Winter’s Bone: Interview with director Debra Granik

Motivation to adapt the book and direct it as a film

I read Winter’s Bone in one sitting. I had not done that with any book in a long time. I wanted to see how this girl, Ree, was going to survive. It felt like an old fashioned type of tale, with a character I couldn’t help but root for, and with an atmosphere my mind was actively trying to conjure. It also felt fresh in that I do not often get a chance to imagine life like Ree’s, whose circumstances lie outside the confines of my own.


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Working the author Daniel Woodrell

To launch this project, Anne Rosellini, the producer, and I met with Daniel Woodrell in his home base in Southern Missouri and embarked on our first scout with him. We looked at creeks, caves, and homes of all kinds. We photographed yards, roads, and woods. Katie Woodrell, Daniel’s wife, arranged for us to meet singers, storytellers, folklorists, and all manner of scholars and practitioners steeped in Ozark culture–past and present. Also, we had an informative and heartbreaking discussion with the sheriff about what the meth problem has been like over the last two decades. After this visit, we were very enthused. We had also learned that to move forward we would need a guide, a local person who could carefully and respectfully introduce us to a community that might, over time, be persuaded to work with us.

Actress Jennifer Lawrence

Jen took this role into her heart and worked very hard to enter Ree’s world. She used what she’s got from her Kentucky roots–family that could help her with hunting, wood chopping, and other skills she wanted to have for the shoot. And to my ear, she already had a beautiful way of pronouncing American English that seemed right for Ree. Though the script had some very foreign phrases for us, Jen was familiar with some of them, having heard similar phrasing growing up. When she arrived in Missouri before the shoot, she worked closely with the life models and the family on whose property we shot the film. She learned how to operate the equipment, learned all the dog’s names, and bonded with their children. In her role, she plays an older sister to a boy and a girl. Jen developed her own way of working with the kids. She made things real for them. She could also improvise and rehearse with them to put them at ease. Jen is very invested in working with her fellow actors and crew, which means she is always learning, absorbing, and challenging herself. I feel very lucky that we had the chance to make this film together.

Ree as a character

Ree is focused on her commitment to see 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 trying to protect 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 what she needs to do. 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 we want 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?”

Creating a realistic environment

We started by doing a search for a family living in a setting close to 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, who would let us see them hunt, take care of their animals, and fix day-to-day problems as they arose. We ultimately found this family and neighbors who were willing to answer our questions and show us their day to day lives.

In order to create the feeling of a natural environment, we shot entirely on location on a real family’s property. The costume department exchanged garments with local people who were willing to trade new 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. Also, by casting many roles with people from the area, we had people correcting dialect and watching our backs in general, making sure we didn’t go down any misguided paths.

Meeting challenges



There are challenges inherent in working far from home. First, ways of communicating differ. It is not always possible to roll into a new place and use film crew jargon. It’s easy to make faux pas. There are different protocols, different ways of asking and answering. We needed a liaison, and the community needed an advocate, so we did not inadvertently overlook certain issues or antagonize people. We needed help on every front that city people need when thrust into a rural setting.

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, we perpetuate an image of a landscape that looks “trashy”. Now, a yard filled with objects is photographically rich–endless depth of field, great colors and textures, memorable. 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 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 ha
rder 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.

Women characters in Winter’s Bone and Down to the Bone

I am drawn to looking at characters who have to solve the puzzle of how to make their lives work. Often that involves a lot of hard choices. I am very attracted to comedy as well. Not broad style comedy, but the kind that takes note of the absurdities of life. I like to see a character navigate this with lyrical, good-humored resilience. What wows me are people who soldier on within difficult circumstances. I want to see how they are going to do it. Someone once told me that 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 want to document and portray.

Shooting on RED camera

I deliberated long and hard with my long-time collaborators, Anne Rosellini (co-writer and producer) and Michael McDonough, (director of photography), trying to choose what camera to use for this film. The details of the Ozark landscape called out for a beautiful, high-resolution instrument of photography, which is not easily managed on a small budget.

The RED camera has been doing the Can-Can on the side lines of indie filmmaking for a couple of years now, singing from the margins, “Yes we can, can, can!” Sure, she’s still a little no-frills. Michael was challenged by having no lookup table, but he’s such a freakin’ good DP that I knew he could go without it. RED can act kind of funny on set, she’s been known to get a hot flash, but mostly she was a workhorse. She and Al Pierce, the operator, really got it on. She didn’t lose a 0 or a 1 after four weeks of shooting and trazillions of 1s and 0s in the can.

To me the RED is the democratic breakthrough we’ve needed on the camera front for years, like Final Cut Pro was when it broke out and changed access to editing forever. FCP in my mind stood for editing access For the Common People, and RED could be Really Execute Dreams or Rogue Encouragement Daily.

Filming in Missouri

We never wavered from this dream. The story was so deeply set in Missouri that to try to simulate or recreate it would only weaken our confidence. For author Daniel Woodrell, his region is his muse. We needed to “stay close to the willows.” We needed the actors who played Ree’s relatives, etc. to be of this place. We wanted the accents to be “bread and buttered,” as Ree says. Early on, trying to be cooperative and good sports with production companies, we contemplated selecting a shooting location by shopping for the best tax incentive programs. Woodrell gave us his blessing to shoot in the craggy foothills of upstate NY, a region he felt could from certain angles resemble Ozark terrain. And while we did get interested in remote areas of Pennsylvania and other states, all ripe for great photography, Southern Missouri kept calling us. And ultimately the State of Missouri came through with a very decent incentive, which enabled us to film on the story’s home turf, and not forsake the very real help that a tax incentive program can offer.