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Reisman on Collaboration, Adaptation, and Nudist Colonies in Leave No Trace

Senior Distinguished Producer-in-Residence Linda Reisman, right, talks to Professor Cristina Kotz Cornejo and the audience during a September 20 screening of her latest film, Leave No Trace. 

Emerson’s Senior Distinguished Producer-in-Residence Linda Reisman dropped by the Bright Lights Film Series screening of her latest film, Leave No Trace, to talk about her work on the project and her collaboration with director and co-writer Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone), producing partner Anne Harrison, and co-writer and producer Anne Rosellini.

Adapted from Peter Rock’s 2009 novel, My Abandonment, and starring Ben Foster and newcomer Thomasin McKenzie, Leave No Trace follows a father and daughter living off the grid and off the radar in a Portland, Oregon, nature preserve, whose lives are upended when the authorities find them. The film, which premiered last January at Sundance and was released in June, has received critical acclaim, with The Atlantic calling it an “essential, shattering drama.”

Reisman, who also produced 2015’s Oscar-nominated The Danish Girl, talked with Visual and Media Arts Professor Cristina Kotz Cornejo, and answered questions from the audience.

On the origins of the project:

The editor of the novel My Abandonment is a friend of mine and gave me the book when it was in manuscript form. I fell in love with it and I fell in love with the voice of — in the book her name is Caroline — and shared it with Anne Harrison, who became my producing partner, and we both felt very strongly that there was very unique set of circumstances, a very unique relationship between the father and the daughter. Although in the book — and I don’t want to give too much away — but the book is very, very different from the movie, particularly in the second half. The book goes off in a completely different direction, and we knew that was not what we wanted for the movie.

Then, after Winter’s Bone came out, Debra’s previous feature, we approached her and it took quite a while for her to make a decision. But then she and her producing partner/writing partner Anne Rosellini, agreed to partner with us and we spent about four years working on the script very, very intimately with them. So it is Debra’s vision, but you know we tried so many things in the script and it was a real collaboration.

On taking 10 years to make the film:

It’s not unusual. I remind my students it took Spielberg 20 years to make Lincoln. So it isn’t uncommon; directors fall out, actors fall out. The Danish Girl was 12 years.

I think because we believe so strongly in this story, and Debra as a director, and that she’s a visionary, and that she had very unique point of view, she also does a tremendous amount of research. Her interests in this particular world changed and evolved. She did a tremendous about of research with vets, PTS — we don’t call it PTSD, vets don’t particularly respond well to that — spent so much time with 4H clubs in Oregon — I could not believe it — and with beekeepers. That’s what she does and that’s what makes her films so unique.

I’ve had projects where I’ve let them go at a certain point. It’s intuitive. it’s completely intuitive.

On casting the lead actress, Thomasin McKenzie:

We did a national search. We auditioned actresses that are known, unknown, we looked in the Pacific Northwest. Thomasin comes from an acting family — she’s from New Zealand — and sent in a tape that we all fell in love with. Since this movie, she has three films in the can, she’s shooting something in New York coming up. I mean, she’s completely taken off.

On adapting a novel for the screen:

Some projects I’ve been involved with are very linear. I did a film in another century called Affliction, which is based on a novel by Russell Banks, which is a very literal adaptation of the book. … It was very easy. We knew exactly what we wanted to do and what wouldn’t work.

This was much more complicated. And also, this novel is based – inspired — by a true story. There’s a true story of a father and daughter who were living in Forest Park in Portland for many years and were discovered by the authorities. They were put through social services, they were put on a horse farm, and they disappeared. It was written about in local newspapers, and Peter Rock, who’s in Oregon — teaches at Reed College, he’s a brilliant novelist — he wrote a novel that was inspired by this. And our film is based… I would say is more inspired, by the novel.

On the pacing and feel of the film:

It was very hard to finally lock that in and the finished film is also quite different from the script … there was a lot more dialogue in the beginning [in the script]. I think it’s very important for Debra, in the way [that] she’s a documentary filmmaker at heart, and she’s interested in, I would say the cultural anthropology of people’s lives, and really wanted you to feel that you are with a family.

This is about family and this is about — I wouldn’t say homelessness — about accepting different ways that people choose to live, and [she] wanted the quiet and the silence. For some people, like my son, it’s a little slow. It’s like, “Really mom, seriously?” But I think that for Debra, that it was important to build on that.

On the production schedule:

Debra likes a very small footprint. It’s about 31 days of shooting and eight weeks of prep, but postproduction went on forever — from Memorial Day until the first week in January. How many weeks is that? But it was a very, very long post period to get it right.

On the character arc of Thom, the daughter in the film:

More than a coming of age this is a very unique voice, a girl who grew up a certain way and was starting to develop her own independence. And we felt this was very much her movie in a lot of ways. … We talked about point of view, and I think we wanted to carefully show her, once they were on the horse farm, she meets Isaiah and the bunnies, and she’s curious about what’s going on at church. … And she wants to be out there in the world.

On the working relationship between producer, director, and screenwriter:

Well Anne R. and Debra collaborated on all of her films together, and you know we believed very strongly that this is Debra’s vision, and we supported and gave her everything she wanted. … But for the most part, one of us was always on set. We spoke up if we felt something wardrobe-wise or scene-wise wasn’t going the right way. We made a lot of suggestions that, some were taken, some weren’t.

On the future of cinema in the age of Netflix: 

I love Netflix because they are taking chances with incredible directors on films that can’t otherwise get financed. I don’t think it’s one or the other, but I think for emerging filmmakers who might be in this room, one has to really think, ‘Who’s going to go see my movie, and how is my movie going to best be shown, and if I’m not going to the movies, who’s going to go see my movie?’ I think it’s about keeping it alive, and I don’t’ think it’s black or white. I think that people who love movies are still going to go. Don’t you think?

On the authenticity of the characters:

A lot of the supporting cast are not actors, they are real people. There is an authenticity… The RV camp, that was actually a nudist colony that we found, and … some people actually lived there and they were told to keep their clothes on the week that we were there. They didn’t all abide by that … They actually had a little store called Nudestroms.

On collaboration:

[Cinematographer] Michael McDonough is a genius and [he and Granik have] done all their films together… Debra was really clear about how she wanted it to look. My original in-my-head vision for the film was a little more lyrical and wasn’t quite as realistic. … I had never worked with drones before. This was like the coolest thing in the world. I loved it, and to really get that forest and the characters through the trees, and even like the focus on the spider webs. And that came out of Debra and Michael talking.

Look, to a certain degree, I’m going to go along with what they want to do. As a producer, I can’t say, “Sorry, it’s not gonna look like that.”  So I think part of being a producer is … you spend years and years and years with this thing, and it’s yours, and then all these other people get involved and make it theirs, and so there’s a letting go.

It is a collaboration. Even though it’s Debra’s vision, she would be the first to say this was a movie that was made by 100 people.




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