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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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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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