Director Debra Granik numbers herself among “the journalists, writers and filmmakers who go looking for the subject that scares them the most” — in Granik’s case, addiction, poverty and “people navigating what’s totally foreign to me. I find that riveting.”

Granik’s fear-based fascination with struggle has resulted in two award-winning features that have served as platform for talented, little-known actresses: “Down to the Bone” (2004), which proved a career-making showcase for Vera Farmiga (and won Granik a best director prize that year at Sundance), and this year’s “Winter’s Bone,” which won Granik the grand jury prize for drama at Sundance 2010. Its young star, Jennifer Lawrence, has thus far been showered with critical accolades for her performance as an impoverished Ozarks girl who defies her crystal-meth-making neighbors to find her father and save her family.

On the surface, “Winter’s Bone” sounds like a snap: a 24-day shoot with six weeks prep. But it was a years-long effort for Granik and her producers, Alix Madigan and Anne Rosellini, who lost their original funding over the dark quality of Daniel Woodrell’s novel but kept going back to Missouri, the mountains, attending bible churches and covered-dish suppers, all to win the confidence of the people they needed to make their movie. “If you show up enough,” Granik said, “they’ll say, ‘There’s some reason these people keep coming back.'”

As for her talent for picking actresses, Granik describes the process as a Catch-22 paradox. “You can’t make movies without known names,” she said, “and unknowns can’t become known because they can’t get work.”

After being pitched all manner of unsuitable actresses, Granik held her ground: She didn’t necessarily want an unknown for the role of Ree Dolly, but she wanted someone young, who could play American and sound American. “And then Jennifer walked in,” Granik said, “a complete unknown. And from Kentucky, no less.”

For all the pain involved in birthing her films, Granik keeps things in a very personal perspective. “It’s not about the larger marketplace,” she said. “It’s about who’s near and dear and who’s decided to jump into the fire with you.”