Eight years after her award-winning Winter’s Bone emerged as a sleeper hit, Debra Granik (Academy Award-nominee for Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay) once again is poised to hit it big on the indie circuit with her new film, Leave No Trace. Like Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone and Vera Farmiga in 2004’s Down to the Bone, Leave No Trace offers a star-making turn from Granik’s latest discovery, Thomasin McKenzie. Co-starring with Ben Foster, Leave No Trace tells the story of a father and daughter living alone and hiding in a public park in the Pacific Northwest, wanting only to be left alone. Based on Peter Rock’s novel “My Abandonment,” Granik’s stunning new film is a beautiful piece of cinema and completely gut-wrenching emotional experience.
Lesley Coffin: Do you remember what it was about the book which initially made you think it would work cinematically motivated you to look into adapting it?
Debra Granik: I think all readers are immediately excited when a book jumps out to you and reads like something cinematic. I could see the characters walking and feel them in the environments they were in. I found the book to be such an exciting read, giving this incredibly grand impression of the Pacific Northwest. The notion of how people would live in a part undetected for that long was compelling. I was left thinking, I want to know more, I want to understand this better. I started asking myself all the big questions like, “What were they seeking?” and “What should we do with non-conformists?” Most of us believe people will like what we like and crave the life we crave, so what do we do with people who just don’t? These people don’t need what we need, so our help is unwanted, which is the tricky part. That’s the greatest challenge of the welfare state we have. We want to help, we’re compelled to do the right thing, but our help may be poorly received or unwanted by the recipients.
And then I started to thinking about combat veterans and the trauma they carry with them after the war. I was just flooded by these deep, important philosophical questions after reading the book. I loved the female protagonist, I loved seeing this teenage girl becoming a woman, who was just learning through observing her dad. In this onslaught we’re in of the digital world, seeing someone who lives outside it being able to look in on it and make her first assessments was fascinating. I thought seeing things through her eyes would give the audience a chance to reflect on how plugged in their lives are.
Lesley Coffin: When you were developing the screenplay, what decision did you make about how much backstory the audience would have about why they’re living out there and their life before. We know he was in the army and went through deep trauma, but with the exception of that newspaper clipping we don’t know how and why this started.
Debra Granik: I think you always have to ask yourself, how many stories you would find out that kind of information about. When we really meet people we may learn about them as we spend time with people, but that usually happens very, very slowly and only in bits and pieces. I often find exposition in movies to be dreary, because there are so few ways to do it naturally. They start to feel like a drag on the forward momentum of the film. There’s flashbacks and there’s verbal exposition, but neither of those seemed helpful for this film. The characters are terse and there isn’t a lot of extra language in the film. So the film just works better if you’re constantly moving forward with them, and leave the audience asking why after the film. I like a film which leaves audience actively wondering.
Lesley Coffin: Thomain is amazing and was completely unknown to me. How did you find her for the role?
Debra Granik: I looked at many people in the United States, never thinking we’d pick someone from New Zealand for this part. But as I proceeded with the casting process I kept going back to the tape she made and sent to the casting director. I had this very positive attraction to her, I saw this girl who could so completely relate to the character. And talking to her about the novel and doing some improv with her over Skype, I just knew she would be a really strong choice. And what was so wonderful was, I got no pushback for making that decision.
Lesley Coffin: What about Ben? I don’t know if I’ve seen him give a better performance.
Debra Granik: I’d really loved some of his previous performances. I knew he was an actor that was willing to put a lot of time and effort into his work. And he’d done films about soldiers and veterans before that left and impact. The performance he gave in Oren Moverman’s films The Messenger left a huge impression on me. And because he’d already allowed himself to be invested in the lives of veterans coming back from the trauma of war, I thought this was a project he would connect to. And after a series of very lengthy conversations, I saw that he did have a very strong, positive connection to the material.
Lesley Coffin: Although this is set in modern day, the depressing fact is that this story could be about veterans from any war. Did you look at how previous films and books have dealt with the struggles veterans have to re-integrate into society?
Debra Granik: Ben and I were both inspired by two great pieces of non-fiction. One is called “The Evil Hours” by David Morris. He was an active duty Marine journalist and is this beautiful writer who managed to put beautiful language to his experiences with PTSD. And in this book he also references a variety of sources from a variety of decades to show some of the history of what we’ve known about the aftermath of combat. He has a beautiful core theory in that book that PTSD is really the injury of the conscience. And Ben really responded to that idea.
There’s also this incredible documentary called Soldiers in Hiding, a documentary made in the mid-80s by a British documentary crew which is about veterans who felt very strongly that they could never return to society, they felt so alienated after being sent to war. They sequestered themselves in the Olympic Peninsula, which isn’t far from where we were filming. And that film is a very soulful set of portraits about men that really got under my skin.
Lesley Coffin: What elements of the father-daughter dynamic were you interested in exploring through the relationship between Will and Caroline? I think that’s ultimate the story that audiences are going to feel a very universal, personal connection despite most people having a completely different upbringing.
Debra Granik: I realized while reading it that one of the turning points in a girl’s coming-of-age is coming to terms with the fact that as much as you may care about someone, you can’t necessarily save them or even help them. You can be loving and tolerant, but you can’t fix them. And that’s something she’s really struggling with in a really robust way, especially when they’re in a new setting. And I really liked the fact that Tom is the one thing that’s grounding him. She is his source of meaning. His sense of self-worth is bolstered by being meaningful to her, by being her dad. He takes pride in being her teacher and taking responsibility for her. And I was just so interested in the universality of that. The ties that bind is core material. There’s nothing new about those themes, but I really liked that the novel had renewed my interest in exploring them. While working on the screenplay I went to a performance of The Tempest and suddenly smiled and felt so at home. It touched me to hear Prospero and Miranda have exchanges which were so similar to Tom and her father. She asks at one point. “Am I a bother to you?” And he tells her, “Without you I would have dissolved.” That idea that to be in service to someone else can keep you holding on is such a beautiful idea.
Lesley Coffin: What visual choices did you make to really show this experience through the eyes of a young girl with these limited experiences the audience comes in with?
Debra Granik: One important thing was to avoid just cutting back to her face and going for the close-up. I use a lot of close-ups of course, but in my filmmaking I’m trying to avoid that trend which is so common in American cinema right. So often filmmakers just cut to a close-up and focus on a character’s eyes, rather than focus on what they’re seeing. When she goes into the rabbit barn, I didn’t want to immediately cut to her, it’s not about Tom at that moment, it’s about what she’s experiencing for the first time. You hold that shot of her face until we see what she’s seen. I think that’s when you feel you’re more in her head. That scene with the dancers, we see a few shots of her watching, but not in close up. Because she’s so captivated by what’s going on around her and full of wonder in that moment. And the other way to see things through her eyes is how we filmed her father. How we track his movements and moods, really showing those moments when he’s looking and trying to solve something. Because he’s the most important person in her world.
Lesley Coffin: There is a moment early in the film when she finds a necklace and asks if they come back and it’s still here, can she keep it. And he says yes, but she has to leave it in plain sight. And it’s a very simple exchange but I felt it said a lot about his character and about how he’s raising her. It just felt like an important moment to me, but I was wondering what you felt that exchange meant and why it was important to include.
Debra Granik: That was a line in the book and I completely agree with you that it was important in telling the audience something about his character’s morality. The article the book is based on mentioned that their campground was extremely organized. And I think he intuited from that that the father stayed organized by having a set of codes to live by and teaching his daughter that moral code. And that was an idea the author put out there and I just ran with it to make it clear that this is man trying to live thoughtfully. He clearly has dogmas about what they do and don’t need, and not using a lot of extra language, being specific and clear. Someone said to me after a screening that he seems like a really oppressive father when they’re doing that drill and he’s saying to her “do it well.” And I had a completely different interpretation. I don’t think he’s being cruel at all. I like a parent or guardian that sets bars for their kids and teaches their kids that there is satisfaction in doing things well.