Oscar Nominated 'Winter’s Bone' Director & Writer, Debra Granik Discusses Neo-Realism & How Festivals are a Lifeline for Independent Filmmakers


Oscar Nominated 'Winter’s Bone' Director & Writer, Debra Granik Discusses Neo-Realism & How Festivals are a Lifeline for Independent Filmmakers

Students Preview Critically Acclaimed 'Leave No Trace'

Oscar nominated director and writer, Debra Granik enthralled NFTS students with a visit to talk about her new film, Leave No Trace, which was the closing night film at Sundance London, (UK general release 29th June). The students were treated to a preview of the critically acclaimed film, which centres on a father and army veteran suffering from P.T.S.D and his daughter and their quest to live off-grid.

The Guardian describes the film as “intelligent, complex, finely tuned and observed” and The Telegraph hails it as an “irresistible tale of one man’s attempt to escape modern life.”

Debra directs and writes fiction features and documentaries and is best known for her 2010 movie, Winter’s Bone, which received four Oscar nominations including ‘Best Picture’ and ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’.

The masterclass was hosted by NFTS Head of Screen Arts, Sandra Hebron who introduced the session by describing Leave No Trace as “moving and absorbing” and asked Debra how she approached the adaptation of the film from the novel, My Abandonment by Peter Rock.

Debra was particularly attracted to the father and daughter, Ben and Tom, in the book (played by Ben Foster and Thomasin Harcourt McKensie): “I liked the two characters; particularly the inner turmoil of the dad. I’m interested in combat veterans and how they find it hard to navigate normal life. The daughter is also interesting as, due to the way they live, she is able to ask open questions about society that people don’t usually get to ask.”

Debra advised the students how important it is to ensure the novelist recognises that the film will be “a new version of their story”. “I took pretty big liberties with the adaptation. I got permission to deviate through conversation with Peter, the author who understood that the film was catering for a different audience. I did about a dozen drafts of the script, all of which exploring a different way of sculpting what had happened to them. By the end, one version seemed to stick the most.”

Sandra remarked that you don’t often see the idea of kindness to strangers explored much in contemporary cinema. Debra agreed: “In the novel there were more nefarious characters but I wanted to focus on human kindness thinking that maybe there are a few other people like me who need a brief holiday from death and destruction!”

Talking about the influence of neo-realism on her work, Debra explained how she cast both professional and non professional actors in Leave No Trace and her other films. She delved into the “very rich world” of the 4-H club for Leave No Trace (an organisation administered by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture of the United States Department of Agriculture to engage youth to reach their fullest potential): “I haven’t seen much reference to 4-H in cinema before.” Referring to an amusing scene where children attend ‘bunny club’ to learn to care for their rabbits, Debra continued. “The teens are themselves with their own bunnies! I loved seeing people getting soothing, medicating meaning from being with animals.”

Debra casts ‘real’ people alongside professional actors for their expertise and authenticity and cited examples such as the medic in Leave No Trace who had combat field training: “He knew how to do basic triage” and the attorney in Close to the Bone who “had all the stipulations and terminology so I didn’t have to script what he said.”

Drawing on this, Sandra asked Debra as how connected she sees her documentary and fiction films. Debra replied: “They are in a continuum. I am working on a documentary at the moment and on the left side of my notebook, I note what I saw and on the right hand side, I note what I’d like to film if it was a fiction. I am a voyeur, what is a filmmaker if they are not a voyeur! I love people’s idiosyncratic habits.”

One of the students asked where the ‘clicking’ came from that the father and daughter use to communicate with each other. Debra explained: “The clicking comes from bushmen in Africa. We had a bushcraft expert, Nicole, who selected the skills that Ben and Tom should know and trained them such as knife skills. She developed the idea of the clicking with Ben and Tom – they brought it me. It was a gift, I’m very open to things like that.”

And on the importance of rehearsal, Debra was clear: “It’s a right and responsible part of the art form to take the opportunity to have the actors contribute.” She also extolled the virtues of word of mouth and festivals for filmmakers making independent films as she headed back to Sundance: “Festivals are a lifeline, you get to meet and network with your colleagues and peers.”

Leave No Trace is released in the UK by Sony Pictures Releasing UK on the 29th June.