When Courtney Hunt won the 2008 Sundance Grand Jury prize for her debut feature film, Frozen River, she had no idea it was coming. “I didn’t pay close attention to reviews. My job is, ‘Is it reaching the audience or are they not getting it? If they’re not getting it, what did I do that didn’t get across?’ It’s all about my connection with the audience,” Hunt said.
After completing law school, Hunt enrolled in Columbia film school and graduated in 1994. She then spent 10 years researching the Mohawk tribe near the Canadian border. She turned her research into a script about two single mothers from different worlds who become business partners in a smuggling ring across the New York-Canada border.
Hunt originally wrote a short first and filmed it with Melissa Leo and Misty Upham playing the two women. It made it into the New York Film Festival in 2004. Hunt knew she wanted to make a feature with the same actors and used the short as a jumping off point financially. Her husband, a lawyer and her executive producer, raised $1 million from his business associates to produce the feature-length project.
A Tennessee native, Hunt grew up around Memphis with a single mother who was obsessed with the movies. Hunt says she and her mom would go to the local art house theater and see whatever was playing which created a rich education for Hunt. She cites films such as Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Paper Moon, and The 400 Blows as being influential.
Hunt followed her mother’s path even further, enrolling in law school like her mother had, but she said she knew even then that she wanted to make films. But Hunt credits law school with giving her a unique experience and a window on the world. “I worked for a federal judge, at legal services, I met people who were jailed for life. It was a great education in the world, how the world works, who’s in charge, how things happen, why do people commit crime.”
Frozen River‘s success at Sundance spurned it on into the world for a larger audience. It opened the New Directors/New Films festival at the Museum of Modern Art and was nominated for seven Independent Spirit Awards. When Academy Award nominations were announced, the screenplay written by Hunt received a nomination, as did Melissa Leo’s performance. Neither were awarded an Oscar, but Hunt was grateful for the accolades. “It means that people will watch the movie. More people will get to see the movie.”
It was announced in 2009 that Hunt’s next project was an adaptation of the Willy Vlautin novel Northline, but that has been overshadowed by announcements of a different project, The Whole Truth, which seems to have an ever-changing cast. Keanu Reeves will star as a defense attorney who is working to exonerate a teenager charged with murder. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is attached to play a young attorney assisting Reeves.
Not to single out Hunt, but she’s an example of a director having success and then taking many to mount another project. I think many women who direct are interested in finding projects they are truly passionate about and are willing to nurture for as long as it takes to see them through. Men may direct one or two projects, gain some recognition, and then are tapped to make other films, which may not be passion projects, but simply a source of income. Not that there aren’t male directors who have passion projects, but I wonder if there’s differences between how men and women develop work. Do women’s projects spend so much time in development because there aren’t financial resources for women’s ideas? Are women more willing to devote years to one project? Or do men simply receive more opportunities to work? What do you think?