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She just fell in love with the story of a young girl facing huge hurdles in a remote community, New York filmmaker Debra Granik tells Andrew L. Urban over a rainy Sydney lunch talking about her new award winning film, Winter’s Bone.

Debra Granik is late for lunch; not her fault, the Sydney taxi driver managed to get lost between Ultimo and The Rocks … after stopping for petrol on the way. Granik is too polite as a visitor to be critical, but then perhaps it happens in New York, too – her base. She looks out on the harbour covered in rainy haze, the Opera House looking forlorn. “It’s smaller than I thought ….” But we have to cut the travel talk to a minimum as Granik is flying out shortly after lunch, back to New York via Los Angeles.

Her Australian visit is short but pointed, and she flits happily between interviews (2SER and then ABC Radio in Ultimo before our lunch) to talk about her second feature, Winter’s Bone, winner of both the Grand Jury Award and the Best Script award at Sundance 2010. And this after her early short film, Snake Feed (1997) won the Best Short Award. “It’s daunting when you have a second film at the festival,” she says, “the expectations on you are bigger the second time around.” Clearly, she needn’t have worried.

"no resources other than herself"

Granik read Daniel Woodrell’s novel, Winter’s Bone about the same time every other interested filmmaker was reading it. “There was a lot of interest in it,” she says, but quickly adds the interest was not from major studios. It wasn’t seen as a big commercial project. “I couldn’t stop reading it,” she say ordering vegetarian and a cup of peppermint tea. “This young girl is looking after her younger siblings in a remote community, facing a huge problem and has no resources other than herself. It’s a hero’s journey, but she’s not a hero with a capital H.”

The storyline is simple enough: 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) sets out to track down her father, who put their house up for his bail bond and then disappeared. If she fails, Ree and her family will be turned out into the Ozark woods. Challenging her outlaw kin's code of silence and risking her life, Ree hacks through the lies, evasions and threats offered up by her relatives and begins to piece together the truth.

With elements of a Western, told “through a teenage girl’s body,” the story relies on traditional storytelling skills. Author Woodrell is a native of the Ozarks, “so the writing is very rich and the descriptions very astute,” says Granik. Cinematographer Michael McDonough was in seventh heaven. “He was very excited because depth, density and texture are a DoP’s joy and these people live with accumulations of debris and objects in their front yards. It’s not a delicate beauty we’re talking about….”

"the casting of the lead character was crucial"

Like with the adaptation of the book, Precious, the casting of the lead character was crucial to the film’s success, and Jennifer Lawrence has been hailed for her performance, some even suggestion a potential Oscar nomination. “That was luck, yes,” says Granik. “Jennifer came in cold, although she had made two films before, but I was not aware of them. She auditioned and was the only one who didn’t baulk at the script as it was… She comes from Kentucky, next door to Missouri and she didn’t find the accent or the strange language too foreign. Plus, she was very committed and she showed that, and her understanding of what the shoot would entail.”

It also helped that Lawrence is something of an outsider (Kentucky being regarded as foreign territory in New York); “I identified with her as I am something of an outsider myself,” says Granik, who drifted into filmmaking from a degree in politics. “I found the lecturers in politics really fascinating, especially my advisor, a New Zealander called Susan Olin, a terse but quiet feminist and liberal who was inspiring.”

Granik was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and grew up in the suburbs of Washington D.C. She received her B.A. from Brandeis University in 1985, where she majored in politics. She later earned an MFA from the graduate film program at New York University (Tisch School of the Arts). She is the granddaughter of broadcast pioneer Theodore Granik (1907-1970), founder-moderator of radio-TV's long-running panel discussion program, The American Forum of the Air.

"drawn to the new age of communication"

Granik was drawn to the new age of communication, driven by a desire to help at least document change, even if she didn’t engineer it. “So I picked up a camera and was encouraged to use it as a communication tool. It was a time to explore and I got my rudimentary film training making video diaries of what I saw.”

Her debut feature, Down to the Bone (2004) is about a woman stuck in a stale marriage who struggles to raise her children and manage her secret drug habit. But when winter comes to her small town, her balancing act begins to come crashing down. Granik says the title of her next project may not have a ‘bone’ in it; it’s likely to be based on Mark Twain or his work, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the writer’s death. “There is so much depth to his writing and there is much to choose from.”

Published first in the Sun Herald
Published November 11, 2010

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Debra Granik


Australian release: November 11, 2010.

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