DID YOU READ

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.

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Holiday Extra Special

Make The Holidays ’80s Again

Enjoy the holiday cheer Wednesday December 21 at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection

Whatever happened to the kind of crazy-yet-cozy holiday specials that blanketed the early winter airwaves of the 1980s? Unceremoniously killed by infectious ’90s jadedness? Slow fade out at the hands of early-onset millennial ennui? Whatever the reason, nixing the tradition was a huge mistake.

A huge mistake that we’re about to fix.

Announcing IFC’s Joe’s Pub Presents: A Holiday Special, starring Tony Hale. It’s a celeb-studded extravaganza in the glorious tradition of yesteryear featuring Bridget Everett, Jo Firestone, Nick Thune, Jen Kirkman, house band The Dap-Kings, and many more. And it’s at Joe’s Pub, everyone’s favorite home away from home in the Big Apple.

The yuletide cheer explodes Wednesday December 21 at 10P. But if you were born after 1989 and have no idea what void this spectacular special is going to fill, sample from this vintage selection of holiday hits:

Andy Williams and The NBC Kids Search For Santa

The quintessential holiday special. Get snuggly and turn off your brain. You won’t need it.

A Muppet Family Christmas

The Fraggles. The Muppets. The Sesame Street gang. Fate. The Jim Henson multiverse merges in this warm and fuzzy Holiday gathering.

Julie Andrews: The Sound Of Christmas

To this day a foolproof antidote to holiday cynicism. It’s cheesy, but a good cheese. In this case an Alpine Gruyère.

Star Wars Holiday Special

Okay, busted. This one was released in 1978. Still totally ’80s though. And yes that’s Bea Arthur.

Pee Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special

Pass the eggnog, and make sure it’s loaded. This special is everything you’d expect it to be and much, much more.

Joe’s Pub Presents: A Holiday Special premieres Wednesday December 21 at 10P on IFC.

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It Ain't Over Yet

A Guide to Coping with the End of Comedy Bang! Bang!

Watch the final episodes tonight at 11 and 11:30P on IFC.

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After five seasons and 110 halved-hour episodes, Scott Aukerman’s hipster comedy opus, Comedy Bang! Bang!, has come to an end. Fridays at 11 and 11:30P will never be the same. We know it can be hard for fans to adjust after the series finale of their favorite TV show. That’s why we’ve prepared this step-by-step guide to managing your grief.

Step One: Cry it out

It’s just natural. We’re sad too.
Scott crying GIF

Step Two: Read the CB!B! IMDB Trivia Page

The show is over and it feels like you’ve lost a friend. But how well did you really know this friend? Head over to Comedy Bang! Bang!’s IMDB page to find out some things you may not have known…like that it’s “based on a Civil War battle of the same name” or that “Reggie Watts was actually born with the name Theodore Leopold The Third.”

Step Three: Listen to the podcast

One fascinating piece of CB!B! trivia that you might not learn from IMDB is that there’s a podcast that shares the same name as the TV show. It’s even hosted by Scott Aukerman! It’s not exactly like watching the TV show on a Friday night, but that’s only because each episode is released Monday morning. If you close your eyes, the podcast is just like watching the show with your eyes closed!

Step Four: Watch brand new CB!B! clips?!

The best way to cope with the end of Comedy Bang! Bang! is to completely ignore that it’s over — because it’s not. In an unprecedented move, IFC is opening up the bonus CB!B! content vault. There are four brand new, never-before-seen sketches featuring Scott Aukerman, Kid Cudi, and “Weird Al” Yankovic ready for you to view on the IFC App. There’s also one right here, below this paragraph! Watch all four b-b-bonus clips and feel better.

Binge the entire final season, plus exclusive sketches, right now on the IFC app.

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Everybody Sweats Now

The Four-Day Sweatsgiving Weekend On IFC

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This long holiday weekend is your time to gobble gobble gobble and give heartfelt thanks—thanks for the comfort and forgiveness of sweatpants. Because when it comes right down to it, there’s nothing more wholesome and American than stuffing yourself stupid and spending endless hours in front of the TV in your softest of softests.

So get the sweats, grab the remote and join IFC for four perfect days of entertainment.

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It all starts with a 24-hour T-day marathon of Rocky Horror Picture Show, then continues Friday with an all-day binge of Stan Against Evil.

By Saturday, the couch will have molded to your shape. Which is good, because you’ll be nestled in for back-to-back Die Hard and Lethal Weapon.

Finally, come Sunday it’s time to put the sweat back in your sweatpants with The Shining, The Exorcist, The Chronicles of Riddick, Terminator 2, and Blade: Trinity. They totally count as cardio.

As if you need more convincing, here’s Martha Wash and the IFC&C Music Factory to hammer the point home.

The Sweatsgiving Weekend starts Thursday on IFC

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