In 2010, Debra Granik made Winter’s Bone, the film that first showcased the skill of Jennifer Lawrence, who would be Oscar-nominated for her breakthrough performance. Granik returns to narrative eight years on with Leave No Trace, which tells the story of Will and Tom, a father and daughter living an unconventional life off-the-grid in a public park. Granik’s film refuses to moralize, asking questions about non-conforming lifestyles without ever passing judgement on its characters, authored expertly by Ben Foster and newcomer Thomasin McKenzie. She was recently honored with Best Director prizes from LA and San Diego critics groups. On a hike along one of Los Angeles’ less-trafficked trails, she explained more.
Where did this all start for you?
I was presented with the novel, My Abandonment. The author is Peter Rock, who’s local to Portland. He’s a regional writer and knows a lot about Portland culture; he includes it in his novels. He had been intrigued by an article that showed up in the newspaper of Portland, The Oregonian, in which the authorities expressed surprise at discovering a father and daughter that were living in this public park. A very beloved public park, a large public park that is adjacent to the city of Portland. You can walk in and out of the park, into the city, back into the park. It’s a massive municipal park, and they were baffled that this family could live for so long undetected. Why was smoke never seen from their fire? Why did they take such care to cover their tracks? [The father] was using “gray man” techniques of living, and it was effective.
What happened to them?
When they were triaged, it was determined that a lot of their life had actually been quite functional, and they became a legendary case. The social workers of Portland—which is one of the more benevolent and liberal cities—went the extra mile and placed them on a farm, which is depicted in the film. And then the father and daughter left the farm and were not seen again. So, there’s a mystery that surrounds them.
Then that brings up another set of questions: what was it about being brought back into the fold that proved to be insupportable for this family? Or, in this case, maybe just the father. But, also, what were they seeking? The mystery, for me, started at the beginning, and was: why were they in this park? I loved the who, what, where, why of that tableau. Two people have lived for four years undetected in a public park. Why? How? How did they do it?
What was their standard of living?
It was rudimentary, but it involved books, and a rhythm and a schedule. In the novel, Peter fancied that the father was someone who enjoyed reading Henry David Thoreau [the author of Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings], and who was asking himself, “Is there a way for me to live with little and be happy? What level of material possessions do I need for my life to feel that it can flow, that I can function?”
Then, if you add something like PTS into the mixture, it became very touching to me to think of a story in which someone has developed a rarefied way of living, a specific way of life under which he could function. The bureaucracy, hyper-connectivity, the amplified clatter, din, and chatter of the outside world was not something he felt he could participate in.
How much of this is a pathology and how much is a life choice? And who draws up those distinctions?
Absolutely. That brings up, immediately, the question of what’s normative and what’s non-conforming? The thrust of all human civilization is that we actually mostly want people to join us. We mostly want people to live lives that are recognizable to us. There was this introduction to an edition of Walden, and it was so exquisite—it was a description of how some people come to realize that they do not feel lonely. They can sit for very many, many hours, or many days [in nature], and with all the movement, all the chittering and movement, and other lives that are there. Obviously, you have to be wired that way, you can’t just do that cold turkey. You have to work into that. But I think that the people that try to help [Will and Tom] in the film are coming from a place of thinking that this is a dangerous lifestyle. So, yeah, there’s certainly an element of that to it, where these systems are designed to keep people safe. We think we have to conform, we think we have to live very similar lives to other people. And, actually, most people do, because you have to own something [if you don’t want to conform].
What do you mean by that?
In any piece of terrestrial location on Earth, the only people that get to pick alternative lifestyles—like, really pick them—are people who own property, right? You can be as eccentric as all get-out if you own a small piece of turf by Ukiah or any part in Humboldt; you can live with a few solar-operated devices. You could make extraordinary, unusual music, you could be a poet and you could do whatever you want. You could farm from A to Z, whatever it is, but that’s because you own that land.
So the one thing I did [come to realize]—another brutal sort of class thing—is that without property, you don’t really get to pick your lifestyle. It is demanded of you that you conform. To be a non-conforming person, you need a place to do that non-conforming. That struck me. That’s why that man in Portland had to be undetected, that’s why he had to “borrow” this space, and he knew not to defile it. He knew that to be there, he couldn’t be known to be there. That tension intrigued me.
I thought of the audacity of trying to choose a non-conforming lifestyle, when you’re not “entitled” to it, or the rules say you cannot do it. One other big inspiration was talking to a father and daughter in Oregon. They were out of Eugene, and the father had been very involved in Earth First—you know, the radical environmentalist group, protecting the forests.
What did you learn from them?
The father was a non-conforming individual, but he had grown up in a very working class family—he was from a family of lumberjacks. But his politics had evolved and he drifted away from feeling comfortable with the extraction industries of the state, and became much more a part of the protecting side. He raised his daughter himself, and for the first 13 years they lived in a cabin, very much along the lines of Thoreau’s cabin: three meters by four meters.
I queried him over and over, and I queried the girl too: “Did you resent this?” “Did you feel like a freak?” “Did you feel like you were being deprived?” Of course, from the daughter’s perspective, there was some of that, but the father’s statement really resonated with me. He said, “I wanted her to have this one chapter of her life where the woods could be her playground, where nature could be her classroom, where she would learn to read and she’d be getting a lot of the developmental needs met, because I knew that at some point very soon, in her teen years, she’d have the rest of her life to conform. She’d have the entire rest of her life to be wired, have her device vibrating in her pocket, have emails that never go away, for the rest of her life.”
I kind of transposed those sentiments onto the character of Will. Meeting the real-life father, Tim, and hearing him speak about it, I realized that he needed to justify what he had done. I mean, he didn’t abduct her, her mother knew where she was. They had joint custody. She went to her mother for some summers, I think, but during the year, she lived with him. And in her high school years, she went, full time, to a regular small-town high school, starting kind of at the age that Tom and Will part [in the film]. She was 13, 14 years of age. They’re still very connected, but her lifestyle became very normative.
And has his lifestyle changed?
He’s still very much a scrappy survivor, yes. But very media-savvy, and he makes great environmental videos, and whatnot. He’s not a Luddite. He’s someone who believes in video as a weapon for politics, and in progressive movements. By which I mean, he’s not some kind of purist, and I actually would say that he doesn’t have the survival skills that Will is depicted as having in the movie. He hadn’t honed that part of himself.
Why did you decide to make Will ex-military?
I was intrigued by [people with a] military background, and after having done the film with some vets in Missouri I was made very aware that there’s some things you learn in the military, through a very rigorous training process, that can serve you in other parts of your life. Like making a commitment to work with what you’ve got, and learning to work with it well. What you would call “primitive skills”—skills that enable you to light a fire when it rains, find water when there’s no obvious sources. To feel a sense of accomplishment in performing certain tasks. That was something that the real-life father and daughter spoke to a little bit.
There was no problem finding veins of attraction to this story. If anything, during the writing process, I had to make sure that I didn’t just wander off and re-read Walden completely. At one point I was brought into a lot of different directions, wondering what had factored into Will being who he was. Because it was easier to read his daughter. The viewer is privy to what has been shaping her. She’s not tabula rasa, but she’s being inscribed right now in front of us. Whereas he’s coming with a lot of prior inscription.
The film is very non-judgmental. Was it hard to strike that balance?
Yeah. People say to me—and it’s such an appropriate question—how do we know she’s OK with this? Is this an oppressive construct that he’s imposing on her life, that she doesn’t buy into or enjoy in any way? To that, I always have to answer, “If this is your normal, then what are you comparing it to?” She’s not comparing it to kids in town, leaning over their devices, with their necks craned. She’s not following anyone. It’s not like she sits there and says, “Oh, I wish I had this, I wish I had that.” I mean, she sees all that stuff in town, but it’s not her 24/7. And I was intrigued by that. “Want” is a social construct. False needs! This is something philosophers of capitalism and consumerism have been trying to look at for quite some years. So that part interested me, throwing that in the mix. I don’t know if she’s unhappy or happy—she’s just immersed in this life. But she will soon start to compare her existence to other existences, and it’s something that can happen in a day.
You get hints of that throughout the film, but presumably the real girl was living a “normal” life when she visited her mother…
Right, so I could only use, like, half of her situation, because she absolutely had a very contemporary, more commonplace other half going on.
What did she say about that? Like, the fact that half of her life was one thing and the other half was something else?
When she was nine or 10, there were a couple years when she lived exclusively with him, and she told me that when they would go to town, she felt self-conscious for her dad. You’ve heard of the Unabomber, right? That idea of the radicalized freak who comes out of the woods and is very dangerous.She said, “My dad and I would go into town for provisions, and I was afraid for him. I thought people would say, ‘Oh God, there’s that girl walking with the Unabomber.’” That’s what was happening to the daughter—at the onset of teenage years, she started to see her dad through other people’s eyes, which was to judge him, and say, “Oh, he’s not normal.” You know? “It’s not normal to live that way.”
And then what started to interest me on another level with this story is that the forces of social conformity can be, on the surface, quite benign. The social workers are merely asking them to live more like everybody else, right? That was something Tim, the real father said—when he would come into town, to drop his daughter off to see the mother’s side of the family, his brother-in-law would put his arm around him and say, “You know, Tim, I just want to share something with you. It would just be a lot easier if you could just live a little bit more like everyone else. It would be easier for you, dude. Why do you do this to yourself?” As if there’s nothing in Tim’s neurochemistry that tells him, “This is actually a decent and right way for me to live. I feel whole, I feel better out here.”
Will is very clear-headed about what he’s doing, even as you question where that clear-headedness comes from…
Yes, even though, two degrees away, is the ultra-vulnerability of hyper-vigilance—of not being able to discern when there’s real danger or false danger. She’s got to do all that deciphering for him.
We have other heavy themes in this. Not to sound like I’m pulling out a 12-step cliché, but the idea of an adult child, that is a theme. Part of Tom’s identify formation is to take on this very serious responsibility. She’s frequently talking her father down from the impulses in his brain that work against him; that undermine his stability. That’s heavy—what’s it like to be teenage child of a combat veteran?
How did you research that?
There were these three very beautiful documentaries that were done by British film crews, looking back at the aftermath of Vietnam years later. What had happened to some of those soldiers? Boys who had come of age in Vietnam, and then couldn’t re-enter society. Either they were despised and felt like pariahs, or their own neurochemistry had changed enough that they could no longer just saunter into town and live normatively. Many of them lived on wild lands, near where we filmed on the Olympic Peninsula. It’s an exquisite piece of wilderness.
I became very influenced by some of the thoughts that they were positing, which were things like, “This where I’m on top of my game, I can function well here. I’m not judged, I don’t harm anyone, and no one harms me. I have sequestered myself, because I don’t feel comfortable in town.” We used to call those people witches, we used to want to go out in the woods and find them, because it was common to want to burn them. We don’t like people that don’t conform. It’s been uncomfortable for us since the dawn of time.
What did you learn about PTS?
A book that helped me tremendously—I felt like every page was a kind of razor-sharp poetry of precision—was by a Marine named David J. Morris. He wrote a book in 2014 called The Evil Hours. I was hacking away at the screenplay, and I happened to come across it on a podcast. I was riveted. It’s dovetailing and reinforcing everything Stray Dog [the subject of Granik’s 2014 documentary of the same name] ever told me. It was almost like fact-checking everything that Stray Dog had said to me. It’s all so very moving when PTS has some symptoms that are completely identifiable over a large swathe of people. I mean, it gives a lot of veracity, right? You know, no one’s making this up. And one of the most beautiful chapters deals with the way that an early cohort was willing to talk about this with precision—the poet soldiers of World War I. So there’s a big chapter on Sassoon and the one or two amazing British doctors that didn’t abuse the returning soldiers when they said they were super-troubled. Very haunted. Not functioning. So it was a paean to what benevolent care would actually look like, and that it was achievable in 1919, 1920.
What else did you find out?
One of the patterns is the dream of starting over. If you’re having a lot of stuff go down psychiatrically, you’re like, “Let me just start afresh. Let me go over to another town. I’m going to start afresh.” And that’s something that is very typical of a person who still hasn’t totally sorted their PTS, or hasn’t even begun to sort it. It got me thinking about this character, Will. That was part of his throughline of survival—they would uproot and move to a new place and set up afresh. The act of starting over was like shedding some skins you didn’t want. As if you could leave it behind you by going to a new location. And obviously that doesn’t prove to happen, because that’s not how we roll, unfortunately [laughs]. Who wouldn’t love to deposit some of their sh*t back there?
Actually, very few people that go on a long journey with trying to sort their PTS bring their kids with them. It’s highly unusual. Usually you lose custody. You lose that contact. You’re deemed unfit. So in this situation I was very moved by the idea that he wanted to see if he could stay this loyal guardian of this child. I was like, “This father is super-invested in his daughter being proficient—very proficient.” He wants her to have all that she would need to navigate the life that they lead.
Yeah, in some ways he’s a great dad.
But he’s also super shut-down. So, by the end, I was hoping that no one would come away thinking somehow that I was in any way aggrandizing or putting him on a pedestal. But he was very focused, obviously. He had, somewhere in his trajectory, removed the psych drugs from his life. He was someone who was not alternatively medicating with other drugs or alcohol. So he was able to be present [for her].
There’s a great debate to be had there…
Yeah. Like, is she suffering or not? Why is he doing this—is it just for him? Is he selfish or not? All of those things. And it’s all of them, right? There’s a lot of “ands”. But that’s the literature we love the most. “Ands” are what make us contemplate.
How does your research affect the writing process? Are you writing from the very early days? Or do you let that information seep in and then when you feel the characters are fully there in your head, is that when you…
…Try to verify it with the real world? Yeah. I had to know why Will was doing this. It’s extreme. Now, I am normative, really, in many, many ways, so what I’m trying to say is, I had to figure it out. Is this irresponsible guardianship of a minor? I just want to say one more thing about that: she’s coming of age, and they share a tent. But the social worker made me hip to that. She was like, “As employees of the state, that’s one of the first things we have to triage.” It’s, like the first question: has this become sexually manipulative? Is this untoward? Is this transgressive? Is this criminal? Whatever it is.
What kind of interviewer are you?
I would say that I have been primed, almost to a point where sometimes it gets painful or uncomfortable for me, to ask always, just nonstop, for two years, about the aftermath of combat and how that plays out. Given that we had just done 15 years of war-making once again and we have now a very, very substantial population of people who participated in combat. No one wants to hear about those wars any more. Those headlines have faded. No one wants to hear about them. But the fact is, after every military conflict, after every war, a segment of the population is left holding the bag quite silently. No one wants to hear their stories. No one wants to see a headline about suicide rates. I didn’t know that I would get involved with that, but you can’t predict, with film, what conversations you’re going to enter into. And they’re sure as hell usually going to be ones that bring you out of what you know.
When the film premiered at Sundance, the narrative was that Leave No Trace was your first return to filmmaking since 2010. But you made a documentary, Stray Dog, in 2014. What were you doing in the meantime?
Well, if I were in a law firm, I would have to chronicle my hours. Like, what did I do today? Who did I talk to? I was never twiddling my thumbs. For example, one of the first scripts that I was very much entertaining after Winter’s Bone was a script that was almost a rejoinder to a well-known show at the time called The Wire, which was, as you know, a kind of very deep dive into urban poverty and apartheid in America and also the very entrenched and hard to untangle commerce in the streets. So first of all, I went down to East Baltimore and started workshopping the film. I really enjoyed what I was recording. My editing colleague, she snipped it up. And there was a pretty rich template for a film there, no doubt.
So what happened?
I couldn’t get the ending. And the ending as written was that the woman basically recidivates. She tries all these straight jobs, the money’s slow, she’s used to faster money, and the call of the streets is just overpowering. She wants to dip and dab, but the day she dips and dabs is the day she also gets re-nabbed. And I was like, “OK. This is the dominant narrative—the revolving door of incarceration.”
Along the way, in the research process, lo and behold, I’d found someone who I loved talking to, and he had the most beautiful monologue about de-acquisitioning, about having been a dealer that had all these chains and 19 pairs of Gucci shoes. He was putting them up on eBay, because he was changing his life. He threw his gun in the Hudson because he didn’t want to be that person any more.
I was interested in change. And this woman in the film… The script that was presented didn’t explore change. It was sort of saying, “The cruel urban cyst just puts the person back in where they started.” And I said to myself, “I want to do a story about people who don’t go back to prison. That’s what interests me.”
What did you do?
In the end I started researching all these anecdotes about what it took to not go back into prison. What it took to adapt to slow money. What it took to do this and that. I started making a documentary, and I’ve been filming that for quite a while. I took a hiatus from it to make Leave No Trace, but now we’re editing it. So that was a strange transition. It’s almost like a shoehorn, right? Where I’m trying to get the shoe to fit. And by the time the shoehorn is withdrawn, I realize I’ve stepped into a documentary that was not very premeditated.
Were you turning down offers in the meantime?
People are not doing this right now—which is great—but for a couple years, like, five years ago, if you were born into a female body, you got all these scripts about just the bummer of being female. All the bad things that can happen, like to the point where you feel almost like you’re misogynist. You’re like, “Oh my God, it’s just repulsive to be female.” Either you’re cutting yourself or you’re vomiting, or you’ve had early violation and incest. I was like, “That’s not my wheelhouse.” And so, in terms of getting sent stuff, it wasn’t a fertile vein for me to get. That’s not how I find my material.
You say you don’t get sent that stuff any more. Is that because the material’s changed, and you’re being sent slightly more exciting stuff, or did you just stop receiving scripts?
I think it was a mixture. Some stuff has been really good. But some stuff… I don’t want to put myself into a rigid box, but this is where I run into a little snag that I’ve not been able to tease out. I do consider myself a social-realist filmmaker, and it becomes very hard for me to produce those films in any kind of traditional fashion, which would require [getting an A-list cast] for the financing. Because, in many cases, the very upper echelon cast don’t interface well with social realism. People just are very focused on the star, which destroys the tableau. Or in the real scenario that I tell myself, if it’s a scrappy production and we don’t have a huge infrastructure, we can’t accommodate people with a lot of special needs. It’s going to be a rough-hewn shoot.