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“We’d Revert Back to the Idea of a Cauliflower”: Debra Granik on Stray Dog

Ron Hall in Stray Dog

Much more than a companion piece to her Oscar-nominated feature Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik’s Stray Dog sets its sights on a peaceful and welcoming side of Missouri rarely seen in American cinema. Ron “Stray Dog” Hall, a Missouri-bred Vietnam vet and biker, goes above and beyond to help both those in his RV park community and fellow veterans suffering from PTSD. It’s rare to see a film that focuses both on the goodness of the human spirit and the painful, lifelong regrets that it may hold, but Granik allows the layers of the narrative to unfold with a nonjudgmental eye.

Patriotic without suffering from American exceptionalism, the film — an entry in last year’s New York FIlm Festival Spotlight on Documentary section — is set to open this weekend; timing which, for obvious reasons, seems somewhat ironic. Earlier this week, I had a chance to sit down with Granik to discuss discovering narrative threads in documentary, making your subjects comfortable on camera, and our country’s romanticization of the American biker.

Filmmaker: How did you meet Ron “Stray Dog” Hall? What was your way into his life and his community?

Granik: We initially met on Winter’s Bone. Casting him in that as this intimidating patriarch was almost like fulfilling a stereotype. Getting to know him outside of that film, such as meeting him away from the set and in his own RV park, [changed things]. He would have his dogs in his arms and I understood right from the first “hello” that his life was really connected in some way to his friends and neighbors. The cast of characters were there. The themes were there. It was clear that people were surviving poverty in a certain kind of way, living in dwellings that many people would consider very small (such as the RVs). The themes were rushing in. I had noticed his Vietnam tattoo during our initial meeting, getting a very rapid glimpse and understanding that that was truly a major theme in his life. That experience — the coming-of-age as a soldier — had marked his life in a way that was really longitudinal. When we met, he remarked that he had just come back from therapy. I was surprised to hear the word “therapy” come out of his mouth. He was defying my expectations. He was surrounded by themes, themes of what it felt like to be an ordinary American in the year 2011. That’s how I became interested.

Filmmaker: Did it take a while for the community living in the RV park to get comfortable with you? To be comfortable being filmed?

Granik: It was incremental. The first time we were there, we were oddities, outsiders with a camera crew. The first time you embed yourself in a setting that’s not your own, your presence is felt at all times. You’re noticed, and then things start to happen despite your presence. That’s when it changes. That’s the switchover. Toast is burned whether you’re filming or not, a phone call from an offshore Viagra salesman is going to happen whether you’re there or not, etc. That’s when a viewer starts to feel like, “Wow, how did they ever get so comfortable with you?” Life is happening despite you, and it’s not that they’re so comfortable but more that things are happening while you’re standing there recording. It’s about your ability to be welcomed enough to be able to stay for long stretches of time.

Filmmaker: How did you go about choosing the story’s narrative threads? There are some great small moments involving Ron looking after Gizmo, the family dog, after his wife goes on a trip, as well as the aforementioned exchanging of Viagra amongst friends lounging around, and the sequence where Ron accompanies his friend on a trip to the dentist. You’re creating much more encompassing characterizations when you pull out and showcase these other smaller moments.

Granik: The dentist sequence was interesting. Bobby, the friend who has to take a trip to the dentist, was really suffering. His teeth were so bad that he had mentioned that he wasn’t even able to receive proper nutrition anymore. He wasn’t able to masticate the food and it was getting to be a really big deal in his life. His overall human health was being affected. At one point, while we were hanging out, we got on the topic of dentures. We weren’t filming, we were just hanging out and talking, and that started a chain of sorts. Your presence affects everything. Bobby then started to talk to Ron about affordable dentures and where they could go to obtain them. Ultimately, it turned out that it wasn’t affordable for Bobby, and so he wound up doing what Ron had done for half his mouth, which is take out his own teeth. For someone living on a very, very, very limited budget, the idea of spending money on something you could do yourself is somewhat absurd. For Bobby, it was a logical thing to do. It’s dicey to film that [kind of thing], as it could be seen as a gross-out or “gee whiz” or stunt moment. It could’ve also been a moment I might criticize in other people’s films. It was a hard decision to keep that scene in. It was interesting because by the end I had become convinced that Bobby’s choice was a form of resourcefulness! I had to get rid of my own squeamishness to realize that Bobby was strong enough to do it.

Filmmaker: Were you stationed at the park for awhile? Did you come and go?

Granik: We came and went. When we’d be stationed there, we would be there between seven and ten days. It’s pretty intense what could happen between seven to ten days [laughs].

Filmmaker: Did you have your own trailer?

Granik: No. We stayed down the road at a very common [type of] motel, a kind of roadside motel that Branson has. We were twenty minutes away from the park. Ron had offered, many times, for us to say, but we just didn’t have the infrastructure to make it really work on our end. We needed lots of electricity for our batteries and things. We would, however, stay there late at night sometimes and wait until they all went to sleep before leaving.

Filmmaker: There are some moments in the film where you do see Ron and Alicia, his wife, in bed together, both in a hotel room and in their own trailer. It’s mentioned that Ron experiences nightmares related to his PTSD that cause him to sob in his sleep. Were you hoping to catch that? Were you present in those moments?

Granik: We were present, but when they were really ready to go to sleep, Ron, in his funny way, would say “If this is starting to become a porno, I’ll tell you!” He knew that I was very invested in keeping it chaste. I wasn’t in there because I was looking for them to perform sexual acts, and he knew that. Everything was by permission. I’d knock and ask if I could come in while they were relaxing together at the end of the day. I think Alicia found that very odd. She knew that film people don’t necessarily follow you around everyday, but then again, our culture has become a little weird. Reality television has really changed what the expectations are and the regarding of how much filming of ordinary moments might happen. You can call those orchestrated moments, I suppose, as I wasn’t just showing up and opening the door myself. I was knocking and taking cues about when it was time to go.

Filmmaker: Could you speak a little bit about the amount of footage you had when all was said and done? I know The Edit Center had worked with you on the film.

Granik: Alan Oxman of The Edit Center is now somewhat of a legend, and The Edit Center is legendary when it comes to the idea of reveling in the art of editing and the artistry and arduousness of it. The editor that edited Stray Dog, Tory Stewart, had gone through The Edit Center program and really benefited from it. She and I found it extremely rich. It injected something very positive into the process. It was very helpful to see people from different walks of life working in The Edit Center responding to the material. They were very encouraging. They would be chuckling or coming to us to let us know that they really loved a certain detail. To see people turned on by the footage was a very valuable boost [for us]. It also helped Tory with the string out. While she needed to go through every frame herself, it provided a very interesting counterpoint to what she was seeing, to see what other people saw. She had the wherewithal and the grace to really embrace that process and learn a whole lot. The classes could be both intimate and large, and they were really a true help and intellectually very invigorating.

Filmmaker: In our culture, there’s a kind of romanticization of the American biker, on the highway and in large groups en masse. There are shots in Stray Dog like this, where the bikers all travel together. The leather jackets are a particular kind of style and piece of Americana.

Granik: And iconography, absolutely.

Filmmaker: Yes, and in most cases, we don’t get to know too much about these men. But in your film, things really open up and we do get to know them. Was that something you were interested in exploring? That tough guy persona?

Granik: There was so much more actual anthropology on their ride that we couldn’t include. I loved seeing them get in their rain gear and their chains and things like that. For me, it was like seeing medieval knights with their large armor. The chivalry that goes on within their systems of discipline and brotherhood was so, so serious. I became interested in how they would compliment each other’s bikes or wipe down another man’s bike and polish their windshield at the end of the day, the care-taking and the carousing. I had a scene of those two guys in the parking lot, Don and LeRoy, and I was so curious as to the idea of two bikers in a hotel. When the lights go out, what do they talk about? I wanted to go to their room really badly! The sharing of snacks was another big ritual that we had tons of footage of. It was a fetish for me, like “Oh my God, they’re sharing snacks again!” A lot of it isn’t in the film, but we had a lot of that material.

I liked seeing tenderness between the bikers. I liked when tenderness would perform several emotional functions for men, in terms of catharsis. The physical sensation of velocity, of cutting through and being battered by the wind is [something I’m also interested in]. There’s loyalty present, of looking out for each other and signaling [on the ride], and then there’s the mission and the feat itself. It’s whiteknuckling to have to ride like that. It’s an incredible skill to be able to ride like that in a huge flock. You can imagine the domino effect in place if someone does something wrong, if you don’t keep your pacing. It’s a very high tension of riding, and yet they viewed it as a mission. All of the people on the ride would say ,“This is partly due to the arduousness of my military training. I’m able to perform this because I have a skill set that I worked very hard to obtain at a great cost.” They view it as a mission, as a maneuver.

Filmmaker: The film is steeped in one of Ron’s life missions, to be a caring and noble veteran helping other veterans cope. There’s a scene where Ron begins to cry when discussing with his therapist the heinous acts he carried out on a tour in Vietnam. In what ways were you conscious of having the Vietnam War, in your film, live on almost entirely in the verbal recollections of others? Outside of a few personal photographs, there are no memorable war signifiers or archival footage of the horrors that took place.

Granik: There’s some really amazing footage out there. I’m not speaking about combat footage necessarily, but footage of what it looks like to see eighteen or nineteen or twenty-year-old American men hanging out for hours at an airport either waiting to come home or waiting to fly out. There was basic training footage that was just so poignant. You can’t ignore the tenderness of men in their late teens and early twenties. It was a way to remind us of where soldiers come from, which is actually the name of a beautiful, gorgeous documentary by Heather Courtney about four men from Upper Michigan.

We had done extensive interviews with Ron, and at one point thought about incorporating extensive voiceover. Voiceover has really come back into vogue and has been very popular in the last couple of years. And yet we found it so hard to do both live-action and include the voiceover. The cut of the film we’ve made for PBS does have a little voiceover to help bring the viewer in a little quicker, as a television audience has to operate in a different way; they have less time to ramp up. But did I work to use some of that footage? Yes, but we never found a way.

Filmmaker: As the film patiently goes about documenting Ron’s daily life, you reveal a lot more about the members of his family about a third of the way through at a reunion. How did you work on creating this structure? We get to know Ron and Alicia first and then the film pulls back to reveal more details.

Granik: That’s a big reflection of what it’s like to make a documentary, honestly. In that way, you could say it’s a very unsophisticated structure. We’d revert back to the idea of a cauliflower, of a human life that we might try to get closer to that’s surrounded by so many branches and a very big spinal cord with all of these things feeding into it. We had met Ron’s sister at the family reunion. It became interesting because he had to go up to her area of Missouri, and so they stopped at her house. In some sense, the structure reflected our experience. We didn’t meet Ron’s  biological family until later in getting to know him. It unfolded like our experience of seeing different parts of his life. We had a really rich scene with cousins that Ron hadn’t seen in a while. After the reunion, he went to visit them and they reminisced. Some very beautiful things happened there. It was a really long scene though, so it was something we had to cut. We toyed with the idea of doing a triptych, of having the film made up of three 45 minute or one-hour sections,with one of those sections focusing on Ron’s family. We could have included more family members that way.

Filmmaker: But then you found a way to by including the granddaughter in the film.

Granik: She was the through line. Things were developing in her life, and when we met her, we didn’t know she was going to have a kid, and I don’t think she did either. That through line wrote itself, if you will. It manifested itself.

Filmmaker: Ron is rarely out of the camera’s view, but when the film takes a moment to observe another character, it really stands out. Could you speak a little about the sequence in Mexico where Alicia and her two sons are spending time together waiting for Ron to pick them up and bring them back to Missouri? Did you have two separate crews?

Granik: It wasn’t a separate crew but it was a small team that we weren’t formally affiliated with. Through a lot of help we were able to make contact with a shooter in Mexico. Along with a sound recordist, she was able to follow them in Mexico. There were a lot of scenes that aren’t in the film, such as a goodbye dinner that Jesus and Angel had with their high school friends that I really liked. There was also a scene of the boys getting their final haircut in D.F. We were also going to go down to Juarez, but our budget [wouldn’t allow it]. By the time we budgeted three additional airfares, we realized it would be easier to get someone from inside the country. We coordinated with two freelance groups that were based in Mexico, and that was really rewarding and wonderful, to Skype with someone we had never met and to discuss filmmaking. Things that happen socially within filmmaking is wonderful.

Filmmaker: Were Jesus and Angel comfortable being filmed? You document them going through such a giant transition in their lives.

Granik: They thought it was very surreal, and on one level, I think they also felt kind of cared for. I’ve heard many documentary filmmakers talk about this. Sometimes a documentary subject is asked, “Why would you want to participate in this project? What made you say yes?” One answer that’s both moving and real for the world is that sometimes it just feels good to have someone be interested in your life. Yes, it’s a chance encounter, but these people are interested in what’s going to happen to them and what they’re feeling. We did on-camera interviews with Jesus and Angel about their emotions. While they spoke about them, they couldn’t formulate them into words. How do you summarize it after just 72 hours in the country?

Filmmaker: Especially since they think they’re going to be living in a large city, the America they’ve imagined, and it turns out to be quite the opposite.

Granik: Their mother had leveled with them about that, and they just couldn’t fathom it! That’s not the vision of the U.S. we’ve exported. No one has a reference point for that.

Filmmaker: When Alicia asks Ron if America is currently at war, it leads to him proclaiming “Old men who have money start wars. TheN young men, who don’t have money, go fight the war.” In some ways, that statement sums up the anger veterans live with. While this conversation is taking place between the couple, we see Jesus and Angel sitting at the kitchen table in the background, unaware of the conversation being had.

Granik: At that moment, the question is then: “What kind of country did you come to? Will you be asked to fight?” It was draconian to hear how fast an immigrant is expected to be ready to serve. It’s no joke. You’re asked to register upon arriving in the country. Men have told me that they had to register when they were eighteen, but that a lot of them had forgotten that fact. Because I’m old enough to actually remember, I was a kid during the Vietnam War and I was struck when I would look at the young boys in my class. I couldn’t fathom that we were all in the class together and yet half of this class would have to register. It may have been the same year I had read Island of the Blue Dolphins or something. I was so traumatized by the idea that the three guys that sat at my reading table didn’t have an option about registering. The notion of the gravity of the situation was renewed for me by watching Jesus and Angel, so recently having arrived in the country, having that idea hovering in the air around them. That scene whacked me into a certain kind of emotional state of vigilance.

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