Teenager Ree Dolly lives in a run-down house in the rural Ozarks with her mentally ill mother and her two young siblings. Her absentee father is on bail after being arrested for manufacturing meth-amphetamine. When he skips that bail and goes underground, Ree is informed that her family house was put up as his bond: if she cannot find him and convince him to volunteer himself to the police, she and her family will be homeless. In order to save her family Ree ventures out to track her father down among her disreputable and hostile extended family – including a drug-addicted and fearsome uncle named Teardrop.
This is the basis of Winter’s Bone, a 2006 novel by the self-described ‘country noir’ author Daniel Woodrell. It is a moody, atmospheric novel focused very tightly on its protagonist: a smart young woman desperate to escape the confines of her impoverished environment yet trapped by familial obligations. ‘She’s got to save their house and then she can get out of there,’ said Woodrell. ‘It’s about her quest to save her father. But she’s also got to deal with being a 16-year-old girl.’[i]
Not only was the novel a critical success, it was also adapted into a 2010 feature film. This was not the first time Woodrell had been adapted to the screen. In 1999 Ang Lee directed the civil war drama Ride with the Devil, based on Woodrell’s 1987 novel Woe to Live On. Winter’s Bone is, however, a much more accomplished and significant film. It was a darling with critics internationally, launched the career of its star Jennifer Lawrence, received four Academy Award nominations and won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
Winter’s Bone is a stunning film that belies its small production budget. It is a wonderfully haunting, beautifully characterised masterpiece. Once seen, it sticks in the mind for weeks after the fact.
The film was directed by independent filmmaker Debra Granik. Granik was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and grew up in suburban Washington D.C. In the early 1980s she studied politics at Brandeis University, where the process of women documenting protests and rallies on videotape provided her first experience of working behind the camera. ‘It was a kind of a pleasurable way,’ said Granik, ‘to be introduced to the idea that your art is your weapon, or your media is your weapon, and that kind of suited me just fine. It was a quiet way for women to evolve in filmmaking, which was in some ways the low-key off the radar way, which is you just keep doing it.’[ii]
An early influence was documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple, best known for her Oscar-winning documentary Harlan County, USA. After graduating from university Granik started making short documentaries and educational films for trade unions. She subsequently enrolled in the graduate film program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts where she directed her first narrative short film, Snake Feed, in 1997.
Granik’s feature debut was the 2004 drama Down to the Bone, which starred Vera Farmiga as a drug-addicted New Yorker hiding her habit from her husband and children. The film was popular with critics, and won Granik the Best Director prize at the Sundance Film Festival and Farmiga four separate acting awards.
After Down to the Bone Granik and her producing partner Anne Rosellini started looking for another film project to tackle, reading numerous prospective screenplays and novels provided by Granik’s manager. ‘Of course, the majority of stuff had female protagonists,’ said Granik, ‘but… I don’t know how to say it but [reading all these scripts] stoked a kind of disheartened misogyny within myself. [laughs] Because if [all these female characters I was reading] weren’t cutting themselves, they were collapsing psychiatrically; if they weren’t collapsing psychiatrically, they were having a bad time in a psychiatric institution; if they weren’t doing that, they had other devastating illnesses or pathologies. I mean, at the end, Anne and I felt like this big being female Homo sapiens.’[iii]
Granik and Rosellini’s search ended when they found Woodrell’s novel in May 2005. ‘And then along comes Ree Dolly,’ said Granik, ‘okay, and who couldn’t resist her? I mean, just even on the level of fantasy — a female hero, a girl with moxie? An old-fashioned kind of Western gal? She appealed to us literally on the level of relief and fun.’[iv]
‘Ree was a really attractive protagonist. She had an interesting way in answering people. Reading it I could really tell she was trying to figure things out. She didn’t have it all sorted out, but she knew how to use these resources. I was curious what made her keep going… she filled me with a lot of wonder. What would it be like to be this girl?’[v]
Granik and Rosellini deliberately wrote a close adaptation to Woodrell’s novel, taking great pains to maintain the same narrative, dialogue and overall tone of the book. The vast majority of the film’s dialogue was taken verbatim from the novel.
In mid-2006, Rosellini and Granik delivered a first draft screenplay to producer Alix Madigan at the production company Anonymous Content. ‘It was a perfect draft,’ said Madigan. ‘It was a beautiful script right off the bat.’[vi]
While Anonymous Content agreed to join the project as its primary production company, it struggled to find a studio or distributor willing to fund the project. Most negotiations ended with demands for the project to sign on ‘name’ actors before a budget could be considered.
While this process went on, Granik and Rosellini started making periodic visits to Missouri to scout for locations and to get a more authentic sense of Winter’s Bone’s setting. ‘We had entertained the notion of doing it elsewhere,’ Granik admitted. ‘There’s a system of tax incentives in the US, and producers will shop around the different states to see if there’s a location that could stand in for somewhere. We were affiliated with a larger organisation at one point, and we were playing along with that, but it ended up sickening us. The novel describes a specific set of coordinates for a reason.’[vii] Tax incentives or not, Granik and Rosellini ultimately insisted on shooting the film in Missouri.
One key concern was how to represent the story and its background of Ozark Mountains meth manufacturers without tarring entire communities with unwanted clichés. ‘The Ozarks also has a history of having illegal substances cultivated in it,’ said Granik, ‘or manufactured. But again, that’s a complex thing. It’s an interesting complexity, not a reductive complexity. The film couldn’t get into that, so then you are left with this scary specter of stereotype.’[viii]
Original plans to shoot the film in 2008 collapsed when the financiers pulled their funding just two months before filming was scheduled to commence. ‘It was very hard to bounce back,’ said Granik, ‘because it had gotten so close. And then there was a whole period [when people would say], “If Keanu Reeves is Teardrop, maybe we can get you some money.”’[ix] Fresh finance was secured in late 2008 via an equity financier, so that the film could begin shooting in early 2009 on a budget of two million dollars. This was approximately half of what Granik and Rosellini had hoped for, but the deal came with no requirements regarding casting. Money could be saved by hiring comparative unknowns, and allowing the content and the tone of the film to sell it instead.
Winter’s Bone was shot in the Taney and Christian counties of southern Missouri. Cinematographer Michael McDonough said: ‘The landscape was always going to be a major character in this film and we spent many months in the landscape before we ever brought an actor there. Debra shot many hours of video on location, getting to know the place, and we shot thousands of photographs of local people and places, as part of our research.’[x]
‘If we were going to attempt this,’ said Granik, ‘we knew it had to be there, it had to have local people populating the film visually. There is no chance that this film would come to life in any way that would be close to the book – or close to any anthropological sense of precision – unless we did it there.’[xi]
Granik explained that ‘the biggest thing was that we had a local man interpreting everything for us, and he was held in high esteem, he was trusted, he basically ended up vouching for us, you know? He’s like: “You fuck up, you betray everybody, it’s on you! You’ll lose your film and you’ll pretty much feel awful, because you did get peoples trust through me”. So it’s sort of like the line in that film: “It’s on you now”.’[xii]
Granik’s collaboration with local community extended to the film’s screenplay, where individual lines were regularly rewritten on location to ensure they rang true as part of a regional dialect. Ultimately eight extra people would be credited in the film for the additional dialogue.
Granik’s respect for the local culture and people extended to the film’s music. One of the key performers on the soundtrack was local musician and singer Marideth Sisco. She recalled: ‘The Winter’s Bone production team was in the West Plains area visiting Daniel Woodrell and scouting for locations, when someone expressed a wish to hear “Ozarks music.” Daniel, who knew a group of us played weekly at a friend’s house, brought them to hear us. They stayed a while, listened to the music, videotaped us, and left. Two years later I got a phone call from Anne Rosellini telling me they’d written a scene into the movie for me.’[xiii]
Central to the film’s success was the casting of its protagonist Ree Dolly. While auditioning a range of young actresses, Granik was immediately taken with Jennifer Lawrence. The director said: ‘She had gotten a chance to read the script, so she came into an audition and did a really strong reading, and we were like leaning forward (laughs). She was really catching us in her truth. She has a mesmerising quality, and because she was able to read the script really gracefully… what I mean from that is she didn’t find the dialect exotic, she didn’t stop or mumble, she really had a Kentucky accent. She is from the neighbouring state of Kentucky and therefore, literally, she was not one of the actresses who had to ask “How do you pronounce that word?”’[xiv]
In another interview Granik said: ‘We knew straight away she would be invested in this. I’d interviewed an actress who you might call an “It Girl”, and the ambivalence on her part was so tense it was intimidating. We were doing a low-budget film on location in the Ozarks; you can’t go there with even an ounce of ambivalence.’[xv]
Jennifer Lawrence made her on-screen debut in 2007 as part of the cast of the TBS situation comedy The Bill Engval Show. Shortly afterwards she co-starred in the independent feature The Burning Plain for writer/director Guillermo Arriaga. ‘My mom read the book five, some six years ago,’ explained Lawrence, ‘and when she read it she said, “Jennifer, if they ever make this into a movie, you’d be perfect for it.” And you know, I didn’t listen to her, because she’s my mother, but five years later I got the script and the audition.’[xvi]
For the role of Teardrop, Ree’s meth-addicted, frightening uncle, Granik directly approached John Hawkes and invited him to play the role without auditioning for it. Hawkes, then most famous for appearing in the HBO drama Deadwood, was attracted to the idea of playing such a complex and volatile character. Once he received the shooting script, however, he was shocked to find how much it had changed.
‘The Teardrop that I read the nine drafts later was a different character,’ he said. ‘He’d been softened, he’d been hacked off at the knees, I thought. He’d been filed down.’[xvii] Hawkes immediately called Granik and successfully persuaded her to return the character to the state in which he was when Hawkes had agreed to take the part.
‘In the case of John Hawkes,’ said Granik, ‘I think he feels challenged by research opportunities. Because he’s not so necessarily recognizable in certain circles he feels he’s totally free to go into a bar, hang out, listen really carefully to how people are talking, the humour that’s being used, the cadence, the sound. He’s able to pick up on stuff. He’s able to ask questions. He’s able to be in a place, to absorb it and make his notes. I think he relished the opportunity.’[xviii]
‘I went to places to look for Teardrop-like people to observe,’ said Hawkes. ‘Certainly in my little town growing up, there were plenty of those there, too. Rough people. People you’d be afraid of.’[xix]
The character of Sheriff Baskin was played by Garret Dillahunt, who had performed with John Hawkes on Deadwood. ‘They called me about Sherriff Baskin,’ said Dillahunt, ‘and I was a little ambivalent about it because I wanted to play Teardrop but then I heard that John Hawkes was doing it and I wanted to work with him again. It was a good book, a good script, I wanted to work with John, and it fit into my schedule.’[xx] At the time of shooting Dillahunt was performing in the television drama Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. His Winter’s Bone shoot was successfully slotted into his shooting schedule between two episodes.
Ree’s youngest sister was played by six year-old Ashlee Thompson, who actually lived in the house where much of the film was shot. The casting aided Granik in forming a realistic performance with the young performer, since by using her own name and playing in her own front yard there was not too much of a deliberate performance to make.
According to Granik, Jennifer Lawrence worked hard to build a relationship with both of her young co-stars. ‘So Jennifer took it on herself as part of her actor’s work, or actor’s prep, to meet the two youths who’d play her brother and sister – the girl being the girl that lived on the holler that we were filming in. She and Ashlee had something immediately in common. Ashlee’s family was not raising horses, not breeding them, but they had horses. And Jennifer knew a lot about horses, and had been raised around horses in a whole different context, in a neighbouring state in which horses are not just a massive symbol but they’re really embedded in the culture of parts of Kentucky. So they had something very concrete, and Jennifer worked that – she made herself accessible to Ashlee, she made herself someone that Ashlee could talk to.’[xxi]
Rebecca Hofherr was hired as the film’s costume designer. To develop an authentic suite of costumes she and her costuming team made multiple visits to the Ozarks region offering ‘clothes swaps’: exchanges of new clothing for second-hand pieces from local residents. The bulk of the film’s cast were them costumed in these swapped-out items of clothing. It was necessity that drove such an innovative costuming solution. Winter’s Bone costuming budget in total was only US$5,500.
‘We couldn’t do this with all of our characters though,’ said Hofherr, ‘especially Jennifer Lawrence because she needed doubles of her outerwear. Luckily I had a fantastic wardrobe supervisor, Lauren Schad, who aged Jennifer’s jackets to make them look and feel worn.’[xxii]
Winter’s Bone was shot on location over 26 days from February 2009. A week prior to shooting Jennifer Lawrence moved in with the Thompson family to develop a rapport with their daughter Ashlee and to familiarise herself with the house and the surrounding community.
‘I’ve seen poverty,’ said Lawrence, ‘we all have. But I simply view the Ozarks as a lifestyle that is different from mine. I don’t feel sorry for them, I don’t feel sympathetic – this is their life. These are their families that are just different from ours. I was asked in an interview why Ree didn’t leave the Ozarks, and to be honest, I thought (and said) why would she? This is her home and this is her family, moving to a big city isn’t always the happy ending for everybody. Yes, we feel sorry that they live without nice cars and homes, but they get to have dinner with their families every single night. They maintain a fierce sense of loyalty that few people can understand. Again, it’s not worse, it’s not better. It’s different.’[xxiii]
In one striking early scene of the film, Ree demonstrates how to skin a squirrel for meat to her two siblings. A genuine dead squirrel was used for the sequence, with Lawrence cutting its body open by hand. ‘I should say it wasn’t real,’ she said, ‘for PETA. But screw PETA.’[xxiv]
Granik shot the film on digital video, partly due to the low production budget and partly due to the greater freedom the format provided when shooting on location. It enabled quick set-ups, and a fast shooting schedule. Town scenes were shot in Forsyth, Missouri, and inside the local public school.
An early scene where Ree meets with an army recruitment officer was invented by Granik and Rosellini for the film, and did not appear in Woodrell’s novel. ‘Army recruitment is very important for young people in that region for a way out, for tradition,’ Granik explained.[xxv]
One instance in which Debra Granik stepped back from realism was in the presentation of a disused meth house. While a genuine abandoned meth house was found, the production team instead built their own out of an unrelated building. ‘That was a burned-out house,’ explained Granik. ‘That family let us use it. One of them we had was even more intense. It was probably a toxic waste site. The actual meth house that we were going to use, in the end, I felt grateful that we didn’t. Me and the DP traipsed around, but we had no telling what level of contamination was still there.’[xxvi]
This gritty air of realism is one of reasons Winter’s Bone is such an effective movie. There is a highly authentic sense of place. Everything – the locations, the actors, their costumes, the music – feels as if it belongs there. To a comparatively privileged viewer watching the film in a festival, or sitting at home viewing it on DVD, it seems a threatening and unwelcoming place. Despite this foreboding environment, it does feel as if it is presented with respect. While Ree encounters some unpleasant and actively unlikeable characters during her journey, the world in which they inhabit does seem presented with respect.
There is definitely a sense of descending into an underworld in Winter’s Bone. To discover her father’s whereabouts Ree must bravely enter into an increasingly dangerous series of encounters.
This begins with Teardrop, her uncle, visibly capable of both fierce loyalty and frightening violence. John Hawkes plays the character on a knife-edge. Every scene Teardrop inhabits becomes a tense one, because at any given moment it seems impossible to decide how the character is going to react. John Hawkes is an extraordinary and versatile actor; it’s arguable that Teardrop is his finest performance to date. He is both loving and brutal, reassuring and utterly terrifying.
Rather cleverly, while Ree’s own descent to Hades has a definitive conclusion, Teardrop’s own journey is left on an ellipsis. We can see where he is going, and the screenplay acknowledges that we don’t need to see his denouement to know what is coming.
John Hawkes said: ‘People after Winter’s Bone would say, “I love how Teardrop changed. I love his journey, his dynamic, his trip.” And I would think to myself, he didn’t change at all. He was trying to protect his family the whole way through.’[xxvii]
While Teardrop is a finely constructed and perfectly performed character, he takes a secondary position in the film to Ree herself. She is a remarkable protagonist. She is clearly a product of her environment, yet she authentically struggles to rise beyond it and become something better. She is clearly capable and intelligent, and has every opportunity to leave the Ozarks and make a new life elsewhere. Her army interview demonstrates that she’s actively considering escape, yet she does not, because more than capable or intelligent or doggedly persistent Ree Dolly is loyal.
She acts throughout the film to protect her family. She cares for her younger sister and brother because her father is absent and her mother is not capable. When her father’s disappearance puts their family home at risk she puts her own life at risk to secure it. At the end of the story, with the house saved, she still does not leave. She’s too protective of her family. I daresay in another five years she will still be there.
There is a real courage in what Ree undertakes in Winter’s Bone. She voluntarily goes to see Teardrop, even knowing what a volatile and dangerous man he is. She directly challenges a distant relative, the power drug baron known as Milton. She is badly beaten for it, but still gets up at keeps searching. By the film’s climax she’s on a boat in the middle of a lake, being forced to personally cut off a corpse’s hands to get what she wants. She may flinch and cry, but she certainly never stops.
Hollywood regularly presents courageous characters. They populate every action film or science fiction epic. They are people fighting crime, waging wars, or making extravagant heroic gestures. Courage is, as far as Hollywood generally presents it, a relatively banal quality. Genuine courage, expressed in small defiant acts of goodness, is rarely displayed as powerfully or believably as it is in Ree Dolly.
Jennifer Lawrence rises admirably to the challenge. Her performance is one of those rare revelatory experiences that has critics reaching for their thesauruses. The word I would personally settle upon is ‘transcendent’. It doesn’t feel like you are watching an actor perform. It simply feels like you are observing a human being.
I first saw Winter’s Bone at the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2010. I remember, halfway through the film, leaning over to my wife and whispering a prediction that Jennifer Lawrence would win an Academy Award within five years. She won one in less than three.
Post-production on Winter’s Bone took approximately six months, after which time a close-to-final cut of the film was submitted to the Sundance Film Festival. The festival accepted the film in November 2009.
During the festival, Anonymous Content sold the North American distribution rights to Winter’s Bone to Roadside Attractions. While they had received higher offers – one of which was almost double what Roadside had proposed – both Granik and Rosellini were impressed by face-to-face meetings with Roadside’s representatives, and felt their film would be in good hands. The deal was initially in the low six figures, with Roadside agreeing to spend at least half a million on promotion and advertising (P&A), but it also includes financial bonuses to Granik and Rosellini at a series of box office milestones.
Internationally the film was distributed via Fortissimo Films, touring to most major film festivals throughout 2010. By the time Winter’s Bone left Sundance it had won the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and Best Screenplay. By the end of the year it had appeared on more than 20 ‘top ten’ lists by professional film critics. In early 2011 it was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor (for John Hawkes).
Winter’s Bone is the perfect kind of film. It takes its audience to a unique, richly presented environment. It is populated with well-developed, fascinating characters. It tells an arresting, dramatic story with intelligence and heart. It does all of this through the eyes of one of the most impressive, memorable and well-performed protagonists in recent memory.
This film isn’t simply good, or great. Winter’s Bone is a masterpiece.
[i] John Williams, “Daniel Woodrell: The Ozark daredevil”, The Independent, 16 June 2006.
[ii] Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Sarah Ginsburg, “How to skin a squirrel: Debra Granik”, She Does, 25 February 2015.
[iii] Scott Macaulay, “A daughter’s tale: Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone”, Filmmaker Magazine, 14 February 2011.
[iv] Scott Macaulay, “A daughter’s tale: Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone”, Filmmaker Magazine, 14 February 2011.
[v] Matthew Pejkovic, “Southern Chill”, Matt’s Movie Reviews (http://www.mattsmoviereviews.net/spotlight-interview-winters-bone.html)
[vi] Quoted in “Toolkit case study: How indie hit Winter’s Bone came to be”, Indiewire, 4 November 2010.
[vii] James Bell, “Meth and the maiden”, Sight & Sound, October 2010.
[ix] Scott Macaulay, “A daughter’s tale: Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone”, Filmmaker Magazine, 14 February 2011.
[x] Stephen Saito, “A spirited Q&A with Winter’s Bone cinematographer Michael McDonough”, IFC, 2 February 2011.
[xi] Terry Gross, “A saga in the Ozarks, suited for the screen”, All Things Considered, NPR, 16 June 2010.
[xii] Matthew Pejkovic, “Southern Chill”, Matt’s Movie Reviews (http://www.mattsmoviereviews.net/spotlight-interview-winters-bone.html)
[xiii] Chris Mateer, “Interview: Marideth Sisco discusses the Winter’s Bone soundtrack & the music of the Ozarks”, Uprooted Music Revue, 14 January 2011.
[xiv] Matthew Pejkovic, “Southern Chill”, Matt’s Movie Reviews (http://www.mattsmoviereviews.net/spotlight-interview-winters-bone.html)
[xv] David Jenkins, “Debra Granik: how we made Winter’s Bone”, TimeOut London (http://www.timeout.com/london/film/debra-granik-how-we-made-winters-bone-1)
[xvi] Gillian Mohney, “Survival of the fittest: Jennifer Lawrence and Winter’s Bone”, Interview, June 2010.
[xvii] Gary Cogill, “John Hawkes talks about his character in Winter’s Bone”, Lone Star Film Society, 20 December 2012.
[xviii] Scott Macaulay, “A daughter’s tale: Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone”, Filmmaker Magazine, 14 February 2011.
[xix] Nisha Gopalan, “Winter’s Bone’s John Hawkes on his Oscar nomination and Deadwood-inspired cussing”, Vulture, 22 February 2011.
[xx] Josh Youngerman, “Garret Dillahunt talks Winter’s Bone”, Examiner.com, 2 July 2010.
[xxi] Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Sarah Ginsburg, “How to skin a squirrel: Debra Granik”, She Does, 25 February 2015.
[xxii] Lord Christopher Laverty, “Winter’s Bone: Rebecca Hofherr interview”, Clothes on Film, 12 January 2012.
[xxiii] Justine JC, “Interview with Jennifer Lawrence from Winter’s Bone”, ScreenCrave, 10 June 2010.
[xxiv] Johanna Schneller, “Thanks for raising me, but I’m going to take it from here”, The Globe and Mail, 11 June 2010.
[xxv] Kevin Carr, “Interview: Debra Granik from Winter’s Bone”, Film School Rejects, 19 July 2010.
[xxvii] Gary Cogill, “John Hawkes talks about his character in Winter’s Bone”, Lone Star Film Society, 20 December 2012.