After “Winter’s Bone” received four Oscar nominations, including one for then-discovery Jenifer Lawrence, nobody thought it would take eight years for Debra Granik’s next feature to hit screens — except maybe Debra Granik. She knows her movies are about people who aren’t easy to see.
“Not everyone is assigned the same beat,” Granik said in Cannes, where “Leave No Trace” played Directors Fortnight. “I happen to be more on the periphery. Not everyone can do the same five zip codes. American film isn’t just film and glamor and fame and the lives of people who are fortunate financially. Those aren’t the only stories in this vast nation. That’s my mandate.”
Granik, who made her debut in 2004 with “Down To the Bone,” developed a number of promising projects that never came to fruition. Among them were “American High Life,” a semi-autobiographical HBO series created by writer Nicki Paluga about a young career woman returning to her economically depressed small home town in the midwest. There was also a gritty East Baltimore family urban survival series that Granik described as “almost like what happened in the neighborhoods of ‘The Wire’ 10 years later,” but she could never find a satisfactory ending.
Granik also tried to adapt Russell Banks’ novel “Rule Of The Bone,” which would have marked the third part of her unofficial osteo-trilogy. It was about an abused 14-year-old Jamaican-American who turns to drugs, gets kicked out of his home, and returns to Jamaica to find his father. Banks was optimistic that a cast of unknowns and names would fall into place swiftly, but that didn’t happen.
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When we last talked at Karlovy Vary in 2014, Granik was adapting Peter Rock’s Northwest novel “My Abandonment,” based on a 2004 report in The Oregonian about a 13-year-old girl scraping out a life in the woods with her father in Forest Park, an eight-square-mile nature preserve in Portland, Oregon. This became “Leave No Trace,” starring Ben Foster (“Hell or High Water”) and New Zealand discovery Thomasin McKenzie, which will hit theaters via Bleecker Street June 29.
Her gender likely played a role in her not getting more work, Granik admits: “#TimesUp is you can’t hold it in anymore: Time’s up! The doors have to give way. It can’t be that every 27-year-old born into a male body is a designated genius. It can’t be that the language used to review male and female films is different.”
The filmmaker also knows her career has been slowed by her own arcane taste and demanding standards. She believes, with no shortage of evidence, that producers and financiers aren’t interested in supporting stories about characters who are intelligent, working class, and poor, with dramatic plots that aren’t resolved by gunfire.
“I’m reaching for emotion and drama,” she said. “The drama of the everyday; what happens when you don’t have shelter, food, and clothing. There are some stakes. If you’re displaced or evicted, there’s a suspense: How will you solve that? I am interested in high-stakes problems that occur in everyday life, not massive corruption, not drug rings. You don’t have to have a gun to someone’s mouth or skull for there to be stakes. I’m trying to find non-corporeal stakes. That’s a prevalent part of the larger filmmaking culture: The blood lust is jacked up.”
Granik knew “Leave No Trace” was not inherently commercial, so she made it for a “a specific niche,” she said. “It doesn’t have to please everyone. It will find people who are attracted to these stories. A teen protagonist, I fantasize, could draw a young woman audience.”
With the author’s consent, Granik’s movie takes some dramatic license and doesn’t go quite as dark as the novel. The filmmakers researched the organized wilderness program created by the real father and daughter, before social services intervened. Local social workers kept the movie as authentic as possible. Granik likes to “go out with big baskets to bring back to the script,” she said. “I love having informants from real life, in the tradition of neorealism.”
Like “Winter’s Bone,” Granik relied on casting directors Kelly Barden and Paul Schnee. “They are angels,” she said. They discovered McKenzie in New Zealand’s art community, where her mother is an acting coach. “She didn’t fly in,” said Granik. “We did Skype. Thom made the first audition, she sent a tape. We knew she’s someone who’s not jaded, who wanted to go deeper. She read the book, felt some similarities she could key into. After long periods of rehearsal, we found it hard to go back to the fictional name. We ended up naming the character Tom.”
After the two actors took a two-week wilderness appreciation and training course, Ben Foster asked the filmmakers to rigorously pare down his dialogue in the script. “If you’re talking and explaining, something in the heart dims,” he said on the phone. “The intellect can cloud the heart. The story’s trajectory stayed the same, but the backstory faded away. The pleasure of it was reducing Will’s verbosity to what was most essential.”
McKenzie already had a great nature connection, said Foster. “Her mom suggested a Maori ritual of greeting, which translates to ‘sharing the breath of life.'” They walked into the woods and put their foreheads together for one minute and breathed. “At first there was resistance to that much proximity to anybody,” said Foster. “But we did create a safe space of connection. When the minute was over, something happened to both of us. I would protect her and she would protect me.”
Granik is a demanding taskmaster. “Her presence on set is like her life depends on it,” said Foster. “That’s a very intense energy, unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Her work speaks for itself.”
Like Lawrence in “Winter’s Bone,” McKenzie was a quick study and keen observer. “Emerging actors know there’s a whole lot to learn each time they are spending with someone who’s done a lot,” said Granik, who collaborates with Michael McDonough, her cinematographer on “Winter’s Bone,” shooting multiple long takes in chronological order. Local crews helped them adapt to the rainy conditions. “They knew how suit us up,” said Granik, “how microphone sound is affected by rain, how not to stand under a branch too heavy with moss.”
For his part, Foster brought knowledge of the veteran community from his experience shooting Oren Moverman’s 2009 “The Messenger.” His vet chooses to live apart from society and noise by finding solace in nature, where he and his daughter can live in peace. But the lure of becoming part of society and culture does hit his maturing child. “Trauma without healing only becomes infective,” said Foster, who has yet to return to work after wrapping the film. When Foster and McKenzie said goodbye on the last day, “it ripped our hearts out,” he said. “It’s brutal.”
For now, Foster is enjoying being a stay-at-home dad with his year-old baby daughter.