Indie Film Spotlight: ‘Leave No Trace’ review + interview w/ writer/director Debra Granik

It’s been a few months since I had the privilege to interview Debra Granik. I’m posting this today to coincide with the Twin Cities release of her latest film, Leave No Trace, tomorrow (July 6).

Thank you Minneapolis-St.Paul International Film Festival for the amazing opportunity to chat with the Oscar-nominated writer/director (forWinter’s Bone), at the MSPIFF office no less. It’s so inspiring to speak to a filmmaker who’s all about the craft of filmmaking and lives ‘off the grid’ from the Hollywood’s hustle and bustle. It’s no surprise that her film deals with the subject of living ‘off the grid,’ as she described the characters as ‘non-conformist.’

A father and his thirteen year-old daughter are living in an ideal existence in a vast urban park in Portland, Oregon, when a small mistake derails their lives forever.

My review:

I saw this film about three months ago and it still stayed with me. As I was writing my review, it made me wish someone like Debra Granik would make more films. Leave No Trace is a film that could potentially be done in a sensationalistic way but she opted for a understated-but-effective narrative approach. Nearly a decade since her Oscar-nominated Winter’s Bone, her latest narrative feature tells the story of a young girl Tom (Thomasin Mckenzie) and her war-vet father Wil (Ben Foster). The two live off the grid, led by Will’s PTSD, which has rendered him incapable of rejoining civilian life. Instead they spend their days in the wilderness, practicing survivalist skills and keeping away from the crowds.

Yes it’s slow-burn but oh it’s so worth the journey. It’s also a very quiet film, reveling in its quiet grace of the wilderness around them. The main characters barely speak but yet their scenes speak volumes and emotionally evocative. It’s not a manipulative emotion, if you will, but raw emotional beats that linger long after you watch it. The performances are remarkable. Foster is a proven talented actor but it’s newcomer Thomasin McKenzie who blew me away. We’ve seen many father/daughter narratives but here it’s explored in an unusual way. I was quite taken aback by how things unfolds and the coming-of-age storyline is brought to life in a convincing and unpredictable way.

In my interview below, filmmaker Debra Granik (who wrote the script with Anne Rosellini) said she doesn’t want to judge her characters, that is Wil’s nonconformity. Instead she wants her film to ask questions about why he does what he does and the consequence of such behavior. It’s an evocative film that really allows you to immerse yourself in the characters, and analyze your own lives. It may not be a ‘fun’ film per se, but the emotional resonance is what I love about independent cinema. Truly a respite from the endless blockbuster offerings we’re overloaded with these days.


At the time of the interview of mid April, there was swirling news of the battle between the streaming giant Netflix and Cannes Film Festival organizers. You can read this Vox.com article that explains the controversy in details, which resulted in Cannes banning films with Netflix distribution to play in any section of this year’s festival. I can’t help asking Debra how she feels about that.

Ruth: Firstly, I’m glad that your film’s going to get [limited] distribution from BLEECHER STREET. I’m always glad when films get theatrical release. Considering the Netflix/Cannes battle going on now, what are your thoughts about the whole film distribution controversy?

Debra: Since I just came from the theatre [for picture/sound check before her film screening that night], I’d love for the communal film viewing experience not to get extinct. I’d like to ask for peaceful coexistence… why does one has to stamp out the other. Why does a certain corporate model have to disavow or negate this new attempt in the digital era? Some people say ‘oh we want to resist technology’ but part of it is ambition right? I mean we’ve accepted 90% of it [the new corporate model], why not keep 10% of something from the past?

But the other question from the filmmakers perspective is… why shoot a wide shot if you’re never going to see it on a wide screen. It doesn’t mean every movie can be on the big screen, and not every film needs to be. But I believe there’s power in wide distribution, especially in documentaries that have cultural changing material in it for example. I don’t think streaming should stomp on exhibition, I don’t think exhibitors should be bullied.

R: Now, transitioning to your film. You adapted the Leave No Trace script from Peter Rock’s My Abandonment novel. What drew you to that story?

D: There were many things, but the environment in which it was told was a huge draw for me. It’s very compelling to me. That area in Oregon has a very distinct geography and climate. It’s the largest temperate rainforests that stretches from the Pacific coast all the way to California, so it’s a really important piece of the planet’s geology. So there’s this magnificent part of the continent and there’s this story about forrest dwellers. In fact there are long tradition of forest dwelling among veterans, there’s a legacy of that from the previous wars.

I was interested in the idea of nonconforming people. Especially in the digital era, what does it mean to just actually withdraw from digital connectivity. What happens if you live even one kilometers away from it? What if you think your own thoughts, it’s a big theme in the film. I love that’s the main concern of the protagonist father in the film…how will we maintain our lives when we think our own thoughts? I love that he’s trying to relay that to his daughter. Plus I’ve always enjoyed stories about fully-fledged female protagonists, so stories involving young women in it always draw my attention.

R: That’s a great segue to my next question. You discovered Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone (where she nabbed her first Best Actress Oscar nomination at the age of 20). Now you’ve discovered another great young female talent, Thomasin McKenzie. How did you find her and know she’s right for the part?

D: Well she auditioned. I did not know Tom. She’s a New Zealander and she lives in Wellington. She’s really interested in working in film, that’s her passion. She had some people who were helping her find work and they gave her the script. She responded very strongly to it, then she took the initiative and read the novel. So our initial discussion was very rich. It’s very different than just showing up to an audition where someone told you to show up at such and such time. She had wrapped her mind around the story. I knew right away she’d be very motivated to investigate the role and learn a lot of things, she’s a very un-jaded individual.

And when you’re working with young talents, you’re concerned how they’ll get support from their family. Well, her parents were remarkable. They were supportive and allowed her to travel with a friend of the family, a legal guardian, which made it so conducive to the filmmaking process. They had worked with her a lot, I mean discuss the book with her and everything.

I was interested in the idea of nonconforming people. Especially in the digital era, what does it mean to just actually withdraw from digital connectivity. What happens if you live even one kilometers away from it? What if you think your own thoughts, it’s a big theme in the film.

R: She also has a great chemistry with Ben Foster. Was he cast prior to Thomasin?

D: Yeah, there’s a lightness to her. I think people would really enjoy their relationship in the movie.

I think Ben and Thomasin were cast almost the same time. Of course in the traditional financing sense, the adult lead actor should be someone who’s ‘investible’ … someone who can be an anchor for the film, in terms of story and marketability.

R: What would you say is the main themes you want audience to come away with? I read some reviews that comment about the parenting style of Ben’s character, some say it’s a coming-of-age story.

D: I definitely didn’t intend this to be a commentary about parenting. It’s not something I’m interested in people coming away with. This is not about finding nonconforming Americans and judging them. To me, I want people to ask questions. For any work I create, I want to open a dialog. Why is he doing that? What is it about post-traumatic stress… what happens to soldiers many years after the war when they feel alienated. When the society they come from no longer offer them things they can navigate. Or the digital era comes into play and what would happen if you simply don’t want to be a part of it? I love to ask the question about kinship and loyalty. What happens if you have to diverge very distinctly from someone who loves you? How painful that would be. In fact, coming of age sometimes involves that, or you have to force yourself to emancipate because the relationship wasn’t working, it wasn’t healthy.

What has been the role of storytelling in human history? It’s to be able to ask question about how we function. Why we do what we do. The Greeks did it, every culture has done it. Those same 26 stories are in every culture. We want to know why people treat each other well, and why we don’t treat others well. Why is that? What’s going on? Why we’re so sensitive, why we get hurt so easily? Why we experience bouts of courage? Those are all those why, we’re in permanent why state.

What has been the role of storytelling in human history? It’s to be able to ask question about how we function.

R: I love thought-provoking stories that really made you analyze your own lives. Now, it’s been nearly a decade since Winter’s Bone (2010) and this is your first narrative feature since then. I know you did Stray Dog documentary and a documentary series (Independent Lens). What has been the biggest challenge for you in finding projects to do next? Or are you really picky?

D: I am picky. I have read stuff that don’t interest me and I’ve also been in meetings or get involved extensively in a certain project, but then the way they want to make it doesn’t sync up… or the nature of who might be involved feels a bit overloaded for my circuits, it would require working in a way that doesn’t interest me. Just like the character [of Ben Foster’s] maybe, I want to remain outside of the celebrity culture, the star system. Because I feel like there are stories that are told in the margin, I think we need biodiversity. I think it requires that some of us [filmmakers] remain at the margin and make our work there.

For narratives, it requires a certain amount of money, the union crews, there’s a price tag that you can calculate, right across the board on that. So narrative films does take a long time to garner that money, but for documentaries it’s a bit more immediate  to start, so I always like to have something in that world going so that I can keep working. So I can wake up at 5 in the morning and haul heavy equipment into the world and try to do my job. You don’t want to lose that part of your chops.

R: Let’s talk about the wilderness, the woods, which is almost a character in itself. I love how atmospheric it is, I could almost feel the misty air, the dampness. 

D: To work in a rainforest, it’s almost a miraculous photogeneity. You never get tired. The local crew loves their forests. They’d be like, ‘Debra you’ve got to capture this dripping moss.’ The B cameras were extraordinary, whenever they have down time they’d roll off some shots which was wonderful. The opening scenes have a lot of their photography. Our DP (Michael McDonough, who also worked on Winter’s Bone) liked to collaborate with his entire crew, he likes everyone to have their own creative moments when they can.

R: Speaking of which, we have a lot of beautiful nature here in Minnesota. Would you ever consider filming here one day?

D: Oh I would love to! I’d love to capture snow and you wouldn’t need to get a snow machine here. I would love to do a film in Minnesota, there are limitless themes to explore here. Really, there’s not a state I wouldn’t want to film on. If I could live longer I’d love to do a film in a whole bunch of them.

R: Speaking of which, we have a lot of beautiful nature here in Minnesota. Would you ever consider filming here one day?

D: Oh I would love to! I’d love to capture snow and you wouldn’t need to get a snow machine here. I would love to do a film in Minnesota, there are limitless themes to explore here. Really, there’s not a state I wouldn’t want to film on. If I could live longer I’d love to do a film in a whole bunch of them.


Thanks so much Debra for chatting with me.


LEAVE NO TRACE is currently on limited theatrical release.
It opens Friday July 6, at the Uptown Theatre.


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9 thoughts on “Indie Film Spotlight: ‘Leave No Trace’ review + interview w/ writer/director Debra Granik

  1. Great interview Ruth! Can’t believe it’s been almost a decade since Granik’s last film came out, hopefully she finds another story to tell and make another one soon. I’ll probably wait for Leave No Trace to hit Netflix or Amazon to watch it.

    1. Yeah it’s a bummer she doesn’t work more, but then again when she does it’s always a film worth seeing. Hope you check it out at some point, Ted.

  2. Ben Foster impressed me in Hell or High Water so interested to see what he brings to this new film. I didn’t read the entire post as I prefer to go in blind, but will return to your interview once I’ve seen the film!

  3. Pingback: Indie Sci-Fi Film Spotlight: HOVER – Review + Q &A with director Matt Osterman – FlixChatter Film Blog

    1. Yay! Glad to hear! We need films like this to be seen on the big screen. I’d love to hear your thoughts after you see it so pls send me the link to your review when it’s up!

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