Courtney Hunt: "As a Director, You Have Five Minutes"

By David D'Arcy
Courtney HuntIn March, I wrote about Frozen River at the Daily, noting that this drama about a woman smuggling illegals across the St. Lawrence ice with a Mohawk accomplice achieves a rare kind of realism. The story begins as Ray, with two young sons and a minimum wage job, learns that her husband has gambled away the family's down payment on a double-wide trailer, and it ends after the Ray and her improbable Mohawk partner, Lila, make one trip too many across the ice.
Life in the cold on the northern border is a struggle. Frozen River reminds you that a steady stream of immigrants are risking their lives in the dead of winter just for a part of it. (Once you've seen Frozen River, make sure not to miss Ghosts by Nick Broomfield, an immigration tale with a grimmer ending.)
I recently spoke with writer/director Courtney Hunt about her feature debut and what might be next.
The film is based on a short, or developed from a short - of the same title?
Yes. The idea was in my head before as a whole feature, and I had actually drafted it with a whole different feel. Then I put it away and thought, "That idea is just not going to happen."  Then I started writing again, and that character's voice came up, and then I wrote the short. So I basically wrote a poem, as ridiculous as that sounds.
You wrote a poem?
I was writing a lot of poetry then, and suddenly the voice of that character that I had sort of begun before started dominating the poem, and basically told her story. It was the outline for the short film. I turned it into a script and shot it, and that was in the New York Film Festival [in 2004], which surprised me, since it was pretty hard to grasp in the short. So I launched it from that place and wrote this feature.
Frozen RiverIs it based on a true story?
No. It's based on a real-life situation that exists. There is smuggling at the border. There are some Mohawks who are involved in smuggling. There are also many other people. They often do it by crossing at the Mohawk reservation, which straddles the border, but there are other reservations along the Canadian border that straddle it, where it's done as well. Yes, this does happen; but, no, these characters were completely fictionalized by me.
There has been smuggling across the St. Lawrence River for thousands of years.
There's a whole smuggling culture up there.  
It's not so inconvenient that the Mohawks have sovereign territory on both sides of the river.
There has been such a preoccupation with the southern border, the Rio Grande. This is the other border, and it's rare that we get a look at this.
Yeah. I went out to California to raise money, and I could not even get past that. People would just look at me, totally confused - "What are you talking about, and where are the Mexicans, and when do they come into this story?" This is not about the southern border, but people are so not focused on it. It's amazing.
Did you shoot the entire film on those locations?
It was all shot in and around Plattsburgh.
Misty UphamYou wove in a lot of details about how things are governed and determined on the reservation, or around it - that the Mohawks have their own police, they have their own councils, they have jurisdiction over their own territory...
The governance is so complex, so I worried about how I could make it clear enough so people would have some idea of what was going on in the movie, without being expositional. The way to do it was to take the character of Ray, who knows nothing about it, and have her learn it, as we learn it from basically no information.

I'm not doing a documentary. I didn't want to say, "The Mohawks are a matriarchal society." I didn't want to be in everybody's face about it. But I think we do pick up from the way the women treat each other, and the fact that there is a chief - she's a woman, we see her three times - that without saying it and talking about it too much, I wanted us to experience Lila's exclusion from the tribe after her husband's death on a smuggling trip in the way that women have traditionally shunned each other. Lila is thusly shunned by women who are clearly in a more powerful position in the culture than she is.

I guess I just wanted you to experience it without getting too didactic and telling everybody about it. It's there. I've seen it in action. It mostly has to do with an attitude which I think is true of the film. I think it's in there, in the quality of the way they communicate, in the way that they don't speak to her when she walks up and her child's at the table. They just kind of look at her. That kind of cold shunning, it's very primitive, if you ask me. But it's very female. That is female, like nothing else. I feel very strongly about it, but I didn't want to get too deep in it. There's a lot of story to tell in this movie.
You didn't want it to turn into anthropology?
I'm doing my impression of this world through the characters as they have shown up on the page.


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