If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
“I never could’ve predicted that these burly men clad in leather and chains, riding these metal ponies, could be that wracked by stuff and live with actual ghosts.”
Stray Dog is the third feature and first documentary film from Debra Granik, director of the acclaimed Winter’s Bone. Her new film, an episodic character study, follows Ron “Stray Dog” Hall, a tough and leathery Vietnam vet who runs a trailer park in rural Missouri. Granik follows Hall as he and his loving wife Alicia, a recent emigrant from Mexico, embark on their annual motorcycle pilgrimage to the Vietnam memorial in Washington, DC. Plagued by guilt and PTSD, Ron bravely seeks counseling, talks with friends and fellow veterans, and gives tender advice to his young and pregnant granddaughter—encouraging her to go back to school in lieu of an endless cycle of dead-end jobs. When Alicia’s teenage sons arrive from Mexico, they highlight yet another theme of contemporary American life: the discomfort of immigrants who arrive in the USA expecting wealth and abundance, only to find a very different set of circumstances.
Stray Dog is dense with the details that form vivid, small-town American textures: brown leaves on the ground of a trailer park, men in camo sweatshirts and bandanas, and cluttered living rooms filled with American flag paraphernalia. I spoke with Granik about the uncontrollable nature of documentary filmmaking, the treatment of war veterans in America and their deep connection to biker culture, and how she provided a non-exploitative and empathetic window into the lives of low-income, rural Missourians.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold This is your first documentary feature. How is making a documentary different from a fiction like Winter’s Bone?
Debra Granik In all filmmaking, documentary and fiction, you’re given many things you didn’t expect to find and that you cannot control. What you want to get and put on your shot list, you can’t always have. So, there’s a surrendering of control. In the narrative filmmaking process, people often do things differently than you had written them in your script—and you have to adapt, or you’re given new insight. But you do try very hard to assert control over things, at least in terms of having a certain theme executed on a certain day. That is not the case with documentary. Many things will happen that you miss, and that you can’t go back and recreate or orchestrate. You have to live with the discomfort. It’s that feeling of, “That’s an amazing scene!” But it’s not for your taking, and you need to deal with it. Filmmakers don’t like that too much, I think.
AJG Some documentarians will stage or recreate scenes if they miss something.
DG There are times when I absolutely do that, and times when I miss something completely. A character will say something, and we weren’t rolling. And I’ll say, “I wasn’t rolling, could you ask him the same question?” Many times it doesn’t work, because you just called attention to everything, now they feel on the spot, and they’re trying to prepare their answers. The likelihood of that working is kind of slim.
When we weren’t around, Ron had given CPR to one of his small dogs. When he told me that on the phone, I thought, “Oh my God! I can’t believe we weren’t there.” I asked Ron if he could gently illustrate what it took to help Gizmo—and it didn’t work. But some rituals in daily life happen everyday. In the motel rooms, on the way to Washington DC, Alicia would persuade Ron to put on sunscreen every morning, and tie his bandana, and many times she was concerned about the amount of highway dirt in his beard. So, you get many takes to pick from with those things, even though it’s a documentary. If you look at your dailies, with some scenes, you actually have a strange form of coverage.
AJG How did you find Ron, and why did you choose to focus the film on him?
DG We met Ron through making Winter’s Bone, when we were doing local casting. I was sitting next to him in a church where I had been steered to encounter local people. I saw his tattoos that said Vietnam, and I immediately started wondering about him. I’m in a remote part of Southern Missouri, and it was a curious moment for me, as a fellow American. I wanted to know where this man was when he was seventeen. I wanted to know what had marked his life, and what mattered to him. I had to postpone all that curiosity, because I cast him in a very specific role in Winter’s Bone, as an intimidating, patriarchal character. He was being typecast, basically.
It wasn’t until after the film wrapped that I went to visit him in his real home, the RV park, and realized he was connected to a very large web of life that included small dogs, fragile neighbors, and a group of bikers—a merry band of thieves, if you will—a motley crew of older men who were seeking moments of sustainable joy and comradery at times, and also had a really aggressive side they had to vent. His web was big, but it was also basically a whole bunch of themes of contemporary American life. Ron is an ordinary American, whose life, like many others’, has a rich set of complicated veins.
But Ron is also willing to talk quite a bit about it, and to be introspective, and refract his insights back to people when he can. When I proposed the idea, he was like, “Girl, if you’re interested in some of my experiences, I am willing to talk about them. It’s curious to me that you find me interesting, but if you do, we can have this dialogue.” Ron is not shy, and he has a performative side to him. But he has never been asked to comment or talk about his experience. In that sense, he had a lot of energy for it; he wasn’t a jaded person who had been interviewed many times in his life.
I recognized the potential to make a portrait of this person, while simultaneously getting a glimpse into what it means to live in America’s heartland right now. We’re fighting wars where veterans are coming home, and he does have something to say—a longitudinal look at what it means to have combat experience, and how that will affect someone for a large portion of their adult life. That felt really timely. It’s nerve-wracking to tell anybody you’re making a film with a Vietnam vet. That’s a gnarly thing to put out there. It’s like, “Oh shit, tell us something new! Not Vietnam!”
AJG Ron was very much affected by his time in Vietnam. What did the filming experience reveal to you about how veterans live and are treated when they come home?
DG I’m very persuaded by his views, and he thinks the country does a much better job now—especially people on the left, or those who really question America’s wars. Ron has a very intense class analysis and understanding of how wars function—who starts them, who fights them, who profits. In case we get amnesia about it, he feels it’s his responsibility to always pipe in on that. It’s that idea of “hate the war, love the soldier.” He was grateful that returning soldiers from these last fifteen years of conflict were not made to feel ashamed for their participation. They’re not pariahs that people want to turn their backs on. Nobody in this period could ignore the financial aspects of these contemporary wars. No one could ignore the employment component of what the army was offering in these recent conflicts. And yet, it’s something that has to stay completely front and center in our discussions, because it relates to how we’ll participate in future war making—and whether making war has now become inextricably linked to the American economy! Has that become our destiny?
Ron thinks about this tirelessly, as do many soldiers. I’m someone who was very moved by the headlines in 2008. Many major newspapers did a very good job writing headlines about the staggering numbers of veterans suffering from PTSD. I didn’t know about the longevity. Everyone says, “Okay, you’ve got five to seven years to get over your PTSD.” It’s one of these private sufferings that we cannot see, and we want to believe that after a certain point, the victim is released from the suffering. Sometimes it does become very manageable, through great work and effort on the part of the individual. But, shit—I never could’ve predicted that these burly men clad in leather and chains, riding these metal ponies, could be that wracked by stuff and live with actual ghosts. We really don’t understand how to work with warriors in our technological and modern culture.
Ron tried to scratch at some of this. I never really understood the connection between veterans and biker culture. That history is as naked and documented as could be, but I didn’t know that, after WWII, there was this first onslaught of men who had a clinically documented level of adrenaline overdrive, a neurochemical change in their bodies, and needing to be able to vent that, work with it, simulate it, to go on missions at high speed with great risk. More than alcohol or drugs, they needed to feel this wind pressure against their bodies, and forge through it, to use all their senses to stay razor sharp and complete the ride. Every time a motorcyclist goes out, it’s a small mission. There was lots of self-medicating in bike culture, too, I can’t put any vanilla or Pollyanna-spin on it. There was need, desire, tenderness, and machismo—and that was very new material to me.
AJG There are many reality-TV shows fetishizing small-town lives in middle America—Honey Boo Boo, or Duck Dynasty. But you show an intimate, much more flattering slice of life in the heartland.
DG That is one of the oaths documentary filmmakers have to make. Albert Maysles spoke about this. You don’t go in and get people’s trust, then throw them under a bus, or ask people to reveal material about their existence, then pick the worst bits of it and line that up. That’s also true of Winter’s Bone; there are a lot of scrappy, difficult parts to life in the Ozarks. And yet, people also play exquisite music for no other gain than its beauty. So, I make sure, even in the fiction practice, on a truth-telling level, to show that there are really good days when people pick up banjos and play.
We are going into places where life can be really difficult. Like you mentioned, there are these reality-TV shows that go into these same locations—but there are also lyrical, positive things there, always. That’s why these people are still living. Part of that picture is the moxie and humor it takes to survive a difficult life.
AJG There’s a subplot toward the end of the film in which Jesus and Angel, Alicia’s sons, come over from Mexico to live with Ron and their mother. We see in their faces the sadness and loneliness that comes from being an immigrant in our country. Ron’s neighbors try to be welcoming, but they are also unconsciously racist, and most assume the boys are much better off in America than back home. How did their story change the film for you?
DG Ron chose to enormously complicate his life by falling in love with a Mexican woman, a complication which involved a five-year immigration process. Her boys had to come over before they were twenty-one or he couldn’t facilitate their immigration as an adoptive parent. It’s about the queerness of what happens when American families become very rapidly combined, then two families on different sides of the border became intertwined.
In terms of the wistfulness of the boys feeling lost and adrift, I couldn’t film them and not see that was a big part of what was happening. After we stopped this film, we shot a follow-up with the boys, six months later, about what it was like for them. That’s another entire film, watching how immigrants start to cope with the loss of their mother country and all they’ve left behind, and how they start putting down their little feelers about how to make life work in the new country. They came from a mega-city, Mexico City, to Podunk, USA, to live in third-world conditions. The actual framework of life was not what they expected, even though their mother warned them it was humble. What our television, media, and blockbusters have exported to the rest of the world is what stuck. There’s no part of them that could’ve believed that many Americans in the heartland don’t have teeth.
AJG What’s your next project?
DG I’m working on a documentary about life after incarceration. It’s a big topic right now in our national discourse. This is a group of young men, and hopefully a woman, who have to figure out how to reenter a culture that would love to see you have a mark of pain for the rest of your life—or at least facilitates and mandates that you have that mark of pain. It makes it extremely hard to regain a sense of self-worth and a place in a society. It’s really about another kind of PTSD, if you will, after incarceration, and being shunned. It’s the American caste system. We created a demographic of pariahs.
It’s hard to see when it’s happening in your own country. We can learn in college courses about caste systems in other countries, like India, but we can’t see it here. How will people in this pariah status eke their way back into any kind of livable existence? The obstacles are numerous, yet, like anything, there are winning personalities. There’s crazy hope, and there are hustler survival skills, and the same hustling skills that put some men in prison are those that will allow them to reenter the world. And we’ve got such a crazy relationship between what’s a legal hustle and what’s an illegal hustle. It’s a rich topic, and it’s overwhelming—but we’re taking a stab at it.
Stray Dog is playing now at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in New York City, with a national rollout to follow.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold is a film critic and non-fiction writer. She has published arts writing with BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, IndieWire, and Syracuse.com.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.