American writer-director Courtney Hunt has family roots in Newfoundland, and she says she has been wanting to get some serious face time with Canada for much of her adult life. In fact, she tried hard to shoot her first feature, Frozen River, in the Winnipeg area, and couldn’t quite make it happen.
“I went there twice, to scout locations and talk to crews,” Hunt recalls on the line from her home in upstate New York. Unfortunately, the ups and downs of the film business and the eroding U.S. dollar put too many speed bumps in the way of her cross-border venture. In the end, shooting near the Quebec border, where her original tale of life on the edge of a sprawling Mohawk reservation is set, proved fortuitous.
The film, which won the grand jury prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, stars TV veteran Melissa Leo as Ray Eddy, a hard-bitten minimum-wage earner whose gambler husband has skedaddled just days before Christmas, leaving her to care for two sons and pay off a new trailer about to arrive.
Through a chance encounter with Lila, a troubled Mohawk single mom played by Seattle’s impressive Misty Upham, she falls in with a scheme to smuggle immigrants from the Canuck side of the border. Their route of passage is across a body of water that, in summer, separates two nations—and, some would say, connects three.
“The title relates to a hundred things,” the director explains. “But the main idea just has to do with being stuck—not being able to pull yourself to the next place, where you kind of know you need to be. Ray kind of knows she needs to be out of that marriage, just like Lila knows she needs to go pick up her little boy from the woman who’s raising him. But then events take on a life of their own.
“Also, the river has a life of its own. I just love looking at the Hudson in winter, and when it starts thawing it breaks up into giant chunks that push against the shore and make these strange noises. It’s such an overpowering piece of nature, and it became, for me, a metaphor for the crumbling of people’s lives.”
Indeed, the ice floes of the Hudson were used in the Pearl White–type melodramas of the silent era, before show business moved to sunny California—and long before special effects allowed actors merely to pretend they were dashing across breakaway slabs of ice. This director knows her history, and she points out that there was a semisilent Frozen River released in 1929—a Rin Tin Tin adventure with a few talking sequences.
Hunt grew up in Tennessee and went to Sarah Lawrence College and then to law school before switching to the film program at Columbia University, where famed writer-director Paul Schrader was one of her most influential profs.
While working toward big-screen storytelling as a (shoestring) living, she earned extra money by summarizing complex transcripts from murder trials for her lawyer husband. This background, all too focused on the grittier parts of human behaviour, led her to dream up the River story while visiting her husband’s family in a town near territory where the U.S. ends and uncertainty begins.
After making a historical short and selling it to PBS, Hunt was lucky enough, she says, to land these same two female leads for an initial, short version of Frozen River, and this enabled her to find support for the full-length film, with an expanded cast and the sometimes stark locations along the frigid St. Lawrence River that make her feature-length debut so distinctive.
“I had seen Melissa in 21 Grams and really wanted to work with her. Fortunately, my stars stuck by me when it came time to make the feature. And this, by the way, is where I have to tell you that they are truly nothing like their characters. Misty plays this dour, shut-down person, but in real life she is so upbeat, funny, and outgoing. That really is acting you see on-screen.”
Next, Hunt wants to head back into the big city and to travel more than a century into the past with a tale set in a single teeming tenement in 1904.
“This may not be the next thing I direct, but it is what I’m writing next. I know it sounds crazy, taking on a big historical drama, but I’m actually planning to shoot on a very small budget again, with everything confined to just a few locations.”
Again, the tale concerns immigrants moving from one state to another—in this case, from crowded old Europe to a New York City of skyscrapers and pushcarts.
“I guess I’ve really become fascinated by people caught between worlds, and,” she adds with a laugh, “I really am going to make it to Vancouver one of these days.”