This year’s independent film to watch, “Winter’s Bone,” screened last Friday night at the Somerville Theatre as part of the Independent Film Festival of Boston. The film won the Grand Jury Prize earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, and it also snagged the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the festival for director Debra Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini.
“Winter’s Bone” is Granik’s second feature film after another Sundance winner, “Down to the Bone” (2004) — a breakout film for recent Oscar nominee Vera Farmiga that won her the Sundance award for Best Dramatic Performance and won the Directing Award for Granik.
“Winter’s Bone” is about Ree, played masterfully by Jennifer Lawrence, a teenage girl charged with taking care of her invalid mother and two younger siblings since her drug-dealing father took off. Ree discovers that her father has put their house up for bail, and if he doesn’t show up for court in a week, Ree and her family will be ejected from their home. She goes on a manhunt in the hope of convincing her father to do what’s right, but she discovers a deeper conspiracy among her kin and neighbors.
Director Debra Granik was in Boston promoting her film and sat down with the Daily to answer a few questions about her new film and the process of making independent films.
Catherine Scott: Why did you think it was important that you show this Missouri Ozarks life to people? Because there’s been a lot of controversy, with “Precious” last year and now something like this, over poverty being shown on screen. What redemptive qualities do you think that sort of life might have for people, if any?
Debra Granik: It never started with the idea of seeking out a person who lives with very limited resources. It was coming out of the novel by Daniel Woodrell, and he is describing a kind of mixed situation in hill culture where people may have land but not a lot of fluid cash. People may have some land that I would call difficult land, hardscrabble land. It’s not like it’s really suited for farming or whatnot. And then they have a day job; they may work in a Wal-Mart that’s somehow in the 25-mile radius of their place, so they might have this town life and a private hill life, meaning when they get home, they are maybe heating their house with a wood stove.
There’s a lot of contrasts, and it did feel interesting and rich to say, “In 2010, there are these communities that still exist.” Someone can have this duality of having a satellite dish in their yard, but that doesn’t conflict with the fact that they also augment their whole winter food source with wild game. It was eye-opening, as an East Coast person, that squirrel is not exotic. It’s not gross; it’s not weird. It’s just a commonly obtainable source of an edible, wild game.
And these were things that were very unknown to me, but I didn’t think to myself, “I want to definitely make a film in a place I don’t know.” That’s both a plus and a minus. It also scares you; you don’t want to get it wrong as an outsider. You don’t want to botch it.
In terms of the representation of differences in socioeconomic situations, I’m always rooting for that. I personally am not motivated to tell a story that comes out of the “90210” lifestyle. That’s also something I don’t know, and it gets overexposed. I think American lives without the buffers are not as much explored.
CS: Why did you choose to show mostly the private hill life then in the film versus the public town life you spoke of?
DG: We actually tried to shoot a scene in a place like a Wal-Mart — also just to show that it was 2009. So much of the housing stock and the vehicles are older. You can’t always tell what year it is. We don’t have cell phones in the film. That wasn’t purposeful in the sense that there’s a couple of cell phones that are represented in the scene at the cattle auction. It wasn’t like that was forbidden. If someone had used a cell phone in the scene at the bar, that would’ve been fine. We weren’t trying to make it seem like it was a different time. We actually felt anxious that we wanted people to know it was contemporary. But because of the confines of the story, because the idea that she had one week to solve this, we didn’t have hardly any room for these extra scenes.
CS: What were you trying to do with all of the kinship systems shown in the film, especially those among the female characters?
DG: Most of that content is in the book, for sure, because that’s not something I would have really known to create. It’s not like I can conjure part of my life experience, but I will say that I didn’t feel like I was trying to say something with that, other than it interested me. I was relieved in the end that the women did the right thing. Some people were like, “Oh, women-on-women violence, what do you make of that?” If there is some little curve where Mehrab in the end has to look within herself and figure out what would be a more acceptable ending to her part of the story, I was very relieved that in the end, the character, in her own difficult way, is able to relate to this girl. The actress that played her [Dale Dickey] brought this quality, and she said to me that she could see in Ree how she may have been as a very strong girl herself.
CS: What’s it like to watch both of your films do well at a prestigious film festival like Sundance, and then try to translate that to box office success?
DG: Well, one of my teachers always said that if you’re making a small movie, you don’t have to work so hard to get the money back. What that means in terms of my films is that I don’t have to make millions and millions of dollars; I just need to make enough so that everyone who worked on the film can get money for their living, and enough to pay back the investors. So, when you win all of these awards, you’re constantly pinching yourself thinking it’s too good to be true, but at the same time, you’re thinking about needing to get a trailer made, needing to find a distributor … all of these things that you need to sell a movie to the public.