Photo by Sebastian Mlynarski
Director Debra Granik discusses her award-winning film, Winter's Bone. [24:16]
Music: Way down in Missouri, where I heard this melody. The old folks were hummin', the banjos were strummin', so sweet and low.
Mike Satterfield: Mike Satterfield, A1 Bonds.
Ree: What is it you want?
Satterfied: We hold the bond on Jessup Dolly, he didn't show for court.
Ree: Dad ain't no runner.
Sherriff: Jessup signed over everything. If he doesn't show at trial, see, the way the deal works is ya'll gonna lose this house here. Got someplace to go?
Ree: I'll find him.
Satterfield: Girl I've been lookin'
Ree: I said I'll find him.
Jo Reed: That was excerpts from the award-winning film Winter's Bone, which was directed by Debra Granick.
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
Director Debra Granick is one of ten directors participating in Film Forward, a new initiative of the Sundance Institute and the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the National Endowment for the Arts. The project presents five American and five foreign films, both narrative and documentary, to audiences in the U.S. and abroad. Through Film Forward, moviegoers connect with the filmmakers themselves during post-film talkbacks, roundtables, and workshops in places ranging from China, to the Chippewa Reservation in Northern Michigan, from Tennessee to the Ghetto Film School in the Bronx. And in May a one-day, a multi-venue screening of all 10 of the participating films on the mall in Washington, D.C.
In an odd twist of fate, Winter's Bone is probably the best known of the chosen films. This low-budget independent film, which came out of nowhere has been wowing critics since it opened in 2010. Winter's Bone received many awards, including the grand jury prize from the Sundance Film Festival, and four Academy Award nominations. It's is a tough-minded minded film that looks at poverty, family and one girl's determination in the Ozarks. Ree's father makes and sells meth and is gone more often than he is there; her mother, a shell of a person. For years Ree has been caring for her sister and brother, and that's where the movie begins.
I spoke with Debra Granik when she was in Washington, DC, and asked her to tell me more Winter's Bone.
Debra Granik: The story follows a girl who's 17, Ree Dolly. The opening of the story finds out that her dad is missing, that he did not show up for his court date, and he had put her family house up for his bond. So, within very few minutes of this story, you understand that there's a very severe timeframe that's being posed upon her to solve this mystery. Where is he? What happened to him? And she has to be able to offer up something about his whereabouts. This leads her to ask relatives and kin and friends, neighbors; what has become of him and where he is and who will help her. And she's met with resistance and silence and definitely becomes keyed in quickly that people are hiding facts from her. So, the rest of the journey is who will she be able to reach out to and convince to help her. And she doesn't turn back. She's warned and then it becomes very much in the vein of a classic fairytale in which the protagonist is warned repeatedly to turn back, to not pursue it. Warned, with increasing severity to not pursue it and she feels that everything is at stake. That's also the characteristic of the hero that has to take a journey like that where they don't feel they have a choice. They feel like what they need to pursue is so dire that they must go forward. There's some suspense in watching a human endeavor that when you feel that something very basic is very just and there's no other way to proceed but to try to strive for that.
Jo Reed: And especially in one so young. She's 17 and that determination; partially I guess is driven by her age because there is a sense when you're 17, you are kind of dauntless. But at the same time, how heartbreaking, and how much she has to take on at that age.
Debra Granik: And I think something that was maybe very moving to us when we read the novel and then doing some research in southern Missouri was in any situation where something's entered the community and we're having a lot of this right now in the United States in rural America; be it meth, be it oxycontin. Substances that are extremely pernicious, extremely fast moving and the kinds of destruction that they wreak, a little bit unprecedented. So, I think seeing someone at 17 with a lack of adult role models who are choosing a sustainable life and who are able to model that for her. And in the real heartland and in real rural America, of course, there are millions who are modeling and still able to teach and yet, it feels like a very tension laden battle because there's this other pressure, which is those adults that get taken out and the 17 year olds who witness this. It's very hard sometimes not to model yourself after someone, even if they have made a bad choice.
Jo Reed: What was it about that story that originally grabbed you?
Debra Granik: The film Winter's Bone is based very closely on a novel by Daniel Woodrell, who's an author from the Ozarks. And this novel was my root of entry to the story and I read it with a lot of-- it was very engrossing and particular the lead protagonist, Ree Dolly as written by Daniel Woodrell, immediately drew me in. I was within a few pages, very aware that the conditions of her life were not easy. I was aware that she was a very smart person who wanted to see how she was gonna survive. She was very aware that there were obstacles. That it wasn't straightforward and that whenever I see someone, I begin to want to think alongside them. I want to know what they're going do when I see then the obstacles are formidable, intimidating. I want to know how they're going to handle them. And the fact that she had a lot of responsibilities, I wanted to know what she would do with that aspect. So everything about the conditions of her life drew me in. And then I had asked myself, is this contemporary United States? I don't know this region. Is this a hyperbole? Have there been accurate notes taken about the living conditions? I would have to see for myself. So the book, if you want to say, it kind of assaulted me or arrested me on two fronts. One would be an attraction/compassion to the character. And the second, the wondering that it initiated in me about what was life and what is life like in her neck of the woods; southern Missouri in 2010 or 2011. And what would it take for someone not from that region to ever find out the details of that life? Would there be someone that would be willing to collaborate? Would there be people that would be willing to contribute their own knowledge, their life experience to a fiction story so that it's told with some level of precision or accuracy.
Jo Reed: It's interesting because the society that you're focusing on in the Ozarks it's like a doubly close society. There are the mountain folk who keep to themselves to begin with but then you have that added layer of meth labs and meth abuse, that tendency to be quiet is so intensified.
Debra Granik: That's true and I think whenever a black market crops up and becomes attractive as a hope for making money, whereas serving a real demand in a community, you're absolutely right. Criminal activity of course will aid and abet secrecy, suspicion, paranoia, distrust among people who in previous times before that substance was around, didn't have that particular tension amongst them.
Jo Reed: And the drug itself breeds paranoia.
Debra Granik: Yes, yeah.
Jo Reed: What did you know about the Ozarks when you first undertook this film?
Debra Granik: I did not know much or anything about the Ozarks. I think I had a little basic American heritage history where I knew that Hill cultures in the United States, did have music that was revered. Musial traditions that were revered. And yet, that's like a very comfortable coastal touristical thing to know. You know? Oh gosh, amazing music. I knew nothing. And I guess what happens when you go to a region where you don't know anything about it. That in a short time, you do realize that there are people-- talk about cultural ambassador moments, people do want to be ambassadors. I want to represent-- I want to go there and inasmuch as people wanted-- be very specific about what they think is valiant and poetic and lyrical and stirring and worthy of great respect of their region, of course, I also want them to have a positive opinion about New York City and about urban people and about what would happen to them if they came to see my neck of the woods. So, it does work both ways. But in this case, we were extremely fortunate. There were lifelong residents of the Ozarks who were extremely willing to not just answer our questions but bring us to places, bring us -- to let us come to a covered dish event at a local church. To see a 95th birthday of someone in the community. To go to many different kinds of fundraisers and musical events and things that in which off the record, people are doing what they normally do to make life interesting, to make it work, to keep themselves afloat emotionally. And then there's also just rock hard history that can be taught. Tenets of life that were very pervasive in Hill culture that had to do with a certain frugality and sustainability. And a certain kind of knowledge that life will always have a kind of rigorous physical struggle attached to it and what that means about bucking up and being powerful and strong. And that led very quickly to a huge longitudinal analysis of the word “hillbilly” and what happened to that word. How did it become perverted and reduced and jaundiced to mean something? How did it become a derisive stereotype where if it's opened up, it has so many other nuances like any ethnic or heritage identity that people self appoint or bring to themselves. You realize lots of people -- you come to a region, you're afraid to say that word as an outsider, as a coastal person, as a middle class person and you realize that so many people have such a beautiful resplendent definition of that word.
Jo Reed: The people whom you met, did they know the kind of story you were looking to tell? Were they uncomfortable with that? Were they okay? Or did it take some time to build up trust?
Debra Granik: It took a lot of time to build up trust in the people that we originally met who were showing early signs that they were curious about us and would entertain the notion of working with us. It was then imperative for them to read the novel and the screenplay and for us to fully disclose what the story contained. And quite understandably, one of the first flags for them was the meth. And they said, “It's no surprise. It's no secret that our region has gotten a huge amount of negative publicity in the last ten years. That we are not the only region in the United States that as a severe meth problem but we got to be one of the hot spots in the media.” And it was also kind of a really almost comfortable label to slap on the Ozarks because the region had already had a long and lurid and enticing, exciting history with moonshine and capital “M” moonshine, followed by a lot of years of cultivation of marijuana. So, meth--
Jo Reed: Seemed like the next thing--
Debra Granik: Yeah, just the next thing to sort of peg on the community. And we listened to that extremely seriously that we understood. They said, “It already hurts. We live with it. We see it. We don't want to see a story about it. We don't want people to associate the Ozarks with this. We feel very, very sensitive and very upset about this part of the content.” And we continued to talk about it. And then the discussion got so much more nuanced and as people's individual brush-ups with meth were told about a sibling or a nephew or someone down the road, then we understood that Ree had a different purpose in this story. Ree was a witness to it. She was a somber witness to what it feels like to be a teen and have meth come into your community. To lose your dad to it. To see your uncle really grappling right in front of your eyes and there's very little you can do about it. So, Ree became someone that they were putting a lot of trust in. And she ended up I think feeling like a folk hero. Like she's someone who takes very, very compassionate stock of something, looks at it for what it is, wants to navigate around it. Doesn't want that to be her destiny. And I think they felt in good hands with her as a character, as someone representing their community. So, it went from a process of us feeling pretty shabby and dirty as outsiders coming in (Music) to put out one more kind of devastating set of images about a community that's already had a lot of very harsh depictions to hoping and wishing basically, that it would be true that this character would be somewhat-- people would be attracted to her, would care about her. Would want her to live her life, want her to survive her circumstances, want the best for her siblings. If you get ten minutes to know someone, you can pretty easily care about them.
Woman: You got the wrong place, I suspect. Who might you be?
Ree: I'm Ree, my dad's Jessup Dolly.
Woman: You ain't here for trouble, are ya?
Ree: No ma'm.
Woman: Cause one of my nephews is Buster Leroy, and didn't he shoot your daddy one time?
Ree: Yes, but that ain't got nothing to do with me. They settled that their selves, I think.
Woman: Shootin' him likely settled it. What is it you want?
Ree: I got a real bad need to talk with him.
Woman: And he ain't got no need to talk to you.
Ree: But I need to. I really, really, got to ma'm, please. Some of our blood at least is the same. Ain't that supposed to mean something? Isn't that what is always said?
Woman: Ain't you got no men who could do this?
Ree: No ma'm, I don't.
Jo Reed: The casting obviously was crucial. How did you go about casting the film?
Debra Granik: Casting took place on the coast in the sense of getting lead actors for the main roles that were extensive speaking parts. And within that, the casting directors I worked with, Paul Schnee and Kerry Barden were-- I think they had a very openhearted feeling about respecting regions and how they're different. So when I said, “God, is there any chance that we could really try hard to find southern actors?” They made that happen. It was this huge asset to this film to have the leads coming from the southern states; the states surrounding Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, northern Arkansas and that was so invaluable. Not that the Ozarks accents and dialect is or southern accents are interchangeable. I don't feel that way and I would not want to make that mistake, especially as an easterner. However, the ear was there. The sensibility to be able to listen and pick up was there and the interest was there and the life experience was there. And so therefore, the script was not exotic. The region was not exotic to them. It was something that they could approach with precision and with a dedication and an affiliation if you will. And then the rest of the casting was done, right there in southern Missouri in the two counties that we filmed in and that was huge asset. Here was people who had this life on their clothing and had this life in their blood and their heritage could then truly, truly advise us. No, no. With all due respect, that's not how we do it. That line does not ring true. We had advisors with us by our side from those exact coordinates. Who better to tell us about what toys are for a six year old than the girl herself that lives in that very house that's on screen; Ashley Thompson. Who better to provide a sensibility about school and to show us what school she goes to and to show us what the circumstances are of her home life. Who better than someone who is coming right from that soil. And so this project was inextricably linked to the participation of people from those very coordinates that those very two highways where they intersect next to the Mark Twain Forest and that was really what made the project be truly grounded in southern Missouri.
Jo Reed: The authenticity was just stunning from the actors to the way it was filmed to the accents. You felt like you were there.
Debra Granik: I guess I take heart because I think okay, well that means to me that there are American audiences, even though financers would say that doesn't exist and maybe people would say that doesn't exist. But there are many Americans who are truly interested to see something about the lives of other ordinary Americans. Clearly, it says to me that people are curious about other Americans living in all the 50 states whose life experiences may be quite different from their own but nonetheless, if an ordinary American is willing to show his or her house, her daily life, her work life; clearly there are people that are receptive and want to know.
Jo Reed: How was it getting financing for this?
Debra Granik: It was quite brutal. Because those kind of remarks are made, that Americans can't tolerate seeing people struggling financially. That it's a downer. That we don't have space or heart for that part of our country in which there is economic struggle. It's heavy to see houses that aren't attractive, to see people who aren't living by a pool. Those were the kind of things that were slung at us. That the word poor can sometimes be seen as a four letter word. And it took really brave private equity investors on the East Coast to say, “We want to see American literature. Daniel Woodrell is a really prolific regional writer. Really? There's no space in the American marketplace to celebrate the storytelling of an author from the Ozarks? Really? There's no place? There's no interest?” They couldn't believe it. They're like, “Oh my goodness.” Maybe then micro budget financing on the East Coast, maybe our mandate is to keep American storytelling diverse. Biodiversity.
Jo Reed: What about distribution?
Debra Granik: Distribution was I guess something that we feared and were anxious about and we were picked up and put into the bosom of the most inventive and heartfelt distributor. It was a Roadside Attractions. And they are so committed to seeing what they can do with small stories and where they can place them and position them and they did something extremely wonderful. They rolled the filled out so the Heartland was included. Instead of going for just LA and New York and keeping all the adjudicating power on those coasts, they rolled the film out also in the heartland, close to where it would be applicable and familiar. And that really made a huge difference with how the film, how its life proceeded. So it was very, very hand done, very hand delivered and so in the end we felt it so exceeded our expectations of what can happen in a very hard marketplace.
Jo Reed: How has being part of Film Forward shifted the conversations that you've had about this film?
Debra Granik: It helps me just at the very least to give meaning into my life as a filmmaker to use the terms that are at the core of Film Forward. The idea that there is cultural dialogue and there's cultural dialogue and you don't have to go far. You don't have to go far. You can go to a different part of New York City and you can have students of color express wonderment and in some ways confusion that there are poor white Americans. And that's already a bridge of something. That just eases up certain kinds of assumptions that are made about how things work in this country. I think similarly, it was interesting to see the way that for example, the music of the Ozarks did seem to really compel and interest foreign audiences and that leads to discussions about is it really still made? Questions that would make people in the Ozarks really delighted that people in Austria and Sweden and Finland were curious about their lives and their music making and their art forms. That does a lot. That does a lot to feel like there's this empathetic interest in your life among people who live really far from you and who you've never met. So, there is that. And even the act of making a film in a region that you don't come from or meeting a filmmaker from a region you don't; all of that is in this mix of the very good things that happen when two people who don't know a lot about each other start to talk.
Jo Reed: Debra Granick, thank you so much. It's an extraordinary film, so thank you for that. I really appreciate it.
Debra Granik: Thank you, thank you very much.
That was Debra Granik, she's the director if the award winning film Winter's Bone, which is also a selection for Film Forward, an initiative of the Sundance Institute and the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. For more information about the project, go to Sundance.org and click on Film Forward.
You've been listening to Art works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.
Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor
Excerpts from Winter's Bone used courtesy of Debra Granik and Roadside Attractions.
Excerpts from "Missouri Waltz" composed and performed by Marideth Sisco and from "Hardscrabble Elegy" composed and performed by Dickon Hinchliffe, both featured on the soundtrack to Winter's Bone and used courtesy of LIGHT IN THE ATTIC RECORDS and by permission of the artists.
Special thanks to David Low, Tory Stewart and the folks at the Sundance Institute.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U—just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.