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‘Winter’s Bone’ Nominee Debra Granik: From the Ozarks to the Kodak

Writer-director of the smallest Best Picture nominee stands up for the little guy, on and off screen

It's hard to call "Winter's Bone" a surprise Best Picture nominee when the film spent most of 2010 garnering rave reviews, picking up awards (the Sundance Grand Jury and screenwriting prizes, Best Film at the Gotham Awards) and turning Jennifer Lawrence into the year's breakout new star. Still, the four nominations for Debra Granik's hardscrabble tale of a Southern Missouri teen looking for her meth-dealing father turned the heads of some who thought Ben Affleck's sleeker, bigger and more profitable "The Town" would get the nod instead.

Debra GranikBut if "Winter's Bone" isn't the likeliest nominee, it just might be one of the best.  The recipient of nods for Best Picture, actress Lawrence, supporting actor John Hawkes and the script from Granik and Anne Rosellini, the film was lauded as "a masterful film … that's haunting and provocative" by last year's Best Director winner Kathryn Bigelow, who hosted a pair of private screenings in January.

Granik, whose previous film was the critical hit (but commercial failure) "Down to the Bone," now finds herself in an unexpected place: still talking about a gritty, sub-$5 million independent film that had its debut more than a year ago.

When your film showed at Sundance last January and you signed a deal with Roadside Attractions, did you ever imagine it still being a topic of conversation a year later?
Never never never never. I mean, never. Especially since the experience of my first film was so confusing, that something could get such strong critical response, and an actress [Vera Farmiga] could go to on be enjoyed, but the film would have no life at all. Not even a drop. So we were … I don’t want to say cynical, but our expectations were tiny.

Are you comfortable with the demands of awards season?
I will do what it takes, because I would like me and my partners and other filmmakers in my category – scrappy filmmakers, the under fives – I would like us to do work. So if that means entering the more mainstream system of how films get acknowledged, of course I will put a lot of effort into doing that. Because it really is about diversifying the American film culture.

I don’t want to be lofty about it, but I felt the same way about [the 2008 indie] "Frozen River." For me, it was very important that that film had some presence. It helped me in my dark hours as the financing went south on this film. And it could only happen if the film went through this season. You can't do that outside of the season, I've come to recognize that.

You mention the financing going south on "Winter's Bone." Why was it so hard to get the film off the ground?
The subject matter. For people who place films in the marketplace, violence is not considered dark, it's considered thrilling or cathartic or something. But poverty, or an American life under duress, is considered hugely unappealing. And I felt like, really what people were writing on the top of the script when they were rejecting it, the four-letter word, was "POOR." The characters are poor. Rural poor.

What drew you to the project?
The book by Daniel [Woodrell], absolutely. Out of the gate, Anne and I just felt this beautiful relief  that we had just read a female protagonist who just felt good. We didn't just like her, we found her capable. We found traits in her that we felt were not just admirable but also good to see in a female onscreen.

Jennifer LawrenceAnd from there, the actual content and texture and circumstances of her daily life very much interested us. We weren’t sure if it was set in 2009 or 2010, if she would really be living like that, what her house would really be like. And we knew that this would be a very big challenge to go to a region that we didn’t know and see, could we be careful observers? Could we be precise notetakers? Would we find people to collaborate with us? Would any of this gell, and work?  It was a very big invitation to a challenge that felt intimidating and very alluring.

You're from the Northeast. Did you have any experience with the South?

Did you  have preconceptions?
Definitely. I'm a product of what my culture has taught me about a certain region, absolutely. And that was going to have to be eroded over a two year process. It took time for me to understand what was myth, what was true, what was hyperbole, what was really there. And it's so weird, any exchange program , even in your own country, shifts you forever. Not in a Pollyanna way, but it stares you in the face and it's not what you were told.

How did you get the money to make it?
We had an original group of private equity investors, but then we went down a very long path with a company in L.A. They were interested in films that had both political and socially complex content that looked at class and issues. And it was a modest budget, and they still felt like they couldn’t do it at that. I said, "We're very frugal. If you're saying that you think it would work well at four [million], we could do it at two." And they were like, "Even at two we'd lose our shirts, we can't do it."

So we ran home to the east coast and said, "Will you have us back?" And those investors really felt that Daniel's story was strong, and they really liked that it was going to be shot in a place that wasn’t overexposed and overfamiliar to the American film culture. And when they saw the final script, they said, "This sounds different from other scripts."

They said "Yes, we want our money returned, but we also want to see diversity in American film culture. It's not that we run a philanthropy, but if we can aid and abet having different kinds of films out there, that would also please us." And thank God for them, you know?

What was the sales process like at Sundance?
It has everything to do with Roadside. Their people were in the audience at Sundance, and it resonated with them. It's this simple thing of a small company taking a risk on their taste. And I've gotten this renewed awe and respect for that cadre of film professionals who are literally saying, "I want to take the risk to put out films I like into the world." As hard as that is, this is a company that is still doing it.

They bought it before it won the Grand Jury Prize, didn't they?
Yes they did, which makes it extra special. When other people came back after the award, we said, "We're not forsaking this company, ever. They came before the award. You can lord some other money over us, but we're not going to do that."

Did other companies come to you?
Half-baked. One that we had been chasing and hoping for, and for whatever reason they couldn’t do it except after the award. It felt like half-love, you know?

You obviously feel a kinship with low-budget filmmakers – but now that "Winter's Bone" has gotten you so much attention, do you have any inclination to try out a bigger-budget project?
What I find hard there is that you owe so many people money, and you are also linked to one thing that the films I'm interested in might not work with, which is the idea of a bankable star. For whatever reason, which kills me, that's become the only concept of film financing. I would find it excruciating to be given this thing hanging on a string, this larger budget, but it would come with a caveat: you can pick from this list. And then I might make a preposterous film, because some people, when the reach a certain level of celebrity, will always look airlifted in.

And frankly, I don’t know how to accommodate the kind of filmmaking. How do you go into a humble community and bring an opulent way of making movies with you? I have never been able to solve that. It's not that I don’t want to, it's that I would want the money without the strings, you know?

I'd also be freaked out the first time they asked me, if there's one moment of ambiguity in my film, to fill it with voiceover or fix it or reshoot it. I hate the fact that a committee might look at the ballots of filmgoers and say wow, for one second a human being in America didn’t know the answer. What about giving that person one second to figure it out?

I fear that they won't have me as I am, basically. I don’t know who the they is, but you know what I'm saying.