America has always been too vast of a nation to account for all those who willingly go off the grid; in its thickets of forest and endless plains, there are bound to be a few who move to the margins and live off the land, in the great rugged individualist tradition. Be they the rural homeless, ardent survivalists, or various drifters, they isolate themselves from the mores of traditional housing and government rule.
Leave No Trace, Debra Granik’s latest feature, is about just such a pair of people. Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) live a solitary, tightly-knit lifestyle in a national park outside Portland, where their home is a tent and Tom learns a variety of outdoor skills in order to be self-sufficient. Will is a bearded ex-military man with a pool of unknowable despair behind the eyes, but he’s a loving father and the center of Tom’s life. Unmoored from school, community, and wider society, Tom and Will cling to each other even when they are forced off of public land by police and attempt to adjust to an entirely different home. But Will is a broken man—almost monosyllabic with even the kindest strangers, and marked with PTSD that seems to manifest itself most as a paranoiac restlessness.
Granik’s unhurried, deeply naturalistic approach sees her camera linger on the careworn faces of army vets and RV park tenants, and on the wide green canopies of the Pacific Northwest. She’s intent on showing the remarkable kindness of the folks that father-and-daughter encounter on their travails: truck drivers who insist on checking the well-being of their hitchhikers; beekeepers willing to entertain a kid’s curiosity; fellow veterans who offer medical help to their compatriots both physical and mental.
This homespun sensibility is never overplayed, but sees an essential goodness in blue-collar middle America that is notable for its nuance. The film is not explicit about the politics of these marginal Americans—but it doesn’t take much imagination to work out. Will’s ex-military survivalism seems pretty strident, yet he—like all the others—exists outside the realm of the political. The film is all the better for its silence on the subject: the audience is left to mull the great incoherent gulf between the decency and generosity of these people, and their support for the most self-defeating and craven of social policies. It’s no surprise that when a bulldozer comes to raze a makeshift tent city, you can see someone’s stars and stripes being vacuumed into the wreckage.
Although Will is tragically misguided in some respects, he has also successfully raised a bright, curious, caring young girl in spite of it—and in the person of Tom, we are forced to reckon not only with a particular generational divide, but with a deeply American contradiction. Granik has exhibited a depth of feeling for these characters that is fair-minded and gentle, offering a nation’s most broken and isolated progeny a safe fictional harbor in her film.
We met with Debra Granik at the film's premiere at Sundance London to talk about the inspiration for her film, its political under-current, and telling the stories of American veterans.
NOTEBOOK: Seeing this film about people who decide to disappear and live off the grid made me wonder how many others there are out there in America who’ve done that. What brought you to this kind of small pocket of people as a subject for Leave No Trace?
DEBRA GRANIK: The groundwork of how I got those ideas in my head...I’ll refer you to two New York Times articles that were influential in my thinking, because they happened to cross my radar while I was writing the script. The summer before we shot, the headline was, ‘Unprecedented Number of Americans Living in National Parks.’ Which is federal land. And the article went to great lengths to say that it wasn’t just that people were displaced. They weren’t all drug-addled or homeless in that sense of coming out of street living. They’d been priced out of a lot of the mountain resorts. So in the Rocky Mountain National Park, people were living there for months, semi-permanent dwellers. Some detected and some undetected. Years before that, there had been a precedent in the Olympic peninsula, near where we shot. Men from the Vietnam era and soldiers had gone into hiding on federal lands. And that was the kind of legend and lore that influenced me in the film.
So the next headline that struck me was something about many people seeking tiny homes, though there was no legal place to put them. The tiny house movement is quite popular in the Pacific Northwest. So that material [in the film] with the young boy building his own house...that was a boy I met who’s now a man, Isaiah. I met him on Winter’s Bone. He’s from the exact coordinates where we filmed Winter’s Bone, in Southern Missouri. When I called him to ask him to be in this film, I was catching up on his life and he told me, ‘me and my friend are building a tiny house.’ And I said, "tell me about that." He and his friends had this dream that this would be a safe option for extremely minimal financial living.
NOTEBOOK: The Ben Foster character is a survivalist and a veteran. People tend to associate that with a right-wing political stance. Did you feel that was something implicit, or something you actively wanted to avoid depicting?
GRANIK: I read this beautiful long-form article in the New York Times. We actually show it in the film. It’s about this Marines unit that had a huge rate of suicide, and many of the men in that unit—many veterans become very questioning of the war they took part in. It doesn’t necessarily mean across the board that their politics are all the same, at all. And I think this person [played by Ben Foster] actually wanted to opt out of that dialogue. He asked, "if I can live as humbly as I can, by asking very little of the surrounding society, can I be left alone? Could I think my own thoughts? Could I function quietly? Homeschool my daughter?" I don’t think he was necessarily schooling her in political things, but in trying to push back against mass consumerism. To not have to want so much, to have needs proliferate other needs. He’s pushing against having to be very much in constant service to purchasing, and to slave for that money to slave for those things. So I don’t wanna say he’s apolitical, but I will say he was trying to get out of the rigid paradigm of red and blue.
NOTEBOOK: I know you wanted to examine the plight of veterans, who are dealing with so many issues with healthcare and the Department of Veteran Affairs, with mental health, with financial problems. How did you decide to thread that through the film without it becoming overwhelming?
GRANIK: It was a very complex balance, because you don’t want the film put in a box as a film about a veteran. I was slightly traumatized by hearing European people say, after five or eight years, ‘we’re done hearing about the sand wars, about America’s long wars. We feel oversaturated.’ That hit me really hard. It becomes really tricky for vets many years after the war. Many things are waiting, like a balloon payment. They get some treatment right after if they need it, but some people feel like ‘I should be fine now.’ We have a statute of limitations, almost. The consensus is 2-3 years later you should be fine. But what the Vietnam era vets showed was that frequently it was much later in someone’s existence. So what I was interested in was that long after the headlines fade and no one cares anymore, a certain cohort are left holding something inside, walking around with a set of sensations, memories—call them ghosts—and no one cares anymore. I always thought that’s so fickle of any society, to ask that of a warrior class, if you will, and then to really not want to hear anything about it. So that’s the thinking here. This is years after the experience, and he’s been managing, and working out a system—and largely that system was something removed but very organized and using some of his skillset. But I put these pieces of backstory in, and I did not want the veteran issues to usurp the entire film. Because it would have really pushed people away. And also I really couldn’t do it justice.
NOTEBOOK: I wanted to ask you a bit about the strangers that the father and daughter encounter on their journey. Almost all of them are generous and kind, and it’s heartening—American cinema doesn’t have a great record of depicting rural blue-collar people in that light. Did you feel that the film was a corrective, in any way?
GRANIK: I have to say that it just sort of happened. Not to rely on some hooey about a magic script that talks back to you, but was a very forethought decision. It’s very typical to throw social workers under the bus, or depict them as these officious people only invested in brutally removing someone—that’s not the totality. Most people go into social work to try to be of assistance. Most social workers want nothing more than to be of help, to help ferry people past some danger. So upon meeting social workers, I thought it would be a blatant breach—it would be on me. But also as things went along, in the process of trying to scout and make the film, there are so many kindnesses are given, that it became very organic to the film. Maybe we have gone through a difficult time where we expect the worst. So it was helpful even to me to see that there are people who get something from helping. And often it costs very little to help, and they want to.