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Interview with Courtney Hunt, Director of Frozen River

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44 year old Courtney Hunt makes her feature film debut this week with the spectacular Frozen River. The film debuted at the 2008 Sundance film festival where it was awarded the best feature.

Women & Hollywood: How did you get the idea for this film?

Courtney Hunt: This (smuggling) really goes on at the border 300 miles from here. It is a smuggling culture that has been around since prohibition. The commodity may change -- it has been booze and cigarettes -- now it's illegal immigrants, but it's also pantyhose sometimes. I learned that women were involved and I went and met some of them in the late 90s who were smuggling cigarettes at the time. They were really interesting. They happened to be Mohawk. That's how I came up with the idea.

W&H: You are able address race and class issues by putting a white woman with a native American woman. Did you know that you wanted to have this cross cultural conversation?

CH: I did. One reason was a function of the storytelling. For us to understand the situation we needed to see it through the eyes of someone who knew nothing about it. I did love this idea of a white woman and Mohawk woman stuck in a car together and just seeing what happens.

W&H: What compelled you to put pen to paper?

CH: I wrote the first draft based on cigarette smuggling and wasn't happy with the way it came out. Then 9-11 happened, I had a baby, I moved upstate, and one day I was writing in my journal and this whole monologue of Ray's (the Melissa Leo character) just poured out. I thought it was a poem. (for more on the writing process pick up this month's issue of Script magazine - not available online). And so I took that and it became the short film. Once I saw the short film got into the NY Film Festival and it got attention I went back and said let's just show the whole thing.

W&H: Did anyone say to you why don't you make this into a feature?

CH: Nobody said they wanted to make it into a feature. Once I finished it nobody said they wanted to produce or fund it.

W&H: How did you find funders?

CH: In other areas. I looked in real estate. I looked at areas where people had lots of profits.

W&H: How much did it cost to make the film?

CH: Well under a million dollars.

W&H: It was purchased by Sony Pictures Classics after Sundance?

CH: It was purchased before we won the award at Sundance.

W&H: It is so hard nowadays for films from a female perspective to get made and released. Your film is resonating and its such a tough subject. Why do you think that is?

CH: I think the reason is that it's a good story. It's a story with some suspense which grows out of the true motivations of the characters. I tell it in a really suspenseful way because that was the one commercial aspect of the movie that I could deliver to pay back my investors. And suspense makes you stay in your seat until the last frame because they need to see what happens to this woman.

W&H: These two women don't like each other initially.

CH: When I went to write everyday it would scare me that I was writing about two characters who don't like each other. I'd think: where can I go with this? Are they even going to speak to each other in the car? I think that when we are around people from other cultures, especially when its uncomfortable, we just want to flee. But they are stuck in the car together so they have to sort of work it out. I like that the awkwardness that I was feeling writing shows in the movie because that was the truth.

W&H: How did you get Melissa Leo to be a part of this?

CH: James Schamus brought 21 Grams to the little town where I live and I met Melissa after I saw that movie. Her performance is really good in that film and I felt she had such a powerhouse persona and knew she could carry a feature. Most importantly, I thought she would be interested in the short based on the kind of character she played. Both Misty (Upham) and Melissa were in the short.

W&H: You spent a lot of time focusing on Melissa's face which might be unique to a female director. You helped us see her life on her face. Did you always know you were going to direct this piece?

CH: Yes.

W&H: Women directors find they have to write the scripts in order to get the directing gig. Has that been your experience?

CH: Yes.

W&H: I've also interviewed women directors on their post Sundance experience. Some talk about the expectations out of Sundance. What were your expectations and what has been your experience?

CH: I had high hopes and low expectations. I thought if I could sell this film I will have succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. That was my goal and I really didn't worry about anything else. I didn't have an agent going in and I didn't worry about it. I had a sales agent but not an agent for me.

I sold my film and then I was done, ready to go home. Then we won the prize. And we won it from Quentin Tarantino. And it was so weird and so great. We had no idea that was going to happen. I remember walking past him at the directors brunch thinking he is going to hate this movie. How wrong I was.

I had been working with this agent at William Morris through the week who was helping to sell the film and they had given me a pitch and I hired him as I walked off the stage.

Then we went home to our little town and there was nothing. Then we went out to dinner and people just started coming up to the table because everybody knew and that was sweet. Since then I've just been reading scripts. I've had a charmed experience, first that it's getting a release, and second that it's getting a wide release.

W&H: So you are reading other people's scripts now? Are you going to write another script?

CH: I have one already written in a fourth draft and I'm going to do that but I'd like to take a directing assignment first. I'm not particularly wed to my own work. I'm getting all these scripts to read and a book to adapt that they are going to pay me to do.

W&H: Are the scripts that you are getting mostly about women?

CH: No. I have one about a sherrif. They all have suspense. I feel that's really good, we are moving on.

W&H: Why do you think its still so hard for women directors?

CH: There is a bunch of different elements to it. One is that it's just the pattern. You know when you are on an airplane and there is turbulence and the pilot gets on and says hi this is captain Bonnie. And I think Bonnie, can she really do this?

W&H: Do you really think that?

CH: I get a little nervous because I have the same biases as everyone else. I think it's just the matter of people getting used to the idea and getting familiar with it. Like with my crew, I'm sure when I first showed up they were like oh my goodness can she do this? Then within 3 or 4 days we are all on the same team.

The worst of it was my parents who said do you really have to direct it? This is my mother who struggled her way through law school and I am like what? yes I do. We have to a) insist upon it b) support each other and c) willing to be commercially viable. If suspense keeps me viable then that's good. The next generation of men are totally comfortable seeing a woman protagonist as long as she's doing something. These relationship movies won't appeal to them. You look at Knocked Up and all the Apatow stuff. That's all about relationships. I find the characters more realistic. Everything doesn't have to be va va voom in order to keep the male viewer watching. A woman engaged in fascinating action is just as interesting as a guy, in fact more so since we've seen guys pretty much do everything.

W&H: The numbers are going backwards not forward.

CH: There is always going to be two steps forward, one step back. I feel that everything after 1979 has been going backwards.

W&H: Women I've interviewed bring up how Hillary Clinton was treated in the campaign in relation to their work as directors in Hollywood. Do you think that seeing that a woman has run for president could help propel more women into the director's chair?

CH: I think it's about getting used to it, getting familiar with it and realizing oh its different from guys. It's different but not less than. I come out of law so I have this optimism because law is dominated by women at this point. At my law school it was 60% women.

W&H: So you have law degree also?

CH: Yes.

W&H: Did you work as a lawyer?

CH: No, but I finished law school and then went to film school. I worked for my husband as a lawyer doing murder appeals to pay for film school. 30 or 40 years ago there were only a few women in law. Now it's not unusual to see a woman lawyer. I think that is one example of what was once a male dominated world that is not at all anymore. There's plenty of room for everyone in that world and I know its going to be that way for film too because good stories are universal.

W&H: Do you feel comfortable saying your age?

CH: Oh yeah, 44.

W&H: It's an awesome story that here you are at directing your first film at 44. It's heartening.

CH: I think in a way I have a little more credibility. It helps with the crew. It helps with the cast. It helps talking to the money dudes because they are not as scared and I am not as scared.

Cross posted at Women & Hollywood