Unsung Auteurs: Debra Granik

January 27, 2022
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: Winter’s Bone and Leave No Trace helmer and master social realist Debra Granik.

Debra Granik is another entry on the long list of female directors whose initial high praise and attention for making gritty, authentic films should have resulted in far greater studio support and more filmmaking opportunities. While giving a once-in-a-generation talent like Jennifer Lawrence her first real breakout role and receiving an Oscar nomination would have sent most male directors on the path to big studio films, or at least the chance to get funding for slightly more expansive films of their own choosing, Debra Granik has just three features and a documentary to her credit since first entering the film industry in the early 2000s. Granik’s films are so good, however, that this lack of output inspires a fierce disappointment in the fact that we haven’t seen so much more from this uncompromising, highly creative director.

But while Debra Granik’s social realist films are not a million miles away from the earlier films of Chloe Zhao (Songs My Brothers Taught Me, The Rider), it’s difficult to imagine Granik jumping on-board a big Marvel Studios epic, as Zhao so effectively did with Eternals. Granik has a fierce commitment to making films on tough, realistic subjects that has seen her remain firmly in the indie world. “One of the things that’s hard to argue with, and I think about this all the time, is that the main way we see the word ‘movies’ is as entertainment, right?” Granik responded thoughtfully when asked by Slant Magazine why her films hadn’t found bigger audiences. “If one is going for escape or time out or relaxation, to see social realism is – if you’re living it, or even if you’re from a very different sort of social class and you’ve just never felt at ease with the way the economic culture is structured – on top of everything else you deal with, it can be hard to go seek that. It’s not really entertainment anymore.”

Debra Granik on set.

Granik’s commitment to social realist filmmaking would appear to be practically ingrained in the filmmaker: she is the granddaughter of public affairs TV pioneer Ted Granik, while her father, William R. Granik, was a lawyer key in the field of litigating for public housing. While studying political science at university, Granik made her first moves into film, doing film and media classes on the side, and volunteering with the Boston grassroots filmmaking organisation, Women’s Video Collective. During this time, Granik also made educational films for trade unions, and worked in production on educational media projects.

After working in various capacities on a number of documentaries by Boston-area filmmakers, Granik studied filmmaking in earnest at New York University, where she was mentored by filmmaker and lecturer Boris Fruman, who introduced Granik to the school of Italian neo-realism, which would have such a vital influence on her as a director. It was at New York University where Granik made her official debut as a filmmaker, directing the 1997 short film Snake Feed. The tale of two recovering drug addicts, the short was accepted into The Sundance Lab, where it was eventually workshopped into Granik’s gut-punch of a debut, Down To The Bone.

A scene from Down To The Bone.

Released in 2004, the film introduced the world to the strikingly unconventional beauty and performative gifts of the great Vera Farmiga, who torches the screen as the desperate, horribly flawed but wholly sympathetic Irene, a mother struggling to raise her children while dealing with a roaring drug habit. One of the great movies about addiction, Down To The Bone is a staggering debut from Granik, who makes every scene ring with a disturbing sense of truth and urgency. “I consider this a gift from Debra,” Vera Farmiga told The Hollywood Interview upon the release of Down To The Bone. “She entrusted me with this. There was no reason, box office-wise, that I should have been given that opportunity. But she did. We laid eyes on each other and trusted each other and there was an ease between us. We had the same philosophies and ideas about filmmaking.”

With her next project, Granik did the seemingly impossible and actually equalled Down To The Bone. Released in 2010, Winter’s Bone starred Jennifer Lawrence in her first truly major film role as Ree Dolly, a folk hero for the ages. A tough but profoundly sensitive young woman from the Ozark Mountains, seventeen-year-old Ree is surrounded by drugs, violence and poverty as she searches desperately for her drug dealing father while trying to keep her increasingly fractured and vulnerable family together. A stunning depiction of a world hitherto unseen on cinema screens, and the breakout film for a major superstar, Winter’s Bone also showcases a director completely and utterly in control of her material. Debra Granik doesn’t put a foot wrong with this powerful adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel.

A scene from Winter’s Bone.

Winter’s Bone was strikingly original and socially driven. “Films set in 90210 are ten a penny,” Debra Granik told Time Out. “But there’s rarely room to make films about a different postal code, and to show the lives of ordinary Americans who have to live with very limited material resources. Why is the country so big if you’re not going to show other parts of it? What a waste of civilisation! The idea of depicting this side of America didn’t make the film an attractive economic prospect. It was unappealing to any financing entity, even those open to socially relevant material. It’s risky to show poor Americans. People see it as a downer. But I really wanted to make a tightly wound piece of storytelling that also happened to explode the myth of American affluence.”

While Winter’s Bone received four Oscar nominations (including Best Film, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay) and effectively kick-started Jennifer Lawrence’s career, it did disappointingly little for Debra Granik, who didn’t make another film until 2014 with the documentary Stray Dog, a wonderful portrait of Vietnam vet, biker and dog lover Ron “Stray Dog” Hall. Granik spent a long time on a narrative film about an ex-prisoner adjusting to life on the outside, but couldn’t get it into proper shape, leaving another long gap in her resume, with the director’snext film not coming until 2018.

A scene from Leave No Trace.

The wait, however, was truly worth it. Adapted from Peter Rock’s book, Leave No Trace is the haunting, evocative and ultimately heartbreaking story of Will (Ben Foster at his absolute best), a war veteran with PTSD who lives off-grid in the wilderness with his teenage daughter (a stunning turn from Thomasin McKenzie) until the world catches up with them. Again displaying Granik’s affinity for telling stories about people living on the margins, Leave No Trace is another quiet triumph from the director. “I really loved the novel,” Granik has said of what drew her to the film. “I loved that it took place in a forest, because that would be photogenic; I liked the part of the country where it took place. I felt very confident that, if I went there to research, I would find all these other ingredients that would make the film visual but also have a cultural texture. I also thought that what the father was trying to do was extremely interesting; the way he was doing it was interesting. It was an opportunity to elaborate on his veteran identity, which is something I care about.”

A vital and consistently compelling voice when it comes to telling stories about people and sections of society that most filmmakers ignore, Debra Granik has clawed at gritty greatness with her three narrative features, and her next film can’t come soon enough…

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Taylor Sheridan, Laurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.


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