Eight years after she won Oscar nominations for writing and directing "Winter's Bone" — the film that made Jennifer Lawrence a star — Debra Granik is releasing her follow-up feature.
"Leave No Trace" tells the story of an army veteran living rough in the Oregon forests with his teenage daughter. The quietly powerful film, which opens in Minnesota this weekend, is drawing critical acclaim for Granik's impressive strength as a filmmaker.
"Leave No Trace" is a distillation: It's a movie based on a novel based on a news story.
"It's taken from an Oregonian newspaper article about a father and daughter who were found," said Granik.
They had been living undetected for months in a wilderness park on the edge of Portland, Ore. They had built a hidden shelter back in the trees, and a life, too.
"She'd been homeschooled. She was found to be someone who was educated," said Granik. "The only evidence of this education was her father's companionship. They were living in a very systematic way. And the reason they were undetected was they were not leaving a lot of traces. They were living in a very conscientious way."
Novelist Peter Rock wrote "My Abandonment" based on the article; his book in turn inspired Granik. She said each retelling has added to the relatively few facts in the original story, including what happened to the pair.
"So Peter Rock had to do some imagining, and then we built imagining on imagining what befell them," she said.
"Leave No Trace" follows the story of Will and daughter Tom. When the police arrive to look for them, Will declares, "This is not a drill," launching them both into a practiced routine to evade captors.
They have rehearsed what they will do if they are discovered: hiding their camp and then slipping into the undergrowth to escape detection. But it doesn't work.
"Stand up! Are you alone out here?" an officer asks as he puts handcuffs on Will. "My daughter is with me," Will replies, and Tom gives herself up too.
The authorities realize Will is struggling with post-traumatic stress. Social services find him a job, which comes with a house. Tom finds she likes the new place and meeting the people nearby. Will doesn't. He sits inside with the curtains drawn. Things get very tense.
"I think it might be easier on us if we try to adapt," Tom says.
"We are wearing their clothes. We are in their house. We're eating their food. We're doing their work. We have adapted," the father snaps. "The only place we can't be seen is in this house."
"We can think our own thoughts," Tom replies tearfully. "Like you said."
Said Granik, "The person who is going to venture out is Tom."
Her film explores what she calls the cleaving of two people who have been very close. It's painful, but something most parents and children will recognize. "Leave No Trace" has been drawing critical praise on the festival circuit, particularly for the actors.
Veteran actor Ben Foster plays Will, the father. However, the understated performance by 17-year-old New Zealand actor Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, who like her character goes by Tom, has drawn comparisons with Jennifer Lawrence's in "Winter's Bone."
When asked if lightning may be striking twice for a young female actor in one of her films, Granik looked a little pained. She said Lawrence has done great work and been able to choose some great projects, but it takes someone very strong to survive the kind of pressure she has faced.
"I'd like to see another model, where the actress can feel very fulfilled and feel very invigorated and very curious and keep growing, but it might not have to blow up so huge," she said.
She says McKenzie has many options within the New Zealand and Australian film industries and may well choose to focus there.
When asked where she has been for the last eight years, Granik said she has been working every day. She wanted to do a feature about life after incarceration, but struggled to develop a script that satisfied her.
"The nuances of that film needed to be done as a documentary," she said. "The narrative form was too either/or. It didn't allow for all the other strands I found to be true through research."
So, that's what she's been shooting for several years, and what she will finish next. But for now, Granik's making her mark with "Leave No Trace."