Director Debra Granik should’ve conceivably been able to make whatever she wanted after 2010’s Winter’s Bone. It made sense on paper: Four Oscar nominations plus the credited launch of Jennifer Lawrence’s career should equal a green light, a budget, and blessings from studios. Right? But that didn’t happen, and Granik isn’t quite sure why.
“This is hard to talk about, really,” the filmmaker admits during a lengthy phone conversation. “I feel as though perhaps there’s not a great match between the content I’m attracted to and the content that is considered attractive to some of the more major or more traditionally financed entities.… That’s a puzzle, but I’d love help answering that. I don’t have the answer.”
Before she came back on the scene this year with the critically acclaimed drama Leave No Trace, Granik had plans to finish her spiritual “osteo-trilogy,” which began with Down to the Bone (starring The Conjuring’s Vera Farmiga). But her adaptation of Russell Banks’ Rule of the Bone fell apart. “That piece isn’t something you whip off the grill real fast,” she says of all the “intellectual” questions she grappled with. Granik then wanted to bring American High Life to HBO as a miniseries, but that didn’t pan out either.
“Let’s say this, I feel like I would have no trouble at all if I presented some of the ultra-violent material that’s very popular today,” she says. “If I went out today and said I would do, pick something, pick some of the very popular stuff, I don’t think I would have trouble.”
She adds, “The stuff that I like to tell stories about aren’t really what people [in the studios] are looking for.”
Those would be stories like the “hardworking” waitress with a “salty sense of humor” at your local diner, and the car mechanics at your neighborhood garage with oil smeared across their brows. The kind of people, she says, “who don’t have cushions or safety nets at the end of the month.”
A film like Leave No Trace may begin with a piece of source material — in this case, Peter Rock’s 2010 novel My Abandonment — but it transforms when channeled through this more blue-collar lens.
“This story was told in a really, really specific place, which was a very large municipal park on the outskirts of Portland,” Granik says. “We went there, we talked to the rangers, we started to talk to social workers, started to talk to cops, detectives. So those become the waitress, those become the real person.… That anecdotal content married to the book is what starts to form the new version.”
The film, written by Granik and Anne Rosellini, tells the story of a young girl named Tom, who’s been living off the grid in Portland’s Forest Park nature reserve with her father, a man still grappling with his past in the army. When they’re found by authorities, the pair are forcibly transplanted into modern society, but the question remains whether they can survive among civilization.
Hollywood doesn’t always like to take chances on fresh faces, especially ones untested in the American marketplace. But Granik needed a “willingness” from her leads to help shape the roles, a quality she says isn’t always present in “jaded” actors. “A role is never just a ready-made thing,” she says. “They are going to be informing it and shaping it so hugely that I need to see some signs there that that’s something exciting to them.” Seventeen-year-old New Zealand actress Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster were Granik’s first choices — and her financiers, Bron Studios and First Look, were surprisingly on board.
“We worked with a lot of different lists that were more secure for them, more appealing, more standard-issue in terms of financeable,” Granik says, “and they were willing to go with our choice.” That was part of the “progression of clicks” that made her realize this project on her wish list would actually be made. “They were really people of their word. [The film] wasn’t contingent on a whole bunch of things, it didn’t have stipulations attached to it. They were very honorable people in the film-finance world, and that’s kind of exciting. So the click was that we were working with no shell companies, no people who were in it for the wrong reasons.”
And she just might have the Time’s Up movement to thank for that. In January, Leave No Trace came to the Sundance Film Festival in search of a distributor. It was toward the beginning of #MeToo taking off, and the festival had been punctuated by demonstrations, including attorney Gloria Allred declaring “this entire year” as “the winter of our discontent.”
“I think we realized it wasn’t just gender stuff that had become toxic. It was dealmaking,” Granik recalls. “It was big, big Trumpian characters. It wasn’t just Harvey [Weinstein]. There’s other people in the streaming world that like to act like that too.”
After picking up projects left and right a year prior, Netflix and Amazon were much lighter on their acquisitions in 2018. A source for The Wrap cited the lack of “commercial viability of the lineup,” while Reuters reported Amazon’s shift away from indie films to “more commercial projects.” Amazon Studios’ worldwide film head, Jason Ropell, than told Deadline Hollywood, “We are not abandoning the indie space, we are increasing the potential size of the audience for our films; that in some cases involves higher budgets, but in others not. It’s about the potential for the film not the cost.”
Granik called it “a downer” that independent films seemed to be getting the cold shoulder, but noted how the atmosphere allowed other distributors, like Leave No Trace’s Bleecker Street, to make themselves seen. “It’s almost like Time’s Up allowed some really good old-school players to stand up and say, ‘We’re actually just really normal companies that want to facilitate culture-making. Some of us are even in it for the slow returns,’” she says.
There are a lot more stories Granik wants to tell, one of which is “a story about life after incarceration,” the men who “rehearsed their speeches about how to become a non-criminal,” and “these details of manhood, of ultra-masculinity, of the attempt to change prison toxic masculinity into livable masculinity.” Like many filmmakers with a laundry list of passion projects, it’s unclear if these stories will get made amid the ever-shifting landscape of Hollywood. But Granik, in a way, has always operated outside the mainstream.
“I can’t make any of them or all of them, but I’ll keep trying, and my motivation is to be a soldier that just keeps trying,” Granik says. “I’m a trudger. I will trudge.”