We spoke to director Debra Granik about her intimate, arresting new documentary on life in America's changing heartland.
More on bikers:
Debra Granik's documentary Stray Dog is a keeper, one of those films people will be watching in school and for personal satisfaction in 30 years. Title character Ron "Stray Dog" Hall is a Vietnam veteran and biker who attends military funerals and rides with the Rolling Thunder motorcycle club when he's not at home managing his RV Park, which is aspirationally named Life at Ease. Decorated in a constellation of badges, patches, and tattoos which honor the Vietnam War, motorcycles, the American and Confederate flags, and death itself, Ron Hall manages his pain by talking to and serving others, in particular the families of fallen soldiers.
"I walked around pissed off for a whole lot of years," says Ron. "A whole lot of years." Among other things, Stray Dog is a film about the things a person may do with a life once he is through with being violently pissed off. As Ron slowly divulges his traumas, crimes, and past misdeeds, we come to understand that his life now is the product of tremendous work in trying to better understand himself.
Ron exists at the center of a diverse network of family, friends, neighbors, and strangers who look to him in one way or another. The most profound development in his life is a recent marriage to Alicia, a cheerful and religious Mexican woman who is just beginning to learn her way around Ron's home at the beginning of the film as Ron makes a go of learning Spanish from a computer program. He fantasizes about retiring to the Yucatan while she dreams of bringing her pair of teenage sons from Mexico City to live with them in rural Missouri. What these newlyweds lack in a common verbal language they more than make up for in attentiveness and a willingness to adapt and respond to one another. Without settling on any single political issue, Stray Dog's cameras capture Ron in full, presenting a portrait of an American man who is painfully conscious of the past and doing his best to be open to the future in ways wonderful and strange.
Director Debra Granik met Ron Hall on the set of her previous film Winter's Bone, on which Ron worked as an extra, playing a member of a motorcycle gang. That film was nominated for an armful of Academy Awards and launched the Hollywood career of Jennifer Lawrence. In her role as Ree Dolly, Lawrence portrayed a sort of mythic folk hero girl, determined to find a missing father who vanishes after some bad business in the Ozarks meth trade. A grittier, less fantastic take on meth than its contemporary Breaking Bad, Winter's Bone is a relentlessly bleak film propelled by the force of Ree's determination and strength of character. By tapping into Ron Hall's intense empathy for the people around him and going along for the ride, director Debra Granik gives us images that challenge popular preconceptions about rural poverty, trailer parks, Mexican immigrants, Vietnam vets, and angry old men.
Earlier this month I spoke to Debra Granik in New York City over the phone. We talked about her powerful attraction to Ron "Stray Dog" Hall and his surroundings, and the impulse to follow up one of the most celebrated narrative films of the decade with an intimate, observational documentary about life in America's changing heartland.
VICE: Stray Dog is your first film since Winter's Bone in 2011, which was nominated for Best Screenplay and Best Picture, and earned Jennifer Lawrence a Best Actress nomination for her role as Ree. What made you want to follow up this major narrative film with a documentary?
Debra Granik: The documentary stuck to us as we tried to extricate ourselves from Southern Missouri after filming Winter's Bone. When I met Ron for the first time, I was sitting in South Missouri in a pew in a church, and I saw the word "Vietnam" on this large, hairy arm next to me. I was loaded with curiosity and wonderment about him. My producing partner and I went to take a look at Ron in his own real-life setting in the RV park. I could see this man that I cast to be a very stern and intimidating person standing there with his small dogs in his arms with his neighbors all around, and I saw the setting in which he really lived and the care with which he was trying to make that RV park kind of survive. He was standing in a setting with texture beyond belief. The metal of the RVs, the gravel of his driveway, the saplings that are trying to grow, the furry dogs, the big, bikes—it was just this kind of buffet. Any anthropologist and filmmaker who has those bents as I do would take this on. There was just a sort of aura of care and complicatedness around his life.
At that juncture Ron told me about his pilgrimage to the Vietnam memorial in DC. The anthropologist in me said, "I've never really filmed a pilgrimage. I would like to see what that's like." It was never a decision that instead of making a narrative right now, we should make a documentary. I said to Ann, my producer, could we not just to be filming something right now? Without waiting and being belabored, can we just go back to Missouri and do a test-shoot with Ron, see him mount his bike with a lot of brothers and go on a ride, just to see what that's about?
Ron's particular charisma lies in the fact that he is on a daily mission to make up for violence he committed as a younger man. He manages his personal pain by constantly drawing people in and listening and relating and doing what he can for them. He has this aura about him of welcoming everyone and making them a friend.
Yeah, and he would never say this himself, but he would agree that he feels this gnashing hunger to be helpful and to be needed. One way that Ron finds self-worth is in being able to help solve smaller problems, which he calls "situations." A problem is something that is really hard to solve, but a situation is something where if we put our minds together, and pull out our wrenches, we can probably fix, you know? His kin and his children live in a very kind of suppressing and confining poverty. He feels quite helpless, and it can bring him into a very dark place because he's not sure what could be done. It was quite intense to watch him hit walls where solutions are much harder to facilitate or push for.
What was involved in getting Ron to trust you and open up to the idea of being a character in a film?
That is the essential question of all documentary practice, where that trust can come from and how it develops and how much if it is there. As much as I might wonder about Ron, Ron definitely wondered about us as outsiders. Ron wonders how people in other regions form their ideas, their opinions, and what drives them. Through the questions that I asked him, Ron figured out everything about what I was interested in. He knew what I was trying to pick up.
It's something very basic, which is why many people are interested or touched or intrigued when a stranger comes and says, "I'm interested in your life for whatever reason. I'm attracted to your survival skills. I'm attracted to the ways that you are building your life and trying to make your life feel worthy and interesting to yourself." Ron responded to that and said, "If this is sincere, if you want to enter into a long-term dialogue, I am willing." From there you learn trust. You pick up people's cues.
There were times when we asked questions that hurt really bad, and Ron didn't want to go to those places sometimes. But maybe another day he'd be very willing. So I had to take a cue and be able to live with that. Yes, I had my agenda and I get very determined, but I also have to say, "My God, this is a person who's agreed to talk with me. He hasn't agreed to let me hurt him."
Like, I couldn't write that shit. I can't write what it's like for a man to take his neighbor to see if they can get him some teeth, you know? –Debra Granik
Stray Dog becomes a whole other kind of beast once the focus shifts from Ron to his wife Alicia and her dreams. A single film almost isn't enough. How did you stop filming? Where do you hit a point when you realize that the film is done?
It's beyond me how Ron decided that he was going to make the move to fall in love with someone in Mexico and complicate his life immeasurably, but he did, and that's narrative. I'm a sucker for an old-fashioned love story of two oddly matched people making a go of it, you know? And then in come her two sort of emo, metrosexual sons from Mexico City. Like, I couldn't write that shit. I can't write what it's like for a man to take his neighbor to see if they can get him some teeth, you know? Right then, and now, Ron's life produced scenes that were making me love filmmaking. We actually filmed six months after the ending of the film, when Alicia's boys had gotten their first job working as very elegant busboys at some of the resorts in Branson. We filmed Alicia, and by then she had gotten her driver's license. There were scenes where Ron was teaching her how to drive that were amazing for me. They were just this real, lyrical comedy, like this American stuff that I would have watched in anybody's TV show.
There was a collective decision where we agreed that, as much as we would like to keep going, we didn't actually have a contract to make a TV show. We do need some other stories, and to be honest, there was no ending. People's lives keep galloping forward, so there's never an easy stop point.
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How do you prepare for a documentary project like Stray Dog, which is so much about capturing the small details of life?
Ron was very willing to have conversations with me and Tory, on the phone and in very wonderful emails, where I would maybe ask a simple question, and he would then write back and I would learn more about his activities. I would learn more about the pressures he felt about tenants who couldn't pay, about new arrivals at the RV park. I would write in my notebook with triple circles and a highlighter when Ron would say something like, "I have to go, I'm having a lot of trouble bringing my dogs to the vet to get them fixed. It's become a really big issue with me and Alicia. It's almost like their testicles are related to mine." And I'm like, "Oh my God, Ron, can you wait to bring them to the vet until we get down there?" But life takes its course and there was a spaying program that paid a subsidy and whatnot, so he had to go on that day. Some scenes you can prep for, some you can't. He told me that he had to give CPR to one of the dogs.
Oh, my God.
And I was like, OK, this huge person giving CPR to this small dog—I'd never seen the likes of that. I'm like, "Are you trying to torture me dude? Are you trying to give me these shots that any greedy filmmaker would give a pinkie for?" You have to live with the fact that you will miss many moments of someone's existence. You can't prepare for a lot of things, like that an offshore Viagra salesman is going to call Ron's phone 60 times.
On film sets, there's a lot of Murphy's Law in play. Whatever can go funny and be a mess will be a mess. And simultaneously, gems will just hail down and overwhelm you, you know? You have to stay malleable with prepping for documentary because you could get broken easily by disappointment.
Stray Dog is now playing in Los Angeles at Laemmle Music Hall.
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