Director Debra Granik’s latest film is Winter’s Bone, which is based on the book by Daniel Woodrell and stars Jennifer Lawrence as Ree, a girl from the Ozarks who goes on a search for her drug dealing father in order to save her home. Granik was recently in London to talk about the film, and she had a chat with View’s Matthew Turner about lost scenes, depressing scripts and her favourite parts of the film.
How did you get involved with the film and had you read the book beforehand?
Debra Granik (DG):
It all started with reading the book, in the sense that we were passed the book in its early circulation time and my colleague that I make films with, Anne Rosellini – she produced the film – she and I both read it and individually, we sort of did this test, I just said, like, 'Hands down, I frickin' love it – I love it!' and she was like, 'Me too'. And we hadn't had that in so long, we had read a lot of scripts that had really felt like, 'God, these are getting dreary', this stuff that's just been circulating and then there was another dilemma, which was that a lot of the stuff we were getting – being female, we were getting sent scripts that had just some really down-and-out female characters and life circumstances and a lot of, just, huge problems. Ree was just such a fresh thing for us, it was like, 'Oh my God, here's a western hero in a girl's body' and that felt compelling to us.
And the book also had these kind of descriptions that really rocked our imaginations. Being coastal people, urban people, we knew right out of the gate that this was a region we knew nothing about and it was – 'Would we dare? Could we dare? What would happen? Could we research this? Was it possible?' It was like the bar was raised, in some sense, it was like, 'This is a very challenging prospect' and yet she got under our skin, literally.
Am I right in thinking that you used locals for some of the scenes, like the music scene?
Yes. The music actually came from the author himself. We were working with him in that first week that we met him and one night he was like, 'Oh, I thought maybe tonight you might like to hear some music with some friends of mine' and every Thursday night he had these friends that would meet and do what's called a pickin' session. And a pickin' session often involves a group of musicians getting together and, as one of them said, you're rehearsing, but you're not rehearsing for a gig, you're rehearsing to get better at the music, to keep the music alive.
And sure enough, we went and this woman sang out, we loved her voice, we had no idea that we would use music in the film, it was not written in the screenplay. And literally, two years later, we called her and said, 'You know, Meredith, that song that you sang that night got so under our skin. We want to make space for music in the film and would you consider singing in the film?' and she said yes and then she got her friends to come and be in the film.
How did you come to cast Jennifer Lawrence?
She came through the traditional means of the audition process. She'd read the script and we didn't know how interested she was. She did a very strong audition but I didn't know that she'd been like, sort of dwelling on the role and had been conjuring this character and really got very committed. But she did let me know – and this is so crucial, when any actor lets a director know, that it's not just that they like it or that they want it but that they're really willing to do the work, they're willing to commit to the kind of shoot that it would be.
I really love the traditional detective story structure of the film. I assume that's in the book, but did you also look at other detective movies to get there?
It was really in the book and that was a great assistance to me because that's not something that comes easy to me, the structure and a story with a prominent plot. I can be very much a daily life kind of person and find that I, personally, do not need a lot to make me interested in someone else's life, but I know other people's thresholds are different. But this was a gift given to us, because he really made a very tight structure. That's a very lovely part of the book, just to see the craft that goes into a tightly-spun tale.
Did you cut anything out that you hated to lose?
There were a couple of things. The Ozarks has a huge amount of caves, which is just a very rich part of their geology. And there was a scene where Ree had to spend the night in a cave, she was trying to get through the woods and darkness fell on her and she had to stop her way. And I loved that she knew how to survive the night in a cave and build a fire and what-not and the cave itself was really photographically astounding. It was just a lot of bang for – it was just a lot of filmic pleasure. But that was not really in service to the speed with which we had to move. All of a sudden you felt that she was kind of safe and self-sufficient. Which I love in the story but couldn't fit in the film.
And there was a scene that I thought was helpful because it showed Ree and her good friend Gayle in a very ordinary circumstance, which was in a grocery store, showed them just getting stuff they needed and that got cut. And again, just for the normalness of it, I really liked that you saw Ree more as a teen person. And we lost that in the way. In fact, a lot of the Ree and Gayle through-line got shaved down and I did appreciate that that showed the other side of Ree, when she's not being so stoic.
Do you have a favourite scene in the film?
I've just realised I've never been asked that before. I really like the first encounter between Ree and Merab – the Dale Dickey character. I feel like that scene exemplifies for me a statement made by Sam Fuller, which is about the bullets of emotion. And I feel like there's kind of like a breath of not drawing guns, but the drawing of guns with the eyes, the bullets are flying between them, the bullet of need and request and doing as much as you can to be raw in front of someone and plead with them. And the bullet back of someone who's feeling mixed, maybe, but has to shoot back a defiance, a no, a resistance – she's shooting back 'No, I will not, you need to leave, I'm blocking you'. So I really enjoyed what those actresses did, I really enjoyed that they incited each other.
Is there a chance you'll make another Daniel Woodrell movie?
Oh, God, there's always a chance. I mean, really, there's almost no reason for a film-maker to shut any door. I think right now, on one level I think I'm looking for – I don't want to say an easier story, but a story that maybe mines some gentler parts of life, you know? It still has to have the struggle and it still has to have the things that make us understand that life is a continuous journey and that life for most people doesn't come easy. But God, there's always a chance. He's a very prolific author.