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.
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 2014 and screened at the New York Film Festival. Now, “Stray Dog” has been selected to open the new season of PBS’ acclaimed docuseries “Independent Lens,” set to air on Veterans Day (Monday, Nov. 9) at 10pm.
It makes sense that New York 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.
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.
I sat down with Granik at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic, which she attended for the first time along with the backers of “Winter’s Bone,” Anonymous Content’s Steve Golin and Michael Sugar, to get her to take me through that decision-making process.
Your documentary “Stray Dog” gives a fascinating slice of the lives of motorcycle-rider veterans and the role played by both religion and poverty. But you had so many choices you could’ve made. Why this one?
Simultaneous to making “Stray Dog” we did go through a couple of cycles on coming really close —
There was the HBO series.
That was one. There was a script that we really loved that was set in Baltimore, that we worked really hard on. It will come back as something.
Maybe you’ll go to television with some of these projects if they can’t be put to film.
I’m interested. That film was special in the sense that we said we couldn’t find the ending — that was an “us” decision — and yet the process was magnificent. I think it’s Wim Wenders who talked about wanting to create this project where he asked other filmmakers to make a compendium of films that never got made. Like, you saw the whole film in your head as a filmmaker, and they never just made it on. “Baltimore” was one of those cycles — where the learning curve was huge, where there was a lot of fulfillment. There was a lot of documentation that happened: we did a lot of oral recording and a lot of transcripts were made. Material was gathered.
What was the subject? Was this a drug person?
It was urban survival. It was. It was loosely based on a real-life set of stories from East Baltimore. So it was very much, almost like what happened in the neighborhoods of “The Wire” ten years later. Not just a continuation, but trying to go deeper — go deeper on family life, on the insides. No cops, you know. It was a very different telling.
I would like to see that.
I would like to see it, too. And we will. So it wasn’t even a question of finding the financing. Because we were going to do it scrappy as hell. We were going to do it, possibly, with a twelve-person crew.
Which would be appropriate for the material.
It would be very appropriate. I never… I don’t want to be dogmatic, but sometimes it just feels good, you know? But I never want to be in that position where I’m spending anything near the budget of a pre-school program or a lunch program to make a movie. For certain subject matters it has to be really humble, just to be commensurate of what you’re trying to make the movie about. We just started filming “Stray Dog” really close to the finishing of “Winter’s Bone,” down in Southern Missouri. And that was ongoing.
Well, you can do that with documentaries. You can go in and out. You can say, “We’re going to do this now, then we’re going to come back in five months.”
Eventually, to finish it, it takes over. That becomes the central focus. And there’s a novel out of the Pacific Northwest; there’s two novel adaptations.
So executive producing and directing the HBO pilot for “American High Life,” Nicki Paluga’s semi-autobiographical family drama about a young career woman returning to her economically depressed small home town in the midwest, completely fell through?
That fell through. That one I really loved.
What happens when HBO falls through? Every time I hear about something like that, you don’t hear it become revived somewhere else. You can’t take it to another company, right? If you write with their money, they own it?
Yeah. After you’re unattached, it’s their property. I think we still face this issue. I feel like reality TV has thrown a difficult wrench in the system– on the programming and making side, and on the curating side– which is that we now have a higher threshold for the salacious. We have a higher threshold, unprecedented, for fast, cheap, and out of control.
So HBO is guilty, in that they take advantage of R-content, they want sex, violence. Is that always cooked into their DNA?
Is it theirs? Or is it that horrible thing that’s hard to tease out, when you give people something, and people become habituated and want it? Do you find that, as a journalist, hard to decipher? Where’s the need? You know, it’s so easy to say, “Oh that’s what people want. That’s what people are given. That’s what the billboards show.”
HBO has a luxury, because they have subscribers. They don’t have to pander.
You know, I’m very scared that, still, we don’t like really intelligent, working-class characters. And that poor people, when they’re going to be portrayed, there’s got to be something ultra-badass. It’s got to be almost disparaging. We’ve gotten to a place where, even to see bad things that people do — I don’t mean difficult, complicated things that people do — but what’s shocking. We’ve seen it all now. I fear inurement. I fear that we will become inured to the idea of what it really means to have complicated things with economics in families’ lives. That we will become inured to what it really means to try to extricate yourself from a chemical dependancy. We’re exhausting subjects.
So if I’m following your logic, as a fictional filmmaker, you’re realizing, given the market of the world that we’re in, that docs are where to go? There’s more freedom. You can get closer to reality, which has always been your quest. “Winter’s Bone” should have granted you that freedom, even in this difficult climate for all independent filmmakers. Lisa Cholodenko and Nicole Holofcener have complained that even when you’re a writer-director, having a money-making career is difficult.
The money-making career is very difficult.
For a woman especially.
A film career. There are documentaries that will just save your life and be the conduit to the art form you started out loving. The artform of being in the producing mode — being able to go places and film things that wow you, delight you, stimulate you, come home with that footage, being able to work with that footage. No one has a green light when they start a documentary — not ever. You know, it may be a slow-burn if there’s no funding, but that’s the one thing that reminds me of Oppenheimer: “No one’s going to give you your freedom — you’re going to have to take it.” And documentary is that fur-lined tea cup.
Read the rest of the interview here.