by director Debra Granik
On a park bench one afternoon, I read Daniel Woodrell's novel Winter’s Bone from cover to cover. I hadn't done that with any book in a long time. I was in suspense to see how the story's protagonist, Ree, would survive. It felt like an old-fashioned tale, with a character I couldn’t help but root for, and descriptions of a place that stoked my imagination as I tried to conjure Ree's world. Her circumstances are so different from my own that my curiosity was piqued.
To launch this project, we met with Daniel Woodrell in his home base in Southern Missouri and embarked on our first scout. I was aware that it was a geologically rich part of the country, with rolling hills and hollers above ground and an extensive system of caves and underground rivers below. So it already had a resonant, mythic quality for me, because of this above and below ground topography. We photographed homes, yards, roads, creeks and caves. The visual power of nature is manifest in the landscape filled with vines, brambles, thick woods and dramatically gnarled trees. In this first Missouri journey, we were also introduced to singers, storytellers, and folklorists steeped in Ozark culture. We also had an informative and disturbing discussion with the local sheriff, about what the meth problem has been like over the last two decades.
Two years later, we came back to a different section of the Missouri Ozarks to prepare for the film shoot. With the help of our local guide and location scout Richard Michael, we started by searching for a family living in a setting like the one described in the book. We knew we had to find a family who would let us see their house, their clothes, their objects, their dinner table, who would let us see them hunt, take care of their animals, and fix day-to-day problems as they arose. Eventually we found a family and neighbors who were willing to answer our questions, show us things, and advise us on the script.
THE LOOK OF THE FILM
In order to put on screen accurate details, we shot entirely on location on several families' properties. The costume designer Rebecca Hofherr exchanged garments with local people who were willing to trade pristine Carharts for well-used ones. Real life is frayed, frugal, dusted with soot from stoves, heavy dust from the hardscrabble surface of the earth in these Southern Missouri counties. We had to work with these potent forces of the environment.
The housing stock in this area has tremendous texture. Many houses are made from several different kinds of materials—wood, vinyl, stone, metal. And the geometry of these hand-built houses is interesting and unique. The production designer, Mark White, primarily used objects found in the locations, working from careful observation and visual notes on what he found. The dogs, cats and donkey which appear in the film belonged to their locations, and these four-legged actors were willing to saunter across the frame at random, and to greet the biped cast members authentically as they entered and exited.
By casting many roles with actors from the area, we had people correcting dialect and watching our backs in general, making sure we didn't go down any misguided paths. The active participation of the location families also helped the lead cast members to finesse the details. Many of the actors came from states neighboring Missouri—Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi. It was exhilarating to work watch Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey and the other cast members who came from elsewhere immerse themselves in the story and take on the rhythms and accents of the region. They watched and listened closely to what people did and how they spoke. Ultimately, the out-of-state cast blended with the Ozarks-based cast members.
The process of working on location spawned other changes in the script and casting. In the novel, Ree has two younger brothers, who we attempted to cast in a traditional way by seeing children with acting experience from the neighboring towns. Meanwhile, during rehearsals and auditions that we held on location, I would turn to the six year old daughter of the family who owned the property, Ashlee, and ask her if she could show me or the boys how to do certain things. Every time we reviewed these rehearsal tapes, I was drawn in by Ashlee's presence with Jennifer Lawrence playing Ree, and the way she could be in the house and on the land with a natural ease—she was literally at home on the set. The decision to cast her as Ree's youngest sibling was a last-minute change, and a lucky one for the production.
Originally the story didn't have music, but as we spent time in the Ozarks we kept hearing stunning music, a lyrical element in the fabric of Ozark's life, and we were determined to put that into the film. Daniel Woodrell brought us to a picking session at a friend's house, and there we met the singer Marideth Sisco and some of the other musicians who would eventually appear in the house party scene in Winter's Bone. We found the bar band, White River Music Company, through an audition process. These musicians led us to others, some of whose work is heard in other scenes. The composer Dickon Hinchliffe was inspired by the regional music and shaped his score around these Ozarkian idioms. The film's closing instrumental, “Hardscrabble Elegy,” is the fruit of that process. Since the film wrapped, the musicians have recorded a collection of music from and associated with the film, which will be available soon.
NO FILM CAN REPRESENT A WHOLE REGION
Mountain regions have a history of outsiders representing them monolithically. The term hillbilly is often used against hill culture, and usually doesn't allow for much nuance. References to bootlegging and feuds come up pretty fast after the term hillbilly. The questions that pressed on us while researching this story and scouting for it centered around certain indelible stereotypes: what is a hillbilly, versus a person who lives in mountain country? What is the significance of debris in a yard? What is the reason, and what assumptions do we make about the person living in the house of that yard? We had to get to know that person. If the viewer doesn't meet that person and only sees the yard, do we perpetuate an image of a landscape that looks "trashy"? A yard filled with objects is photographically rich—endless depth of field, great colors and textures. Abandoned debris and trucks with plant life growing out of their windows, those things are inherently photogenic because they're both disturbing and beautiful. Objects become part of the landscape over time. But what about the tidy yard down the road? If we don't show both, have we just re-presented the region as a place with junky yards? These are the questions that we had to confront. Knowing the soul behind the yard helped a great deal. This is just one family, trying to make a go of it.
You can’t go to an area with such an intense history and lore and not lock horns with symbols, cliches, stereotypes and sensitivities. And it's an ongoing challenge to navigate to some form of storytelling that chips away at the stereotypes and adds some new details to what's gone before. Winter's Bone depicts different aspects of Ree's life, not just her survival skills, or her resolve, but very disturbing parts of her life as well. Like children in many other settings, Ree witnesses adults in her life who struggle with addiction. In any life with limited financial resources, the prevalence of destructive substances like meth, and what that does to families, the general climate of violence, deceit and callousness, is painful to discuss, and even harder to include in a movie. From moonshine to marijuana to meth, marginal economies can easily run over a culture and wear it down, violently corrupt it. Who wants to take this on? But add to the challenge that moonshine and meth are gasoline on the bonfire of cliches depicting mountain culture. Thirty-five years after Deliverance, even a banjo can still be a loaded symbol. But through our trips down to Southern Missouri, banjos kept popping up in the most lyrical and alluring ways. Ultimately the banjo found its way into the film, offering notes of hope and perseverance. I came to think of it as a fresh start for that image.
A WESTERN HERO IN A GIRL'S BODY
Ree is focused on her commitment to guide her brother and sister through their childhoods. She is willing to fight to keep her family from falling apart. I see her as a lioness protecting her pride. She is also a teenager who experiences helpless feelings when adults around her make deadly choices, and are drawn down into a way of life that destroys them. She can’t do much to get her dad out of the meth world, or help her uncle with his chemical dependency and nihilism, yet she still cares about them. That is wrenching for any young person. The only thing left for her is to try to be different.
Like many a movie hero, Ree must struggle. We don't get to see much of her teenage side. We never really get to see her have a good time with her friend Gail or flirt with boys. Throughout the story she is single-minded in her focus, because the search for her father is all-consuming. There is a deadline. In this heightened context, we see that Ree does not take "no" for an answer. In matters of justice, I love characters who don't take no. I want to know how they get that resolve. We may not know what fuels Ree, but it is exciting to witness a girl who shows this much strength of character. Heroes are often terse and aloof, and I guess that's what keeps one thinking—"hmm, why does she go on, why doesn't she give up? Where does this kind of determination come from?"
I am drawn to looking at characters who doggedly try to solve the puzzle of how to make their lives work. Often that involves a lot of hard choices. What wows me are people who soldier on within difficult circumstances. I want to see how they are going to do it. In some lives a person appears to make great strides, reach heights, and in other lives it takes an equal amount of resolve and effort to move a centimeter. The cycle of effort, obstacles, trying again...these are the lives that I admire and want to document and portray.