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Smack dab in the middle of summer comes Winter's Bone, a mystery set in the Ozarks where teenager Ree Dolly searches for her drug-dealing father on the lam.

Winter's Bone - opening Friday exclusively at Tampa Theatre - is the second full-length feature directed by Debra Granik, and her third work to earn prizes at the Sundance Film Festival. Jennifer Lawrence's portrayal of Ree marks a new star's arrival, in a leading contender for the indie film of 2010.

In a telephone interview from New York, Granik talked about discovering Lawrence, her responsibility to Ozarks culture, and what it means to be a Sundance favorite.

Why do your movies play so well at Sundance?

One reason that (my) films appealed to the judges is the strong performances; people they haven't seen doing something pretty arduous, that's leaving a mark. That's how they encourage actors: "This was good. Please do more."

It can be a two-edged sword, though. There are people who freak out about the whole notion of making a "Sundance film" that may not find an audience. That can be a very awkward box for a film to be put into.

I understand that you hadn't known of Jennifer until she auditioned.

That's true. Jennifer came to us through the most raw and traditional way, which is an unannounced audition with no prior knowledge of her. We were looking at all these young actors to see what they would do with the scene we put in their hands.

Jen had read the entire script and worked on visualizing Ree's life. She did very strong work in the (audition) room. Then she quickly let us know that she was very aware of the arduous nature (of the role), that she would be in every scene. She was down for that. That means everything to a director and producer.

How do you keep a backwoods movie real without turning it into a Deliverance cartoon?

You can't have it both ways. If you're going to ask the people of a community to cooperate with you, and they've read the material, it's all on you. You are fully accountable for whatever you do. I had to expound this to myself, over and over.

You know, in many remote, rural places there is a custom and heritage of accumulating things on your land. People often think that's a sign of neglect. But debris is different from garbage. But if you get to know the people living there ... it's about book and cover, about the contents of lives.

Were folks in Missouri cooperative, or suspicious?

One family let us film extensively on their land, let us use their home, their dogs. Ashlee (Thompson), who plays Ree's younger sister, actually lives in that house. She's the granddaughter of the property owner. The family had a neighbor who became our major liaison. He had no prior experience in film but was held in high regard by his neighbors, so he became our fixer.

The fact that the book's author (Daniel Woodrell) is from that region and writes about that region wasn't enough. We weren't from the region. We needed a person to vouch for us, a local who would examine our motivation and the content, and feel good enough about us to take the risk.

Steve Persall can be reached at or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at