The Dead of Winter

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and a stand out work at Edinburgh International Film Festival, <em>Winter’s Bone</em> is one of the most inspiring examples of recent American cinema. Director <strong>Debra Granik</strong> discusses the film

Feature by Gail Tolley | 06 Sep 2010
  • Winter's Bone

Winter’s Bone, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, tells the story of a teenage girl, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), who is the sole carer of her sick mother and younger siblings in their remote house in the Ozark region of Southern Missouri. When she finds out that her absent father has put the family home up as collateral for his bail, and that if he doesn’t attend court the family will soon be evicted, she decides to hunt him down. Ree begins to question her family and neighbours and in this closed community her actions soon lead to conflict.

Through a vivid evocation of the remote Ozark region and use of the lyrical local dialect, Winter’s Bone creates a world of bleak beauty punctuated by unexpected violence. It is at once a gripping drama and an atmospheric mood piece. Here director Debra Granik talks about the making of such a distinctive film.

The character Ree Dolly is at the heart of the film – tell me a bit more about her.

Ree Dolly is a female protagonist I’ve been waiting a long time for. I enjoy seeing tom girls on screen because with a tom girl character you often get the full embodiment of what a female human being can be, [she uses] a variety of resources, both her intellect and intuition, her resolve and her youth and the stakes are very high for Ree Dolly. It’s not like she’s hooked up with any form of state intervention that can assist her, she is lacking adult guidance and therefore everything she does is a high stakes endeavour. You wonder what her moves are going to be. What’s this girl going to do? She’s trying to solve a mystery and as she finds she’s blocked by her kin she has to exert a lot of force; she has to actually decide to brush up against them and the ultimate suspense is: will she prevail?

I was very attracted to her qualities and frankly longed to see a tried and true Western story, an American Western but in the boots of the hero and what it would be like to be all in a girl’s body.

How did you go about casting for the film?

The casting process happened in two different ways. The leads were cast out of the coasts, out of traditional casting methods working with a casting director. Yet I have to add that a lot of the leads had life experience from the surrounding states to Missouri. I had people who had the sound of different accents in their head and they were able to read the script with ease whereas for me it was a much more foreign way of speaking.

The next tier of casting was actors in that region, especially people in their twenties who had had training at Missouri State University, who aspired to do acting and then this was their first opportunity to try it out in a film experience.

And the third tier was a whole load of people we met through a variety of means, going into churches etc. You introduce yourself, you tell people who you are, you have to be very frank about the whole thing. Over time you realise there are some people that will take a risk with you and once you approach them and say ‘I was wondering if you’d be interested in being in the film’ quite a few people will say yes.

How did you cast Jennifer Lawrence in the main role?

We didn’t know about her previous work, she came in like other actors into the casting room. What I didn’t know was that she’d read the screenplay so carefully and was really invested in the role and had done all her own work on it. Out of her mouth came this lyrical way of pronouncing American English (she’s raised in Kentucky). I trusted the voice, I was like ‘Wow, I feel like I’m believing Rea here’ whereas a lot of other people really struggled.

The film has a very distinct sense of place – how did you approach creating this?

The fact that the film takes place in southern Missouri was both very alluring and very daunting. My collaborator Anne Rosselini, who produced the film and co-wrote the screenplay with me, she and I responded very strongly to the novel by Daniel Woodrell. Reading it both of us had to do a lot of conjuring because everything described was very different from our daily life and any life that we know about in the United States. It wasn’t clear to me whether it was all contemporary or not – we knew that we had to go there to see.

We went down to southern Missouri and met with the author and he showed us places that had been inspirations. We realised it would be a very rich opportunity to attempt to put on film a region you don’t know but have to do the research over a period of time to get familiar. So you take a novel, you find where the characters are living and you try to find real life locations that seem to link up with what the author was describing, and that was the process we used.

In the end there was this large contribution through collaboration with local people because their animals ended up on screen, their clothing, their house, their personal effects, in the end that was the collaboration. We had the infrastructure for making a film and they had the life experience and the material objects that gave credence to this daily life.


Winter's Bone is released on 17 Sep