Debra Granik was captivated by the single-minded determination of the central character in “Winter’s Bone” and wanted to adapt it for the bigscreen. But the director, who spent much of her life in the Washington-to-Boston corridor, knew little about the rural Missouri Ozarks where Daniel Woodrell’s novel was set.
Looking to immerse herself in the culture, she made the first of six trips in 2006 to a region populated with mountain folks often characterized by outsiders as “hillbillies.” Gaining initial access through Woodrell, Granik and producer Anne Rosellini worked to establish relationships with local residents who eventually would open their yards and homes for on-location filming.
As it turned out, it was a good thing the movie’s financing didn’t come quickly.
“It gave us the time to build the movie brick by brick,” Granik says. “The research allowed us to build a pathway that you could never achieve just by showing up in a very concrete, efficient pre-production period. It might be all well and good to have everything scheduled and budgeted, but that doesn’t mean hooey to people who are trying to figure out if they can trust you over time.”
“Winter’s Bone” is a mystery and a bit of a thriller starring Jennifer Lawrence as a sturdy teenager, Ree Dolly, who is charged with caring for her sick mother and two younger siblings. She embarks on a desperate search for her father, a jailed crystal-meth dealer who used the family homestead to post bail and then vanished.
Circumstances forced Granik to make a major aesthetic change from Woodrell’s story, which describes the Ozarks during a snow-laden winter. When principal photography started in February 2009, the white stuff was absent.
“There was no way we could ever afford to get involved with the vagaries of snow, or manufacturing it … so I pushed delete,” she recalls.
Another detour was made in casting. Practically the day before cameras rolled, Granik tapped 6-year-old Ashlee Thompson, who lived in the house where much of the movie was filmed, to play Ree’s young sister.
“We thought it was interesting that she had two brothers (in the book), but my gut kept saying, ‘How can you belie the fact that this girl is an exquisite model of the life on this land and is totally plausible as Ree’s sister?’ It felt monumental,” Granik says. “But I felt the best kind of soldier of cinema I could be was to be flexible. The brittle get broken, the supple can bend. I had to keep that in mind for many, many different reasons.”