By Edward Douglas
Arguably, one of the most interesting actors working today, Ben Foster may have been laying low in recent years, but he returned this year by starring in Debra Granik’s fourth film “Leave No Trace,” which has been earning raves since it debuted at Sundance.
In the film, Foster is teamed with young New Zealander Thomasin McKenzie, as father Will and daughter Tom, who has been living in the woods of Oregon, surviving on instinct and not much else when they’re discovered by the authorities and forced to conform to society.
This interview with Foster was done a few weeks back as the film was about to be released to home entertainment, and if you haven’t seen the film yet, there are very slight spoilers about the general plot towards the end.
I saw this at Sundance and then saw it again when it was released theatrically, which was this past summer. One of the things that really jumped out at me on seeing it was the father-daughter relationship, putting a father and daughter into that environment. Debra Granik has built quite a reputation as a filmmaker, and I assume you must have known her films, so how did she approach you about doing this? Were you presented with a full screenplay?
Yeah, for sure.
For some reason, I thought I read somewhere that it was just an outline without much dialogue.
She spent I think seven or eight years developing the material. It came through normal channels. I was told that it was Debra Granik’s new film, which is something to talk about for sure. I was a fan, particularly “Down to the Bone,” which is a gorgeous work, particularly with Vera [Farmiga], but I didn’t know what the movie was about until I read it and was so moved. My wife and I had just found out that we were having a girl in a few months, and I was tenderized to this kind of story. Once we got into the filming of it, though, or rather, the prep – once she hired me for the job, we did a lot of editing, just cutting Will’s lines down.
What kind of questions did you have about the situation or the characters’ past? A lot of it is revealed over the course of the film, but what questions did you have since so much of the film takes place in the woods?
Sure. It was about sharing stories. The joy of prep is talking to a director page by page and talking about it. “That reminds me of a story that happened here.” She’ll tell me something about someone in the military she met that might provoke a line of thinking, then we create a short-hand on set where hopefully we don’t have to talk a whole hell of a lot. We kind of already know what it’s about. Our game was looking at that line and “Is it a want or a need?” then I circled that and gave it to her and said, “You wrote this great line. Let’s go through the whole script, and cut everything out that he just wants to say, but doesn’t need to.” There was backstory. We cut about 40% out.
Maybe that’s why I thought that there was no written dialogue in the screenplay …
We had a movie, and I felt that the less he spoke, the more we could lean into behavior to transmit his history and that would serve us in different ways, and that was exciting.
As far as Thomasin, were you involved at all in her casting, whether it’s to do chemistry reads or such?
She found this person in New Zealand, and she showed me a video. In two seconds, you’re like, “I’m in, I get it. Yes, yes, her light is on.” I don’t know how else to describe Thom other than she’s got a light inside. Yeah, let’s go.
That’s just from seeing a tape of her?
Just a tape, yeah, “Go with it, Debra.” She ran it by me, and it was just a thousand percent… although she might have been providing me a bit of lip service. I think Tom might have been cast before I was, but it was fun the other way. “Do you like her?” “Absolutely, she’s terrific!”
It’s also amazing because I’m always impressed when you see a movie about a family or people who are related, you have to create the fact that your characters have spent 15 or 16 years together before we even meet them. That’s part of the acting process to get to the point where they don’t seem to need to talk. How do you do that with an actor you’ve just met?
It was a neat way to rehearse was that we worked with a Primitive Skills coach. I went in early, learned the skills practically – how to make a fire, build the fire pit – and once I had a sense of how to do that physically without having to think about it, I could do it very quickly. Thom came in, and I was able to share things with her, and you spend enough time in the wilderness doing physical tasks, you either get along or you don’t. We know how to share space together, and in the wilderness, you want to be quiet. You want to hear it.
As actors, you generally try to get along with everyone as you get better results.
It helps. Yeah, it’s for any job, right? People you go to work with.
Although fathers and daughters don’t always get along.
That’s true. This film was about saying goodbye, and my home life, we were waiting to say “Hello,” so that particular period of time, I didn’t have to go too far to feel connected to these ideas.
You’ve played soldiers before, so I assume that aspect of the character you already had an understanding of. Were there other things that you had to do to prep, like talk to homeless people who have lived in the same way as your characters?
We spoke to some people who have… over the years, I’ve become friends with people that have struggled with reentry, and so has Debra. Again, this guy didn’t feel too far…
It doesn’t feel like he’s homeless, but that he made a definite life-choice to live outside society without technology and corporations which people rely on so much these days. If any of that stuff went away, most people wouldn’t know what to do.
Yes. You would starve to death or freeze to death, and those are basic skills with all of our connectivity, with all this technology we have to connect us and teach us, we’ve lost our ability to connect in nature and how to survive. Basic shit. Our dependence on these machines, we’re so out of touch in that way, so the opportunity to spend… and I encourage anybody, just for a sense of mental calm, take two days with a few-hour course about nature awareness or primitive skills. “I know how to make a fire now!” It feels good, and anybody can learn to be able to read nature. For me, that prep of learning is the best part of the job. Filming, you gotta make the movie, but what’s that about? I like this job and those moments.
Since this was Thomasin’s first co-lead role, did you find your style of working meshed with hers?
She’s great, and she’s second generation. Her parents are filmmakers, and she grew up in a really evolved – that’s the only word I can think of – household, meaning her parents are just really smart, cool people. She just came in as good as anybody I’ve worked with, just ready to go and play and try. Professional, good to the crew. You know, basic stuff. No diva nonsense, just an actor who is wanting to make the scene better. She’s great. She’s a good egg.
I once asked Jake Gyllenhaal this question, and he didn’t take it very seriously, because I thought I was kidding. As an actor, you do learn all these different skills, so is there anything you’ve learned for a role that you realized that you really like doing and pursued doing more? I mean, I don’t expect you to go live out in the woods, but do you learn things you want to continue doing?
It’s the enrichment of your experience. I wouldn’t say that I’d become a hobbyist-survivalist person, but I have spent more time in the wilderness since and enjoying the legibility of nature is something that I find has a nutrition to it that feels really good.
Did you have any of that before making this movie?
It was through the film, yup.
I know this is based loosely on a real story, so do you have any thoughts on what happens to Will after this movie or what happens to Tom? Or is that something for Debra and the audience to figure out?
Well, he’s dealing with trauma in a particular way, and it doesn’t look like communities are the thing that calms him down, so at the end of the film, I imagine it, but it was much more about being open with Tom and not anticipating the inevitable of saying “Goodbye.” I don’t know how to separate this movie from my home life; it’s tied. I know that my daughter will go off someday. Maybe not hopefully in some extreme version of this, but people grow up, and that’s just part of this experience being a person.
I know you're doing a lot of theater lately, but are you still looking to direct a film? Is that something that you still have on your plate as something you want to do?
I’m superstitious about it, so what I’d say is I’d like to make more things in different ways. I’d like to do a lot of different things, and I’m angling to do that.
And you’ve been doing more producing as well, not just movies that you’re in.
Just one. I just did “Rampart” with Oren Moverman, and we’re developing some things, but until it’s real, I get a little… I don’t wanna share it.
“Leave No Trace” is now available on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download.
You can follow Edward and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @EDouglasWW
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