Leave No Trace
by director/co-writer Debra Granik
As I worked on Leave No Trace—reading the novel upon which it’s based, researching, writing many drafts, scouting locations, exploring the outskirts of Portland, meeting with local informants and actors—the USA was going through enormous changes.
Acrimony among communities that have been pitted against one another in order to advance the interests of our greediest corporations and individuals was steadily dismantling the last vestiges of national discourse about everything crucial to human existence. I was processing all of this as I forged ahead in making the film. The behavioral norms that the characters were questioning, and the social conformity that they were opting out of in this story were becoming more relatable, and my esteem and compassion for the characters was growing. Working on this film was a powerful antidote to the depressing politics of our time. The communal act of filmmaking requires intense camaraderie, which we enacted amidst what remains of the Pacific Northwest’s grand and glorious forests, which are awe-inspiring in themselves, renewing one’s ardor for our continent and our entire home. The Northwest has a legacy of inhabitants who seem profoundly invested in humane existence, who are brave enough to try alternatives, and many who are willing to live with a conscience in relationship to the natural world. On most days making this film felt like hiding out with truly good people, with a little distance from the dark days of a new regime.
Leave No Trace tells the story of two people who forge their own path, with no villain in the tale. There are a handful of core themes in literature and film that we learn. But right now, it seems that stories that rely on direct threats of violent bodily harm, annihilation, and high-stakes crimes are what get almost all the attention. I’m curious about our appetite for stories that don’t rely on violent actions but still have strong resonance. Several people, all of them strangers, help this father and daughter, Will and Tom, along the way, but the tension remains high because of how they choose to live. The forces that oppose them are not exerted by any malevolent character, but by things that are hard to see—the pressures of social conformity, and also the way that personal growth gradually changes what we need from each other. There were compelling mysteries here—how did these two manage to live undetected for so long, and what will happen next? I love a story that makes me wonder.
In this story, adapted from the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock, the stakes are physical and existential survival. When Tom and her father are evicted from public land and don’t have a safety net, those are high stakes. Where do people who don’t fit neatly into the mainstreams of our culture go, and how do they fare?
Working on this story I was also drawn to the intricate dynamic between Tom and her father. After they are relocated from the park, where they knew how to structure their lives in relation to one another, they are pushed to learn more about themselves when forced into the wider world. Tom’s need for emancipation ultimately requires something from her father. That is something universal that we all have to navigate, but which we do in our own ways. Since coming of age can require that a person cleave themselves from those they are closest to, it’s always high stakes in terms of how hard that can be.
In this film I also needed to come back to some ideas I explored with a veteran from Southern Missouri in a previous film, the documentary Stray Dog. The experiences of veterans, especially things they’re still carrying years after the war, are a part of being American that knocks at my conscience. Now it’s getting to be long after our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began, the time when civilians begin to forget, and veterans are left holding the bag. In My Abandonment, Will’s veteran identity was something that Peter Rock had embedded in the novel. When we got to Portland to research, scout the locations, and meet people in the area, I was able to go deeper into the issues that Will wrestles with, through the help of several vets who advised on the film based on their personal experiences. David J. Morris’ book The Evil Hours, about his experience as a Marine with post-traumatic stress (PTS), and Ron Hall, a Vietnam era vet who was the subject of Stray Dog, also provided insight and inspiration.
A big joy in making this film was the collaboration with the Oregon crew, who know how to work in the rain, and the fortuitous connection with actors who were willing to throw their all into outdoor survival training, and into a deep connection with the Pacific rainforest and with one another.
Ben Foster and Tom McKenzie both immersed themselves in the training provided by one of the Pacific Northwest’s master outdoor survival experts, Nicole Apelian, who taught the actors the basics of wilderness living and survival skills. They learned to make fires in the rain, find water where there’s no obvious source, and survive the night in cold and wet. Thomasin McKenzie became adept with her knife, while Ben committed to using a ferro rod, which is a way to light fires without matches, by scraping a rod made of ferrocerium, an alloy that produces ultra-hot sparks, with your knife.
Apelian also covered how to blend in when they go into town—being a ‘gray man’ in the way they carry themselves, change clothes, wipe moss off of each other. We walked through the woods to see the ways in which you don’t leave trails; when a route is being used too much, you switch so that no one can follow you.
Ultimately, I found this story romantic and moving for its central question that the characters pose: how in this digital era do we ever regain the ability to think our own thoughts? I loved the characters of this tale for trying.