MY LIFE IN FILM: The Script Interrogates You—Debra Granik on Collaboration
Updated: May 13, 2020
Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace is, for me, an as-close-as-you-can-get-to-perfect piece of artistry, visually, aurally and emotionally as it traverses the lives of a father, Will, and daughter, Tom, who have been living off the grid for years in the woods outside Portland. Granik approaches her work like no one else. Her narratives reside in rare places, are about outsiders, and are rooted in an understanding of the bits and pieces of lives and life that we might miss seeing if it was not through her eye and sensibility. A self-described visual anthropologist, Granik is also notable for her collaborations, particularly with Anne Rosellini: they’ve worked together since their first feature, the 2004 Sundance winner, Down to the Bone. I’ve always been fascinated by the creative process: how it works, especially in the kind of long-term creative partnership that Granik and Rosellini have as writers. Granik and I spoke about collaboration at a 2018 screening presented in conjunction with Mind the Gap, the gender equity initiative I founded at Mill Valley Film Festival.
Zoe Elton: With this film, you’re coming from a novel, and you’re making it your own. (Producers) Anne Harrison and Linda Reisman found it, is that right?
Debra Granik: Yes, they brought it to my producing partner, Anne (Rosellini) and me.
Zoe: Were they involved with the writing process at all, the two of them?
Debra: They’d always read every draft and we would meet on the phone, give notes and feedback. But with Anne, I work very closely. She reads every draft, I can ask anything of her such as what do you think of the difference between this or this, or, I’m torn here, or this isn’t working for me, and I can be so specific and push her to respond to very specific things.
Zoe: I was curious about that, because you two have worked together for a really long time. Are you always the person doing the writing, and she's the person responding to it? Or does she write as well?
Debra: Mostly, I do the actual scrivener work, and she's responding, and then if there's something where I just say, 'This monologue is really long. What parts do you like?' She'll circle, and then maybe she'll rearrange them, and she'll send them back in a different way.
Zoe: One of the things that I notice in European films is that there's often a credited script editor. And, as someone with a theater background, I've worked as a dramaturg—so, I’ve noticed with American independents that there's not much script editing credited. It sounds like you and Anne have actually created that model in a way that sounds fantastic.
Debra: Yes, that's a very good description of it. And that she and I really assess and talk about the story together, and that's the place where we have a very extended dialogue the whole time. And she's certainly very, very involved, on set as well, and then in editing, she's very involved. She's in that inner sanctum of responding to each cut. We challenge each other and we know each other well enough that I think we can be honest. If Victoria and I toil on something really long in the edit room, I think there's been times that it's hard for Anne to be as frank as she needs to be. But then she remembers that her actual duty is to be frank. It doesn't serve us to coddle some things. So she always musters that result.
Zoe: You’ve been working together for, what, over ten years—on several significant projects. Has the way that you work together evolved over the years?
Debra: It’s definitely evolved. For some of those years, we actually lived in the same city and shared an office, which was a different M.O. and now she lives back in her hometown of Seattle and I'm in the East. She comes to these quarterly immersions, so I have the benefit of having her in the office and we can try to cover a lot of ground, do a lot of meetings. It sounds dated and clichéd, but it really is so possible with the way that, within a few minutes we share writing or simultaneously that part actually does work.
Zoe: With the current project and with all of your work: when you get to the point where you have your script—again, thinking about this in terms of collaboration—do you get a script that incorporates the visuals that you anticipate, or do you tend to go for a dialogue script, or some combination of all of the above? I'm just wondering if you create the script that is essentially like the road map to where you want to go?
Debra: The scripts that we make are, going into shooting, very traditional. They've got all the dialogue called out. It doesn't need that change. [It may be] amended, and you shape by the actor or by a real person who informs it—you know, an expert in their field, a real social worker, or the real minister's going to use his own language. I'm going to be in that church service and take notes and then say 'I noticed you mentioned this and this'. So when we go to a location with this road map, as you called it, that's a good word for it, then the reality of that location is going to inflect the script heavily. But it is laid out, and then we're receptive to change, but the fact is, going into the day of shooting, on day 1 and day 30 and all the days in between are just totally there—
Zoe: It's structured, you're very structured.
Debra: —Because the whole crew needs that. Again, it doesn't mean that in a take, that Tom [Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie] can say something differently, or Ben [Foster] can say something differently, that's fine. Or I might see that that line isn’t so great, and the way she changed it, it's so much better and I'll say 'keep that'. I'll hear something differently and I'll ask her to do something different, but the gist of the scenes is there. That would be very nerve-wracking. To feel that you don't know what's supposed to really happen in the scenes, at the very least, the script interrogates you. For days and weeks and months before shooting, the script is asking you 'what do you really think is supposed to happen in this scene?' But you do have to know something about the characters we're seeking, what they need. Especially with difficult characters!
Photographs © 2018 Mark Reynolds