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The Scariest Four-Letter Word in American Storytelling

July 19th, 2009 · 3 Comments

Down to the Bone, 2005, poster Down to the Bone, 2005, DVD

Down to the Bone (2005)
Screenplay by Rich Lieske & Debra Granik, additional material by Jean-Michel Dissard and Anne Kugler and Alex MacInnis
Directed by Debra Granik
Produced by Susie Q Productions
Running time: 104 minutes

By Joe Valdez

So, What’s This About?

In a rural area of upstate New York, Irene (Vera Farmiga) finishes another day’s work as a clerk at a big box retailer. She returns home to get her two sons (Jasper Moon Daniels, Taylor Foxhall) dressed for Halloween. As Irene takes a hit of cocaine in the bathroom, it’s not clear that she’s been able to keep her drug use much of a secret from her kids. Her dealer (Terry McKenna) draws the line when she tries to score using a personal check her mom mailed for her son’s birthday. Irene checks herself into a rehab program, where she meets a tattooed male nurse named Bob (Hugh Dillon) sympathetic to her struggles with addiction.

Despite the recreational marijuana use of her well-intentioned boyfriend Steve (Clint Jordan) and her performance at work suffering now that she’s sober, Irene manages to stay clean. To keep herself on the straight and narrow, she becomes intimate with Bob, who springs for the nose piercing Irene has always wanted, as well as a pet snake for her sons. Irene takes a housecleaning gig with a friend from rehab, Lucy (Caridad De La Luz), where even a whiff of glass cleaner becomes a temptation for the women to get high. A trip to the city with Bob puts Irene’s life into another tailspin, but offers her yet another opportunity to go straight.

Down to the Bone, 2005, Vera Farmiga, Hugh Dillon

Who Made It?

Debra Granik spent a decade shooting industrial films before entering the graduate film program at NYU. Assigned a 7-minute documentary, Granik traveled to a haunted hotel in upstate New York, but the only employee she could get on camera was a housecleaner named Corinne Stralka. Granik recalled, “She was at a tenuous and suspenseful crossroad in her life, being newly sober. Her boyfriend was in the midst of a pretty bad relapse. They also had children in tow, making it a very complicated set of circumstances. I was compelled about what was going to happen to her and how she was going to get through, and stayed with the story for quite a few years.”

Granik’s friendship with the couple resulted in a 23-minute short titled Snake Feed, in which Stralka, her two kids and her boyfriend Rich Lieske played themselves — filmed in their own home — in what Granik described as “narrative fiction” based on the family’s experiences. Nominated for a Short Film Award at the 1997 Austin Film Festival and winner of a Short Filmmaking Award the following January at the Sundance Film Festival, Snake Feed was so well received that Granik collaborated with her subjects on a feature length script. She whittled down a first draft “which was as thick as a phonebook” by focusing the narrative on Stralka.

Down to the Bone, 2005, Vera Farmiga

How’d They Do It?
Using Snake Feed as her calling card on the festival circuit, Granik met producers Susan Leber and Anne Rosellini. Instead of hoping and waiting for studio financing, the producers brought in casting director Ellen Parks — whose work included Spanking the Monkey and Secretary — and began assembling a cast. Referring to Parks, Granik enthused, “She is a profound friend of independent films and will take risks with some stories she can get behind. That got the cogs rolling. We discovered a lead actress that massively inspired us, who is from the area the film was made. Vera Farmiga was willing to put her blood and soul into the film.”

Vera Farmiga — whose most visible role had been the Eastern European hairdresser who witnesses a murder in the Robert DeNiro flick 15 Minutes — stated “I love playing women with survival issues. This was the kind of role I would audition for, but always lose to Robin Wright Penn or one of the Kates.” With a working title of Down to the Bone and a budget of $500,000, Granik began a 24-day shooting schedule in Woodstock and surrounding Ulster County, New York in February 2003. Granik mused, “Enough positive things started to gel, and that helped us make the movie. It’s like that saying: if you keep showing up, you can do it. We kept showing up.”

Down to the Bone, 2005, Jasper Daniels, Vera Farmiga, Taylor Foxhall

Using a Sony PD-150 PAL, director of photography Michael McDonough resorted to a cinema vérité style. He recalled, “We wanted the look of the film to be realistic and had always planned to shoot mostly hand-held for it’s immediacy and it’s association with vérité. In the end we walked away from principal photography with a 95 percent hand-held movie. Our decision was also based upon the simplicity of the production in relation to the amount of filmmaking clutter around the actors and the sets. Where possible we lit the spaces in advance of shooting entire scenes and attempted to shoot 360 degrees when we could.”

At the Sundance Film Festival in January 2004, Down to the Bone won Debra Granik a Dramatic Directing Award, while Vera Farmiga’s performance garnered the actress a Special Jury Prize. Critics would shower the film with praise. Lawrence Van Gelder, The New York Times: “The kind of movie most independent films strive in vain to be: a small, beautifully faceted gem.” Kevin Thomas, The Los Angeles Times:Down to the Bone emerges with an aura of authenticity so strong as to be mesmerizing, thanks to a superior script brought to life with infallibly natural performances.” Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly:Down to the Bone achieves what only the best independent films have: making life, at its most unvarnished, a journey.”

Down to the Bone, 2005, Hugh Dillon, Vera Farmiga

But despite the enthusiastic reception at film festivals, distributors ran away from Down to the Bone. Granik mused, “The reason why boils down to the word ‘dark’. It is the scariest four-letter word in American storytelling and in this culture. Our film had a strong reception in Europe and achieved distribution, but that was not the case here. We received so many responses like, ‘We love the film, but we cannot do anything with it or we’ll lose our shirts. We’re sorry.’” Finally, in February 2005, Laemmle/Zeller Films stepped up to distribute Down to the Bone in the United States. It was released in November on just two screens, where it tallied $30, 241.

Recording an audio commentary together for the release of Down to the Bone on DVD, Debra Granik and Vera Farmiga were thankful that that film garnered such positive word of mouth at screenings. But the actress admitted, “It’s disappointing though. It was really disappointing to me. I wanted people to see — I wanted a lay audience to see it — and not just privileged industry. It was disappointing.” Of the 1,400 screeners of Down to the Bone that Laemmle/Zeller Films sent to the Motion Picture Academy, one arrived in the mailbox of Martin Scorsese, who cast Farmiga as the police psychologist in his 2006 thriller The Departed.

Down to the Bone, 2005, Vera Farmiga

Should I Care?
Down to the Bone
is a type of movie I typically can’t stand. Whether in a bid for minimalism or as a cost shaving measure, scenes seem to start too late and end too early. The result is that not nearly enough of the film is allowed to unfold in a natural or unforced manner. What does someone who checks herself into a drug rehab center go through to get clean? I’m still not entirely sure on the basis of Down to the Bone, which features a little too much artifice for a documentary-styled film. Pain and discomfort are a part of life, but so is humor, which is virtually absent here, and music, which Granik also banned, forcing her feature debut to play out in awkward silences instead.

Vera Farmiga. Upstaged by blood squibs in The Departed, the actress comes across with illuminating intelligence and honesty, assets that make her one of the most exciting performers working in movies today. Debra Granik may have inflicted some beginner driver’s damage on Down to the Bone, but deserves credit for keeping the performances in the film low key. Hugh Dillon gives a terrifically nuanced performance. Natives of upstate New York, Granik and Farmiga convey what winter in these slush covered cow towns feels like. By examining the effects of drug use in a rural environment, the film on the whole is a novel entry in the rehab genre.

Your thoughts?

Down to the Bone, 2005, Vera Farmiga

Where’d You Get All of This?

Down to the Bone Press Kit. Laemmle/Zeller Films. 2005

“Cutting Close to the Bone” By Jeremiah Kipp. Filmmaker Magazine. 21 November 2005

Down to the Bone. DVD audio commentary with Debra Granik & Vera Farmiga. Arts Alliance America (2006)

Tags: Ambiguous ending · Interrogation · Midlife crisis · Mother/son relationship · No opening credits · Small town

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Moviezzz // Jul 20, 2009 at 9:07 am

    I remember really liking this one, but remember very little about it other than Farmiga’s performance.

    I had to go back and read my review where I called it one of the best films of 2003.

    I guess I really liked it.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Jul 20, 2009 at 10:51 am

    Jim: Your comment brings to mind the Phantom Zone that independent films can enter. Down to the Bone was shot in 2003, played the festival circuit in 2004 and in November 2005 finally went before public, where it was quickly forgotten. It’s not a great film, but what will probably stay with me are the tremendous performances of Vera Farmiga & Hugh Dillon, and that the movie got made at all. Thanks for commenting!

  • 3 Larry F // Mar 10, 2012 at 11:14 am

    Is this the same Corrine that grew up in Great Neck New York?

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