They eat squirrel, don't they?

 

Winter’s Bone,Debra Granik’s crime drama set in the Ozarks of Missouri, takes an unflinching look at that mountainous locale. The director talks ‘hillbillies’ and rodent recipes with DONALD CLARKE

DEBRA GRANIK is an enthusiastic sort. Now 47, dark and intense, she speaks in an uninterruptable flow of charged syllables. Ask her about her early years – making films for trade unions – and you are likely to get a deeply felt treatise on the demise of the service economy.

That vigour shows through strongly in Granik’s hugely praised second feature. When approaching Winter’s Bone, an earthy crime novel by Daniel Woodrell, many film-makers would have focused on the plot and allowed the setting – the Missouri Ozarks – to play as ambient background music. But Granik used the opportunity to deliver an astonishingly rigorous examination of that mountainous locale.

“You can’t just breeze into an area like that where you are viewed as an outsider and gawp,” she says. “We had to find ourselves a local fixer. We said: ‘If you meet us halfway by reading the book, we will promise not to misrepresent you.’ It was not enough just to say Daniel is an Ozarks author. We had to go slow. To be honest, one big thing was just the fact that we came back. If you breeze into town in your black clothes looking cool, people get a bit suspicious they’ll never see you again.”

Sure enough, Granik and her team spent months getting to know the habits, mores and inclinations of the Ozark community. The resulting film – starring newcomer Jennifer Lawrence as the strong-minded daughter of a dissolute crystal-meth manufacturer – appears deeply marinated in authentic backwoods atmosphere. A huge hit at the Sundance Film Festival, where it picked up the Grand Jury Prize, the film went on to receive raves on its American release. It’s a gripping tale: the protagonist must find dad before the house is repossessed.

But it is the sense of place that really sets the picture apart.

There were potential dangers here. The rough-edged Ozark people are often caricatured as hillbillies. And, whereas the film does flesh out every character, this remains a very harsh, unglamorous depiction of the locale.

“We found ourselves asking about that word ‘hillbilly’ all the time,” she says. “Their definition is actually a lot more multifaceted. In fact, they view the word quite positively. If you view it as meaning somebody quick to violence or whatever, then, of course, it’s pejorative. But they see it as being about the way you deal with your surroundings.”

Granik goes on to explain how the crew ended up making friends with many people in the local community. Born and raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts, home to Harvard University, Granik could not look or sound less like a mountain person. She paints an amusing picture: the black-clad coastal folk milling nervously around the unpretentious, unimpressed mountain people. It sounds like material for a splendid sitcom. After all, so much humour emerges from the clash of cultures.

Has she come across any negative responses from Ozark people? Have there been suggestions that she misrepresented the community? “I have seen negative reactions from some blogs,” she says. “I have to remind myself that once it’s out there it’s all fair game. I remember one blogger getting freaked out because he thought we had exoticised the squirrel thing.”

Ah, yes, the squirrel thing. Winter’s Bonedoes, indeed, depict the local citizens tucking into grilled Nutkin. Now, that’s the sort of scene that could generate superior sniggers in the art-house cinemas of downtown Manhattan.

“The Ozark people couldn’t see it as exotic at all,” she laughs. “It’s preposterous to them that we find it unusual. They were amazed at how limited our skills are. They couldn’t understand that we had no notion how to live symbiotically in the woods.”

Mmm, squirrel! Granik sounds a little like an urban vegetarian, but there must, surely, have been somebody on set who had a nibble of squirrel flesh? Such an opportunity doesn’t come along every day.

“Yes, I am a vegetarian,” she laughs. “I am from the coast and I had to leave a lot of my attitudes at the door – about firearms, for example. Luckily, our director of photography, Michael McDonough, is from Scotland. I don’t want to make jokes about haggis, but if you can eat that you can eat anything. He had a go.”

Granik exhibits the zeal of a late convert. She initially studied politics at Brandeis University, and admits that she was not the sort of kid who brandished a 16mm camera while in nappies. She came to movies via the politically charged democratic media movement. As she and her colleagues saw things, the consumer video camera was “a weapon” that, if used cautiously, could reveal truths about the mistreatment of women, the state of race relations and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

“So I ended up being a videographer,” she explains. “I ended up working for trade unions. I filmed people doing their job, but, when the camera was turned off, I’d listen to these people talk about their families and their lives and I began to wonder was there a way of combining what I was documenting with the stories of their inner lives.”

Granik was talking her way towards narrative cinema. She duly enrolled in the graduate film programme at New York University and set about the business of becoming a director. She rapidly found a mentor who, having grown up in the old Soviet Union, introduced her to the great social realists from that country. Various schools of naturalism – British kitchen sink, Italian neo-realism, Iranian new wave – became Granik’s passion and, with its lolling rhythms and earthy look, Winter’s Boneshows traces of those influences.

At first, Granik toyed with the notion of becoming a cinematographer.

Still scratching a living shooting wedding videos, she realised that launching a career as a director might, at her relatively advanced age, prove a difficult business. She is, however, a determined sort.

In 2004, she delivered her very impressive first feature, Down to the Bone. The film, which starred Vera Farmiga (then largely unknown) as a drug addict trying to raise a family, won two major prizes at Sundance. Granik’s signature style is already in place: mobile camerawork, underplayed performances, a focus on the socially excluded.

“That was made for just $200,000,” she says. “Of course, it’s hard to raise small sums of money, because then you end up with something they think is uncommercial. We got a lot of kind donations. At that stage, everyone was prepared to work hours and hours for nothing. Since then, all those people have reproduced and they all have responsibility for a small person. If people do not have responsibilities in a family way they have a lot more freedom.”

Down to the Bone might have got Granik noticed in critical circles, but Winter’s Bonehas really pushed her into the front rank. The film seems certain to receive an Oscar nomination for best picture, and Jennifer Lawrence has a decent shot of getting a best-actress nod. It helps that the film seems so in tune with the nation’s current mood. Dealing with unemployment, mortgage foreclosures and general financial embarrassment, Winter’s Bonereally looks like a film of the recession.

“There is a lot here to do with people living close to the bone,” she says. “Just three years ago we tried to get money for the film, and it was deemed that depicting Americans with limited resources would be unappealing. Hey, this is scary. This is upsetting. It was as if ‘poor’ was a four-letter word. It was as if this was a threat to the myth of American affluence.”

I get the impression that Granik – an east-coast liberal from a comfortable background – was profoundly altered by her experiences making Winter’s Bone. Rubbing up against a concealed US seems to have revealed certain truths to her.

“Yes. One scholar of the Ozarks said to me that the motto there was ‘you make it or you make do or you do without’. That goes against everything America has been about for the past 100 years: everything gets better; everyone gets richer.”

A sobering message. Winter’s Bonereally is a film of its time.