“She could sense blood driven by heartbeats pulsing from the torn places beneath her skin.”
From the novel Winter’s Bone written by Daniel Woodrell
Seventeen year old Ree Dolly has a simple goal in the movie Winter’s Bone—to find her father. But it proves to not be an easy task. I’m sure the same could be said for writer/director Debra Granik as she sought to find a way to turn Daniel Woodrell’s novel into a movie.
Granik certainly didn’t take the easy road in making her second feature film and she was rewarded for her efforts when earlier this year the film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Granik and co-screenwriter Anne Rosellini also won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance. Glowing reviews followed.
“Every once in a rare while a movie gets inside your head and heart, rubbing your emotions raw. The remarkable Winter’s Bone is just such a movie.”
No one is going to confuse Winter’s Bone with Toy Story 3, but if you want a sign that American cinema is alive and well in 2010 then those two films would be a good starting point. And as different as those two are, they have themes that intersect. To borrow Bob Segers’ phrase, both films have characters “seeking shelter against the wind.”
On one level Winter’s Bone is not an enjoyable to watch. But on another level it’s like watching Tender Mercies in that you are being exposed to characters and a world foreign to our largely suburban culture. And as harsh as the realities are there are moments of grace.
On a filmmaking level Winter’s Bone is a pure delight. The casting is rock solid. Jennifer Lawrence carries the lead beautifully and the entire cast of not so familiar faces made me think Granik had somehow discovered an acting troupe in the Ozarks. While she did, in fact, find some of the actors involved in an acting group in I believe Arkansas, she found others from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama—those with Southern backgrounds that served the film well. Granik also used local people for smaller roles.
And while John Hawkes, who plays the character Teardrop with amazing presence, is not from the south, he was born and raised in rural Minnesota and started his career in theater in Austin, Texas.
The actors give the film an authentic texture as does the location in rural southern Missouri where they shot the movie. On the DVD commentary Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough talk about being influenced by the photographs of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Shelby Lee Adams.
McDonough who shot the film in 24 1/2 days using the Red camera says,”I think one of the things you’ll notice with a lot of the interiors in the film is we deliberately lit from the exterior which is what daylight naturally does. So our film lights are outside—there may be some lamps inside, but—the main lighting is coming from the outside and it lets us work really freely with the actors inside. There’s not all the trappings of filmmaking. You can look at multiple angles without seeing film equipment and it lets you work fairly quickly and more importantly naturalistically.”
Granik, who won the best director award at Sundance in 2004 for her first film Down to the Bone, said in an interview with Ruthie Stein;
“I really think you don’t have to spend that kind of money ($20-30 million) to make a good film. It helps lighten the load (to have less money). You want to make a film with a fleet-footed and agile crew that doesn’t leave a footprint. You don’t want to mow down things in its wake. I like to work small and take a gentler approach to actually trying to capture something.”
A common question I found myself asking over the years as I’ve traveled around this country and overseas is, “What do these people do?” What is their everyday life like? Films offer a chance to explore some of those questions.
Granik said in an interview with Sam Adams, “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.”
If you ever get writer’s block, just look out your window at your neighbors or take a drive in the next town over. There are stories everywhere waiting to be told.