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Debra Granik Goes Rogue with First Doc ‘Stray Dog’

Debra Granik Goes Rogue with First Doc 'Stray Dog'

Filmmaker Debra Granik earned an impressive four Oscar nominations for 2010’s “Winter’s Bone,” including best picture, actress (Jennifer Lawrence), supporting actor (John Hawkes) and adapted screenplay. Clearly all the talent on display in 2004’s “Down to the Bone,” which boosted the career of Vera Farmiga, was not a flash in the pan.  What was the deliberate New York filmmaker, who works closely with producer-writer Anne Rossellini, going to do next?

Well, she pursued several promising projects that have yet to come to fruition. Among them were “American High Life,” a possible HBO series created by young writer Nicki Paluga, and Granik’s film version of Russell Banks’ novel “Rule Of The Bone,” marking the third part of her unofficial osteo-trilogy, about an abused 14-year-old Jamaican-American who turns to drugs, gets kicked out of his home, and returns to Jamaica to find his father. Banks was optimistic that a cast of unknowns and names would fall into place swiftly, but that didn’t happen. 

Lisa Cholodenko, following 2010 hit “The Kids Are All Right,” complained that things did not get easier after she achieved all that Oscar attention and success. She turned to lucrative studio writing assignments and television directing. Clearly Granik also ran into obstacles. “I’ve had to learn to evaluate the feedback I get on work to decide which suggestions I want to consider,”  she tells Women and Hollywood, “and which I have to push aside in order to retain my own taste, vision, and gut sense about things.” 

The project that went through: “Stray Dog,” Granik’s indie documentary about U.S. war veterans, inspired by one of the local discoveries in “Winter’s Bone.” The film world premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival and screens at the New York Film Festival. (Here’s Screen Daily’s review.)

It makes sense that indie Granik, fascinated by capturing la vie quotidienne in her films, would pursue this authentic look at a corner of American culture little of us know about. The film comes from a chance encounter in a biker church five years ago while Granik was scouting “Winter’s Bone” with Ron “Stray Dog” Hall, a Vietnam veteran who runs an RV park in southern Missouri. She noticed him as he was auditioning for a role, which he got, and chased him down in a parking lot, she said after the LAFF screening. 

Hall also helped the production to recruit more local extras for the show. What she gleaned from him made her curious to find out more about “the ingredients of his life,” she said, including the anthropology of the annual rituals surrounding his Vietnam war vet identity and newfound happiness with his new wife Alicia, a recent emigre from Mexico. She was fascinated by the photogenic trappings of this exotic biker universe with its culture of under-employment and love of guns. Granik told Women and Hollywood:

“At first glance, this burly, bearded biker looks like one badass dude. But Ron channels much of his post-combat need for high-adrenaline experiences into helping others: fellow veterans, their families, his own family, neighbors and strays along the way. His remaining restless impulses, he tries to work out on his Harley, which he refers to as his “shrink.” The movie follows Stray Dog as he rides cross-country to Washington, DC, with his fellow vets to pay tribute to their fallen brothers at the Vietnam Memorial. Back home, Ron and his Mexican wife, Alicia, assist her two newly arrived teenage sons, who are, like Stray Dog, striving to find their place in a country that has become foreign.”

Sometimes Hall mounted the GoPro camera in his own car. Granik was excited by getting small–focusing on tracking this man’s life with her producers Rossellini and Victoria Stewart, also her editor, and cinematographer Eric Phillips-Horst. But it was tough–and they had to find the film’s shape from 230 hours of footage. While the film is often touching and Hall is a charismatic subject, the exploration of Hall’s mission to help people survive the cost of war is finally more compelling then the final act challenge of bringing Alicia’s two teen sons to America. The film will certainly play well with veteran’s groups around the country.

“Documenting daily life cannot be scheduled and bossed around. You can’t capture everything that you want,” she writes in her director’s statement. “You can’t demand re-takes…Shooting and editing a documentary film is often a wayward and confounding journey of finding the narrative in a teeming mass of available material.”

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