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Film Why Leave No Trace director Debra Granik investigates America’s edges

Director Debra Granik at the 71st international film festival, Cannes, May 14, 2018.

Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP

Debra Granik is relieved. Speaking over the phone from Virginia the other week, the American filmmaker opens by saying how happy – thrilled, really – she is to be talking with a Canadian journalist. “They haven’t cut the lines yet, have they?” she asks with a laugh, before launching into a half-apology for, and half-polemic against, her country. “The week of the G7, no one I knew could work or even function,” she says. “It is so devastating and so horrifying.”

An artist speaking out against the policies Donald Trump is not surprising or new. Everyone from Meryl Streep to John Legend is eager and enthusiastic in their disavowals. But Granik’s existential dread comes from a more nuanced and genuine place.

Each of Granik’s four films – starting with the 2004 Vera Farmiga-starring Down to the Bone and up to and including her latest film, the tender father-daughter drama Leave No Trace – focus on disenfranchised Americans. Those who feel left behind and isolated in their struggles. Those who, today, might be eager to Make America Great Again. Naturally, the issue – and Granik’s work – are much more complicated than party lines.

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Ahead of this weekend’s release of Leave No Trace, the 55-year-old Granik spoke with The Globe and Mail about Americans on the edge, and how difficult it is to finance films that examine corners of the country that can be easy to ignore.

Your work explores people who live on the fringes of the mainstream American society. People, I guess, whose sensibilities might lean toward Trump?

I’m interested in the lives of Americans for whom the ways this culture has tried to define itself – that is, self-esteem defined by material wealth – they have nothing to do with that. People who are looking to sustain themselves. They may be what we commonly call outsiders or marginal people, but for me, I’m attracted to the stories of the scrappy survivors.

So people who might not find appeal in any political party?

The issue of whether these people are now Democrats or members of Trump country, I think that always has to be perceived with more individuality and compassion. The social-media discourse is very different from what it might be on the ground. It’s easy to bloviate without having to look anyone in the eye, and then having those sentiments swell and amplify and go viral. But when you’re actually in these communities and see someone working hard to live, that’s how we tell different stories. It’s like being in a hot-air balloon and observing what’s going on down below versus actually being on the ground. It’s a very hard time right now, because it’s so easy to become repugnant and repulsive to each other when you don’t have a real conversation.

Your work does seem fascinated with those who don’t have that voice, who aren’t taking part in these conversations. Winter’s Bone, for example, with its look at communities in the Ozarks ...

In the Ozarks, they treated the economy as like, “The Great Depression? We were poor before the Depression, during the Depression and after. It didn’t tow us under, and it didn’t make us collapse or jump off buildings. This is what we know.” What I call the dominant narrative of America – that you prove your worth as a person by what you’re able to achieve in terms of material goods and money – that doesn’t matter to them. I think what’s happened, as I was shooting Leave No Trace, is that there is this emergence of a vitriolic cohort who is furious and humiliated and taking it out on in the easiest way possible, which is name-calling and scapegoating. But you have to come down onto the ground to know exactly how people are conducting themselves, when you have the option to look them in the eye. It doesn’t fix the broken economy, but it does lead to different ways on conducting oneself in the presence of another person.

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How strongly do you believe your work can facilitate that?

It can’t change anything immediately, but films can absolutely be catalysts for conversation. I watch something like Aki Kaurismaki’s The Other Side of Hope, and I’m blown away by how that film opens up space to talk about what we just don’t know, and what we can find real and interesting. Documentary cinema is another way to bring up subjects in a very literal way.

You’ve worked in that doc realm, with 2014′s Stray Dog, but you’ve only made that and three other films in fourteen years. How frustrating is it for you to deal with these years-long gaps?

I try not to lose myself in the finances, and my partners make sure that I don’t. I’m looking for a living wage, and to continue my work. The frustration comes from when I can’t do the things that matter most to me. It’s when someone comes and says, “I will finance your movie if you cast so and so.”

In Leave No Trace, Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie develop a natural rhythm playing father and daughter living as, more or less, survivalists in the Oregon woods. Was Ben on anyone’s list? Was he on your list?

I had long appreciated so much of what he’d done before, investigating the lives of combat veterans in films like The Messenger. He’d been listening to the voices that mattered a lot, and so arrived already with this sensibility of who his character should be. And then we had further discussions of how someone could live in the woods. He read this one book called One Man’s Wilderness, and I just said to myself, this is right. He’s interested in the themes dear to this character’s heart. He’s synced up to these kind of men. He and Thom were willing to get dirt under their nails.

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You memorably cast Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, which earned her an Oscar nomination and set up her career path. Was there any pressure in casting Thomasin here – that you had to find the next Jennifer Lawrence?

Oh absolutely. It was dangerous, that pressure. It was acute, and made it very hard to work with it. Because it makes me feel very empty. If I don’t do that one thing, is my work not worthy? But I tried to take a deep breath and say, my god, what can I do for myself here, because I’m not working to make a star. That’s not a life vision of mine. I don’t even do that – that’s the machinery. So that was potentially a moment that felt paralyzing, but then I peeled myself back from that. And finding Thom, I just wanted to give her that break. I’m really rooting for her, and for her to stay true to her values right now. They will serve her well in years to come.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Leave No Trace opens July 5 in Toronto before expanding to other Canadian cities throughout the summer

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