The Hope Gatherer: Debra Granik Finds Beauty in the Difficulties of Life in Leave No Trace

In Debra Granik’s narrative films, women take charge.

They try to save their men from the crushing consequences of addiction, poverty and emotional trauma. Strong women with a purpose —Irene (Vera Farmiga) in Down to the Bone (2004), Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) in Winter’s Bone (2010) and now 13 year-old Tom (a terrific Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) in Leave No Trace— they eventually find their voice and assert their independence.

Granik’s long-awaited new feature is a father-daughter saga about Will (Ben Foster) and Tom who live off the grid, by choice, in the forest parks in and around Portland, Oregon. The film is adapted from Peter Rock’s book, My Abandonment, which was in turn inspired by a news account about a father and daughter who lived in the Oregon woodlands undetected for years until social services removed them and found them a home, from which they later ran away. Both the book and the movie are imaginings of what happened to them after they escaped back into the Oregon woods.

Will and Tom have a loving, tender relationship which requires little conversation or explanation; after many years together they are attuned to each other’s emotions and rhythms. Will teaches his daughter survivalist skills like starting a fire without matches, how to forage for food and, most importantly, how to evade detection by blending into their surroundings. Will sees himself as protecting his daughter from a hostile and perilous world. But as Tom gets older she craves connection and discovers another path from her father’s that’s more in tune with her nature.

Granik’s gift as a moviemaker is that she inspires us to care deeply about people off the beaten path who don’t normally impinge on our consciousness until we’ve been introduced to them in her films. “She has a ferocious intellect,” Foster told me Monday in the offices of Obscured Pictures in New York’s Flatiron District where he and the director promoted the film. He added, “She is a bottomless well of compassion and a great celebrator of finding hope for however you wanna go live your life.”

Following are highlights from our interview with Granik at Obscured offices, not far from where the director, a city dweller, lives.

McKenzie and Foster needed to cultivate absolute trust in one another for the emotionally and physically demanding shoot. Courtesy of Bleecker Street Media

Paula Schwartz, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): In Leave No Trace, the cinematography by Michael McDonough, especially the forest scenes, are gorgeous. You bookend your movie with long shots of spider’s webs, two of them in the beginning of the film and one at the end. What do they signify?

Debra Granik (DG): Yeah, well it got at my heart…that final spider web I was just thinking about the ties that bind, you know, they can become frayed or tattered. They can be pulled apart gently but it was such a visual manifestation, the ties that bind. Even though that last web was just hanging on. And the first web at the beginning of the film was very intact. It had a very precise sort of geometry. The visuals of webs started to have association with me, with relationship and with connectivity, you know

MM: You also worked with McDonough on Winter’s Bone. What’s your collaboration like? Do you tell him specifically what you want in a shot or do you give him some leeway? 

DG: There’s a fluidity that encompasses both of us. He will see something, show me something and I’ll say, “Oh, yeah yeah yeah.” And then other times I’ll say like “No.” I’ll tell him, ”I’d love to be able to get that illuminated side of that tree. What if we scoot over a bit?” And he’s like “Oh yeah yeah.” It’s a very rich relationship in my life. And we respond frequently to a lot of the same imagery, either in the field or in other people’s films. And we do story boarding and look book creating with each other, either saying that edge light that he always uses or she always uses, let’s try for some of that, and similarly we’ll be on location, scouting. We’ll shoot stills of for example that village at the end. The different dwellings in that village, and then from there we’ll story board.

MM: One reviewer described you as the most mournful of feminist directors. Do you agree?

DG: However one can explain this to oneself, I was born with a gene where I worry about people. I worry about whether they’re getting what they need. And so, as someone who worries, I have to do a lot to make that productive, versus just feeling upset or nihilistic, right? I do a lot to combat, possibly a genetic propensity towards nihilism. Maybe that’s where he detects the mournfulness, but I’m looking for the hope. What is the only thing a person who is afraid of their own propensity of nihilism can do? Look for signs of hope, right? I’m a hope gatherer.

Granik coaches 13 year old McKenzie through an especially grueling bit of on-location shooting.

I’m interested in depicting the way difficult situations don’t just erupt but exist, on the financial front and many others. How do people survive, how do they navigate? It’s not about getting past or getting through but literally living with it, living alongside it, but also not having it tow you down. I think that some people would say it’s mournful to look at the lives of people who are not financially well off, but there’s no one who doesn’t truly recognize that it takes a lot to get up everyday and do your job when there’s not a lot of reward or glamour or prestige. The facilitation of self esteem isn’t derived from your work. And so I don’t want it to be mournful, I want it to be a little bit of a reverential situation, where we appreciate that people have to put a lot of personal torque into the day to day to even exist. 

MM: My Abandonment, the book by Peter Rock that inspired your film, starts similarly to your film but turns much darker. Your book has no villains, deaths, or violence, unlike the book. Why did you decide to go another direction from his? 

DG: We consulted extensively with the author. A I worked on the story I realized there were other ways for this father and daughter to part that weren’t through his death. His death in the book is grisly in a way that it is not in my skillset to portray. I approached him about that and he told me Will’s death was actually something he had written in another novel coming through…it was other imagined worlds, characters I was not privy to, so I couldn’t understand that part of the novel. Peter was very encouraging, he said if there’s a yearning, if there’s a question you have follow it in a draft. He encouraged the idea that we could explore our own imaginings of what happened to them in the second half. Given that it’s not known, he imagined it one way and I imagined it another way.

MM: Your star, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, is from New Zealand which I didn’t realize until after I saw the film. She’s wonderful, of course, but I wonder if her having to have an American accent could have helped with the rhythm of the way she speaks, which is halting and deliberate?

DG: Your comment is spot on. It was a fortuitous kind of side product, the fact that she is using a lot of effort to form her words with an American accent. It lends her a kind of deliberateness, which has a strangeness, which makes it seem as though she doesn’t converse as casually and copiously as others might.

Granik’s Winter’s Bone was the launching pad for newcomer Jennifer Lawrence in 2010; her searing performance in Leave No Trace could duplicate the result for McKenzie.

MM: You had Jennifer Lawrence skin and grill a squirrel in Winter’s Bone. Here you have your star handle beehives with thousands of swarming bees. Seems pretty risky. How did you shoot those scenes?

DG: With great care and great procedure. The real beekeeper, Susan, who you see onscreen, said there was a way to test to see if someone was well suited for handling bees. There was a way really for the bees to be put on someone’s hands when they’re wearing gloves, and just to see sort of what the bees do when they are in close proximity to this particular human. And when Tom did this, as the beekeeper predicted, they were happy. Or peaceful, let’s put it this way. With honey bees it’s not an act of great peril. They aren’t lethal bees that will swarm someone. The fact is that it’s just something that Tom really took a shine to. It was a pleasure to be able to accommodate her at the very end of the shoot and allow her to do that.

MM: A final question about the film. The father sees himself as protector of his daughter in a perilous world. But some people might see him as putting her in dangerous situations. She’s possibly not getting enough food and there are wild animals in the park. Some critics suggested it’s a kind of child abuse. Did you skirt that aspect? 

DG: I didn’t wanna skirt it, it’s there. It’s there to be discussed. It’s there in the making and in what I felt about the character, absolutely. And I think what complicates it for me is that it’s, as someone who kind of watched him in the screenplay, it’s a set of very, very bad decisions that start to snowball on him. Under duress, through reacting to his hyper-vigilance, very pursued, he makes a series of bad choices. So I see it very much in the trajectory of tragedy. He’s got definite tragic flaws in him that begin to dominate what happens to the both of them. His choices multiply in their negative ramifications to the point where they’re stranded and his daughter is imperiled. The very person that he’s spent a huge amount of effort being a guardian and a teacher to, he’s just done something that can’t be retracted which he knows is a very serious breach of trust between them. He knows that they shifted their power, so dramatically. He’s immobilized and absolutely needed his daughter to then be the adult of them, so he surrendered almost everything. MM

Leave No Trace opened in theaters June 29, 2018, courtesy of Bleecker Street Media. All images courtesy of Bleecker Street Media. 

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