Interview: Debra Granik Talks Filmmaking and ‘Leave No Trace’

Debra Granik is wonderful! You could consider that pandering to an interview subject, but I don’t know many people – celebrity status aside – able to go from discussing the Annenberg study on film criticism to Shakespeare and beyond. Granik’s 2010 feature Winter’s Bone put her on many film fans radars, but don’t call her new film, Leave No Trace, a comeback. Granik’s feature is an intimate tale of the relationship between a father and his daughter who live in the woods. Granik took time to talk to The Young Folks about Leave No Trace as well as what inspired the film, and the issues of directing while female.

You’ve become the go-to name on Film Twitter with regards to how women are denied opportunities; “Debra Granik made Winter’s Bone and she should have been fielding offers for franchises left and right.” How do you respond to statements like that?

What’s interesting is I don’t want the franchise necessarily; I’m not gonna say no to it forever. Should there be a time where it was offered and I wanted to seek it, of course I would hope that my gender would not be the determinate. The fact is I’m in a filmmaking tradition of social realism, so I don’t seek out the stories and the material and methods of production that characterize the industry. I take myself out of that pool voluntarily, with great awareness that it’s not what I’m seeking. That’s not a pie I want to share in. What I want to see is the pie accommodate other kinds of filmmaking, that it can be divided differently. For me, when capital is not distributed in any way that allows for the smaller films that’s where I want to insert my voice along with my comrades and say, “Wait a minute? You gotta be kidding. This is this the only kind of film that supposedly the American cinema is supposed to be producing?”

We’re seeing that across the board. I don’t know if you saw the Annenberg Study that came out about critics being predominately white men?

I’m aware. I think it was a really important thing to raise. That’s an area that makes a huge difference. Honestly, there could be a way in which two filmmakers – one male, one female – in social realism and the adjective “dreary” might show up in the descriptions of the woman’s film and the word “artfully slow” or “carefully constructed” [might show up in the man’s]. That part can be devastating. A young colleague of mine brought up the fact, she said, “Deb, what’s going on here? The space between your films is talked about like ‘What has she been doing? Has she been doing anything?’ whereas with the male it’s like ‘Oh my goodness, he’s so discretionary. He picks so carefully his projects.”

That’s really stark and has such a different sensibility, different connotations implicit in that a male is always working and always genius, and the female side is “Oh my goodness, she hasn’t worked that often” or “Something’s wrong.” That study is revealing something that is at the heart of how we frame and discuss what films have to offer. To me, one of the social experiments I think we must try is what would happen if no one uses their first name. Directors [use] their first initial, men and women, with their surname. Everyone would sign on for one year to do that. Everyone could Google it, but at first blush what if we didn’t put in gender categories every aspect of how we perceive a film?

It’s an excellent point because auteurs like Terence Malick used to take decades to make another movie, but the language of how we describe them is heavily gendered.

It’s so true, and I think the more women and men pick up on that…it’s really something to call out. Words have a – you can’t see it a first blush – but a very layered way in which they direct our thoughts. Someone could say “Lighten up. What does it matter what adjective [you use]?” Well, it does matter.

What was it like filming in the rugged location you picked for this film?

We were so lucky; this is a location-rich area. We had a local scout and he was so adept at finding places that fulfilled things that were suggested or described in the script. One of the things we knew that was going to be very rich about this film is the landscapes would differ. Being on the farm would differ greatly from being ensconced in the woods, and that would be different from any time they hit the city. In these very broad and bold ways what I’m saying sounds obvious, but all I meant was contrasts were going to be honed in on by virtue of how the story’s constructed. The last location was a really beautiful, serendipitous find because it had such a storybook quality to it. It looked like a fable village, [but] it was actually a real place. It had real residents who were trying to live in a non-conforming way, so some of the gifts from real-life settings started to influence the story.

What were the challenges filming in those areas?

We pared down our gear, and there were places where carts that traditionally are used to roll into locations couldn’t be used. It was very inaccessible to anything that has a wheel. We also knew this film was important not to be calling out extravagant gear; we didn’t lay down dolly tracks. We weren’t bringing in big rigs and heavy lighting instruments. Our nighttime stuff was shot day-for-night, so we were using older practices, “poor man’s practice” where instead of the illumination from film lighting you’re manipulating and working with daylight and the lack of it, increasing of it, control of it, modification of it. The shoot had an arduous quality, but different from – I’m trying to think of shoots we know are infamous for how difficult….

Heaven’s Gate.

Yeah, or The Revenant where the mud and cold were at a higher throttle. I always have to add, because it’s so true to the situation, the crew here in Oregon was so versed. They knew how to shoot in the rain, and they knew how to make it so the gear would stay functional and be protected. They had these wonderful techniques that allowed us to be a rain-loving production which, previous to being here, was unheard of in my mind. There’s a huge pressure in all film scheduling for a cover set – “should it rain we’d need to do this” – but if you’re shooting in Oregon you can’t operate like that.


It’s a testament to Thomasin [McKenzie] and Ben [Foster] who make it look so easy, too. They’re incredibly nimble navigating those areas.

Ben and Tom got to spend some time in that campsite on their own and rehearse. We did some exploring and she had time. We filmed in a park that was much easier for the ranger to accommodate us in a park outside of Portland. [Thomasin] was able to explore and spend time in them, take walks and immerse yourself. In that way they really did garner some familiarity and sure footing by spending some good time in there.

Thomasin is so magnetic in this role and I know many want to compare her to Jennifer Lawrence. What was it like working with Thomasin in this role?

I wanted to showcase that she was doing something that many of us have to do simultaneously, which is try to learn about how her brain’s working, what she needs, what she wants, what’s she’s perceiving, simultaneous to the serious responsibility for the well-being of her father. She knows he’s has these vulnerabilities, that she’s been able to be helpful with these coping techniques, that’s a lot. That’s a lot to be the “and” of that, caring for someone and trying to also allow yourself to grow and develop. It’s a very time-honored, essential tension in most people’s lives. I thought she was really able to delve into that. Her curiosity – I thought of her as the Pandora who wasn’t going to open the box of all evils, instead she’s opening the box of what it means to stay a curious, observant person. Another attribute of her that I’ve come to appreciate is it’s refreshing for male and female audiences’ to see a female character on-screen being capable in the outdoors.

It’s rare.

We’re not jaded about that. It feels like “Oh, that’s strong and I’m happy to see that.” I thought she worked with that really well by cultivating this passion for the forest in herself. Thomasin was really happy to be working in the Pacific Northwest.

How did you juggle showing the Tom and Will characters as individuals, but also fostering their symbiotic identity?

To this day I smile because it was strangely coincidental that I sauntered into a play of The Tempest when I was writing this. I was so taken by the fact that it’s one of the essential questions Miranda discusses with her father, Prospero. She asks, “O, I fear I’ve been a burden to you.” And he says, “No, in fact you’re what grounds me. You’re such a big factor in what gives my life meaning because some of my self-worth is derived from being your teacher, from being someone who is responsible for you on a safety and well-being level.” But she doesn’t experience the psychiatric tempests, and she knows she’s different.


In The Tempest she knows her father deals with people differently, greeting people with fear or hesitation, or the notion they could be bad for her or him. She’s intrigued. She basically comes with the assumption there’s something to be learned from an interaction with someone else. That played in my mind as I was thinking about the give-and-take part of it, the unit, but within that people get influenced; their neurochemistry is different, what they’re seeking. If you don’t have negative baggage, some of what he was fleeing was novel to her, so that’s going to force a fork into their path.

The Tempest often gets maligned for Miranda falling for the first man she meets. I love how Tom’s desire to go or stay isn’t dependent on a boy.

Oh, absolutely! I agree with that. You can come of age and it can be because you’re understanding the world in a [different] form. It doesn’t have to be your first romance. Those are traditional things; Shakespeare used them every single time. Other people have thought that coming-of-age for a female means there has to be an accidental pregnancy, good sex or bad sex, or getting self-conscious about your body. All those things can be in the mix, but they can’t be the only narrative we have! That’s when #TimesUp comes into it. Time’s up on certain things that are pasted on the female trajectory. They’re part of life, it just means we don’t have to keep representing them every single film.

Alison Anders has said that there’s a completely different tone being a female filmmaker on-set. Is that something you’ve noticed while being on your sets?

I think it depends with who you surround yourself with. For me, it’s been very important to cultivate a crew and seek out certain kinds of people to work with. It is important to me to seek out people who enjoy working with women, the other is dreary. It’s really devastating when someone comes with an allergy to the female voice. Not gonna go well. If someone, whether known or unknown, conscious or unconscious, finds it an irritant to have a woman take a leadership position, or assert an attitude, or issue a directive they’d like to see happen for a shoot or a scene, not good to have on the crew. I would say that, to make it growthful and excellent, one of the interview questions is “Do you see yourself as someone who seeks out opportunities to work with women” versus finding it as a bummer that you’re going to resent after awhile.

Leave No Trace is in theaters now



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