Debra Granik’s social-realist films, concerned with people living on the margins of mainstream American culture, abound in engrossing and enlightening details. And like her 2014 documentary Stray Dog, about a burly Vietnam vet, Ron Hall, who’s all about creating nurturing communities, Granik’s three narrative features to date focus on individuals leading hardscrabble lives. The first two, Down to the Bone and Winter’s Bone, catapulted Vera Farmiga and Jennifer Lawrence, respectively, to stardom. And her latest, Leave No Trace, which features another veteran—Ben Foster’s Will—at its center, may just do the same for Thomasin McKenzie.
In the film, the 17-year-old New Zealand actress plays Tom, the severely traumatized Will’s teenage daughter. Both live off the grid outside Portland, Oregon, until authorities arrest Will for squatting illegally in a public park and attempt to re-acclimate him and his daughter to “normal” society.
Last week, I talked with Granik at her publicist’s office in New York. Animated, sincere, and intensely committed to her every word, she spoke of the importance of kindness, why her films tend to launch female actors into stardom, and what she, a liberal Northeastern artist, has learned from her work about how to connect with likely Trump voters in America’s heartland.
We just accept that films like yours will play at festivals and art houses and won’t garner big audiences even when they get great reviews, but sometimes I wonder why. Do you think it’s because most people don’t want to watch stories about people who are living in poverty or on the margins of society?
I think so. One of the things that’s hard to argue with, and I think about this all the time, is that the main way we see the word “movies” is as entertainment, right? If one is going for escape or time out or relaxation, to see social realism is—if you’re living it, or even if you’re from a very different sort of social class and you’ve just never felt at ease with the way the economic culture is structured, on top of everything else you deal with, it can be hard to go seek that. It’s not really entertainment any more.
Also, we’ve cranked up and celebrated and gotten really invested in bloodlust, the idea of being jolted by physical violence, and you actually need to keep jacking it up. If a violent scene starts to be four minutes, what happens when it starts to be seven? And then 11? I remember my kid asking while watching Wonder Woman why one battle scene was so long. That film was supposed to kind of go against the grain, you know? And I said, “Once they’ve put that much money into the infrastructure of creating that battle, they have to amortize it.” It has to be there for 11 minutes.
But a big philosophical question that’s racking my brain is: Besides the taste for blood, which we’ve established, do we have a taste for stories that don’t use physical violence as the primary threat? To see how a person withstands setbacks and navigates around difficult obstacles of pay, finance, rent, whatever it is? It’s hard to peel back from that hydrocortisone.
I get the feeling that you’re passionately invested in the films you make. Are you partly motivated by telling stories you think are important for other people to hear, or so you just find stories you feel you need to tell?
It’s much more the latter. To try to anticipate an audience, what they can and cannot deal with, what might resonate, is the work of the big industry. They calculate. They do testing. They try to do something that gives everyone different things. Our posse [of independent filmmakers] is schooled that you’ve got to be interested yourself. Not because it’s all about you, but because that’s the only calibration point you have. There’s no way I’m so unique that the questions that are on my mind aren’t also on the minds of other people that I inhabit a society with. And the other beat is so heavily done! The beat of the affluent, the opulence, Generation Wealth. That beat is so well done by Kardashian TV, Us, all the ways the big system operates.
Right now, I’m catching up with a lot of social-realist films, and I’m loving it. I’m asking why, in the ’30s and ’40s, did people watch the films of William Wellman or I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang or The Best Years of Our Lives? Steinbeck. King Vidor. Why did people tune into the lives of everyday Americans? It’s helpful to know that, in a country that makes self-esteem contingent on your material acquisition, there’s nobility also in having the fortitude to survive a scrappy life, or a life that isn’t given to you off the fat of the land, where you’ve worked very hard for what you have or just to survive. Nobility outside the glamor that our country privileges.
That nobility is definitely in your films. So is a faith in generosity, which is part of what makes them feel realistic. There’s a kind of cynicism in most blockbuster films that says the only way we can resolve conflict is by killing or fighting each other. But the social workers who force Tom and Will to leave the woods in Leave No Trace genuinely want to help them, not just punish them. In fact, they actually do help Tom, in a roundabout sort of way. And that feels true to the way the world works: Most people try to do the right thing and to help one another, even if they don’t always succeed.
Right. And there are endorphins that are released when you help people, so it’s not even just a self-satisfied little “I did good.” We actually get a little positive jolt out of that. I worry a lot about the conditions of others. Part of the intensity of being a New Yorker is that you’re constantly exposed to all the ways in which life can be tremendously challenging. You see it in the schools, in every realm of daily life. It’s a lot. So, when I see something that shows that things can work, that what’s good for you can be good for me, when there’s amelioration, when there’s kindness, those are like my jellybeans that go into my basket. [laughs] I’m seeking those things, for sure. It’s the counterbalance to feeling that things are a real struggle, especially when things get very dark on a national level, if you don’t want to believe that there’s nothing but snark, there’s nothing but rage, there’s nothing but feeling so alienated.