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Winter’s Bone: Rebecca Hofherr Interview

Released mid-2010, Winter’s Bone was a deserved sleeper hit bolstered by extremely positive reviews and word of mouth. Set in the desolate, poverty stricken Ozark Mountains, USA, it tells the story of Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), a teenage girl searching for her ‘meth chef’ father after he jumps bail putting the family home at risk.

Rebecca Hofherr was costume designer for Winter’s Bone. Her brief shaped by director Debra Granik’s commitment to believability and an extremely tight budget of $5,500; she created a realistic, memorable look of lived in denim, motif fleece sweaters and padded check shirts. Hats, too, were essential, both as functional items and as a way of life for those in Ozarks. Moreover, Rebecca even initiated a ‘clothes swap’ with local residents in search of total authenticity. Here Rebecca Hofherr discusses her intentions behind the film’s costume choices exclusively with Clothes on Film.

Jennifer Lawrence as Ree and John Hawkes as Teardrop. Fashion means little in Winter’s Bone. The characters represented are by and large workers who wear the same attire for town and country. Interesting that functional garments in feature films are generally referred to as costume, whereas fashionable clothes are often seen as ‘wardrobe’. Every item of clothing seen on screen is costume, regardless or setting or era.

Clothes on Film: How did you become involved with Winter’s Bone?

Rebecca Hofherr: The Line Producer, Kate Dean, contacted me and then I met Debra (director) and Anne (Rosellini, screenwriter) in New York at a coffee shop for an interview.

CoF: Is it true you and the crew spent six weeks in the Ozark Mountains before shooting so the locals could become acclimatised to your presence?

RH: Anne and Debra were back and forth from the Ozarks for years working on this project; getting to know the people who lived on the land and researching locations for the shoot. Because the Ozarks are sort of indescribable, myself and a few other department heads came out six weeks in advance to research and observe the people and lifestyle so that the film could look as authentic as possible.

CoF: Eventually they even let you into their homes and closets…

RH: Yes! The families that were most involved with the film, the ones we went to for authenticity and local culture were very welcoming. We had a sort of town meeting or gathering where I initially met some of the families, at that I asked if I could come to their homes and have a look at their closets. Many of them were very open to the idea and I visited about 3 or 4 family’s homes over the course of the six weeks.

Ree’s pendant is made from carved wood. Rebecca Hofherr was initially reluctant to use a necklace as she felt it diminished Ree’s image as head of family. Eventually, however, she came to realise that Ree is just a young girl in an extraordinary situation. Seemingly minor items like these are subtle ways to help build characterisation.

CoF: So how did the ‘clothes swap’ idea actually work in practice?

RH: Three things drove the clothes swap: Authenticity, time and money. First and foremost when I met the people that represented small parts of each of our characters, they had such individual and unique looks that I wanted that to come out in the film. Their clothing was what most would consider basic but on them it had personality. I started to get nervous that with the time and money we had I wouldn’t be able to re-create this look. It was in talking with one of the locals when I was asking him about his overalls that he said ‘Well you can have them if you want’ that it dawned on me that this is the only way to achieve this look with the resources we had. I couldn’t just take everyone’s clothing so we set up a sort of swap system where we would buy some new clothing in exchange for their older loved clothing.

We couldn’t do this with all of our characters though, especially Jennifer Lawrence because she needed doubles of her outerwear. Luckily I had a fantastic wardrobe supervisor, Lauren Schad, who aged Jennifer’s jackets to make them look and feel worn. Since the characters in the movie don’t have much we got away with only aging a few things that the leads wore over and over again. Lauren ordered most of her materials from New York but we also got crafty and aged a few things the real way, i.e. we let a lot of the leads wear their clothing to rehearse in prior to shooting and they tried to mimic the dirt and stains that they came back with.

CoF: How important was authenticity on this film?

RH: It was everything. If the audience didn’t feel embedded in the Ozarks this story wouldn’t have been as powerful. Debra never took a short cut when dealing with the authenticity of each line and task in the film.

Merab (Dale Dickey) wearing a trapper hat. Note the wolf detail on her sweater. Animal motifs on costume were a recurring theme throughout Winter’s Bone. These people are close to nature; they live off the land, waste nothing and care for their providers. For example, Ree asks a neighbour, Sonya (Shelley Waggener) to feed her horse because she has no hay left, then immediately after she takes in a stray dog named ‘Peanut Butter’ by Sonny.

CoF: Ree is recognisable by her colourful bobble hats. A lot of the characters wear hats, i.e. trapper or baseball cap. Was this something you specifically noticed in the Ozarks?

RH: It is very specific to the Ozarks. A lot is defined by the hat you wear, literally and figuratively. Most people who live in the Ozarks work in a physical labour driven job and a hat is a functional part of your everyday life. Specifically in Ree’s case is was mostly for warmth and to indicate passage of time. Since she always had the same jacket on it was nice to see a little different hat every now and then.

CoF: One of Ree’s sweaters features a prominent deer emblem. Was this an intentional theme?

RH: Yes. This style is very common in that part of the country. One of her deer sweatshirts was obtained through the clothing swap and one was actually made by a local woman.

Ree’s woollen hats are worn primarily for warmth, but also choosing different colour/style variations throughout the story suggests that a certain amount of time has passed. Hats are important to those in the Ozarks. Watch the cattle market scene closely; nearly all the men in the auction are wearing baseball caps.

CoF: Ree’s necklace is visible in practically every scene. Presumably it was a very personal item, perhaps given by her absent father?

RH: This was actually a suggestion from Debra. At first I was opposed to the necklace because I wanted Ree to come off as the father figure of the family but then I realised that she too is still a girl, a young girl, and young girls like to wear things like that. But we did talk about it being something that she didn’t really think about, that she just wore everyday. Just like you said, something that was given to her by her mother before she got sick or something that was actually made by her father. It was a piece of carved wood so it could have very well been made.

CoF: Teardrop (John Hawkes) is interesting because he undergoes a kind of redemption yet his appearance hardly changes at all…

RH: John and I were very intentional about his look. All of his transformation was to take place through his attitude and acting. A typical Ozarks man would wear the same two jeans until they wore out…..we wanted to give this feel of his character not caring about clothing by giving him about 10 pieces of clothing that were rotated throughout the film. It’s funny because I always knew John to be sort of a slight man and we worked really hard to give him a long skinny line but also one that was intimidating. Sort of like Ichabod Crane.

For a methamphetamine addict and volatile man, Teardrop is oddly charismatic. This is predominantly due to his fearlessness and sense of loyalty. He has few costumes changes, just rotates a bundle of well worn items around his closet, presumably until they fall apart.

CoF: Where did Thump Milton’s (Ronnie Hall) distinctive look originate from?

RH: Thump was an interesting character. A local man who went by the name of Stray Dog played him. Originally I was just going to dress Thump as your typical cattle farm owner but after meeting Stray Dog and hearing his story both Deborah and I thought we could incorporate some of Stray Dog into Thump. Stray Dog was a war veteran and avid motorcycle rider. He came in with that vest on that he wears everyday, the patches have such history and originality that the vest made such a great character piece, it was hard not to see him wearing it. So what we did was I dressed him as a typical rancher… jeans, boots, cowboy hat, western shirt but we put the vest right overtop of everything and it became a great mix of Thump and Stray Dog, plus it made him stand out as the patriarch of that family and from other ranchers.

CoF: It is apparent that everyone in the Ozark Mountains dresses solely for the elements. Women seem keen to regain their femininity where they can though; wearing their hair very long for example…

RH: It certainly seemed that way to me. A lot of the assumptions I had before getting there and doing research were true but for entirely different reasons than I thought. For example I thought it was a style choice that most people wore camouflage jackets and shirts. The real reason is that almost everyone hunts and can only afford one jacket, so even though they are just going to the grocery store, they wear their camouflage jacket.

I think it is hard for the women to maintain their femininity because of the physical demands of work and because of the weather. When I went into most women’s closets it was hard to tell their stuff from their husbands. I found that long hair definitely is one way they maintain some femininity but also they tend to wear a bit of jewellery.

Rebecca felt Ronnie Hall, aka ‘Stray Dog’s own black leather vest, fastened by chains, covered in war medals and chapter patches would be perfect attire for intimidating patriarch Thump Milton. In the end he became a composite of Stray Dog and Thump.

CoF: You must have been over the moon when Winter’s Bone was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. How has this affected your career so far?

RH: I was both elated and terrified. When we were making the movie I put my heart and soul into the project but as soon as it became successful I started to get nervous and think to myself… oh my god what is this going to look like on the big screen? When you make a small movie sometimes because of time and budget you can’t always do exactly what you want, so I was nervous that those parts were going to stand out. In the end I was extremely happy with how it looked and learned to enjoy the success. I wish more small films could get that recognition.

When a film that you worked on gets nominated for an Oscar it certainly never hurts your career! Ha-ha. I have been extremely fortunate that I continue to work at a job that I love.

With thanks to Rebecca Hofherr.

© 2012 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.