Debra Granik has many skills as a director, but one of the most notable is the way she identifies unique talents and brings them to the public eye. Her debut feature, 2004’s Down To The Bone, was a Sundance winner (Best Directing, Drama and a Special Jury Prize for acting) that became a breakout project for Vera Farmiga. Granik returned in 2010 with Winter’s Bone, the chilly, Academy Award-nominated Daniel Woodrell adaptation that made Jennifer Lawrence a movie star. And Granik’s third film (and first documentary), Stray Dog, focuses on yet another indelible subject: Ron “Stray Dog” Hall, a Vietnam veteran and Missouri biker with a perpetually startling perspective on life.
Granik and Hall met on Winter’s Bone; he has a small part in the film as Ozark drug supplier Thump Milton. Shortly after shooting wrapped on the feature, Granik began filming Hall as he prepared for a series of new arrivals in his family. As Stray Dog progresses, his aimless young granddaughter gets pregnant and has a baby, while his Mexican-immigrant wife Alicia struggles to bring her teenage sons Angel and Jesus to the country. Meanwhile, Hall counsels other veterans struggling with PTSD, attends veterans’ funerals, and participates in the multi-day Run For The Wall, a cross-country bikers’ pilgrimage to the Vietnam veterans memorial. It’s an emotional film, as Hall struggles with his past and helps other people with theirs, but also as he faces the present with humor. The Dissolve recently spoke with Granik about addressing the movie as an anthropologist, observing manly rituals, catching her subjects during surprisingly intimate moments, and the humor and marriage-straining anxiety associated with dog testicles.
The Dissolve: After Winter’s Bone, why the five-year gap between films?
Debra Granik: We wrote a couple scripts in that time. One of them is factoring into a project we’re doing now, a project we really did a lot of research on and liked the subject. We just could never get the story to be satisfying in a way where we could give ourselves that green light to say, “Let’s make this film.” There’s sometimes this period of trial and error where you get very involved in research, and it ends up being arduous work, and yet a film doesn’t come from it. That was part of that period. We’re always busy. It’s funny, it’s like there’s never a down moment, but there isn’t always a product.
The Dissolve: What’s the current project that evolved out of that process?
Granik: Last October, we started to work on a documentary, and a lot of that material that was at the core of our script, we’re now approaching more in a real-life manner. The people we’re filming now are grappling with those issues. It’s about putting life back together after incarceration, re-entry to society, and that was the material of the narrative we wrote. Now we’re trying it with real subjects who are doing just that.
The Dissolve: You had a pilot in the wings at HBO a couple of years ago, Nicki Paluga’s American High Life. Do you have any sense for why it wasn’t picked up?
Granik: The content in that was really strong. It’s still so relevant. Themes about how particular sectors of American society survive—how people proactively create their survival strategy—never get old for me, so the stuff she wrote for that pilot, I’m hoping will resurface. Writing about poverty, you can degrade it and make it humiliating. Some of the reality-TV shows have gone in a really awkward direction with material about people living with really tight finances, or in situations where it’s very, very hard to survive. Her pilot was a really finely honed piece of work. It’s like, “Oh well, something about it wasn’t violent enough, or sexy enough.” I struggle to slot material into a formula that requires a certain level of salacious content. Nothing that comes out of my little work tunnel seems to fit that quotient. I have a lot of trouble factoring the things I care about, and the subject matter I like to make films about, into anything that appeals to people who are looking for commercial success, or to make money from it. I am in a conundrum.
The Dissolve: You seem to come from a relatively urban, well-off environment. How did you become so interested in these rural stories about poverty, and about community?
Granik: I think I’m among a breed of filmmaker that is always attracted to things you don’t know. Given that I’m from suburban setting, the things I don’t know force me into a much more observant position. I’m interested in anthropology, and in urban survival as well. I am always interested in anybody’s roadmap of how they’re making their life work. For many people, there’s no easy path. It’s easier for kings and queens and the 1 percent, but even there, they have another kind of drama. When people share insights, or reveal whatever they’re doing to be able to live their life and not be weary of it—whether that’s kinds of humor, or making art—I’m there. You can sign me up for any of those projects.
There’s a scene in Stray Dog with a biker organization organizing a chili supper, which is a really common practice around a lot of the United States. I loved hearing the guys organizing the stuff talk about, “Who’s going to bring an onion?” It was a single onion. There was poignancy, delicacy, and deliberateness in that question, all these traits I just didn’t expect in that particular negotiation. I love when my assumptions are upended. Some of my biggest assumptions are about men, given how regions and genders divide us. They make me curious, “Why does the other gender do what they do?” Especially with bro-y men, or men that appear to really revel in and use their testosterone. If I can be a fly on the wall, or have an informant tell me what it’s like to be that person, again, I’m there. My ears are open. I’m taking as many notes as possible, photographically, emotionally—all devices going. These are things I can never know unless someone shares them with me.
The Dissolve: Of all the people you met researching, casting, and shooting Winter’s Bone, what about Ron made you want to specifically pursue him?
Granik: It was a chain of events in which I didn’t ever look at him during any single moment and say, “Oh gosh, I’m going to definitely do a documentary portrait about you.” We went about it in a non-moviemaking way. We went to say goodbye to him at the end of the production as we were leaving Missouri. When we arrived at his RV park, he had a very young vet living in one of the trailers. Themes like the current war-making, the past war-making, and surviving on very humble economic resources were all there. It was clear to us that there were health issues. Everything was there that day. I felt, in that short afternoon, that a handful of themes about America were just laid out in front of me.
Then there were some lyrical surprises. He suggested he might have fallen in love with a Mexican woman. My brain’s humming, and I’m thinking, “I am hearing strands of Americana. I’m hearing what it’s like to live in a different region. I felt that rich stories and themes about our country were being expressed by the residents, his friends and neighbors. And I felt he was very willing to tell the stories of the part of American history that he’s lived. And maybe he’s one of our last chances to look at the men of our country that came of age during the Vietnam era. What’s lasted? What’s marked them, what’s stayed? And I couldn’t ignore that it had relevance to Iraq and Afghan vets as well, especially the notion that PTSD—after it fades in the headlines—actually sticks around in a warrior culture for a very long time.
The Dissolve: There are so many possible narrative arcs in Stray Dog, but you don’t focus on any one specific story. There are elements of all of them instead. Why did you decide to structure the film the way you did?
Granik: It felt at times that there was enough material for three films. There could have have been a whole film that could have gone much more in-depth on therapeutic discussion, on what it takes to manage PTSD, or to face ghosts, and figure out how to live the next chapter of your life. There were more friends and neighbors that we profiled, and there were more community themes. It was very hard, and in the end, we tried to say, “What themes actually have a throughline?” He’s trying to get solace from veteran rituals, and the feeling that he’s a part of a community. What does wind therapy offer Ron and his peers? What do some of these guys get from it, and how do they act? And when they’re not causing anarchy, how do they look, how do they act, and what kind of coffee do they drink?
The Alicia material is our most narrative content, because that was life making a story: two people brush horns, get complicated with each other, things unfold, commitments are made, and children come with. In several cuts, we had a lot more content that dealt specifically with the benchmarks of immigration, which is a really long, drawn-out, arduous process. We picked the themes where we thought somehow by the end of the film, they deepen a little bit. You meet Alicia at the beginning, and you realize Ron is willing to forge a family with her. You meet Robin, his granddaughter, and you realize in a very short time that she made some choices that really impact her early twenties—having a kid. We didn’t know that that was going to happen when we started the film. We also could do a whole film about what day-to-day disciplined survival looks like in an RV park. We chopped out a lot of that. It was hard to forge this film. There’s no contest. There’s no big political fight. There’s no campaign. There’s none of that stuff that has a definitive beginning and end. And it’s not a detective story. There’s no crime that’s being solved. It had to be the themes in his life where we had new incoming information to hang on those spines.
The Dissolve: You apparently shot hours of direct-to-camera interviews, but used none of that material. What about it didn’t work for you?
Granik: We tried many times. Ron’s interviews were stunning. Even his written documents, his answers to me were extremely rich. I think at one point, we actually thought about putting on our website just some really interesting clips. We tried voiceover. We tried to use those interviews in many different ways. But when the editor started cutting scenes as live action, as scenes that unfolded, it became very hard to cut back to interviews. We had a cut where we tried to start the film with a really stark camera interview, and then let that action play out, but we couldn’t figure out a way to marry them. It’s not that we didn’t find them rich and good. The live-action cutting really became cogent, and we never cracked that egg. Voiceover has re-entered the documentary world in a really deep way, and we were hard-pressed to find documentaries in the last few years that didn’t have extensive voiceover. It made it feel risky to go in the direction we did. But we felt like in the end, it was a better pacing for the way Ron was moving and living.
The Dissolve: I didn’t realize how much time was passing in the film until Robin reveals that she’s pregnant, though she isn’t showing, and then when we see her again, she has a baby that looks at least six months old. How long were you filming?
Granik: We started in 2011, I think. We filmed over a two-and-a-half-year period. Our largest increments were consecutive seven-to-10 day periods for the Washington D.C. ride, and around the holiday season, at the RV park. We would be filming Ron basically for seven days all day. We would stick with him in a very intense way, from morning until late at night. It was the same thing on the ride. We were in the motel room next to them.
And then, we’d pick up isolated shoots with a Missouri shooter, who would join Ron at funerals. He was very involved in the Patriot Guard, a national organization, when we were filming. When there was a funeral, and he knew a day or two in advance that either a body was coming home, or an older soldier had died, he would let us know, and we would ask our Missouri shooter to go with him. That photographer was local, and had a very positive rapport with Ron. They got to know each other quite well over the period. It became increasingly easy for small, isolated events for the local shooter to be able to pick up things when we weren’t there.
The Dissolve: There are a lot of really intimate moments in the film, including Ron and Alicia in bed at night at the motel, with her laughing about how hairy he is, or when they’re at home arguing about her getting a job, which seems even more intimate. How often were you personally there when these things were being shot? And how did you get them comfortable with that level of intimacy with the camera?
Granik: For shooting in the bedroom, that would be me. The Missouri shooter, I won’t say he’s a prude, but he’s a very proper man. That would not have been something he would have been comfortable with. Something many documentary filmmakers know is that if you embed yourself long enough in anyone’s house, the phone will ring. Bread will burn. Life will go on whether you’re there or not. You become a strange house mouse, or a barnacle, or just a weirdo that ends up being there for a very extended period of time. Though usually not in someone’s bedroom. Ron has an incredible sense of humor, so he’d say, “You can be in here, and if it’s going to become a porno, I’ll let you know.” [Laughs.]
With Alicia, I really had to ask her permission to shoot. I would knock at her door and say, “Is it okay to shoot?” and I felt like a land shark. [Laughs.] She thought it was extremely peculiar and odd. I was not looking for sexual content. I merely wanted to capture the image of them as co-habitators, as being intimate, and I knew Ron had a very ritualized way of waking up, the way he does ablutions, then tying on his bandana. We’d seen glimpses of it. On the ride to D.C., it became very methodical. We filmed almost every morning—different bandanas, but the ritual was very similar. I think by the third time we were in there, Alicia was like, “I comb my hair, I braid it, I brush my teeth, if you need to be here, sure.”
She would say to me, “I don’t exactly know what you’re going for.” I’m not going to self-aggrandize, but I view myself as having some sense of sensitivity. If it’s not right for us to be there, it’s very palpable. We exit, or we don’t proceed. It makes me think about something Albert Maysles said. He said it many times, but most recently in New York I heard him say, “One part of the practice of documentary is that you’re always trying to get as close as someone will let you, but not so close that you’ll hurt them.” And it’s on you as the person as the person who’s asking permission to gauge when you might be overstepping. There’s no glory in tricking people, or violating them, or invading them in a way that’s like, “I got that shot. I know they didn’t want me to get it, but I got it anyhow.” You wouldn’t most likely end up using that in your film. Lots of people have asked about the bedroom scene. Ron’s very much, “You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.” [Laughs.] Unless your intentions are wrong, he’s pretty open-hearted. In that sense, I would take my cues from him, and then kind of clear it with Alicia.
The Dissolve: It seems like a big part of his life is outreach to veterans and their families, trying to get them to the resources they need. Do you think outreach was part of his motive in participating in this film?
Granik: I think he would say yes to that. It absolutely fuels his life to feel that he can be in service to something. Ron needs to be needed, and he’d say that. He would say, “A lot of warriors live with something ripped inside them.” The need to be helpful gives him a lot of endorphins and feelings of worth. Bikers and veterans, there’s an inextricable historical cultural link there about channeling manly energy by helping each other. At its best, it’s a form of camaraderie and brotherhood, this notion that a brother can talk to a brother.
Ron believes his life was positively altered by traveling vets who came to his RV park, and called him out on the fact that he was undiagnosed. He had not received any VA services. He wouldn’t go within miles of a VA hospital. He hated white-coats. These seven vets came into his park and said, “Brother, we’ve got to level with you. You’ve got signs and symptoms. We’ve dealt with it.” I think they were from the Southwest. There’s this progressive part of the VA where there’s combat-veteran counseling. The counselors are combat veterans. They convinced him. They had a huge influence on Ron, too. He took his first foray into counseling seven years ago, and was blessed that his counselor, who you meet in the film, also had biker experience, gnarly biker experience. He had a rougher biker path than Ron had even been involved in. He had actually been in the One Percent organizations. But stuff just gelled for him. He’s not evangelical, but he’s like one of these addicts who put down drugs after 40 years. He’s like, “If I can do it, anyone can do it. I was that incorrigible. I was that stubborn. I was that closed, so if I can do it, brother, you can do it.”
That scene when he reaches out at the VA hospital in Louisville, Kentucky—Ron’s emotions are running high. He’s on a ritualistic pilgrimage to the wall, so his world at that moment is about being able to put his arm around someone who might be in pain, and say, “Even if you just want to talk for a few minutes, I’m here. I’m listening.” He would say the trip to D.C. is like going through excruciating convulsions. They describe it as bodily pain—not just the arduousness of the driving, but the fact that they know they’re going to cry like five days away. The knowledge and dread of crying, and what that’s going to feel like in their glands and their neck and their tear ducts… That’s what I mean about anthropology—realizing there are these fellow homo sapiens who go through actual, physical pain in order to release tears. When they start that trip, they’re in that headspace. It’s ancient. It reminds me of some Greek ritual where they know they’re going to perform catharsis.
The Dissolve: Speaking of outreach, we catch just a glimpse of what seems like an emotional ritual in the film, where a veteran is brought into an elementary school in a bamboo tiger cage, and the presenters lead the children in a chant about POWs. What are we seeing in that scene? What’s Ron’s participation?
Granik: Ron, in that scene, is very much a bystander. That’s a ritual that usually concerns a lot of people. It’s pretty intense, to re-enact those POW experiences, and use those symbols. I don’t want to label it, but it can be a fringe element in the culture. I had to take an anthropological position there, where I said, “This is a country I live in. I’m in West Virginia, and this is something people are doing. This is a ritual that’s being performed publicly.” That same cage was used in Missouri, in the ritual where Ron was given the position of holding the flame, and the dog tags of soldiers were put on the tiger cage as names were read out.
We photographed every single moment of the ride. It’s is five to seven days depending where you start. They stop at very small towns, and they get the warmest welcomes. They get cheering in the streets. The kids come to this assembly, and some of the kids ask the vets who come through to sign t-shirts for them. It’s like a hero’s welcome, a honoring of warrior culture. That particular ritual was done with a local chapter en route. The gentlemen who’s in the tiger cage, the performer and re-enacter, I think he makes a living doing that. At one point, a colleague and I were saying, “That would be a pretty intense documentary short right there.” It’s very physical and baffling. But it’s not like he’s brought out in the cage at every stop. Other stops are more like a barbecue. They’re festive. Some of them are about speech-making. Some of them are just veterans offering food at a big buffet. Some of them involve children or a parade. In one area, they had a high-school band that came out and played some patriotic music. Other towns had a color guard that would come out and do a flag-folding. Each town offered its honoring in a different way. I don’t know why that town does that presentation for kids. I found it baffling. It’s kind of a ghastly image—the man in the tiger cage. I never understood why that was the one that showed to kids.
I have my own comfort zone. My comfort zone is with Ron’s therapist. We had many other discussions, and we had some on-camera interviews with him. He was just an outstanding philosopher in everyday life. He was a very self-educated person who was using text from Native American warriors to draw connections for contemporary, returning vets. He’s just really thoughtful. And same with the youngblood, the young counselor Ron talks to in the parking lot. There were so many positions where I was really moved, and could really relate. And there were other places where I was pushed back personally, and I couldn’t relate. That’s when you have to take an anthropological stance, or an observational pose, and say, “I may not understand what this means for some people, but it’s definitely being re-enacted, it’s something people do.” I took note of it that day, and it had a force on me. And especially when the children are instructed to chant, it was one of those things where I just needed to put that out there as a notetaker. I needed to include that in my assembly of images. That was a ritual that was being performed on the ride up. I would say that that is not something that occurs in these special moments. Ron doesn’t attend rituals frequently that invoke that kind of imagery.
The Dissolve: Was there other stuff that you encountered along the way that particularly struck you in terms of that surprise or shock, or needing to distance yourself?
Granik: I think certain things that happen at a biker rally would probably freak me out a little. It’s more of a country-wide thing—it wouldn’t be about vet culture. I have a very unresolved relationship with firearms and guns, and I was in the epicenter of gun country. That’s kind of every state now, though, I guess. It could be Connecticut, too. Knowing that everyone around me was conceal-and-carry, just the amount of guns were around at all times, that’s a cultural disease. It’s not my way, so I’m not familiar with it. By definition, I’m not really comfortable.
The Dissolve: You’ve said you talked to Ron a great deal about his views on guns, but that didn’t make it into the movie. There are other things you went back and forth on whether to include, like his stepsons looking up “pussy” because Ron says it so often. Is there anything you had to cut for flow or time that you were particularly sorry to lose?
Granik: Oh God, I would say there are many things. A couple of them are on the website, like DVD extras. There’s a scene of Alicia learning to drive that we loved. There was a scene I absolutely adored where there was no back steps at the back of their house. You see Ron and Alicia have this great conversation about whether there should be stairs or no stairs. I just really liked the lyricism of that exchange. There was one scene where right after his stepsons learned to drive, they had kind of a brush-up with Ron’s truck. He had loaned them the truck, and I think they scraped a tree. Or, as he described it, “It must have been the tree just jumped in your way.” They felt so bad. They were working as busboys, and they wanted to figure out how to save their wages and pay him to get the car repaired. He just put his arms around them and said, “I was 16. You think I didn’t bop a few cars?” His attitude was like, “It happens in the scheme of things.” If I was shooting a narrative, I would’ve wanted the scene to be just like that, but you can’t script that stuff most of the time. We did a shoot six months after the boys arrived, to see how everybody was doing. But we had to make an abrupt decision to stop the film within the first period of their arrival. It became like three endings to the film.
I love so many of the things we cut. There was one that was so moody and picturesque, like an early [Werner] Herzog film, and we couldn’t get the rights to the music. It was Ron and his neighbors doing outdoor karaoke in the RV park, and he sang a song he loves. And then there was a shot of him singing that same song with a different granddaughter, which was also hard to lose. There was a scene at Christmastime that we loved, at that community center where there’s an auction in the film. That same center had a Christmas party, and they had asked Ron to be santa. I had him getting into the Santa suit, and he got frustrated with the beard. The beard was twisted, and he came out rather disheveled. But he gave it his all, and there was a part of it that was so humble, and just to see the generosity. Basically, the whole premise was for those who aren’t going to get any presents, the town had a couple emergency presents ready. People who live with $5 and $7 making a difference in a lot of moments.
Similarly, there was a classic thing bikers and Marines do all around the country—toy runs, where toys are collected for the holidays. It was a pretty intense scene, to see all these guys arrive with these toys strapped onto their bikes, and it was very graphic. There were many that went deeper into biker culture. All the scenes that we had with his neighbors basically got cut. We went deeper into each neighbor. There’s several scenes of them doing daily life in their trailer, because that was also anthropologically significant. Many people in the park were not living in full-sized trailers. They were living in more like what you’d call a vacation RV, a small RV. There’s definitely systems of living to function out of a very small space.
And it was a very difficult part of the relationship between Ron and Alicia that Ron’s dogs had not been neutered. Alicia was absolutely exhausted with the dogs spraying things, and Ron had lived with his dogs for so long before she arrived that he wasn’t bothered. They negotiated and negotiated. She wanted him to get them fixed, and he kept saying, “The pain. I experience this pain. I can’t imagine cutting their balls off. I can’t see myself harming my animals.” And for whatever reason, he was finally able to do it. We even have footage of the day he took them, and the day he waited in the waiting room, and the day he brought them back. He held them in his arms, and—I think it was a Mother’s Day gift—he put their balls in a baggie, and gave them to Alicia. Not in a mean way, but as a joke. I think they weren’t their real balls—I think he got oysters out of a can. Getting them fixed actually worked out well—he thought the dogs were healthier. But we really got into the interstitial material there. I’m not saying it’s significant detail, it’s just detail of how they were navigating their relationship. In the end, I think he tried to use humor to get through the whole thing.
Some of their early discussions, we filmed them, were a marital disagreement about the dogs. She’s like, “In my country, dogs don’t sit on the couch.” But he needs those dogs. They completely alter his physiology. Those dogs are so inextricably linked to his functioning that it’s beyond animal-assisted therapy. It’s the next level. I really do believe that. He kept drilling that into us. He said, “You’re going to find many veterans that way.” And it proved to be true. It became a huge discussion after 2008 and 2009. There were lots of moving headlines about animal-assisted therapies for vets. Dogs were being sort of trained to help vets come back into balance, and feel a lot of good things. Ron and his cohort were early arrivers. All those people had known about the small-dog thing for years before it became an actual sanctioned, therapeutic methodology.
The Dissolve: What’s important to you that viewers take away from this film? What do you want them to take away about Ron and his life, and what he stands for?
Granik: I think that if a person has a will, they will always stay learning. Ron has added new chapters to his life. Ron was willing to engage profoundly with a person from another culture. He acknowledges some of his demons and ghosts, and will take the risk of doing that. The takeaway for me is to appreciate when willingness shows itself in people around us—to take an interest in that. I think some understandings of American warrior culture are that it’s big, real, and it’s no less than what it is in any century of human history. Those warriors have a really big bundle of needs that can’t just be swept away. A nation can’t do what we do, and not acknowledge the aftermath. There is a very large group of soldiers holding the emotional bag. It’s not just three to five years after the war. It can be a very large stretch of changing. After your first firefight, your brain changes.
It’s hard to talk about this. We’re really exhausted as a country. We’re exhausted after this many documentaries about Iraq and Afghanistan. We’re truly tuckered out. And yet, each time one comes by, I’m so glad it got made. I like to think of this film in that lineage of films that contribute to this understanding of the aftermath of combat. And then, I think love stories can happen. On a good day, it’s sort of that sweet part of America. Who knew a guy like Ron Hall would make this blended family with this Mexican family? I’m a sucker for a melting-pot romance. That’s not a very definitive takeaway. In some ways, Stray Dog is a love letter to the country I live in. When things work and brothers are good to each other, I get a renewed sense of hope. I’m looking for hope.