Aspen Filmfest: Novelist Peter Rock on seeing his novel adapted as ‘Leave No Trace’
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘Leave No Trace’ at Aspen Filmfest
Where: Wheeler Opera House, Aspen
When: Thursday, Sept. 27, 5 p.m.
How much: $25 ($20 for Aspen Film members)
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; aspenshowtix.com
More info: Thursday’s screening will be followed at 7 p.m. by a panel discussion titled ‘From Book to Big Screen’ with Aspen Words director Adrienne Brodeur, ‘Leave No Trace’ producer Linda Reisman and novelist Peter Rock. Tickets for the panel only are $15; aspenfilm.org
THURSDAY AT FILMFEST
Noon ‘The Price of Free,’ Isis Theater
2 p.m. ‘The Invisibles,’ Isis Theater
5 ‘Leave No Trace,’ Wheeler Opera House
7 ‘From Book to Big Screen’ panel discussion, Wheeler Opera House
Novelist Peter Rock previously had his books optioned by filmmakers; he’d written screenplay adaptations and worked with directors. But he’d never seen any of those projects actually make it onto the big screen.
So when he sold film rights to his 2009 novel “My Abandonment,” his tale of a father and teen daughter living off the grid in an Oregon nature preserve, he didn’t imagine anything would come of it in Hollywood.
“It’s come together and fallen apart many times,” Rock explained in an interview. “I didn’t have a lot of hope.”
But the film adaptation — retitled “Leave No Trace” and directed by the visionary Debra Granik in her first feature since the Oscar-nominated “Winter’s Bone” eight years ago — premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, made its way into theaters and became one of the most acclaimed independent films of the year.
“Leave No Trace” will screen at Aspen Filmfest today.
Its road from page to screen began when “My Abandonment” was acquired by Houghton Mifflin editor Adrienne Brodeur, who now serves as executive director of Aspen Words. She sold the film rights before the book had been published.
This evening at the festival, Rock, Brodeur and producer Linda Reisman will discuss the book’s creative journey to film in a post-screening panel discussion.
Rock has been working with Brodeur for more than 20 years, going back to her time at the literary journal Zoetrope, where Rock published short fiction.
The movie adaptation of “My Abandonment” went the usual tortured route of film development — bouncing among various screenwriters, directors and actors over the better part of a decade.
Finally, when Granik took hold of it with a nearly all-female creative team, it took off.
Early in the filmmaking process, Rock hiked around the Wilderness Park with Granik and discussed the project, which was inspired by a true story. But his involvement was limited beyond those talks and some time on set.
“I tried to be the most congenial and helpful author that I could be,” he said. “As opposed to being up in arms about things — just trusting that these people were trying to make something that was great.”
Granik and co-screenwriter Anne Rosellini changed some of Rock’s story and Granik made it her own. The book is told in the first-person, from the daughter’s perspective. But the filmmakers opted to tell the story without a voiceover, and to embrace the visual storytelling possibilities of the medium.
As opposed to the voice-driven novel, the first 20 minutes of “Leave No Trace” are largely dialogue-free — a feat of visual storytelling that establishes how the war veteran Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) are living off the land in the lush Oregon backwoods. Granik had the pair learn wilderness survival skills to believably pull off these scenes and shot the film entirely with natural light, which lends it an earthy aesthetic. When authorities break up Will and Tom’s camp and resettle them, their life is turned upside down.
Rock’s novel was inspired by a newspaper story about a father and daughter found living in Wilderness Park. A follow-up story reported that they’d been relocated, the girl placed in middle school and the father in a job on a farm. Then they disappeared.
“I kept waiting for that third article, and that story was never told,” Rock recalled. “So as a fiction writer, that was my prerogative or instinct to imagine what could have happened to them. … The thing that made it a good story to fictionalize was that there was so much that was unknown. Who were they? How did they get by day to day? Where did they come from? But mostly, what happened to them?”
Rock started down the road of doing more research — contacting the detective working on the case, the social workers who relocated them, the jogger who first spotted their camp. But he quickly dropped those reporting pursuits, opting instead to stick with fiction.
“The closer those interviews came, the more uncomfortable I felt about it,” Rock recalled. “Like, ‘I’m a fiction writer. I don’t need to get further into the facts. I have enough to go on.’”
Another novel inspired by the case, Jennie Shortridge’s “When She Flew” from 2009, did follow the factual inspiration more closely.
While Granik and her team changed many things about Rock’s story, they retained much of its ambiguity. The film places a welcome faith in the viewer, not detailing Will and Tom’s backstory or over-explaining the wartime trauma that sent Will into the woods.
The adaptation received adoring reviews after its Sundance premiere and in its limited theatrical release in July. Seeing his book brought to cinematic life by one of the most gifted filmmakers of her generation, lauded by critics and now entering the conversation as awards season begins has been an odd experience for Rock.
“It’s disorienting,” Rock said. “I haven’t figured out yet how to accept congratulations for it, because it’s not my work and there are things in it that I would never do. So it’s surprising how little it has to do with me. … It’s been a process of celebrating it and also letting it go.”
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