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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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Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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