Still Rolling: Debra Granik on the Fight to Make Movies Down in the Dirt


Director Debra Granik hadn’t made a narrative feature film since 2010’s Winter’s Bone delivered a relentlessly thrilling and emotional portrait of a girl struggling to keep her family together against the backdrop of a cruel environment and even crueler neighbors. (That film also launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career.) Now, after the 2014 documentary Stray Dog, Granik is back with her third fiction film, Leave No Trace. It stars Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie as father-daughter survivalists in the Pacific Northwest forced out of their forest tent home and into the modern world, where they must cope with the endless synthetic connectivity of cellphones, computers, credit cards, and more.

Granik says this about that near-decade between her narrative films: “It’s been like psycho-cardio workout on steroids the past eight years.” She had multiple projects up in the air at all times, but more often than not, nobody wanted to give her the money to make a feature. “There’s a disconnect between people liking what me and my colleagues do,” Granik says. “They like the aftermath, but they don’t want to do the before.”

Granik talked a mile a minute with me, discussing bunnies, Homer’s epics, the horror of being poor, and how everything came together for Leave No Trace.

Leave No Trace, like Winter’s Bone, was adapted from a novel. What is it about a book that grabs you and makes you believe it could become a film?

Every reader sees a film on their mind screen, and with Leave No Trace, I went through immediate levels of excitement, visualizing the temperate rainforest of the Pacific Northwest. Why do these two people have allure for me? Why do I want to know if they’re going to make it? You’re in the “why” phase, asking yourself, “What are the themes that this story is stoking?” America is convulsing, and this story is bringing up these hard-hitter ideas. What do we need to be happy? Can we be happy with less? There are obvious references to Walden, and in an era that’s busting out so violently, it felt like a real treat to be able to contemplate [Henry David] Thoreau for a minute, an American who thought differently a long time ago. There used to be nonconforming Americans who were seeking out something else. I want to be spending time in that world for a minute. I want to be immersed.

Thomasin McKenzie told me she was so happy that the production sent her and Ben Foster to weeklong survivalist training in the woods. She said it was a great bonding process for the two actors. It’s a lot to ask a young performer to live off the grid for a week, but she was game. Is that something you require in the people you work with?

I mean, one can’t totally require that. I can want it badly, but if you get an actor who’s already used to working on enormous films with elaborate effects and big budgets, they probably wouldn’t be interested in that immersion. But when you find actors who want to do that, it’s extremely fortuitous. The production has to go to great lengths to do that. It’s not budgeted for at all. “Oh, you really need wilderness survival training for a week?” “Yes, I really, really need that.” It was a grace note that the person who was going to be the teacher was very charismatic. She was the highest-ranking master. She’d done 45 days [in the wilderness] with two tools. Ben and Thomasin both looked up to her.

Both Winter’s Bone and Leave No Trace focus on the bonds between a father and daughter. Is this a fascination of yours?

Bonds will always interest me, and the fact that I adapted two novels that had that in there proves that, I guess. I don’t know in my conscious mind that I’m going to seek out these stories. Maybe I love The Tempest so much that I’m going to seek every father-daughter story. The father-daughter relationship is a very primary access point for a young woman who’s finding out what to emulate or what to differentiate from as they find themselves. Perhaps the mystery of that, and I’ve always thought one of the essential anthropologies that any of us perform, is that we want to know what we are not. As a female-bodied filmmaker, I will spend a huge part of my life trying to understand what it means to share the planet with men. The father-daughter bond is one of those real core ones.

What about moms?

Mothers are actually harder to depict. It’s so loaded — I know that now that I have to wake up a teenager. OK, every female who’s ever parented a person knows you are one of the first lines of weird antagonism and existence that every human being ever has. You are the person who literally woke them up. You had to bear that burden. You had those arrows slung at you every morning, that hairy eyeball slung at you when the alarm went off. There’s a deeper way to get into this, but I think this idea feeds into something that’s prevented a woman from becoming a head of state. Women have had a historical imperative that we’ve constructed, the unfortunate position of being the responsible one, and we don’t know how to get over that construct just yet.

Right. The buzzkill. And both Tom in Leave No Trace and Ree in Winter’s Bone are kind of forced into this role of caregiving, even though they’ve had no children of their own yet. It’s like their first taste of knowing their place in the world.

That ancient proverb about the malleable surviving and the brittle being broken is at play here. As much as many of us want to live by certain convictions, there’s going to be someplace where your best friend — in this case, your daughter — will be the malleable one to get you to the side of flexibility when it’s called upon for survival. I was charmed and delighted when I realized Shakespeare was onto that in The Tempest. He saw how that lovely daughter Miranda could calm the father. The Tempest made me feel very tender for people with great responsibility weighing on them.

How does it feel to know that you launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career? Not to mention Vera Farmiga in Down to the Bone.

The thing is it’s never me that’s doing it, “launching” someone. My added value in the cultural work I perform is to provide a good role for an actor. If I can do that for a young woman, that’s great. I want to see women play multifaceted characters and not have to remove their clothes to do so. What’s great about a girl’s story is what’s going on between her ears. When someone becomes a star or a celebrity, that’s the machinery of an industry. The machinery is so much more formidable than anyone, [George] Orwell, could understand — even the industrial mechanism of capital couldn’t understand the digital mechanism of capital. Think of me as a small artisanal organic farmer who takes heirloom seeds and plants them, and Big Ag is gonna take the thing and they’re gonna blow it up to the point we can’t see it anymore. There’s no launchpad. It’s really being in the dirt in southern Missouri and being in the dirt in the Pacific Northwest, hardscrabble, being there without any bells and whistles, no makeup at all, not trying to represent glamour. And what happens, happens.

What does it mean to get such a positive response to a film, like you did for Winter’s Bone and Down to the Bone before it, but to keep getting stalled in the filmmaking process?

What it means to get a positive response to a film is that you need to keep going. The story you told and the manner in which you told it resonated. They liked the characters, and that gives me this fuel to say, “I don’t have to change.” If it’s not my calling to do a so-called big film, then I can work in the arena I call home, stories around everyday life and people trying to survive.

You’re making smaller movies, but it seems that even that is very difficult to accomplish.

A narrative can’t be made wicked low budget if it’s also a union film. It has to be $4 [million] to $5 million to pay the bills, I mean just the salaries mandated by a union shoot. The subject matters I like to make films about, they don’t measure up on the scales of investability. They’re not worth $4 million. The actors I like don’t carry that price, that trophy. So I can make a documentary, and my producers and I — we call ourselves “still rolling” — we can green-light ourselves. I can make movies like Stray Dog, about a guy whose experiences have left him with a really complicated life. He connects with a Mexican woman, his paramour, who comes with two emo Mexican twins, and you don’t know what’s going to happen — black markets, illegal stuff, love, hate, survival. Being a documentary filmmaker is sort of like being on the music-industry treadmill in [Robert] Altman’s Nashville, where someone you don’t recognize is slightly accelerating the speed of the treadmill. It’s so hard to tell and document our complex nation as it’s happening. I don’t know how the scribes in the Homerian era did it. They were writing about homoeroticism, combat, soldier, consciousness, class, and race, and they’re doing it all in stone and trying to keep up with enormous changes. That’s how it feels right now.

Does it feel somehow calmer being on a narrative film set, then?

Being in the forest and having only one story that wasn’t infinite is refreshing. Monumental narrative twists can happen in a doc, but in a feature you’re not entertaining the possibilities that 99 different things can happen in the end. All the people in your crew have a page that says, “It’s raining, and they’re going to get lost, and they’ll be very cold.” Or, “A social worker is driving them to a farm, and this is the day seventeen Oregonian teenagers are going to bring their bunnies to the 4-H farm.” That’s calm. Prior to that, the teens have triple-confirmed they’re going to bring their bunnies, but certain days of filming a narrative, you get a high seeing the balletic quality of forty of your peers performing their craft when a production is a well-oiled machine. When it’s working, there is a bliss, a high you can feel from seeing people do well together. It’s refreshingly corny. Obviously, there are days when Murphy’s Law is in play, when tears are shed, exquisitely painful days on a production. But there’s just that much goodness from seeing people who can work together.

How much in this film is about your own feelings on technology?

With a story like this, it allows us to get distance and ask, “When did hyper-connectivity become the norm? And to opt out became aberrant?” To opt out of giving your kid a cellphone now is to almost be an unfit parent. Something I cut out of the film was a scene in the social services home, where one of the other teen girls pulls out her cellphone. She’s got 100,000 followers, and it’s in stark contrast to Tom, who doesn’t even know what that means. What does it take for a person to live against the grain today? Why do some Americans seek less? Why do they seek to unencumber themselves? I felt pretty close to some of Henry David Thoreau, because he was asking the same questions — even back then. And it’s harder and harder to decide to extricate yourself. How would you even do that?

I’ve said this before in other places, but you are the director I would most like to see direct a horror film.

You’re lucky, because I’m doing an adaptation of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, and that is a horror movie. Amongst our other wars, we decided to wage a war, for whatever reason, against working people and poor people. It’s an unbelievable assault. The survivors of that are represented in this story by a family on the East Coast. It’s a love letter to post-industrial Jersey. They’re going to survive. They have some tools in their toolkit — salty, hardworking humor. But the crimes against them are a horror story. Why would you do that to people who work forty hours? Why would you make their lives harder? What sadistic forces are at play? What greed fuels that?

A new genre of class horror?

Let’s team up and see that as a valid part of the horror genre. Maltreatment of the poor is a horror. It’s a good thing for me to think about that.


Click here to sign up for our weekly film and TV newsletter.