Born in Massachusetts, raised outside Washington D.C. and a resident of New York, director Debra Granik has lived a filmmaking life more intrepid than her own. Her films, fictional and documentary, have taken place in upstate New York, rural Missouri and, now, the Oregon woods.
“I come from what they call the land of nowhere. I’m from the suburbs,” said Granik in recent interview. “It’s extremely atomizing. So your search is: I’m born on this very narrow path. You have to knock on the door like a nerdy documentary filmmaker. What’s it like to be on your path? Can I be there for a minute?”
There are paths figurative and literal in Granik’s latest, “Leave No Trace.” It’s about a survivalist father (Ben Foster), an Army veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder and his teenage daughter (the New Zealand-born newcomer Thomasin McKenzie). They live off the grid in a nature preserve outside Portland, foraging off the land in an isolated idyll. But their shelter is discovered by authorities, and they’re forced reluctantly into a more conventional life.
“Leave No Trace,” which opens Friday, was a hit at both the Sundance and Cannes film festivals, where Granik last month joined a reporter in a beachside tent alongside Forster and McKenzie. The film has been met with similar raves as Granik’s previous fiction film, the Oscar-nominated Ozarks drama “Winter’s Bone,” which was the world’s introduction to Jennifer Lawrence.
“Winter’s Bone” was also a breakthrough for Granik, but one she didn’t seek to capitalize on the way some filmmakers might. In the eight years since, Granik has made only one other feature: the outstanding, stereotype-busting 2015 documentary “Stray Dog,” about a burly, Harley-riding Vietnam vet she met, and cast, while making “Winter’s Bone” in Missouri.
Granik has instead carved her own unique path in an industry that has come under criticism for consistently overlooking female directors for the biggest productions. But blockbusters aren’t what the resolutely indie 55-year-old filmmaker wants.
“It’s not the sexual time’s-up. It’s the financial time’s-up, and not even ‘pay me,'” said Granik.”`It’s: The movies don’t have to be so big and bloated. Bring down the bloat, the behemoth. It can be lighter.”
So amid the cacophony of summer movies, in between dinosaurs and superheroes, is the tender and earthy “Leave No Trace,” a movie about eking out a humble, quiet life on the edges of crowded, commercial society — right where Granik thrives.
“People that need a high kill ratio don’t have to come. It’s OK because we didn’t borrow so much money to make this,” Granik said. “If they want to see an American who’s working hard to keep his nobility intact and his daughter who’s really trying to understand him and figure out her life trajectory, then they can come and rap with us. Some people have to remain at the margin so that some of the offerings are about the margin.”
“Leave No Trace,” adapted from Peter Rock’s 2009 novel “My Abandonment,” was shot in and around Portland. Foster and McKenzie participated in pre-production wilderness survival training, which doubled as their rehearsal. Instead of work-shopping their dialogue, they learned about making fires, building shelters, eating mushrooms and working with knives.
“With most collaborators, you talk at them and they talk at you, and you go your separate ways,” said Foster. “This particular environment lent itself to being quiet together, doing shared tasks. In that way, it wove us. There was a physical, energetic shorthand that was developed.”
Cast over Skype, it was the first time McKenzie, 17, was in the United States since she was 6 years old. The acclaim for her performance in “Leave No Trace,” along with a few high-profile upcoming projects (Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit,” “The King” opposite Timothee Chalamet) has led to JLaw-like breakthrough chatter for the young actress.
McKenzie brought her own ways of preparing for a scene.
“We did a traditional Maori greeting touching noses and foreheads, being comfortable and intimate and not embarrassed about it,” said McKenzie. “My mum’s an acting coach and she’s got a technique called ‘hug to connect.’ So we would just hug each other for a minute or two to get into the rhythm of each other’s breath and heartbeat.”
Foster, the intense 37-year-old actor of “Hell or High Water” and “The Messenger,” is also a city dweller in New York. But he vividly described how trees have always been “medicinal to me” by recalling a spiritual experience he once had lying beneath a fallen Redwood. While making “Leave No Trace,” Foster found he increasingly identified with his character.
“It was such an intense shooting process and such an intense time at home. When I read the script, me and my fiancee found out she was pregnant,” said Foster, who recently wed the actress Laura Prepon. “Then we found out it was going to be a girl. So readying this script was so deeply moving and frightening. Frightening because this film is in many ways saying goodbye to many things, sometimes the person closest to us.”
That “Leave No Trace” was such a personal experience for both actors is a testament to Granik as a filmmaker. And the film — character-based, off-the-beaten-path — reflects Granik, herself. She even considered flying Ron Hall, the “Stray Dog” star, for a pivotal scene at an RV park. But that might have been leaving too much of a trail for a filmmaker of masterly sleight-of-hand.
“The ferns we trod on and trampled, we were happy to know — the ranger assured us — that in two weeks they would be robust again,” said Granik before adding, a little regretfully: “We did have to maul ferns.”