An Indelible Impression from Debra Granik: Leave No Trace is incredible
Is Debra Granik, the director who made a star out of J-Law, one of the most underrated of all the female filmmakers who have merited more attention?
Debra, a New Englander, made 2010’s Winter’s Bone, where a young Jennifer Lawrence got an Oscar nomination – a rare thing for a tiny independent. Debra also got an Oscar nomination for her screenplay, while the film was nominated for Best Picture. Yet in between Winter’s Bone and her new film, Leave No Trace, Debra Granik only made one documentary – Stray Dog, about a Vietnam veteran biker. Not for her a Hollywood studio and a short leash.
"I don’t need my films to be widely commercial, I’m not looking to make that great financial gain, it’s not my mission. But even with small films you have to know that people are going to go and see them."
Leave No Trace, which closes Sundance London this year, is equally deserving of an Oscar nomination. It is a quite incredible adaptation of a novel, starring Ben Foster (another one who chooses his own path) and New Zealander Thomasin McKenzie, who turns 18 in July. They star as a veteran father and his daughter who live off the wild in a national park, who have to grapple with a severe change of circumstances after a simple mistake.
Since it showed at Sundance Utah and Cannes, it has had five star ratings from critics, which Debra Granik says “will make all the difference to the film. My films are all for a specific audience so when I get a positive response it emboldens me. I don’t need my films to be widely commercial, I’m not looking to make that great financial gain, it’s not my mission. But even with small films you have to know that people are going to go and see them. So it’s really heartening and in this climate it makes all the difference. It really has been critical response that has got all my films into cinemas.”
With such a gap between narratives, it’s interesting to contemplate what gives this director her inspiration. In this case, it was Peter Rock’s novel.
“It was a novel that I thought was ripe for adaptation. The novel is the most basic filmmaking set and the descriptions of the lush natural setting, I could see there was a reason to deploy cameras here. With a book, a creative thinker has gone before you and conjured up so many elements for you, it’s like they’ve been reporting on the story for years. You receive an enriched blueprint.
“I was drawn to the Pacific North West, to a forest setting which I hadn’t done before, and it was another teenage girl protagonist. I liked her thoughts, how she grew in this story, and also her father. I have a long running interest in the lives of veterans, and what they have to do to navigate life. It’s arduous and intense and it’s like extra duty as a human being to be someone who has combat experience. And then there’s the question of how the children of veterans function.”
“How do you take yourself out of the fray? Opting out is such an invigorated decision and yet it’s so hard to do for most of us.”
In Winter’s Bone, Ree, Jennifer Lawrence’s character, spends the film searching for her absentee father, and Debra Granik laughs when asked what is it about father-daughter relationships she’s exploring in her narratives?
“I smile because how can that not that be a psychotherapist session in the making?” she questions.
“First thing it could be a gender thing, there’s an anthropology to filmmaking and we are drawn to what we do not know, so I am interested in the lives and emotional landscapes of men because I am not one, and yet I share a planet with them. It’s my issue to grapple with but in my conscious mind I don’t seek it out deliberately.”
Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie’s magnificent performances are hard to separate, and there’s a wider question too of how the pair choose to live their lives, in the wild – a Captain Fantastic without the family fun.
“It’s a good question to ask – how can I take myself out of the digital chatter of the world?” agrees Debra. “How do you take yourself out of the fray? Opting out is such an invigorated decision and yet it’s so hard to do for most of us.”
On J-Law: "Jennifer had a lot of energy in her acting and I provided a set of circumstances she could immerse herself in."
Talking of digital chatter – how does Granik react when asked about Jennifer Lawrence, which she confirms happens all the time.
“I didn’t change her life,” she replied,” but I understand people want to know how emerging actors gain traction. Jennifer had a lot of energy in her acting and I provided a set of circumstances she could immerse herself in. The role offered her a place to show a lot of facets of herself, the character was a 360 degree character and I think a lot of people responded to her. It wasn’t that she was another super attractive young woman entering the world – she was also seen as a valuable and appreciated for what was between her ears. She didn’t have to take her clothes off to be appreciated as a young ingenue.”
As for being a female in the film industry, quietly continuing to do what Debra Granik does when no one cared if that Hollywood directing statistics were 9 men for every woman, she calls it ‘a wake up call.’
“And when wake up calls happen, it involves a lot of cold water, because it’s waking up from slumber. So I will always be keenly tuned in when business as usual is disrupted. I hope there’s disruption in many more places in the coming year.”
Leave No Trace is showing at Sundance London
Leave No Trace is released in the UK and US on 29 June 2018.