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Debra Granik on going from 'Winter's Bone' to the doc 'Stray Dog'

After a big hit, filmmaker Debra Granik turned to a small passion project, documenting a middle America vet keepin' on.

Debra Granik had a big hit; she directed and cowrote “Winter’s Bone,” which propelled both Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes to Oscar nominations and stardom. But she wound up chasing that up not with another fiction film but with “Stray Dog,” a documentary about Ron Hall, one of the locals she met in the Ozarks while making the film. A Vietnam vet biker with tattoos, he confounded stereotypical expectations by being warm and welcoming, allowing Granik to film what to him was a normal life, running a St. Louis RV park. In addition to showing him with Alicia, his wife who came from Mexico to live in his trailer, it shows him hanging with his fellow vet friends and wrestling with PTSD, all while soldiers from more recent wars return home.

What were the motivations behind doing a small, personal film after a huge success?

There are projects you choose and there are those pick you. It was a little like that with this project, in the sense that we innocently tottled over to say goodbye to Ron, and we felt like we had walked into the next movie. The dogs, the bikes, the neighbors — everyone was in his yard that day. He was prepping to go on this pilgrimage, and he thought he had a crush on a woman in Mexico. It didn’t hit me right away. It wasn’t like I stood in the yard and thought, this was my next project. We got back to New York and we couldn’t forget him. I found myself wondering about him. It wasn’t in lieu of doing a narrative fiction we do this. Anne [Rosellini], my producing partner, and I were reading a whole lot of fiction scripts, to see what would be our next project. This was never the only project; it was something we thought we were doing on the side, as we struggled one some other things. We were really close to making something by our own hand, but we couldn’t crack the ending of the script. It was an urban drama and we were really loved 85 percent of it but couldn’t get the end to work. This was a little passion project, if you will.

This was your first real exposure to that part of America. What first made you interested in exploring it?

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“Winter’s Bone” was the reason. I had never gone to the Ozarks. To me the book was the region. That novel was written about that community by an Ozarks author. I wasn’t going out of my way to avoid the Ozarks, but it just wasn’t on my radar. I am someone who doesn’t know a lot of his country. Once I committed to the book we absolutely had to immerse ourselves. We asked for people to be our liaisons, who knew, really, on a cellular level, that life and those people. They would tell us pieces of dialogue that were off. I was very much an outsider.

How did Ron react to you wanting to make a film about him?

It was initially quite baffling to him, perplexing. He said, “What are you seeing in me? What would make you interested?” With that comes a pretty big responsibility. The filmmakers really have to be able to be honest and say what it is you’re observing in them. I told him I wasn’t familiar with certain rituals and ways that veterans continue their bond and cope with things as a group — small groups, local groups. What do these brotherhoods supply for each other? Ron had been very estranged from the veteran community for the majority of his adult life. It was by finding one that really worked that he reintegrated himself a little bit. Ron has a performative side. He’s a good storyteller. There’s a part him that enjoys that ad he gets something meaningful, chemically, from communicating emphatically and with spirit. He’s not a shut-down human being.

If he wasn’t sure why you were filming him, at least initially, how did he react to seeing the final film? It can be strange seeing not just yourself on screen, but someone else’s interpretation of you.

For Ron it was easy. We went to show it to him with great jitters. Before you can make a film public you have to show it to your subjects. That’s the scariest screening you’ll ever go to, because that’s the person who trusted you. If they feel you betrayed them, if they don’t like the film, it can be a very devastating moment for a team that put a lot of hours into making the film. We went there with bated breath, in a theater with Ron and the editor and two others, and the first time he laughed — a big belly laugh — we were so relieved. Most of the laughter was when he’d see his close friends. I think it was very validating for him to see that his friendships are very palpable. You don’t have to know the man to see he and his friends connect in meaningful ways. And the parts that are upsetting or troubling — if anyone asked him why he did this, he would say that if it could be useful to anyone then he would be fulfilled.

This is your first documentary. It seems like it can be scary to not know what’s going to happen, and have no idea where your end point is. And the film is more a portrait than a story.

We just saw a group of people who were living very deliberately in a disciplined way to survive. They’re just trying to make life worth living and working hard at it, using humor and using smarts. There’s the suspense of how you make this life work, of what happens when you don’t, when you don’t have enough money to pay your rent — the suspenses and the micro-suspenses of every day. We wanted to show that in a day-to-day existence. But this story developed into a really traditional narrative, which is a love story. He fell in love with someone across a national border, and invited her to come live with him. Then her two sons came. His life took off without him, on some level. It snowballed quicker than he could have anticipated. I had no idea any of this would transpire.

For those not from or who don’t live in middle America, watching “Stray Dog” can be shocking. We might have a stereotypical idea of what someone like Ron, a biker good ol’ boy, might be like, but he constantly surprises us. And we see a part of the country perhaps surprisingly open to a changing America.

For me it’s not just his life as it’s lived; there’s a lot of terrific contemporary American themes. I didn’t expect that either. There was an essay waiting in this RV park, an essay about what it’s like to live in 2013 or 2011 in the United States, in the heartland. It’s about what it’s like to watch returning soldiers come home when you have the perspective of an older veteran who fought in a different era, and seeing another generation going through what you went through: PTSD, finding significance after your warrior existence has been terminated, how to find the next chapter of your life. And it’s about living through tight financial circumstances. The financial crisis had made an influx of people who couldn’t pay their rent. I don’t mean in a direct way; I don’t mean to sound reductive. I just mean the economy had taken a turn in which a lot of Americans found themselves more financially strapped than they were before. He was one of those people who said, “I’m downsizing, I’m going from a house to an RV. That’s what I can afford right now.” Those are contemporary themes, and they’re splayed out in his yard.

Ron came here when the film was shown at the New York Film Festival last year. How did he react to this part of the country?

He’d taken a big risk to come to New York. In previous years he didn’t feel emotionally stable enough. He had big issues with huge metropolises, with tons of stimuli — things that could trigger in him a huge amount of anxiety and discomfort. He said it was another positive pilgrimage in his life. He had coastal issues. It wasn’t just the cacophony of cities. It was also, “Am I welcome on the coast? Is the likes of me going to connect with the likes of you.” He got a lot out of the Q&As in New York. It felt really good to him. I was moved by that. I agree with you: When you read about the likes of him, you think, “Oh shoot, it’s another culture, another world.” And it is. And he reads about big east coast cities and feels the same way. These differences can be huge around certain things. They can divide our country very seriously. But it’s important to have a dialogue going. I wish there was some formal way that people from different states could talk to each other, not in some adversarial campaign debate, but in a heartfelt, sincere way — “this is what I’ve never understood about your views,” or “this is what I’ve wanted to ask all my life.” Ron offered that to me and my colleagues when making the film. He accepted having an extended dialogue with us over the years.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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