Immersive Filmmaking

Debra Granik is a feature filmmaker with a history in documentaries. Her previous features are Down To The Bone (2004), starring Vera Farmiga, and the Oscar-nominated Winter’s Bone (2010), with Jennifer Lawrence. She returns with Leave No Trace, a poignant story about a father (Ben Foster) and his daughter (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) who are found living off-the-grid in the Oregon wilderness.

ASFF: Leave No Trace was loosely based in a true story, right?
DG: Originally, yes. There was a very terse article in a Portland, Oregon newspaper that reported that a father and daughter had been found living for a long time undetected in a municipal park on the outskirts of Portland. There was an intervention and what’s known about them stops. It’s a sealed case because she was a minor. The author [Peter Rock, who wrote My Abandonment, the source for Leave No Trace] imagined what would happen to them as the story went on and he turned that over to us to imagine, as we deviated from the second half of the novel.

 ASFF: Was it difficult to find the right girl to play Tom?
DG: A lot of the young women I’d been seeing had already experience in television. They were very urban and very sophisticated beyond their years. Not that Tom is not sophisticated, but it’s a different kind of sophistication…she engaged me in a conversation and showed the lengths that she would go to be a collaborator. That’s what I need in the filmmaking practice that I do.

ASFF: Does that include learning survival skills in the woods with her co-star Ben Foster?
DG: It wasn’t survivalism. It was really primitive skills. Knowing how to forage, what’s safe to eat, how to distinguish a certain kind of mushroom. They consented very much and then made it their own. I was not a part of that. They did the immersion themselves [with an instructor].

ASFF: Can you talk about your work with your cinematographer, Michael McDonough?
DG: He’s a collaborator I’ve worked with on all three narratives. We do these look books together and we look at other people’s films. He carefully selected two sets of lenses. An older set and a faster set. And that enabled him to switch and get different textures. We don’t use any bells or whistles. We don’t light up the forest.

We don’t have that kind of infrastructure for the films we do, but the look was very organic. Some of it was dictated by the story’s metaphors, the built world versus the organic world. The house [they move into] was so rectangular. The social services rooms are utterly rectangular. She sits at a rectangular table. The frames become much more locked down. We used these tried and true brush strokes of photography to explore some of this. And then of course we choose frequently to go hand-held. Much like the Dardennes do. We never try to be hectic. We try to be as stable as we can.

ASFF: Which films influenced you in the making of this?
DG: Broadly, neo-realists from every country. Films that depict everyday life. Girlhood, The Class and Il Posto. 

James Mottram

Leave No Trace opens in cinemas on 29 June. For more details, click here.

1.Leave No Trace film still.