How someone is going to survive—wages being garnished, the electricity going off, bringing another human into the world—is what's interesting to me.
After making southern Missouri look like one the most terrifying places on Earth in Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik observes the place from quite a different angle in her documentary debut Stray Dog. Her subject, Ron “Stray Dog” Hall, provides a walking corrective to the debris of clichéd public impressions of vets, rugged bikers, immigrant wives and all else a moonshine, trailer park lifestyle might entail. To be fair, Hall is a biker and looks every inch of it—barrel-chested, leather-clad and grungy. He’s also a veteran of two tours of duty and alludes to a long lost period as an angry young man, a head full of nightmares four decades on. But what registers most strongly is Hall’s optimistic, renewed sense of self, the very defiance of a war-torn-person stereotype.
The same can be said of Granik’s film, a series of simple events that amount to an incredibly complex whole. There are no interviews. No voice over. There is no expository text or infographics. This is no “issue film”. Those concerns are secondary to exploring Hall, who Granik met while casting Winter’s Bone, and now the filmmaker has proven herself just as proficient at non-fiction as fiction. As we find out, the more she observed of “Stray Dog” on the making of her Oscar-nominated feature, the more convinced she became there might be a film in his life’s journey as it seemed to head for a turning point. Granik has fashioned an unblinkingly honest portrait, never tilting into the condescension that mars so many documentaries set in similar milieus.
Stray Dog opens theatrically on July 3rd in New York City and July 24th in Los Angeles.
What drew you to Missouri in the first place? First Winter’s Bone and then you returned with Stray Dog, which takes a different angle on the place.
As you know, I met Ron during the shooting of Winter’s Bone. At the end of that shoot, when we were about to leave the state, I went to say goodbye to him and re-met him, really, outside of the Winter’s Bone story. I met him in his real life for the first time. I met his real neighbors, not fictional ones. I became very quickly interested in that one visit. A lot of the things that he was involved with and a lot of the issues in his life were very available for a feature documentary. It was very visible and he was very articulate about it. When I got back to New York, he was in my thoughts a lot. I called him up and told him we’re going to do this little piece, not a DVD extra, but a little essay called Hillbilly Up, which related to the definition of a “hillbilly”. What is a “hillbilly”? What do the people who self-identify think that word means, you know? All of a sudden, these labels and divisions came to the fore. I knew it would be an interesting discussion. And Ron was not only articulate, but funny about it. I was very attracted to his story, his wife, and his circumstances. I introduced the idea of making something larger with him and he agreed.
We live in a weird age where we find forms of entertainment in things like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty. What are your personal views on that kind of stuff where the humanity is largely stripped away?
I don’t really know how to describe it without totally slamming it. All I want to say is that I’m more of the school of filmmaking where I’m mostly looking to record what’s going down in someone’s daily life. Certainly the big events, too, but I’m not looking to egg someone on to make their life more dangerous. The stakes in their life is already interesting to me, so I don’t need to amp them up. How someone is going to survive—wages being garnished, the electricity going off, bringing another human into the world—is what’s interesting to me. What would I do if I have to pay the electric bill, but my wages don’t come close to doing that? That, to me, is the high stakes. Simply, what would you do? I guess what I’m trying to say is that I care a lot about the conundrums and situations that people have to navigate. All that bad behavior that’s showcased on TV where you watch people destroy themselves—watch them be stars, watch them be drunk, watch them living a life as an heiress, watch them be tyrannical and asinine managers—is interesting because of the survival instincts. There should be more survival skills taught in curricula. [Laughs] If we watched a show about someone living in poverty getting a decent wage and changing their diet—getting out of their food desert—that would be an interesting reality TV show.
Did you set any parameters going into this? What was off-limits with Ron right off the bat?
There were. When we came to an agreement that we would follow the ride from Missouri to Washington, which Ron facilitated very much so, he didn’t want us to film other soldiers and veterans at the wall. That was really off-limits. That’s where someone can feel really violated and abused, in a moment where they need to be private. I’ve been there seven times now and I remember my first year where someone came over and offered me a Kleenex, touching my shoulder. I did shove them away at first. You have to be very mindful that there’s a lot of people there who distrust you and don’t know what you want from them or what you’re going to portray. We chose to film the wall at night so you simply couldn’t see that much, you know? With anyone that we actually shot, we had their full consent. We asked them, “Is it okay if we film this conversation?” Then you have the stuff we filmed that we didn’t know what to do with. There were stuff that seemed too complicated and we could never make work. There were concerns that cropped up on a financial level. The entire film could’ve been made about that, but I’m just saying it was very expository. There are things that we attempted to film that we couldn’t actually edit in a way that the audience could ingest. You’d just have to know a whole lot more.
With documentaries, there are so many factors that you just can’t control. What was your game plan here going into it? How much did you know?
The things that you can prep for has to do with certain dates. With the ride thing, we knew we had a van at the starting line. We took off when they took off and we had a drive behind them, you know what I mean? Those were some of our most structured shoots, even though at every stop, we didn’t know what we were going to get. We didn’t know that we were going to get—this is not in the film—a discussion about lattes at the rest stop. We didn’t know that “Young Blood”, or Fred, would drive into that motel one night. All we knew was that Ron was staying at that motel that night and we would also be there. We would ask very politely, “Can we film you having the avocado?” [Laughs] We didn’t know that when Ron went out to smoke, Fred would pull into the same parking lot. So there’s some structure because you’re planning and you plan to have all of your batteries charged at all times. But circumstances throw a lot unexpected things at you.
How does your directorial approach shift when you’re taking on a real person as opposed to a fictional character? I know you’re big on authenticity, so how do you take on someone like Jennifer Lawrence in a way that’s different from non-professionals?
A good example would be the army recruiter in Winter’s Bone. He was a real army recruiter who helped the scene come alive. He was using real text. I didn’t know the real text, so I put a placeholder in the script with what I thought would happen in the scene. All I knew was that Ree [Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone] was wondering if she could really raise some fast money by getting a bonus. She didn’t know if you get the bonus the day you sign up or how that whole thing worked. A real recruiter would tell someone, “It’s a lie,” especially when a recruiter discovers that a young kid might sign up just for the money. “If you’re doing this just for the money, I have to stop you,” you know? He had wonderful lines that were real. I recorded them in serious improvisation and he was a very shy person to begin with. I called him back really close to shooting and it was clear as hell to me that I needed him to play himself. He can make the scene work because the lines have authenticity. He said them differently every single time. Jennifer’s a trained actress, so she really listened to him and answered accordingly. What I’m trying to say is that, I never asked [Sergeant] Russell [Schalkto] to do something differently than what he would normally do. As a non-professional performer, I was asking him to do something that’s very familiar to him. I would never ask him to be a shoe salesman, for example. I wouldn’t ask him to be a procurement officer. I wouldn’t ask him to just shoot the shit with Ree as her neighbor.
Could you share the conversations you had with Ron after he had watched the finished film and what his impressions were in terms of how he was portrayed?
You know, he had to latch onto something. Anyone would be, like, is the film positing him as extra special or ordinary? When you open up any life, there are a ton of details that allow us to see how people put their lives together and how they piece together this puzzle, right? That doesn’t make you special or not special, it makes you a willing participant to life. You’re willing to show your life or parts of your life. You’re willing your life to be documented and be photographed. So what he did latch onto was that it does feel good to him to see himself reaching out to the other vets. He told me it feels really good to see himself doing that. He told me, “I feel really good when I see myself take something that has benefited me and try to pass that along.” He loves seeing himself on a bike. That makes him feel really good, whole and attractive. There’s a reason why biking is photogenic and why it’s been a frequently pleasing thing for people to witness as this kinetic, cinematic thing. If you’re taking the curve and doing well, it’s this majestic looking thing, you know? Honestly, Ron loves humor. Like many scrappy survivors, he uses humor as one of his weapons for survival. He’s definitely someone who can muster a chuckle.
Documentaries are rarely known for opening the doors to sequels, but I think it would be so interesting to do a follow-up story on Stray Dog. There’s so much story here.
Oh god, yes. People tell me, “Do something on the twins! What happens to the twins?” If someone said we’re ready for a series on an American family and it could be fictionalized to just focus on every detail of their everyday life, and not parade it around as a documentary in order to protect the subjects, that would be interesting! Years ago, [Michael] Winterbottom made a show called Family, a four-part series from the late ’80s, and each section focused on one member of the family. One episode was shown completely from the dad’s point of view, one from the mom, one from the son and one from the daughter. Many of the same issues were covered, but shown how different the perspectives were. I always thought it was such a powerful piece. So would I be interested in exploring something like that? Absolutely.
Director Debra Granik, Kent Jones, and Ron “Stray Dog” Hall after the STRAY DOG screening at #NYFF. Photo by @torikoriko #straydog
What does your current trajectory as a storyteller look like? Do you want to go down the fiction or non-fiction route? Is this very clear to you?
I’m hoping that it’ll always be both! [Laughs] They inform each other so much. The big difference, though, is that non-fiction is easier to start. It’s much easier to get attracted to a subject matter, scenario or a long-form article that you read. You can reach out to those people and do a test shoot to see if it’s even possible. And all of that can be done without someone telling you whether you should or should not do it. There’s no green-lighting involved because you’re giving yourself permission to move forward. What draws me to fiction is that you can, if you want, ask for a scene to be done differently. You can ask the actors to do a scene like this or that. The whole emotional dynamic changes with the direction in a scene. So, of course, I’m drawn to both. I think a lot of directors need both in their lives.
So what do you have on your plate now?
I’m actually working on one of each. On the doc front, I’m working on the subject of prison re-entry. What happens after incarceration? On the narrative side, I’m working with my producing writing partner Anne Rosellini on an adaptation of a novel set in an entirely different region.
How have your uncommonly colossal successes changed what’s available to you?
Offers are weird right now, right? I kind of took myself out of that orbital on purpose because I’m not really sure where filmmaking is going when you use a lot of another company’s money. I just don’t know where that’s going right now, in a real sense. I think things are awfully big. There are a lot of really large films. I really work in a low range of budgets. That’s hard to deal with when it comes to big companies because there’s a lot of above-the-line weight. There are a lot of people who have to draw big salaries from a big company. So offers from big companies were never a good match most likely. Would I ever entertain the idea if the subject was good? Of course I would! It’s not like I want to cut myself off from that completely. It’s just not a natural match. The stories I want to tell just don’t guarantee a lot of money back, so I can only borrow or use very small amounts of money to make them. There’s no guarantee. I have to keep it humble.