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A Spirited Q & A With “Winter’s Bone” Director Debra Granik

A Spirited Q & A With “Winter’s Bone” Director Debra Granik (photo)

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As a way of celebrating this year’s nominees for the Spirit Awards in the weeks leading up to the ceremony, we reached out to as many as we could in an effort to better understand what went into their films, what they’ve gotten out of the experience, and where they’ve found their inspiration, both in regards to their work and other works of art that might’ve inspired them from the past year. Their answers will be published on a daily basis throughout February.

Over the past few weeks, Jennifer Lawrence has complained of the cold, cinematographer Michael McDonough lamented an unforgiving schedule, and Dale Dickey spoke of the challenge of balancing a chainsaw while on a boat. And these were only a few of the obstacles that were overcome under the watchful eye of Debra Granik to make “Winter’s Bone” one of the year’s most unforgettable films.

02192011_DebraGranik.jpgThat might sound like needless hyperbole, but in the case of Granik, it’s accurate since along with producer and co-writer Anne Rosellini, she does not let you forget. In addition to the searing 2005 Spirit Award-nominated debut “Down to the Bone,” Granik continues to reach into the crevices of American consciousness to elevate intimate stories of struggle, whether it’s the hold of addiction in “Down” or the strength of blood ties in “Winter’s Bone,” to the epic emotional journeys worthy of the big screen as art and demanding of attention as social issues.

Needless to say, such rich storytelling isn’t easily achieved and Granik and her crew spared no detail in recreating the world first documented in Daniel Woodrell’s novel about the resourceful Ree Dolly, a teen who is forced to care for her family and, with her uncle Teardrop (a brilliant John Hawkes), save their home from repossession when her father disappears into the wilderness of the Missouri mountains after being busted for cooking meth. Three years of trips to the Ozarks produced countless pictures, stories and the strains of mandolins and banjos to draw upon for texture, not to mention some of the film’s cast — beyond the gender switch of one of Ree’s two brothers into a sister when the young Ashlee Thompson, the seven-year-old granddaughter of the landowner of where the film was shot, charmed the director during tours of the property, a touching moment on the film’s DVD making-of shows Billy White, a local cast as Blond Milton in the film, telling the camera, “I wake up and have something to be proud of now.”

That everyone who worked on “Winter’s Bone” can say the same is a testament to their hard work and their leader Granik, a Spirit Award nominee for Best Director and Best Screenplay, not to mention someone who has established herself in just two features as one of the best filmmakers working today.

Why did you want to make this film?

Two things attracted me to this story, primarily. First was the heroine, Ree Dolly. I was attracted by her moxie and the unexpected aspects of her character. Secondly, I was drawn to the challenge of depicting a life in a region of the U.S., the Ozarks, with which I was totally unfamiliar. I wanted to know what it might be like for a girl like Ree growing up in that area. Daniel Woodrell’s novel, which is the source of the story, is full of very specific observations, dialect and a clear point of view, so there was a lot of material there to get us started.

What was the best piece of advice you received that applied to the making of this film?

Get a local guide, someone who can help you in the long process of finding your way and winning people’s trust. We found that person in Richard Michael, who comes from the area in which we filmed. Also, do everything possible to strip the production needs down to the nub. No condors, no cranes, no snow machines, no giant lights. That allowed us to be more nimble, to film quickly and get into spaces that we wouldn’t be able to fit into otherwise.

What was the toughest thing to overcome?

I had to overcome my resistance to allowing Teardrop’s fate appear to be determined by a continuing cycle of revenge. This was an aspect of the story that I did not want to accept. I wanted Teardrop’s future to remain open-ended. The script originally left it that way, and we added the lines that are more definitive, partly at John Hawkes’ insistence. Ultimately, there was a debate among me and my colleagues in the editing room over John’s lines in the last scene. And it was Affonzo Goncalvez, the editor, who finally found the solution that resolved the question to everyone’s satisfaction.

What’s been the most memorable moment while you’ve traveled with the film, either at a festival or otherwise?

It’s been gratifying to see that diverse audiences can relate to this story, including people whose life experience is close to that of the characters in the movie, as well as those whose lives have been totally different.

What’s your favorite thing about your film that’s been largely uncommented upon?

It feels like almost everything has been commented upon at some point. Sometimes, the same loyal dog in one of our locations is seen on both sides of the frame. He got there not by CGI, but through his humble disregard of continuity. I loved working with an editor, Affonzo Gonzalves, who can make those kinds of anomalies work. Fonzie is one of our team’s heroes, yet his contribution has been largely unnoticed. It is hard to comment on editing, because of the old saying that when the editing is working, you don’t see it. But we all know how deeply his creativity runs through this. Another aspect is the collaboration between Michael McDonough, the director of photography, and Al Pierce, the camera operator. Working with two people putting their skills and smarts together to see how we can make this work — that is getting everything you want and more.

What’s been the most gratifying thing to come out of this film for you personally?

Roadside Attractions’ creative and humane distribution of the film really surpassed our expectations. They took a film that was regional and had no TV ads, and dared to open it not just in the major markets, but in locations from Paducah, Kentucky to Red Deer, Alberta that almost never see arthouse fare.

The warm response to “Winter’s Bone” overseas was also gratifying. Being told at first, “[An] indie film with no recognizable stars? No go,” but then one by one, the European nations came through, the distributor in Australia came through big time. And from this experience, I was able to meet filmmakers and journalists from many different places. Very invigorating. Cultural dialogues erupt when you leave home.

Also, many of the friendships we made have continued to nurture us, and working relationships that we established while making this film have carried over to new projects.

What’s been your favorite film, book or album from the past year?

Laura Poitras’ documentary “The Oath” is one of the best things I encountered in 2010. My favorite book this year is “Methland” by Nick Reding. My favorite music this year is from Southern Missouri. I got really turned on, got to see music made up close and it’s unforgettable what talent is pulsing in those parts.

“Winter’s Bone” is still playing in limited release and is now available on DVD, Blu-ray and iTunes. The Spirit Awards will air on IFC on February 26th.

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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.