Life After ‘Winter’s Bone’: Debra Granik on Finding J. Law and the Plight of the Female Director
Four years ago, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone was nominated for 4 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Her follow-up is the eye-opening documentary Stray Dog.
Four years ago, Winter’s Bone was hailed as a triumph of independent cinema. The New Yorker called it “one of the great feminist works in film” featuring a heroine “more believable as a heroic character than any of the men we’ve seen peacocking through movies recently.” It took home the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance en route to four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture.
Today, the film is best known as the launching pad for the biggest movie star on the planet, Jennifer Lawrence, who earned the first of three (and counting) Oscar nods for her stirring portrayal of Ree Dolly—a 17-year-old forced to navigate the Ozarks’ treacherous meth underworld in search of her missing father. She’s since gone on, of course, to arrow-slinging, four-note whistling fame as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games franchise—a role she earned thanks to her “riveting” and “amazing” turn in Winter’s Bone, according to director Gary Ross.
The film’s ace writer-director Debra Granik, on the other hand, has been MIA. Whereas several of her male “competitors” in the 2011 Best Picture category have gone on to helm multiple blockbusters since, e.g. David Fincher with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl, and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar, Granik’s had a tougher time seeing her women-centric projects come to fruition in male-dominated Hollywood.
“When society’s been structured one way, nobody gives it up easily,” says Granik. “So, a lot of females have to operate and create using the ‘Trojan Horse Method.’ You have to stick to your vision, make it small, and then slowly let it detonate; slowly let them see that there’s other content that could be interesting. These opportunities are never given to us.”
Granik saw a number of projects fall by the wayside, including an HBO pilot, American High Life, which followed the path of a young, determined woman navigating her depressed Midwest hometown. That pilot was rejected, which isn’t too surprising given that, as the Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan pointed out, “With one exception over the course of four decades, HBO has not aired an original one-hour drama series created by a woman.”
There was also another pilot Granik got deeply involved in that featured, she says, “balls-out females on the open plains, like the Wild West.” But that project ran into serious hurdles with the network brass.
“There are content issues,” says Granik. “Each time the project would become heavily compromised. I’d say, ‘I don’t think she needs to be a prostitute to be interesting’ or ‘I don’t think she needs to be raped to be interesting,’ and they’d say, ‘Well, geez, we do need the vagina dentata and we do need the sexual violation, otherwise…’ I mean, should most actresses just get double mastectomies? Is that what they have to do to change the cultural narrative?”I mention HBO’s longstanding “boobs mandate,” and she furrows her brow before exclaiming, “Where’s the cock?!”
Thankfully for us appreciators of cinema, Granik has finally resurfaced, screening her documentary Stray Dog at the 2014 New York Film Festival. The film tells the story of Ron “Stray Dog” Hall, a burly, sixtysomething biker and Vietnam vet. A moonshine-sippin’, small dog-lovin’ Missourian, Hall is an emblem of America’s Heartland—a modest biker who suffered through two tours in Vietnam and is still haunted by nightmares from his time there. He’s emerged after seven years of solitude and reincorporates himself back into society, attending military funerals and counseling sessions with vets, serving as the benevolent manager of an RV park, and learning Spanish to bond with his Mexican wife, Alicia, whose two teenage sons are attempting to immigrate to the U.S.
It’s a celebration of the extraordinary in the “ordinary,” providing a captivating, humanist account of a decent American man living life on the margins. Granik met Hall when he auditioned—and was eventually cast as—the “badass patriarch” Thump Milton in Winter’s Bone, the mysterious man Lawrence’s character is seeking throughout the film, leading to a white-knuckle confrontation in a barn.
“I realized there was a lot of American history in this one man’s body and psyche—coming of age in Southeast Asia, feeling like a lost and adrift person, coming from a generation of stoic Vietnam veterans who didn’t realize they had PTSD despite retaining all their limbs,” says Granik.
Stray Dog also serves as a cultural corrective of sorts to our usual peeks into the heartland—deplorable TV series’ like those tracking the trials and tribulations of a family of closed-minded assholes on Duck Dynasty, or the short-lived MTV hicksploitation series Buckwild.
“I really wanted to understand why we have gun states and militias,” says Granik. “Where does that all come from? What are the economic factors in play when you siphon off access to the coasts? You’ll have these big gaping holes, and they’ll be filled by something.”
Granik, 52, couldn’t be more out of place in the heartland. She’s a tiny Jewish woman from Cambridge, Mass., with a big mop of black hair and piercing brown eyes. She graduated with a B.A. from Brandeis in 1985, and then worked for a decade in various film-related jobs—filming weddings and political marches, as well as shooting footage for other people’s documentaries, including Twitch and Shout, a PBS doc on Tourette’s. Her day job was shooting health and safety videos for various trade unions, including OSHA.
Eventually, Granik decided to attend NYU’s graduate film program at Tisch, where she fell under the wing of Boris Fruman, a Latvian neorealist filmmaker. She began to adopt a neorealist aesthetic, seeing the beauty in “imperfections.”
“My esteemed mentor, Boris Fruman, showed us 100 slides of stills from films,” says Granik. “There would be a Georgian peasant with an enormous mole, or a fisherman with one hand. And then, he’d show us supermodels. He asked us to close our eyes at the end and recall whom we remembered. No one remembered the supermodels. You can’t remember perfection. Striving for idealized beauty is thin and has no lasting power.”
She directed her first short, Snake Feed, while at NYU, which followed two people struggling with addiction and poverty in a small town in upstate New York. The film was awarded Best Short at Sundance and Granik was accepted into the Sundance labs, where she developed the short into the feature-length 2004 film Down to the Bone, starring relative newcomer Vera Farmiga as a drug-addicted nurse in a breakout turn. Granik took home the Best Director award at Sundance, in what would be the first of her features tackling the crippling effects of drugs on everyday Americans.
“I don’t go out seeking the ways that drugs affect ordinary Americans, but the ways drugs affect ordinary Americans imprints itself on any portrait you make of everyday life,” says Granik. “It’s just there. Whenever soldiers come home, big pharma finds new ways to medicate them. The amount of cocaine consumed on Wall Street. The priest up in Connecticut making meth. What part of American life does drugs not affect?”
She adds, “There’s this culture of ‘obligatory happiness’ in America. Other countries understand the bittersweet better than we do. It’s treated almost as a personal defect when you’re not happy.”
Then, of course, came Winter’s Bone. When I credit her for discovering Jennifer Lawrence in casting her as Ree Dolly, she smiles bashfully, before backpedaling a bit.
“The word ‘discover’ is odd,” says the self-effacing Granik. “Jennifer existed before. What people were responding to was that she was a really full character, and Jennifer has the ability to show different sides, colors, ways of reacting, and retorts. So maybe that’s what discovery is—getting to know this person better.”
But Lawrence looks like a model in person. What made you cast her as a backwoods badass? “She didn’t look like a supermodel when she walked in,” says Granik. “She looked like a realistic human being. She didn’t have an entourage, or handlers. And it was very important for everyone to do the audition without make-up. The convincing was just that in L.A. I couldn’t really see it, and in New York, I could. The second time I met her, she really communicated quite vividly what she wanted for the character, and it was hers.”
You’ll be the first and last director to ever make Jennifer Lawrence skin a squirrel.
“If she wants to do it, she will,” says a chuckling Granik. “For the right reasons, Jennifer would do anything. She’s not a prissy or squeamish person. And as she gets older, she’ll learn to rein in her people, too, and have more discretion.”
Though the two haven’t talked much since her starmaking role (“She's so busy, I'd need a good reason to reach out!” says Granik), the talk eventually turns to Lawrence’s recent cyber hacking episode, and fiery response.
“She did handle it well,” says Granik. “Whenever she makes a statement that upends something or is sassy in the most thoughtful way, I smile across my face. I’m so happy to see someone be articulate about observations they’re making and speaking out about how to keep your head—how not to let this industry chew you up and spit you out.”
After Stray Dog, which, despite rave reviews out of the NYFF, is still seeking a distributor, Granik hopes to adapt Russell Banks’ novel Rule of the Bone into a feature. The book centers on Bone, a 14-year-old drug Jamaican-American drug dealer who flees from his abusive stepfather and takes up with a biker gang. With the help of a Jamaican migrant worker, he returns to his homeland to find his father. She was also developing a film for two years that was “like The Wire,” which was set in Baltimore and turned the camera inside the homes of people struggling to scrape out a life in a hardscrabble urban ghetto.
But her main mission, she says, is creating portraits of complex women.
“My crusade is there are vast numbers of men who really like what’s between women’s ears, so the game-changer would be to do a whole serious of films where women can keep their clothes on,” says Granik. “To start to love the internal charms of women.”