By Jamie Maleszka
Stray Dog feels like a well-worn postcard that has seen a lot of miles.The documentary offers a telling of life in rural America — an overlooked America — where neighbors matter, patriotism is a lifeline and poverty has calloused hands. Ron “Stray Dog” Hall is your ferryman for the journey. A leather-clad Vietnam vet, a biker and truly so much more, Hall and his growing family embody the yesterday, today and tomorrow of a changing nation.
Director Debra Granik first met Hall in the hills of Missouri while scouting for her Oscar-nominated film Winter’s Bone. Her eye for authenticity rather than representation would guide her to cast lifelong residents, Hall among them. His imposing presence as underground drug kingpin Thump Newton credibly betrays his real-life open-heartedness. Once filming wrapped, Granik visited Hall’s home, an RV park he also manages in a neighboring county. Captivated by all the texture she saw, she decided to make her first documentary about him.
Over the course of the next three years, she and her small crew would bear witness to the pure moments of colossal change in Hall’s life. They would capture the quieting of the chains of the ghosts of combat through the love of his new wife, Alicia, her twin sons, therapy and the brotherhood of being a biker and vet. While the realities and hardship of life never relent, nor does Hall’s smile or his patient wisdoms.
Ahead of its screening at the 52nd New York Film Festival last fall, I sat with Granik to discuss the documentary. What follows is an excerpt of our chat that ventured from the positive cycle of good deeds to the lyricism in everyday life.
Nonfics: Was there a particular aha moment once you met Ron, when you knew there was a documentary-worthy story there?
Debra Granik: It was really just saying goodbye to him. Upon leaving Missouri, we stopped by his place, his real-life circumstances, with all his dogs. He was just getting prepared to go on that cross-country ride [seen in the movie]. It was very natural for him to say, “I’m fixing my bike because I’m gonna have to go a lot of miles.” Oh really? What’s that? I didn’t know the nitty-gritty, and he was so into it.
[Participating in POW/MIA ceremonies and memorials] had been a big boost to his life. That was actually the catalyst for getting therapy. Going to the [Vietnam War Memorial] wall. There was some other biker in Ron’s life that came up to him and said, “I’ll speak for [therapy] myself, brother. I’m better for doing it.” You know, it’s that terse, manly way of giving a little, small [nudge]. Someone had done that for him.
The story feels like it is being relayed from the midpoint. There is something so genuine about the exchange with this family, this community on screen. You use aspects of narrative filmmaking to organically reveal Ron’s tale. Did you have any idea as to what was about to happen?
Going into it, we really didn’t know. We did a lot of on-camera interviews with him. We really did. He’s very well-spoken. Today, I found this book called Soldier Poets. It basically looks at different poets from different wars. Different soldiers that had written in their notebooks. You know, the only poems we know are the ones that made it off the battlefield — or out of their locker, or out of a duffel bag. Victoria Stewart, the film’s editor, and I often felt that there was performed poetry going on a lot of times, the way he chose to explain things. That’s how it fell upon my ears.
So your first documentary found you?
Yes [laugh], it did. Being in [Hall’s RV] park that day. Well, here we are. This is the park. This is the texture. This is what RVs look like. This is what it is like to live in them. What the neighbors look like. And then there’s beauty too, right? There’s BBQs and big flames being lit for breaking bread together. There’s really cool open-air karaoke. Down the road, there’s a community center where cakes are auctioned. When people’s homes burn down, there’s a covered dish event to raise money for the family that doesn’t have a house now. There’s Christmas parties. There’s chili suppers for the biker club.
[All are] ways to punctuate the year so as to not get weary of life and to make it a little lyrical. That was the recipe that really attracted me. How do you sprinkle in the lyricism while living in poverty? Those were things that reached out to me, that called to me. Like, gosh, there’s beauty in these scenes in terms of who doesn’t want a bar with cool lighting and all that texture and a line dance? Plus a chili supper. Plus a slow dance.
You couldn’t make this stuff up. Couldn’t write it better.
I know. Like, who is really going to remember to put a really tall man [slow dancing] with a woman [standing] on a chair?
They say the final layer in healing is taking the bad that has happened to you and using it to help others. Do you think that that is true for Ron’s journey?
I do. I do. In the good works, or helping or reaching out, I think that Ron, like many of us know that there can be an endorphin, something that circulates in the body that suspends bad feelings for a moment. Almost psychophysiologically that’s part of healing. That is true. That in your being you experience that something good that came out of you was received. Not that you are looking for the thanks, but there is a positive circle that just occurred between you and another being.
So I do think there is great deal of truth and accuracy in that idea. How conscious is that? I don’t think it is so conscious. Also, the idea that self worth as a person [comes] from thinking that you can maybe solve lots of [things]. Ron does know that some of the things are not solvable. The life and financial circumstances of his granddaughter and the choices that she might make are not very solvable. Putting a new floor down for Annie Washington? Hugely solvable. So there’s that in the equation too.
The ghosts of Vietnam and the past are ever present. People are all too quick to say the past is past. But they are very much so in the present tense for Ron.
We think of ghosts as something we talk about in a very literary way and as part of the occult. But these are ghosts of conscience. This is something that happens in the mind, usually during the night. I was just made hip to how big an issue for any generation that participates in war sleeplessness is. It’s a complex thing. We have a great deal of people dealing with these long nights with very private stuff that can’t be talked about or seen by day.
Stray Dog opens in New York at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center on Friday, July 3rd, and in Los Angeles on July 24th at the Laemmle Music Hall. A national rollout will follow.
This interview was originally published by Leveled Magazine on October 2, 2014.