A Saga In The Ozarks, Suited For The Screen
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Our film critic David Edelstein called "Winter's Bone" the year's most stirring film. "Winter's Bone" won the Grand Jury Prize for drama at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
My guest is the director of the film, Debra Granik, and the author of the novel that it's based on, Daniel Woodrell.
"Winter's Bone" is set in the Ozarks, in a poor community where people have turned to cooking meth to make a living. The main character, Ree Dolly, played by Jennifer Lawrence, is a 17-year-old girl who's taking care of her two young siblings because her mother is mentally ill and her father, who cooks meth, has gone missing. After being arrested and putting the family home up for his bail bond, he disappears. Unless Ree finds him, she will lose the family's home and have nowhere to go. To find out where her father might be, she goes to the homes of relatives and other people her father knows, most of whom are also in the meth business. They're not interested in talking.
In this scene, Ree is looking for Thump Milton, the leader of this meth underworld. As she approaches Thump's house, she's met by his wife, played by Dale Dickey.
GROSS: That's a scene from "Winter's Bone," the movie adaptation by Debra Granik, of Daniel Woodrell's novel.
Debra Granik, Daniel Woodrell, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, the woman - the man that Ree, the character in that scene, is trying to see, Thump - DanielWoodrell, in your novel "Winter's Bone," you described him as having a face that's a monument of Ozark stone with juts and angles and cold-shaded parts the sun never touched. His voice held raised hammers and long shadows. That's a man I don't want to meet.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Now that we heard a scene from the film, Daniel Woodrell, let me ask you to do a short reading from the book that the movie is adapted from. And this is another scene in which Ree is trying to find out what happened to her father now that he's skipped bail. And in this scene, she goes to see her father's brother. And would you read that scene for us?
Mr. DANIEL WOODRELL (Author, "Winter's Bone"): Sure.
(Reading) What's this all about, anyhow?
I got to find dad and make sure he shows in court.
That's a man's personal choice, little girl. That's not something you ought to be butting your smarty nose into. Show or don't show, that choice is up to the one's that going to jail to make, not you.
Uncle Teardrop was Jessup's elder and had been a crank chef longer, but he'd had a lab go wrong it had eaten the left ear off his head and burned a savage, melted scar down his neck to the middle of his back. There wasn't enough ear nub remaining to hang sunglasses on. The hair around the ear was gone, too, and the scar on his neck showed above his collar.
Three blue teardrops done in jailhouse ink fell in a row from the corner of the eye on his scarred side. Folks said the teardrops meant he three times done grizzly prison deeds that needed doing, but didn't need to be gabbed about. They said the teardrops told you everything you had to know about the man, and the lost ear just repeated it. He generally tried to sit with his melted side to the wall.
GROSS: That's Daniel Woodrell, reading from his novel "Winter's Bone," which is adapted to the new film of the same name by Debra Granik.
Debra, why did you want to adapt this book? How did you first discover it?
Ms. DEBRA GRANIK (Filmmaker): We were lucky to receive a copy of the book before publication. And Anne Rosellini, who made the film with me, we had been looking for a very long time for a female protagonist that we could recognize very readily as being someone that would shine out on screen, and this was a very irresistible book to us. And the story was one that seemed that it would adapt very well, the way that Daniel had constructed it. So it was Ree, it was the rich descriptions of the area and it was also the very, very tight structure.
GROSS: Did you ask Daniel Woodrell for his help in showing you that part of the country, the Ozarks?
Ms. GRANIK: Most definitely. He got a call from me and Anne. It was probably at that point quite out of the blue, and we asked if we could come down to his neck of the woods. And we did meet with him and his wife, and they proceeded to hook us up with a couple very important first interviews and first veins to certain kinds of information, and also physical places.
GROSS: Daniel, what are some of the things you most wanted Debra to know about your area that you drew on for the novel that you felt that she needed to understand?
Mr. WOODRELL: Well, it's been a way of life for a long time. To me, the Ozarks was more or less settled by people who largely wanted to be left alone, originally. And there's still just a strong thread of that running through a lot of the people who've been here a while, the sense of privacy and don't ask too many questions about other people's business. And there's so much physical beauty, and yet, it's always been difficult to make a living in the Ozarks. So there's a lot of the attendant poverty that goes along with that. And yet it's in such a beautiful setting that I really wanted her to appreciate that.
GROSS: Debra, what struck you most that you hadn't seen before?
Ms. GRANIK: I feel like I hadn't seen a variety of hand-built houses. That was not familiar to me, or houses that may have had one part built from another form of housing, but yet a form of trailer or a kit house and then additions or small add-ons very much built as needed, or as could be afforded. The texture of people's homes were extremely rich and diverse.
I feel like I did not - I thought maybe it was lore and cliche or just a fantasy that maybe other people in the country have of mountain regions that music would be alive and well. And I found that to be like absolutely factually true, and that wowed me. I feel like - I thought maybe that would be only relegated to certain kinds of performances or places where you would pay for music, and found it was very different, that it was very much incorporated into life.
GROSS: Did you decide to shoot in actual homes as opposed to a set?
Ms. GRANIK: We did. Mm-hmm. We did choose to shoot in actually homes. It would've been a very difficult feat and probably with very little fruit to, like, try to imitate those homes or build a set that replicates it. Instead, we did come to believe that the only way that we would get the film just jammed with visual detail that was very precise and very much from those coordinates where we were filming was to actually go the full tilt and say do - could we, over time, gain access to collaborate with certain families and then work on their properties, film. And that, in the end, meant like, basically, from A to Z.
It was people's vehicles, their clothing, objects in their home, and eventually, in one case, it ended up being the daughter of the family who ended up playing Ree's younger sister.
GROSS: Oh. So you just cast the girl who lived in the house?
Ms. GRANIK: In the end, we did. She ended up being such an integral part of the crew. And the preparation for the film, as we auditioned boys, the role was written for a boy. The novel has Ree having two boy siblings, and we auditioned and we looked and we searched and we came close a couple times, and they just didn't quite seem to feel like they could be from that place. And - but Ashley did, every time. Every time we had a rehearsal, she would be caught in the videotape, and I would say she really reads like she's, you know, she is from here. She's working.
GROSS: Daniel Woodrell, the missing father in your novel "Winter's Bone" cooks crank, and everyone in the extended family seems to be involved in the business. Why did you want to write about characters who cook and sell meth?
Mr. WOODRELL: Well, it's been a pretty widespread issue around here for the last 15 or 20 years, I suppose. And from my own house, I could throw rock and hit a meth cook right now. And it's just pretty ingrained, and it's a way to make some quick, easy money. You don't really have to be a master scientist to cook it or anything, and you can turn a quick profit. And it's just, for whatever reason, it really took hold here perhaps earlier and more strongly than it did in many other parts of the country.
GROSS: How has it changed your area?
Mr. WOODRELL: Well, there's been a lot of criminal activity associated with it. And anybody who's seen people before they started it and then after they'd been doing it hard for a couple of years can see the physical toll is often pretty drastic. And in my own neighborhood, we've, at one point, we had a number of people nearby who were engaged. And when they've been using crank for a few days in a row, you don't know what they might do. So - and all manner of things did happen.
GROSS: Like what?
Mr. WOODRELL: Broad-daylight violence. I used to have a neighbor who'd chase his girlfriend-wife with a table leg after he'd been up too long in broad daylight, down the middle of the road. And things like that were happening, petty crime.
GROSS: So when you saw your neighbor chase his wife with a leg of a table, did you call the police or just let them to do their thing?
Mr. WOODRELL: We went out.
Mr. WOODRELL: My wife won't let me just stand there if somebody's going after his wife like that. So at one point in, like, two years, we had six domestics that were so close to our front door, we felt required to be the ones to go out and break it up. And that was all happening then, and it hasn't happened again now in some years, so - all associated with the burgeoning of meth in the neighborhood.
Debra, your previous movie was about a woman who's a coke addict. She was played by Vera Farmiga, and she's the mother of two - just as in your new movie, Ree is the older sister of two children, and she's basically bringing them up on her own. So it's a combination of taking care of children and drugs that hold these two movies together - that and the fact that the word bone is in the title of both of them.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So tell us why stories where drugs have an impact on a woman taking care of children are stories that you want to tell.
Ms. GRANIK: I think in these situations, the stakes are just so high when drug use is an issue and children are present, so that the behaviors of a female who is responsible for children, it's just the pressures to do the right thing are even higher. The responsibilities are even higher. And I think that part of what fuels Ree in Daniel's novel is that she does feel the stakes are high for her. It's not just whether she could go out and sort of make her way and escape a bad situation, but that she does feel that she has these two young people that are very much tied to her, their wellbeing is completely tied to her.
And so I feel like in any novel or film, the - that responsibility - that existential responsibility, if you will, raises the stakes of what that protagonist is going to do, what choices she will make, what moves she'll make.
GROSS: Daniel Woodrell, in Esquire magazine in 2007, in the Esquire 100 issue, you were number 63. And your entry was written by Benjamin Percy. And I want to quote what he had to say about your novel. He said: Pick one up, and you'll find blood and hay, barbed wire and whiskey, a Ziploc bag of crank. You'll find barroom brawls and trailer-park meth labs, guns, a stripper with peroxide-blond hair. These are books for men.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: I think that's kind of funny, since Debra, you adapted one of his books into a movie and really related to the fact that it had a strong woman character. So, Daniel, let me start with you. Is Ree an unusual character for you? Is it unusual for you to be telling a story from a woman's point of view?
Mr. WOODRELL: Well, in a way she's sort of the combination of or an elaboration on some female characters that I've kind of written about all along, usually in smaller roles. But I think I've always included a lot of women in my books and they're usually pretty potent women. But in this instance, she just was clearly the straw that stirred everything here. And once I started writing on it she became more and more prominent and I realized it's basically going to be all her.
GROSS: And Debra, does it strike you as funny that in Esquire, Daniel's books were described as books for men and you so related to the story - you so much wanted to tell the story of a strong woman?
Ms. GRANIK: Oh, you know, I didn’t know about the Esquire label. But I must say that Daniel gets huge props around the world, at this point, for writing women that women in the audience are enjoying hugely and I get asked is the Ozarks a matriarchy, quite frequently, which, you know, I always have to pause and sort of figure out how to answer that.
GROSS: I don’t want to give away too much of the movie, so I'll just say here that there is a scene where a couple of women beat up another woman. And then a man basically wants to know like what, you know, did a man hit her? And so one of the women says - this is how she says it in the movie. She says: No man hit her. I put the hurt on her. And in the book the way she says it is: No man here touched that crazy girl. I drubbed her good myself.
So there seems to be almost a code here, that like, bad for a man to hit a woman. Okay for a woman to hit a woman.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Daniel, is that the code?
Mr. WOODRELL: Well, I wouldn’t say it's code, but I think there might be some ancient perception that that's a fair fight.
GROSS: Right. Right. Is that why you did it that way?
Mr. WOODRELL: Yes. Yes. And I have seen a few women brawls that were every bit as nasty as anything I've seen men do, so it definitely happens.
GROSS: Where did you witness them?
Mr. WOODRELL: Just at different establishments around my life and places. And one was in the Ramada Inn parking lot, actually one of the most savage I ever saw in broad daylight.
GROSS: What happened?
Mr. WOODRELL: A finger got bit off.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WOODRELL: Yeah. And she spit it at the other woman's foot.
GROSS: Oh no.
Mr. WOODRELL: And I thought no, I haven't even seen guys do that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Wow. That sounds...
Mr. WOODRELL: Well, they were serious about wanting to hurt each other.
GROSS: Sounds like she had some pretty sharp teeth among other things.
Mr. WOODRELL: Yeah, she did. She must've had to break it and gnaw a little to get it off.
GROSS: Does this help explain why you write the books that you write?
Mr. WOODRELL: Partially. I mean most of the Ozarks life is so tranquil and peaceful and easygoing that you have to kind of sometimes look for this part to find it. It's here, but it's not the overwhelming daily experience or anything. But I have, just by luck, or maybe my father said I had a real instinct for finding these things. And so I just have one way or another been standing there when enough happened to fill my imagination with what else could happen.
GROSS: And Debra, do you have that kind of interest in violence that people who make violent films or write violent novels tend to have?
Ms. GRANIK: I can say no. I can say it’s another one, it's - you know, if you talk about emotional zip codes or - that's definitely out of my zip code. And I, you know, I struggled with that. And what I want to do about human violence in representing it in films and it's me, I always have to put huge amount of thought to and take a deep breath, because it doesn’t come easy to me to watch it, witness it.
I do have one standard: If they're - first of all, if a person's capable of remorse, I'm already interested, because I do understand that it's complex. So, everything in this book seemed to have a very worthy reason to be there in terms of how when violence does occur between people. I felt like I had an understanding of why.
GROSS: So Debra, how did you start making movies?
Ms. GRANIK: I started in kind of documentary fashion in educational filmmaking - training tapes. I worked with trade unions in Massachusetts and actually was responsible for health and safety training films. But that - not but, and - that meant that I was constantly meeting people that I would never have a reason to cross paths with or would not have access to in their places of employment with a huge amount of detail of their work life available for me, you know, required of me to film.
So it was kind of a strange form a candy shop for me, because as someone who was documenting as a living, I was given access to places that were endlessly, you know, fascinating to actually film. Be it manufacturing sites, be it all forms of employment throughout the state of Massachusetts, and it got me kind of to be permanently, you know, the desire to permanently record and take notes on people's lives.
GROSS: Now I read that your director of photography, Michael McDonough, helped fund your movie through the money that he got shooting "Celebrity Apprentice."
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So, I just think that's kind of funny, you know, that he'd be shooting "Celebrity Apprentice" and then be shooting this, you know, this Indie film.
Ms. GRANIK: We all have day jobs. I mean that was his day job. You know, up until recently I shot weddings. You know, it's like his day job had him having a paycheck, and he and we had the opportunity to option the book. And he came running over after that check was released to him and we all went in a third for the option. And, you know, that was his way of saying I don’t want to deliberate on this anymore. You know, this is what I want to do. Here's my part of it; you guys put yours in. And so we did.
Daniel, I'm going to ask you read another page from your novel, "Winter's Bone." And in this paragraph, Ree Dolly, your main character, the 17-year-old who's taking care of her two young siblings, is thinking about and worrying about her sibling's future.
Mr. WOODRELL: (Reading) Ree's grand hope was that these boys would not be dead to wonder by age 12, dulled to life, empty of kindness, boiling with mean. So many Dolly kids were that way, ruined before they had chin hair, groomed to live outside square law and abide by the remorseless blood-soaked commandments that governed lives led outside square law. There were 200 Dollys who were living within 30 miles of this valley. Some lived square lives, many did not, but even the square-living Dollys were Dollys at heart and might be helpful kin in a pinch. The rough Dollys were plenty peppery and hard-boiled toward one another, but were unleashed hell on enemies, scornful of town law and town ways, clinging to their own.
GROSS: So in your novel "Winter's Bone," Ree, the main character is considering joining the military. You were in the Marines. Why did you enlist?
Mr. WOODRELL: I was getting in just a little bit of mischief and it seemed like the military would be a good idea all the way around. So I went in the week I turned 17 and both my parents thought it was a good idea. So, it removed me from the scene for a while.
GROSS: But it sounds like it didn’t work out the way you expected.
Mr. WOODRELL: No, there's trouble to be found there as well. And as my father so often said, I found it, so.
GROSS: When did you start to write? I presume it was after you got out of the Marines?
Mr. WOODRELL: That's when I began to more seriously investigate it. It seemed - I was always attracted to the idea, I always loved books and my mother made sure I knew how to read before I went off to school. And I knew pretty early on that I'd like to be a writer if it was possible. It didn’t really seem possible and it was after - it really wasn’t until my early 20s that I really decided to dedicate myself to it, full tilt, and see if, in fact, you had the ability to do it.
GROSS: How did you figure out what you were going to write about?
Mr. WOODRELL: For a long time I wrote stories about working class life. And I had a professor say, you know, that's always going to be hard when you just do straightforward kind of kitchen sink realism. And as I let that sink in for a couple of years, I began to realize there were other kind of fiction I also liked that could almost blend. They almost - they complimented each other, really. Social...
GROSS: Who were you thinking of?
Mr. WOODRELL: Well, social realist fiction and crime fiction have a nice overlap. So I was turned on by all the writers in the canon but I was also always turned on by James M. Cain and Chandler and Thompson and all the others.
GROSS: A lot of book critics, in their reviews, have mentioned that you should be better known than you are. That's kind of like a common refrain about you.
Mr. WOODRELL: Yes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So you’ve heard that song sung a lot.
Mr. WOODRELL: Uh-huh.
GROSS: So, you know, it often works that once a movie's made, if it's adapted from a book, the author of that book becomes a lot better known. Are you hoping for that with this movie?
Mr. WOODRELL: I think it's unavoidable now, so I've decided to hope for it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Well, I hope you get it.
Mr. WOODRELL: Right. Thank you.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both so much for talking with us. Debra Granik, congratulations on your new film "Winter's Bone," which is adapted from my other guest, Daniel Woodrell's novel of the same name.
Thanks very much to you both.
Mr. WOODRELL: Oh, thank you so much. Enjoyed it.
Ms. GRANIK: Thank you.
"A Saga In The Ozarks, Suited For The Screen." Fresh Air 16 June 2010. To hear the complete interview go to npr.org → Programs → Fresh Air. Enter the dated of the broadcast June 16, 2010.