A Chat with Courtney Hunt (click here for part three)
When we did the short, all I knew was that there was the short. It was a great little piece, with a very, very strong couple of women. They had no name-it was "the blonde" and "the Mohawk"... Then after we had done the short and I had indicated I wanted to do the feature, well, I wasn't gonna let that outta my sight. I would call her [director Courtney Hunt]-not daily or anything, but you know, every three, six months: 'So, are we gonna make that movie one of these days?'... I wouldn't have let the project go for anything; I think it's interesting people think of it as haven given so much. I think what I gave was pure pleasure, and what is being returned on it is so amazing.
-- Melissa Leo to The Austin Chronicle
***** ***** ***** ***** *****
If you can pin it down, when did you come up with the idea for the film,
even if it was just a vague idea?
The vague notions came first. I heard a lot of complaining in film school about,
you know, women's movies: nothing happens. Nothing happens.
I know. It's frustrating.
And I was like, 'What the hell are you talking about?' As if in women's stor-
ies, nothing happens. Well, then you're telling the wrong stories, because
women go out and do crazy, adventurous things all the time. My mother
certainly did. I was so not into that, so when I heard about these women
who drive across the river, I was like, 'That's doing something.'
Leo in 2006's Three Burials
Did you read about it in the paper or hear about it in the news?
Well, my husband's from upstate New York, so I'd hear about it whenever
we'd visit his family, and the St. Lawrence is like a mile wide up there. So
we'd go up; and I started getting into the whole idea. And I found out that
Mohawk women do it, white women do it. It's quick. If you're bold enough
to cross that river, it's a quick way to make a good amount of money.
Has your movie changed things in any way? Has it brought more cops to the area?
Oh no, it hasn't changed a thing. No one even cares about this movie.
So this still happens?
Oh yeah. Well, the reservation is sovereign territory. The authorities
that are up there-there are so many. There are the troopers, there
are the [indistinguishable] police, and there are the Mounties. You've
got the FBI around, you've got Homeland Security. There are the local
town police. I mean, there's more-you can't believe what's up there.
And they're all located outside the sovereign territory?
Right, because of the Mohawk reservation, they don't necessarily stop
this sort of thing. And the relationship between New York state and the
reservation is a long standing one of, 'We're a sovereign territory, so what
are you doing over on our side of the line?' It's very much like, 'Now this
would be ours, and you live over there.' There's a respect for that boundary
on some level, and it makes for a very unique and complicated situation.
I was expecting you to say there just weren't a lot of cops
in the area, that there wasn't enough funding for them.
Well, there aren't a lot, but all of those entities exist up there, and I'm cer-
tain they surveil and take note of what goes on, but you don't feel like there's a
huge police presence at all. And they let us shoot the bridge, the Cornwall Bridge. Homeland Security vetted us, which made me believe in America again, because
I was like, 'There totally not gonna let us shoot,AeP' Remember the whole thing ab-
out shooting footage of bridges right after 9/11? That's what we did. And I told our producer, 'Don't even bother asking. This is just going to annoy them,' and he was like, 'No, no, we should ask-this is America,' and by God, they said we could come, and so, Reed, my DP, who's a woman-and so it's Reed and I and the camera, and we went out and did it, and it was great. And it's the opening shot of the film.
Was Ray at all based on you? And I know that's an obvious
question when you have a female [central] character.
Yeah, Ray's got a bit of a trigger temper, and I've certainly got
a pretty bad temper, and I'm familiar with the idea of women get-
ting really mad. I learned that from my mother and my father.
I have a single mother, too-and she's a nice person-but sometimes,
you have to be mean to get things done. You learn that as a kid. I mean,
I can't get as aggressive as her, which is odd, because I think I'm natural-
ly more aggressive, but it's like cats and dogs with their kittens and their
puppies-there are times you've got to do what you've got to do. And there
are times she could become, I wouldn't say scary, but a little,AePintimidating.
I remember my mother just having to be the mom and the dad, and so she'd be really tough, like, 'Whoa, where did that come from?' And so Ray has two boys,AeP
No, I have a girl.
It's a believable dynamic, though, especially with the teenage boy. He can see
what his mom is doing for him and still resent her. I thought that was realistic.
He's a good actor.
Yeah, he's really good, and they're good together. You almost hate him for being mean, but I'm not so sure I was much nicer [at that age]. And he's good at getting that across, so you don't hate him, because if he was bratty all the way through,
it wouldn't inspire much sympathy. You've got to know where it's coming from.
T.J. opens the door for men to be a part of this movie, because
a lot of men were raised by single moms, and you can tell by
the Q&As who was and who wasn't. It's very interesting.
I have to ask about Melissa Leo, because I'm
a big fan. Were you familiar with her work?
I saw her in 21 Grams. She came to my town with it to a little film festival
there, and I talked to her afterwards. She's good in that movie. Did you see it?
She is, and it almost sets up your film, in terms of the way she looks and acts.
I actually saw her at the New York Film Festival [for 21 Grams, the closing night film]. They did this whole red carpet thing, and she walked right past me. Frankly, I didn't even know who she was. She looked completely different, because in the film, she has no vanity; she just does her thing. And to see her dressed up... I was watch-
ing the movie, and I realized, 'That was Melissa Leo.' I had no idea. It was shocking.
I know. She's an actor. She lives for it.
I also saw Tres Burials.
Three Burials? I love that movie.
And I've seen Homicide-every episode. What you see as a viewer-I don't
know anything about her personal life-is that there's just no vanity at all.
I wish you could interview her.
I would love to if I got the chance. She was so fantastic on Homicide,
because on network TV, you just don't see any other woman like that.
They tried on NYPD Blue, but they always had to glam them up too much. They would hire these fantastic actresses, and they look good, but then they would
just cut their shirts down really low. It's like, what is that? Melissa Leo's charac-
ter [Kay Howard] actually dressed like a detective, and she wasn't manly,AeP
[See Gail O'Grady, Kim Delaney, Bonnie Somerville, etc.]
It's like they found the line between,AePno, she's not gay, which
is fine, but that's not what her character was. Is that so hard?
You're speaking to the converted. I'm totally with
you, I totally get it. She's a little force of nature.
I didn't double-check her credits; I just know what I've seen. Is this her first lead?
No, she's had other leads, but I think this is the first film she really had to carry...
And she does.
It was on her shoulders. It wasn't like there was a male lead or a co-lead.
And Michael O'Keefe isn't a lead at all.
No. So yeah, this was her step-out lead. I called her up, and was like, 'Are you ready to carry a picture, to carry a feature?' And she's ready. I hope she gets 10 more.
I hope she gets an actress award here. That's what I thought the minute I saw
your film, but you can't predict-even at a festival like SIFF, which I've been at-
tending for years-but everybody's talking about it, which is always a good sign.
If the Screen Actor's Guild doesn't pay attention to her, I'm going to picket! I'm go-
ing to be out there with a sign saying, 'Guys, wake up!' At least SAG, you know?
[Leo was a runner-up for best actress at SIFF,
and seems a good bet for a SAG nomination.]
You should, but she's got a fan club. We know about her; it isn't just me.
Well, you guys are cool out here, though. You know about cool things-the rest
of the country, not necessarily-although my dad saw the movie, and he loved it, because she's spirited, and they like that all across the board. All across the polit-
ical spectrum, they like to see somebody out there kicking ass and taking names.
Click here to return to the beginning
Frozen River continues at the Harvard Exit (807 E. Roy St.) through 9/10. That makes four weeks in a row-an amazing feat for an independent feature in this day and age. For more information, please click here or call 206-781-5755. Also, check out this link for Tom O'Neil's take on Leo's shot at an Oscar nomination. Images from About.com, The Associated Press, New York Magazine, and The New York Times.