Monday, August 25, 2008

Heart in a Vise: A Chat with Courtney Hunt


People are so jaded at this point by seeing only beautiful, big, toothy smiles.
Even if the characters are dirt-poor and desperate, they're gorgeous. I guess
I'll be struck dead for saying this, but I didn't like
Erin Brockovich. I feel like
we don't have to seduce everybody every moment.

-- Courtney Hunt to New York Magazine

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

When Quentin Tarantino presented Courtney Hunt with the Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, he exclaimed, "It took my breath away, and then somewhere around the last hour it put my heart in a vise and proceeded to twist that vise until the last frame." Though I came across this quote just a few days ago, I had the same exact reaction to Frozen River, which I caught earlier this summer.

As I told the writer/director during our interview, conducted at this year's
Seattle International Film Festival, I've rarely had such a visceral reaction
to a motion picture. There are films that make me laugh, films that make
me cry, films that make me think, films that put me to sleep...and then
there's that rare entry that hits me in the solar plexus.

If the filmmaker can maintain that tension, the feeling of tightness
expands until the resolution-if there is one-at which point the knot
ever-so-slowly unravels. Afterwards, I tend to feel drained, as if I've lived
vicariously through the worries and fears of the characters on screen.
Though Hunt has never smuggled foreigners across the US/Canadian border (that I know about), the film plays as if she has. Similarly, Melissa Leo (Homicide, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada), who plays a desperate single mother, gives the im-
pression she's acting to save her life, leading to her finest performance to date.
Fortunately, Frozen River isn't a feel-bad film. It can be hard to watch, but Hunt unfurls her narrative so skillfully that looking away isn't an option, even though
one of several terrible things could happen at any minute. Not to give too much away, but it isn't a tragedy; more like a noir with socio-political underpinnings.
It's almost easier to describe what Frozen River isn't than what it is. It
isn't Thelma and Louise on the Rez, and it isn't The Three Burials of the North,
but it does share parallel concerns. Mostly: it's an auspicious debut.
Have you been to Seattle before?
I was here two months ago to work on my film at Alpha Cine [post-production facility]. That was the first time, and I was here for three days. It was great.
You actually got the good weather then. [laughs]
It was really nice. When we flew in, I couldn't believe it.
The first thing I wondered when I looked at your biography,AeP I'm cur-
ious how you made the move from a background in law to filmmaking.

My mom's a lawyer, my husband's a lawyer, and I applied to law school as sort
of a fluke, and I got in. It was a very left-wing law school. I went to Sarah Lawrence for my BA, but I went to Northeastern Law School in Boston, and the great thing about the school is that it allows you to do these co-ops. So, you study for three months, and then you go off and you work for three months, all the way through-the first year, actually. And I got to do all these amazing things, like I worked for
a federal judge, and I worked for criminal defense lawyers, and I worked legal services. And I got to have this wide range of experience. For me-once I realiz-
ed after the first month or two-I mean, I never intended to do this for sure, but I didn't want to go straight to film school, and I felt like, this is interesting, let me take a look. It turned out to be very interesting, and I got to see a whole cross-section of the world I would not have otherwise had access to. It was helpful in that way, and also I'm just kind of goody-goody enough that I would complete things.
I was going to ask about that, because sometimes people
drop out when they realize they want to move in other direc-
tions, but you got the law degree, and then the film degree.

Right, that's how it played out.
Did anyone try to talk you out of moving from law to filmmaking?
No, it was kind of funny. Everybody was like, 'You're going to law school-why?'
That would have been the stranger thing to do.
My mother was like, 'How are you going to,AePokay.' No one was really that much
in favor of it, but it was such a unique law school that it was kind of like,AeP
Not like Harvard Law?
No. Politically, it was a very interesting place to be, and I went straight from college, so I was the youngest person in the class-there was, I think, one girl younger than me-but everyone else had worked at MASSPIRG and all these other things.
So, you were born in Tennessee, but I saw there was something
in your biography about Mississippi. Did you grow up there?

No, but I made a short film that takes place in Vicksburg, MS. I'm from
about 50 miles from there. I'm a Tennessean, but this first movie I made
coming out of Columbia, my thesis film [Althea Faught], was a Civil War
story about a woman who's stranded in the Siege of Vicksburg in 1864.
[Hunt also made a short version of Frozen River,
which played the 2004 New York Film Festival.]
Did you grow up in Tennessee?
I lived in Tennessee until I was about 13.
And then where did you move?
We moved to DC. Then I went to college.
So, you spent your high school years there?
And I spent all my elementary school years in Tennessee.
I was wondering, since you grew up in the South, if that's
why you turned to civil rights law, if that was an influence.

Yeah, my mother had always been a part of that whole movement, so absolutely.
And that's kind of in your film, as well.
Yeah! [laughs] You found the film political, really?
It's not heavy-handed, though. I wouldn't describe it as
political, but that doesn't mean there aren't politics in it.

It's different when a film is heavy-handed and the politics are ob-
vious. I think some people could watch it and not think of it as political.

I have a father who's very conservative and not political-although I don't
believe that's possible-and a mother who's very left-wing and very political,
and in a way I probably made it so he would watch it and see a good story.
And see people-characters.
And an arc and stakes and an adventure-and to please her, I probably,AeP So it hit different things I was exposed to growing up, like single motherhood and racism.
Click here for part two
Frozen River, which opened in Seattle on 8/22, continues at the Harvard
Exit (807 E. Roy St.) through 9/4. For more information, please click
or call 206-781-5755. Images from E! Online and Sony Classics.

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