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Director Gnaws on Winter's Bone

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Yes, the season is right there in the title: Winter's Bone. Not autumn. Not spring. Certainly not summer.

But as much of a character in Daniel Woodrell's novel as the season turns out to be, writer-director Debra Granik was just grateful that, when she filmed her adaptation of Woodrell's book in Missouri two winters ago, it was one of the milder in the state's recent history.

"Had we shot it this past winter, it would have been a winter that more closely mimicked the book, with a lot of snow and cold," says Granik, whose film opened in limited release on Friday (6/11/10). "In his book, winter is more of a character. It was a trade-off for a low-budget film. A mild winter is a godsend because you want to keep the crew warm and able-bodied. Cold temperatures require special precautions. They have ice storms out there - they had one prior to shooting. But fortunately, not when we were shooting."

So there's the winter part of the title - but what about the bone? In Granik's film, which won both the Grand Jury prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, the two words are never spoken. And, Granik admits, while she's got her own interpretation, that's all it is.

"When I read the novel, the title seemed very abstract," Granik says. "But in this part of the country, so many of these families are hunters and take the meat straight off the bone. I was in a place in the United States where bones are being handled in a very existential way. And, metaphorically, the winters get hard and you're living with no buffer, no extra flesh."

Winter's Bone tells the story of Ree Dolly (played by Jennifer Lawrence), a teen-ager in backwoods Missouri whose father has skipped out on bond after being arrested for cooking methamphetamine. Now he's disappeared - and he's put up the family home and property as collateral. So Ree must track down her father to keep her family from becoming homeless. But she faces a culture of silence among the drug-addled and drug-dealing crews, who also happen to be related to her - but who threaten her nonetheless.

The film is unusual in its willingness to focus on characters living below the poverty line, without making poverty - or drug addiction - the focus of the film. Rather, Granik was caught up in the story of Ree Dolly, a character who grabbed her and wouldn't let go.

"She caught our hearts," she says. "It borrowed an age-old tradition and was really American in a delicate way. You've got a hero who has to go into an obstacle-laden, semi-hostile territory and does it with a lot of moxie. There was something about her tenacity and the way she's got a lot of resources in her heart and brain. I couldn't predict the character. Daniel Woodrell created enough qualities in her personality that I was fully absorbed. We all recognized that this book was very well-constructed, that it was an American story with very classic elements."

The film is actually Granik's second Sundance-award winner. Her previous feature, Down to the Bone, won her the director's award at Sundance in 2004 and starred Vera Farmiga. Though it won sterling reviews, the film itself - the story of a divorced mother trying to keep her family afloat while coping with crack addiction - wasn't exactly a box-office hit.

Which meant that Granik took another five years to make Winter's Bone, her second feature. In that period, she wrote two other scripts, taught at New York University - and had a daughter.

"I didn't think Down to the Bone would make things easier," she says. "The recognition it got was based on people enjoying the work of Vera. People were pleased to see a very talented actress they hadn't seen enough of. But that doesn't qualify a film as having commercial value. It says there can be viable life for a film made for under $500,000. It doesn't give anyone the sense that this is a filmmaker likely to be a candidate to do something more commercial."

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