Interview: Debra Granik
With Stray Dog, a kind of documentary follow-up to the award-winning Winter’s Bone (10), Debra Granik returns to the Ozarks of southern Missouri to profile Vietnam veteran Ron “Stray Dog” Hill. An imposing figure, Granik’s burly tattooed subject guzzles moonshine, likes his firearms, and rides around on a Harley with his gang of war buddies. But there’s also a softer side to Ron. He’s touchingly tender toward Alicia, his new wife, who is Mexican, and gives heartfelt guidance to his wayward granddaughter from a previous marriage. He also visits the grieving parents of fallen soldiers, and offers free repairs on their houses.
What emerges is not only a character study of a quintessentially American type, but also a portrait of an American heartland in transition, where economic opportunity is drying up, social values are in flux, and technology is reconfiguring the way of life. (Stray Dog is often docked at his computer, using video chat, sharing photos with friends or practicing his Spanish on language software.) Stray Dog complicates a certain derogatory one-dimensional image of the South that often circulates, instead offering a richly detailed direct look at the people and their daily struggles.
Granik got her start making industrial videos for trade unions in the Boston area, studying people in their workplaces and then filming them going about their jobs. This early experience informs her close observational approach, which she describes as “visual anthropology.” Applying this ethnographic lens to Stray Dog, Granik skirts the common documentary reliance on direct interviews and voiceovers, and avoids a pedantic style. This allows her to craft an often lighthearted film that trusts viewers to develop their own responses to the issues it presents.
FILM COMMENT spoke to Debra Granik by phone as she rode a train from Poughkeepsie back to New York City. Stray Dog screens October 2 and 3 in the New York Film Festival.
With Stray Dog, you return to the Ozarks, where you filmed Winter’s Bone. What did you gain from your previous experience filming there?
I was in a slightly less rural area. Ron lives within 25 minutes of Branson, Missouri. So it wasn’t as rural as the county on the other side of Lake Taneycomo where we filmed Winter’s Bone. But phrases that I learned when I was there, when they’re said to me, I understand them. And issues that were front and center in people’s lives about scraping by, about having heat or no heat, issues that were unavoidable to learn about through the filming of Winter’s Bone. So I was able to pick up and start recording without needing to ask people for lots of explanations about things in their lives.
Stray Dog documents a world that is unfamiliar to many audiences, and you capture its minutiae, its uniforms, its symbols, and its rituals. Were you trying to preserve a part of heartland America that is at risk or in transition?
I think you’re never that conscious. Maybe in my ego, in my fantasy of how conscious I can be, maybe I like to think I went in having that awareness in me. But I think going in you’re more interested in what you don’t know. I am interested in rituals that structure and affect other people’s lives that I don’t know about. I am intrinsically curious about how people scrape out meaning in their lives, and so when I’m witness to something and it moves me, it piques my wonderment in that sense. And then it’s only in retrospect, when you get to watch it, that you might see some photographic beauty or framing beauty or cinematic beauty.
Absurd or foreign elements keep appearing in Stray Dog. Literally, there are foreigners who have come to live here, but it’s also a look at parts of America which seem exotic to many audiences and at the same time are experiencing unusual social developments.
I think that’s what kept me coming back. It was getting under my skin. By being there and recording and looking through the viewfinder, I’m seeing these moments that I could have never predicted. For a filmmaker, an observer, a sociologist, or an anthropologist, what defies your expectations ends up delighting you. As a filmmaker, if you had to order up a scenario, who wouldn’t want twin sons, like Alicia has? Twins who move on some level with synchronicity and who are very physically bonded and have their four eyes looking at the new spot, the new location.
Even their names have a special ring, Angel and Jesus.
I know! We were so smitten with their names. The working title at one point [was] Ron’s toast at the barbecue: “Jesus and Angel, welcome to America.” It was kind of close to Tony Kushner…
Am I an American who loves to see things be touching and tolerant? Yes. Was that eye candy for me on some level? Yes. I was trying to treat the exotic or the outside with a certain tenderness or affection, not trying to highlight or throw a spotlight on exoticness. I think they were doing the assimilation. They were doing the absorption and the integration. And I guess the most faithful recording of that is to show that it was happening in a gentle kind of way.
It’s easy to show that type of thing with a mocking tone, or just for a laugh, for the titillation of the viewer, but I think you don’t do that.
Well, there is some of that in there. I mean, with the twins looking up the word “pussy.” That’s been in and out of the film. I was very receptive to the fact, and persuaded by the fact, that it did get a laugh, and it is played for a laugh. So when you say that, I have to come clean. And yet, it was interesting that they (Angel and Jesus) were trying to observe him (Ron) so closely, and the fact that that word does crop up and it wasn’t going to be a satisfactory result from looking that word up in the dictionary. And on some level, once they saw Ron squirming through it, they were in on the humor too.
Stray Dog offers up a portrait but at times it also seems to resemble direct-cinema films of the civil rights era, in which social issues are presented by documenting disenfranchised groups. Here, for example, it’s immigrants, the indigent, and veterans. Is this how you were trying to make the film?
What was so strangely organic is that that’s just in one family. Everyone’s been in a Q&A where someone says that the specific yields to the universal. But in trying to take an ordinary American family, you’ve got the granddaughter and the daughter with a minimum wage and that’s not working. You’ve got the strand of what it’s like for Jesus and Angel to come to an area that is not thriving economically. And then you’ve got a man who, very late in his life, found a way to look at the lifelong effect of where he came of age and how, as a soldier that participated in combat in Southeast Asia. You’ve got these themes that are embedded in their lives.
But going into that, you don’t know that. When I first met Rob, I didn’t know Alicia was going to become part of his life. So that’s that weird thing that happens sometimes when you’re doing a documentary, where the subject defies the narrative, that there was going to be a little love story. You touch certain loaded subject matters, and the themes are numerous. It’s like a hook effect, where one theme will hook to the next, and you’re kind of pulled. Sometimes you feel like you’re being pulled too fast, like the subject gets way too complicated.
Did you feel that with Stray Dog?
Oh, at times, yes. A lot of material had to go by the wayside. In the editing—unless we were going to a [TV] series, with an hour about the Mexicans, an hour with Robin. We cut it down so much: the chili supper, the business meeting of the bike group—things that take time, but that aren’t necessarily high-stakes. I have a lot of patience for anthropology, I can sit and watch guys in southern Missouri figure out who’s gonna bring the onions, who’s gonna bring the whatnot to the potluck. I loved seeing men organize a potluck. Men are such an enigma to me often, that I almost like watching anything they do, except hurt each other. I’m sitting there going, “Oh my God, this is what happens when I’m not around.” Some stuff was just super-photogenic. There’s a lot of charity action there on the holidays, and one of the biggest bikers in their group, in a Santa suit, led to an interesting scene.
There was stuff with sexual identity. How is it addressed when the topic of gayness comes up, what does that look like in a community such as an enclave of southern Missouri? Firearms was a big theme, and the film doesn’t even go there. There was a fascinating scene in a bank, about finances, Ron trying to borrow some money. You could bring guns into the bank. The sign on the wall, in the same place where the signs normally say “No firearms beyond this point,” this sign said “Bring it in.” I was scared shitless of how in-depth anything to do with the Second Amendment is taken there. Ron has his own very deep views on that. I felt grateful just to be able to have a dialogue with someone who has views very different from my own.
How else were you affected by the time you spent there?
The heartland does render up a lot of its young blood. We are maybe in a place that we don’t want to see how close it is to other times in history where certain families are expected to give up their first-born. It feels biblical, sometimes, in the heartland. Some people want to serve, want to be in a tradition that’s been in their families for three, four generations. It’s a form of almost warrior nobility, it’s warrior culture. That’s very ancient. There’s sort of no culture, and no time in history, that doesn’t have that. I think what I did learn is the huge loss of that route of exit and opportunity when there’s not a wartime military. And that re-stratifies our class system more. Your class awareness, if it’s not already smashed open in New York City, is doubly so there. There’s no way out of it. It’s 24/7 contemplation of that, it’s in your face. The idea of food deserts, minimum wage, and being a starving obese person or a person whose body is being changed by the diet of poverty and living in poverty. That part you really, really feel.
Stray Dog is not one of those single-issue documentaries dealing with a big public social issue, but many of these issues come up naturally, and the film presents them in a way that leaves it up to the viewers to come to their own positions.
Some people feel it is hard to glean that or get that without voiceover or narration, or without on-camera interviews. Some people have felt uncomfortable about that with the film. And we did all that. We did many hours of interviews, direct to camera, with different people. We had translated interviews in Spanish, with English subtitles. But we ended up not using those structural elements that do more directly announce the themes.
I like doing films about ordinary people. And some people have said to me, Don’t be coy, Ron’s not ordinary. But Ron views himself as a salt-of-the-earth working-class man who has had military experience, who finds it easier to be heterosexual by being with people of a different culture. I get scared, because when you make a film about an individual, and you put them on a pedestal somehow, even though that wasn’t the intention—you know, “Oh this magnificent warm-hearted, burly teddy-bear with two immigrant stepsons”—sometimes I start to say: “What have I done to Ron?” He has a lot to him. And he is a deep-thinking individual. And he is also an ordinary American, in the sense that he’s lived a life that a lot of us live, or a lot of the people who live near him live. So that’s a challenge.
But at the same time, I’m still excited. I’d love to go back and make a narrative fiction and cast Ron and his neighbors, and make it about the dilemmas and quandaries and stakes that do exist in daily life. The issues of where you get your money, what happens when you don’t have it, what happens with foreclosure. What happens with wanting a hobby really bad and having bike payments that cause you to make bad choices. Picking out the issues that really are embedded in daily life, but showing that those too have stakes. How you solve them. How you navigate. How you have an American life that you can also not get weary of, not get beaten down by, and enjoy sometimes.