In her new film “Winter’s Bone,” director/writer Debra Granik tells the story of Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), a young girl living in the Missouri Ozark Mountains with her two younger siblings and ill mother, who must find her drug-addicted father before his bond is revoked and the family’s home and land are taken away. “Winter’s Bone” won the Grand Jury Prize and Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
During a phone interview with me, Granik, whose first feature film was 2004’s “Down to the Bone,” discussed her experiences visiting the Ozark Mountains for the first time, working with local residents to make the film look authentic, and why she feels a sense of responsibility to the people of this region.
How much did you know about the Missouri Ozarks and that area before you started working on “Winter’s Bone?”
We didn’t know much. We had the original book by Daniel Woodrell, who is an author out of that region. That region is what inspires him. We read the book and our imagination was seriously jogged. We couldn’t put real images to it. That led to an immediate call to him saying if we could come down and meet him. Could we at least see the terrain that he was describing and what Ree Dolly’s house looked like. We went down there and that was the first visit that enabled us to even get our bearings. He proceeded to link us to people who could help us; people that were very steeped in the heritage and history of the area – the sheriff, musicians, folks who could lead us to important places and important things that were in the book, whether it was a cave or a creek or a kind of housing stock. We started casting off of that by going to different spaces that were community orientated. We had to get our bearings brick by brick. It took quite a few visits. If we were going to understand full, we had to become careful observers and careful note takers, but we would also need local people to collaborate with us to get the details right. Finally, we ended up with a fixer, a local man who really sealed the deal for us by having us meet his friends and neighbors and really rooting the film in his community.
What was going through your mind during your first visit out there as you stood on that amazing terrain?
I did feel there are very significant rural and urban differences that I was unprepared for. The way that played out is realizing how little knowledge any of us from the urban side of it knew how to survive on land. We were basically in a position where we needed to ask a huge amount of questions. When I looked out at that land I said, “This is only going to work if people have patience with us and if people feel like they want to chime in and guide us and watch our backs and makes sure we get this right.” Luckily, I feel like we found collaborators that were willing to do that.
What specifically about Daniel Woodrell’s novel resonated with you and made you want to adapt this story into a film?
It was the qualities of Ree Dolly as a heroine and a female protagonist. She was like a traditional, beloved American western hero in the sense of noble tradition. She is this hero in this teenage girl’s body. We started to feel that was really fresh for us. She had traits from the region that were really of a high quality. She had this certain reserve and resolve that was characteristic of this region. That was very interesting to us. It was very different than the more extroverted urban characters that explain a lot of what they’re thinking and use a lot of words to process things. Here she was with very few words, but there was always a sense that there was something going on inside her. That drew me and [co-writer] Ann [Rosellini] in. We felt Ree had an allure to her. Even though she didn’t say a lot, we wanted to know how she was going to make her decisions and how she was going to proceed.
Something I found very interesting about her is how frightened she was around some of her family, but at the same time she really isn’t shy about claiming her last name.
That was very rich. She says with pride, “I’m bread and buttered. I’m of these people.” One things that Daniel’s book does that we were not able to do in the film is allow the reader to understand why she has this pride. What does it mean to come from a piece of land where your family has lived and is associated with for 150 or possibly 200 years? We got this very rare glimpse into this part of American rural heritage that was unknown to us. The idea that a family’s fate and livelihood is inexplicably linked to where they live and how they’ve reached that summit. Also, we felt like Ree had an understanding of what her family was like before meth took her dad astray. Meth has been an unwelcomed, harsh and violent intruder into her community. Ree knows it wasn’t always that way.
The meth culture is, of course, a major part of the story, but in a sense you avoid the grislier side of it. What it important for you to show how agonizing this lifestyle is without getting into more of the graphic aspects of it all?
Absolutely. I felt like it’s so important to know that for some many people in rural communities the Ozarks are no exception. Meth has no party or fund. It’s like watching the people you care about being plucked off right in front of you. It’s a live destruction. It’s a time lapse in your life. One book that we relied on hugely to inform us was the book called “Methland” by Nick Redding. We felt like Daniel tried to take this sober look at meth as well. This wasn’t about the ingenuity of cooking it or the black market of selling it or trying to make a buck from it, it was really about what it meant to be a kid growing up in that time when you have to navigate around it. It’s not about what you’re choosing, but yet people you care about are being affected. It was more about the effect on Ree.
Most of the film is from Ree’s perspective, but at the same time there are a couple of scenes where we understand how the family is living from the eyes of Ree’s younger siblings. For example, the family couldn’t even feed themselves much less any of their pets, but Ree’s little brother brings a stray dog home. It’s almost like he doesn’t realize the extent of their poverty.
Generational poverty is complex. In many ways, kids have what they need. Generational poverty means you can be cash poor but you have this relationship with your land. You know how to live and have ways to make your life lyrical. You have an imaginary life. It’s not like you’re impoverished in your life and your spirit, it’s that the cash flow is brutal and can keep you in a state of direness. In that sense children everywhere have that one gift, which is they have imaginations and find ways to make their lives lyrical. Ree is at that cusp where she wants to be like that and can be like that some days. On other days, she adult responsibilities are what dominates her life.
There is this “backwoods” feel we sense throughout the film, but you create it without having to degrade any of the characters for this. Nothing feels stereotypical. Everything feels natural. Even in that scene where Ree and her siblings are skinning the squirrels, it’s just something they’re used to. There’s no reason to feel embarrassed about it. Was that something you were conscious of while making the film?
We were super conscious of it because it is a huge responsibility. Woods life or hill life does have practices that are not necessarily common to other people in the U.S., but in that region they’re not exotic at all. Knowing how to eat wild game and integrating it into your diet and making sure you never go hungry, that’s a life skill. When you put a film out into the world and the rest of the U.S. doesn’t know, then you run the risk as a filmmaker that you’re going to make something exotic that is just incredibly normal in another region. We’ll never be free from that. You can put a disclaimer on a film and say, “Just so you know, many people in this area know how to live off the land and know how to hunt wild game and prepare it.” It’s a huge disservice if we portray that as being something rare. One thing that came to bite us later is that we had a solid scene where Ree and Gail, her best friend, were buying food at a grocery store. It helped balance the scene so it didn’t seem like Ree only lived off the land. It shows that she can very ordinary can go to the grocery store when she has cash. The scene never made it into the final cut. In some ways, it was the responsibility of the film to show that, but hopefully there’s enough contemporary and cultural influences people can see.
I’m sure there are similarities between you and Ree, but I’m wondering if this is a lifestyle that you could ever see yourself living? Do you have that strength?
Because of my lifestyle and class background, I have never been tested to the extent that Ree has. I would love to think of myself as someone who doesn’t take no for an answer. I think I admire those traits in Ree and want to know what it’s like to be that kind of girl. I always want to know what would be like to live outside the narrow path their born into. I’m born into a coastal society of urban culture in upper middle class. My questions for Ree are, “How do you get the strength to survive.” I can’t say I know Ree’s life because I don’t. I can say I have wonderment and admiration for her life. Often in films you are drawn to these characters that have a lot of questions that make you wonder.
Talk to me a little about the scene where Ree goes in to talk to a recruiter. It was very interesting to me because she is very open about her reasons to want to join the army. I’m sure the government would like to think that the reasons people actually join the army are to fight for their country and because they have patriotism, but Ree proves in her case that it’s not always true. Did you do research on this to see why people in this area join the military?
I think we came with certain attitudes. The recruiters did set us straight. We did talk to a lot of recruiters in the heartland. They were very compassionate. The recruiters at one point said, “We feel like coastal people don’t get it. We feel they don’t understand we are a third and fourth generation military families. We’ve been viewing the military as a responsibility and a way to make a living and as a legacy. The recruiting scene was done by a real recruiter. We gave him the circumstances: her age, the reason she is joining. We asked him to interrogate her and check out her story and see if she would be eligible in his eyes. He felt she was joining for the wrong reasons. We couldn’t pass judgment. He wasn’t passing judgment. He knows many, many, many, many, many people join in search of a livelihood. I think recruiters and the army feels incredible humble and sober and heavy to ask for recruitment and participate in it in the active army. It’s almost of a sociological function to recruit for a peacetime army when people can actually join for reasons like education and technological training. But this is heavy and I think some recruiters realize that. This recruiter brought some of that soulfulness to it. We were very grateful that he approached that material that way.
Talk to me about Jennifer Lawrence. What were you looking for when casting for the lead role and what ultimately led you to her?
Jennifer let us know that she knew how arduous this was going to be. She knew we were going to be on location and that she would be in every shot. Always, when you’re doing casting, you look for a very solid commitment. Someone can’t be oblivious. Someone can’t do this because they think it’s going to be a big break for them or a prudent career move. They have to do it because they actually have imagined the role. Jennifer let us know that. She came to us raw. We hadn’t seen her prior work. But she comes from Kentucky. She’s born and raised there. The way she pronounced the script right out of the gate was lyrical. We believed her. It was a lucky day when we saw her interest and had a strong reading. She’s hard working and is really interested in learning from established actors like John [Hawkes]. She eats it up. She gives people a lot. She shoots a lot of emotional bullets and the scenes start to get good. She is arduous in her approach.