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Courtney Hunt

Writer and director of Frozen River

Jul 01, 2008 Courtney Hunt Bookmark and Share

T-shirt and jeans is common attire for directors presenting films at the Los Angeles Film Festival, but New York director Courtney Hunt looks all business when she sits down inside Westwood’s Tanino Ristorante Bar for an interview. Handsomely fitted in a tan blazer with slacks and a white blouse, Hunt could be dressed for a job interview, but she exudes a relaxed, authoritative demeanor that suggests a college instructor holding office hours. While discussing her feature debut Frozen River, which won the Grand Jury Prize in the Dramatic category at Sundance in January, Hunt is serious, polite and soft-spoken, yet clearly enamored with the topic of conversation—cinema. Although she doesn’t mention The Hustler by name, she could be referencing the Paul Newman classic when, explaining the process of illustrating personal and economic struggle on film, she talks about character.

Born in Memphis, Hunt was exposed to movies through her mother while growing up, particularly 1970s American cinema. Like a Bogdanovich or Malick film from that era, Frozen River, which was inspired by real-life accounts, is both an intense and atmospheric character drama set against a harsh landscape. In the film, Ray (Melissa Leo) and Lila (Misty Upham), a Mohawk Indian, are poor single moms who, in the interest of their children’s welfare, earn extra cash by smuggling immigrants across the frozen Saint Lawrence River into the U.S. Frozen River originated as a short film, which screened at the 2005 Los Angeles Film Festival before being selected for the festival’s Fast Track program. Hunt met with Under the Radar minutes before a screening of her feature at the 2008 fest.

How and when did you first find out about women smuggling immigrants across the U.S.-Canada border?

I’ve known about it for about 10 years. I read about it. There’ll be a smuggling story in the New York Times about once every six months that will pop up and then go under the radar. I’m only gonna use that phrase 87 times and then I’m gonna stop. That’s really the way I learned about it. My husband’s from a little town near the border.

What can you tell me about the short film Frozen River?

The short film was the beginnings of the idea. It was a little moment in the script, and I kind of had this overall sense of what the story was going to be. But to make the short, I was writing one day, and the short just came out in a little bit of a moment, which I wrote as a poem. It really was a monologue from the head of Ray, her interior monologue. I wrote that, and that became the basis for the short, and then I went back, after the short, and made it into a feature.

Was there any common footage, or did you start anew?

We started anew. In fact, I threw out the whole idea of the short as not a part of the writing process. I knew that basically what happened in the short happens in the feature, but if it happened in a different way, that was OK. I didn’t try to stay particularly true to the short. I just said, “Well, that was the short. Now, we’re gonna write a new story.”

Are there overlapping characters?

Yeah, the same two characters are in the short and the same two actors play those characters in the short and the feature. So the relationship between Ray and Lila was established in the short, in this one little scene, but it was then rebuilt for the feature. But the odd couple nature of it just got more specific in the feature. They were generally shown in a much more impressionistic way in the short.

Could you have conceived doing a feature without Melissa Leo and Misty Upham?

Not really. No, I don’t think so.

What happens when a script like Frozen River is selected by the Los Angeles Film Festival’s Fast Track?

They arrange a meeting for you to talk to industry and see if anybody’s interested in reading it. And a lot of people were interested in reading it, and they did.

How did you arrive at the name Ray Eddie for a mom?

You know, I don’t know how that came about. I mean, I had it in my head for a good amount of time. It wasn’t in the short; that wasn’t her name. I don’t know, it just came up. Sorry, that’s a really lame answer, but that’s the truth. I like the name Ray. It came out of who she is. She’s sort of gritty and brave, and her temper’s a little out of control, and there’s a certain danger to her, and that name seemed to imply some sort of reckless feeling to me.

Did you actually film at the Saint Lawrence?

The short was filmed on the Saint Lawrence. The feature was filmed on Lake Champlain, which is very nearby.

And did you actually put cars on frozen ice during the shoot?
Yes, we did.

Were there regulations you had to meet?

We were very careful. We brought in an ice expert. He tested the ice. He measures the depth of the ice, and he made a determination whenever we were out there whether or not it was safe to be there, and we relied on his judgment. He’s an ice expert from Clarkson University, and he was great.

Did the conditions ever cause changes to the shooting script?

No. One thing is, we had such a short amount of time to shoot, we had such a limited shooting schedule that, although the weather is variable, we just had to move forward with the story and hope that it wasn’t going to be distracting to the audience when there was a lot of snow or little snow, or it started snowing or it stopped snowing, because that’s what weather does. And you can get some continuity issues, but we were OK. So much of it happens at night. That was something we had to ignore. We wanted to make sure the ice was safe; that was something we couldn’t ignore. But in terms of how the weather looked moment to moment, we just didn’t have the luxury to consider it. We didn’t have a snow machine. If it was snowing in one shot, and then we did the reverse and it wasn’t snowing, we just had to hope that people were paying attention to what was going on with the characters and not worried too much about the snow.

I was wondering if the conditions ever got so bad that you couldn’t shoot, that maybe you had to delete something because it was no longer possible to get the scene done.

Nope. We were safe in that way. That’s a good question. We actually managed to get everything we needed. Barely.

What brought you into filmmaking?

I was brought up with my mom, and she went to movies all the time, and she took me to movies. We saw everything. We always lived close enough to walk to basically the nearest art house, and so I was brought up on Bergman and Fellini and the late ’70s films. And I remember going as a really little girl and just seeing everything. And she sort of had that hippie attitude, “see the world, see it all.” So by the time I was 12 years old, I’d pretty much seen a lot of movies. And that was just part of my life, going to movies all the time in high school, and that was something I did without a lot of analysis. I just saw these movies. I was really impressionable and young, and I saw them, and they had a huge impact on me. Bonnie and Clyde, Paper Moon,Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: these are the movies that completely shaped my view of cinema.

Yet you were on a different career path before you went into filmmaking professionally?

I did go to law school, but that was sort of in service of film because everything I’d studied up to that point was creative writing, playwriting, acting, all that. And law school was sort of an aside, but it turned out to be a real experience for me, and a way to gain a certain foothold on what was happening in the world, have some idea of what the world was about. I was 22 years old when I went to film school, so I needed to see more stuff before I felt ready to begin to express my own vision of the world. So it was experience; it was a great education in the world—you know, how the world works, who’s in charge, how things happen. I worked for a federal judge, I worked at legal services. I met people that were jailed for life, I learned about crime. Why do people commit crime? My husband’s a criminal defense attorney. And so, it was like a view into the world that I would not have gotten by going to film school directly.

One of the things I love about going to film festivals is seeing the various ways that characters in smaller-budget films earn a living. It’s much different than what you see in Hollywood films.


In a lot of them, people are struggling to get by, and one aspect of your film that lured me in is how Ray’s family makes ends meet, and what they eat for meals. Did those details come from research or your own experience?

No. I think, you take away the money, and you take away the stability, and you, as a writer, imagine what’s left. And poor people, people that are struggling are more interesting to me—and how they manage to survive—than people who’ve got it all and are doing something fabulous. I mean, fabulousness has a place in movies. But…Nights of Cabiria is a great Fellini film about a woman and how she survives. You strip away the money and the glamour and the fabulousness and you get down to something I call character. And I mean character not in terms of actors, but character in terms of the character of a human being. You strip all that away, and you get a good look. You put them under extreme conditions, and you see the character of people come out, which is interesting.

Do you still enjoy a night out at the multiplex?

If There Will Be Blood counts, yes. Or like 40-Year-Old Virgin, yes. Because I think some of these films really do that, they get beyond— I mean, 40-Year-Old Virgin wasn’t about rich people. The truth of that particular character, it’s done with a great deal of heart. That’s a wonderful, sensitive story about love, and it’s beautiful. So there are great movies that make it to the multiplex. There’s junk out there, but there’s also really good films that make it. Fine, fine actors.

Did Melissa Leo know all along that the short would develop into a feature one day?

Yes, she knew. I said, “That’s what I’m gonna try to do.” And she said, “Well, let’s do it.” So, she was like my biggest supporter. She was loyal, she stood by me, she encouraged me. I encouraged her. Misty, we’d reach out and get Misty every once in a while. She [Melissa] stuck right with me. She’d call me every few months and say, “Are we gonna make this movie?” And I’d be like, “Well, I’m gettin’ the money together. It’s comin’, it’s comin’.” But I tried not to get her hopes up before I knew for sure. I’d say, “We’re not there yet” And she’d say, “Little sister, you just put one foot in front of the other.” And she really encouraged me.

What were you looking for when you cast Charlie McDermott as Ray’s son T.J.?

I was looking for a more typical, rebellious, angry little teenage boy. And what I found, and it was such a gift— He has a gorgeous quality that he portrayed so well, not a stereotype at all, but a kid who’s got too much on his head. And it really is heartbreaking in a way. He did it so well. It wasn’t the cliché that I expected of the angry teenager. He brought this whole other element to it, which was a total gift for me. And, at first I was like, “Oh no no, I don’t know if that’s what I want.” But by the second day I was like, “Oh, this guy’s doin’ something with this. He’s really taking it to some place. I’ve never seen a character like that before.” But that look across the face of a child who is burdened, I thought he did so well. He really showed that even more than the sort of angry teenager, and I think it was a great choice. Like, I so totally went with it. After the first day, I was like, “Oh my God! He’s not what I want.” And then I was like, “Wait a minute. He’s taking it somewhere.” And I said, “Go! Do it!”

He makes an apology in the film that’s subtle but distinct. Was there much instruction before that scene?

By that time, and that was one of the last scenes we shot, he knew that character really well. I think writers write it, and then, in a way, actors interpret it and rewrite it. And he had taken it to beautiful places, so he was just rolling at that point. And yes, I would talk to him. We’d do different takes in different ways, but he has a naturalness to him that I think comes out beautifully in that scene.

The Sundance Grand Jury Award, is that like the Oscars in that it’s a surprise announcement, or do people tip you off?

No tips. And I was really not paying attention to it, because I didn’t want to get into the whole ego of, “Will it win?” I knew people were responding to it, because they kept telling me. And that was like food, ‘cause it was this long period of work with really no reward, no echo back from the world about “Has this resonated at all?” And suddenly, I had all these people saying, “It’s resonating with me.” And that was amazing, so I kept my focus completely on the audience. I let my husband read the reviews. I let other people tell me “so and so liked it, so and so said this, so and so said that.” I felt generally it was a good response, but I didn’t pay any close attention, because my job is, “Is it reaching the audience or are they not getting it? If they’re not getting it, what did I do that didn’t get across?” So, it’s all about my connection with the audience.


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