Interview with Courtney Hunt, director of Frozen River
Tenessee born director Courtney Hunt’s first independent film was nominated for the Oscar last year and has won dozens of prizes in world wide festivals, among which the prestigious Grand Jury Prize of the Sundace Film Festival.
Why did you to become a filmmaker?
I grew up going to art house double features with my mother, a child of the 70’s, who allowed me to see way too much, too soon. However, living in Memphis, Tennessee at that time, I guess it was the only way she felt I would get a sense of the world. Those early films like Paper Moon, The 400 Blows, and even To Kill a Mockingbird were pretty powerful to me as a child.
After college I went straight to law school, but by the second month I knew this was not what I wanted to do. I finished, however, and then I entered Columbia Univerisity's MFA program in Film.
Have you made other films before Frozen River?
During film school, I worked on the side for my husband reading and summarizing huge transcripts of murder trials. It helped pay the rent, but more than that I learned a valuable screenwriting lesson: point of view. That was the core of my training as a screenwriter. My thesis film was a 20-minute short, Althea Faught, about a woman surviving the Civil War siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi. It's a look at how women survive war. The short won prizes and sold to PBS.
What prompted the idea for this film and how did it evolve?
In film school, I often heard the complaint that "women's films" lacked adventure and this drove me crazy. I grew up with a single mom, who was working and struggling through school and, frankly, paying the rent was an adventure. I first came upon the idea for Frozen River when I learned about Canadian-border smuggling on a visit to my husband's family in Malone, New York. There are several Indian Reservations that straddle the border and this creates an odd jurisdictional situation. When I discovered that some of the Native women were doing the smuggling and that they did it by driving their cars across the frozen St. Lawrence River, I was fascinated. I met two women smugglers back when they were running cigarettes. However, when the cigarette tax in Canada was lowered, some smugglers switched to illegal immigrants, often Chinese and Pakistani people who wanted to come to the U.S. via Canada, which is easier to get into.
I wrote the script for a short film and sent it to actress Melissa Leo, who agreed to do it. The short Frozen River got in to the New York Film Festival and that gave me the inspiration to develop the feature script. Both Melissa and Misty Upham (who plays Lila) were so compelling in the short that I could not imagine the feature without them. And they stuck by me.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film
I like characters that are not immediately appealing and that live in the margins of society. I like living with them in the intimacy of a cinema long enough to at least understand them, maybe even grow to love them. I think of films like Central Station, Badlands, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and Nights of Cabiria.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
Early on, the biggest challenge was breaking through the notion that smuggling only occurs on the Mexican border. Once in production, the biggest challenge was the weather. We shot in Plattsburgh, New York, last February, and a huge portion of the movie takes place outside, at night. The cast and crew were in a bit of shock the first few days, when it was below zero, but we all adjusted. I think the cast and crew felt good about what we were making and so they were very brave about the cold.
How do you define success as a filmmaker? What are your personal goals as a filmmaker going forward?
I think my job is to give the filmgoer a look at someone they might not otherwise notice. My goal is to make another film, and another. When I realized I was going to be a late bloomer as a director, I just kept on writing so I have a few things lined up.
Please tell us about any upcoming projects
My next film is about a girl in 1904. It’s a love story that takes place on New York’s City’s Lower East Side, in the world of immigrants who lived there at that time, block by block. It also deals with the racism and anti-Semitism of that period. I want to shoot it on the cheap. I want it to feel small scale and real, like Frozen River.