Set in the Ozarks, in a small community where illegal methamphetamine trade flourishes in a devastated economy, Winter's Bone follows the travails of Ree Dolly, a 17-year-old girl who spends the length of the film trudging through the bleak chill of southwestern Missouri in its darkest season, with the trees black spikes and hills bleached silver and rust. Ree's father, a meth cooker, has gone missing while out on bail, but not before putting the house his three children live in up as collateral against his bond. To save her family from homelessness, Ree must find her father, and to do that, she navigates a harrowing underground where blood ties offer no protection from the drug trade's brutality.
As part of our "On Location" series, which looks at movies in which a sense of place is so strong as to almost be a character, we wondered how the filmmakers managed to capture the cold desperation of the Ozarks well enough that the film was nominated for four Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture. Their success, as it turns out, was largely due to one local man.
"The fate of this film was tied to a local fixer, if you will, or guide," Debra Granik, the director of Winter's Bone, told All Things Considered last year. "His name is Richard Michael, and he sort of paved the way for us to make it happen."
Michael lives in Taneyville, Mo., near where the movie was shot.
"I'm a bus driver, boat captain and a pretty good liar," he says, though all that happens to be true. Michael's sister works for the Missouri film commission, and she called him to see if he could help some New Yorkers who were trying to adapt the novel Winter's Bone, by Daniel Woodrell. "I did feel like I was sometimes the translator between hillbilly and New York," Michael says.
He helped the filmmakers interpret a world where people split wood to keep warm, hunt for food rather than sport, and where meth-related arrests are regular news. But Michael says the filmmakers were quick to understand the area's beauty. "The landscape here in the Ozarks, there's something special about it. It just becomes part of who you are," he says.
When Michael started working on Winter's Bone, the movie was still two years away from filming. He began by finding locations — ponds, caves, burned-out buildings that really were former meth labs. He also found the home Ree Dolly fights so hard to keep. In real life, the hand-built house belongs to a man named Frank Layson, and it's rich in visual details.
"Frank is a recycler, you might say," Michael says. "He wouldn't let anything go to waste, and so there were a lot of things there that he had used or would use down the road. Anything from old school buses for storage to old mobile homes that were gonna be recycled for metal."
Layson's 6-year-old granddaughter was always around during shooting, and the filmmakers ended up casting her as one of Ree's two younger siblings. Little Ashlee Thompson was a natural; Michaels says she's the most realistic part of a scene that's still embarrassing to him, where the kids shoot and skin a squirrel.
"I always said they butchered the butchering scene," he says. Actress Jennifer Lawrence, playing Ree, almost lost her nerve when she had to teach her on-screen brother how to disembowel the poor squirrel. You can tell by watching Ashlee, the local girl playing their sister. "You look at her face, and she's actually in disbelief at their inability to skin a squirrel."
Michael went from finding places to shoot to finding props: chain saws, rusty old trucks, Christmas lights, even the coarse burlap bag covering Ree's head in one climactic scene where she learns her father's fate.
"The prop department came up to me and said, 'We gotta have a burlap sack. Where in the world can we find a burlap sack?' I said, 'Oh, over at the mall in Branson they have a store, Bags 'R' Us.' 'Oh, really? Oh good! Can you give us the phone number?' I'm pulling their leg — that's what we do," Michael says with a chuckle. "Anyway, they were swallowing that hook, line and sinker. I said, 'I've got a burlap sack for you. It's OK. Calm down.'"
The Ozarks landscape mapped in Winter's Bone is cultural too, with lots of banjo playing.
"Everybody said, 'You can't have a banjo in a movie about the Ozarks. Not since Deliverance. You know you just can't,' " Michael recalls. But local musicians who appeared in the film and on the soundtrack disagreed. One of them, Marideth Sisco, spent this past summer touring as part of Blackberry Winter, the Winter's Bone band.
Sisco says seeing her part of the world come alive on film was deeply meaningful, "because I know that the Ozarks Highlands are underlain by the St. Francis Range, which is one of the oldest on Earth, so what you have is a very thin skin of soil and trees and stuff on top of this mass of granite and limestone."
Hardscrabble country, she says, that shapes the bodies and lines of the faces of the people who live there. People wary of outsiders until they get to know them.
Outsiders are probably rare in the shabby roughneck bar where Richard Michael makes his single appearance in Winter's Bone. He's an extra in a scene where Ree and her uncle try to gather information. She comes in cautious and waits, right next to Michael.
"There's me standing there in black stocking cap and brown coveralls, and props comes over and sticks a cigarette behind my ear," Michael says. "I got a big bushy black beard."
That's how you'll know him if you ever visit Taney County. Michaels says you're invited: He runs a boat for tourists on Lake Taneycomo, near Branson, Mo. That's a good place to visit, he says, best in spring or autumn. As for winter in the poorest part of the country? The movie might be as close as you'd want to get.