Few directors have had greater success exposing the harsh realities of American life than Debra Granik. But after a drug abuse-themed first feature, “Down to the Bone,” the Jennifer Lawrence-led poverty saga “Winter’s Bone” and a documentary (“Stray Dog”) and drama (“Leave No Trace”) about haunted military vets, her new multipart doc, “Conbody VS Everybody” might be her most upbeat take on a tough topic to date.
The Jan. 23 Sundance premiere follows former drug kingpin Coss Marte as he launches a fitness business with other ex-cons, based on workouts developed behind bars. While the six-part series has some bleak moments, its hopefulness seems to have rubbed off on Granik. “This film buoyed me a bit during the pandemic and helped me get through it,” she says, “because of the fighting spirit that the team had.”
Her shoot for “Conbody,” two episodes of which bow in Park City, lasted eight years. “I learned that reaching the five-year benchmark of staying out of prison was considered extremely positive statistically: the likelihood of returning becomes very small, so that seemed like a good framework,” Granik says. “What I didn’t realize was that all of the other trainers would join him, and that Coss was going to build them into a family, which changed the probability of his success because it increased their vulnerability as a unit. The stakes multiplied.” She says the resulting doc is like watching mountaineers “climb Mount Everest: you want to see them all get to the peak.”
The project emerged from Granik’s research for a narrative film about a drug dealing ex-con from a writer on HBO’s “The Wire,” based on a character from the show. “Some people who had had prison experience were extremely helpful in bringing me to [other ex-cons] willing to speak about the most dangerous part of their first few months of freedom: the fact that you have zero money in your pocket. I didn’t know [how to show the role] society has to receive returning citizens, or how to conjure the nuance of these real people’s experiences. Coss had a vision that part of what was going to make their lives better were middle- and upper-class people meeting and working with them through professional services such as fitness, a turning point that the United States had not previously seen. All the levels of complexity were much better served by a documentary.”
Granik brought “Conbody” to the late doc legend Diane Weyermann, chief content officer at Participant, right before she passed away in October 2021. “She believed there could be more of a novelistic approach, a story told in chapters,” Granik recalls, “where people are interested in the same way they’re interested in getting to the end of a novel.” Participant, which is repping the doc’s sales with Cinetic, produced the project alongside Granik and Anne Rosellini’s Still Rolling Prods., Louverture Films and Meerkat Media Collective.
What’s up next for the Massachusetts-born, New York City-based filmmaker? A narrative film that’s “a beautiful love letter to New Jersey, about everything that’s ever been in a Bruce Springsteen song.” Could the indie queen of harrowing tales finally be turning over a new leaf? Well, not quite: it’s an adaptation of Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 nonfiction book “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” about struggles faced by the working poor.
But Granik doesn’t see the thru-line of her work as grim. “Someone said to me the other day — and I loved his summary — that ‘it always seems like your big question is, “How are you doing?” to a stranger about their life. ‘How are you coping? Are you OK over there?’”