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A Spirited Q & A With “Winter’s Bone” Actress Dale Dickey

A Spirited Q & A With “Winter’s Bone” Actress Dale Dickey (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.

Of all the Spirit Award nominees from “Winter’s Bone,” Dale Dickey may best represent the film’s spirit. As Merab, the mercurial power behind the throne within the thorny criminal empire of the Missouri backwoods, Dickey is equally beguiling as she “puts the hurt” on poor Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) during Ree’s search for her father or when she later helps Ree fish out her pop’s remains with the aid of a chainsaw. She is fearsome, sure, but also oddly compassionate with a characterization as deep and rich as the oak trees that enshroud the small community she slyly manipulates.

In the past, Dickey has suggested it’s her chin that that’s led her to playing unsavory types like a junkie in “Breaking Bad” or Patty the Daytime Prostitute in “My Name is Earl,” as casting directors may see a jawline not given to an easy smile and sunken eyes that are prone to withering glances, though the actress’ range has led her to defy such classification in her actual performances. However, the audience is allowed to witness something else entirely in “Winter’s Bone,” where Dickey is able to so seamlessly integrate into the unforgiving Ozarks milleu where survival is day-to-day, but her Merab always seems five steps ahead, with her rumpled appearance under the piles of clothing (she’ll describe later) acting as camouflage for her wolf-like nature. Amongst the uneducated and poor that populate the area, Merab is clever with a hard-earned wisdom and respect performed so ably by Dickey that it elevates the character to a nearly regal level. That she is finally being recognized in kind with a Spirit Award nomination for Best Supporting Female is fitting, but it’s also been a long time coming. Dickey was kind enough to answer our questionnaire via e-mail to let us know how to handle a chainsaw and cut to the quick in other ways.

Why did you want to make this film?

The story and the director. After reading the script and soon after, the novel, I knew I fit into the world of this story and felt I innately understood the people portrayed. I was deeply drawn to the tale of Ree’s journey – the mythic quality of her quest, the obstacles she faces, and particularly to the fierceness of and the mystery surrounding Merab and family. And after meeting and working with Debra Granik at my audition, and having watched her first film “Down to the Bone,” I knew she was a director I’d be lucky to work with. She is unique and special. Not only brilliant of mind, but curious and true of heart – caring and passionate about the story she was to tell. A generous spirit. It felt like it would be one of those rare magical experiences. And it was.

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

Hmmm…First off, gotta say the afternoon I spent learning the dos and don’ts of chainsawing from a logging buddy up in Kernville was pretty key – for safety reasons alone. I’d never held one and am quite uncomfortable around them. But for Merab, it would be second nature. And I needed to feel as secure and confident as possible with one in my hands. (This would be especially important due to the curveball I was thrown later….see next question!).

[As for] words of acting advice, I first heard some 20 years ago from Romulus Linney, whom I had the pleasure of working with on his play “Heathen Valley” in NYC, a simple mantra I hold tightly to: “Just stay relaxed, precise and fierce.” I found those words particularly helpful in grounding me as Merab.

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

I’d say it was the day we shot the boat scene – for various technical reasons. As often happens, it was sunny and hot out that day, so there was the obvious strangeness of trying to ‘intuit’ all that winter bone coldness, as the story demands. (Not to mention the uncomfortable sweating in fur-skin hats, sweaters, boots and coats!) Adding to that was the fact we were shooting “day for night,” so all that abundant sunshine needed to feel like abundant moonlight, etc. But that was just the tip of the iceberg for me. The original story/script calls for the women to traverse around a frozen lake and hack through the ice with an ax to first reach the body. There was never any boat involved. But on the day, winter had lifted, there was no ice, so we would now be rowing a boat out into the lake and then I would be operating the chainsaw from said boat?!? This made me a tad anxious — Visions of ‘bloody’ sugar plums falling into the water danced through my head! But I trusted Debra and Michael [McDonough], the DP, and had no choice but to tackle this challenge with Merab-like fierceness…. and… all was well. I didn’t tip the boat over. I did curse a lot. I didn’t harm Jennifer [Lawrence], or anyone else. Whew. Finally, when real nighttime fell, we shot some close-ups on land, with the boat propped up on cinder blocks and a metal tub of water to dip the chainsaw in! The whole day of shooting was very surreal. But exciting, too. (Well, except for the pond water and ticks.)

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

There have been so many, but the image that warms my heart the most, is that of an eve we spent at Debra’s condo during the last few days of Sundance. It was like old home week. Most of the “Winter’s Bone” family was there, including some members of the real family whose property we filmed on. And we were serenaded by a band of musicians from the film, who had traveled several days from Missouri to join the celebration. Lots of pickin’ and grinning. An intimate, beautiful night in the midst of an exciting film festival which had embraced this film so sweetly. A slice of rural Missouri nestled in the glitzy hubub of Park City. We were all so content and joyous simply with the outcome of this little film, the fact we’d made it to Sundance, and the response so far from the festival audiences. We had no idea of any awards or even a screen life that the film would see in the months following.

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

I’ve seen the film at least 15 times over this past year, and I am continually struck by the beauty of the ending moment – the three siblings on the steps of their home holding chicks and a banjo – symbols of new life and of family tradition to carry forward. And a home they will now be able to continue living in. The love in Ree’s voice when she replies to her little brother’s question if she’s gonna be leaving them now, “I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back.” All the fight, and struggle she endured for their sakes, really, ends in a solitary moment of hope. And beauty. (Perhaps I’m moved by it more because it reminds me of my own big sister and the fierce love she had for my brother and myself.) And ultimately, the journey, in this bleak, disturbing, threatening thriller, is triumphantly overcome by Ree’s sheer love for her family and their survival. It is life-affirming to me, despite the bleak environs.

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

Simply put, having been a small, but integral, part of what I consider to be a uniquely great film, which has been seen by so many, and that’s a rarity for a low budget indie/dark subject matter/no star name vehicle. The fact it has had such a life is very special. And I am very grateful. I’ve gotten to travel with the film to various festivals over the year, seeing countless terrific films – narrative, shorts, docs – and meeting so many talented filmmakers and artists along the way. Overwhelmingly inspiring. My hope is to find a home, of sorts, working in independent films. And I must trust that the exposure from playing Merab will lead to more and more challenging work down the line.

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

I was turned on to terrific vocal/banjo artist – Abigail Washburn – after seeing her open for Steve Martin and I listen to her a lot now. I’m still reading Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods,” cherishing the fact I grew up in a time where we played outside and I had exposure to the great outdoors and all its wonders. Films? Besides, of course, “Winter’s Bone”! I was deeply moved by “127 Hours” in unexpected ways, fell in love with “The King’s Speech”, and could barely get out of my seat after viewing the documentary “Waste Land,” but left with new inspiration on the power of film (and humanity) to transform lives for the positive in least expected ways.

“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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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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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

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

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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