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‘Frozen River’ Director on Winning at Sundance and Falling Asleep at the Camera

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Writer-director Courtney Hunt was the belle of the ball at Sundance this year, thanks to her modest debut feature, Frozen River, which follows a struggling mother of two (Melissa Leo) who gets caught up running illegal immigrants across the border from Canada to New York. The film wowed audiences and won the Grand Jury Prize, with jury member Quentin Tarantino famously confessing that it “put his heart in a vice.” In honor of the film’s official release this Friday, Hunt spoke with Vulture about the sanctity of the festival experience, the hoity-toity nature of film criticism, and what to do when you need a nap while the camera’s still rolling.

You obviously have a lot of experience on the festival circuit, but how gratifying was the reception at Sundance?
Before then we’d never had an audience of more than five people. So I screened the film for 500 people or whatever it was at the Racquet Club at Sundance, and to hear the audience laugh at the funny moments and hear them go quiet at the quiet moments, and to feel the room with the film was so beyond description — other than the birth of my daughter, it was probably the most amazing thing I’ve ever experienced.

For a movie like this you obviously need an ace collaborator, and you found one in Melissa Leo.
She became involved after I saw 21 Grams, which James Schamus screened in Chatham, New York, where I live. I saw her performance and thought it was really compelling, just beautifully done. She was there at the screening, and so I went up and said hi. I’m not one of those schmoozer-type people, but I had this good feeling about it. She agreed to do the short film not too long after.

So what was the siren call of film for you — were you a huge film fan growing up?
My mother took me to art-house movies from before I should have been going, even when I was 7 or 8 years old. That was her favorite thing to do, so we went to everything. I saw The 400 Blows, Truffaut, I saw Fellini and Bergman films way before I understood them, so I was kind of brought up in the language of cinema and grew to love those things. And when I went to film school, I hadn’t had any sort of film theory or training in criticism, but I had seen everything. I still think that film theory … well, when I hear it, I’d be like, “Oh, come on! This is bogus!” It’s like, you either love it because it appeals to you or you don’t. I love [critics] Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell and stuff — they’re great, they love movies more than anything — but some of that stuff gets awfully heady.

This production only lasted 24 days. Any scary moments?
The most terrifying day, without question, was about halfway through the shoot, when we thought there was something wrong with the sound for everything we’d shot up to that point. There was this two-hour period where we thought everything had been ruined by a minor technical glitch. I basically said to my first AD, “Listen, I’m going to be crying during this shot, but I’m still directing this film, so let’s just go forward.” And he was like, “Okay, madam! Onward!” It turned out everything was fine, but that was terrifying, and the hardest day. And then there was … well, I probably shouldn’t say this but — there was a pickup shot we didn’t end up using that involved road signs. And it was about five o’clock in the morning after an all-night shoot, and I was in the backseat of a car with Reed [Morano], my DP, and I called action as we’re driving down the road, and we just seemed to drive forever. And a little while later a voice says, “Courtney, do you want me to cut?” I’d fallen asleep! So I tried to fake it and say, “Yes, we can cut here.”

“Um, I think I have what I need now!”
Exactly. That was really bad.

So, what’s next?
I have another screenplay written — a period piece. It’s a love story that involves waves of immigrants coming into New York in 1904. I would love to do it, but I’m also getting a lot of scripts to look at from my agent — now that I have one! — and that’s wonderful. I hope to work on someone else’s project the next go-round, just direct, and then maybe go back to doing the whole thing from soup to nuts. It’s exhausting. —Brent Simon

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‘Frozen River’ Director on Winning at Sundance and Falling Asleep at the Camera