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Interview: Courtney Hunt (Frozen River)

Frozen River may be Courtney Hunt’s first feature, but she’s no fool. From lawyer, to film student and filmmaker, then straight to Sundance, Hunt is far from inexperienced.

Frozen River may be Courtney Hunt‘s first feature, but she’s no fool.  From lawyer, to film student and filmmaker, then straight to Sundance, Hunt is far from inexperienced.  While the indie drama about women smugglers may have taken ten years to complete, it was worth the wait.  How many director’s can boast that their first feature took home the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance?  Hunt has been hailed by critics ‘across the border’ for her flawless work in Frozen River.

The film takes place in a small town near a Mowhawk reservation in upstate New York.  When Ray Eddy, played exquisitely by Melissa Leo, find herself a single mother short on cash, she discovers a smuggling business bringing illegal immigrants across the nearby frozen St. Lawrence River from Quebec.  Despite racial tensions, Ray teams up with Lila (Misty Upham), a Mohawk woman, and the two embark on a frightening journey into the business together.  With an ever-present yet subtle tension that keeps your eyes rapt to the screen, Hunt tells an intriguing story while simutaneously displaying the power of motherhood through the unlikely bond between two women.

I sat down with Hunt to talk about her journey into filmmaking, her fabulous actresses and what it’s like to be a woman in an industry ruled by men.

Courtney Hunt 

Frozen River Courtney Hunt

Sarah Mitchell: So you have a law degree?  What motivated you to go into the film industry?
Courtney Hunt:  It hadn’t been the game plan. Actually law had been the segway out of my trajectory, which was right to film. But I found myself there. It was suggested to me by my boyfriend then, now husband, to just apply to law school and see if I’d get in.  And I did get in and it was a really interesting law school.  I gained all this life experience.  I worked for a federal judge.  I worked at legal services.  I worked for my husband when he was representing accused criminals.  I was learning and it was such a wealth of experience that I couldn’t walk away from it.  So, I just went on and finished it.

SM: Do you think starting off a bit later with that kind of experience made it easier to transition to filmmaking?
CH: Well, I went to law school straight from college, so it was sort of like an extended college.  And then I went straight to film school from there and it’s taken me a really long time to make this film.  So I sort of got my education…you know, it’s strange but when your mom’s a lawyer and your husband’s a lawyer and its all around you, you grow up around lawyers, it just seemed like a normal thing to do.

SM: What was your inspiration for making Frozen River?
CH: I learned of the situation, which does go on at the border.  I learned of it maybe ten years ago.  They were smuggling cigarettes.  There’s a certain border culture of smuggling that’s been going on since Al Capone.  You know, during the Prohibition.  So I knew of it because my husband’s from a little town up there.  I was very interested when I learned that there were women involved in it.  So I met the women smugglers and talked to them about how they did it and the adventure of it.  What became most interesting to me was actually why they were doing it and what would drive them, what situation.  It’s extremely economically depressed in the far outer regions of upstate New York, which is known as the north country.  There’s no industry whatsoever.  So everyone lives in a trailer and there’s a couple of reservations up there.  I just wanted to reflect the culture that was there.

SM: So I heard that this film was ten years in the making.
CH:  Well, contrary to the popular mythology, films take seven to eight years to make.  Now maybe  somebody goes off and writes one silly one in a weekend and it’s a great hit.  I’m not saying that doesn’t happen.  Or if they’re doing it by committee, obviously that’s a different animal.  But in terms of the beginnings of an idea and a central guiding image, in this case to learn about the Mohawk people enough that I felt competent to write a believable character or characters.  Getting to know that world.  Different changes in my life.  And then the big deal, finally committing to the fact- and this only took about two years- committing to the fact that the industry was not going to help me.  And that the public money was not available to me.  It’s not a documentary.  Its not like we could get a bunch of people to jump on the bandwagon and be, “Ooh, we’re going to do this great movie!”  No.  But I was going to find this money myself or it wasn’t going to happen.  And so when I finally accepted that- I think this whole thing would have happened faster if I had accepted that sooner.  My husband and I finally sat down and looked at each other and were like, “It’s not happening.  We’re going to have to do this a different way.”  And so we went and raised the money ourselves.

Frozen River Courtney Hunt

SM:  What was your experience as a first-time director like?
CH:  As a first-time director, I had a short film and I took that short film and that was like my calling card.  I made a short film of this movie.  So I would take that to people, different investors, and say, “I know what to do behind the camera.  Do you like the idea?”  So that was a leg up.  That was helpful in this case.  On the set, as a first time feature director, which is actually more powerful than being a first-time woman feature director, it’s just the first-timeness of it.  Because your crew’s going to have been on a lot of sets.  And I’ve been on none, right.  No feature sets.  I think it takes about three or four days into the shoot before anyone believes a word that’s coming out of your mouth.  And you just have to kind of show them that you’re the captain and it’s cool and they can trust you.  I mean, we’re out in the freezing cold.  They’re out there.  They’re taking a chance.  They’re working for next to nothing and so they need to know that somebody knows what’s going on and is in charge.  And it’s just like when there’s a woman pilot.  And she comes over and says, “This is Captain Bonnie.  We’re experiencing some turbulence.”  And you’re like, “I hope she knows what she’s doing.”  And there’s that natural bias.  And I have it too.  And of course they would have that bias.  But after three or four days you prove yourself or you don’t.

SM:  How did you meet Melissa Leo?
CH:  I live in a little town in Columbia County and James Shamus has a weekend home [there] and he screens his films there just as a test audience.  He brought 21 Grams and Melissa was the only movie star from the movie [there].  And so I saw her performance and it was really powerful.  I just looked at her and I knew.  I said, “She can carry a lead, I know she can carry a lead,” which not every actress or actor can do.  But she had that kind of energy around her that’s so powerful.  So I met her and I went up and just talked to her.  And I’m usually kind of shy, I don’t really walk up and talk to people, but I did in this case because it kind of got me out of myself.  Her performance was so good it kind of got me  out of myself and I went up and said, “Hey it’s great and I love it.  And will you read this thing I wrote?”

SM:  Was Misty Upham your first choice for the role of Lila?
CH:  She was my only choice.  I just looked at her face.  She was on a Native American actor website and I just looked at that face.  And I was just like, “That’s it.  I love her.”  And I called her up and she interviewed me.  It was that way.  She was like, “I’m not going to say swear words in a movie.”  I was like, “Ok.”    She laid down the law.  But she had been in these Chris Eyre films.  She actually does have experience.  She’s an experienced actress.  And I cast her on the phone.  There’s a certain presence she has.  And her actual personality is nothing like the character she plays.  Nothing.  She’s hilarious.  And has got a much bigger personality.  But she’s a gifted, natural actress.

SM:  There is a strong tone of motherhood that seemed soften the rougher edges of the story.
CH:  Well, I don’t even look at it from that point of view.  I look at it from,”let’s tell a story.”  And in saying who these women are you get to the fact that they are moms in the end.  But it takes them a good part of the movie to get to that, in terms of the connection between them, which I think is the overarching connection between them.  So in that sense it’s true.  And between probably all women.  Whether we’re mothers or not, I think that we all share that.  And also, all people, in terms of having it better for your children or having it better for the next generation, something I think as humans we’re committed to.

Frozen River Courtney Hunt

SM:  There was also a noticeable absence of father figures in the film.
CH:  It was never my intention to show anything other than who was doing the smuggling and why. And the reasons that came up were…single motherhood is everywhere.  And you take one parent out of a home like that and you make it doubly hard for the remaining parent, the one that’s sticking around.  I was raised by a single mom.  Somehow that plays into it, I’m sure.  The burdened child that’s knowing too much too soon and worrying about stuff too soon.  But I just reflected what I saw, what my own personal experience has been.

SM:  Was there any improvisation going on during filming?
CH:  I couldn’t afford the luxury of any kind of free play.  The script was tight.  The schedule was tight.  And the money was tight.  So what we did was, we did what was on the pages.  As long as it delivered and- I was just worried about my actors.  Do they believe what they’re doing?  Is the motivation convincing?  That’s all we focused on.  And they knew the parts, from the short.  So that gave us a leg up because we only had nine days of pre-production, which is ridiculous.  So we had no rehearsal, there were no table reads.  We got twenty pages into a table read and had to go scout a location.  And so we just made it sharp and the time was short.  And we didn’t have the luxury of it.  The only improvisation is at the end, the Mohawk police chief.  I wrote something and he improved it.  He took it into himself, his heart.  You can see it when he’s delivering.  And he just said his own thing.  And we were just like, “Good.”  

SM:  How were the cast and crew perceived  by the people on the reservation while shooting?
CH:  Some were kind of suspicious.  They didn’t really know what I was up to.  And it must feel very exposing to have some white girl showing up and say now I’m going to make a movie on your reservation about smuggling.  Well, everyone on the reservation’s not a smuggler.  It’s like a tiny little bit.  And they don’t want that to be the impression the world has and they’re absolutely right.  So I went in and first of all, I said this is the movie I’m making.  I’m making a movie about a white woman and a Mohawk woman smuggling and I told everybody that right upfront.  So they didn’t think I was in there kind of creeping around.  And then I just tried to reflect what I saw which is that there’s a governmental patriarchy that’s not in favor of those things and is very vocal about it.  So at the end when we see the chief I wanted that to be reflected.  So, the different points of view.   The way that Lila is shunned by the women.  There is shunning.  I mean, shunning goes on everywhere.  Women have been shunning for thousands of years.  And I wanted that shown.  I just got to know Mohawk people.  Different sides of the issues, and tried to reflect it as accurately as I could.

SM: Do you want to continue writing?
CH:  I am completely open to taking directing assignments.  I’m looking at scripts all the time right now.   Writing is hard.  DIrecting is amazing.  But writing is hard.  If I could just jump that step, that would be good.  I have another script and then another after that that I’ve written.  But that whole “soup to nuts” type of process, where you are doing everything, then you have to sort of divorce yourself so you can direct.  I would love to just come in as a director.

Sony Picture Classics releases Frozen River to limited theaters today.

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