Debra Granik discovered Jennifer Lawrence. Now Kiwi star Thomasin McKenzie stars in her latest film. She tells Tim Robey why she now prefers life on the margins.
If Debra Granik's name rings a bell, it's likely to be from Winter's Bone, the intense, low-budget drama, set in the cheerless Ozarks, which she co-wrote and directed eight years ago. The film notched up four Oscar nominations and launched the career of its formidable 20-year-old leading lady, a pre-Hunger Games Jennifer Lawrence.
Winter's Bone was the product of years of dogged labour for Granik, one of the most uncompromising voices in American independent film.
The tale of Ree, a teenager single-handedly keeping her siblings and catatonic mother alive, it plunged the viewer into one of the most economically blighted corners of the United States, bringing us face-to-face with crack addiction, broken families and daily life below the breadline.
It wasn't Granik's debut - that was Down to the Bone (2004), a rehab drama that gave Vera Farmiga her first great role as a working-class mother battling a cocaine habit. Now Granik returns with her third feature, Leave No Trace.
Based on the true story of a Special Forces veteran and his daughter living off-grid in the forest park outside Portland, Oregon, it is tender and profound, anchored by superb performances from Ben Foster and another star-in-the-making, 17-year-old Thomasin McKenzie.
Granik, 55, has not been idle, by any means, in the eight years since Winter's Bone. Her process of making films is unique, requiring years of research, not all of which is guaranteed to bear fruit. Right after Winter's Bone, for example, she started work on a film set in Baltimore, written by an author who had worked on the television series The Wire, and centred on a female convict attempting to readjust to life outside prison.
"The way the script was written, the only answer was that she was going to reoffend," says Granik. "But what made me so curious was, what does it take to not reoffend? It's very hard to go from fast money to slow money as a minimum-wage worker. To have to devolve to a place where you can't get self-worth. All these things couldn't be addressed in the film; they ended up being better suited to a documentary - which I'm trying to finish now."
Granik talks a lot about working on the margins and many of her characters are marginalised - sometimes through their own volition, as in Leave No Trace.
The Hollywood studio system can rarely do justice to her kind of defiantly gritty storytelling, leaving her little choice other than to work outside it. "I'm doing my best to stay off that financing scheme that relies on this one strip of capital, which is the red carpet," she says. "And - no sob story - it's hard. It takes a while."
The wave of activism sweeping through Hollywood today involves a long-needed push for female directors to gain equal respect and pay. But I wonder if Granik's self-determined way of working has taken her career so far off the beaten track that she is unaffected by this groundswell.
"I think you're right," she says. "Because I wasn't asking to get into a fortress that doesn't really want to include the likes of me."
After Winter's Bone, she started to receive scripts from the studios: "The first load were all about how hideous it must be being a person born into a female body. If the characters weren't cutting themselves, they were offing themselves, getting violated, or pregnant. I was like, 'Oh my God. I don't even want to be a female homo sapiens if these are our stories."'
For Leave No Trace she signed up her oldest and closest collaborator - cinematographer Michael McDonough, who has also worked with the likes of Stephen Frears (Lay the Favorite) and Terence Davies (Sunset Song).
The pair were introduced in an NYU film studies class in 1994, and quickly drew near as kindred spirits.
They both wound up playing a crucial role in establishing Jennifer Lawrence as a star: it was partly thanks to McDonagh that her face looked so expressive. Yet Granik initially turned her down for the role of Ree, worrying that she was "too pretty". Then casting moved from LA to New York. Lawrence travelled there straight off a red-eye flight, walked through sleet for 13 blocks, and got the part.
"I've seen performances that she's done since then," says McDonough, "but I don't think there's one that's better. What was great about Winter's Bone was you felt like she was finding this skill set for the first time. Really opening her mind."
McDonough works closely with Granik in the planning phases for each new film, which involve hours and hours of video and interviews. "We've made extensive, telephone book-sized look-books of photographs, even for projects that haven't been made."
For Leave No Trace, their prep started with driving an hour out of Portland into dense forest, where the real-life father and daughter - who first inspired Peter Rock's 2009 novel, My Abandonment, on which Granik's film is based - set up camp for four years.
Talking to park rangers and welfare officers - who became involved in the original pair's story after the daughter was spotted - helped shape the script. According to Granik, some of the rangers had been sympathetic to the off-grid duo: "They had an affection for those people. Your heart goes out to someone who's trying not to be found."
Casting Foster as this intractable PTSD sufferer, who has given his daughter a robust all-round education as well as a practical one, brought Granik back to the actor's past work - especially Oren Moverman's terrific The Messenger (2009), for which he spent time in bases and barracks to inhabit the role of a soldier breaking bad news to war widows.
When he was brought together with McKenzie (daughter of actress Miranda Harcourt), previously known for playing an Elven archer in the last Hobbit film, a special chemistry emerged.
For several days, the pair went off with an outdoor skills trainer, who taught them to use knives and ferro rods to light their own fires. McKenzie took especially well to what we first catch her doing, which is "feather-sticking" - shaving curls from pieces of wood so that a new fire can catch quickly.
"She shaved them so meticulously, her hands were so steady," says Granik.
"And Ben was really impressed. It was motivating - he wanted to pay her a compliment. He had to do it in a taciturn and terse way, in character. But the process gave them so much to do."
"You will never go wrong with actually photographing process," Granik adds, making it sound like her very particular manifesto.
"It's primitive. Humans love to see the bipedal animal in us finish things. We just like it."
Leave No Trace is at the Civic Theatre on July 27 and 28. nziff.co.nz