‘Film is a great vehicle for cultural exchange,” says Debra Granik, director of the Oscar nominated, Sundance Prize-winning Winter’s Bone. Visiting Israel on a trip sponsored by the US Embassy this week, Granik indeed bridges many cultures, as she sits in the lobby of the Mount Zion Hotel in Jerusalem. A Jewish New Yorker, born in Cambridge, Mass. and raised in and around Washington, DC, Granik made a huge impact on the international film scene with Winter’s Bone, the story of a bleak, drug-blighted area in the Ozarks, and a teenage girl with the courage to defy both drug dealers and police.
“Visiting the Ozarks and making the movie changed a lot of my ideas about country people,” says Granik, who, during her stay here met with and taught students at a number of film schools, including Sam Spiegel and Ma’aleh in Jerusalem, as well as Palestinian filmmakers in Ramallah.
“The novel the book was based on, by Daniel Woodrell, was my point of entry into this world,” she says.
The film tells the story of Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), a teenager who struggles to care for her younger siblings, taking over the parental role from a severely depressed mother and a drug-dealing father who has skipped bail and disappeared.
It’s a trip through a world where crystal-meth labs dot the landscape
and this drug has left its ravages on a population that doesn’t have
much else either to enjoy or to make a living from.
“I saw the choices people make about how they’re going to live,” she says.
“It’s a hardscrabble life and very difficult. People develop very scrappy survival skills.” One of these skills, as the film makes clear, is hunting.
“Being there definitely changed my ideas about hunting,” says Granik, a vegetarian. “I’d only been exposed to it as a sport. But here it was very different.
It was part of living. It wasn’t cruelty or torture.” One of the
children who acted in the film “learned to hunt at six. That’s not
something my daughter is going to learn. There’s still a very
significant culture divide between rural and urban areas.”
BUT ONE problem shared by urban and rural populations is a culture of
drug abuse and in the world of Winter’s Bone, this culture fosters
brutality that threatens the heroine.
“It was a bleak and harsh world,” Granik admits. “Anything to do with meth is ghastly and bleak. But by telling Ree’s story, I tried to counterbalance that bleakness. Every time someone walks away from that bleakness, it’s a triumph.”
The film was also a triumph for actress Jennifer Lawrence, who is now
20. She received a Best Actress Oscar nomination and has gone on to star
in the latest X-Men movie. She also won the coveted starring role in
the movie adaptation of the bestselling book, The Hunger Games. How did
Granik help her young star prepare for the role? “We asked her to go
back to Kentucky, where she’s from, for a while. Then we had her come to Missouri. We had her spend time with a family and learn the details of their lives, things like how they hang the laundry. And she was really motivated to put a lot into the preparation.”
In the end, it was Natalie Portman who won the Oscar, but that doesn’t bother Granik. “It’s hard to win an Oscar when you’re too young,” says the director, speaking about Lawrence.
The film’s Oscar nominations – for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best
Supporting Actor (John Hawkes for his chilling portrayal of a drug
user), in addition to Best Actress – put the film front and center at
the awards circus, which was a strange experience for all concerned,
given the film’s subject matter.
“I felt implicated by being part of something that’s at cross purposes
with independent film,” says Granik, although she acknowledges that the
Oscars are changing, “when you have movies like Precious and The Hurt
Locker winning awards. . . We wanted to be acknowledged, and the
nominations are very important to the distributor. But it wasn’t
something we were seeking. And it showed that you don’t have to be a
film about a queen or a billionaire to get recognition, although films
about queens and billionaires are less painful.”
Her next film, not surprisingly, is neither about a queen nor a
billionaire, but a documentary about an odd character she met while
making Winter’s Bone, who plays the cruel patriarch of Ree’s extended
family, and is one of the many locals she cast in the film. She
discovered he writes extensively, suffers from PTSD, and belongs to a
“biker’s church, where people go and stand before God in their leather. There’s every zone of tolerance there you would ever imagine.”