Writer-director Debra Granik knows the question to expect when journalists sit across from her, ready to talk about her first narrative feature in eight years, Leave No Trace. Her last was Winter’s Bone, the Ozark-set odyssey that made her an Oscar nominee and launched the career of a then-unknown ingenue named Jennifer Lawrence. She returned four years later with her debut documentary, Stray Dog, an unassuming portrait of a Vietnam War vet haunted by PTSD. But she knows those asking tend to overlook that one.
She knows, and smiles as she waits to hear: Why on earth did she take so long to make another movie like Winter’s Bone?
“The person I work with on editing, she’s considerably younger than I am, and she said to me, ‘Oh Debra, it’s been wigging me out a little bit but like, I’ve noticed that when there’s a longer gap in some men’s work they call it discretion and then with women, they sometimes want to find out, ‘Oh, was it the gender thing?’” she laughs in mock self-pity when I ask how high she set the bar to follow up her last drama.
“I love that you phrased it that way, the way it would be asked to maybe…” she waves at the word, trusting I’ll understand. “When the assumption is that it would be discretion, versus, ‘Oh, poor thing, can’t get a film made.’”
Impatience for Granik to capitalize on her awards-studded breakout is understandable to an extent. In the time between Winter’s Bone and Leave No Trace, other indie film directors have inherited the reins of blockbuster franchises, often on the strength of a single feature—though of course, those blessed few usually happen to be men. In turn, demands for opportunities for female auteurs have grown louder every year. And yet, Granik remained unhurried.
She understands the concern, of course. Granik would hardly be the first slowed down by that “gender thing”—the entertainment industry’s well-documented skepticism of female directors. (Patty Jenkins, for one, went 14 years between her Oscar-minted debut Monster and last year’s Wonder Woman. Karyn Kusama, Tamara Jenkins, Courtney Hunt and others might relate.)
But to hear Granik tell it, the path she has followed is simply one forged by her own eye for social realism. She has little interest in the Hollywood mold, or in scripts that come her way with financeable stars already attached. “I’m trying not to work that way,” she explains. “So there’s already a whole, huge quadrant of material that I can’t have access to, really.”
Leave No Trace, on the other hand, is every bit as uncompromising as its director. Like Winter’s Bone and Stray Dog, it draws a moving, eye-opening portrait of life in the margins of American society, in this case through a veteran father named Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter, Tom (New Zealand newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie). Together they live between the trees of Portland’s Forest Park in an unconventional, if hardly makeshift home; it is safer and more loving than many with four walls. They forage food together, huddle for warmth in a tent at night, play chess, laugh, and live according to a (highly organized) two-person order.
Their way of life is so deliberate, in fact, and Granik’s unobtrusive lens allows us to observe it for so long, that it is almost unbearably jarring when intruders apply the term “homeless” to them. A jogger spots Tom and authorities descend to transplant father and daughter back into the system: they are given a house in a small town, Tom is placed in a school (where she is “well above” her peers academically, since she’s grown up reading real encyclopedias rather than Googling), and Will is given a job. “We can still have our own thoughts,” he tells his daughter.
Everyday rituals seem strange, pointless, and beautiful through their eyes—the movements of a church’s flag team, the bunny-carrying presentation at a 4-H meeting. Tom, naturally curious, begins to seek out and find comfort and joy in community; Will, whose wartime trauma seems to have influenced his decision to live beyond society’s reach, has a harder time adjusting. The rest of the film tests their bond under changing circumstance—what they can provide for one another, what they cannot, and the sacrifices those gaps entail.
Portland authorities found a real father and daughter living in Forest Park in 2004; author Peter Rock adapted the duo’s story into his 2009 novel My Abandonment, in which Granik (and her screenwriting partner, Anne Rosellini) saw enough cinematic potential for Leave No Trace.
Granik’s approach to the story is understated and naturalistic; she takes no sides in the tension between isolation and community. The detectives, social workers, and parade of strangers who interfere with and begin to influence Will and Tom’s lives all genuinely mean well. But even through Foster’s terse performance, one can see why Will—or anyone—might find the entanglements of modern-day society too overwhelming to bear.
It’s in describing the aforementioned discretion that led her to Leave No Trace that Granik gives herself away, though: she relates to Will, in that both prefer to operate outside of the system and live on their own terms.
“I don’t do well working with like, a committee approach. It does block out my ability to think my own thoughts and feel my own feelings,” she says, echoing Will’s words of comfort to Tom. “I work much better in a smaller kind of posse, which is much easier to achieve outside of what they call the industry. I think the fact that I also use documentary techniques in my research and the filming process really obviates any possibility that I could work well in a big system.”
Her nonfiction-honed voraciousness for fact-checked specificities shows in nearly every frame: it was a real 4-H meeting she filmed, and real Portland PD officers who walked her through the process of tracking down lost persons. She spoke to real social workers who’d worked on the case (some of whose words ended up in the script) and it was a real RV community that welcomes Will and Tom in the film’s final act, whose residents informed what might happen there. “The script and what I really find are in this rich interplay,” she explains.
In conversation, Granik wheels freely from one idea to the next, expounding at length on everything from Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg’s “fabulous” Dogme 95 manifesto of filmmaking “rules” (prioritizing story, acting, and theme above special effects—“I felt in good company. I felt like I’d found a tribal affiliation in the idea of non-corporate filmmaking,” Granik says) to the way the film industry has changed since the days of big-budget, iconoclastic films of the ’70s, like Robert Altman’s Nashville: “Big film, long-running, multiple characters, non-conforming narrative, essayistic,” she rhapsodizes. “I do want to see that come back.”
She has sharp words for streaming services: “The algorithm will suffocate everything. Until people decide, you know, when did we ever want to give a mathematical computation power over everything?” she says. “If it turns out a streaming service says, ‘Wow, look at the phenomenal numbers when we program ultra-violent stuff,’ well, if it’s all ultra-violent and everyone’s watching it and it becomes what we’re habituated to, doesn’t the algorithm get distorted because that’s also what you’re serving? Your algorithm is related to what you serve. Hello?”
And she is wary of digital culture’s role in enabling the proliferation of anonymously-spewed hatred. “It’s so pernicious and dangerous to think that we could get through this non-stop flinging,” she says. “It makes me think with some of the very vicious right-wing commentators, you know, they’re happy to see things dismantled.”
The boundaries of society can be suffocating, but they provide necessary regulation as well—a quality often lost on the internet, she says. “The reason manners and courteousness exist is because, like industry, we do need to be regulated,” she says. “Unregulated, some people have a lot of trouble controlling their aggression and their urge to dominate a discussion or a view. Some people have neuro and hormonal issues from which they derive pleasures from certain forms of sadism.”
“The internet became the arena for snark and, honestly, it can also replicate the idea of wearing hoods in the Klan, because you can say things from behind the hood, without eye contact and without integrity. And you can get caught up and you want the last word, it’s this crazy stuff,” she says.
It’s a difficult atmosphere in which to form thoughts and opinions of one’s own—what Will wanted for his daughter and, perhaps more desperately, for himself. “That was very real for the character,” Granik says. “The father was wondering, ‘What would it take for me to keep my own thoughts? I have to go far into the forest and see if I can opt out.’ Because the digital talons are really far-reaching. If you don’t want to be known or detected, if you don’t want your preferences monitored or your location tracked, you don’t want digital devices.”
Both Winter’s Bone and Leave No Trace center young women whose coming-of-age stories require resilience and resourcefulness, rather than a romance. For Granik, that honors her own girlhood in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where she grew up with a gang of friends who threw themselves an alternative prom and learned to change a car’s oil and tires before striking out on an “emancipation trip” to Canada.
“I guess some part of me always wanted to keep that in mind and honor that that is in the picture,” she says now. “No one thought of us as being at risk. We felt what happens if you grow up in a context where the expectations are that you sow your oats and come of age just like everyone else, you do that.”
For now, Granik is working on adapting author Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 nonfiction book Nickel and Dimed, on the hidden costs of surviving on minimum wage.
Granik is drawn to its descriptions of families struggling to “keep dignity” in the marathon to stay afloat, and how those issues have only magnified in the decades since. “If there is no social fabric that honors work except for the bottom line, then we just take such a hit in our understanding of how we participate as working people in the world,” she says.
With Granik at the helm, it sounds like a future Sundance winner.