In this interview, director Debra Granik discusses what made her want to turn this story into a film, her non-judgmental outlook on her characters, her research process, and her collaboration with her director of photography and lead actors. This is the first article in our Special Issue on Leave No Trace, which is now available as an ebook.
In 2010, Debra Granik’s second feature Winter’s Bone introduced Jennifer Lawrence to the world. The then-20-year-old actress was nominated for an Oscar, and so was Granik’s film. While Lawrence went on to have a rich career, and remains one of the best actors working today, Granik virtually disappeared for much longer than she should have. Her first fiction film in eight years, Leave No Trace can safely be described as a comeback. Like Winter’s Bone, the film has been met with extremely positive responses — much is being made of its “certified fresh” rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes — and, considering the current climate for women directors, one can dare hope Granik will stick around this time.
Despite these long intervals between films, Granik’s interests and themes remain exceptionally consistent throughout her work. Her feature debut Down to the Bone — which also put Vera Farmiga on the map — deals with addiction and middle- to lower-class daily life, and so does Winter’s Bone; Leave No Trace is no exception. Ben Foster’s Will is an army veteran suffering from PTSD who, the film implies, was once addicted to the medicine that was supposed to help him cope. Will rejects this ‘help’ and the entire infrastructure that goes with it: in his mind, capitalist society is to be avoided at all cost, a morally bankrupt and forceful organisation of life that he cannot abide.
When the film opens, Will is living in a natural reserve near Portland, Oregon, with his daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), in a makeshift camp that has all the resources they need, but none of the comfort or companionship of city life. This lifestyle soon comes under threat when the family is discovered: living in the public park is illegal, and they are soon relocated to the city. Leave No Trace explores the compromises and the beauty of settled life within society, and of an existence essentially based on survival. Just as in her previous films, however, Granik’s filmmaking never judges any of the characters for their choices or weaknesses; the rare empathy of her work unveils the way most of them are simply doing their best.
I interviewed Debra Granik about what made her want to turn this (almost entirely true) story into a film, how she maintains a non-judgmental outlook on her characters, her research process, and collaborating with her director of photography and lead actors.
Seventh Row (7R): What made you want to turn this story into a film?
Debra Granik: I really loved the novel. I loved that it took place in a forest, because that would be photogenic; I liked the part of the country where it took place. I felt very confident that, if I went there to research, I would find all these other ingredients that would make the film visual but also have a cultural texture. I also thought that what the father was trying to do was extremely interesting; the way he was doing it was interesting. It was an opportunity to elaborate on his veteran identity, which is something I care about.
7R: Why don’t we get many precise details about the father’s past, or really even into why he’s doing what he is doing?
Debra Granik: In the novel, the father didn’t speak a lot. He was someone who reminded me of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona [(1966)], with the actress who refuses to talk so that she doesn’t have to lie. He’s someone who doesn’t find it easy to have chatter.
For him, the onset of social media, for example, is almost like when you have an allergy, and your lungs start to close, and you can’t breathe. The idea that the world would amplify it’s chatter! To the point where it all becomes incomprehensible!
He’s someone who couldn’t believe that in ten short years, the amount of babble and noise would just increase. And I think he’s someone who felt like, “I want to think about what I want to say; I want to think about things deeply, and talk about them when I’m ready, instead of just shooting them out.”'The character of Will reminded me of the actress in Ingmar Bergman’s PERSONA, who refuses to talk so that she doesn’t have to lie. He doesn’t find it easy to have chatter.'Click To Tweet
I also didn’t want to get involved with backstory. It’s one of the big dilemmas for filmmakers: backstory requires certain things! It requires flashbacks, it requires exposition… Backstory is so hard! I always like to say to myself “would it be possible to start the film in the here-and-now?” Not tell too much about what happened to the mother, just acknowledge that she is not there. I like to think that it’s like in life: sometimes we learn someone’s backstory, but sometimes we don’t!
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