A rich and unsparing look at the indomitable survival instincts of a teenage girl in one of America’s most blighted regions, “Winter’s Bone” stunned audiences during its Sundance debut, taking home the Grand Jury Prize for drama. Part cultural study and part clannish thriller, it focuses on the week in which 17-year-old Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) searches desperately for her father, who is on the run from meth-related charges and has used the family’s home and property as bond collateral.
Working from Missourian Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 novel, director Debra Granik was determined to keep the story close to home, shooting in Missouri with a cast filled out by locals. I spoke with her about the pressure of bringing a festival favorite to audiences around the country, how genres impose themselves in the editing room, and the oddity of talking about the Ozarks in a suite at the Waldorf Astoria.
How does your excitement level for the film’s release compare to that of its Sundance debut? Is either one more nerve-wracking? How’s your stress level?
The whole thing is nerve-wracking, for sure. It’s a weird feeling — first of all, so many people collaborate to make a film, so it is very sweet for those people to see that the finished result is being recognized in the world. Then on a base level, you’re creating a product, so you want your contract to be renewed! All filmmakers want the option to make another film, to have it not always be such an uphill battle — for it to be our life, our working life. So the gnashing tension for me is more related to — people might like it critically, but then it’s on the auction block.
I’ve already experienced an amazing boost in my confidence by having an earlier film [“Down to the Bone”] recognized, but it didn’t have a commercial life. It’s very hard to keep showing up somewhere — the pressure had doubled. I was worried I was going to be the wallflower, like: “Nice film–“
“Thanks for coming!”
Thanks for coming — sorry we can’t do anything with it. We were just hoping someone would step up to distribute the film. And now, with the actual opening this weekend, I have that same gnashing feeling. Roadside Attractions has done a beautiful job trying to get the word out. They’ve done almost everything you can do. And yet it’s just like any other consumer process, where a customer ends up dictating, in a very tried and true way, what will happen. And that’s unnerving — even more people have invested their time and energy, not to mention financial resources, and putting out a poster, reserving theaters–
[gestures around the room] And the Waldorf Astoria!
I know! I know. I need to discuss that with them because I feel like the disparity between where some of this [publicity] stuff is happening and the nature of the film is a little weird. And yet I’ve also been told that in certain cities, facilities are willing, and set up, to do this sort of thing, it’s a system they have in place. So [the publicists] don’t have to walk a hotel through it, it’s a system that they have.
Oh yeah, it’s totally standard.
I’ve never been inside here either. It has a very historical feeling, doesn’t it? Even some of the unappealing, lugubrious parts of it are interesting — the weight of a certain style, the heaviness that was considered the only hallmark of excellence.
After “Down to the Bone,” were you actively looking at secondary material for a subject or did you come across Daniel Woodrell’s book by chance? How did you find it?
Anne [Rosellini, Granik’s writing and producing partner] and I were searching for a story that had a female protagonist that we were not just drawn to, but one we felt had a full life, a full set of attributes — not just one thing she had to rest upon. There are so many of those, certainly in the large script circulation world. We were getting lots of stories about young women, but they were often about the things that go very wrong in life — I call them female pathologies.
It was like there’s a list: what makes women interesting on screen is if they can overcome something very bad in their past, if they escape abuse, if they overcome a very bad psychiatric condition, some kind of disorder.
We were feeling like, this can’t be the totality of what women’s lives are like on screen, or of women’s experiences. And so it was so refreshing to see [a character] with a certain kind of determination, and we loved how she responded to people — you couldn’t predict her responses because she related very differently to different characters.
Was there any talk of including Woodrell in the collaboration on the script?
He was very open — in retrospect, we might find it completely uncharacteristic — but he understood that when a book has its next reincarnation, that it will be different. Real locations will now be the visual evidence of something he conjured. We tried to match very vividly the kind of house Ree Dolly lived in, and we found places that felt right, where my brain would believe that this could be Ree Dolly’s house.