Interview with Winter's Bone star Dale Dickey
August 27, 2010
Here is a very brief and incomplete synopsis of Winter’s Bone, Daniel Woodrell’s dark portrait of the Ozarks : the only way teenager Ree Dolly can save her family is to get her father to turn himself into the law. There are two large obstacles that prevent this from happening, one being that she doesn’t know where her father is and secondly, the people who do know where he is don’t like questions. In a review titled Hillbilly Noir, the New York Times said that Woodrell’s “Old Testament prose and blunt vision have a chilly timelessness that suggests this novel will speak to readers as long as there readers.”
This summer Debra Granik's adaptation of Woodrell’s masterpiece was released on the big screen. Winter's Bone has drawn rave reviews and impressive accolades including the Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Film. The film stars Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly, John Hawkes as Teardrop and Dale Dickey as Merab. Dale Dickey has been in everything from the Princess Protection Program to guest starring on Gilmore Girls and The Closer. Dale Dickey was kind enough to share her thoughts on Woodrell’s novel, the success of the film and capturing an authentic vision of the Ozarks onscreen.
Did Daniel Woodrell’s novel make your job easier?
I wouldn’t necessarily say ‘easier’, but it certainly was a tremendous help and rich guide to a broader vision and fuller understanding of the character of ‘Merab’ – all the characters – and also of the world they inhabit and the story they help unfold. I actually bought a copy of the novel to try and read before I went in to audition. I had already read the screenplay, which I instantly knew was a project I wanted and needed to be a part of. But I know that in film adaptations of novels, much has to be deleted or left uninvestigated, so reading the full novel was important to me. Limited on time, I managed only to skim through it the first time, focusing on ‘Merab’s sections, so as to be prepared as fully as possible on my initial read. That alone, perhaps made my audition feel a bit ‘easier’, as I had a world of pictures and images in my head from Mr. Woodrell’s very descriptive writing. That grounding came in handy when Debra (Granik) had me improvise some in the audition – and I drew on some phrases/images that had remained with me. I like to know as much about a character and everyone who ‘informs’ them in a story. So on my second read (after I knew I got the job), I highlighted many passages, most information coming from other folks, narration, talking about the Milton clan. And although Merab is described as somewhat older, larger, and more grey haired than I, I connected with her insides and pathology and her inate fierceness. And the in-depth depictions of the region: woods, hills, caves, cold, harshness, poverty, drugs. Not knowing we would be filming so ‘close to home’, feeling like I could fully inhabit this world, no matter where I was, was very much colored by Woodrell’s beautiful painting of the entire story and journey of Ree. The novel helped fit all the pieces and more of the puzzle together. So, in retrospect, I suppose ‘easier’ is a fair word! (On the third read, I simply sat back and enjoyed the ride…..).
From the subtlety of the soundtrack to the presence of geographically correct accents, the film seemed to be incredibly well-researched. Besides Daniel Woodrell’s novel what other resources did you use to get your hooks into your character?
Debra suggested we all read the novel of course, and also a true crime novel from that region called Almost Midnight. That book, not being fiction, painted a new horror and dark reality of areas that become infiltrated with drugs, meth, often replacing the moonshine of old. Of course, these areas do exist in pockets all over this country of ours….not just Missouri (Aka, that rough county in TN I spent some time in). In the months leading up to filming, Debra and Anne Rosselini sent several dvd recordings of families they met sitting around the table just talking about life, culture, food, music. Hearing the accent and musicality of their way of speaking and relating, helped us all. I think, to assimilate a dialect that matched each others and sounded true. I like to study maps of regions I’m telling a story about – topographic ones that show detail - and read old news articles and other literature and history from those places. And listening to music from any region informs the heartstrings. I felt I had a strong understanding or kinship and base to start with, considering my own roots, but needed it to be specific. I did watch one or two old films with actors whom I admire to soak in some stillness and simplistic qualities I sometimes struggle with. On the technical side, I had never held a chainsaw in my life and was not real thrilled about it. So I spent some time with a logger friend of mine here, who gave me a few do’s and don’ts and eventually it felt comfortable being in my hand, like it would have been for Merab. Second nature. Not always for the purpose used in the fim, but….. same as chopping wood. Which I do know how to do! The biggest help research wise was, and usually is, the invaluable time spent on location, taking the land in, and observing and getting to know the real people from the region. The main family we worked with just embraced us all. I fell in love with them and will cherish my time there. During my down time, I spend hours walking in the woods or around the property, alone, just imagining and thinking about the story and the characters. There is something primal about this particular tale, and being alone in nature solidifies that for me.
Critical praise for Winter’s Bone has been nearly universal, including a Grand Jury Prize for Best Picture at Sundance. When you started working on the film did you have a sense that you were part of something special?
I’ve gotten this question a lot… I felt it was special in a way from the beginning, simply because the writing was so good, the directing so caring and committed, and the cast and crew passionate and eager to work hard to bring this story to life. Watching Jennifer and John work on my down time was instantly riveting. And filming on location with so many local folks and musicians only added to a unique beauty and sense of collaborative family. Everyone getting along is pretty special itself. But many low budget films experience similar feelings….and some gems as we know, never see the light of day. It felt like hopes were high, but expectations tempered…. I think it was 4-5 months later, when I went in to do some ADR sound work here in L.A., that I first saw some scenes on the big screen – and I was overwhelmed with how it looked and felt and how Debra and the editors had woven this magic. I knew it was good and unique then, but only hoped and prayed that it would play the festivals and be seen….The way it was embraced at Sundance was a real gift and thrill – and there was joy that it probably would indeed see the light of day and get to be shared with a wider audience. No matter how it had turned out, I was grateful for the work and the time we all shared in that world.
South Independence Branch