An interview with Mercer Island native Anne Rosellini, who co-wrote and produced "Winter's Bone," a little indie movie with a lot of big Oscar and Spirit awards nominations.
If Seattle viewers watch the Oscar audience closely during Sunday night’s ceremony, they just might see a familiar face: A producer and co-writer of “Winter’s Bone,” a film nominated for four Academy Awards including best picture, is Anne Rosellini, a former local who got her start in film at Seattle’s 1 Reel Film Festival.
Rosellini, 42, who now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., grew up on Mercer Island and remembers “taking the bus from Mercer Island by myself to go to the Egyptian to see, like, ‘Another Country’ in 1986. I loved escaping to films from a very early age.” After attending art school in Chicago, she returned home, co-founded the 1 Reel festival and began work as a film programmer for the Seattle International Film Festival, Women in Cinema, Arab Film Distribution and in acquisitions for Atom Films. When the latter job ended, she moved to New York, where a 1 Reel acquaintance got her started on the path that would lead to the Oscars.
In New York, Rosellini ran into filmmaker Debra Granik, whom she’d met when Granik screened a film at 1 Reel — and who was working on a feature-length screenplay. “I didn’t have a job and she was looking for a producer,” remembered Rosellini. “Producing festivals can prepare you pretty well for producing a film. My skill set was sort of already primed to produce. She and I have worked together ever since.”
Some film producers focus entirely on the business end, but Rosellini says hers and Granik’s is also a creative partnership — they write screenplays together, decide on casting together and spend years immersed in a project. Their first joint effort was the 2004 drama “Down to the Bone.” Next came “Winter’s Bone,” based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell about a young woman searching for her missing drug-dealer father in the rural Ozarks. “I saw a film when I read that manuscript,” said Rosellini.
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Fine-tuning the script, casting and location scouting took several years. “We were very daunted by the Ozarks,” said Rosellini, but the team ultimately settled on a region in Southwestern Missouri, “about an hour from the Springfield airport.” The area, said Rosellini, is extremely rural — “your neighbor is three miles down the road and your driveway is a mile long. You can’t just drive up and take a look at someone’s property, you need to be introduced.” With help from local tour guide Richard Michael, who befriended the pair (“we shot the entire film within a five or 10 mile radius of his house”), connections were made — even serendipitous casting.
The book’s main character, Ree Dolly, had two young brothers, and Granik and Rosellini struggled to cast the youngest. At the last minute, they turned to Ashlee Dawn Thompson, a 6-year-old member of the Layson family, whose property was being used for the shoot as the Dolly family’s home. “She knew everything — that was her house,” said Rosellini, of the decision to make the younger brother a sister. “That was her hay that she jumped on; that was her dog she fed.”
For the leading role, Granik and Rosellini held a huge local casting call — “We thought we could find our squirrel-skinning, gun-toting Ree in the Ozarks.” Quickly, though, they realized that the weight of the role required an actress with some experience. In the book, Ree was 16, but changed to 17 for the movie so as to be plausibly played by somebody 18 or older. In “an intense couple of weeks” of casting in New York and Los Angeles, numerous young actresses paraded past the filmmakers, but one caught their eye: Jennifer Lawrence, an 18-year-old Kentucky native.
“We had never seen her work before, though she’d done a film or two and been on TV,” Rosellini said. “We were very, very intrigued right away. We wanted someone that people would not recognize.” The gamble paid off; Lawrence’s tough, subtle performance earned her an Oscar nomination for best actress.
The film was shot on a $2 million budget (half of what they’d originally expected, due to the sudden departure of an investor) over 25 days in wintertime but “not as cold as it looked.” Though the book is filled with images of the snow, there’s little snow in the film, and a few days were actually warm — for the film’s climactic scene, at a pond, it was 75 degrees. (“The only day it snowed,” Rosellini said, “was our day off.”)
“Winter’s Bone” made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2010, without Rosellini on hand. “I was hugely pregnant,” she remembered (she and her boyfriend now have a year-old son). “The sales rep, Josh, said ‘Oh, don’t worry, rest up, sales aren’t made at Sundance unless you’ve made a comedy. Nothing will happen while we’re there.’ It was one of the most stressful times of my life — we had about five offers! The reaction to the film was overwhelmingly positive.” She noted, though, that prior to Sundance (where Roadside Attractions eventually cast the winning bid), several international sales agents had flat-out rejected the film. “You just never know.”
By the time this article sees print, Rosellini will know the fate of “Winter’s Bone” at the Feb. 26 Spirit Awards, where it was nominated in seven categories — more than any other film this year.
After Oscar night, she’ll look forward to future film projects with Granik. The two were recently reported to have been developing a “Pippi Longstocking” film, but Rosellini declined to confirm. “That was a little cart-before-the-horse,” she said. “We have a lot of things we’re looking at. We’re trying to find films that inspire us, that are life affirming, that have strong female characters. We’re drawn to the same kind of films; stories we feel like aren’t told enough.”
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org