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Local flavor helps 'Winter's Bone'

Director Debra Granik thought she'd have a rough time getting residents to show her a glimpse of their lives for 'Winter's Bone,' a thriller set in rural Missouri. Then tour boat captain Richard Michael stepped into the picture.

January 06, 2011|By Tim Swanson, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Richard Michael scoped out locales and helped with introductions.
Richard Michael scoped out locales and helped with introductions. (Kelly Michael / Roadside…)

When he's behind the wheel of his amphibious World War II vehicle, taking visitors on sightseeing tours around the lakeside resort of Branson, Mo., Richard Michael usually couldn't care less about Hollywood and the movies it makes.

"It doesn't really have anything to do with our reality," says Michael, who was "bred and buttered" in the area and speaks in a voice that's as warm and welcoming as wood smoke. "We enjoy the movies and the storytelling, but out there in Los Angeles, that's like a whole different country. We don't connect to it."

But that changed the day Michael received a call from his sister, Becky, who works for the Missouri Film Commission. She had been assigned to help director Debra Granik, a self-described East Coast, upper-class liberal, realize her vision for "Winter's Bone," a rural thriller based on Daniel Woodrell's 2006 novel.

Set in southern Missouri's Ozark woods, the story follows a flinty 16-year-old named Ree Dolly ( Jennifer Lawrence) as she scours the pine-strewn hills and hollers near her home in search of her missing meth-cooking father, while her terrifying outlaw kin are none too happy that she's asking questions and breaking their code of silence.

Granik experienced a similar fear when initially scouting locations with her writing partner Anne Rosellini. The two would peer down private roads, not knowing how to approach wary locals.

"It was very hard to introduce the idea of making a film or adapting a book out of the blue," Granik says. "How does one do that without literally seeming like a caricature of city people who abruptly come to town and say, 'We want to make a movie'? There's no way to walk on people's property without some form of invitation or permission, so we weren't going to get far."

But with Michael based not far from the woods near the Arkansas border, where Woodrell's novel is actually set, Granik found not only her location scout but also someone who could make respectful introductions and help find "life models" — individuals the director could observe during their daily routines, watching them hunt squirrels, chop wood, play bluegrass and care for livestock.

"I didn't really have any experience," Michael says. "I'm just sort of a detail-oriented person, and I love this area and wanted to share it and the culture and the beauty we have down here."

Jumping into the project, Michael made meticulous maps, matching descriptions in the novel to real-life places from his memory — a dilapidated barn, a shallow pond, a sizable cave. If he didn't know who owned a property, he would look it up in the county registrar's office and then conduct some community outreach. Still, not everyone in the impoverished but proud hill communities offered open arms to the production, even with Michael's "hillbilly credentials."

"Debra was broaching a subject that can be a sore point," the tour boat captain says. "Unfortunately, I believe that we are still the meth-making capital of the world. It's not a thing that we brag about, or would even like to have known or pointed out. And so people didn't want to get involved or be a part of that type of portrayal."

To help convince them, Michael would tell Ree Dolly's story, focusing on her virtue and strength of character, how she must care for her younger siblings and her troubled mother, and how she's trying to save the family's home.

"I highlighted the positive aspects of the girl's spirit — not wanting to get involved in the drug culture and taking care of her family," he says. "These are the kind of middle-American family values that most people around here share."

Ultimately, Michael found "life models" in a local family, the Laysons, whose patriarch, Frank, had also worked as a boat captain. Much of the movie, including scenes of Ree's home and her Uncle Teardrop's place, was shot on their property, and several family members also appear in the film.

Michael remains proud that "Winter's Bone" travels beyond any backwoods clichés to tell an almost mythic story of tribal bonds coming into conflict with personal responsibilities. But for all of the movie's dedication to regional authenticity, there's still one part that makes him cringe.

"I wince at the squirrel-skinning scene," he says, referring to a sequence in which Ree teaches her little brother and sister how to prepare the meat. According to Michael, the belly cut was too small, the entrails weren't scooped properly and the skin wasn't removed in its entirety. "Other than that, it's great."

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