'Winter's Bone' (2010)
I’m interrupting my summer movie-ing series to introduce yet another what I hope to be ongoing series of posts entitled “How to Make a Movie.” Now, as you might have guessed, I’ve never actually made a movie. One might think that as such, I’m unqualified to instruct others on the issue. One would be correct. Nevertheless, as I sat in my theatre seat last night watching Sundance sensation Winter’s Bone, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “this is such a good movie…why can’t more films be like this? It’s not that hard.”
See, there was nothing spectacular about this movie. I don’t expect AVATAR-like graphics in every film; just like I don’t expect drama with the emotional impact of Schindler’s List, or acting performances rivaling Marlon Brando, or a script as good as Pulp Fiction, or even production design as good as The Lord of the Rings…you get the point. Those things come around once a generation, and Winter’s Bone is none of those things. What it is, is a harrowing, adventurous, bleak, and airtight piece of film-making that is beautiful in its simplicity, effortless in its delivery, and every bit as chilling as its title suggests. None of these things require anyone named Spielberg or Cameron to pull it off. So here is what we can learn from Winter’s Bone about How to Make a Movie:
Lesson #1: Start With a Halfway Original Idea
A poor Missouri teenage girl residing in the Ozarks looks after her two younger siblings and psychologically ill mother while her father is in prison. “The Law” comes looking for her father who has jumped bail after putting the family’s house up for bond. Girl assures the Sheriff she will find her father, dead or alive, so that she doesn’t lose her house or her family.
Lesson #2: Hire a Director Who Knows What She Wants
In this case, Debra Manik, who I feel has a bright future ahead of her after this film. This film has an identity; it has a feel; the storytelling, pacing, and every action or word spoken by any character reflects this identity. Nothing feels awkward or out of place. There is nothing exceptionally visionary or savant-like going on here; just a director who spent time figuring out what she wanted and executing. Are you starting to get the picture?
Lesson #3: Pay Attention to Detail
The poverty-stricken community is strewn with stripped 30-year old trucks sitting on the lawn; lawn mowers that might have run at one point sit idly on the grass with weeds surrounding the wheels; the characters all look as though they have seen better days, with the clothes they wear indicating they probably got them from Salvation Army; an elderly woman sings folk-ified hymns in the background during pickin’ and grinnin’ time at a birthday party; our main character, a teenage girl, sleeps on a waterbed; a piece of great dialogue, “Never ask for what should be offered”, has meaning and weight behind it; it’s not just a throwaway line.
I could go on, but I’ve made my point. It’s hard to know sometimes whether A-list directors are too ignorant on how to make a movie, or if it’s the production companies that are too gutless to make them. Whatever it is, Winter’s Bone proves them wrong. This isn’t an art-house film, or anything that main-stream audiences couldn’t enjoy. Sometimes it just takes a halfway original idea, or a director who knows what she wants, or a little attention paid to detail, to make a film great.