Is Leave No Trace Based on a True Story?

Directed by Debra Granik (‘Winter’s Bone’), ‘Leave No Trace’ (2018) is a drama film that revolves around Iraq war veteran Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). They live off-grid in the old-growth Forest Park near Portland, Oregon, leading a minimalist existence by making fire with dry leaves and gathering rainwater. Will and Tom sometimes venture into the city for supplies and his VA-issued benzodiazepines, which he sells the latter to fellow veterans. However, their quiet life is suddenly interrupted when a jogger spots Tom and informs the authorities.

Soon, park rangers, police, and social services find and temporarily separate the father and daughter. After ensuring that Tom is safe, social services take her and Will to a Christmas tree farm in rural Oregon, where they can stay in exchange for Will’s work. Although she grows to like the place, her father becomes restless and decides to leave. ‘Leave No Trace’ is a poignant commentary on real-world issues like PTSD and homelessness among veterans. If that has made you wonder whether ‘Leave No Trace’ is inspired by actual events, we got you covered.

Is Leave No Trace a True Story?

Yes, ‘Leave No Trace’ is based on a true story. Debra Granik wrote the screenplay with Anne Rosellini, and it is the cinematic adaptation of American author Peter Rock’s 2009 book ‘My Abandonment,’ which, in turn, is based on a news report published in 2004 in Portland newspaper The Oregonian. However, the narrative underwent several changes before it made it to the screen, so while the movie is grounded in reality, it differs from the original story to a degree.

The police discovered a Vietnam veteran living in a shelter with his daughter in Forest Park, west of downtown Portland. At that time, the man was unemployed, and his only source of money was the $400 disability checks he received every month. Moreover, he acquired old encyclopedias to educate his young daughter,  and the authorities didn’t find any sign of physical or sexual abuse on the girl. As depicted in the film, the father was hired at a farm, but they eventually left the place, and as of December 2018, no one had heard from them.

In Rock’s book, 13-year-old Caroline serves as the story’s narrator, but the film doesn’t utilize this particular plot device. In a December 2018 interview, Granik told Deadline that one major source of inspiration while making ‘Leave No Trace’ was her conversation with a father and daughter in Oregon who practiced a non-conforming lifestyle.

The father told the director, “I wanted her [his daughter] to have this one chapter of her life where the woods could be her playground, where nature could be her classroom, where she would learn to read, and she’d be getting a lot of the developmental needs met, because I knew that at some point very soon, in her teen years, she’d have the rest of her life to conform. She’d have the entire rest of her life to be wired, have her device vibrating in her pocket, have emails that never go away, for the rest of her life.” Granik shared that she incorporated these sentiments into Will’s character.

Some key differences between the book and the film are that the latter is set in the present time, and Will is a veteran of the Iraq War. According to Granik, Will’s military background made his survival skills believable. Granik cited William Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ and the relationship between Prospero and Miranda while explaining her approach to the story. She also said that Rock told her that he could envision the father reading Henry David Thoreau (‘Walden,’ for instance, a story about embracing a simple life).

While approaching the PTSD aspect of Will’s character, Granik claimed that a book called ‘The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,’ by war correspondent and former Marine David J. Morris, helped her immensely. Clearly, ‘Leave No Trace’ is based on a true story, though certain aspects were fictionalized and added to give the overall narrative a sense of completion.

Read More: Where Was Leave No Trace Filmed?