From the Vault: Director Debra Granik On The Film That Launched Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone

Close To The Bone

Debra Granik discusses her adaptation of Winter's Bone and rising star Jennifer Lawrence

June 2010

The winner of the grand jury and scriptwriting prizes at Sundance in January, Debra Granik’s gritty adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 novel is a tense, occasionally wrenchingly violent, thriller, wrapped up in a sensitive and sharply observed portrait of an often maligned and misrepresented section of American society.
Like Granik’s only other film, Down to the Bone -- a winner at Sundance in 2004 -- it features a powerful central performance from a soon-to-be-star. Last time it was the then little-known Vera Farmiga (Up In the Air) wowing critics with her raw performance as a working-class mother in upstate New York battling drug addiction. Now it is 19-year-old Jennifer Lawrence (Charlize Theron’s daughter in The Burning Plain) who is garnering the plaudits under Granik’s guidance.  
Mixing strength, stubbornness and girlish vulnerability, she plays Ree Dolly, the eldest child of a poverty-stricken family in the Ozark Mountains in south Missouri. Life there is tough at the best of times; however, it becomes even tougher when her crystal-meth dealing father vanishes after putting their home up for bail bond. With a week to eviction, Ree sets out on a dangerous mission to find her missing pa that challenges clan codes and blood ties.
The film’s authentic evocation of Ozark life belies the impression that, on paper at least, Granik and her source material seem mismatched. After all, what could a woman raised in Boston and Washington DC, and who now resides in New York, possibly know about hillbilly life beyond the usual cliches? 
Initially the film-maker drew confidence from the knowledge that the book’s author was a native south Missourian. “But I came to find out that because I’m not from that region, that’s not enough,” she admits.
“I then went down with these very big fears about perpetuating something that’s already had a very rough deal over time, especially in film.” 
That said, there were aspects of Granik’s background that in some ways made her ideally suited to the task of adapting Winter’s Bone in a way that would transcend condescension.
At university she studied documentary film history, and after graduating made educational films for trade unions. While doing the latter she developed an almost ethnographic fascination with the minutiae of other people’s lives, the legacy of which now informs every frame of the new movie.
Basically, Granik did her homework. First, she and her producer scouted the area around Woodrell’s home in south Missouri, and, with the help of the author and his wife, met everyone from singers and storytellers, to scholars, folklorists, and a sheriff who described the devastating impact of crystal-meth in the region. 
Later, they were introduced to someone “embedded” in the Ozark community who agreed to liaise between the film-makers and a dozen families living in the region, so they could look at their properties, observe their lives, and explain what they were trying to achieve with Winter’s Bone. 
As outsiders, Granik says they inevitably made mistakes. And there were a couple of occasions, she recalls, “where we thought we were being so gracious or appropriate or following a certain kind of protocol and then, all of sudden, we got a call saying, ‘We don’t want you to film up here.’
“We had to go on six different visits over a period of two years to ask, progressively, ‘Can we photograph? Can you read the book? We need you to tell us you understand what’s in this book and that it’s still OK.’ We then went back and asked if we could do this and this and this?”
Eventually a family came on board who allowed them to film on their property, while their connections with other families opened up access to more pieces of land. 
“A family compound is called a ‘holler’,” Granik explains, “which usually refers to a piece of land that several members, like grandparents, brothers or sisters, all have houses on. We used one family’s land, primarily, so the houses were the family’s houses, and then the primary house belongs to the little girl that plays Ree’s younger sister.”
Virtually everything appears in Winter’s Bone as the film-makers found it (they even swapped new clothes for lived-in ones); the only things that weren’t real were the firearms, says Granik, because “you can’t use a live gun on set”.
Seeing the number of guns people owned -- 280, she appears to suggest, in one family’s case -- unsettled the director.
“I had to learn about that aspect of hunting culture and that was a really huge awakening for me,” she says, comparing her own experience. “I live in a place where gun control is very vital to a lot of people’s politics and where there’s a lot of anxiety about guns, and a lot of people don’t know how to operate them ... So I came to it with, like, hesitation and fear, and that was a really big challenge for me.” 
It was worth it: Winter’s Bone was a triumph for Granik at Sundance, although the experience proved rather more bitter-sweet for her young lead. Five years earlier, Farmiga had won a special jury prize for her performance in Down to the Bone, and people were now tipping Lawrence to follow in her footsteps. This year, though, the festival did not award an acting prize, and she walked away empty handed. Granik believes that it was a confusing time for the teenager. “I think it screwed with her emotions in some ways,” she sighs. She hopes it was enough for Lawrence to know that people were engaged by her performance, and that she doesn’t need awards to feel validated. “In some ways it’s good not to get awards and keep working, keep hungry, keep going, you know?” 
The actress is undoubtedly an exciting new talent, though whether she will branch out into predominantly more mainstream film-making -- she will next be seen alongside Mel Gibson in Jodie Foster’s quirky The Beaver -- remains to be seen. “I think, personally, what Jennifer wants and what people may want for her, she could run into a disparity there,” says Granik.
“The American system can take people and eat them up, make them It Women and It Girls, and we have such a profound malaise with celebrity culture and that machinery that just gnashes people up, chews them, spits them out, puts them out in a field. I hope she will stay interested in work that really challenges her.”
As for Granik herself, she would not be averse to making a more mainstream, “so-called industry film”, and would put everything she has into it, she says, if the money she made from it could “then be put in a pot to make a film that no-one else is going to greenlight except a bunch of us that work together”.”
So far, though, the “so-called dream way” of making ‘one for them, one for you’, has alluded her. “I have yet to see that kind of arrangement,” she laughs. “God knows, I’d take that like anyone else would.” 
Winter’s Bone could just be the film that gives her that chance.
First published in The Herald, June 2010


X-Men: Days of Future Past, reviewed for The National

Director: Bryan Singer

Starring: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Peter Dinklage, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen


The original X-Men director Bryan Singer returns to the franchise that rescued the superhero genre from the campy, Day-Glo nightmare of Batman & Robin by showing that films based on comic books could be genuinely dramatic, intellectually stimulating and emotionally engaging, as well as action-packed and fun.

With X-Men: Days of Future Past, he has given fans the boldest and most
ambitious entry so far. Newcomers could find themselves occasionally feeling
lost among the in-jokes and allusions to previous instalments. But even if you
don’t know Blink from Beast, nor fully grasp the roots of the love-hate bromance
between Charles Xavier, aka Professor X, and Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto,
there is enough spectacle, invention and incident to keep even casual viewers
hooked until the film’s eye-popping climax.

From the Vault: Lee Daniels Talks The Paperboy, Race & Critics

Director Lee Daniels enters the danger zone with The Paperboy

December 29, 2012 

Stephen Applebaum

The Australian

THE Cannes film festival can be a disorienting experience for a filmmaker - just ask Lee Daniels.

The director of the Oscar-winning drama Precious feared the worst when he read a negative story about his new film The Paperboy as he and the actors were making their way to the movie's premiere in May. His sense of dread worsened when Nicole Kidman warned him she'd been booed on the red carpet in the past. As Daniels climbed the steps of Cannes's Palais des Festivals, uncertain of what was to come, nerves gripped him.

"I was expecting to be booed," he tells me the following afternoon, in a hotel on the Croisette, the boulevard edging the Cannes shoreline. "Then we got a 16-minute standing ovation, which was double the amount of time we got for Precious."

The reviews were less enthusiastic, to put it mildly. According to one critic, The Paperboy was "transcendentally awful". When I ask Daniels why he thinks there is such a disparity between his experience and the reactions of a sizeable section of the press (their screening ended in a mixture of cheers and jeers), he is surprised.

"I was so traumatised by two reviews I read of Shadowboxer," he says, referring to his debut feature about a terminally ill assassin (Helen Mirren) and her stepson-cum-lover (Cuba Gooding Jr), "that I made a point never to read a review again. Ever." In other words, this is the first time that he has heard there were other poor notices. "But I think that the people speak. Two thousand people standing on their feet for 16 minutes was not a figment of my imagination."

Personally, I enjoyed The Paperboy. It is bonkers and overheated, but this is part of its appeal. Adapted from Pete Dexter's 1995 novel by the author and Daniels, the film is a sweaty, sexy, violent, not entirely serious melodrama, in which Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron, John Cusack and singer Macy Gray throw themselves into against-type roles with conviction.

Column inches have been devoted to a scene in which Kidman's tragic floozy, Charlotte, urinates on pretty boy Efron. But this is just one of many gobsmacking moments in a film that is unashamedly lurid, moody and feral, with performances that bring a gallery of complicated, conflicted characters vividly to life.

"I'm not interested in being safe, and I'm willing to fail because of that," Kidman commented during Cannes. Even this, however, can't prepare one for the sheer audacity and daring of a scene in which the 45-year-old mother of two has what's being called "telepathic sex" with John Cusack's repulsive death-row inmate. The episode is weird and perversely erotic, and leaves you feeling somewhat grubby.

Some in Cannes put their necks on the line and suggested she might pick up an Oscar nomination for her performance, talk which now seems vindicated by her nods for Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe best supporting actress awards.

"She is fearless and I have fallen in love with her," Daniels says. "I'm so in awe of working with her because she transformed." He made Kidman do her own make-up as a condition of playing the role and told her to gain weight, believing this would help the actress find the character. "I said, 'You have to put on some pounds,' " he explains with a laugh. "That was what was key to the discovery, because she had the jiggle but she didn't have the junk in her bunk."

So why wasn't The Paperboy getting more love from critics? Daniels, a black, gay, self-made man who grew up poor in a project in Philadelphia, made his name as the producer of the Oscar-winning Monster's Ball and daring pedophile character study The Woodsman, has a theory that goes back to Shadowboxer. He once told me he believed if that film had been made by an Italian or French filmmaker, American critics would have embraced it more. "But since I'm an African-American filmmaker," he said, "how dare I think out of the box like that?"

Hearing now about the critical reaction to The Paperboy in Cannes - a snobby environment, to be fair - he says: "What that means to me, again, is that as an African-American, I had better stick to telling African-American stories."

Prior to his involvement, Pedro Almodovar had been working on bringing Dexter's book to the screen as his first English-language film. When the Spaniard dropped out, Daniels stepped in. "So I think critics will take quite deep offence that I am not Pedro Almodovar telling this story."

At the end of the day, "I am judged differently as Obama is judged differently," he says. "It's just the same. He cannot be the man that Bush was and say, 'This is the way it has to be', because then he's an angry black man.

"And I dare not scream racism because it's politically incorrect to scream racism. It's not cool, because Obama is President."

You don't have to dig very deep to find reasons for Daniels's barely concealed anger and frustration. When he was eight, for instance, he witnessed his father being racially abused by a white man he thinks was his dad's boss. Even as a child, he knew it was wrong.

"We got in the car and I screamed, 'Why would you let him talk to you like that?' and he punched me in my face." His father, a police officer who was shot dead when Daniels was 15, often hit him. "But I love him. He was a victim," the filmmaker says softly.

"I think that African-American men in the 1960s weren't really men - they were castrated - and he knew no better. It comes from slavery: we were beaten and then those people learned to beat their kids and so on."

Intriguingly, his follow-up to Precious originally was going to be Selma, a drama set during a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement in America in the 60s, but it collapsed.

He couldn't let Selma go completely, though, and ideas from it bubbled over into The Paperboy, which is set in the same era, as Daniels tried to inform the material with his own experience. This is the only way he knows how to work. "I cannot tell a story unless I know it. I can't talk about the characters and tell the actors what to do unless I know it, and I know the truth. If I don't know it, I don't do the movie."

Thus Yardley (David Oyelowo), a white character in the book, became black in the movie. An abrasive, chippy type, he cannot be himself because of racism.

"Yardley is me," says Daniels, "and [like him] I did what I had to do to get where I wanted to be." Like the character, too, he had white lovers who were racked with shame after sleeping with him. "They were attracted to me and they hated themselves," he says.

Daniels's films typically tackle sex and sexuality frankly and directly. In his own life, understanding his homosexuality from a young age helped give him the determination to escape the world of limited opportunities that he grew up in.

Daniels has got to where he is today through sheer determination and resourcefulness. His life has made him fearless and given him the strength of character not to be crushed by setbacks. Despite the failure of Selma, he's pressed ahead with another passion project, The Butler, about a black White House butler who served eight American presidents through three decades. Finding funding for this epic "black Forrest Gump" again proved difficult, and for a long time its future hung in the balance.

"White America doesn't want to know about the mistreatment of us in the 60s and slavery. They choose to forget about it," Daniels insists.

He didn't give up, however, and eventually got The Butler into production with independent financing. People can knock him down, maybe, but they can't knock him out.

"I dodged physical bullets. I dodged an HIV bullet in the 80s. I dodged being told I was nothing by my dad. I dodged the racism in Hollywood. I have survived. I will continue to survive. It's my instinct. It's what I know how to do until I die."


From the Vault: John Carpenter

In 1997, Total Film magazine commissioned me to interview John Carpenter about Escape from L.A. Here is the result . . . 

You’ve resisted doing sequels in the past. What changed your mind? 

"I used to think that doing sequels showed a lack of originality. Then I heard that Francis Coppola had initially refused requests to make a Godfather sequel for the same reason, but that, after thinking about it, had concluded it could be a great creative challenge. The idea intrigued me; and it got me thinking that maybe a follow-up to Escape From New York wouldn’t be such a bad move after all. The rest, as they say, is history."  

Yet a lot of people regard Escape From LA as more of a big budget remake than a sequel... 

"Paramount said that, with sequels, audiences want the same thing but somehow different. So we took the structure of the first movie and inverted everything. LA’s not just a prison; it’s also the only real “free” place. Snake Plissken is not a rescuer; he’s an assassin. I looked at in the same way Howard Hawks approached El Dorado after he’d made Rio Bravo. He made the same movie structurally but changed the details.”

But Hawks didn’t wait 15 years...

“The problem was, we had no LA story until this tremendous earthquake devastated our city. It brought LA to a standstill; brought us to our knees. We had the biggest riot in American history and all the natural disasters of living in a reclaimed desert starting to happen. We’re living in a dreamland there; we think we’ve got a city, but really it’s just a savage desert. We’ve got these houses made of all this expensive stuff, and one day they’re going to come tumbling down. Because of everything that was happening, we finally got a vibe we could work with.”

Some people have suggested you made this film as a way to re-enter the mainstream, following the disappointment of In The Mouth Of Madness and Village Of The Damned...

“For certain historical reasons which don’t really matter, I’ll never be able to get back into the mainstream, and I’ve accepted that. I’m not a mainstream director anyway, because I don’t, won’t and can’t follow a formula. That’s not what I’m here for, I’m here to be John Carpenter. But sometimes I wish my movies were better received when they’re released, rather than in retrospect.”

I can understand you wanting to remake The Thing, but why Village Of The Damned?

“They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse! Plus, I think the book [The Midwich Cuckoos] by John Wyndham is beautiful, and I like the old movie a lot. I’ve always been fascinated by it because of the profound question at its core: what happens when you find out your kids are evil? I’m a parent now myself, so I thought it would be an interesting thing to explore. I actually love the movie I made and don’t feel the need to defend it. I think it’s brilliant and wouldn’t change a thing in it.”

The Escape films are pretty difficult to categorize, because they’re very much genre hybrids. How would you describe them?

“They’re science fiction on the surface, but really they’re dark comedy westerns, or “cowboy noirs”. Like all my films, they have a little bit of this and little bit of that in them. Man, if I had to define exactly what I was doing, I would never have made it this far. I operate on instinct a lot; if it feels right I do it. I try to get in touch with pure creation, and my most successful films have come out that way. It’s not something I can analyse.”

Escape From New York cost just $7 million. Would you have contemplated making Escape From LA for the equivalent amount today.

“No. In the 1990s you’ve got to do films big, because you’re competing against other huge movies, and audiences these days expect so much more. As it is, we didn’t have enough money - we really needed to spend $75 million not $50 million.”

The screenplay is credited to you, Kurt Russell and your producer, Debra Hill. How did that work?

“I hammered out the first draft with help from Debra; she came up with some scenes that I didn’t have time to do because I was directing and scoring another film. Then we worked on each section separately. Kurt came in at this point and helped make the dialogue scenes play for actors. That’s his strength. And the ending is his. I had a similar ending but he’s actually the one who made it clear what was going on. We worked hard together on the McGuffin, the thing that shuts off the lights, and on all the rules governing the hologram.”

The last line of the movie, “Welcome to the human race”, suggests that out of the chaos will come something better...

“Exactly. The funny thing about that line is that it originally took place in the scene where Snake’s told that he’ll be killed if he tries to come out of LA. But it didn’t work there, so I cut it out and the editor stuck it at the end of the movie. The editing process is effectively re-writing; it’s where we invent new things.”

The cast is eclectic - Peter Fonda, Pam Grier, Steve Buscemi... Did you have an idea of who you wanted when you were writing the script?

“Not until we really got into it. We took each character and looked at what they had to do and then decided. We wanted it be like Escape From New York, where we took actors who, at the time, weren’t necessarily big - like Lee Van Cleef and Ernest Borgnine - and cast them in our film. We did things then because they were fun, and I still love seeing people in those roles. The way we’ve cast this film was really interesting too.”

In your films there’s often a tension between the ideas you’ve come up with for the set-up - which are usually very imaginative - and the imperatives of the action genre, which maybe aren’t. In Escape From LA you have your satirical elements and your critique of the right...

“... and of the left! There are a lot of attacks on political correctness in this movie; we’re attacking both extremes of the political spectrum. For me, the whole point of making movies is to make people think. But the audiences aren’t as curious as they were when I was starting to make films, so I sometimes feel like a guy out of his time.”

Are you disturbed by the continuing drift to the right in America?

“Yeah, I’m disturbed. But it’s nothing new - it’s been happening since the ‘80s and Reagan. I’m disturbed by a lot of things happening in the world. We’re living in a dangerous time, and I’m concerned about the future. In the long term I’m an optimist, but right now I’m a pessimist. The last line in the movie says it all.”

Was it strange re-entering Snake Plissken’s world after such a long absence?

“Yeah. At first I was frightened that I wouldn’t be able to get into it, because I made Escape From New York when I was a punk kid, and now I’m an old man. But as soon as I got on the set a thought suddenly came into my head - 'Shoot the man with the eye-patch' - and all my fears dissolved.”

Have you and Kurt changed much in the intervening years?

“We’re no longer boys, and these days we’re always talking about our aches and pains. We also have families now. Yet I think there’s a part of us that will never change: we still bitch about the business and threaten to retire, but it’s all fake. Movies are still a giant love for both of us, and when we’re shooting a film its like two pros working together. The fact that we both come from sports backgrounds helps too. He used to play baseball and I play basketball, so we know what it takes to win a game as part of a team.”

In your mind, who is Snake Plissken?

“He’s a guy I knew at high school who went to ‘Nam and came back and had changed. He was Snake. He’s also an archetypal Western character; he’s a bad guy from the Old West, a hired gun. He’s also a part of me that’s distrustful and dislikes authority. He’s also part of Kurt; Kurt’s a tough guy. Snake is a sociopath and doesn’t give a shit about anyone. All he cares about is living for the next 60 seconds. He doesn’t want to hurt you, but don’t screw with him. He’ll get you back.”

Has your own anti-authoritarianism ever got you into trouble?

“Of course. It still does. I’m sure my career would have been different if I’d been a more malleable person. I don’t play the political game well. If I’d done that better - been more of a con artist - I'd be in better shape. But I can’t change now, I’m too old.”

How easy was it to adapt to working with digital effects for LA?

“People forget I made Memoirs Of An Invisible Man, which invented the computer graphics used in Forrest Gump. OK, my film wasn’t a big hit and Gump was the sweetest, greatest movie ever. But how do you think they made that guy’s legs disappear? ILM broke new ground on Invisible Man. No-one saw it, that’s all.”

You score most of your own movies. Why don't you let someone else do it?

“I can say it really simply: I’m cheap and I’m fast. Or I can say it broadly: I used to be in a rock’n’roll band, I love music, my dad was a musician, and I’ve always wanted to keep music with me in my career. This is a way to do it.”

Finally, is it true that you’re planning to make another Escape Film, Escape From Earth? And what about Mutant Chronicles - another big SF project you’ve been connected with?

Escape From Earth is just and idea, really, but I doubt we’ll do it. I think we’ll put Plissken to bed at this point - unless someone makes us an offer we can’t refuse. And as for Mutant Chronicles - well that’s a cool new movie I’ve been kicking around for a while, and looks like it’s going ahead. It’s a sci-fi adventure, set in the Dark Ages of the future. If all goes to plan, I’ll be making it here in England. But of course, only time will tell.”