INTERVIEW: Debra Granik Discusses Her Return to Narrative Filmmaking With ‘Leave No Trace’

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If Debra Granik had been a man, it’s likely that she wouldn’t have the huge gaps between films that she has. That’s sort of an under the surface conclusion one can make when looking at her resume. Sure, as she told us in the interview you’re about to read, her process takes a long time. Still, she should be getting more offers. Anyone who has made “Down to the Bone,” “Stray Dog,” and “Winter’s Bone” should be in high demand. Now, she’s back with “Leave No Trace,” which we sat down to discuss. The movie stars Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie in roles that are among the year’s best.

00003601328142Our rave review of the film should be on the site as you’re reading this interview. It’s a poetic work, deeply steeped in the themes that Granik has explored throughout her career. Plus, it’s just a top notch character study as well. The movie is among the year’s best so far, with Foster and McKenzie doing award-worthy work. Granik was eager to talk, and even what didn’t make the interview was still fascinating. For example, with the recorder off, we spoke about how Marvel is beginning to become more inclusive, and perhaps one day that would be something she’d sign up for, if everyone involved would donate their money to a worthy cause. Compelling stuff, through and through.

Here now is our chat with Granik:

Joey Magidson: There’s often a gap between your films…

Debra Granik: Yes, yes.

JM: Your films are so tied together, at the same time. People on the margins, etc. I’m curious, what keeps drawing you to those characters?

DG: Well, I would say, you know how you’re born into a certain country and there’s a certain way that coverage is handled. We’re all a part of the “national coverage” and, what beats do you get assigned? Some quadrant of the filmmaking community needs to be assigned to the types of stories that don’t get represented. I would say that right now I’ve steeped myself, or just look at when social realism was really a part of the American entertainment canon? It was the 40’s. It was post war, and also during the depression. It was not lost on people that economic convulsions supersonically affect the lives of Americans, and ordinary Americans are equally, if not more so, affected. They don’t have cushions, they don’t have safety nets. Do we only want to tell stories about the rich and famous? Do we only want to see a mono diet of “90210?” All of a sudden, some sisters called the Kardashians come along. Is that all that matters in our country? Are their lives somehow more important? Are their frivolities and their needs more important? I would say possibly, 75% of the country who also has to deal with rent at the end of the month…I’m just trying to say, my beat was to say “holy cow!” There are infinite lives that matter, with all colors and all classes, and my god, to only say these two zip codes matter? Dallas and Beverly Hills? What the heck?

JM: It certainly is jarring to see a trailer play for this and then have it immediately be followed by the “Crazy Rich Asians” one. You know which one is going to have a bigger audience, but you also get the feeling that the choice is wrong. Why is that?

DG: Because it’s easy. Because it’s diversionary. Rent is rent, and things are hard to solve. It’s harder, especially in these times, reflections of hard to solve things. It has become a very weird, chocolate dipped carrot, you know? (Laughs) To see that behavior…”Generation Wealth” is a good antidote. I think that should be paired with it. If they could see it side by side, almost everyone who participates in that sort of lifestyle ends up in rehab. Not just drugs or alcohol, but something has dropped out of the bottom.

JM: Even your documentary “Stray Dog” looks at this. You could have conceivably made your narrative features documentaries instead, and vice versa. How do you find these stories? “Leave No Trace” is based on a book, but how do you come across these subjects?

DG: I would say, I need to find the hope as well. In the Ozarks, that heroine needed to have some resources so she could survive the fate she was navigating. If she had been towed under and destroyed by it, I probably couldn’t have done that. I don’t have that strength. For me, people being completely unraveled and crushed by their circumstances is devastating. So, I do participate in the candy of hope and role models. I was resonating with a filmmaker that I feel strikes such a good balance, Aki Kaurismäki. He’s looking at the lives of working class Fins, and he’s also finding when absurdity allows them to see things. When we see that striving is a form of poignancy. I would say that poignancy is something that starts to crank up our compassion generator that we have. You start to feel for that person. Then, you start to realize that you’d like nothing more than for that person to get what they need. So, those stories attract me. It’s not that they’re easy going, but in the end, there is an endorphin there. Oh that you could! Oh that you should! So, it’s yearning that things will be okay.

JM: This one is your most optimistic film. Previously there was a darker struggle in each of your films. Here, it’s more about the loss of innocence. Also, this is you working with an established actor in Ben Foster, but also discovering someone new yet again. Where do you go when looking for these actors or actresses we haven’t heard of yet?

DG: Part of the “haven’t heard of them yet” means that they’re also exhibiting a real hunger to work. It’s not just on a list of career moves or someone saying that this would be good for you. Now try this, or now lose 50 pounds as a stunt. I’m interested in people who…so, exposure is a double edged thing. You mentioned Ben, and I’m sure there’s a part of him that doesn’t want that capital “B” bigger, because then it becomes harder to disappear into roles.

JM: He’s brushed up against it here and there, but he never seems interested in taking on that role that’ll suck up five years of your time over a trilogy.

DG: Then it also becomes more limiting! Not always.

JM: There’s just more voices in the room then.

DG: Yeah. More voices, that’s a great way to put it. So, my goal is to provide space for an actor, so you see more sides of them. I think that’s what people respond to. By seeing these different sides, you feel like you’re getting to know them more, and by getting to know them more, they become more memorable. They stay with you longer, in some ways, you know? Or they leave an imprint? I think the expansiveness of a role is how people associate with what I do. Even though it’s called discovering someone, it’s never that. It’s really the role. It’s provision!

JM: How much of it was the actors figuring out how to work with the environment or how much of it was the filmmaking creating the environment?

DG: We had a really outstanding crew from Oregon. It’s interesting though, we have second unit setting up a fire, but Ben was really trying to make the fire. Ben and Tom had taken this training with this master outdoor survivor/champion woman. She can teach, well, she picked about a half dozen skills she thought they’d need to have and that I wanted to see if they could perform in the course of the film. Really understand them, really do them. So, that was how they could make themselves feel more secure in that camp. To have two days alone in that camp, to rehearse just among themselves, and then two days with Nicole, the skills trainer, to learn how to use a fire stick, to learn how to select two knives and use them. So, they had real processes to use, to get under the skin. They’re getting nicks and abrasions. Their hands don’t look the same during the film. Blisters happen. Rawness, these things happen. It’s not abuse, I’m not trying to create an abusive situation, and there’s tons of safety protocols. That’s what makes it different and still a film set. But, up until that point, it provides the grist and the texture of the circumstances. They can immerse and really listen to each other, and really answer. This kind of immersion goes back to what types of actors might really enjoy or relish this sort of film. Ben had to want to do that. He had to want to go to that training. He ended up being very inspired by that trainer. But the fact is, he’s gotta want that.

JM: It can’t feel like work.

DG: Right. Or there can’t be stipulations. Oh god, that wouldn’t work for this.

JM: I’m curious how you decided how much to tell in certain scenes. For Ben’s character here, there’s one dialogue when he’s taking that test about how he used to be good with teams. That’s really all you get about his military past. Was there ever more?

DG: We’d actually gone through a situation where we’d had this scene…I was so inspired by this documentary “Men at War,” and I’d been inspired by in my documentary the counseling this vet had gone through, and how it had happened so late in his life. It had happened so late, but that for him it was like the sky cracking open, 40 years after his combat experience, he was finally able to face his emotions, and how monumental that was. So, yes, I thought we would know a lot more here if he was in like a counseling situation. I investigated what counseling was like in Portland, talked to a lot of vets. I was extremely interested in that, but when we really talked about it as a group, it felt extremely risky to convert this into a war film, or a vet film. The feeling was, why not try to imbue it in, so that people don’t put the film in a box. What’s so heartbreaking is that we really have a statute of limitations on caring about vets. After three years, after we’ve done the two headlines about the outrageous suicide rate, we’re done. And that’s why they retreated to the woods! So, almost honoring the story, and Ben felt very strongly about that. What’s very difficult about PTS is that it’s not visible. It’s not the missing limb.

JM: So it’s the character details that inform the audiences?

DG: I would try to sprinkle it in. There’s the daughter Tom reading the survey that he did, or maybe didn’t finish. You see a few questions, and that’s a real PTS survey. Being unable to experience sorrow or joy, just certain things that were on one of the psych tests. The websites are full of them. The VA has done an intense job trying to help people figure out what it is. It’s really an injury of conscious. It’s something that happens to your neurochemistry, and it’s invisible. I tried to put that New York Times headline in, that long form article about it read almost like a film in and of itself.

JM: It would be a different movie. Just like a different ending would belong to a different movie, as opposed to this one.

DG: Yeah! What’s interesting is, I love the engagement. As a storyteller, I get a lot of feedback. Independent film culture works with these things called Q and A! What is that but creating a dialogue between creators and the people who see the stories? What I love and what fuels me is when people say that they like deciphering the ending. They’ll say “she hung that bag because he’s nearby” or I had someone say they know he’s coming back to check on her. I had another person ask if he disappeared for some reason? We actually had the weirdness of the camera enigma. The whole ending was partially shaped by that. The fact is, we were filming and Ben disappeared into the shrub. You can no longer see him there. There is not one effect there. We did not do one post production shot on it. He truly became no longer visible to us. We were wondering where he went! So, as he burrowed into the shrub, they enclosed around him, and that was the take that felt like it had the most resonance. So, I would say that the open-ended nature of the ending actually creates a dialogue. I love that in my colleagues’ movies, so if someone can see that here, I get fueled by that!

“Leave No Trace” is in theaters this Friday.



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Written by Joey Magidson

When he’s not obsessing over new Oscar predictions on a weekly basis, Joey is seeing between 300 and 350 movies a year. He views the best in order to properly analyze the awards race/season each year, but he also watches the worst for reasons he mostly sums up as "so you all don't have to". In his spare time, you can usually find him complaining about the Jets or the Mets. Still, he lives and dies by film. Joey's a voting member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.


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