Debra Granik

A harrowing thriller set in the Ozark mountains, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone is pitch-dark rural noir, as teenager Ree Dolly is forced to reckon with her family’s dark past. A career criminal—who, like many in the area, has drifted into methamphetamine manufacture—Ree’s father has never been around much, but his absence is newly felt. Already caring for her all-but-catatonic mother and her younger siblings, Ree shoulders an increasingly dramatic burden when she learns that her father has skipped out on bail after posting their house and land as bond. Out of options and threatened with homelessness as well as poverty, she sets out to find him, but the more questions she asks, the more threatening the responses grow. Whatever happened to her father, it’s clear no one wants her to know.

Granik, whose first feature, Down To The Bone, showcased a galvanizing performance by a then-little-known Vera Farmiga, does the same in Winter’s Bone for Jennifer Lawrence, a stunningly talented actor hitherto best known for her role on The Bill Engvall Show. Working from a novel by Daniel Woodrell, whose Woe To Live On served as the source for Ang Lee’s Ride With The Devil, Granik fashions an unblinkingly honest portrait of rural desperation, never tilting into the condescension that mars so independent films set in similar milieus. During a trip to Philadelphia, Granik sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about scouting meth houses, the politics of eating squirrel, and, of course, pie.

The A.V. Club: Have you had an opportunity to show the film to people in the community where it was shot?

Debra Granik: I’m coming back from an incredible high of being in the Ozarks for the last four days and having just some outstanding, off-the-hook discussions about the definition of “hillbilly,” and I learned a lot when I was down there these last four days. I didn’t get a chance to learn about filming, but good things and things that are not in the story that are really pleasurable. In some ways, it’s a good time to be talking about some of this stuff.

AVC: Especially coming out of Sundance, movies like Winter’s Bone raise the specter of exploitation, in that they’re portraits of rural poverty presented to an arthouse audience that is largely urban and middle-class. In putting a story with so many vicious and frightening characters on the screen, were you worried about going the Deliverance route?

DG: Absolutely. The whole time. At one point, I remember the primary location owners that ended up letting us film a huge percentage of the film on their land, in their family’s holler—at one point, she read the book, one of the women that was talking to me a lot and asking me what it would be like if they did get involved. I had to talk a lot about what it would be like to have a film project on your land. A couple weeks later, we had a conversation, and she was like, “Does the film have to have meth in it? If it’s going to be on our land, couldn’t it be about moonshine?” I said, “First of all, let’s talk about this in depth. We’re not trying to make a film where it seems like meth is unique to the Ozarks. It’s one of the things that some families here have had to navigate around, or have experienced damage from.” And then she’s like, “Yes, that’s true.” And I said, “In this film, it’s as much about deciding to separate yourself from that, to see that your dad and your uncle may have gotten caught up, and make a very active decision.” You know, it can overwhelm someone really fast. It can lead to a dead end. Not from a moral high ground, but from a survival instinct, this girl wants to get around that. Some of those attributes of what Ree is trying to do really did appeal to people. Given that meth is a part of history, a part of reality, it’s sure nice to have a girl that doesn’t want to do meth onscreen. That made them feel like, “Wow, there is something about this that isn’t just fueling, ‘Oh shit, [area code] 417. Meth capital of the country,’” which isn’t true anyhow, because Iowa’s got it bad, and Washington state has it bad. There are so many places in the United States where, sadly, it really did explode and really went deep and wide, and the Ozarks became one of many.

The Ozarks also has a history of having illegal substances cultivated in it, or manufactured. But again, that’s a complex thing. It’s an interesting complexity, not a reductive complexity. The film couldn’t get into that, so then you are left with this scary specter of stereotype. And all we kept saying was, “My God, Ree’s interesting to listen to. Her responses are interesting. She’s a smart cookie. She’s proud of her upbringing.” Part of that is that she’s proud to be part of this very self-sufficient culture. “I’m bred and buttered. I’m a Dolly, mister. FYI, that’s part of my identity. I’m many things, but that’s one part of my identity. We settle things ourselves. We don’t go to the law. Law’s corrupt anyhow, and when we do go to the law, look what happened. We got fucked, you know.” Not everyone believes that. I’m just trying to say there’s some real precedent for being wary of things. So we had to go so slowly and see, could we make this film without falling into that abyss of what you just described: painting another dark, despairing film of people acting very poorly. 

Some members of Ree’s family act very badly. I’ve always said this. And some members behave very well. Some members do the right thing. Ree’s values certainly seem to be intact. This gnarly term became our national tyrant: family values, right? It can be interpreted every which way until Friday. My personal family values were really in sync with Ree’s. She’s like a lioness, and I appreciate that. I also feel like people from the community felt like you can’t help but root for Ree. So there’s a tale of a girl who’s very strong, proud of her Ozark background, who’s got a pretty valiant struggle. I think people appreciated that some of the details could be made accurate from filming there. The presence of dogs, the kind of land that it was, the hardscrabble nature of it, that fact that we could film on a real property. They knew we weren’t just making a set with a ramshackle shack and saying, “Wow, look at this.” And then throwing a whole bunch of junk in the yard, and saying, “Oh wow, and look at this. God, isn’t that awful-looking?” We were so lucky that we could film the real house. And then you get to see a yard, and it is what it is. It’s got a trampoline and some toys. Then you get to meet the family a little bit. That’s another thing. Behind this Ozark snapshot of this particular house, you get to meet this girl, her siblings, her good friend Gail, and her very difficult, but somewhat noble, uncle. Troubled man, but nonetheless, there’s some really irascible things in him.

AVC: At one point, Ree is taken to a burned-out meth lab. That doesn’t look like someone backed up a prop truck full of redneck debris and unloaded it onto the lawn.

DG: That was a burned-out house. That family let us use it. One of them we had was even more intense. It was probably a toxic waste site. The actual meth house that we were going to use, in the end, I felt grateful that we didn’t. Me and the DP traipsed around, but we had no telling what level of contamination was still there. It was ghastly. This one was more of a traditional burned-out house. It was still a sad story, because someone did die in that fire. I’m just saying it didn’t have the actual health risks associated with traipsing through a site that you’re not supposed to be on. 

AVC: In the movie, meth is central to the plot, but the specifics of how it’s made and sold are fairly unimportant. It’s not like Breaking Bad, where the manufacturing process plays a key role.

DG: Or The Salton Sea. That was really intense, with the making and the shooting and the tripping and the hallucinations. It was going really deep into the experience, the visceral experience of meth-taking. This film was really trying to avoid that for sure.

AVC: Meth is just the catalyst, the source of the intense pressure the character is under.

DG: And also, come to find out—in the film, I wish we could have said this—how frickin’ hard it is to make money off meth. Really hard. It’s being made in small quantities, and the cost of input to output is really high. I always felt in my ignorance, because of the homebrew nature of it: “Oh God, easy way to make money.” It’s much easier to cultivate marijuana in the Ozark hills and make good money from that. Until cops and entire SWAT teams mow it down and confiscate it and helicopter over it. 

AVC: You shot the movie on the Red digital camera?

DG: Yes. It’s such an important tool now. 

AVC: Was that a purely practical decision? Do you feel a sense of regret at not being able to use film?

DG: I am a Luddite by nature. It really worked for us. It was a rugged camera that we could bring out there. 35mm would have been rugged—no problem with the ruggedness. For us, the actual logistics of the Red—they’re hard. The end part, processing the data, is tricky. Not having a mishap with the actual drives, all that, it feels as scary as negatives, and sending them to a lab. It feels the same. We make a backup copy, but still there’s that feeling. How it worked for us, I think, and why it served our project, is because it does allow for a little more speed. Not much, but a little bit. [We thought of] the transition between the magazines and whatnot, the AC and the actual amount of staff power you would need to keep the camera running, and the amount of film you would need when you’re shooting fast like we were. Out in the field, there’s something really important about the Red. In inaccessible locations or small locations, I think being magazine-free on that level is helpful.

AVC: There’s an interesting mixture in the cast. You’re using people who are well known and very experienced—John Hawkes and Sheryl Lee—and then people who are either less well known or local.

DG: There were a good amount of first-time actors in the film, and people from, I would say, civilian life that we cast. And some of the supporting roles were cast locally. The main six were all cast from outside. But what was so incredibly wonderful about this—and this was not planned—almost all of them had a Southern background. Dale Dickey, who plays Merab, is from Tennessee. Tate Taylor, who played the bondsman, is from Alabama. This is like raised up in Alabama, raised up in Tennessee, not just like, “I was born in Tennessee and then we moved.” Gail [Lauren Sweetser], she was a first-time actress, but she’s from Fayetteville, Arkansas. And Jennifer’s from Kentucky. That really helped us, as outsiders, to have a cast that had references in their own lives to relatives they had.

AVC: How do you work through those differing levels of experience on the set, especially in a movie where you don’t want it to feel melodramatic? The movie has a documentary feel.

DG: A neo-realist thing, yeah. It takes the trained actors to be very willing to do it. You have to have their, not their endorsement, but their willful—they can’t be saying, “I can’t do this. This person said this differently this time. I can’t do this.” They have to embrace that person enough, to be so present that even if the person changed the line on them, they would really answer. Obviously, there are mess-ups that can happen, but I’m just trying to say, they have to be willing. Jen was willing. Merab was willing—Dale Dickey. John’s not that comfortable working that way. He finds that very challenging, because he’s a very precise person. But spiritually, he wants to. He doesn’t find it very easy to do. That raises the level of collaboration even further. The actors are not directing the scene in an overt way. But they are, on the fly, self-adjusting their performance. 

AVC: You did something similar with Down To The Bone, using a lot of actors and non-actors from the surrounding area. It seems like a sense of place is very important to you.

DG: Very. I mean, really important. It makes it interesting and difficult to write a script about a place I don’t know. Writing stuff about places I don’t know would probably come much more from a novel, and then I have to go there. Similarly, writing about a place I do know means that the place probably would dominate the story even more than the characters, on some level. So you know it’s a balance, but I would say that it could make a project very slow, because it really does require that you go there a lot. Being here in Philadelphia, I’m thinking, “God, if I were to film here, it would really be a lot of trips to the Pittsburgh area or Scranton, or wherever I was filming.” It would be a lot of visits, a lot of photography, a lot of research video rolling. But that’s what it takes. And sometimes the outsider status is helping. People may not find certain things lyrical. The primary family where we were shooting sometimes would think it was novel that I was so interested. “Really, you find the wood-splitter that interesting?” “Well, it’s not a part of my daily life, so by definition that it’s new to me, it is that interesting. I do find the fact that you know how to skin a squirrel very, very interesting. That was not part of my skill base. So, yes, as weird as it seems to you, yes I do.”

AVC: Even though there’s an element of novelty, the presentation is matter-of-fact. When Ree’s family goes hunting squirrels for dinner, it’s not presented as a degrading low point. It’s a regular thing for them. 

DG: And that was important. Getting back to the whole Deliverance thing and exoticizing the Ozarks and the poverty, we did not want to exoticize squirrel-eating. Because it’s not that uncommon in the United States, and it’s not only from being so poor that you’re starving. It can be that it makes sense for someone to try their hand at a squirrel stew. Really, the biggest problem is that it takes so many squirrels. The stew they ate in the film wouldn’t have filled their bellies. It’s a low point, because would kids rather have chicken or squirrel? Probably chicken. It’s definitely a low point in the cash flow, for sure. It’s not like a spiritual low point, necessarily. When people are flush, I don’t think that’s the first thing that comes to mind. Deer might be different.

AVC: But it’s not something where the kids would have to go to school and lie to their classmates about what they had for dinner. 

DG: As the Ozarks change, probably more so. Being really, really poor is always a problem. People sometimes feel self-conscious about that, especially children. I think adults get much more comfortable with it. Because we’re poor but we’re surviving, or we’re poor but we’re rich in these ways. We’re poor but we’re so glad we’ve got wood for our stove. I’ve heard different interpretations of that for sure. There was an interesting phrase. It’s not in the script. But there’s some very incredible phrases, like “rising above your raising.” We make it squeamish, as if we don’t know how to talk about poverty. But people know how to talk about poverty.

AVC: The dialogue in the film is very rich; there are all these little circumlocutions that enhance the specificity of the story. 

DG: That’s definitely from Daniel’s book. That’s verbatim out of his book. The script is super-close to his book, because I don’t know how to talk like that. Could not have invented that language. Could not even have taken a crack at it. 

AVC: Often in movies, the poorer people are, the more functional their speech. But talking is, along with sex, one of the only pleasures that is completely free. Throwing in a few extra words for the fun of it doesn’t cost a cent.

DG: Teardrop had even longer monologues [in the book]. I mean, really long monologues. And we couldn’t use all of that. There’s something that you can read endlessly, someone talking like that, and it’s interesting. And, my God, you should read how he goes crazy verbally in the book. If you like some of that stuff, it’s really rich with that in the book. It’s one of the biggest and most interesting things to translate onscreen, because if someone on film says multiple paragraphs to you, you don’t remember the first thing they said. It’s very freaky. You can read and comprehend tons. You can’t listen and comprehend tons of one person speaking.

AVC: Is that something you knew starting out, or did you learn it by experience?

DG: Especially with Daniel’s writing, a lot of the lines were so awesome, it was like, “Oh, let’s try it.” And then it becomes very clear. With certain drafts, a table reading will let you know: “Okay, you know what? I’m sort of losing you here. Even though I love that part about da da da, now it’s just undermined. I don’t remember the first part of the story.” So some of that is almost like road-testing the script a bit.

AVC: John Hawkes, coming off of Deadwood, certainly knows his way around a convoluted monologue. His transformation in this movie is startling. 

DG: He’s always skinny. I mean, he’s that skinny all the time. It’s true he doesn’t usually look gruff. He usually looks gentle. He chose to put personal markings on. He worked very hard on the everyday. That was part of, I think, his ramp-up to become Teardrop. We didn’t have the kind of budget where makeup could do something to him every day. So they worked out a prototype together; they collaborated on the makeup, and then he executed it for the rest of the shoot. That was a real act of will on his part. He felt very proprietary about the props Teardrop would have. He really took a big interest in that. It wasn’t arbitrary at all. It wasn’t like, “Oh, just leave it to the costume department.” He had a lot to say. He made a lot of field notes about the things he saw that were characteristic.

AVC: His characters tend to be tender and even timid, but Teardrop is a genuinely terrifying creation.

DG: He would so love to hear that, oh my God. He would be very pleased that people felt he had accomplished that, that through his effort, that came through and he made that visceral. That part is the hard work. That is hard work: staying so steady with a demeanor. He would say at times that with Jen, he wanted to be gentler, and it was hard not to look at her. Meaning so many times, he’s doing something very cold with his eyes, and she would be trying to implore him, “Are you sure you don’t know where he is?” “No.” He said it was hard sometimes to be that gruff and that ungiving. She was doing her job well. That’s when it’s working: when two actors make it hard in a good way.

AVC: How did you have the sense that he would be right for it?

DG: We had liked him for a long time. We had wanted to see him in a bigger role for a long time. As we dreamed about different projects along the years, it was like holding a torch for someone and thinking, “We’ll find something for him someday.” Felt like there was a lot more to him, but how come you never get to see it? That kind of thing.

AVC: He’s kind of done the gentle thing.

DG: Very much so. And also the fact that he is very scrappy and skinny. It was kind of cool that he didn’t have to—what’s it called?

AVC: Drop weight for the role?

DG: Exactly. It wasn’t like sensational transformations. No use of prosthetics. And yet it’s not like the devastating complicatedness of what it must be like to work with someone like Mickey Rourke, where I’d be appalled in a day. Filmmaking is already hard enough. To have to battle someone—I don’t want to necessarily single him out. I’m saying there are legends that surround him.

AVC: Jennifer Lawrence hadn’t done nearly as much before, and it’s a very demanding role. What gave you the sense that she had that in her?

DG: Saying that now in hindsight is wild, because we hadn’t seen The Poker House or The Burning Plain, so it was just on the audition. The sense was really, I believed the words coming out of her mouth. She was one of the few actresses where, because of her accent, I already believed that Jennifer could come from that area. With quite a few others, it was like, “Oh God, how would we ever get past this?” So the big lesson for me was like, “If you’re ever going to do a film in a region, it’s not that you can always get your lead from the region, but at least a lot of people have to speak from there.” And then the accent can’t be so exotic that someone’s doing like a bad imitation of it, one that I find really gnarly. It would be like a lot of New England stuff. I think Southern accents are so rich, but they’ve got to be from the real people.

AVC: Beyond the obvious women-in-trouble connection between two features you’ve made, there’s a sense of people trying to climb out of something. It’s not a drug addiction in this movie, but it’s that culture, that way of life. It’s difficult to get out of. Does the sense of why she’s like that attract you?

DG: I think there’s inherent suspense—how’s someone going to make moves when the obstacles are formidable? Also, once you do, then how do you keep going? What gives someone that resolve when it would be very easy to feel defeated? I will always be mesmerized by individuals where I feel like it would be easy to feel defeated, and yet this person’s not. I will always be curious about where a person gets that kind of fuel. It’s a lovely thing to witness. I think we’re all attracted to when we see someone try to help themselves. It’s a very attractive part of human behavior, given that we have so much unattractive stuff to look at in ourselves and others. That’s one that will always catch my eye. It’s not like we can always make a poster child for the idea that people are helping themselves. It’s a winsome, attractive part of human endeavor: to make your life worth living, really. And how do we live without getting weary of life, and bitter and jaded and whatnot?

AVC: Without being too glib, some of what you’re saying applies to independent filmmakers as well. Where do you get the strength to persevere?

DG: The visual anthropology aspect is always a draw. In my lowest day, if someone does something unexpected on a subway train, or if someone is especially touching, something they’re doing… Three mariachis walk on a train in some godforsaken part of the greater New York area. I’m like, “Where did you come from? Do you have family?” My mind is just whirring. “What’s it like to cross over and stand on a train? Where do you go at night? Do you live with 40 other men in a sort of weird place?” What keeps me going, I think, is that I’ve always been curious about people’s lives. We’re all born onto a very narrow path, and some of us, it’s like a tic. There’s always this wonderment. “What’s it like on your path? What are your questions? How do you make humor? What’s your version of funny? How do you cope?” It’s like wondering how other people make a go of it. Once people get under your skin, you get an affection for them. 

Then there’s the drive to keep going with the story. It takes great collaborators. Part of my work, when it’s not worrying about the money, when we’re just doing the research, oh my God, there’s such enjoyment. The last four days, there was a lot of enjoyment. We were taping almost nonstop the musicians we were traveling with, who turned out to be muses in some ways for the next story. The place where we stopped for pie inspired me, even though it was a chain. But the pies were in a cabinet that was perspiring, and then there were only two pies left. It was a big empty case with just two pies. And then there was a big billboard above it that said, “Pies are paradise.” It was just very atmospheric. I couldn’t have sat alone in my apartment in New York and written a scene that had all that atmosphere surrounding pies and dogs and music-making. What keeps me going is that life has lots of bonbons, a lot of treats. You have your mundane life, and then you go into another neighborhood, another zip code, and you’re all delirious again. You’re all delirious and caught up, and then you want to make stories about it. So it’s a kind of addiction, right? 

AVC: Life has many pies.

DG: You always want to taste the other pie. I should have gotten a menu from them; it was a beautiful laminated menu that had photographs of all the different pies. I could use that on my altar. I’ll be done filmmaking when I’ve made a story about each one of these pies.

AVC: The pie trilogy.

DG: The pie chart. I’ll bet on the Internet, there are like outrageous pie recipes and pie-offs and county fairs that have pies. Believe me, right now, after you stand up, I’m going to write “pie” in big letters in my notebook. It’s going to be a big part of the next film.

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