Critics are spilling gallons of ink about Ben Foster's turn in the off-the-radar father-daughter drama Leave No Trace, which is ironic because Foster's character in the movie often has very little to say. In Debra Granik's hotly anticipated follow up to her Oscar-nominated Winter's Bone, Foster plays Will, a former soldier adjusting to life back home who prefers to life way off the grid with his daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). But when CinemaBlend spoke with Foster as he drums up awards support for Leave No Trace, he explained that the absence of dialogue for Will was a conscious choice, elaborating:
The way that I work is, I prefer to be able to see it in my mind. If I can see it, I can feel it. I'd much rather feel it than think it. When we got into it together, Debra and I, I shared essays, storybooks and photos -- anything that was bubbling to the surface. And then I came to this line in the script, which was, 'Is it a want, or is it a need?' He's talking to his daughter about a chocolate bar [in a grocery store], and she asked him is it a want or a need? ...
I circled that line and I brought it back to Debra, and said, 'How about you and I look at the script with a red pen, just as an exercise, and if he doesn't need to stay it, then he doesn't say it. And let's see what we can get away with. Let's see how sparse we can get away with. Let's make his use of language as spare and as far as is what he would call belonging. And we were able to cut a fair amount of out of the script. ... I'd say we cut out about 40 percent.
That's a significant amount of dialogue chopped from a script that Debra Granik no doubt worked on for months -- years, even. And it likely changed the character drastically. But changed him in a way that fit Ben Foster's approach.
Will, in Leave No Trace, is a man who can't get comfortable in his own skin. Back from war and embracing fatherhood, Will wants to raise Tom the best way he knows how. To him, though, this means dropping out of society and living amongst a surprise group of citizens who call the woods home.
Leave No Trace continues to show that Debra Granik excels as a storyteller focused on people we don't normally see on the big screen. Much like in Winter's Bone, she has incredible control over the way that characters are presented, with their layers both visible and invisible to the audience.
So when I asked her if she immediately trusted Ben Foster's decision to make changes to Will's dialogue, she surprised me by saying no. Then she elaborated:
You have to be very careful. Because you've got to remember that someone's starting to do changes... and yes, it's exciting to change lines. It's exciting, and you can add lines and you can subtract lines, but the fact is it has to be quite sober a process. Because the lab or the instructor or the coach would say to you, 'You've just spent three years working on this over and over again. Are you really gonna make a good decision in 12 seconds on a set?' After you've actually spent a lot of years thinking about it. That doesn't mean that wonderful things -- you get to be very open. Wonderful things do happen on the set. Wonderful things happen in rehearsal. But with Ben, you know, he had good reasons for some of the reductions he wanted to make. Some of them I agreed with them. And when I didn't, I said, 'Let's try to do it both ways.'
Debra Granik went on to explain that while she can have inherent trust in an actor she has hired -- be it Ben Foster or Thomasin McKenzie for Leave No Trace, or even Jennifer Lawrence for Winter's Bone -- it's crucial that a writer-director remembers how much time has been spent honing a script before a performer got a chance to analyze it. And in addition, the script is going to get another pass in the editing room, anyhow. So rash decisions on the set aren't always advisable.
The powerful and memorable Leave No Trace shows that Ben Foster and Debra Granik made wise decisions in the process by stripping away dialogue that might have painted a broader picture of Will (and even of his daughter). But the actor, and the movie, are saying the most by saying very little at all, and that silence could carry them to awards consideration.
You can stream Leave No Trace now on virtually all of your preferred streaming platforms, from Amazon Prime to Google Play. It will be interesting to see how the movie is received as year-end critics' lists start to form, especially around the performances of the two leads, who are spectacular.