In writer-director Courtney Hunt’s first feature, “Frozen River,” the two lead characters–both women–begin as rivals who, as mothers, are fighting for food, if you will, with which to feed their needy young. However, as they struggle to succeed, they realize their interests are actually mutual, and they form a bond as sisters.
In discussing “Frozen River,” Hunt elaborates on how she developed her characters‘ relationships and the film‘s womanly themes:
“I think motherhood is their essential bond. These women understand each other through motherhood. They connect on a human level. And I think all people–women and men, but women especially–connect in their concern for their children. They share in the idea of wanting to have things better for their children, for the next generation. That’s an essentially human quality,” says COURTNEY HUNT. And, in this story, Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) and Lila (Misty Upham) do bond through that mutual concern–through those instincts–and change their attitude and behavior towards each other. So, without spoilers about how the story brings them to it, there is–in the end–sisterhood.”
JENNIFER MERIN: Was the development of the film’s story and theme influenced by your own experiences with motherhood?
HUNT: Yes, but I’d say it’s actually deeper than that. It has to do as much if not more with my relationship with my mother than with my relationship with my child. I was raised by a single mom. I saw her struggling to become a person, to achieve and have a life, and still be a mom. Tricky. She struggled through law school–she took the bar ten times. She had dyslexia, long before that was even a known thing. As brilliant as she is, she ran into huge obstacles. And that had a huge impact on me and on everything I do.
On the other hand, I have a father who has a very traditional life. They divorced when I was three, and he’s conservative. He tends towards Republicanism. He does not believe in the same things I believe in, and yet he is an incredibly consistent parent. So I have these two vastly different parents, and their politics are so different that I just had to find a ways to connect all that, to come to terms with it in my head. And, I find that I connect it in the stories I tell.
MERIN: How do you connect it in “Frozen River?”
HUNT:: Well in this movie I did it by making a story my father would sit through. My father’s like: (she uses a slightly Southern twang) “I watch John Wayne movies, and I’m not going to have a movie make me cry.” (Back to her own voice) And this he told me a long time ago. So, I don’t milk the moments that are heart wrenching, but I do want you–and him–to be there until the last frame.
On the other hand, my mother never left the art house–we watched movies in the art house since I was seven. So I want to tell this story–make this independent film about a unique and little known American community–in the traditional movie way. Like, there’s a lot in this movie that feels like a Western. It’s a lawless frontier up there in (what they call) the North Country. They‘re the new cowboys. So that’s how I bring it together.
MERIN: Speaking of the North Country and this particular and unusual story, how did you find it?
HUNT: My husband is from a little town in upstate New York, near the Canadian border. When I heard about the smuggling–which has been going on up there since the time of Al Capone–I became very curious, especially when I learned that there were women involved. So I met the women smugglers and asked how they did it and talked about the adventure of it. What was most interesting to me was what drove them to it. It‘s an extremely depressed area, with very little industry and a lot of poverty. So, everyone lives in a trailer. And, there are several reservations up there. It fascinated me. I wanted to show the culture.
MERIN: Yes, and in telling the story of these two women, showing their culture, you bring some very potent social, political and legal issues into play–in ways that deepen our understanding of what xxx and xxx are facing. I understand that you went to law school before going to film school. Do you consider filmmaking a form of advocacy?
HUNT: I think everything is political. This film is political because everything you do is political, every choice you make is political. I mean, it all comes back to the fact that I had an incredibly political mother, and that’s the say she looked at it, and so that’s the way I look at it. It all comes down to choices: what water you drink, what you put on your face, how you do your hair–it’s all political.
MERIN: Referring back to the notion of filmmaker as advocate, are you saying that you’re expressing a political agenda through this movie?
HUNT: No. Not at all. I didn’t go into this movie with any political agenda. My agenda was to tell a really good story that resonated with truth, an interesting story that pulls you in, that makes you sit there, that has enough suspense, enough conflict so you’ve gotta see what happens. It’s a very simple human response: I’ve gotta see what happens to this woman. Is she going to get a new trailer or not? That simple idea of your being on her side–even though that trailer might not be your idea of a palace, it’s her idea of a palace. We all have our idea of a palace–somewhere, somehow–and people can relate to Ray Eddy because everyone has a dream in life. So, my agenda was good story, and making sure I portrayed the characters accurately, in a way that didn’t misrepresent them or their lives.
MERIN: I understand “Frozen River” was a good ten years in the making. Why did it take so long?
HUNT: Films usually take seven to ten years to make–from the beginnings of an idea to developing a workable story and a vision. In this case, I needed time to learn enough about the Mohawk people and get to know their world so I could feel confident that I could write a script and characters accurately. Then there were other things happening in my life. And, here’s the really big deal, I realized that the industry was not going to help me make this film. Public money wasn’t available to me because it wasn’t a documentary. I decided I had to find the money myself or the film wasn’t going to happen. I think the film would have happened faster if I’d realized that and accepted it sooner. My husband and I sat down an said this isn‘t going to happen unless we raise the money ourselves, and so that’s what we did.
MERIN:: When I spoke with Melissa Leo recently, I asked her whether there’s a difference working with a female director and, if so, what that is. She said she’s observed that women directors have a harder time getting crew members on predominantly male-dominated sets to listen to them. I trust that that’s true, and wonder whether you, as a women director, have developed a special skill set that enables you to bring people into line, to convince them to do what you want them to do?
HUNT: It has to do with what I wear and how I talk, and making myself appealing. With men, it means talking to them about the substance of what’s going on, and clicking into their intellect, talking to them on their level. Really, you have to connect intellectually–quickly. You need to consciously make you statements declarative–as opposed to uttering up-ended sentences, as women tend to do, that sound like questions. Now, on “Frozen River,“ with Reed Morano, my DP, we always had a complete plan–like the invasion of Normandy–of shots for the entire film, but each day when we’d get on set, we’d just allow ourselves to have a ‘what do you think’ conversation. We needed that kind of space, a little bit of air. So, the first day, my first AD was listening to this, and I could just see him thinking ‘oh, no, they’re not going to do this every day.’ But we did, at the beginning of each day we’d take that time and work it out–but we couldn’t have had that leeway unless we had a strong plan. So it was like marrying the two styles of shooting–the men’s style is very military, it’s not loosey goosey. Everybody has a role to play and you’ve got to be ready to play that role, and own the whole of that role and not get into anybody else’s. Like, it wasn’t my job to do the catering, I’m not the caterer. I’m not the costumer. I’m the captain. So, if you’re comfortable in a leadership position, I think you make other people at ease with that. And that’s the most important thing. I got that from Seiji Ozawa, who said when he was first conducting, he was really arrogant and when he arrived he’ d just start bossing everyone around and one day the whole orchestra just got up and left. And after that, he said, he learned that his job was to invite people to bring their talent. And I live with that. The grips and the little PA–everybody’s giving you a piece of themselves and if they know they’re invited to come to you if they’ve got something interesting to say, then you’re much better off, you’ve got a much better group.
MERIN: Hard to do?
HUNT:: Not really. I like other people’s ideas. And, I like to pick the best idea. And, if it’s not mine, I don’t care. I really don’t care. I’ve let go of having to have it be my idea. I think some directors have difficulty letting go of that, because you have a vision–but if it’s too concrete, it’s just going to take everything away from everybody. But if you have a little flexibility, yes, your vision is going to be the dominant one, but people feel free creatively. If people feel invited to contribute, then they own it too and their stake in it is higher and they work harder.
MERIN: As this film’s creator–or Captain, as you’ve called yourself–you wrote the script, set up production, directed, edited and are now publicizing “Frozen River.”’ Which of these distinct jobs do you most enjoy, which comes most naturally to you and which are you best at doing?
HUNT: Directing. I’m definitely best at directing because I don‘t have a lot of anxiety when I‘m doing it because there’s such an intense schedule, and there’s such an imperative to get enough sleep, so I don‘t have time to think a lot–and, you know, my brain is kind of dangerous when it gets going.
I had to live like a monk while I was shooting the film. I even had to have my own room–my daughter and my husband were down the hall. I went to bed the minute we got finished shooting. I ate the same food everyday. I had cereal, and I went right to sleep. I slept eight hours every day. Eight hours. Which you don’t really do on your first film, but I knew I had to. But that structure made me feel so safe in a way. You know there’s first in command, second in command, third in command–there’s a way that this is going to play out everyday. I find that structure to be incredibly liberating and at the same time comforting.
MERIN: Is that ability to successfully structure something you learned at Columbia’s film school? And, what made you choose Columbia? I‘m particularly curious about that because Columbia’s producing such strong female filmmakers–you and Kimberly Pierce, come immediately to mind–and I wonder why. And, as an aside, are you and Kim friends and colleagues?
HUNT: Well the reason it all stems from Columbia is that Columbia doesn’t make you declare whether you’re a writer or director until the day of your thesis. When you have to declare, you can write your thesis in either. Because they don’t separate those things, I think they breed writer-directors–which is what Kim and I are. At Columbia, everybody has to work on everybody else’s films, so you get the whole picture. I was a first AD, I was a cameraperson. I didn’t feel confined. I felt the freedom to find my own place and to make mistakes. They’re really good about that. And there’s that European mentality–that filmmaking is just part of a well rounded life. It’s a broader view than ‘okay, now you must write a hit, and sell it– and then you’ll be a big shot.’ That’s a very American, very Hollywood approach. We have a very European feel, you know there were a lot of Czechs at Columbia for a while. And. excellent women faculty members like Annette Insdorf and Molly Haskell. It’s just a really good film school.
I was actually in classes and workshops with Kim. She’s wonderful, and very smart. And she’s a little younger than me, and she’s very quiet and it was great to see the different styles she was playing with. I think she’s a wonderful director. I love her work and applaud her and support her completely.
MERIN: I do, too. I think she’s subversive in the best possible way.
HUNT: Yes, I agree. And I loved “Stop Loss” and her whole approach. I mean I’ve never seen that theme done that way and I certainly had never heard of a women directing a war scene. Bravo. That alone sold me at that movie.
MERIN: Have you considered making documentaries? This is such an interesting time for documentaries, with innovative mixes of verite and narrative styles and techniques, and greater public awareness of the genre. And, as you mentioned, access to public funding sources–to whatever extent they‘re available and for however long they last. And, docs are, after all, an interesting tool for advocacy.
HUNT: I started working on a documentary in film school. I took my camera and went out and found these kids–little kids–who were jumping off this box and flipping into the sand in an abandoned lot. They were African-American and Puerto Rican kids, seven or eight years old. And, they were all unsupervised. I shot footage of them and it was amazing stuff. All verite. I did everything with those kids–went to their class, we went to the zoo. They trusted me. And, then, I stopped and put the footage in a drawer–because I thought this is invading them, this is exploiting them and I’m not going to do that. There was this moment in my gut when I just thought it was intrusive. I could have done this with the Mohawks too. I could have gone up there and made a documentary. But I don’t like sticking a camera in people’s faces. I don’t like having a camera stuck in my face. I feel there is something invasive about it. It is certainly my personal choice. I see documentaries, I love documentaries. They can be amazing. But with the subject matter I’ve been interested in, I have not yet found a way to not have that…
HUNT: Yes. Yes, that cloying feeling. I just don’t know how to do it. And I have an ability to make people trust me which makes it even worse. So for me it was, no, just write a narrative. And, frankly, I don’t think the Mohawk people I would have interviewed could say nearly what I was able to say in a narrative. They would have locked down. And it’s just not my cup of tea.