Debra Granik on Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar season and her Golden Globe-nominated “Winter’s Bone” — EXCLUSIVE

By Sean O’Connell Nearly a year ago to the day, Debra Granik took her grim, guttural, determined family drama “Winter’s Bone” to the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, where the picture won the Grand Jury Prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award.

It was the first of many accolades Granik’s picture would receive over the course of the year. Her visceral, documentary-style direction would earn praise. The “Winter’s Bone” screenplay, co-written with Anne Rosellini, would be celebrated for its relentless tensions and tough-to-replicate local flavor. Finally, critics and audience members found themselves in awe of Jennifer Lawrence’s out-of-nowhere performance as a steely, dirt-poor teenager hellbent on tracking her deadbeat dad before the bailbondsmen can repossess the family’s last few possessions.

Yet when we speak by phone, Granik’s mind is on the other side of the globe, where her film is receiving an unexpected bit of praise.

“Musicians in the film, who in real life have very hard-scrabble existences, are getting adoring reviews in a Danish paper today,” Granik tells me, with an astonished laugh.

“In Denmark today, there’s a journalist who really took a shine to their music. People are sending jpgs of the musicians to Denmark as we speak,” Granik said. “Those are the things that you can not expect. You couldn’t anticipate coming back, almost a year later, and telling a musician in a very rural part of southern Missouri, ‘Hey, the Danes are really digging your music!’ You truly never, ever can expect something like that. But it’s that connectivity that a film can provide, and it is one of the sweetest aftermaths, I have to say, that from this entire ride.”

“Winter’s Bone” is Granik’s second feature-length film. Her first, “Down to the Bone,” addressed the pains of substance abuse and featured a searing performance by Vera Farmiga that potentially suggested the gut-wrenching fortitude Granik would coach out of Lawrence.

When asked what else she learned on one “Bone” that helped her as she toiled away on the other, Granik admits, “I did have to learn that it was imperative to look at the next best options for certain things, like locations, that would leave you crestfallen if and when you didn’t get what you wanted. Your ego gets so excited that you’ve found the most important ‘X,’ you know? And then it turns out that it can’t be had. Then, instead of storming, pouting, freaking out and becoming nihilistic, you literally just have to hold your comrades’ hands and just say, ‘What’s our next best option?’”

To that end, she continued to realize the importance of skilled collaborators – people who will go to battle with a director on a daily basis to realize the vision.

“There’s no way to communicate to the public the degree to which filmmaking is a collaborative effort,” Granik said.

And while the technicians working behind the scene on “Winter’s Bone” are receiving recognition, the brightest part of the Hollywood spotlight is falling on the director and her resilient female star this awards season. Yet despite the recognition of such groups as the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the Independent Spirit Awards, Granik comes off a genuinely humble.

“I’m in a position where anyone’s recognition means a huge amount because it’s not a given that people will respond to any film,” she said. “And so any time that it’s acknowledged or communicated to me and other colleagues who made this film, we’re going to cherish every single piece of recognition. All of those people who’ve said they like this film? They have become our muse. We want to make another film for them.”

One of those vocal supporters turned out to be Kathyrn Bigelow, who last year collected several Oscars – including Best Picture and Director — for her work on “The Hurt Locker.”

Bigelow recently hosted special “Winter’s Bone” screenings at the SoHo House in Hollywood so she could throw support behind Granik and her film.

“That was very, very powerful,” Granik recalled. “Because I hold her work in such high regard. I am sort of flabbergasted by the precision of her filmmaking. … The idea that someone working as hard as she is can give a nod to our work, that really was a big and powerful experience.”

Even if awards campaigning produces a few juicy fruits – Oscar nominations or, even better, Oscar wins — Granik’s supporters shouldn’t expect her to dive into the studio system for her next film. She says she recently came dangerously close to signing a deal to direct a studio-friendly project. She’d even lined up what she calls “named, financeable people who I think could inhabit the role,” but she backed away.

“I’m not ready yet,” she said. “I have to make a third film autonomously again. And then I think I’ll actually know enough to be able to navigate that process. But I don’t think I have that yet. That’s a skill I have to hone. I think it would be arrogant of me to think I could just slide into that. I think I need to continue to hone my work and get sharper at what I do.”

But not right away. Her more immediate plans involve catching up on all of the films she has been competing against for the better part of six months.

“One thing that happens, and I’m sure this is the case with a lot of filmmakers, the year that your movie is out, it’s a year of extreme depravation,” she said. “You literally are in a tunnel. … All I can tell you is that my queue of films that I am going to watch, starting on the day that I am liberated from this process, is very long. God, ‘The King’s Speech,’ that’s still in theaters. I need to see that! I’m getting a babysitter. I’m going, man. I’m gone!”

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