Off the Grid: Debra Granik's 'Leave No Trace' is a compelling father-daughter tale

Movies Features

Leave No Trace is a movie that could only have been made by the director of Winter’s Bone. It’s so close, in fact, you could call it Spring’s Bone. There’s a change in the season and a change in the region (Portland’s Forest Park instead of the Ozarks of Missouri), but it’s still a standoff between a flawed father and a strong daughter, played across the rough-hewn rustic wilderness of a contemporary America.

The Bleecker Street release also has a starmaking centerpiece performance from a totally unknown teenage girl. Three years away from her Oscar, Jennifer Lawrence was 19 playing 17 in Winter’s Bone, beating the bushes for her meth-cooking, M.I.A. pa so she and her siblings wouldn’t be evicted from their shanty. Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, 16 playing 13 in Leave No Trace and now 18, is the portable appendage of her widowed, P.T.S.D. military dad, living illegally off the grid in state parks for reasons known only to him.

Nothing about these two films—not their relentless near-documentary realism, nor the long wordless stretches that go with forging around in primitive underbrush—betrays that their director might have an urbane sensibility. But the truth is that Debra Granik resides in what Johnny Weissmuller labeled the “stone jungle” when he first sees Manhattan from an airplane window in Tarzan’s New York Adventure.

Cambridge-born 55 years ago, she lives just off Union Square, along a short but scholarly block between University and Broadway—only a hop, skip and jump from the NYU Film School where she learned her craft. Her near-penthouse apartment is ultra-modern and elegant, punctuated here and there with plants and lush green foliage, telltale hints of the out-of-doors. The only wildlife penetrating her world is the strong-lunged, soapbox orators who are eternally carrying on in Union Square.

Amid this comfy setting, Granik explains why she gravitates toward these kinds of stories. “I’m always interested in the techniques of survival,” she confesses, “when there are not a lot of cushions. The one in southern Missouri was absolutely a hardscrabble situation. Similarly, in the Pacific Northwest, when people don’t have material and it’s not straightforward, I want to know, ‘How are they going to do it? What are their techniques—both in making life worth living and for tactical survival? How are they going to get their basic needs? Are they going to be OK?’ In kind of a crass way, I worry about people. I’m a worrier, but hopefully that counts more toward wonder. I wonder about people’s lives. It’s not that I’m seeking down-and-out. I’m seeking the scrappy survivor. It takes a lot of resources to get through.”

Underlining the Spartan spirit of these films is their minimal dialogue. What there is, is perfunctory and thrown away. This was a conscious consideration for Granik, when she adapted them with her creative partner, Anne Rossellini, from books.

Winter’s Bone came from Daniel Woodrell’s novel by that name. Leave No Trace is based on Peter Rock’s My Abandonment, which is based on a true story of a veteran and his 12-year-old daughter found living in a makeshift tent in the Portland woods.

“And another level of verbosity or using language got stripped out in the editing,” Granik points out. Both adaptations were top-heavy with description, so despite the lack of much dialogue, the scripts were standard-length. In Leave No Trace, Ben Foster, who plays the father, and McKenzie found ways of communicating without speaking. For moments of emotion, they made clicking sounds with their mouths.

There’s a history to those clicks, according to Granik: “That comes from African bushmen, actually. The primitive-skills trainer—the person that taught the actors wilderness skills—had also, for many years, worked with bushmen in Africa, and that clicking is a fundamental part of their language. She was just trying to brainstorm with the actors about some communication techniques that they could have. She taught them very specific things about surviving: how to light a fire in the rain not using conventional matches; how to drink water safely when there is no water in sight, by squeezing the moss; how to make an emergency shelter—those kinds of things. It was imperative we have this really good, highly skilled person who was an expert in the field. The actors enjoyed learning and executed their own actions.”

Granik gives additional credit to an old film instructor of hers “who privileged this idea of process on the screen. He came out of a long tradition of Eastern Europe where he went to beautiful lengths to show us examples of cinema around the world where process is featured—where seeing people perform real things onscreen is inherently interesting. That was one of the things that early camera and motion picture could do: show us a reflection of how things are done in our world. He was saying that intrinsically, with frequency, it’s photogenic to see people execute tasks.”

The director has another way of letting reality seep into her films. She has been known to rename characters after the actors playing them. In Leave No Trace, this turned our heroine into a girl named Tom. “That was not intended,” Granik admits. “The character’s name in the book was Caroline, and we were going to go with that, but during the rehearsal process we all called Thomasin Tom. Hearing the name Tom for her was just delightful. I thought, ‘That’s a great name for her.’

“I said to her mother, ‘Miranda, I’m wondering about using Tom’s real name. Tom seems comfortable. Do you think that would be a problem, an obstacle, to conflate them? Would it mess her up?’ She said, ‘No. I think that means she’d feel like she could have permission to bring the part of Thomasin into the role of Tom—y’know, keep it close to home.” (Worth noting: Tom has a sister named Dave—for Davetta.)

McKenzie hails from New Zealand—“a Kiwi,” Granik calls her—and has a teen series over there. Being an aspiring actress, she knew how to find scripts. When she read Leave No Trace, she shot her tape off to the people casting the film, and a star seems to have been born. “She is no stranger to acting, because her mother is a very beloved acting coach in New Zealand. I did not know this when I got involved with her. Her parents made it so possible for this to happen. They sent her with a friend of the family, much closer to Tom’s age, so she’d have a contact person, a guide.”

Foster’s character comes with a blurry backstory that wasn’t even enunciated in the book, so how does one direct an actor with so little work on? “I gave Ben a huge file of articles. A beautiful book he and I found was also very meaningful. It was called The Evil Hours by David J. Morris, and it’s one of the most complete and exquisite accounts of a Marine who was able to chronicle his post traumatic stress. It looks into why it is an injury of conscience. He charts it in himself and in other men. A book like that gives a director and an actor so much rich content. All that, combined with what he did with survival skills and his own reading, gave him lots to draw on.”

Granik has three points of particular pride about Leave No Trace, and she gladly itemizes them when asked. “I do love that the rainforest of the Pacific Northwest was really rendered in a very palpable and replete, rich way,” the director begins, “that it’s visual, and you feel its magnitude, and that we filmed so much in it.

“I’m also very pleased that Ben and Tom immersed themselves in the way that they did. They became very familiar with their characters, the actual grit and texture of the characters’ lives, and they were willing to muck around in that and be there. They developed a meaningful way to work together. That shines through for me.

“Third: I became—even as we filmed—more interested in the film’s themes. Seeing people try to separate themselves or withdraw from this digital era—it started to interest me philosophically more than I could have predicted when I started.”

Getting Jennifer Lawrence and Thomasin McKenzie up to stardom’s starting line is enough to give Debra Granik the rep of a surefire star-spotter, but she would rather be remembered differently, as “someone who is invested in depictions of scrappy survivors, someone who’s always trying to look for the hope. As one who worries about the fate of people and the fate of the planet and the fate of everything, any glimpse of hope is very important to me. I’m a seeker of anything that’s hopeful.”