Director who launched Jennifer Lawrence now feels "disconnected" from star (exclusive)

Leave No Trace, which tracks an army veteran (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter’s (Thomasin McKenzie) attempts to live away from society is a powerful, poetic and elegiac film, that’s already won plaudits and praise on the festival circuit – and it’s in UK cinemas today.

It’s directed by Debra Granik, who may not necessarily be a household name, but the people she works with definitely are – they generally go on to be huge stars.

Granik launched the careers of Jennifer Lawrence, Vera Farmiga, and she looks to repeat the same trick with Leave No Trace’s Thomasin McKenzie, who’ll follow the film with David Michôd’s Shakespeare flick The King and Taika Waititi’s JoJo Rabbit.

But no-one compares to Jennifer Lawrence, who exploded onto the scene with Granik’s gritty 2010 thriller Winter’s Bone, earning her first Academy Award nomination aged 20, making her the second-youngest actress to ever (at the time) be nominated for Best Actress.

Lawrence went on to have a radical rise of success, but also a lot of darkness as well. Does Granik feel protective of Lawrence after introducing her to the celebrity system? “I feel disconnected because every choice afterwards is her own, and her handlers, and the machinery. No-one conscripted her.”

“She’s a powerful person right now, because of the work she’s done, so if she found it humiliating to be judged by her body, or told to lose inordinate amounts of weight to be more attractive, she now knows she never has to oblige that.”

“She did a good job of developing her skillset to navigate what feels right and good to her. I admire that, I like seeing that growth in someone, it’s exciting.”

Yahoo sat down for a in-depth chat about Leave No Trace with Granik, discussing what it’s like to work within the low-budget end of the film industry.

Yahoo Movies UK: Leave No Trace reminded me of a John Cassavetes film, which I mean as compliment, I love Cassavetes…

Debra Granik: I do too.

…It’s that combination of American neo-realism with the exploration of the working class in a cool, poetic way – is Cassavetes an influence on you?

Oh gosh, yeah, in terms of the way he worked. Without causing grief to people, I wish there was a way to work a little bit closer to how he worked with the smallness of the crew. He reminds me of a weird variant of Mike Leigh – the way he shapes his scripts. The core group of actors he worked with repeatedly had so much to offer him.

That was what was so famous about Husbands, for example. They were riffing – they weren’t filming improv, but the story and the script was developed by the actors interacting.

I admire so much of what he was about, and I also like the fact that he could really appreciate the ‘and’ in people’s lives. You could be a very, very loving mother and have a serious problem going on in your personal life. So many of his characters have that ‘and.’

Cassavetes was very good with actors, and so are you – you look for collaborators when hiring actors, can you talk a little bit about collaborating with Thomasin on this film?

She read the book and she read the script very closely and developed her own ideas, and then was very willing to share her notes. We would sit, she’d have her script open with her notes and I’d have my notes, and we’d be able to have this exchange. She would tell me something she’d like to try, and I’d welcome that. I’d tell her a variation I’d like her to try.

It was important to give her a lot of brochures from the VA, for example. Brochures like ‘What’s it like to be a teen of a combat veteran?’ and ‘What’s it like if your parent is experience PTS?’ She internalised so much of that in such a gentle and respectful way. She was disciplined and very porous and willing to hear input and information.

How do you frame information that you want to give to your actors? Some directors tell the actor exactly how to perform, others are able to get the information over in a more subtle way and allow the actor to come to the decision on their own – how do you work?

I always start with what the actor brings, always. That’s the groundwork, that’s what they’re feeling, that’s what their body says. So to whip that into any other shape almost feels like a violence.

I also like to provide some life models, or some situations that involve real training, which would be akin to other filmmakers who have permitted circumstances for actors to actually do the job or, in this case, it was primitive skills training.

I knew [Ben Foster] had already had discussions with veterans, because of other roles he’s done. So I asked him to keep that in him, I expected him to do that and he did. I came up with a dossier with films and books that had influenced me when I was writing the script.

What kind of influences?

There was a very long-form article that’s actually referenced visually in the film, about a marine unit that was experiencing a very high-rate of suicide, and it was a very beautiful account of what they were doing with the remaining men to keep these guys from leaving this planet. What can we enact? And it wasn’t about drugs – it was about how the drugs hadn’t worked. A parable of history, you can’t make certain injuries go away with drugs, not injuries of conscience.

There’s a Church dance sequence in the film, and it got a laugh in our screening…


… I can see it being read on that level, but for me it didn’t feel like your intention. You weren’t making fun of these people.

It was a risk all along. I love how into it they were, I loved that they were deriving pleasure. I could be derisive, but their pleasure was theirs. They don’t care if you laugh. They may know that you’re laughing because their costume seems strange, or the fact this practice exists seems strange. I wish I could have showed more of the dance. But the fact is, it is an example that’s edgy – it could be a big lampoon, or a joke.

It was a very interesting social moment, even the crew who were nervous that they’d feel judgemental or alienated.

But the women rocked up in their own van, they drove as a unit. They did the dance 17 times, meticulously. They had acquired the music, they’d got a young Christian rock writer to make it, which was priapic.

They said the music has to be anointed. I played them all these older hymns that were public domain and they weren’t feeling it. That classic rock surge meant something to them.

It’s an incredible performance from Thomasin, it felt like a star was being born in front of my eyes. Were you able to see that on set, was there something a bit magical there?

I know when I’m enjoying someone’s work, for sure. That happened with Jennifer [Lawrence], that happened with Vera [Farmiga], so you do feel – amidst the nervousness, and wondering if any of it is working – that I could see for sure that I was responding to what she was putting out.

I was loving what she was doing, but I don’t think in those terms. The words ‘star’ and ‘celebrity’ are very threatening to me, because I’m choosing to work on the margins. I don’t want to be connected to that system, because I can’t do any more work if I’m connected with that system.

Once there’s a star system, the financial stakes become very huge, and the mechanism becomes very large – when you’re dealing with someone who’s got so many layers of representation, and the stipulations that are put onto you. I work in a budget range where I can’t support special accomodations, I can’t afford fancy.

Travelling like a raj with an entourage, the filmmaking caravan can’t be this big expensive endeavor – not if you’re going to tell stories about everyday life, it’s a clash. People who are stars can’t relate to everyday life, or participate in it, so the beat I was assigned, or that I took on, has to happen in a different way.

You introduce people to the system, is there a part of you that wishes you could keep people in the low-budget world?

I don’t need to keep people that need to go onto big things. My trade for that is I want a little bit of financing trust for introducing people. People compliment me and give me props for introducing people, but no-one ever wants to do it on the front end, ever – it’s crazy, nuts!

Leave No Trace is in UK cinemas today.

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