A Q&A with Leave No Trace’s Debra Granik
Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace is the harrowing story of a father, Will (Ben Foster), and daughter, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), who live outside society and off the grid. But then they’re pulled back in—and almost pulled apart in the process.
Granik won wide acclaim for her 2010 feature Winter’s Bone, which was set in rural Missouri. Leave No Trace, adapted from Peter Rock’s 2009 novel My Abandonment, is set in the lush landscapes of the Pacific Northwest and has been described as a war film, albeit one in which no shots are fired; Will is a veteran whose antipathy for society, and his efforts to protect his daughter from its machinations, can be tied directly to his traumatic experiences in the military. The film, which opened on June 29, has been hailed as “a deeply affecting story” by the New York Times and “an essential, shattering drama” by the Atlantic.
Topic’s Mahalia Cohen sat down with Granik to talk about the film’s themes, the father-daughter relationship at its core, and some of its key inspirations—from Shakespeare to the survivalist expert working on set.
What drew you to My Abandonment and inspired you to make this film?
I was really drawn to the region and the environment in which it was set. I was very drawn in by the idea that the forest would be this place of pattern and texture—really photogenic. And [it was] very feasible, in that it didn't require some specialized location. I love that the story was everyday enough that it could be filmed in some ordinary ways.
There’s an interesting mystery of how this family lives undetected in the woods.
And what would happen if they were detected? I liked the wondering about how Tom would fare in this environment—what would she have in place in her life, or what would they have in place in their lives? What would be really hard about it? [The film poses] continual questions about how we decide how we're gonna live and what suits different people. It's about that pleasure of inquiry, really.
But that always leads to a reflection on the times and the cultural choices we make. There are some people, including myself, who wonder, “What is the totalizing effect of social media and the way we're living with hyperconnectivity?” And Will is someone who really wants to deviate and pull out from some of that. I thought that was fascinating.
Can you talk about the difference between the isolation they’re looking for at the beginning of the film and the community that Tom finds for herself at the end?
Well, the model for this was that I had done some filming and a documentary down in northern Missouri. And what I loved was the idea that, in a very humble place, with very small dwellings, some people could practice a kind of live-and-let-live feeling. What we call “non-conformers” could make a little village or something. It felt very idyllic or fable-like.
There seems to be a theme running throughout your work of a parent who's struggling to maintain despite their own struggles—and a child who tries to have their own life, apart from that. It seems like it's mostly been mothers, but was there something different about it being a father character in Leave No Trace?
I don’t want to generalize a mother-father difference. But I think that, to Will, fatherhood means [being a] teacher—a guardian and provider. And he can only do those things up to a point, and do them in the confines of the forest. He can't do it as well outside. He can't do it when it requires interacting with the common forces of other people in the city. He opted out of [sending Tom to] school; he made a decision to homeschool her. So I think one way that he stays grounded and defines his self-worth is by being this very primary teacher. Once that gets disrupted, I think he is very unsure of how to be a meaningful companion—a meaningful parent to his daughter. In some ways, his parenthood is very fragile. It exists within a system in which he does well, but doesn't have any flexibility.
Often a single father on film is portrayed as a martyr.
Right. Whereas if it’s a mother, it’s almost like, “Well, that’s just normal.” But this father is sort of a foil to [his daughter’s] emancipation, right? Because once she's determined that she's wired differently from him, and functions differently than he does, and that it's gonna get serious ... in that way, he becomes one of the obstacles that she needs to understand how to work with in order to go to the next stage of her life. So, on some level, [her relationship with] her father is her first monumental learning of selfhood. And it kinda comes at his expense.
Did you want to keep Will’s backstory somewhat secret?
I was very interested in the fact that you don't get much of a backstory, but you get very distinct clues that he is grappling with post-traumatic stress. He has some traits that are very frank manifestations of that hyper-vigilance. And he has to be so careful. His daughter probably feels very responsible, without even knowing how responsible she feels, to try to keep that from becoming paranoia, right? She’s explaining things to him, or interpreting, clarifying. She is aware that there's something that wakes him up in the night that causes night terrors. She's taken it upon herself to distract him from that.
The way that his neurochemistry and psychology work make him a vulnerable person. But part of his self-worth is also derived from being very skilled at certain things: practicing until he gets them right, being able to perform certain survival tasks and skills. These are the things that make him feel on top of his game—you know, that he can show his daughter things.
Another thing that was very important to include was that he's very consumed with this notion of thinking your own thoughts. At one point in the script [development], it was bigger that he was someone who really enjoyed thinking about Henry David Thoreau and Walden—he aligned himself with them, and felt good about previous Americans who had wondered, How little do I need? What could I live with and still find meaning? What is it that I actually need? That, to me, was a really interesting part of him. I would say there's a sort of intellectual rigor to the way he's trying to figure out what it is that gives life meaning.
He has constructed a way of life that he can sustain: with his very small disability check, he can buy enough groceries for them. When he says to Tom, "Your appetite is growing," he’s asking: with the very meager benefits they have, will they still be able to continue? Do they have enough money to buy food?
And her appetite maybe not just for food, but for everything.
Yeah. Because of the precision of the way of life that he's set up, the budget is tight. The place they live is not sanctioned. But when it works well, it can be a very exhilarating and very heightened way of life.
But it requires them to share it.
Without his daughter, he could become a hermit that we would never, ever see. One thing that really inspired me was a passage from The Tempest. I saw The Tempest when I was working on one of the drafts, and there’s an exchange between Miranda and Prospero that is basically something like, “Am I not a bother to you?” That’s what Miranda says to her father. To which Prospero replies, “No, without you I wouldn’t even know how to ground myself.” She knows how to quell his tempests, you know? That’s one of the things that teen Miranda had learned about her father while they've been sequestered on this island.
Were there other inspirations for this kind of isolated life?
Some people have lived through very monumental stretches of solitude. Yet even at the time of Thoreau’s journals, there was a way in which the idea of “communing with nature” had become such a cliché. But we know there are real accounts in which nature has really moved people. I remember a beautiful description by Bill McKibben, the author and environmentalist: he remarked on the fact that when you're in a natural setting, there's a way in which for hours, days, or years, you could feel not lonely, because there would be so many moving creatures around you.
In Will’s case, his fatherhood is, I think, the key thing that allows him to commit to this very extreme and effort-laden way of being an adult: being responsible for this young person. And I think that fathers do not often, or as readily, take that position, and they aren’t often offered it. Whenever a father is a single parent, I am interested in looking at how that plays out, and how that seems different from the experience I'm most familiar with, which is the experience of a mother being the single parent.
While gender isn’t necessarily discussed in the film, there is a fluidity to it, especially when confronting the wilderness.
There’s an odd serendipity that the actor playing the daughter’s real name would be Thomasin. That's how we ended up with the name Tom. I always think about “tomboy,” “tomgirl,” and what those words mean today, when we even have more sophisticated terms in the nonbinary lexicon.
It’s high time for other kinds of gender. But still, in terms of how the majority of people are socialized, I think binaries are still very much in play. But then, Will is doing some of these more “masculine” arts, right? You know, the fire building, the use of the knife. But she's doing all those things, too. And she can do all of it.
The person that taught [the actors for the film] was this master skills survivor named Nicole Apelian, who once lived in the woods for over 50 days with two tools. You know, truly on an island. She was in a more remote place than they ever went [in the film]. These are not masculine arts.