At a moment when many are struggling to sift through their own feelings of empathy and upset, filmmaker Debra Granik knows what to prioritize.
While acknowledging she has been pleased and surprised by the responses her new film “Leave No Trace” has generated since its Sundance Film Festival premiere earlier this year, Granik hastens to add, “this is in the midst of course of my heart hurting most days ... because of what we’re going through as a country.
“I always have to include that, because, simultaneous to my personal feelings of feeling active and alive with my work, I feel very upset as an American,” Granik said. “It’s funny, your happiness is contingent on a bigger picture besides just yourself.”
That ability to move between a granular specificity of intimate detail and a broader thematic sweep is on fine display in “Leave No Trace,” which sits at 100% “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes a week out from its limited release on June 29.
As the film opens, a father and his teenage daughter are attempting to live off the grid, camped out in a vast park on the edges of Portland, Ore. Ben Foster plays military veteran Will opposite newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie as his daughter Tom, and the duo find their careful, rugged existence disrupted after they are discovered and brought in by authorities, suddenly faced with a new struggle for survival.
Directed and co-written by Granik, the movie is adapted from Peter Rock’s novel, “My Abandonment,” which was itself based on a true story. “Leave No Trace” also marks something of a return for Granik, who won the 2010 Sundance Grand Jury Prize with her previous fiction feature “Winter’s Bone.” That project went on to earn four Academy Award nominations including best picture and helped launch Jennifer Lawrence to stardom.
In the years since Granik released the 2014 documentary “Stray Dog,” about a military veteran and biker, she has in many ways seemed herself off the grid, away from the hustle of the festival world and the ever-changing business of independent film. It seems she has returned at just the right time with a film that explores family, trauma, connection and understanding of others at a moment when those are very much on the minds of many.
“I think in some ways that is the balm of stories, of fables, of tales,” she said. “It’s the way we’re wired. We have always needed to distill what we’re going through and try to understand it by looking either backwards or forwards. And the hardest is to look in the now.”
New Zealand-born Harcourt McKenzie, who had a small role in “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” and will soon be seen in Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit,” was well aware that comparisons to Lawrence, nominated for an Oscar for “Winter’s Bone,” would inevitably follow her breakout performance here.
“I had seen ‘Winter’s Bone’ a long time before I auditioned for ‘Leave No Trace,’” said McKenzie, now 17. “So that was definitely always in the back of my mind. And the thought did cross my mind that Jennifer Lawrence was in Debra’s last fiction movie, so I [had] to be amazing.
“But in preparing for interviews and the different festivals I also wanted to make it clear to the public and to myself that we’re two very different people and very different actors,” she added. “And although she’s an incredible person — she’s funny and dorky and cool and really talented — I’m not her. I love her, I think she’s awesome, and definitely that comparison has been very present in this whole journey. [But] it’s important to remember that we’re individuals.”
For Foster, who won a Spirit Award for his performance in “Hell or High Water,” playing Will was appealing in part for the way in which it allowed him to continue the exploration of the lives of veterans as he has done with projects including “The Messenger,” “Lone Survivor” and “Rampart.”
Foster also forged a deeply personal connection to the role, as his then fiancée, now wife, Laura Prepon was pregnant with their first child at the time of production and was able to travel with him to Oregon for the shoot.
“It felt like perfect timing,” said Foster. “So I’d go to work imagining a life with my 16-year-old daughter and come home and feel my daughter kicking inside my wife’s belly. It was a beautiful time, to ask questions of what it’s going to be like, how am I going to be as a father, what’s the best way to raise a being in this world. They’re completely linked at this point. And making this film, I would go to work with one idea every day, that this would be a valentine for her someday, this is a little poem to make before her arrival.”
Granik’s deeply collaborative method in working with her actors meant that as the connection grew between Foster and Harcourt McKenzie as performers, they needed to say less and less with words. Granik even allowed them to strip out dialogue they agreed was unnecessary.
Part of the bonding came from something Harcourt McKenzie introduced to Foster: a traditional Maori greeting known as “hongi” that involves touching foreheads and embracing. It became something the pair would sometimes do off-screen to prepare for scenes and ultimately found its way onscreen as a gesture between Will and Tom.
“She’s definitely not a controlling director,” said Harcourt McKenzie. “She’s got a lot going on in her head and she knows how she wants it, but she’s a real collaborator and she’s able to take in other people’s ideas and work with it.”
“She’s the most intense director I’ve ever worked with,” said Foster. “Watching her on set is like watching someone trying to save their own life. Everything matters. And not necessarily for where she thinks it should go, but she’s hunting something authentic. That’s a very different way of working.”
The unvarnished emotional urgency of Granik’s work feels particularly vital at the moment, and so with luck the gap between “Leave No Trace” and Granik’s next projects will not be quite so long. She is currently working on another doc and also preparing a fictional adaptation of Barbara Ehrenreich’s nonfiction book “Nickel and Dimed.”
The ending of “Leave No Trace” is heartbreaking in multiple ways, as Tom and Will find themselves heading in opposite directions. Yet the strength of their bonds and their love is such that it is unbearable to think of them separated, and the film’s final moments take an enigmatic turn.
“I’m not trying to make an annoying, teasing ending that frustrates people,” Granik said. “But it wreaks havoc on me personally. I’d love to jump out from being the maker to the audience, to be part of [everyone who] wonders about the stories. I’m someone who’s always looking for hope — if there’s a ray of hope, a shrapnel, shred, a flake of hope — because I take the misfortune or hard times of others very seriously.”