“Maybe It’s a Filmmaker’s Job to Look for Hope, To Find Examples of When People Do Things Right…”: Writer/Director Debra Granik on Leave No Trace
Following a strong reception at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals, Debra Granik’s latest feature, Leave No Trace, has been placed by critics as the third in a trilogy of films (after Down to the Bone  and Winter’s Bone ) about people living “in the margins” of American society. A less thorough and invested filmmaker may have been tempted to make a reactionary and didactic film about those left behind in Trump’s America, but Leave No Trace is pared back both on the level of its dialogue and in its unwillingness to assign blame to any one party.
Granik introduces us to Will and his 13-year-old daughter Tom, who live in and among the trees in Forest Park, a Portland, OR nature preserve. They hum in unison as they prepare a meal of eggs and mushrooms before reinforcing the shelter under which they will sleep. Before bed, Will asks his daughter her favourite color and affirms that it’s the same as her mother’s. This is the first and last we hear of Tom’s mother and is an example of just one of the ways Granik allows her audience to be active in their viewing. We learn of Will’s post-traumatic stress disorder via the buzz of army veterans in the waiting room where Tom sits but never witness her dad’s time with the doctor; we watch as the pair discuss “want” versus “need” while supermarket shopping and only later see understand how their living is financed through the selling of Will’s PTSD drugs to fellow forest-dwellers.
But soon Will and Tom’s life in the woods is brought to an end as they are forced to engage with mainstream society and its social work institutions. After a series of assessments, Will is deemed to pose no risk to his daughter, whose education level is found to be above average for her age. The social workers then try to find ways of allowing Tom and Will to live somewhat according to their own code while also existing within the law. This difficulty of finding freedom within bureaucracy is brought home as one of the social workers tells Will: “It’s important for you to follow through [with us] so you guys can remain independent”.
Leave No Trace asks bold and difficult questions about how we can live with other people, animals and nature, and it is frank about its inability to provide any one answer. Filmmaker talked to Debra Granik about adaptation, empathy, trauma and challenging preconceptions about masculinity and female coming-of-age ahead of its U.S. release tomorrow from Bleecker Street.
Filmmaker: I want to begin by asking about the process of adaptation. The film is loosely based on My Abandonment, by Peter Rock, which itself is grounded in a real event that Rock found in a newspaper. Did you go back to the original source or use the fictionalised account as a guide?
Granik: It was an interesting journey because the original event had been fictionalised in the novel and so my job was to marry that fiction with the facts I discovered around the real event. I went out almost as a reporter would and asked the rangers to show me the locations where [Tom and Will] would have lived in the park, and I made sure I was informed by people who had actually interacted with them.
There’s only limited knowledge of the real event so, of course, there were some imaginings. I didn’t know what the farm where they were placed after being discovered was like but when I went out to scout I discovered that the big agricultural pursuit in the area is Christmas tree farms. That was gold to a filmmaker, both on a visual level and also because, having previously lived in harmony with them, uprooting trees is probably the most traumatic thing to be forced to do.
I’ve also made documentaries, and so I sometimes use documentary practice by incorporating real peoples’ anecdotes into the story. But I definitely used Rock’s book as a launching pad and then chose techniques that peppered the fiction with a lot of real-life research.
Filmmaker:Your films have often been linked due to their concern with people living in the margins. After Winter’s Bone (2010), you spoke in interviews about your awareness of your position as an “East Coast liberal” and how you go about ensuring you don’t do a disservice to the people whose lives you portray. I wanted to ask about how you built these characters in the same way.
Granik: What was interesting in this case was that the life they led wasn’t rarified in the ways that we might expect. They didn’t hunt wild game in the forest, and they didn’t forage exclusively. As we see in the film, they often went to the supermarket. Their struggles were very day-to-day, and the means by which they survived had a true humility.
In my eyes, Will’s biggest struggle was to extricate himself from the very forceful thrust of the mainstream. Societies have so much trouble dealing with non-conformers and have a set of preconditions: what makes one an adequate parent, what allows one to have self-worth, to feel okay about oneself as an American, you know…. So I think when you see someone trying to maintain their self-worth when the messages from the prevailing society are antithetical to that… you’re likely to be left with a lot of compassion, you’re likely to root for them.
Filmmaker: Yes and I think it’s interesting how you disappoint expectations both on an internal narrative level and externally in the film’s relationship with the audience. You could have so easily played their entrance into the “civilised” world for laughs: Tom’s first interactions with people her own age; their being presented with technology for the first time. Similarly, on the narrative level the social workers’ expectations are disappointed when they discover that, for example, Tom’s level of education is above average for her age. There are also a lot of instances where the people that encounter them think she’s been abducted by him.
Granik: Disappointment means falling short of expectations and so, by definition, it’s an interesting rupture. It’s a bit like sprinkling something with cold water. It’s like, oh, I made my assumptions and this moment just defied them a little bit. In real life when people defy our expectations in a positive way it’s a moment for reflection. The social worker’s puzzlement, or if you want to call it her disappointment, also becomes a moment for questioning, and we see her pause for thought.
The film also explores what we might expect regarding the fate of a young woman in the world. A lot of characters in the film assume the worst regarding her dad’s relationship to her. We’ve become habituated to stereotypes regarding a female coming of age. I like to interrogate ideas of nature/nurture and biological determinism and say that there’s not only a single way that a woman garners her position in the world. I was really heartened to see two films at Sundance London that also dealt with that: Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen and Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade.
Filmmaker: That’s interesting because you have previously talked about content rather than creation being innately male or female. After Winter’s Bone you admitted that you didn’t think you could make a film about a male protagonist because you didn’t know men well enough to write them. This is amusing because historically male directors have made a great deal of films about the unknowability of women. I wanted to know if Stray Dog (2014), the documentary portrait you made between Winter’s Bone and Leave No Trace about Vietnam War veteran Ron Hall, prepared you for the writing of war veteran Will.
Granik: It prepared me enormously because Ron Hall is an ordinary American but he’s been forced to contain decades of difficult history inside him. In the documentary we see him divulging things that he had grappled with for decades. He was frank with me about masculinity, about testosterone, about guns, about love. rejection, crying in the night, which is something that Will in Leave No Trace does.
It was like taking an in-depth seminar on the male body in its leathers, on its Harley, and with all its emotions, anger and aggression. And yet he constantly managed these things, trying to work through, dissect and deconstruct and get therapy for them. He helped me to talk about and approach those masculine traits that had scared me or had been a deterrent for me getting close to certain men, that had previously made me feel apart or separate.
Filmmaker:Apart from his first-person account, how else did you prepare you for your portrayal of PTSD? I mean it’s very subtle in your film but it strikes me that a lot of women have made films about male PTSD in the last few years… Alice Winocour’s Disorder (2015), Andrea Luka Zimmerman’s Erase and Forget (2017) and Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here (2017), and I think it’s possible women are interested in this subject because the other biggest cause of PTSD is sexual assault.
Granik: Yes and you’re so right to include rape because David J. Morris’s The Evil Hours was a great resource for me. He was a marine and a journalist, and a very close friend of his who had experienced sexual assault informed the other major vector for PTSD so that in every chapter he draws the parallel.
The other biggest informants for me were all by British documentary filmmakers. It was a great act of generosity by British filmmakers to look tenderly at that which Americans could not touch or understand. The work of Michael Grigsby, for example, who made the film I Was A Soldier in 1970 and then followed up over 40 years later with We Went To War (2012). Those are two of the most tender and layered essays about American manhood altered by combat and the legacy of PTSD.
I also read poets including Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon who were the first in the English language since the ancients to put such beautiful words to the extreme neurochemical alterations and the trauma that was so super profound. And we practice cultural amnesia because WW1 veterans were able to talk about this with such precision. And you’re right that it affects women so much because, historically, male trauma and aggression affects so much of what happens to us in the domestic and public space because it is how history has been constructed. To co-share the planet and even to make the choice to live as a heterosexual woman one has to understand some of this shit.
Filmmaker: And in terms of co-sharing the planet, I’m thinking about the space of the forest in your film. Tom and Will are uprooted from the forest by humans, but, in the future, the forest might not even be there as a possible space. This is hinted at via the bulldozers that invade the forest and, obviously, the Christmas tree farm.
Granik: I think about climate change relentlessly because I’m a parent to a 13-year-old. It’s funny because she and her friends are thinking about it all the time, meanwhile we had to have a march last year to say we believed in science! After the G7 two weeks ago I couldn’t even talk. I was in such a heap of despair that I became quite paralysed.
The park in which we filmed is 8 kilometers wide. When you’re in its inner sanctum you can’t hear anything from outside it. But every meter closer to the city you start to hear the thunder of distant trucks and then cranes and then you start to hear sirens, then the whoosh of traffic, clamor, din, cell phones, announcements, the blast of cars. Our brilliant sound designer worked with the idea of gradation and proximity. Our world is so filled with beeps, so I really wanted to capture what it was like to “hear” quiet. And then another part of my film is concerned with the wellbeing of creatures that rely on humans to be good to them and the transition of animals from the woods to the hands of humans.
I think that maybe it’s a filmmaker’s job to look for hope, look for good behavior, to find examples of when people do things right rather than when they do things wrong. To celebrate that without making it vanilla and dreadfully didactic and treacly. I see my job as harvesting visual examples of when we can do better, when humor might save something, when people can be resilient, when people can get through. And then I think of how to do that so it stays with some edge of entertainment.