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.


Indie Film Spotlight: ‘Virginia Minnesota’ & interview w/ writer/director Daniel Stine

This was one of the films I most anticipated films at this year’s MSPIFF. Of course the fact that it was shot here in the picturesque Lake Superior coastline, but the story about fragmented friendship immediately grabbed me. So imagine my delight when I get a chance for a one-on-one interview with the director/writer Daniel Stine.

We’ve connected via Twitter already (thanks Helen Stine!) so we arranged to meet at the Filmmakers Lounge at MSPIFF office (one of the major perks of also being a filmmaker this year with Hearts Want as well as a press pass holder). It’s definitely one of the most fun interviews I’ve had and certainly a highlight of my MSPIFF37 experience!


VIRGINIA MINNESOTA is now available on Amazon Prime (Prime Video), Redbox, ITunes, Google Play, and other Video on Demand platforms.


Two young women, torn apart by a childhood tragedy, unexpectedly reunite and embark on an illuminating 24-hour journey, where they unlock memories of long-forgotten innocence and what it means to truly believe.

My review:

Sometimes a place in a film can be a character in and of itself. That’s certainly the case here in Virginia Minnesota, captured in such an evocative way by writer/director Daniel Stine. It’s obvious he fell in love with the northern Minnesota coastline, and it shows in the film. But he also filled this road-trip, coming-of-age drama with wonderful human characters who are fun to watch but also relatable.

It opens with Lyle (Rachel Hendrix) driving to the North Shore of Lake Superior, accompanied only by Mister, a robotic suitcase that’s amusing but makes for an unreliable GPS system. She’s heading back to Larsmont Bluff Home for Girls (with troubled families) for a reading of the owner’s will. When one of the four former residents refuses to come for the reading, Lyle chases after her and we find the rebellious Addison (Aurora Perrineau) in Grand Marais. That’s when the real adventure begins.

I’m always skeptical whenever I see films where a lot of things happened in a single day. One could argue perhaps too many things happened in a 24-hour-period here, but yet the two leads managed to keep me engaged and curious to find out what’s happened between them. There are laugh-out-loud moments but overall the humor is not over-the-top and is organic to the story. In his directorial debut, Daniel Stine is able to weave a charming story that’s sweet, poignant, mysterious, and even surreal at times (that theatrical troupe bit comes to mind). The story certainly benefits from the talented cast.

Of course a Minnesota-based film critic can’t review this film without mentioning just how gorgeous the scenery is here. The cinematography by Pedro Ciampolini is absolutely stunning and it can be said this is a love letter to Northern Minnesota. Even the lovely animated sequence that bookend the film is a nod to the Minnesotan folklore and myth in which the plot is heavily rooted in. The music is also wonderful and adds much to the atmosphere of the film. I really enjoyed this movie and I hope Daniel Stine continues to make movies!

Ruth: I’m always curious about what inspires filmmakers in creating their work. Virginia Minnesota especially seems like a personal story, and I love that the story was female-driven. Where did the inspiration stem from? 

Daniel: I’m always inspired by locations first and foremost. When I’m inspired by a place I imagined what kind of characters I can drop into there and what kind of stories come out of that. My grandparents ran a home for troubled boys for about a year or two. It was in a big mansion and my grandfather was a strong lieutenant colonel type. So there were always telling me stories about these kids growing up in this mansion, some of the stories were sad, some were funny, but they’re all inspiring. As a kid I wanted to expand on those stories or tell something that’s kind of similar.

As far as the female-driven thing. I hadn’t thought about my characters being male or female. In the first outline or maybe even earlier drafts, Lyle (Rachel Hendrix) was a guy and Addison (Aurora Perrineau) was a girl, but for some reason it just wasn’t interesting to me, I don’t know why. But then when I saw Grand Marais for the first time, I fell in love with that town immediately. It was in the dead of Winter too so nothing was open. I wanted to do something like Short Term 12, where it was about a person and shot in a single location. So the more I kept driving around Lake Superior, the more I saw of all these incredible places that Minnesota has… Split Rock Lighthouse, Duluth, Silver Bay, and learning about the legends, the folklores…

R: And there’s also a mansion, Glensheen, in Duluth.

D: Indeed, Glensheen. So when we saw that all the pieces kind of come together. Then the story kept getting bigger based on the location. It kind of morphed into a road trip movie, even though it didn’t start that way.

R: Having done shorts in various genres. Is drama the genre you set out to make for your first feature?

Cinematographer Pedro Ciampolini with Daniel and 1st AC Evan Stulc – Photos courtesy of Rushaway Pictures

D: Actually I had a thriller lined up. It was a bed and breakfast thriller. We had big name cast, we even had a location locked up. I moved out of my place in L.A. to South Carolina to get ready for it. But we sort of got a bad deal, some of the money fell short. So we went back to our investors, some of them stuck with me. I said, well, we could wait a few years to get the thriller going. Or I have this other idea that’s simpler, a little bit more in the vein of stuff I’ve done with the short films and some of them ended up putting their faith into that idea. So Virginia Minnesota sort of accidentally became my first feature.

R: So it turns out to be a ‘happy accident’ then considering how well-received the film has been.

D: Yeah, that’s true. And now the thriller script now has a chance to develop. Looking back now I imagine if I had done that one, how badly I’d have screwed it up.

R: I’m curious about the beautiful animated scene that’s in the film. Did you set out to have animation be a part of the film given the plot having something to do with the characters’ childhood?

D: It’s always been in the back of my mind to do something like that, even though it wasn’t in the script originally. I initially wanted to do chapter headings, so perhaps to introduce a certain segment there’ll be an animated chapter heading. But it made it far more whimsical that way. So I did the film without the animation bits and see if the story could stand on its own without it. I think the story does work without the animation but having the film bookended by the [animation of a] childhood drawing it’s a nice way to introduce a child’s perspective and reminds you of what’s important that’s revealed at the end.

R: Now, there’s an amusing bit of a theatre troupe in the film. I learned that you have a theatre background. How has that helped you as an actor and writer/director?

D: I started out doing theater before I started doing film stuff. I almost went to a theater conservatory but I also wanted to do films so I didn’t want to be limited to that. But having done a lot of theater and directed plays, that gives me a bit of a shorthand with actors. They’re very much in the forefront of my mind when I’m making a film, making them comfortable and feel connected to the material, because I know how important that would be for me if I were doing that role.

On the downside, I think I tend to over-write, especially dialog. I’d say the theater background makes me want to write so much dialog. When I saw the final script, I’d say ‘Whew, that’s a long movie!’ So I’ve learned to shave things off. Some of my favorite movies are things like Before Sunrise by Richard Linklater which is just two people talking…

R: Oh I love that one. I mean, I love dialog-heavy films and the dialog is sort of the special effects of the film. 

D: Yeah, but of course it depends on the films you want to make. But back to the question about my theater background, I think it definitely helps me with the actors and what I want them to convey the story.

R: I have to ask you about filming in Minnesota. What’s your favorite aspects about filming here? 

D: The people, hands down. I mean, I know there’s the term ‘Minnesota Nice’ but I think it goes beyond that. People here are so proud to be from Minnesota, it makes you want to be a Minnesotan. I might have to move up here and become one. I think the pride is quite infectious. But then there’s the scenery. You can be up on a lighthouse one second and then you can drive inland, like Bemidji, I mean there’s so much variety of locations. Even in Minneapolis, I don’t feel like I’m in the United States here. I went to school briefly in Monheim, Germany, and it reminds me of that. And I love that it’s a big city with a lot of art. I mean, if you look at the Top 10 things to do while in Minneapolis, so many of them are the different art galleries!

So really it was the people and the great support that we got. It makes me want to come back and do another film, maybe that thriller that I was telling you earlier.

R: Yeah, well there’s a lot of bed and breakfast around here. Especially in the Winter time…

D: Yeah definitely.

R: Let’s talk about casting, particularly the two leads Rachel Hendrix and Aurora Perrineau. How did you find those two actors?

D: Rachel and Aurora are definitely the heart and soul of the movie. We had a lot of submissions came in, we used a casting company in Atlanta. There were about two thousands submissions for each of those roles. Rachel we cast pretty early on based on her audition. She was so much like what’s been described on the page that it was like, ‘yep, that’s her.’

As for Aurora, she came at it from a different angle. Actually, from both of them I learned more about my characters than what I’ve originally written. With Aurora, I had worked with her father, Harold Perrineau, one of my favorite actors. We had done a boxing film together (The Championship Rounds) so I was talking with him about the film and so then I talked with Aurora about it and it just seemed like a perfect match.

R: There’s a certain scene involving a boat in the movie (I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t seen it), but can you talk a bit about filming that day? That must’ve been quite challenging to shoot. 

D: Well, we originally was going to have a rolling, trash can that was burning. But when we got to the set, I was like, no that’d be too subtle, it’s not going to be enough [of an impact]. So we told the producers that we need a bit of spike in the movie, so we had to [spoiler alert (highlight if you want to read it): blow the boat up]. So yeah, we had to do it in one take but we had the fire department there and everything for safety.

R: Your production company, Rushaway Pictures, is a family business. How was working with your parents on this film, the fact that they weren’t in the film business previously? 

D: Well, my dad is a retired army colonel so he handled logistics for 27+ years so it’s a natural progression for him on a movie set. It’s as if he’s meant to be doing that. My mom is a writer. In fact she’s got a book that I’m looking to adapt into a film one day. So both of them are just good with people, they’re good with numbers and all that. So working with them have been such a pleasure. I mean, I don’t really see them as my parents when we’re working together. We’re collaborators and they’re people I obviously can trust.

R: Ok last question. What’s next for you? 

D: Well, I have the thriller I mentioned earlier. But there’s that chicken and the egg dilemma you know. Between getting the actors attached and getting financing, which one you do first. Sometimes you just have to figure out who the investors are before you can start committing to the story that you want to do. So I’ll just see where the wind blows, and we’ll see how this movie does, hopefully it’ll make its money back. So far it’s been well received at film festivals, we’re thrilled about that. Whatever happens, happens. We’re keeping the faith.


Check out the trailer below:


Thanks so much Daniel for chatting with me.


VIRGINIA MINNESOTA is the Opening Night Film of Duluth Superior Film Festival

Wednesday, May 30th
Clyde Iron Event Center
Doors: 7 PM / Film: 8 PM

Director Daniel Stine and lead actress Rachel Hendrix in attendance!

BONUS SCREENING:
Saturday, June 2nd
9 PM at Zinema