By Melina Gills | Indiewire August 6, 2014 at 5:35PM
A self-described child of the northeast corridor, Debra Granik has nevertheless dedicated her last two films to the small town struggles of the Ozark backwoods.
In the first -- 2010's stirring, Academy Award nominated "Winter's Bone"--, Ronnie Hall convincingly portrayed the dangerous drug supplier sought by the protagonist (Jennifer Lawrence, in her breakout role) in a longer journey to find her father. Hall is now the charismatic centerpiece of Granik's first venture into documentary filmmaking, "Stray Dog," named for its subject's nickname. Granik continues to display an impressive eye for captivating protagonists, and Hall is as watchable and magnetic as Lawrence. Rising out of the drug underworld, Granik here remains focused on the minutiae of rural life, while extending her thematic reach to the trauma of war as well as the struggles of adapting to life in the United States as both an immigrant and returning soldier. A consistently engaging account of Hall's experience as a Vietnam War veteran, "Stray Dog" premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival and took home the event's prize for Best Documentary Feature. The film follows Hall through a definitive and transitional moment in his life, when he is finally coming to terms with combat guilt—tearfully recalling to his therapist having worn an "enemy" ear around his neck—and embarking on a new life with his Mexican wife of two years and her twin sons, who immigrate to the States midway through the documentary. The honest, sharp Hall becomes an intriguing gateway to a multifaceted, insular and little-seen community.
"Stray Dog" recently screened at the Maine International Film Festival, where Granik conducted a lively post-screening Q&A with a highly responsive audience. Viewers were eager to learn how she had become interested in Ronnie, his response to the film, and the current state of his stepsons. A war vet thanked her for her honest, critical, and yet nonjudgmental portrayal of the vet experience, emphasizing that he did not agree with many of the characters' self-aggrandizing patriotism. One of the most fascinating elements of the film is Ronnie's own constant attempt to reconcile his severe criticism of the government and war—at one point telling his wife that rich old men wage wars while poor young men fight them—and his dedication to improving the lives of veterans, often attending military events that romanticize the flag and "American freedom."
Granik spoke to Indiewire on the various stages of developing the project, which was filmed over three years and edited over ten months, and treading that thin line between narrative and documentary forms. We learned, for example, that it was not until late in production that the decision arose to include no interviews or voice over and that she had attempted but ultimately failed to reenact Hall giving his dog CPR. She also gave us hope for a promising reunion; having given Lawrence perhaps the best role of her career, which has since then flourished with an Oscar win for "Silver Linings Playbook," Granik says a potential second collaboration is a definite possibility. The film's editor, Tory Stewart, joined Granik for the following interview.
When you first met Ron, what most drew you to him? How did you know he would make this great subject?
Debra Granik: You don't know until you try and film a kind of sample. Filming a little with him is what gave us a feeling that we could do something with him, develop it, and learn more about him. There were a lot of themes in his life that were rich, loaded, and unexpected to us. You can see someone in a setting and make assumptions about them, but it is not until they start to tell some anecdotes and explain some connections, that there starts to weave an interesting fabric. Ron is also a natural storyteller. We learned that some of his stories he uses as icebreakers, as ways to meet someone he doesn't know—a kind of regional generosity. Some of those stories show that he had a colorful personality.
In many cases, he seemed to behave as an interviewer, creating a bridge between the viewing audience and the community.
Granik: He does take interest in people. He is curious. He's a reader and absorber. He knew he was going to be able to approach one of his friends, either a biker or a vet, much more readily. We weren't going to address someone directly; it was about filming the interaction and what it meant to him to be on this ride. We knew that Ron was getting something out of putting his arm around someone. If that person cried, there was a part of Ron that newly learned how to cry. A dam had broken in him a couple years ago at the onset of therapy. Needing to be needed is one of the pillars of his personality. He derives meaning from feeling useful to people. Sometimes it works, sometimes it's misguided, but it's in service. He can alleviate problems for people. He is someone who, if he could have a wand, would love to deploy it a lot.
Did you consider doing a fictional film on his life?
Granik: Oh God, yes. Especially the comical parts. He embraces laughter and life. As someone with a scrappy existence, a survivor, who doesn't have a lot of cushions, Ron has to make the sweeteners himself. A lot of his best friends use humor—badass humor, Christian humor, good humor. Tory and I can't write lines like that. We loved the lines that came out of his mouth. We would repeat them in our office and impersonate them sometimes. There were things about him—his swagger, his friends' swagger—that were really appealing. They were colorful personalities and had weird habits: what they wore, how they cooked, being very photogenic, sometimes hilarious, sometimes weird. I can't script that stuff. Is the temptation there all the time? Yes! There is a porous membrane between a documentary that doesn't use interviews and what you would call a neorealist hybrid film. We are all searching for the correct vocabulary.
Do you think the fictional aspects of the film come from your history with narrative film?
Granik: I do. We are influenced by examples from world cinema where there is a final line between documentary and narrative. The narrative is constructed, but the people are real. We always tried to get a lot of coverage.
The boys were already very photogenic. They were two attractive, emo twins. It was very touching how they did everything as twins. They were stunned by those first few months, and the footage gave us that. You couldn't write it differently. These were twins who were physically connected, surviving with each other in the room. The image of them dictated the story.
What were the most striking differences between directing "Winter's Bone" and this?
Granik: You have so much more time to observe and learn with a documentary because of the time between the shoots. You get a much deeper understanding of day-to-day life and its themes. It's also much more of a mess after three years; you have to comb it out carefully and see what fits together and makes sense.
How much did you dictate what was happening?
Stewart: We just talked to Ron a lot, and he started to get savvy to what we found photogenic.
Granik: We would say, "Do you think there's any chance we could shoot that?" And he would say he would contact the appropriate people to ask if we would be permitted to film. He ended up being a true ground producer, asking permission for us for certain settings.
There was one story that I had difficulty letting go. He had performed mouth-to-mouth CPR on one of his little dogs. And he was very happy when we talked to him because the dog had survived. From a photographic perspective, seeing this big guy perform mouth-to-mouth recitation on a small dog…. It really ate me up inside that we had missed it. We tried to reenact it, and it didn't work. In some cases, you can dictate; other times, you think you can but can't. Step one: accept fate. Two: see what you can orchestrate in terms of asking.
How was it for you as women, seeing as it is a very masculine setting?
Granik: I think it helped. We aren't jaded. It's not just yesterday's news for us. Everything they did was of interest to us, which became comical to them. I think there were times, however, when they must have experienced some kind of chasm.
Stewart: On our side, the desire to know was truly there; and on theirs, the desire to explain was also there. There was a mutual desire to reach an understanding.
Granik: At a lot of festivals, people ask why the subject would consent to being in a documentary. It can be a very meaningful and powerful form of reflection. You feel that you are being truly seen and something about the decisions you've made and the things you've experienced have a place in history. Someone for some reason is asking you about them. That exists for both male and female documentary filmmakers. It stops being about the gender of who's asking but the fact that you're a person who has a sincere interest. Many times, the person needed that opportunity to reflect on their life, and sometimes that experience alters them. I think people want to put out information and questions about their existence.
You have a great eye for rich characters and the ability to bring out the full potential in actors, as not only with Ron but also Jennifer Lawrence in "Winter's Bone."
Granik: I'd like to think of myself as someone who can do that. It's very contingent on a lot of things, however. Jennifer Lawrence has done so much since then; she was so hungry to push herself and experiment. There are moments in time when things just synch up in the right way, so you have to be really humble about it. There's what you bring to it but also timing and circumstance, and that goes across all filmmaking. There's an element of chance in all filmmaking, which is part of what makes it a queasy profession.
Stewart: And fun!
Granik: Yes, and fun.
Lawrence, in your film, was the best I have ever seen her. Will you work with her again?
Granik: I would never say no, but I would have to think of a good project. The protagonist in "Winter's Bone" was a really good role for a female. She was strong; she didn't have to conform to something or be a sidekick to any man. That's part of what you're responding to; it's a woman-centric situation. Her value in the film was not reliant on any man.