Nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards and both Best Director and Writing nods at this year’s Independent Spirit Awards, first time writer/director Courtney Hunt is just getting warmed up. Her sensational debut, “Frozen River,” tells the story of two women, both mothers, along the US-Canadian border, who get caught up in the world of illegal immigrant smuggling. Through necessity and desperation, they travel back and forth across the frozen, St. Lawrence River. And put their lives and those close to them in jeopardy.
It’s a film that brings out the humanity and morality of the underclass in a way that is both poetic and beautiful. Living in trailers, struggling to put food on the table, these single mothers continue to have hopes and dreams. Says Courtney, “I hope that (audiences) walk away feeling that regular, every day heroism. Doing the right thing even when you’re broke and there’s no reason to. Being open to accepting your own biases but moving beyond them. Appreciating the fact that the people who live in trailers are not necessarily who you think they are.”
A Memphis, Tennesse native, Courtney Hunt began her journey as a filmmaker by going through the trials and tribulations of law school. And honing her writing skills by summarizing legal transcripts. Says Hunt, “It was very valuable in script writing and in learning character…I was meeting all kinds of interesting people – federal judges, big firm lawyers, criminals, welfare moms. All kinds of people. It was like a window into the world.” That window was essential to “Frozen River,” helping her create the right story structure, detail, and unique voice for characters, Ray and Lila.
Next up for Hunt will be an adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s novel, “Northline,” about a young, pregnant woman whose life is in such shambles, she heads to Reno to begin anew. Along the way, she is visited by the spirit of Paul Newman, who gives her guidance during her most traumatic moments. Says Hunt, “I think it’s brilliant. It’s written for cinema. And I just feel the character is waiting to jump onto the screen!”
MM First of all, congratulations on all of the accolades. What does all the recognition mean to you?
CH It means that people will watch the movie. More people will get to see the movie. And I might get to work with some actors who are kind of famous and probably get make my second film!
MM From lawyer to filmmaker. When or how did you make the transition?
CH Well, I didn’t spend too much time in the world of law. I went straight from law school to film school. But what I did do in law was work with my husband, who does appellate/criminal defense, among other things. And I would read these massive transcripts of trials. All first-degree murders. Murder appeals. And I worked with him in summarizing huge amounts of facts, which are basically written in script form. Transcripts or scripts. And I learned a lot. It was very valuable in script writing and in learning character. That was the main thing that related the two different fields.
But I wasn’t really serious about law. It’s not that I wasn’t serious. I just knew I wouldn’t end up doing it because I really wanted to make movies.
So, I completed law school because I had already started law school. And I like to finish things. I didn’t want to drop out. Although, if I had been a little more bold, I probably would have. But I was meeting all kinds of interesting people – federal judges, big firm lawyers, criminals, welfare moms. All kinds of people. It was like a window into the world.
MM Was there a particular movie that inspired your interest in filmmaking?
CH I was just thinking about that this morning! The early to mid-70s movies where I was just old enough to go and see. I was very much a child, but my mother would take me to everything. One of them was “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” I remember it because that was what we were doing. Me and my mom. And it reflected our lives in a beautiful way. And made me feel like cinema could mirror the lives of regular people and what they’re dealing with. So that one is a huge one.
“Paper Moon” was also huge. Mostly, because I was so jealous of Tatum O’Neal because she got to be in that movie and I didn’t. I wasn’t an actress or anything. But it was like, “How could that happen?” (laughs).
It was such a great story. And I believed it. It was a father-daughter story. And I have a great dad and a great relationship with him. So, I appreciated that. Again, reflecting my own world. My own life. And those were formative for me. I saw them when I was really young. And then, of course, “The 400 Blows.” A Truffaut movie. There you have another childhood story. And all of that great art house stuff.
MM Was there a particular story about a female smuggler(s) in New York and Canada that inspired “Frozen River?” How did the story come about?
CH Not a story. But it is a real life situation. The smuggling that goes on there. And one of the interesting parts about it is that they drive across the frozen river with people or whatever in their trunk. That, to me, was a great set up for a story.
Then the characters I invented were based on who lives up there, but not anyone in particular. Just the overall lives up there. It became my metaphor. The characters are reflective of people I know and composites of my family and whatever.
MM What do you hope audiences get from watching the film?
CH The most important thing is that they get to the end of the movie. And that they watch it all the way through because it’s my job to keep them interested.
I hope that they walk away feeling that regular, every day heroism. Doing the right thing even when you’re broke and there’s no reason to. Being open to accepting your own biases but moving beyond them. Appreciating the fact that the people who live in trailers are not necessarily who you think they are. All that stuff. It would be nice for people to walk away knowing that. Or some of that. Or whatever they want to take from it.
MM As a first time feature director, how did you get such truthful performances from your cast? Describe your directorial style.
CH Well, writing to me is really hard and directing feels very natural. For me, it was just a matter of being clear about what was on the page, understanding each actor’s particular style, even if they were walking on the set for the first time and had never acted before. Just getting a feel for who they are and giving them whatever they needed to feel safe and protected to do whatever they needed to do. Even if that meant forgetting their lines and making mistakes. That it was really okay within that process to do whatever they needed to do to feel safe and comfortable. To take that little step. Because often, with a first time actor, a tiny little step out of their own reality or not so far from it, can give you a beautiful cameo performance.
As for Melissa and Misty? These are professionals, right? And that meant dealing with people who already had a way of doing it. So I just come in and contour. And help them draw it in when it needs to come in, make the performance bigger when it needs to be bigger, and focus it in a different direction. Stay really with them. That kind of stuff.
MM Did you ever go back to yourself, as the writer, and demand a re-write?
CH Yes. On several occasions, during the course of the shoot, we would speak about the writer and all her shortcomings. In third person. I was usually the loudest about it because there would be some tiny logical thing that I would have forgotten or thought of wrong. And Melissa would point it out, “She would not do this. She would walk around this way. Or start her car this way. A gun fires that way, you idiot!” And we’d be like, “That writer is so incompetent!” And we’d laugh about it and then make whatever shifts.
But the script, strangely enough, because we were on such a tight budget, had little room. Basically, we stuck to the script word for word, except for a few instances or a few logical things.
But I do divorce myself in terms of writing and directing.
MM The landscape plays a key role in the film. And capturing it was no easy task – 24 days of shooting in sub zero weather. What were some of the challenges you faced in making the movie? And did you know how big a factor the weather would play in the shooting of the film?
CH Well, we had shot a short in even colder weather. In fact, it was sub zero for the whole shoot. Or hovering right at zero. But in the feature, we had days that were sub zero. We had days that were in the single digits. And we had the occasional, terrifying day when it would fly up toward freezing and we’d worry about the ice melting. So, every day had it’s own worry in terms of weather.
For me, it was just making sure that the storytelling involved the crew, the cast, and myself. And that it was compelling enough to give us the courage to go outside and stay outside. Because there are tons of exteriors in this movie. And tons of night exteriors, which can be just grueling. But everyone was committed to the story. They were behind Ray Eddy and her quest. They were behind Lila and her struggle. In a very personal way. And that helped us get through. But the biggest challenge was definitely weather!
MM What will you remember most about the making of “Frozen River?”
CH The fact that I looked outside the window on the first day, the first shooting day, and saw the trucks behind the hotel. They were full of the equipment for the movie. Cameras and everything. And then I saw Melissa outside, walking her dog in the parking lot in Plattsburg. And I just thought to myself, “Oh, my God, they’ve shown up! We’re actually going to make this movie!”
It was huge! I was just standing there at the window, silent, as it really hit me that we were going to do it. And that was the biggest moment for me, personally.
MM What was the process like, taking “Frozen River” from short film to feature film?
CH Well, the short is a sprint and the feature is a big marathon. For me, it was all about pacing. During the short, it was a six day shoot. And I didn’t sleep at all. I closed my eyes, but I wouldn’t have called it sleeping.
In the big shoot, I knew that I had to sleep. And I trained myself in the year leading up to it, that I had to go to sleep under almost any circumstance. Because if I was tired, I couldn’t afford it. I know it’s personal, but it was a very big thing for me.
Also, just having to deal with the fact that everybody has bad days. In a six-day shoot, you can get through it okay. But in a 24-day shoot, somebody is going to have a bad day, every day. So, to be open to that, to allow for it, and to keep on going regardless of what happens.
Also, the stakes are much higher. Every day we woke up and thought, “Gosh, I hope we can shoot today.” And it was always an “if.” At the end of every day, we thought, “Jesus, we got one more day in the can. This is amazing!” But we were constantly worried about money trickling in. While I was shielded from that worry a little bit, my husband was executive producer. So I wasn’t shielded from it that much. I knew what was going on. I knew we were at risk. But I also knew that every day we shot and completed, we built our momentum toward completing the entire film.
MM One of the most fascinating elements of the story is the diversity of the mothers. What was the thought process behind the creation of these two, unique characters?
CH I watched the people in that part of the world. I was raised by a single mother. And I know that level of frenzied, desperation when you can’t pay the rent. Or that feeling of being a little off balance on the count of money.
But in terms of these particular women, I parked my car outside of Ames, which was a discount store (now gone) that was up there. And I’d watch who would go in, how many kids they had, what kind of cars they were driving, and what kind of crap they bought inside and brought out (laughs).
And I got to know people on the Mohawk reservation. Just getting to know the people that live up there gave me an eye into their perspective and their point of view. I tried to erase my ego from it as much as possible and really let them permeate the characters.
MM From a filmmaker perspective, who or what inspires you?
CH I take my inspiration from wherever I can find it. It could be the guy who’s fixing the furnace. It could be some poet. I have poetry books all over my house and read them all the time. It could be something I see on Charlie Rose. Really, it could be anything. I’m very open that way.
I have my certain heroes, but they shift and change. There are certain movies that I go back to again and again and see something new every time. The films from the mid-70s/early 80s are really important to me.
I like Peter Bogdanovich. Paul Schrader. Scorsese has great stuff. Of course, “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” is my favorite. And I love Sidney Pollack’s stuff. I also love big, epic stuff like “Dr. Zhivago.” I always go back and watch that again and again. I just can’t get away from it because it’s so poetic. It’s beautiful. It talks about an entire world. And I like movies that take you to a totally, different world.
I also like novels. I read Russell Banks and all these great novelists and get inspiration from their characters and their words.
MM What advice would you give aspiring independent filmmakers, trying to get their projects off the ground? Any lessons learned?
CH The main thing is that you do have to listen to people at first. But you have to be careful because people often have their own script in their head and when they give you notes, they start writing it through you. So, it’s very important to not listen too much. Or learn how to listen with a certain kind of detachment so you can hear what’s good and ignore what’s bad.
At the end of the day, that’s when people talk you out of your idea, which is what they’ll do. It’s when they tried to tell me that I couldn’t shoot this movie with Melissa Leo. “It’ll never work,” they said. “She’s not famous enough.” The thing would go nowhere.
But I knew I was right. That there wasn’t a better actor. I just said, “I’m going to have to bite the bullet and take the risk.” And not be afraid of risk. Pick the thing you’re most terrified of and do that.
MM Your next project is “Northline.” What can you tell me about it?
CH I love that book more than anything. I think it’s brilliant. It’s written for cinema. And I just feel the character is waiting to jump onto the screen! That a great actor will do things with it and will be amazing. I love the writer and I’m hoping to get that thing going!