The plaudits have rushed in over the past week for Stray Dog. Of all the movies to hit theaters over Independence Day weekend, this documentary turned out to be the least expected but most appropriate one to suit the occasion. Stray Dog tackles many aspects of American life, including faith, military service, immigration and hard work. Its working-class milieu is one that director Debra Granik is well used to, having explored it with her Oscar-nominated Winter’s Bone.
We talked to Granik about meeting the subject of her documentary, Ron “Stray Dog” Hall, on the set of that earlier drama, and how circumstance morphed this film around him into something quite unlike a typical doc.
Nonfics: Stray Dog doesn’t have talking heads, narration, infographics or any of the other tools we associate with standard documentary storytelling. Did you set out to make the film this way?
Debra Granik: We actually approached it with all three of those things in mind. We did so many on-camera interviews with Ron. It was a way for us to understand where he had been and when, so we could get the backstory straight and understand some of the things he’s referring to in his interactions with friends and family. It was an interesting process — he ended up learning a whole lot about us from the questions I was asking. We thought some of this stuff was really well-stated, just provocative and poetic without him meaning it to be.
For the longest time, we planned to splice these interviews into the scenes that had been recorded as they unfolded. But when Tori [editor Victoria Stewart] strung it all out, it became so hard to marry them. After you see Ron riding all day and being so active, being plunked down to him sitting still and talking only to us — it was the strangest sensation.
After that, we tried to turn pieces of those interviews into voiceover narration. Again, we loved the way he stated some things. We liked the voiceover well enough, but it felt strange. Ultimately, forgoing these things was more natural. It was not intentional on our part. I know lot of filmmakers say, “Oh, the film dictated this or that,” and now I’m caught saying it! The film dictated that it be cut to focus on action as the prevailing way that a viewer would see details.
It doesn’t feel like a documentary as we usually think of them. It feels like a traditional narrative film but with real people in it.
That is the interesting thing about filming real people: you have the luxury of naturalism. We didn’t have to have someone prove something in this film. Therefore, our subjects could do what they do — simply be real people. When a documentary has the responsibility to deliver certain information or a viewpoint, then it feels like an obligation to have interviews.
I would love to make another film very similar in technique to Stray Dog. It was an extremely pleasurable way to work. I know it’s that cliché, but you can’t write the stuff you get when you have a cast of human beings. I would like to experiment and extend into a more hybrid form. I would like to be able to orchestrate scenes sometimes. One thing that still vexes me is that we couldn’t include a beautiful karaoke scene. It had gorgeous music and moving performances, but we didn’t have the clout to get the rights to the song. What if I had asked them to sing a song that I had previously arranged the rights for, so that I knew I could use the scene?
The way that Stray Dog ended up was due in large part to who and where we were filming. They’ve got a rich culture that’s hopping with lyrical moments, humor, pathos, you name it. Every ingredient you need for a film about ordinary life to mean something, they had it.
You met Ron on the set of Winter’s Bone. When did you decide you wanted to make a movie about him?
It was afterwards. I did not finish Winter’s Bone thinking I’d make a film with Ron. I didn’t have a second to wonder about him or get to know him on the set. All I observed was that he showed up meticulously, when he said he would, and that he was really straightforward. He used a lot of icebreakers to talk to the crew. I got a very positive impression of the manner in which he conducts himself. But I did not get to know anything about his life.
And then I went to his RV park to say goodbye to him, and he greeted us with those little dogs in his arms. His friends and neighbors were there. I got to see where they were living, the bikes parked in the yard. There was this visible array of themes of contemporary American life. They were living in an arduous, disciplined way in order to survive poverty. Biker culture was a big deal. I was drawn in. And for whatever reason, I needed to find out why these small dogs were so important.
Do you think you’ll return to fiction or nonfiction with your next film?
Oh, it’s terrible — I want to do it all. I can’t pick. I enjoy the filmmaking practice that each form requires. We’ve started working on a documentary about people rebuilding their lives after incarceration. There’s this suspenseful question that our country faces: can someone who’s been incarcerated re-enter society with this Mark of Cain? How do you keep that from dictating the entire rest of your life? We’re also working on an adaptation of the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock. We’re hoping that we’re close to finishing the script. And I’ve been involved for a long time with an adaptation of a novel by Russell Banks, which I really hope to realize.
Winter’s Bone was very successful, loved by critics and won a lot of awards and nominations. Did it open up any new avenues for you going forward? Or has working in independent films continued to be an uphill battle?
I would say that one of the really big things that comes out of getting that kind of attention is that scripts are sent your way. Interesting scripts. Scripts that sometimes would take me to a budget range that I’m not particularly comfortable working in. Not because I don’t think I can’t do it but just because of certain values that I hold about the cost of movies and whatnot.
I have been very grateful of course, to read a rich variety of material. Some of them are outstanding. Some of them are things that I really would like to do. Though the ones I pick are also the ones that are not particularly commercial. That keeps proving to be an obstacle for me: the subject matter that I care more about or get most attracted to is not usually seen as moneymaking.
I have to do my films really, really inexpensively. My role in the filmmaking community might be to be a canary, to find new people who want to participate in American film culture. And I do it on a very scrappy budget. Which means I have a little more freedom, and that’s the way I like it.
This interview was originally published on July 6, 2015.