Elemental Pleasures

Debra Granik discusses her Sundance-approved drama, 'Winter's Bone'

Jul 7, 2010 at 2:06 pm


ebra Granik’s Winter’s Bone stands in stark relief to this summer’s more bombastic fare. Taking in its elemental pleasures — in terms of subject matter (familial messiness), scale (intimate) and aesthetic approach (spare) — one feels as though they’re entering a parallel cinematic universe in which the simple inflection of a character’s voice or the crack of a tree branch have the ability to impart more tension than a dozen CGI-driven multiplex thrillers put together.

Based on Daniel Woodrell’s modern-gothic novel of the same name, Winter’s Bone follows Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence, pictured above), a steely 17-year-old who is left to care for her ailing mother and younger brother and sister in the rugged, unforgiving Ozark woods of southern Missouri. The narrative hinges on Ree’s ability to track down her missing father, a notorious meth dealer who has put the family house up for his bail bond and whose mysterious, menacing brother (John Hawkes) might or might not be of help.

[Read the full review of Winter's Bone here.]

Granik’s taut, atmospheric second feature — which critic David Denby intriguingly classified as a feminist-leaning “country-noir thriller” —

won the Dramatic Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the same place that nurtured her 2005 debut, Down to the Bone , which also starred a little-known actress (Vera Farmiga) on the verge.

CityBeat recently tracked down Granik to discuss Sundance’s influence on her career, the casting of Lawrence and the dramatic power of gnarly trees.

CityBeat: Jennifer Lawrence was an interesting choice to play Ree. I think the only other thing I’d seen her in was The Burning Plain. Her relatively low profile allows the audience to immerse themselves in her character that much more. The suspension of disbelief is under less attack.

Debra Granik: At one point we were dealing with an actress who had more name value. We were told that financing might come easier if you work with this actress that has a recognizable name. And yet when I met with that actress there was a very ambivalent quality. She had already been in a lot of films. The hunger was not there. The desire to push herself wasn’t exactly there, and with Jen it was very, very different.

Jen actually had been in two substantial, very meaty roles — The Burning Plain and Lori Petty’s The Poker House — and yet as an actress yearning to grow and learn and move forward, the hunger was still there. She was extremely forthcoming in saying to me, ‘I understand this will be an arduous shoot and I’m down for it.’ She gave me that commitment. And the fact that she was born and raised in Kentucky meant a lot to us. Her first reading was just a very beautiful way of pronouncing American English. Out of her mouth came a lyricism, from my Eastern ears, that I knew was already a great foundation for the character and that it should be a quick learn.

What challenges did you encounter adapting the book for the screen?

DG: In some ways I was relying on a whole other observer, a whole other note-taker, which would be Daniel Woodrell, the author of the novel. To try to take these astute notes of his region, a place prior to the film I’d not been. I had to rely on these very specific notes about this one girl or one family that was in distress.

I had to figure out what part of this could be told. And, before that even, what would happen when I went down there, what would I see for myself? What notes did Daniel take that would be visible? What part was contemporary and realistic versus what was hyperbole? I had no way to judge his novel until I got down there.

There is very little exposition or context when it comes to the various characters Ree encounters in the film, which adds this extra layer of tension because we’re not sure what their shared history might be.

DG: That is definitely much more fleshed out in the book. That is one of the most harrowing parts of going from novel to screen. Exposition has never been a friend of film. They don’t synch up well because exposition is not visual usually. Exposition is knowledge that is usually gained literally through verbal language. And so when a film doesn’t use voice over it’s very hard for anyone to understand Ree’s back story, for anyone to understand Ree’s link to that land, to understand that there is a whole family history before meth came into their lives. So that’s kind of excruciating, but it’s also the very risky part of going a from novel to screen because then what we have is a filmed story that doesn’t have all that context.

Debra Granik directed Winter's Bone, which won the Dramatic Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Can you talk about your stylistic approach, which is spare almost to the point of being documentary-like: matter-of-fact camera work, low-key score, real locations. That’s an interesting approach for a suspense film, a genre that often gives filmmakers license to employ more stylish techniques.

DG: One thing we noticed is that nature provides disconcerting elements, meaning that Ree’s journey has suspense built into it because there is a deadline imposed on her and that she encountering a level of secrecy. Secrecy is core ingredient in suspense: What are people hiding and why, and will this protagonist prevail?

So the fact is she has to trek out in an environment that’s very barren because it’s winter helped us and Jen (as an actress). The trees are very coiled up and gnarly. There are brambles. We also figured out if you put a lone person in the woods, even the crackle of branches starts to get disconcerting. Who else is in the woods with you? Just having clothes on a clothesline that start to move in the breeze in a way that feels like, ‘God, should I not be in this yard?’ is disconcerting. It’s like that way a mammal senses danger in the wind. Those elemental things alone helped us.

Sundance has come under fire from some people in recent years because there’s this sense that it has strayed from its roots. But it seems like in your case it’s been kind of a nurturing experience.

DG: For me, Sundance has absolutely been a place of nurturance. I did receive very important training there. I was allowed to road-test my first script in a way that is indispensable because you realize how much of your script is not working. … There is something so wonderful and invaluable about what the (Sundance) Institute does and what their mission is and where it started. I feel like (Robert) Redford’s original goals are so beloved, are so geared towards actually making American film culture stronger and better.

I think where the rub starts to happen is that Sundance also became a place of commerce; it became an auction block where people stopped being in the audience because they loved film but because they were literally texting people about whether they should jump on something and take a gamble and buy a film. And then crazy things happened where these bidding wars got out of control, and that became the hype.

And then red carpets and celebrity worship happened, and a lot of the other things that have always existed on the West Coast started to really usurp Sundance. They’ve tried to pull back from that a lot, and I think the fact that it’s become such a respected showcase of documentary film has really helped — meaning that these outstanding, hard-hitting films are still at Sundance.

Can you talk about the current state of film distribution? It’s ironic that it’s easier than ever to make a film but harder than ever to get any sort of substantial theatrical release, especially for small, intimate films like yours.

DG: This is a dilemma that is so multivalent and so hard to crack. This topic puts me in a very connected and kindred place with filmmakers that make films that are similar to mine in terms of subject matter and scope. I think it’s become even more malleable and unsteady and nervous-making for people who would ever want to put money into the actual distribution of film given that we don’t even know if the idea of people putting films on their phones is the future. That idea is beyond Orwell.

This art form could actually be sustained as what they call “projected art form,” not necessarily ones and zeroes that get contracted in the smallest possible visual format. Is there a need in civilization to actually keep the idea of a gathering space for film? Was there something that was serving the last 150 years of humans around the globe gathering in a dark space with a projected image? Is that an art form worth keeping, or is it always better to innovate to the point where you’re always looking for a new way to work within the capitalist marketplace? Can there be simultaneous freedom, or does one have to eradicate the other?

It would be really exciting to see if there could be a part of the cultural movement that would think, "It’s OK to beam everything from a small handheld device, but it doesn’t mean you have to kill the cinema and the movie theate