Here is the typical career trajectory for hot young indie filmmakers: Make a low-budget gem; premiere at Sundance; have a new script ready to go; lure financiers and stars for subsequent project; repeat.
But every once in a while, a rare American filmmaker comes along and eschews that traditional course, detouring into the worlds of documentary. For example, after his critically acclaimed dramas "Mean Streets" and "Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore," Martin Scorsese made his intimate family documentary "Italianamerican." Similarly, Jonathan Demme broke into the ranks of Hollywood with "Melvin and Howard" and "Swing Shift," but then pivoted to make his seminal Talking Heads concert film "Stop Making Sense." More recently, filmmakers like Robinson Devor ("The Woman Chaser," "Zoo") and Asif Kapadia ("The Warriors," "Senna") have also followed their respected dramatic films with nonfiction features.
Nowadays, as the divisions between fiction and nonfiction become more porous, and the stigma of making documentaries increasingly lifts, narrative directors dipping into docs may become more common. As David Wilson, co-director of the True/False Film Festival said in a recent conversation, "[Filmmakers are] taking advantage of whatever strategies will best convey their story. The exciting thing is that it’s not a ‘transition to docs’ or vice versa — it’s a malleability that hopefully allows filmmakers increased freedom of movement."
It also allows writer-directors to keep their creative brains churning while they navigate the slower moving cogs of bigger-budget narrative filmmaking.
The most prominent recent example of the trend is Debra Granik, who’s followed her impressive narrative films, "Down to the Bone" and Oscar nominee "Winter’s Bone," with "Stray Dog," an intimate portrait of a Vietnam veteran biker, which premiered last week at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Granik had been working on getting several narrative projects off the ground, including an adaptation of Russell Banks’ "Rule of the Bone," a TV pilot called "American High Life" and a Baltimore-set feature inspired by Eugene Jarecki’s prison system expose "The House I Live In." But for various reasons— from complications in script development to corporate cold feet — Granik temporarily left those projects behind.
"Meanwhile, what did I have on the stove, actually burbling?" she said recently. "This longitudinal portrait that I had become attracted to after ‘Winter’s Bone.’"
Granik had met Ron Hall, the 67-year-old Harley-riding gun-toting sensitive soul at the center of "Stray Dog," while scouting "Winter’s Bone" in Missouri. "He was a very giving person, and we asked him a slew of questions and a slew of observations hit me hard," she said. "And Ron was someone who was like, ‘If you’re not about judging me, I’m willing to sit down and talk to you.’"
Granik became enamored not only of Ron’s openness and vulnerabilities as an ex-soldier suffering from PTSD, but also the cinematic details that surround his life: from his quartet of little dogs rolling over his belly to the image of motorcycles speeding down the highway. "The stuff I was being thrown is like the film goddess hurling delicious things at me," she said.
The process of editing down 230 hours of footage to make "Stray Dog" was also significantly different from her narrative work. "It was like being an archivist," she said. "But it was such a joy being back in the editing room. It keeps me alive as a filmmaker."
While Granik begins all of her fiction work with "documentary reconnaissance," as she calls it, "observing real life circumstances and seeing which of those real life circumstances can end up in the film," the documentary reality she captured in "Stray Dog" never failed to surprise and delight her. "There were moments of tenderness that I could never script, and I like the way images can say things that words can’t," she said. "It’s the beauty and exquisite detail of life taking over."
"Narrative,” she added, "can be a nuance-crusher."
But that doesn’t mean she’s abandoning it for good. "I am not going to throw narrative under the bus," Granik said, and expressed a hope to stay "ambidextrous" between narratives and nonfiction in her career. "I’m just saying documentary moments can be this and that, but in narrative, you often have to choose either or."
Achieving that sense of realism and ambiguity isn’t unique to Granik’s endeavors, of course. As Martin Scorsese said in a 2007 interview, "That’s what I’ve often tried to get at — that kind of raw, unforced feeling when the actors lose the sense of artifice and the barriers between fiction and reality break down."