Interview: Ben Foster on “Leave No Trace”

Posted on July 7, 2018 at 7:27 pm

Ben Foster stars in Debra Granik’s new film, “Leave No Trace,” as a veteran with PTSD who lives in a public park with his daughter. It is based on Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment, which itself inspired by a news story reporting that a father and daughter were living off the grid but in plain sight. Writer/director Debra Granik (“Winter’s Bone”) adapted the story in a quiet wonder of a film co-starring newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie. I spoke to Ben Foster about preparing for the role and what it meant to him as a new father himself.

The opening scene has almost no dialogue as the characters get ready for the day by making breakfast and taking care of the campsite. There is such a believably capable and coordinated routine between you and Thomasin. How do you achieve that sense of having done it a million times?

I suppose that’s the big question. You try to personally at least spend as much time training in whatever tasks or whatever tools are necessary to the film in order to not have to think about it when we’re shooting.

I had a two-week extensive training camp in the Pacific Northwest on wilderness appreciation and survivalism, from building shelters to building fires to what kind of fire pits to make — we had a Dakota pit because we took a military aspect. This is a kind of fire pit that has a low smoke profile. I did the homework and then I brought that to Debra and then Debra integrated what sparked her. And then she and I went through the script and red-lined it and got rid of about forty percent of the dialogue. Once we realized that it is the physical actions that speak for Will, that was a great joy of the film. The way that he would choose his belongings was the way that he would choose his words. Very spare.

What were some of the things that you learned in your wilderness training that surprised you?

What surprised me was how blind I was to a forest environment, I’ve been drawn to the Pacific Northwest for years but through the training I learned it’s a language; learning the language of the forest, learning how to read tracks, learning how to cover up your own tracks, learning how to find resources where ordinarily it would look like an emergency. I learned that one can create a shelter or find food and water and that kind of appreciation has given me a confidence that I’ll take with me for the rest of my days. It’s not hard to learn, anyone can take a weekend course to feel a little bit more prepared if they get in a pinch. It’s a mental and emotional security to know how to take care of yourself and your own in whatever environment you find yourself in.

We don’t learn many details about your character’s life and what made him decide this was the best way to raise his daughter.

The script is beautiful. Once I got involved in the training and we were sharing stories of people that we’d met along the way, friends of mine who have served, who have talked with me candidly about their experience of returning and Debra’s experiences with documentaries — it’s just like that line in the script: Is it a want or a need?

That was my door into the role. I came to Debra and said, “I think we can get away with saying a lot less here,” and it became a wonderful experience of telling rather than saying.

You started acting very young. How did that help you work with Thomasin?

I didn’t need to help her. She came in poised, she had done her homework, and she was a joy beginning to end to work with. She was she was a very present, beautiful actor. Sometimes you’ve got to work a lot harder at it than others to cope with a believable relationship. With Thom it was immediate and I imagine audiences will feel the same way when they watch her. She has something rare.

I felt that the story was really just a very heightened version of what all parents go through. We all try to create in our own way a controlled environment around our children and protect them in whatever way we think we can and they all grow up and say, “I’m going to live my own life and I have my own choices to make.” Do you think that’s right?

I do. I was expecting the birth of our first child while we were shooting so these questions were very loud in my mind and my heart and will continue to be. Since the birth of our daughter I have apologized more to my parents and I’ve apologized to anyone in my life -“I’m so sorry and thank you, thank you, thank you.”

It’s such a troubling time right now and particularly for families. I hope when people see this film they call the one they love or even better yet if they are near you, squeeze them. It goes fast and we can get so distracted in our lives with technology and we can get distracted with the darkness in the world. But I hope this film reminds people that there are good people out there. There aren’t necessarily just villains running the world, there are good people on every corner in this world not just America but in the world and it’s important that we take the time to acknowledge them and love the people closest to us.

You have often gravitated toward playing military characters. Is that something that specially resonates with you?

The desert wars are my generation’s wars and in terms of drama and narrative they continue and are still affecting so many lives. I’m just naturally impressed and inspired by anybody who is in the service; anybody who decides to do for others. Whatever your reasons for getting into and continuing to be in service, not just military, I’m just drawn to that kind of dedication and giving. I’ll cry just thinking about it.

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Actors Interview

Leave No Trace

Posted on June 28, 2018 at 5:20 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic material throughout
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Pharmaceuticals
Violence/ Scariness: Peril, injury, some disturbing images, family issues, military-related PTSD
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 29, 2018
Date Released to DVD: October 1, 2018
Copyright 2018 Bleeker Street

Author Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment was inspired by a news story reporting that a father and daughter were living off the grid but in plain sight, camping out in a Portland, Oregon public park. Writer/director Debra Granik (“Winter’s Bone”) has now adapted the story in a quiet wonder of a film called “Leave No Trace,” starring Ben Foster and newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie.

Foster, who spent weeks learning survival skills, has said in interviews that with Granik’s permission he removed 40 percent of the words in the script, which wisely lets the images tell the story. We first see Will (Foster) and Tom (McKenzie) companionably doing their daily chores, completely at home with each other and the woods. They do not need to speak. Each knows exactly what to do and each motion is as familiar as a morning stretch but as precise and synchronized as an intricately choreographed tango. When Will calls a drill, Tom knows how to hide. Their world may be Edenic, just two human creatures in tune with nature, but they are also constantly on the alert. If they are spotted, they will have to leave and go to places where there are rules and walls and jobs and school.

They make regular trips to the world outside to get provisions. “Need or want?” Will asks when Tom hopeful shows him a candy bar. “Want,” she admits. But he gets it for her anyway. Their devotion to one another is deep and palpable. She trusts him completely. She is everything to him.

And then they are spotted. They are suddenly in the system. Social services does its best to respect their wish to be isolated, using the diplomatic term “unhoused” instead of “homeless,” and finding a place for them to live and a job that is as unobtrusive on their freedom as possible. But Will, who is a veteran and may have PTSD, chafes at being told what to do. Tom, on the other hand, finds that the world outside the park has some intriguing possibilities. Will engages in that most fatherly of tasks, teaching Tom to ride a bicycle. Tom gets a chance to talk to other people. There’s a boy who raises rabbits and tells her about the activities at 4H.

Will tells Tom they have to leave. In their efforts to find a new home, they encounter some obstacles, but also some people who respect the need for privacy and living off the grid.

Debra Granik has a great gift for finding extraordinary young actresses (she picked Jennifer Lawrence for “Winter’s Bone”) and guiding them through stories of subtle complexity and humanity. “Without a Trace” is on its surface a story of a father and daughter living off the grid, on the fringe of society. In reality, it is a heightened version of the relationship every parent has with a child, the irrational efforts we make to protect them from what we see as threats, and the bittersweetness of seeing them become their own people, with their own lives, destinies, and decisions. We see Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie’s character first as living entirely in the world her father has created for her, looking to him for everything she has to know. And then we see the small moments and realizations that lead her to believe in her own voice about her future. “Want or need?” is still the question, but they may have different answers.

Beautiful performances by McKenzie and Ben Foster, a compassionate screenplay co-written by Granik, and an intimate, naturalistic style of storytelling make this a thoughtful meditation on parents and children, on damage and courage, on communities we create, and on what we mean by home.

Parents should know that this movie’s themes include PTSD, family issues, loss of a parent, and some peril and off-screen violence.

Family discussion: What was Will trying to protect Tom from? If they had not been discovered, would Tom have made a different decision?

If you like this, try: “Winter’s Bone” and “Captain Fantastic”

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Hell or High Water

Posted on August 11, 2016 at 5:40 pm

Copyright Film 44 2016
Copyright Film 44 2016
“Hell or High Water” is a modern western that reminds us why spare, dry landscapes have so often been the settings for grand American epics. Like frontier stories of ranchers, farmers, cowboys, Indians, masculinity, and bank robbers, this film has a gripping story that touches on the most profound American struggles — from guns to real estate, race, and income inequality — specific in detail but universal in scope.

One of the film’s wisest choices is in keeping important information from us until just the right moment, so I will be especially scrupulous about spoilers and keep the description of the plot to a minimum. There are four main characters, two bank robbers and two Texas Rangers. The bank robbers are Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine), and we can tell immediately that they seem less experienced than the staff at the small Texas Midland bank branch they are robbing, just before it opens on a dusty morning. Both bad news and good manners are so deeply ingrained in the bank manager that he courteously wishes them a good morning before turning over the small unmarked bills.

The Texas Rangers are about-to-retire Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham), who is of both Native American and Mexican heritage, as Marcus constantly reminds him with a stream of amiably delivered insults. As Tanner and Toby continue to rob banks, always Texas Midland branches, Marcus begins to discover a pattern that begins to reveal a plan.

The characters are skillfully drawn and performed with a deep and understanding humanity, not just by the four lead actors but by everyone in the cast. Every performance in even the smallest role conveys an arid and dusty world, physically, financially, and emotionally. Standouts include Katy Mixon as a waitress, Richard Christie as a bank loan officer, and Dale Dickey as the woman who opens the bank in the morning.

The outstanding screenplay is written by Texan Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario,” “Guns of Anarchy”), who knows these people and these places. He has a gift for finding the poetry in dialog as dry and spare as the setting. And he has the confidence in himself, his characters, and his audience to let the story unfold without telling us too much at first, and to present complex issues without feeling that he has to provide simple answers. Sheridan also has a gift for the small, telling details, the bank manager who courteously wishes the bank robbers good morning, the Indian casino, the ex-wife, the way some men say more in the pauses than the words. His deep appreciation for people overlooked by just about everyone makes this cops and robbers story into something real and meaningful.

Parents should know that this film has extended crime and law enforcement-related violence, with characters injured and killed, themes of moral and legal crimes, drinking, smoking, sexual references, prostitute, and a brief explicit sexual situation.

Family discussion: Why does the movie keep some of the details of the plan secret for so long? Why does Marcus insult Alberto? Why does Tanner say he is a Comanche?

If you like this, try: “99 Homes” and “The Newton Boys”

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Crime Drama Western

Trailer: “The Program” is About Lance Armstrong

Posted on March 11, 2016 at 3:46 pm

One of my favorite directors (Stephen Frears of “The Queen”) and two of my favorite actors, Ben Foster and Chris O’Dowd star in the story Lance Armstrong, who was a worldwide symbol of determination and resilience until he was disgraced by revelations about doping. It is based on the book Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong by David Walsh.

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Trailer: “The Program” — The Lance Armstrong Story, Starring Ben Foster and Chris O’Dowd

Posted on June 15, 2015 at 8:00 am

Ben Foster plays Lance Armstrong and Chris O’Dowd plays David Walsh, the Irish journalist who uncovered the story about Armstrong’s use of dope and his lies. Walsh’s book is Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong.

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