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Interview with Frozen River’s Courtney Hunt and Melissa Leo

Written by: Patrick Kelly, CC2K TV Editor

ImageEvery year, a handful of indie films garner positive reviews and grab the spotlight for as long as they can. Sadly and slowly, the films, which had gathered so much buzz so quickly, fade back to the depths they came from. But, every so often, there is an exception– a film that can offer more than buzz, a film that has staying power. Frozen River, this year's Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, undoubtedly fits that role. The film centers around a down-on-her-luck mother of two who, in desperate times and in need of quick cash, takes up smuggling illegal immigrants back and forth across the border between Canada and the United States. Set in upstate New York, the film explores the dynamics of two women, one white and one Native American, who must work together, against the law and against their differences, to achieve their selfless goals.

Courtney Hunt, the film's director (and first-time feature filmmaker), and Melissa Leo, who plays the film's main character, Ray Eddy, sat down to talk about their expectations of the film, the film's success and the unbelievable on-screen chemistry. And, Courtney shares some great advice for aspiring filmmakers.

Looking at the timeline of what the film went through. Small film festivals. Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. How’s it feel doing your first feature film? Did you have the idea that this was going to happen when you first wrote the script or has it snowballed?

Courtney Hunt: Well you can’t really think about your highest dream. You have to focus on telling a good story and making sure that is really your focus and I was pretty disciplined about that because I didn’t want to sit around and fantasize about, “What if?” It’s very important not to do that because I think Hollywood and movies, I think, seem very glamorous. The truth is, there is very little that’s glamorous about it and if you focus only on that part. So, for me, I was really about the nuts and bolts of it, which is getting your story to a place where it makes sense to people, where people get what you’re talking about, where what’s in your head is actually on the page and then getting that across to actors and picking the actors and casting the ones that are really good. So, I was really focused on the work and I couldn’t afford to focus on what was going to happen to it. I just had faith that a good story would find an audience.

CC2K's review of Frozen River

How long did it take the story to get “right” in your mind?

CH: It took a while. I didn’t work on it constantly. But, I’d say it took me a good year and a half with drafts and redrafts. And I had had the idea for a long time so it was kind of banging around in my head. But when you put pen to paper, totally different ballgame. So to get the words right when you’ve written it down and really make it stand out— it takes about three drafts I think. You take notes–you right another one. You take notes— you don’t change everything. It’s usually that last draft were you kind of comb all the extra out. It’s a long process.

And it started off as a poem and then as a short film right?

CH: Yes that’s right.

The chemistry in the film was incredible. I don’t remember the last time I saw a film where I forgot I was watching it…. It was beautiful. So how did that happen, all the way down to TJ (Charlie McDermott), the acting all just melded together really well. So, how did you all work together? Was that natural right off the bat or did it take a little bit?

CH: Well I mean it was different with every actor and I think that you show up and with Missy and Melissa and Charlie, these are professionals. They show up and they know their lines, they know what’s going on. They have their way of working their method and you just try to adjust to whatever method that is. And Charlie and you didn’t even meet before the day he showed up on the set so that’s not like rehearsal and getting to know you, that’s called do it {snaps fingers} and they did it. I mean they did a beautiful job and they worked I think…At the beginning for Charley it was maybe a little more awkward getting into it because we had already been shooting for two weeks. So he had a little bit of a curve to go through but boy he did it.

Melissa Leo: It is always harder for an actor to step into the moving machine then to be there to be there at the beginning. Misty and I had already worked with Courtney on the short. And there was a foundation of a relationship there already. She’s a delight to work with. It was just totally awesome—the very different actors that we are. And the other thing that much be mentioned is Courtney’s script—it was just so clearly written and we just had follow that guideline and Courtney’s direction as we went along and there you have it.

The script, the story itself was clear and was compelling and I thought it was formed really well but I thought the best part about the film for me was that there were no auteristic gimmicks or no flash. You just told the story as it was. Was that hard to do or was that the kind of style you had set forth when you started writing it?

CH: Well the style comes from the story. I let the story dictate the style. So, we did it up there in the midst of the actual environment and landscape that it exists, which I already knew about. Like, I kind of write for location in my mind and I would never write for a location that I’ve never really seen. Like I’d never write a script based around Moscow because I haven’t seen Moscow—I don’t know what that is. But I knew this location so a lot of what happened is about that, is about knowing where you’re going and you’re just going to turn the camera on get it all.

So, Courtney, you have a law degree. So, how did you choose to become a filmmaker?

CH: It’s funny, there used to be a theatre on M St., an art house theatre, and I would go there and see the old features with my mother when we lived in DC. That’s all I did. And then going to law school was the aberration, which was the kind of, like, “oops, what did I do,” “how did I get here?” Ok well my boyfriend was going, he was a lawyer, my mother was a lawyer and they were like, “Oh just do that.” You know. And I just took a little detour there and I went straight back to film school, straight in this other path. But it was a good experience—and I learned a lot about different kinds of people I wouldn’t have met otherwise. It was good.

Melissa, how did you feel seeing the reviews and the popularity this film has generated. You’ve been an actress for a long time, so how does that feel for you—a small indie film kind of making it like this, kind of reminiscent of 21 grams?

ML: Well, there was a lot more of a machine behind 21 Grams than Frozen River.

I feel that it’s miraculous. I have done it a long time. A lot of films sitting on shelves nobody’s ever seen. Words could not express how thrilled I am that people will actually get a chance to see this film and I feel extraordinarily grateful to Courtney that she stood by me and would not have somebody else play Ray Eddy—she easily could have done that. Probably could have raised the money a little easier…I’m just overwhelmed with gratitude.

CH: And I think it goes both ways. I mean Melissa is an extremely experienced, extremely dedicated actor and a really talented actor and I think that for me I just happened upon her really quite by accident. And I don’t know, that if I’d gone through traditional channels like the agent. If I hadn’t run right into her I don’t even know if it would have worked. I think that a lot of times the business gets in the way of the movies a little bit. And I was able to just cross paths with her cause it was a little town. And so I felt that I stumbled across something really undiscovered.

How hard was it coming up with the money for the film?

CH: It was about as hard as it could be. We had to go outside the industry, we went everywhere that we could go that we know—production companies—and they passed and they passed and they passed. They liked it. It wasn’t that they thought the writing was poor or they didn’t say, “Hey, you need to do something else with your life here— you’re barking up the wrong tree.” But they didn’t really know “How do we sell this, How do we sell it?” You know and I heard that a lot. So what we did, my husband wrote a prospectus and we went outside the industry, we went to real estate…other little areas we knew. Some of my law school friends invested. And I had about 5 chief investors and then we just kind of gathered just enough to get it done. And then after that we gathered just enough to get through post. It’s a lot of work but you just have to be willing to….In a way, it was easier than dealing with the big Hollywood situation because I didn’t have any, sort of, all controlling producer saying, “OK, you’re not going to do this and you can’t do that.” I did steer my own ship, which was kind of great in a way. Less strings attached, you know. The people that invested wanted to invest.

Yea, it’s hard when the business starts to touch the script or when it starts to touch the shooting.

CH: I mean, I think there are situations where there’s probably great producers out there that are totally creatively in sync and you just kind of threw it together and I’m starting to meet some really interesting producers now that I have to say—pretty cool and have done great projects. You know, where I was sitting, it was just—couldn’t pull it off.

I know there is some truth to the smuggling atmosphere in upstate New York. Is there any specific truth to this story?

CH: No, this whole scenario playing out with the baby. The only thing I heard of is a baby smothering to death being brought across in a bag. Or it held onto the mother so tightly that it smothered. That was heartbreaking. The actual way this played out I had written that, I had fictionalized that. Are these the sort of people that are involved in it? The ones I met were like this, but their stories were different.

Melissa, how did you find the inspiration to play the character you did?

ML: Film is a collaborative art and I think it was a really beautiful collaboration of this very clear script that Courtney clearly had researched. You know, both my character and Missy’s character, and the environment as she’s saying and the circumstance. She invested her own heart and soul in it. My almost thirty years of experience doing it definitely came along you know. My training at SUNY-Purchase with Joan Potter. All the many sets that I’ve been on— big and small and in between. I brought that experience with me and was specific on what I felt her clothing needed to be, her appearance to be and dove in and did it.

So what inspired the film?

CH: Well, the situation exists up there. It goes on around Messina. It also goes on all along the border in fact. There’s like 1119 arrests for illegal immigrant smuggling across that border last year. But not at that point, you know, only like a fifth of them were in that point. And that point goes all the way up to New Hampshire, all the way to the end of Maine. So, it’s like 295 miles long. Can you see that I’ve been reading some statistics? Anyway, the point being is that it does go on and that it was inspiring to me only in that I thought it was adventurous.

I was like, “Who does that?”, “Who are these people?”. And that the reservation straddles the border there is to me, it’s like a little whole in the border. And I was interested; I was interested in two women stuck in a car together. How’s that going to end up? Two women, from different cultures, stuck in a car together. How’s that going to end up? You know, all of these questions were just what I was kind of pursuing in writing the script.

So, now that the film is becoming more and more successful and the snowball is rolling, what is the future plans for both of you?

CH: I was thinking of becoming a flight attendant (laughs). I don’t know. At this moment I’m like “Ahhhhh”. There’s so much going on. I don’t know what’s next but I’m looking at all kinds of different projects. I don’t know that I’ll be given more creative freedom ever than I got with Frozen River. I doubt that will ever happen again, but it might, who knows. I’m looking forward to working on maybe, a slightly bigger budget level. And, hopefully doing more good stories. There’s lots of good stories out there and I didn’t write them all. I am reading stuff that’s just great.

ML: I have several things in the can that will be coming out. I am in a film with Ellen Burstyn and Hillary Duff called Greta. A film with Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro called Righteous Kill. Sarah Michelle Geller shot a film Veronika Decides to Die based on the book by Paulo Coelho. We shot that a month and a half ago. All that will come out and I will go look for another job as soon as we finish this press tour.

Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?

CH: Yea, I think that although it’s a really tough racket…it is a tough racket. It’s important to know that you have something to say. And not just say stuff because you think it might be cool. To really know you have something to say and get down to whatever your metaphors are for your life and say it. And don’t give up on it.