Sundance Features

January 22, 2008

Courtney Hunt, Frozen River

"We didn't have favorable conditions. We had very little funding. What we had was a good script, and people fell back on that."

(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)

THE REELER: Take a minute, if you will, to walk me through the back story on Frozen River.

COURTNEY HUNT: It's about a white woman living in a trailer in upstate New York who is down on her luck and crosses paths with a Mohawk Indian woman who's a smuggler. The two team up and start running illegal immigrants across the border into New York state for money. They do this by driving across the frozen St. Lawrence River with the illegals in the trunk of the car. As long the ice holds, they're able to do business. The action of the story is under everything; it's really a drama. It's about how these two women come to where they’re at, why they team up and how they respond to what they're doing. The white trailer mom doesn't even know what she's doing, really; all she know is her trailer's falling apart and she needs to support her children. For the Mohawk woman, there's a smuggling culture there. So that's the story.

R: Frozen River was originally a short film, right?

CH: That's right. In fact, I just wrote and thanked Richard Peña, the head of the New York Festival, for putting the short in the festival in 2004. It was a huge boon for us because it helped us with fundraising -- with everything, really.

R: What was you process in expanding the story and the characters with them?

CH: I first thought of an idea similar to this back in film school, but I got distracted and did a bunch of other things. Basically what happened was I had written a draft of the script, put it in a drawer, and then -- this sounds ridiculous -- I was writing a poem one day and the voice of the character was still in my head. Suddenly I was writing in her voice again, so I just wrote it as a short film. I thought I'd see how that does. My daughter was two then, and so I thought it was time to make a movie. It was like a nine- or 10-page script.

You get a sense when you make short, [asking yourself] "Is the idea viable? Does it have any appeal?" When it got into the New York Film Festival, I thought there was something there. So I went home and sat down and rewrote it. It used to be about cigarette smuggling, and it became about immigrant smuggling. It's a real-life situation, and I had my ear to the ground for how that was actually evolving. And to show people who hadn't seen you direct that you can direct, it's handy to have a short film so they know that you have some idea of what you're doing. That's the main thing. I think that was instrumental in terms of getting people to fund the film.

R: I read that you shot upstate in some pretty intemperate weather. It's not like films are easy to make in the first place; how did that complicate things?

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CH: When we finally got a green light -- I think it was Valentine's Day -- I basically left my house and went to the location, which is in Plattsburgh, N.Y., right at the border. It was a big enough city that there was a little infrastructure there, and they were helpful to us. But we basically froze. In the first week it was in the teens and 20s, and then it would drop off into these unbelievably cold -2s with wind chills like -14. Things like that. Only one day did we have to spend outdoors shooting and move to a studio space; we never lost a day because of the weather, but that's because the crew was very intrepid and careful.

After two or three days, I think it was a real slap in the face for most people. We warned them; I don't think you can understand how cold it is to be outside all night in 14 degree weather until you've done it for a couple nights running. And then your first instinct is just to leave. There were four or five days when I was wondering if anybody was going to stay. And they did all stay. It became just kind of a badge of honor to have withstood it. It was extremely challenging. We had to help just to remind each other to stay warm enough.

R: But the reward is Sundance '08. That's gotta be some kind of payoff, right?

CH: Yes! We didn't have hardly any preproduction, we didn't have favorable conditions. We had very little funding. What we had was a good script, and people fell back on that. We kind of knew we were onto a good story, and as soon as we saw [actors] Melissa Leo and Misty Upham in action, people said, "Ooh, we're onto something here! This is good." That story kind of warmed us all up in a funny way so we didn't feel so out in the middle of nowhere. And it's not so much the weather; it's poor up there. It was facing shooting in a double-wide trailer that's seen much better days -- for a week and a half.

R: What are you looking forward to or apprehensive about going into Sundance?

CH: It's kind of a nice honor; it's like you've been heard or something. That's the first thing. You think, "Oh, wow, somebody got this." I haven't seen the film with a big audience, so that's huge. I want to obviously sell the film and pay back my investors. [Pauses] Isn't that boring? I'm sorry. My other answer is that I never see other films; I have a six-year old and don't get out much. And basically I want to party my ass off. [Laughs] OK, now I'm kidding.

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