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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Thank Azaria

Best. Characters. Ever.

Our favorite Hank Azaria characters.

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GIFs via Giphy

Hank Azaria may well be the most prolific voice and character actor of our time. The work he’s done for The Simpsons alone has earned him a permanent place in the pop culture zeitgeist. And now he’s bringing another character to the mainstream: a washed-up sports announcer named Jim Brockmire, in the aptly titled new series Brockmire.

We’re looking forward to it. So much so that we want to look backward, too, with a short-but-sweet retrospective of some of Azaria’s important characters. Shall we begin?

Half The Recurring Simpsons Characters

He’s Comic Book Guy. He’s Chief Wiggum. He’s Apu. He’s Cletus. He’s Snake. He’s Superintendent Chalmers. He’s the Sea Captain. He’s Kurt “Can I Borrow A Feeling” Van Houten. He’s Professor Frink. He’s Carl. And he’s many more. But most importantly he’s Moe Szyslak, the staple character Azaria has voiced since his very first audition for The Simpsons.

Oh, and He’s Frank Grimes

For all the regular Simpsons characters Azaria has played over the years, his most brilliant performance may have been a one-off: Frank Grimes, the scrappy bootstrapper who worked tirelessly all his life for honest, incremental, and easily-undermined success. Azaria’s portrayal of this character was nuanced, emotional, and simply magical.

Patches O’Houlihan

Dodgeball is a “sport of violence, exclusion and degradation.” as Hank Azaria generously points out in his brief but crucial cameo in Dodgeball. That’s sage wisdom. Try applying his “five D’s” to your life on and off the court and enjoy the results.

Harold Zoid

Of Futurama fame. The crazy uncle of Dr. Zoidberg, Harold Zoid was once a lion (or lobster) of the silver screen until Smell-o-vision forced him into retirement.

Agador

The Birdcage was significant for many reasons, and the comic genius of Hank Azaria’s character “Agador” sits somewhere towards the top of that list. If you haven’t seen this movie, shame on you.

Gargamel

Nobody else could make a live-action Gargamel possible.

Ed Cochran

From Ray Donovan. Great character, great last name [editorial note: the author of this article may be bias].

Kahmunra, The Thinker, Abe Lincoln

All in the Night At The Museum: Battle Of The Smithsonian, a file that let Azaria flex his voice acting and live-action muscles in one fell swoop.

The Blue Raja

Mystery Men has everything, including a fatal case of Smash Mouth. Azaria’s iconic superhero makes the shortlist of redeemable qualities, though.

Dr. Huff

Huff put Azaria in a leading role, and it was good. So good that there is no good gif of it. Internet? More like Inter-not.

Learn more about Hank Azaria’s newest claim to fame right here, and don’t miss the premiere of Brockmire April 5 at 10P on IFC.

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Flame Out

Brockmire and Other Public Implosions

Brockmire Premieres April 5 at 10P on IFC.

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There’s less than a month until the Brockmire premiere, and to say we’re excited would be an insulting understatement. It’s not just that it stars Hank Azaria, who can do no wrong (and yes, that’s including Mystery Men, which is only cringeworthy because of Smash Mouth). It’s that the whole backstory of the titular character, Jim Brockmire, is the stuff of legends. A one-time iconic sportscaster who won the hearts of fans and players alike, he fell from grace after an unfortunate personal event triggered a seriously public meltdown. See for yourself in the NSFW Funny or Die digital short that spawned the IFC series:

See? NSFW and spectacularly catastrophic in a way that could almost be real. Which got us thinking: What are some real-life sports fails that have nothing to do with botched athletics and everything to do with going tragically off script? The internet is a dark and dirty place, friends, but these three examples are pretty special and mostly safe for work…

Disgruntled Sports Reporter

His co-anchor went offsides and he called it like he saw it.

Jim Rome vs Jim “Not Chris” Everett

You just don’t heckle a professional athlete when you’re within striking distance. Common sense.

Carl Lewis’s National Anthem

He killed it! As in murdered. It’s dead.

To see more moments just like these, we recommend spending a day in your pajamas combing through the muckiness of the internet. But to see something that’s Brockmire-level funny without having to clear your browser history, check out the sneak peeks and extras here.

Don’t miss the premiere of Brockmire April 5 at 10P on IFC.

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Mirror, Mirror

Portlandia Season 7 In Hindsight

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available Online and on the IFC App.

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Another season of Portlandia is behind us, and oh what a season it was. We laughed. We cried. And we chuckled uncomfortably while glancing nervously around the room. Like every season before it, the latest Portlandia has held a mirror up to ridiculousness of modern American life, but more than ever that same mirror has reflected our social reality in ways that are at once hysterical and sneakily thought-provoking. Here are just a few of the issues they tackled:

Nationalism

So long, America, Portland is out! And yes, the idea of Portland seceding is still less ludicrous than building a wall.

Men’s Rights

We all saw this coming. Exit gracefully, dudes.

Protests

Whatever you stand for, stand for it together. Or with at least one other person.

Free Love

No matter who we are or how we love, deep down we all have the ability to get stalky.

Social Status

Modern self-esteem basically hinges on likes, so this isn’t really a stretch at all.

These moments are just the tip of the iceberg, and much more can be found in the full seventh season of #Portlandia, available right now #online and on the #IFC app.

via GIPHY

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