Debra Granik introduced Jennifer Lawrence to the world in Winter’s Bone in 2010, but unlike Lawrence, who has gone on to star in several blockbuster films, Granik prefers to avoid Hollywood’s sway and remain rooted in realism.
Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Granik grew up in the suburbs of Washington D.C. For college, she attended Brandeis, where she majored in politics and became interested in documentary film, democratic media, and feminism. Growing up as a self-described cliché of the East Coast Jewish liberal, Granik said she had a deep desire to “gain access to lives I can’t lead”.
After graduating, she made educational films for trade unions at the Massachusetts Division of Occupational Safety. The subjects of her films were carpal tunnel syndrome or teaching workers how to put on protective clothing. Granik recalled filming a pest controller in a Boston public housing project as he poked a ceiling panel and cockroaches fell on his head. “I loved the surrealism: it wasn’t Trainspotting, it wasn’t Bunuel, it was just a day in this man’s life, raining cockroaches,” she said in an interview with The Guardian.
Her ambition to make her own films occurred at the same time the indie filmmaking movement was booming in the late 80s and early 90s. “There were a lot of women filmmakers emerging at the time—Susan Seidelman, Jane Campion. Something that had seemed so mega and out of reach suddenly seemed doable.” But Granik felt she needed the structure of film school.
She got into NYU’s film program where she studied under Boris Frumin, who taught her minimalist and realist filmmaking. She cites Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Shane Meadows, Laurent Cantent, and Abbas Kiarostami as major influences.
Granik is similar to her contemporary Kelly Reichardt in the sense that both work within the indie filmmaking model and even though they have achieved critical success, remain wary of Hollywood.
Instead, Granik prefers a set of indie tenents, handed down from teachers or learned from experience, which includes the “dayenu caveat.” “Dayenu” is a Passover song of gratitude and in Hebrew means, “It would have been enough for us.” “It is enough,” Granik said in an interview with Brandeis Magazine, “to just relish looking at the diversity of life. It is enough to look at what other people endure and suffer. It is enough to celebrate the folk wisdom of Haitian midwives, or whatever it is that blows your mind, and to create lasting evidence of that.”
Her fascination with everyday folk creates a filmmaker who is part documentarian and part social anthropologist. For Winter’s Bone, Granik spent months observing life in the Ozarks, where the film takes place. One of the scenes in the film features Ree Dolly (Lawrence) teaching her young siblings how to skin a squirrel and Granik had hunters in the local community come in to teach the actors how to kill and skin animals.
Made on a budget of $2 million dollars, Winter’s Bone premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize. Released in theaters in June, the film made $14 million. With continued support from the critical community, it picked up steam through awards season and was nominated for four Academy Awards in 2011, including Lawrence’s first Best Actress nomination.
Her films capture la vie quotidienne and deal with personal strength and willpower. Granik’s protagonists struggle to put food on the table, fight addiction, and dodge eviction. “Coping mechanisms are very attractive to me,” she says. “I always want to know, ‘How do you do it?’”
It was during Winter’s Bone that she found the subject that would become her next film. During a casting session in a local church, Granik noticed Ron Hall, a Vietnam vet. So fascinated by his appearance and personality, she tracked him down in the parking lot after his audition.
After spending more time with Hall during filming, Granik became fascinated by his Vietnam war vet identity, the biker universe he occupied, and his new wife Alicia, a recent immigrant from Mexico. After combing through 230 hours of footage to tell the story of Hall helping fellow vets survive the cost of war, Stray Dog premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2014 and on PBS’ Independent Lens in 2015. “This world of men who define themselves as warriors, the ancient chivalry of it, will never cease to intrigue me,” Granik says.
Even before Granik brought us the star power of Jennifer Lawrence, she discovered another talent: Vera Farmiga. While still working on her MFA at NYU, Granik directed her first short film, Snake Feed. The short was accepted into the Sundance Labs for screenwriting and directing. Eventually, it grew into Granik’s first feature length film, Down to the Bone, which starred Vera Farmiga as a woman struggling with addiction.
The film premiered at Sundance in 2004, where it won a best director award for Granik and best actress award for Farmiga. The tale of addiction is set in rundown, snowy, gray upstate New York. Irene (Farmiga), a mother of two, works a dead-end job at a supermarket and is stuck in a loveless marriage. She manages to abide the boringness of her life through her addiction to cocaine.
“The typical story line in an American film about addiction is V-shaped,” Granik points out. “Someone tumbles down, they hit bottom, and then they rise up and find redemption. But in reality, it’s more like an EKG: up and down, up and down.”
In Down to the Bone, Irene’s drug habit leads her to seek out rehab, where she cleans up, and falls into a relationship with a male nurse Bob (Hugh Dillon), who wants to help her stay sober. But on a trip to the city with Bob, Irene discovers he has a drug addiction of his own, which causes her to fall back into her old habits. This time, she’s unable to keep up appearances in front of her kids or her co-workers. Instead of finding salvation or redemption at the end of the film, Down to the Bone leaves Irene searching for a way to put herself back together again.
Shortly after Down to the Bone‘s Sundance premiere, Granik says she was assailed with scripts about abused, self-destructive women. “What seemed to make women interesting was the degree to which they were distraught or incapacitated. I need and want to see capable women. I don’t like to see them weep all the time.”
Although Granik didn’t receive an Academy Award nomination for her work on Winter’s Bone, she says Kathryn Bigelow’s win gave her a tremendous feeling of optimism. “To me, the quiet work is being done. In the independent world, there’s just a crew of men and women working together. On the ground, day to day, you don’t have to wait for the Bigelow effect.”
WATCH: Down to the Bone is available on Netflix’s DVD service. Winter’s Bone is available to rent on Amazon.