls Thursday at 11p PT/ET after an all-new Benders and an encore of this week’s skate-tastic Gigi Does It.

Lethal Weapon

Lethal Duos

7 Mismatched Buddy Cop Duos Who Play By Their Own Rules

Catch IFC's Lethal Weapon movie marathon Sunday, November 22nd starting at 8:30AM ET/PT.

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Photo Credit: Warner Bros./Everett Collection

Mismatched buddy cops are a staple of action flicks, because “putting unstable people into high-pressure situations with guns and hoping things work out” always leads to comic mayhem. You know the trope — a beleaguered police chief assigns polar opposite detectives to a case that nobody wants to solve. They start out at each other’s throats before a begruding respect leads to geniune comraderie. (Nothing like blowing away some bad guys of vaguely European origin to stoke the fires of friendship.) In honor of IFC’s Lethal Weapon movie marathon, check out our tribute to the mismatched cop duos who play by their own rules and leave an epic body count in their wake.

7. Hammond and Cates, 48 Hrs.

Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte invented and mastered the art of buddy comedy, and they didn’t let little things like Eddie’s Reggie Hammond not being a cop stop them. The premise of “I’m borrowing this convicted thief from jail for a couple of days so he can be a peace officer” violates pretty much every law we know about. But the results (and Eddie’s Reggie) convincingly speak for themselves.

6. Lee and Carter, Rush Hour

Rush Hour‘s  combination of Jackie Chan’s high-flying kicks with Chris Tucker’s motormouth means this movie never stops for a single second. Whether it’s action-packed set-pieces, turbocharged wise-cracking, or the wonderful novelty of clashing characters where neither is playing the straight man role, this duo is always going full tilt.

5. Raymond Tango and Gabriel Cash, Tango & Cash

Tango and Cash are forced together fairly quickly even by buddy cop movie standards thanks to falsified murder charges and a maximum security prison full of every perp they’ve ever put away. Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell bring high-tech attack vehicles and self-destruct sequences to the genre and the results, which are so not by the book they aren’t even fit for print, are all kinds of awesome.

4. Sykes and Sam Francisco, Alien Nation

Alien Nation took the mismatched partner genre to its ultimate conclusion by importing an alien “Newcomer” from an entirely different planet specifically to annoy James Caan’s grizzled cop. Oh, and also to fight an alien dealing “xeno-drugs” that make aliens immensely strong. Mandy Patinkin stars as the super-strong, ultra-helpful, and ridiculously named Sam Francisco.

3. Angel and Butterman, Hot Fuzz

Edgar Wright’s love-letter to buddy comedy moves London’s top cop Nick Angel (Simon Pegg) to the sleepy town of Sandford where PC Danny Butterman (Nick Frost) has nothing better to do than watch buddy cop movies and dream of action sequences. A hilariously self-aware parody of the genre pits both against a gloriously greasy Timothy Dalton.

2. Friday and Streebek, Dragnet

Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks is the kind of super-cinematic dream team that used to happen all the time in the buddy action comedy heyday of the ’80s. Aykroyd plays possibly the Akroyd-iest character of his career with Joe Friday, who has apparently replaced his soul with “the book” and doesn’t understand how silly he sounds when he reads from it. Hanks counters this with his streetwise Streebek, whose loose charm serves as Friday’s comedic foil. The classic mismatched pair join forces to fight P.A.G.A.N., the People Against Goodness And Normalcy, which should tell you whether you or not you want to watch this underrated ’80s comedy.

1. Riggs and Murtaugh, Lethal Weapon

Hammond and Cates were the original buddy cops, but Riggs and Murtaugh are the icons. In retrospect, pairing the almost-retired Murtaugh with suicidal loose cannon Riggs seems more like a scheme to avoid pension payouts than any way of fighting crime, but the results birthed an action comedy franchise that inspired more than a few imitators.

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