When Debra Granik stumbled across Stray Dog's Ron Hall while making Winter’s Bone (the movie that garnered Jennifer Lawrence her first Oscar nomination), she knew she had found someone special. At first, audiences may get a false first impression of Hall—he’s a hard-drinking tattooed, biker, Vietnam vet who runs an RV park in Missouri. However, Hall serves as a pillar of his community—generous, kind and gregarious—even as he deals with economic hardships and his lingering PTSD. The two loves of his life are his dogs and his Mexican wife, Alicia, who struggles with life in this country because she misses her two sons.
Granik and her team follow Hall as he dedicates himself to watching out for his family and friends, even going so far as to help bring his stepsons to this country. Through Ron, audiences see how issues such as the economic recession, lack of care for veterans, and inhumane immigration laws affect the lives of a small community in Missouri.
We got the opportunity to speak to Granik about what initially drew her to Ron, how she maintains the line between filmmaker and subject, and the unforgiving limitation of a traditional running time.
Tribeca: First off, I don’t know how everyone doesn’t fall in love with Ron immediately while watching the movie. He’s amazing.
Debra Granik: [laughs] Ron would find that very peculiar. Ron would say “I ain’t everybody’s cup of tea!” Ron is just so open. I find audiences are really attracted to subjects who let people into their lives and openly shed light on what it’s like to be them.
Tribeca: Stray Dog celebrated its premiere at the NYFF earlier this month. Can you talk about that experience? How did Ron and his family react?
DG: I think it went really well. The audience was super receptive. Plus, it put Ron in a lively frame of mind. He was so playful with the audience—it was mutual enjoyment. Ron’s stepsons really appreciated that people were connected to Ron’s and their family’s story because it is universal. Ron’s stepsons’ lives changed very dramatically over the course of the documentary, and it’s nice to get that sense that people are rooting for other people. There was so much good will in that room. It was a real morale booster.
Tribeca: I know you did two narrative films before this: Down To The Bone and Winter’s Bone. Were you always interested in documentary filmmaking?
DG: Absolutely, I’ve always used what’s called "documentary style" in my narrative projects. I enjoy going to a certain location, photographing it extensively, and asking people to serve as what Bazin called “life models.” I’ve always loved that term. I’m really asking someone to be a guide for a life I have not lived. I only get this one life, one set of chromosomes, one set of parents, suburban or urban or rural. I have one set of circumstances, and if I’m interested in making a story about someone with a different set of circumstances, I try to find a model for that someone who will share the details of his or her experiences. I think the majority of my work takes place in the realm of documentary research or visual anthropology.
The anthropology of RV living is very specific. There aren’t many people who can live in very small spaces and manage to keep an organized, functional life in such a challenging dwelling.
Tribeca: I know you met Ron during the pre-production process for Winter’s Bone. When did you realize he’d make a good documentary subject?
DG: It was when I went into his homestead at the RV park he owns and operates. Upon arriving there, I sat down on the steps of his RV and heard a few of his stories. He was mesmerizing. Plus, his stories are very important for and very relevant to the decade that we’re living in right now. Economic survival, veteran identity, immigration - these issues were just impacting the lives of people living around Ron. As subjects, these issues are loaded with questions and texture.
That was almost enough reason to make a documentary. If there are enough questions lingering in the air, questions about how people navigate, what their fate will be, what they’re thinking about, what matters to them, then you’ve got texture. The anthropology of RV living is very specific. There aren’t many people who can live in very small spaces and manage to keep an organized, functional life in such a challenging dwelling.
Tribeca: I heard to you were struggling with two titles before settling on Stray Dogs, which I think is perfect. Can you talk about that title process?
DG: The first title we put out, which got sucked up on IMDB even though we were experimenting was Jesus and Angel, Welcome to America. That was the title of our rough cut, and it came from a toast that Ron gave at a barbecue when he was putting together a welcome party for them. I was just attracted to that phrase because I felt that it was very wonderfully loaded. We didn’t stick with that title because it was a bit cumbersome. I know we floated a bunch of titles, which one did you hear?
Tribeca: Snake Around My Ankle.
DG: Oh, that one was my favorite! That was from an old Jim Croce song that Ron sang beautifully while driving for hours as he was bringing his family back from the border. The song came on and we looked up the lyrics. It was perfect. There’s a little snippet in the film of that journey, but we couldn’t get the rights to show more. I loved the phrase “there’s a snake around my ankles” because , to me, it suggested the emotional state of PTSD. It’s not going to always strike, it’s not going to always constrict you, but you are constantly aware of a threat. It’s like wearing a permanent reminder of something very intense.
Tribeca: The film deals with serious issues but balances them with incredible moments of levity—like the Viagra sequence or the scene in which Alicia is showing her sons around their home. How did you strike that balance?
DG: The gift of humor that Ron and his neighbors have was a weird resource that I could pull out of a day that might not be going well. They are dealing with serious issues—like financial pressures that determine whether they can afford teeth—and yet they can still find something to laugh about. When Bobby eats one of Alicia’s friend’s crickets, that’s another moment of levity. As filmmakers, we were fascinated that Bobby was so receptive to the idea, saying, “I’ll try it!” Then he compared crickets to popcorn. There was something downright lyrical about that exchange. There were many moments like that.
Tribeca: Did any of those scenes get left on the cutting room floor?
DG: Unfortunately, yes. There was this one scene in which Ron dressed as Santa at the Community Center for the holidays. There was only this small bathroom for him to change in, and it was hilarious. He was struggling to get into this suit, his beard was twisted - the whole thing was fabulously physical. He came out—hulked out like a big biker in a Santa suit—and some of the kids were scared of him [laughs]. It was layered with pathos and absolute humor.
In the edit room, we had to find the balance between the incongruity of who Ron is, what he looks like physically, and what it’s like to talk to an unexpected character like him. It was difficult to cut exciting scenes that made us laugh so hard. There was also a sequence with a small Bobcat bulldozer that reminded me of Jacques Tati. Ron and his neighbors were in deep snow trying to start this Bobcat, and at the end, they just went inside and had coffee. It had this funny audio cue that Tati would have used, where the engine keeps turning over and then flopping dead. It was manly and poignant, and the machinery and sound effects just added to it.
However, running time is so unforgiving, unless we wanted to make a series or a triptych we had to stop. In the end, we went for a conventional format with a 100 minute running time and left it at that. We tried to assemble scenes that would balance between heavy-hitting pathos and lyrical moments. Some of the deleted scenes are on the website!
I find audiences are really attracted to subjects who let people into their lives and openly shed light on what it’s like to be them.
Tribeca: I read that you had over 230 hours of footage. How did this editing process differ from your narrative projects?
DG: With narrative, there’s a definitive limit to what you film. That doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have a lot of takes or that there isn’t restructuring after shooting the film. There could be up to 70 drafts of a narrative, even with that contained footage. It’s a puzzle that can be configured but only up to a certain numeric point, which isn’t the case with documentary.
With a documentary, there isn’t a point where you feel like you’ve finished. There’s always several forms it could take - voice over, intertitles, more exposition or less. I feel like there are many more variables in editing a doc. A much greater part of your editing experience is about sifting through the material and finding themes that are your richest through-lines. Many themes start and it’s like having some hairs that are very long and you can braid them and some hairs that are very short and you’re like, “Ok, that was interesting but it doesn’t fit into the braid.”
With a documentary, there isn’t a point where you feel like you’ve finished.
Tribeca: Ron, his family and his community appear to be so welcoming and friendly. I can imagine you and he developed quite a bond. How do you manage the line between documentarian and subject?
DG: That part is very hard to maintain. I struggle with that in all my work. I get very caught up and don’t preserve that distance well. I get caught up in the lives of people I’m learning about. Off camera, I was wondering if I could help Ron quit smoking. I was like, “Ron, what if I did a journal with you?” I wanted to take this burly American guy—whose addiction is strong—and do a project where we watch him battle this habit that has been so formidable in his life. He was pretty game too! I think it would be interesting to see someone try to put down cigarettes in real time, but my hope is that he will take the opportunity provided by this film to actually do it.
There were many times like that. I learned that Alicia was very concerned with the role of his dogs in Ron’s life. When we took a break from filming, I told Ron that Alicia has expressed to me in Spanish that she felt alienated and confused by the way Americans treat pets. Ron’s dogs are more like soulmates or companions. I got them involved in a discussion that they were not able to have because of the language barrier, but it was hard for me.
I know I fantasize about being someone who can keep this incredible distance. It doesn’t break down along gender lines, like Jesse Moss and his film, The Overnighters. His relationship with that pastor became very close—because that pastor chose to reveal part of his identity to Jesse. That’s so intense. How could he have kept an incredible stone cold distance? He couldn’t have.
Tribeca: Do you have advice for other narrative filmmakers looking to make a documentary feature?
DG: I don’t mean to sound mystical, but such a person doesn’t need advice. The urge to make a documentary will take care of everything. In order to say that you want to make a documentary, you have to want it bad enough to find a way. If someone was commissioned to make a documentary, it might be a different answer.
However, you need to pick a cameraperson or DP or shooter who is also a visual anthropologist. You need someone that enjoys the process of recording an abundance of details, specific things, about time and place and people. It’s about keeping up with a photographer who won’t be sitting there twiddling his thumbs, complaining that he hasn’t had breakfast yet. You can’t schedule a documentary like a regular shoot. You can’t tell people where to be and what time things will start. You can’t tell who will call or when. There will be this down time when you don’t know what’s happening and it’s very unnerving. You need a crew that has a predisposition for watching, waiting, slow accretion, and understanding. I’ve been very lucky myself to have such crews.