Debra Granik is one of the few female directors getting consistent recognition this season. Leave No Trace won the LA Film Critics award for Best Director last week and has now been recognized by the San Diego critics, as well. Hers is a remarkable achievement given that there’s been no shortage of outstanding female filmmakers making their mark this year.
I sat down with Granik to talk about her craft and to find out how Leave No Trace came together. We discussed how David Morris’ The Evil Hours helped her collect notes on PTSD, and how she collaborated with her DP to capture the intimate forest scenes that pull the viewer right up there alongside Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie. We talk about her casting process and how she likes to add authenticity to her work by casting locals.
Read our chat below:
Take us back to when you discovered the story for Leave No Trace. Anne Harrison had optioned the book.
They brought it to me. I read it and responded to it. Anne Rosellini and I read the book simultaneously talking about what we felt and what we saw. We talked about what movie we saw when we read the book. We ticked off a list and it drew me in right away. This mystery because it’s not easy to live that way, why does anyone do it. How do people deal with non-conforming people? What happens when they are discovered?
I also really liked the questions that he was asking about what it means to raise someone in the digital era. If you’re a parent or guardian who can remember how we proceeded prior to the dawn of the digital era, you’re at this strange crossroads. So, he and his cohort are that last generations of before and after. I like that he’s posing those questions. It gave us this opportunity to make a film. There’s some consternation. There’s some query and how to protect this real estate here from the onslaught of the constant bombardment of hyper-connectivity. It takes a lot to extricate yourself. Just that benevolent gesture of handing someone a cheap cell phone just so they can be an adequate guardian at this point. It’s now not normal to not own a cell phone.
That’s what drew me to this book and those questions. How do you tell a story where someone feels something, a conviction, plus the adaptation to his own psychiatric frailties and living very quietly. Is he inflicting something on his daughter? Is he abusing her? Is he selfish? If someone really believes in stuff, is that what they have to offer? If those are his limitations, it was about understanding him and where my interest in her emancipation would lead? Going forward, what they need is probably different to what you need. Anne threw her stuff in and we thought let’s try this.
The environment was the grab on the heart. Filming in the Pacific North West and filming in that environment. I’m an East Coast person, my forests there are brown with oak trees and the small trees. Anne and I joked about what would happen if we got a script that would force us to shoot up there, because she’s from there. I said, “I guess we got one.”
Anything is possible and we were scouting. I had my notebook out and we went out together. We found it. It turned out at the last minute that there was an incentive to shoot there.
The cinematography is such that you can virtually smell the trees in some of those shots.
I’ve collaborated with Michael before. He and I really respond to British socialism and British realism and the idea of photographing this was to use as much natural light, to go small, to have a small rig and no extenuating instruments. He used knee-pads when he was shooting them by the fire to get close and intimate. Even though they’re in a huge forest, you can tell that. People ask me what were some of the tropes that Michael used for getting that intimacy, he knelt down, that’s all he did. He was a quiet observer.
Later we used different lenses. He picked two different set of lenses. One that’s very embracing of the soft edges of the forest. Lenses that were saturated and very rich. He also used Hawk T1 lenses for the city. Those lenses did a good job of capturing the hard cement of the built world. He’s very interactive and takes a lot of suggestions.
The forest kept pushing at us. You’d see the ferns at this level, the middle-aged trees there, the old growth there. There were all these layers of depth of field. Fifty shades of green. The forest was this green goddess that kept on giving.
With Stray Dogs you had already looked at PTSD. How did that help you with his character here?
It was so informed here. Stray Dog and his friends are providing three years of dialogue. They’re willing and generous. They’re saying, we came of age in a certain place in time and 40 years later, we carry a huge set of ghosts. There’s activity in the psyche that never went away. He was soulful and willing to rent himself. He said, “I have nothing left to lose except, to tell the truth.”
There’s also a book by David Morris called The Evil Hours. It’s an in-depth moment by moment of what it’s like to live with PTS in his own body and in some of his colleagues. He talks about observations he’s made in VA hospitals with clinicians and I was able to put together all the notes that moved me.
I’d pass those notes to Ben but he too had his own notes because he’s portrayed combat men in the past. He knows something about it. He’s done his own research and queries.
So, it was a marriage of your work and his work?
Your casting was incredible. Neither of them had survival skills I’m guessing. So, talk about the prep that they went into.
Tom had done some great things when she sent her tape in to audition. She showed me she could tune into different things. What she would do was, if I gave her something or a scenario, she would think about it and maybe do some research on her own. She’s curious. She wants to know a lot. So, when it came to primitive skills she was really eager.
Ben is someone who, without taking method to some destructive alpha-male level, he’s interested in what it’s like to feel all that.
Casting these actors was such a boon to this film because you needed people that wanted the physical. It wasn’t going to be a good match for someone who had a lot of stipulations. This wasn’t a torture shoot, but it required you to jump in.
One of the scenes that I really gravitated to was the bee scene and Tom working with the bees. What were the challenges of working with bees?
They’re a production no-no. It’s hard to even contemplate certain things such as protocol and insurance, but the beekeeper was a real beekeeper. She had taken such good care of hives. Tom would say that was a huge turn on. Sue had been on a kids TV program and it was a show called Romper Room. It delighted children in early children TV history. She was Sue from the Zoo. She was very charismatic and she triaged Tom and realized her calmness was very suitable for touching bees. You have to be very calm because the only time they respond negatively is when they sense danger. If you’re puffing out pheromones of hecticness and aggression and your movements are frantic, bees could look at it as a threatening creature. They think you’re an angry bear. Tom was so gentle.
Sue and she went into the backyard and did some training. I love casting people locally in the real environment to bring their real-life skills. I love working with actors and experts. I love seeing if you can combine them.
Tom can bring the structure and keep the scene on point, what Sue can do is transmit and show real skillset and inspiration. That can be a part of my process and I’m really excited to do it. The crew enjoyed listening to Sue. When experts come to a set, everyone benefits. The crew is really enraptured. It makes for a good filming day.
Another example is the solider who does the triage and first aid on him. He is an active military member. He needed to confer with a medic as he had basic first aid skills.
Another veteran volunteered to show what it was like for him to divert his pills or not take them. He stopped taking meds that were for PTS. It was a misstep on the side of the VA to go into big pharma to heavily medicate people. You can’t medicate away injuries of conscience.
No pill is going to do that.
I love that soldiers are brave enough to talk about that who say, “You can’t give me Seroquel and have my night terrors go away.”
Was that an interesting discovery to hear those stories about the medicating?
To me, it becomes a stark realist poetry which is that to look at things in the face and say, “Your for-profit drugs aren’t going to help in this situation and to push them is to be disingenuous.” To over-prescribe them and not be there for the pain and the depression, and the very documented links to suicide. On some level, it becomes a grim specter of another example where the eye on profit from mega industries turns a blind eye to what the negative fall out could be.
It’s interesting, there is a history in all of human war-making where warriors have been brave to talk about the aftermath. It was true in WWI and WWII. It was true with European soldiers who, through great effort and personal pain, put words to what it was like to have your neuro-chemistry so rearranged. To no longer to be able to relate to normative life. To feel so isolated.
There were some UK doctors who would speak to soldiers with compassion so that they didn’t feel so alone and so nuts. It’s in the book. I’d love to make a film about that. This soldier is talking to this amazingly compassionate doctor who didn’t hook him up to machines or medicate him. He was there to listen to him and try to understand what he was feeling.
I think you’ve found your next project.
How did you not make him a bad guy?
Tom makes that comment and it’s taken her this whole year to garner the evidence where she can’t pretend that she doesn’t see it anymore. That’s a rite of passage when you have to accept a truth that you might not be able to change. It goes back to what I was thinking about earlier talking here, I had to believe that his convictions weren’t laced with malice and that he didn’t have the ability to say, “Oh maybe this lifestyle choice I’ve chosen doesn’t take into account my daughter.”
We have a choice to judge him for that which he can not do or attempt to take him at what he can do and then realize it’s going to be on the side of his daughter’s actualization to do the rest of the work.
When you are someone’s child, but you are also operating as the adult. So, the onset of your emancipation is that you are young in your life. I had to believe he wanted the best for his daughter and he wants her to be good at all the things he has to give her.
He wants her to be good at camouflage and live undetected should she need to. He wants her to know how to function adroitly in the woods. He wants her to know how to read. Nature is her classroom, the encyclopedias are there. Every time something is of interest to you, it is incumbent for you to learn about it.
During editing, I had carefully planted incidents where he had taken a deep interest in her learning. There was a scene about mushrooms, but that some of those scenes had to be taken out because when you’re fleshing out a character, time is against you.
But he is a typical dude no doubt. He’s not very verbal. He doesn’t always make eye contact.
I was so inspired by Prospero and Miranda. I was invited to see a production of The Tempest. Prospero deals with a huge storm. He’s paranoid. He’s angry. He’s resentful. He’s distrustful. Miranda, his daughter is very open to the world. Very much like Tom, who is very receptive to new input and wants to meet people. She has a lot of curiosity and trust. But she also quells her father.
There’s a scene in the where she says, “I feel like I’m a burden to you.” He tells her, “You are that which anchors me.”
I felt that was a play with Tom and Will. I had to see the “and.” People have to deal with the way you are something in life and you’re also this and this and this.