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Forest Creatures: The Lush Cinematography of ‘Leave No Trace’

Director Debra Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough explore nature... and the nature of family.

Director Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace “introduces us to Will and his 13-year-old daughter Tom, who live in and among the trees in Forest Park, a Portland, OR nature preserve,” explains Daniella Shreir. “They hum in unison as they prepare a meal of eggs and mushrooms before reinforcing the shelter under which they will sleep. Before bed, Will asks his daughter her favorite color and affirms that it’s the same as her mother’s. This is the first and last we hear of Tom’s mother and is an example of just one of the ways Granik allows her audience to be active in their viewing. 

“We learn of Will’s post-traumatic stress disorder via the buzz of army veterans in the waiting room where Tom sits but never witness her dad’s time with the doctor; we watch as the pair discuss ‘want’ versus ‘need’ while supermarket shopping and only later see understand how their living is financed through the selling of Will’s PTSD drugs to fellow forest-dwellers.” To read the full article, click here.

“The first thing that comes to mind watching Leave No Trace, says Jonathan Romney, “is Andrew Marvell’s phrase ‘a green thought in a green shade.’ At the very start, the film is steeped in the richest, deepest, greenest shade you can imagine, as a man and a teenage girl, viewed from above, walk through thick forest. Shot by Michael McDonough, the film is dominated by variations of green—from the chlorophyll-charged intensity of the forest to the murky, faded khaki that’s the camouflage uniform of a father and daughter living wild in nature, permanent campers.

“When we see a close-up of an orange being peeled, the new color comes as a shock, it’s so vividly incongruous. You can almost imagine the film’s father character Will (Ben Foster) rejecting this particular fruit as decadent, falsely glamorous. To his daughter (Thomasin McKenzie) however—and to us—it’s an intense burst of sunlight, an explosion of summer in the shadowy undergrowth world she’s been inhabiting.” To read the full article, click here.

The film is based on the book, My Abandonment by Peter Rock, and Granik recounts to Katie Kilkenny, “The movie that played in my mind as I read it. As readers, we block the whole film in our screens in our heads as we read, and as that happened, I thought, what a distinctive region. 

“I am so repeatedly attracted to regional films [in which] you can feel this place, this forest. And I went from feeling that forest to going to that forest and going, ‘Oh, this is an extravaganza for photography.’ It was filled with textures, forms, patterns, colors —there are 99 shades of green. I thought it was monumental, awe-inspiring. I’m from the East Coast, and so therefore the Pacific Northwest forest is very exotic land to me. My jaw was just dropping.” To read the full article, click here.

“The approach to filming the forest grew out of wanting to respect the characters’ feelings for the forest,” McDonough explains to Elena Lazic. “The first part of the film sets up the tone that these are two people who are very comfortable and happy in this place that gives them everything they need. The approach was to cinematically present the feeling of the characters being in a place of comfort and happiness within the woods. I tried to make the woods welcoming, feel like a home. That was set. The photography would adjust for the second half of the story, when they went on their journey.

“When we were in the forest, we tended to be close to the characters, living close to them within their circle. The camera was handheld; there were wider lenses; and we stood closer to them. And those lenses were lighter lenses: it was soft and warm. They gave out that feeling of comfort.

“When we went to the city, the camera was physically farther away from the characters,” McDonough continues. “That way, you feel separated from them just as they’re separated from their comfort and usual surroundings. We went for longer lenses, vantage lenses, zoom lenses, to make it feel less comfortable, to make it feel colder and greyer. We made the audience feel that they’re separated from their home by physically putting space in between the characters.” To read the full interview, click here.

“There’s a fluidity that encompasses both of us,” Granik says of her continuing collaboration with McDonough. “He will see something, show me something and I’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah yeah yeah.’ And then other times I’ll say like ‘No.’ I’ll tell him, ‘I’d love to be able to get that illuminated side of that tree. What if we scoot over a bit?’ And he’s like ‘Oh yeah yeah.’ It’s a very rich relationship in my life. And we respond frequently to a lot of the same imagery, either in the field or in other people’s films. And we do storyboarding and look book creating with each other, either saying that edge light that he always uses or she always uses, let’s try for some of that, and similarly we’ll be on location, scouting. We’ll shoot stills of for example that village at the end. The different dwellings in that village, and then from there we’ll storyboard.” To read the full interview, click here.

“We shot with an [ARRI] Alexa Mini (two cameras for portions of the filming),” McDonough says. “It’s lightweight and can be made extremely compact for the large amount of handheld we do; it also has a beautifully cinematic look. We used Leica Summilux lenses for the woods sequences and Vantage T1s for the city (and to get us out of a bind in very low light).

“I believe natural light (and man-made light) can give us all the drama we need,” he concludes. I look at the light around me in detail and figure out how to create that if it’s not available in the moment, or how to shape it when it is. I try to use as few units as possible and keep things clean and simple. It was easy in this case as we were miles from anywhere and had only small portable generators. The majority of [Leave No Trace] was available light: bounced, cut, diffused etc.” To read the full interview, click here.

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