Magazine article American Cinematographer

An Odyssey in the Ozarks

Magazine article American Cinematographer

An Odyssey in the Ozarks

Article excerpt

"Authenticity" was the watchword for Winter's Bone, a harrowing drama set in the Ozark Mountains about a daughter's hunt for her scofflaw father. Director Debra Granik is a native New Yorker, and director of photography Michael McDonough hails from Glasgow, Scotland, so neither was familiar with Missouri's remote mountain region. The longtime collaborators therefore embarked on a journey of their own, devoting two years to researching and scouting the Ozarks, then shooting on practical locations with a mix of professional actors and local nonprofessionals. Their efforts were handsomely rewarded at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where the film won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Waldo Saft Saeenwriting Award.

Winter's Bone is Granik and McDonough's second feature, after Down to the Bone (2004), but the two have collaborated since 1994, when they began graduate film studies at New York University at the same time. "Debra and I started the same day, same class," recalls McDonough. "We went from doing class exercises to making the short Snake Feed, then Down to the Bone, and then Winter's Bone." When he wasn't working with Granik, McDonough shot Bowling for Columbine, Diggers and Quid Pro Quo, among other projects.

Based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell, Winter's Bone teils the story of 1 7-year-old Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), who tends her younger siblings and catatonic mother. Ree faces the prospect of losing the family home after her drug-addicted father posts it as bond and then disappears. Her quest to find him takes her from one ramshackle house to another, where she confronts tight-lipped kin and a self-protective meth culture that turns ugiy when cornered.

"I love the book - I think it's Annie Prouix with a male voice," says McDonough. He encouraged Granik and producer Anne Rosellini to purchase the rights, and he signed onto the project as an associate producer. "Michael was the first person who said, Tm not having one more discussion about whether we should option this. I'm coming with my paycheck tomorrow, and everyone will throw in a third," recalls Granik.

Because of tax incentives, proximity to New York City, and the greater likelihood of encountering snow, the producers flirted with the idea of shooting in the Catskills, but the Ozarks ultimately won out. "Debra wanted to have the local flavor, local people and correct accents, " says McDonough. The duo made six scouting trips, working closely with Richard Michaels, a local guide in Branson, Right The filmmakers work on close shots for the climactic scene, in which two women take Dee to a pond to retrieve a body. Below: A shot from the final scene, which begins at dusk and lasts into the night.

Mo., who broke the ice with the local inhabitants, Michaels introduced the filmmakers to the Laysons, an extended family with several homes in one holler; the properties were all within a half-mile radius and became the production's key locations. "We used it much like a set," says Granik. "We could park our vehicles long-term and become very familiar with the terrain." The Laysons' daughter wound up playing Dee's little sister, "and their dogs are In every frame," adds Granik. "There were no less than 11 of them!"

The filmmakers planned to shoot in winter, true to the novel's setting. "Winter makes any journey more arduous," Granik observes. "When it's cold, the idea of not having enough food becomes direr, the state of the woodpile becomes direr, and the stakes are higher for survival. There's a kind of tenacity that winter calls upon."

Tenacity was also required of the producers - two months before principal photography was to begin, in 2008, their financier backed out. The team managed to refinance, but had to wait until the following winter to shoot. "We were 50 percent poorer but 100 percent freer," says Granik. The filmmakers' visual anthropology deepened during the intervening year. "We took thousands of photographs," says McDonough. …

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