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