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.
Granik talked to me 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 (DG): 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?
DG: 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!
7R: Obviously, it’s a very dramatic situation for the characters, but the film doesn’t feel Hollywood in the sense that the people they meet aren’t ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and the characters don’t really go through these very demarcated ups and downs. It’s much more subtle and realistic than that. I imagine it must be tempting to have a character show up who’s going to endanger them, or jack up the stakes.
DG: I panicked at one point with the screenplay. A couple of friends and close people who were watching the rough draft with me said, “You have no villain! Might that not be dangerous to tell a story with no villain?” And I loved that! I was like “Oh my god!” They made me think a lot.
It is dangerous — it’s an oxymoron almost, that it is dangerous to tell a story with no villain. And I had to say, “You know what, things have gotten so grim right now; we’ve just had a lot of dystopian films; we have a lot of bloodlust; we don’t see that many films that don’t have a firearm brought out, someone at gunpoint, someone at knifepoint, someone who is going to be psychologically or physically abused…” And I said that I thought people might be open right now for different kinds of stories. I know I crave some stories where humans aren’t always bad to each other. I would like to refresh my memory about the fact that human connection can be good, and that people can sometimes be helpful to each other in times of need. I was excited to take the risk of showing good people!
7R: Did you research the place and its people?
DG: Absolutely. I did a lot of research, because that is at the core of how I develop projects. Reading the book gives me one version of the story in my mind. Then I like to go to the exact place where the film is set to meet people: the rangers who run the park, social workers, some people who lived unhoused but then had a house in Portland, people in the countryside, teenagers… I was asking myself, “what do teenagers do there? Why are there these clubs about taking care of animals? Can I go to the club meeting?”'It is dangerous — it’s an oxymoron almost, that it is dangerous to tell a story with no villain.'Click To Tweet
I love the research process. It’s what gives me the ideas for specific scenes. It’s what helps me figure out new pieces of dialogue. The people themselves create some of the dialogue by telling me a story… The research is indispensable, I can’t make the film without it. I’m a social realist, so the films are not just a product of my imagination.
7R: In the film, you use non-actors and real locations, and you tell a story that is heavily based on the lives of two real people. How do you approach all of this from an ethical standpoint, and how do you avoid the danger of a sort of Hollywood imperialism?
DG: One way to do that is to try to see if we can communicate outside of the star system. What about all the actors and real people that are there to tell stories about life and who are not film stars? My kind of art-making or filmmaking is contingent upon working in every possible way outside of that larger corporate methodology. Because I don’t need trophies! That’s not of interest to me. I don’t have a corporation to please. Instead, I have to try to find some kind of small pieces of truth in the chaos.'I was excited to take the risk of showing good people!'Click To Tweet
My job is much smaller. I’m not supposed to entertain millions of people. I’m supposed to tell some stories about what it’s like to live right now, in some parts of the world.
7R: In the film, you present Will (Ben Foster) who doesn’t like the city at all, and then Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) , who is tired of living in the forest. But the film isn’t really about which lifestyle is good or bad; it’s about the relationship between these two people. Did you always decide that the film wouldn’t be taking a side on that question?
DG: I believe very strongly that we rarely have control over our lives, and the ways that we’re wired. We also get rewired — something can happen to us in our childhood, or our country can commit people to a war or to some kind of racism or apartheid… Things affect us so deeply, and I didn’t want to judge why Will finds it so alienating to be in a mass consumer society, especially under the sizzling and relentless digital umbrella. We call it a network, but sometimes it can also be called a cage.'I love the research process. It’s what gives me the ideas for specific scenes. It’s what helps me figure out new pieces of dialogue.'Click To Tweet
I didn’t want to judge him, but I did believe him. I believed that he was experiencing a very profound discomfort, and that he wanted to see if there was any way to keep functioning outside of that system. And I did believe that his daughter saw that he was true to his convictions. I would say she was a much more malleable and flexible person. She could get meaning from connecting with people who she thought had some similarities with herself, or shared some of her values. She was almost enchanted by that, and saw something positive in that contact.
Given that they love each other, how can we judge them? You almost can’t take sides. It may sound like a platitude or too vanilla, but cinema can often be a compassion generator. It allows you to see enough context, so that you might be able to experience compassion for very different characters. It’s increased my compassion in a monumental way, about the aftermath of combat, or the aftermath of incarceration, for example. I’m working on a project now about that same issue, about people who committed crimes against people or against society, and paid a big price for it; they had to think about it, and they have a conscience, and their conscience has experienced a shift. I’m working very hard to try and stay non-judgmental, to remember that there are all these “ands,” these terribly intense “ands” in human existence. Someone is this, and they are also this.
7R: Instead of “but.”
DG: Exactly. It’s easier when it’s black or white, when it’s one or the other. It’s harder when it’s both.
7R: How did you work with cinematographer Michael McDonough to make sure you would show the difference between the city and the rural environment, without making either look completely negative or completely positive?
DG: He had two sets of lenses. He was using a softer set of lenses to deal with the forest. Almost everything in the forest has a soft form. And then for the city, he used a harder lens; we would talk about hard lines, almost like a feeling of higher resolution, more rigid. It’s very subtle, but I think it is perceptive.'Cinema allows you to see enough context, so that you might be able to experience compassion for very different characters.'Click To Tweet
Of course, the colour palette, immediately, did its own work. That forest was as green as you see it; there was no colour added to it. It had 99 shades of green. That is a temperate rainforest. They have them from California to Canada. It’s a very specific kind of Northern rainforest. It has that very bright green of spring, and that extremely dark green of pine trees. And then the towns have beige, grey, stone, metal. The built world is frequently drained of green. It was already creating a contrast.
7R: Did you keep that in mind when you went looking for the locations? In the forest, there is a sense of closeness, but in the city, there is much more space and distance.
DG: I did. And we also switched between handheld and tripod. There wasn’t a clear demarcation between the two settings though — we used handheld camera and tripod in both. The minute you put the camera on the tripod, the frame is immaculate and stable. It’s also much more formal. That affects how you fill that space.'I’m working very hard to try and stay non-judgmental, to remember that there are all these terribly intense “ands” in human existence. Someone is this, *and* they are also this.'Click To Tweet
In the forest, with the handheld camera, there was a bigger sense of intimacy. The DOP could be close to the actors. He was frequently on his knees with knee pads next to them at their fireplace; when they were getting very cold in the film, he had to be very close to the them because what they were doing was very quiet, the actors were whispering to each other. It wasn’t just about changing the lenses.
DG: Ben came to this project with already some serious work behind him, where he’d spoken to people who had been involved in combat. He had been involved in prior films that had involved this personal commitment to research about the lives of soldiers. So he came with an intense awareness of that background and very strong feelings.
We did talk a little bit about the backstory, based on the beautifully written material that had been available for the both of us to read. He’s a reader so he absorbed a lot of it to inform the thoughts and feelings of the character.
He was very proactive. He wanted to remove a lot of the language. When an actor is asking to do that, it’s because they’re feeling something very strong, and so I very much wanted to work with his own intuition of what he thought was happening with the character.
With Thomasin, she had the benefit of a rich imagination. She is imagining a lot about this girl — when she reads the novel, when she reads the script — she is providing so much of her teenage imagination, and using her real-life teenage experience. She contributed a lot to the film herself.
7R: The film was shot in order. Why is that, and how did it help you?
DG: It is a phenomenal luxury. It is rarely done, because it’s not the most economical way of shooting. For this film, however, with the way it was going in chapters, it actually made sense to shoot in order. It helped with planning the crew and planning the schedule. I’ve always loved the idea of shooting in order, but I only really see that in European films, and I always wondered how amazing it would be to shoot this way. And then it came true!'Ben Foster wanted to remove a lot of the language. When an actor is asking to do that, it’s because they’re feeling something very strong.'Click To Tweet
For a film like this, it is so helpful. Because the characters are not returning — it’s not like a film that shows someone reporting to an office, where you might be able to change the order. This film was really about how different these characters felt, and how different they were operating in these different environments, so this film process was a true gift. A huge thanks to the producers, who had to fight very hard to make that happen. There are many ways in which it goes against economic rationality.