Debra Granik is the director and co-writer of Winter’s Bone, which was nominated for four Oscars including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. Her latest film, the documentary Stray Dog, follows the everyday life of a Vietnam veteran. A. O. Scott called it an “implicit challenge to the lazy habit of looking at American life through polarized red- and blue-tinted lenses.”
Matt Wray, who studies race and the “white trash” identity, spoke with Granik about her fascination with bones, her experiences as a woman behind the camera, and how Deliverance ruined the banjo’s reputation for an entire generation.
Matt Wray (MW): Your first feature was Down to the Bone
and your second was Winter’s Bone (based on Daniel Woodrell’s novel). You’ve recently been involved with a project based on Russell Banks’s Rule of the Bone. Coincidence? Or is this a trilogy of sorts?
Debra Granik (DG):
Well, yeah, the bones are there. Yesterday I was talking about teeth as the only exposed bones in the body, and how they can be an indicator of someone’s social class. In my third film, Stray Dog, teeth played a big role. There’s a scene where a man has to remove his own tooth. So I didn’t plan it that way but yes, bones and teeth.
MW: So it’s not just a coincidence. It’s thematic?
DG: It’s more that we see the pattern. I don’t set out searching for a title that involves “bone.” But it’s an expression that has come to my mind a lot in this last decade. When we talk about the economy we use expressions like “taking things down to the bone” and “living close to the bone.” It’s a metaphor that fits certain American circumstances that have become very palpable. There is more awareness that there is a minimum that people can survive on, which we see in the “just wage” battles and which we saw after the economic downturn. I think the “bone” thing works on that front.
MW: As a sociologist, I love the attention you pay to real social settings and scenes. Do you see sociology or anthropology as part of your intellectual formation? Are there works of social science that have inspired you?
DG: Yes to all of that. For me—and I think many other documentarians might say this as well—the field of visual anthropology was an original source of inspiration. Fundamentally, I’m interested in questions about why people do what they do. What does this person need to make their life go? What made them choose that? Especially with negative decisions, like self-destructive behaviors. The mystery of that pulls you in to look for clues that are sometimes anthropological in nature—anthropological because they are based on close observations of habit and practice and ritual.
MW: Speaking of self-destruction, to watch your films is to be struck by the brutal power of addiction. You take addiction quite seriously as a force in people’s lives.
DG: I often hear, “Oh god, do you always have to put drugs in your movies?” And it’s like the bone thing: it was never intentional. It was just about the power of meeting people on day 21 of their sobriety, knowing that they have won that a hard way. What does it take to actually “go raw” in this culture if you’ve been needing the help of substances to ameliorate pain, or make life work a little bit better? I will always be intrinsically drawn to anyone endeavoring to do that.
The thing is, you can’t go too far in American culture and not have drugs and alcohol be a very prominent player in daily life. And whoever thought we could fix this with mass incarceration? It’s time we reissue Eugene Jarecki’s film The House I Live In. Just keep reissuing it. It should be taught everywhere.
MW: From the genre of the hillbilly movie in the 1960s to the controversy centered on Deliverance in the 1970s, there have been many critiques of the misrepresentation of mountain people: so-called “Okies” and “Arkies” and “poor white trash.” Have you experienced this kind of pushback to your work?
DG: With Winter’s Bone, at one point we felt really grim about that whole thing. It was like, what are we doing? But there were a number of turning points. One was having a local guide, a man from within the radius of where we actually ended up filming. Richard Michael was sort of an Ozarkian Renaissance man and he spoke all the cultural languages. He was someone who had a very good rapport with his friends and neighbors and understood them very well. He was a very faith-based person and he knew so much about his area. He had a real love, a real pride in the Ozarks, a very profound knowledge of the geology, and also the music culture. So that was the first route of entry: having an interpreter, because we’re not gonna be able to stand at the top of the holler, dressed in black, and be like, “Oh, hi! Hello!” The first time we actually did try that without a guide, there were gunshots in the air, as if to say, “Go away, we’re not interested.”
What if a bunch of women said, “Hey, I can make a film for a million dollars. That’s enough for me”?
A second turning point was having local people read Daniel Woodrell’s book and having a discussion around what it means to tell a story about methamphetamine in your corner of the Ozarks. It helped that the book was written by an Ozark author. Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence’s character) is a real folk hero. She embodies a very basic tenet of Ozark culture, namely defense of place: the idea that you are entitled to stand your native ground. Also at work was the idea of family loyalties, in their most beautiful and their most violent forms, as well as the idea of applauding women who have moxie. So there were these ingredients that enabled the story to celebrate key parts of Ozark heritage: moxie, survival, living close to the bone. Being able to obtain wild game when necessary. Having your house be humble, and yet having a strong will to survive the circumstances of your life.
The third turning point was that we started seeing a lot of really lyrical and upbeat parts of Ozark culture, primarily coming through the vein of music. Daniel Woodrell introduced us to Marideth Sisco, a self-taught ethnologist and musicologist, born and raised in the Ozarks. She sings in one of the scenes and ended up bringing in an all-star band of Ozark’s troubadours.
Lo and behold, the night that we needed to do the music scene, she brought this 16-year-old banjoist. I thought, “Oh my god! The one thing we just can never have in this film is a boy playing a banjo!” Because the banjo is like the mark of Cain. It’s the harbinger saying, “You will now be dismembered by crazy Ozark men in the woods!” But this kid played it especially well, and we wanted to embrace that. We wanted to say, “Okay, it’s time. Deliverance can only hold its grip for so long—35 years is a long sentence. The banjo can be in this film and it doesn’t have to mean something dark. It can re-signify.” In Winter’s Bone, that comes in the form of a story in which family survival is the central issue, rather than animosity towards outsiders.
MW: There are strong women everywhere in your films. When you started getting interested in directing film, were you conscious of a lack of female role models? If not, who were they?
DG: In the 1980s, I kept a scrapbook of some really important women filmmakers from the 1960s: documentary filmmakers and experimental filmmakers, women in the art film scene. That scrapbook meant a lot to me and I used it to keep track of feature films directed by women, especially in other countries.
By the ’80s, I had figured out that I am one of those people that gets a lot of my life meaning through looking. The attraction to film was to be a recorder, a documenter. The next step was trying to match myself to mentors or role models, whoever they might be, regardless of gender, just because I loved their films.
MW: But is there something a female director brings to the task that a male director either can’t or, maybe more accurately, won’t?
DG: It’s very hard to generalize. I think that some women have different expectations about the use of money. Maybe it’s that our power or self-worth doesn’t come from having access to gobs of money. Sometimes I feel like the entrance of women into the filmmaking community was feared because budgets would get driven down. What if a bunch of women said, “Hey, I can make a film for a million dollars. That’s enough for me”?
I think that is potentially threatening to the industry, in more ways than one. It might mean you’d tell different kinds of stories, ones without expensive car chases or burning everything down. What if a whole bunch of women made films without any guns? If we’re a gun-dependent cinema, oh, my word, that could be threatening. There’s also the idea—and this is a pretty threatening one—that women could be interesting in film without taking off their clothes. What if you put in women who are attractive for what’s inside their minds, not what’s below their shoulders? This kind of stuff could really upset the cinematic status quo.
I think it’s always been important for women to operate on the margins, because that’s where change often happens. But, you know, we can also be the invaders of the palace. I love the metaphor of the Trojan Horse: the idea of getting inside a big, big film and changing it up, subverting it. I like the fact that the film Frozen was helmed by a female director, Jennifer Lee, and it did absolutely stupendously well. I mean, yes, they had princesses, but they were empowered princesses. Lee did the mainstream thing and it really worked. Gender parity statistics rose by having a woman directing the film, and the studio heads were thrilled because the film made gargantuan quantities of money. And the core love story was not heteronormative, it was the heroine’s sister—a layered story of sibling care and loyalty.
MW: I don’t know if the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag is still trending, but it certainly remains a live issue. What do you think is at stake in this controversy? Do the Oscars still matter?
DG: I think #OscarsSoWhite is going to have extra fuel next year with this new film Birth of a Nation, by Nate Parker! But yes, the Oscars will always matter because of the number of human ears they reach: the fact that so many different factions of culture here and globally take note of what happens. The nominations matter most on the level of commerce and reproducing contracts. “Do you want to work again? Well then, it really behooves you to get a nomination of some kind.” If a small film distributor gets a nomination, for instance, it can add a whole other revenue stream, or allow them to invest in another small film.
The Oscars can also produce huge cultural erosion, which can be positive erosion. There might be a run of attractive black men nominated and the studio response could be, “Well then, let’s make a huge amount of films with attractive black men in them.” They can really change industry tastes. Having said that, some real shit has to go down for the Oscars to start being an engine of change.
MW: Like what?
DG: For instance, with respect to the attention paid to actresses’ dresses: some woman in that whole matrix of female stars has to decide not to play the dress game. She has to say, “I don’t want my dress to cost more than the lunch programs in Simi Valley or Bakersfield.” With respect to the absence of black nominees, it became an absence that everyone started talking about. That’s also a culture mover, right? Talk is frequently the precursor to change, unless it just dissipates. But this doesn’t sound like it’s going to dissipate.
One basic answer is that the Academy is looking to diversify: bringing in a whole bunch of people who are coming of age in a different system.
But the biggest shift to come will be a shift in capital. The paradigm for making movies with enormous budgets is changing. People know that the Hollywood behemoth is fracturing, especially with changes in the digital era. The old guard is being pushed off. And I would say that many African American filmmakers and filmmakers of color are asking the same question that women are asking: what happens if getting filthy rich is not your top priority? Does everyone need to get paid so much above the line? Or can you make films in a humbler fashion, with smaller stories? Maybe the audiences are smaller, but if the movie costs less to make, you need to please fewer people. That’s another part of the math we have to work on.