The new documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” cements the sainthood of Fred Rogers and the value of empathy as a life’s work. It opens Friday at Cinema 21.
Debra Granik centers her movies on the margins of America.
In 2010, she co-wrote and directed Winter’s Bone, a nervy, somehow heartening, and ultimately tremendous Ozark Mountain noir that helped launch the career of Jennifer Lawrence. Four years later, she released an underrated documentary called Stray Dog, returning to backwoods Missouri to profile a burly motorcyclist with PTSD, a tiny army of tiny dogs, and a pair of immigrant stepsons he was helping adjust to a new country.
That’s a small recent sample size as we get into Granik’s latest feature, Leave No Trace, but the precedent was set. In making movies about people on the edges of the country’s social fabric, Granik deploys a quietly journalistic style of storytelling that’s not the least bit polemic or pleased with itself for having found these too-often-ignored stories.
In Leave No Trace — playing now at Cinema 21 and opening Friday at the Hollywood Theatre — Granik follows a father and daughter living isolated in the reaches of Forest Park. The father, Will (Ben Foster), is a veteran reckoning with his past. His daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), is his loyal partner in this insulated world they’ve built for themselves. Their life in the beginning is simple yet ingenious, peaceful but headed for a reckoning as Tom grows up, Will self-medicates, and society inevitably encroaches. When rangers discover them in the park, an unpretentious and empathy-building drama ensues.
I talked to Granik this week on my podcast, Be Reel. You can listen to the episode and read the Q&A version of the interview below. In addition to describing her process as a filmmaker interested in community and fear, Granik also details all the help she received from Portland locals in making Leave No Trace: from the formerly unhoused to survival guides to acclaimed musicians.
Chance Solem-Pfeifer: So many of your movies find their way to a scene of people playing music outdoors or in community. What’s the significance of that?
Debra Granik: If someone’s going to make a film in a region, which I like to do, I like to at least note what music is played in that region. For the Pacific Northwest, that’s very hard because it’s an epicenter of rich, diverse music. In one of the early versions of the script, Tom walked by this evening concert put on by the Girls Rock Camp. I was thinking that music would be so relevant for her.
CSP: Yeah, for that character at that moment in her life.
DG: Exactly, that she could be like, “Oh, so this is what other teen girls might be doing?” We lost that section of the script early on, and then I wondered when she gets to this rural community [near the end of the movie], what do they do to enrich their lives occasionally? A campfire or a guitar can be brought out. You don’t need financial resources to sprinkle life with good things.
A revered and loved singer from the Pacific Northwest, Michael Hurley, is in that scene. Mississippi Records hooked us up with him. The other musician, who’s also very loved and has a very widespread following, is Marisa Anderson. She’s on guitar. As modern as we get, as ones-and-zeroes as we get, we still respond to musical notes going through our ear canals, into our brains, and making us feel usually good.
CSP: So let me ask a question about the cinema of not feeling good. There’s a scene in the film where Tom and her dad are hiking north through Washington, and the temperature is rapidly dropping. It reminded me of the scene in Winter’s Bone in the livestock pen where there’s nothing graphically horrifying happening, but it’s just so run through with fear. How do you prepare to shoot a scene like that?
DG: I’m so trying to cultivate that. Things can threaten us very much so, but it doesn’t have to come in the form of a firearm or a knife to the neck. It’s getting in touch with fragility. With hypothermia, you don’t have to be on Everest. Once a person’s clothing is wet, it’s very difficult to restore heat. The more I heard from survival experts, it’s time sensitive. That’s why the characters stuff ferns into their clothing. They need to trap body heat, anything you can do to create an insulating wall.
CSP: But how do you create that feeling as a director, beyond just portraying the circumstance? There’s a lot of editing in that scene…
DG: Yeah, that scene had to be done in a lot of different stages. We also had to show a time progression. It had to get darker. It had to get colder. Tom had to become more fatigued by the stiffness of her body and the loss of heat. The director of photography has his imperative: the loss of light, blue tones. Ben [Foster] had read a lot about hypothermia too. Thom also was privy to that. [Survival guide] Nicole Apelian was telling them blow by blow what would happen. It’s a group effort. I’m just the coordinator that night.
CSP: For my money, it seems like one of the hardest things to pull off for an actor of any age is a realization that lasts the whole movie. And Thom McKenzie pulls it off so beautifully, this learning something about herself and about the world and about the only person in her life. That’s the whole character arc. How do you pace and develop and divvy that up?
DG: In this story, something very helpful to that divvying is that it’s told in very discreet chapters and based on location. So we shot in order. We follow those sections closely, so that’s helping. Her first exposure to the outside world, for example, in Clackamas … she’s observing. She’s being an anthropologist that day, watching devotional dancers. Her absorbing these things is part of her arc.
Part of her arc at the cabin later is to experience a sense of abject fear because he’s not returning. It’s the fear of the vacuum. Her aloneness becomes amplified. Then, she’s activating to help her father. She has to put down some of the things he’s told her about about what strangers might mean. I’m going to present myself and ask bluntly and urgently for help.
CSP: One of the local resources I had heard about you using on this film was this man who spent several years living unhoused in Washington Park…
DG: Yeah, Ben [Hodgson]! He was at the screening last night.
CSP: Oh, that’s great. So he had this solar egg cooker? How did you run across him? What did you talk to him about?
DG: We met him through [Laura Moulton], who founded this mobile library in Portland. [Street Books; learn more here.] Ben was an important informant. He showed us some places very specifically. He told us his method for keeping himself going at that time was to learn things, and in the last phase of living outdoors, he cultivated that.
CSP: There’s a lot of ingenuity in this story in general.
DG: There really us. And the rangers told us of other instances where someone had bermed-in a teepee in a really steep and rugged part of Forest Park. The back wall of the teepee was actual earth. This individual was, I believe, undetected for a very long time.
And in Clackamas, there was this legendary guy — I think they called him “Indian Joe” or something. And the rangers had this affinity, because if someone is trying this hard to be undetected, it’s almost like you wanna let them be, you know? I always called it the “low-key Yetis” of the Pacific Northwest. I was wondering if that legend took off here because there really are nonconforming souls who live in places like the Olympic Peninsula … it was touching on my heart this idea that what we call Bigfoot could be an individual trying really hard to live outside the norm.
CSP: I feel like since the 2016 election, there’s been a lot of moralizing talk about people in cities taking in the stories of people in rural places. And I think a lot of the talk is well intentioned, but some of it without a lot of thoughtful “how.” Your movies would seem to fit this bill, but they’re not moralizing at all…
CSP: [laughs] No, I mean it! It makes your work very complex and wonderful to watch. But what is your best hope for what a movie like Leave No Trace can do for an audience’s psychologies and emotions and views?
DG: At its best, it reflects that when people can do something to assist another person, mostly likely they will. Not everyone derives pleasure from a story where sadism is enacted. Not everyone is out to get one another. That’s a very important part of the community at the end of the movie. It’s an American tradition to allow eccentricities to live. I feel like that’s when we’re at our best, giving some space for people to live with less if they want, if they want to pull out from the digital network.
I’m very concerned about when people are priced out of places, where do they go? That doesn’t have a color, meaning red or blue. That’s everywhere. That’s all states. That’s every zip code. This film actually started to become a real headbanger from me in the writing and research. Where do people go when they’re priced out?