A Spirited Q & A With “Winter’s Bone” Cinematographer Michael McDonough

A Spirited Q & A With “Winter’s Bone” Cinematographer Michael McDonough (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.

In order to fully appreciate what Michael McDonough achieved in his second collaboration with director Debra Granik, you must go back to their first. Employing a DV camera with 35mm lenses on “Down to the Bone,” the often drab rooms and dimly lit exteriors could at once feel suffocating for Vera Farmiga’s cocaine-addicted mother of two and yet wide enough for her to get into trouble, a product of over five years of documentary footage of the real-life people the film was based on. By comparison, McDonough and Granik’s two years of research in the Ozarks for “Winter’s Bone” would seem almost cursory if it didn’t feel as deep, producing a portrait of the Ozarks where the landscapes are so vast — and sumptuous as captured through McDonough’s lens on the RED camera – and yet Jennifer Lawrence’s resilient heroine Ree Dolly has trouble escaping their grasp as she looks in vain for her father.

“Winter’s Bone” is a mystery first, so it’s appropriate that McDonough’s camera is often not entirely settled, gently shifting the frame if not more overtly peering around the corner or over a character’s shoulder. It’s a film where the scenery has as much life as the actors, which is no backhanded compliment – in “Winter’s Bone,” every wrinkle or crease tells a story, the wasteland of abandoned cars and farm equipment reflect past lives, and McDonough’s virtuostic use of focus allows for all kind of rich details to emerge at the surface even when the camera isn’t moving. Such confidence in observation surely comes from deep study of the terrain, but also the cinematographer’s relationship to Granik, whom he first met in a film studies course at NYU grad school in 1994 and have been inseparable creative soulmates ever since. “Winter’s Bone” forges a similar bond to its audience – bringing warmth to material that’s inherently chilly and a firm grip when it could so easily keep viewers at a distance – and whether or not McDonough wins a Spirit Award for best cinematography, he can rest assured he’s already accomplished the near-impossible in capturing spirit on screen.

02012011_WintersBone3.jpgWhy did you want to make this film?

I loved the story from the first reading of the galleys. I vividly remember thinking how strong the story was, how poetic the language [was], like a male Annie Proulx, and how amazing it was to have such a powerful character in a young female guise. I called Debra [Granik] and Anne [Rosellini] immediately (I was probably at lunch on the set of another film at the time ) and said “we have to do this film, AND, I think we should try do it ourselves.”

Other aspects of interest were, for example, how hard it was to place the story in a particular time. It seemed timeless. At the beginning when Ree is preparing her young siblings for school, you can’t quite figure out which ‘period’ we are in until they walk by the first satellite dish. And when she’s chopping wood, we could be in an scene from “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” until you realize she’s wearing headphones and listening to music. So I think there was a timeless quality to the storytelling that gave us a lot of room to show the juxtapositions of town and holler life in a part of rural Missouri in 2010.

There’s also the idea, coming strongly from Debra and Anne, of looking for a film with another strong and interesting female lead. Our previous film had Vera Farmiga in the lead role, and we had relished the collaboration with Vera, and so I’m sure this was an inspiration for Debra and Anne when thinking about collaborating with another female actor. “Winter’s Bone,” the book and subsequent script, was a fantastic challenge for a young female actor, and Jennifer [Lawrence] let Anne and Debra know she was really ready to take it on.

We’ve also been consistently interested in places we know nothing about – in a social and anthropological way – and in going to a place to learn some things about life as lived there about ourselves in the process. There was a lot of discussion about filming the story in other states, either for financial reasons (like tax rebates) or for meteorological reasons (more likely to guarantee snow). But ultimately, it was more important to Debra and me to be surrounded by real Missouri locals, which the film was always going to be populated by and influenced by. As for the financing, we’d do the best we could with what we had (helped along by a Missouri incentive) and as for the weather (which was often warm), we’d manage by adjusting the color temp of the RED [camera], creative use of filters and a final helping hand from Tim Stipan in the Technicolor [digital intermediate] suite [adjusting the image and colors before the film is finished].

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

Firstly, I’d have to start by going back to NYU Grad Film and our directing professor, Boris Frumin. He used to say to us, “Empty trees are cinematic” meaning bare trees in the fall and winter are intensely graphic and interesting on film, most likely more memorable than lush. Filled out trees that would not be as striking on film. The landscape was always going to be a major character in this film and we spent many months in the landscape before we ever brought an actor there. Debra shot many hours of video on location, getting to know the place, and we shot thousands of photographs of local people and places, as part of our research.

The second piece of advice really comes from Debra’s instinct to tell the story locally and make the other things work creatively. I was always struck by the title and the mood of bone chilling winter. However, upon our first trip to Missouri, to meet Daniel Woodrell and see the actual places depicted in the novel, we realized there was an element of artistic license involved. Missouri doesn’t generally get blanketed by snow of a winter! There are amazing ice storms for sure, and we did witness this several times during prep and also just missed one prior to beginning principal photography, but lots of snow was never in the cards. The ice made driving almost impossible as we discovered, and so creative (in camera) solutions were ultimately the best option.

What was the toughest thing to overcome, whether it applies to a particular scene or the film as a whole?

TIME! I’ll always feel it’s the element of not enough time that hampers filmmaking the most. Of course, that’s a consequence of budget, but still, time management and time available are the biggest challenges.

When you factor in the remote locations and the lack of good crew accommodation close to the sets, it all adds up. We shot for 24-and-a-half days I believe, and it was a single-camera shoot.

Doing 95% of the filming handheld helps somewhat with getting a lot of coverage as efficiently as possible. As does working with a fantastic operator (Al Pierce) who really understands storytelling and the shot requirements to build a scene from a single perspective (single camera). [What also helps is] working with a crew who love the story, the characters and who genuinely love being in this particular location day after day, a ‘creative’ producer (Anne Rosellini), who first and foremost supports the director’s vision and will work with the crew to get them what they need — she believes that a shoot should also be a work environment where lasting friendships are made and sustained — and primarily, a director who is completely fascinated by the unknown, always willing to let us ask questions on camera and maybe just get some answers by the time we finish the film.

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

Well. I haven’t traveled that much with the film as I’ve been mostly in production on other projects during “Winter’s Bone”‘s journey. However, the build of interest by word of mouth at Sundance was nice to witness. There was a magical journey up to Sundance Village, half buried in snow, for a wonderful screening in the tiny (and intimate) theater there. It was also great to be at a screening in Berlin, in front of a very film-literate audience – which happened to coincide with me being in the city for a shooting gig. Sadly, because of a gig, I missed the screening in Edinburgh, Scotland, which would have been a first for me; to see a film I’d shot be screened in my “home” country.

02012011_WintersBone4.jpgWhat’s your favorite thing about your film that’s been largely uncommented upon?

Well, it has been commented upon, but I think with a certain misunderstanding. “Winter’s Bone” has generally been described as monochromatic or lacking in color or desaturated. I disagree. I think it’s full of color. Subtle color, yes, but there are many moments where the golden color of a night interior is contrasted against the cool blue of a day, or when we switch from the greens of the fluorescent interior of the cattle auction to the steel blue of the exterior cow pens. You also see a lot of color in the skin tones. It’s almost like underpainting in oils, where a contrasting color is laid down first and elements of it peek through what’s laid over. I see this a lot in Ree’s close ups, especially at dusk. Myself and Tim Stipan, the DI Colorist, worked on this aspect especially.

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

Feeling that my collaboration with Debra took a step forward in its literacy.

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

Seeing “Grand Canyon” by Larry Kasdan for the first time. And then getting to talk to him about it. And “Mother and Child” by Rodrigo Garcia and then getting to talk to him about it too. [Ed. note: McDonough is the cinematographer on both Kasdan’s upcoming “Darling Companion” and Garcia’s upcoming “Albert Dobbs.”] A book of paintings by Joan Eardley. Discovering the songs of Nick Drake.

“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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Bro and Tell

BFFs And Night Court For Sports

Bromance and Comeuppance On Two New Comedy Crib Series

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“Silicon Valley meets Girls meets black male educators with lots of unrealized potential.”

That’s how Carl Foreman Jr. and Anthony Gaskins categorize their new series Frank and Lamar which joins Joe Schiappa’s Sport Court in the latest wave of new series available now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. To better acquaint you with the newbies, we went right to the creators for their candid POVs. And they did not disappoint. Here are snippets of their interviews:

Frank and Lamar


IFC: How would you describe Frank and Lamar to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?
Carl: Best bros from college live and work together teaching at a fancy Manhattan private school, valiantly trying to transition into a more mature phase of personal and professional life while clinging to their boyish ways.

IFC: And to a friend of a friend you met in a bar?
Carl: The same way, slightly less coherent.

Anthony: I’d probably speak about it with much louder volume, due to the bar which would probably be playing the new Kendrick Lamar album. I might also include additional jokes about Carl, or unrelated political tangents.

Carl: He really delights in randomly slandering me for no reason. I get him back though. Our rapport on the page, screen, and in real life, comes out of a lot of that back and forth.

IFC: In what way is Frank and Lamar a poignant series for this moment in time?
Carl: It tells a story I feel most people aren’t familiar with, having young black males teach in a very affluent white world, while never making it expressly about that either. Then in tackling their personal lives, we see these three-dimensional guys navigate a pivotal moment in time from a perspective I feel mainstream audiences tend not to see portrayed.

Anthony: I feel like Frank and Lamar continues to push the envelope within the genre by presenting interesting and non stereotypical content about people of color. The fact that this show brought together so many talented creative people, from the cast and crew to the producers, who believe in the project, makes the work that much more intentional and truthful. I also think it’s pretty incredible that we got to employ many of our friends!

Sport Court

Sport Court gavel

IFC: How would you describe Sport Court to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?
Joe: SPORT COURT follows Judge David Linda, a circuit court judge assigned to handle an ad hoc courtroom put together to prosecute rowdy fan behavior in the basement of the Hartford Ultradome. Think an updated Night Court.

IFC: How would you describe Sport Court to drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?
Joe: Remember when you put those firecrackers down that guy’s pants at the baseball game? It’s about a judge who works in a court in the stadium that puts you in jail right then and there. I know, you actually did spend the night in jail, but imagine you went to court right that second and didn’t have to get your brother to take off work from GameStop to take you to your hearing.

IFC: Is there a method to your madness when coming up with sports fan faux pas?
Joe: I just think of the worst things that would ruin a sporting event for everyone. Peeing in the slushy machine in open view of a crowd seemed like a good one.

IFC: Honestly now, how many of the fan transgressions are things you’ve done or thought about doing?
Joe: I’ve thought about ripping out a whole row of chairs at a theater or stadium, so I would have my own private space. I like to think of that really whenever I have to sit crammed next to lots of people. Imagine the leg room!

Check out the full seasons of Frank and Lamar and Sport Court now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Millennial Wisdom

Charles Speaks For Us All

Get to know Charles, the social media whiz of Brockmire.

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He may be an unlikely radio producer Brockmire, but Charles is #1 when it comes to delivering quips that tie a nice little bow on the absurdity of any given situation.

Charles also perfectly captures the jaded outlook of Millennials. Or at least Millennials as mythologized by marketers and news idiots. You know who you are.

Played superbly by Tyrel Jackson Williams, Charles’s quippy nuggets target just about any subject matter, from entry-level jobs in social media (“I plan on getting some experience here, then moving to New York to finally start my life.”) to the ramifications of fictional celebrity hookups (“Drake and Taylor Swift are dating! Albums y’all!”). But where he really nails the whole Millennial POV thing is when he comments on America’s second favorite past-time after type II diabetes: baseball.

Here are a few pearls.

On Baseball’s Lasting Cultural Relevance

“Baseball’s one of those old-timey things you don’t need anymore. Like cursive. Or email.”

On The Dramatic Value Of Double-Headers

“The only thing dumber than playing two boring-ass baseball games in one day is putting a two-hour delay between the boring-ass games.”

On Sartorial Tradition

“Is dressing badly just a thing for baseball, because that would explain his jacket.”

On Baseball, In A Nutshell

“Baseball is a f-cked up sport, and I want you to know it.”

Learn more about Charles in the behind-the-scenes video below.

And if you were born before the late ’80s and want to know what the kids think about Baseball, watch Brockmire Wednesdays at 10P on IFC.

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Crown Jules

Amanda Peet FTW on Brockmire

Amanda Peet brings it on Brockmire Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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GIFS via Giphy

On Brockmire, Jules is the unexpected yin to Jim Brockmire’s yang. Which is saying a lot, because Brockmire’s yang is way out there. Played by Amanda Peet, Jules is hard-drinking, truth-spewing, baseball-loving…everything Brockmire is, and perhaps what he never expected to encounter in another human.

“We’re the same level of functional alcoholic.”

But Jules takes that commonality and transforms it into something special: a new beginning. A new beginning for failing minor league baseball team “The Frackers”, who suddenly about-face into a winning streak; and a new beginning for Brockmire, whose life gets a jumpstart when Jules lures him back to baseball. As for herself, her unexpected connection with Brockmire gives her own life a surprising and much needed goose.

“You’re a Goddamn Disaster and you’re starting To look good to me.”

This palpable dynamic adds depth and complexity to the narrative and pushes the series far beyond expected comedy. See for yourself in this behind-the-scenes video (and brace yourself for a unforgettable description of Brockmire’s genitals)…

Want more about Amanda Peet? She’s all over the place, and has even penned a recent self-reflective piece in the New York Times.

And of course you can watch the Jim-Jules relationship hysterically unfold in new episodes of Brockmire, every Wednesday at 10PM on IFC.

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