A Parallel History of America Through Filmmaker Debra Granik

Sure, Debra Granik helped direct Jennifer Lawrence to her first Oscar nod, but her new motorcycle documentary gives her oeuvre a theme: films about the neglected and disenfranchised in America.

Debra Granik is a filmmaker on a mission: to chronicle the lives of Americans that seem to have been forgotten by the rest of the country, not to mention the film industry.

She has directed three feature length films in a decade, all of which have dealt with characters living at the edge of society. In the process she also directed two of our finest actresses on their breakthrough performances, in Down to the Bone she had Vera Farmiga play a troubled drug addict, and six years later in Winter’s Bone, she led 27-year-old Jennifer Lawrence to her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Both films were hits at the Sundance Film Festival and announced the arrival of a very unique voice that spoke of poverty and social injustice without reducing them to clichés. Her naturalistic approach was a breath of fresh air within a community that tends to exploit stories of economic misfortune to turn them into feel-good, unrealistic representations of the American dream.

It makes sense that for her third film, Granik recurred to nonfiction to tell the story of a man she met during the filming of Winter’s Bone, a larger than life character by the name of Ron Hall, who goes by the moniker Stray Dog. A Vietnam Veteran trying to make ends meet as he battles PTSD, Hall is a charismatic subject who seems to have been born to be in front of a camera. He barely seems to notice its presence and proceeds to live a normal life that includes him taking Spanish lessons to communicate better with his wife Alicia (and her sons), hanging out with his biker buddies (with whom he has developed a sort of second family) and playing with his dogs. Granik’s bare bones approach allows Hall to “be himself”, and yet even without the added artifice of a screenplay the film comments on timely issues such as immigration, the treatment of Veterans and the elderly, and the overall state of a part of the country that the movies never cover.

Stray Dog played at the 2014 New York Film Festival where we sat down with Granik to talk about why it was important to make this film, the recurring themes in her filmography and her directorial methods.

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We have Winter’s Bone, Down to the Bone and Stray Dog I’m very curious about the pattern you’re following here in terms of titles and themes …

The titles are coincidental, Down to the Bone is the name we chose when we were making the film, Winter’s Bone was the title of the novel and we thought the title was strong for the film and Stray Dog was obvious because that’s his biker name, we first met him because he had a patch that said “Stray Dog”, that’s what people call him. In terms of themes I am definitely interested in survival, emotional and under conditions where it’s hard, where there aren’t a lot of cushions, so that theme would be continuous and some people might think of it as “scraping the bone” or “going down to the bone.” The metaphor kinda fits, I didn’t come into this project thinking I had a supreme metaphor. There is continuity, but it’s not purposeful, in fact you stand back and you do learn something about yourself based on your work. When I’m in it, I’m focused on the story.

Are you ever surprised about the interpretations critics give to your work? Do you ever say “wait a second, I wasn’t trying to say that”?

You know, I think I’m someone who’s very patient. The only time I get sensitive and feel even hurt or upset is when ugly things are said about the subjects of the films, I remember it was very hard for me to hear some derogatory terms used when people live in poverty. The little girl in Winter’s Bone for example, it was her real house and it was described as a hovel; it could be a shack, a cabin, a humble dwelling, but a “hovel” means something unkempt or not nice. I asked myself how would I feel if I read that about my own home?

It’s comfortable to diss people you see onscreen, it’s a pretty uncompassionate way of looking at people who actually are living in poverty. It’s making a moral assessment and I would think we’re trying to evolve from that. It makes me feel like a true piece of shit, because I’ve gotten people’s trust, I didn’t go into their houses to change stuff around. Now that I think about it, what they said was even worst, it said “seems like the filmmaker went to great lengths to make this place look dirty”. That was truly devastating, because we didn’t do it and also because the girl didn’t think of her house as dirty. So those are the things I don’t like. Someone theorizing or interpreting, that’s what film studies is! Do I hate film studies? No!

I’m asking mostly because I was about to offer my interpretation of your oeuvre so far. I feel as if you’re trying to present us with a parallel history of America, the America we don’t see in mainstream Hollywood films, where there’s poverty and social issues.

Look, do I love your interpretation? Yes. Does it make me feel good? Of course. [laughs] But I think it’s true, we are in the business of glamour, we export glamour. Until I recently I think it was normal for people to think it was typical to have a pool. I used to say this, but this is a big country, the only zip code isn’t 90210, right? Not many people get to participate in that level of extra wealth and extra resources. Of course we have gone through a huge convulsive movement in this country to call this out, after many years of watching crimes against poor people happen. We called it out with the Occupy movement. We also have reality TV which is going in the opposite direction, saying if we have poor people, let’s make sure that it’s pretty salacious! It’s gotta be Boo Boo, Ducks, it’s gotta be something where their every day struggle isn’t enough, but where there’s some shock value.

Yes, it’s like porn in a way.

I would say so, yes. There’s a beautiful quote from Albert Maysles, who was trying to understand what his life’s purpose was as a documentary filmmaker and he thought it was for him to humanize situations. Dehumanization happens pretty easily, in wars for example, we may feel horrible and know there’s a lot of collateral damage, a faceless nation usually, or in certain sections of town for example, where we’re scared about how people are living because of the level of poverty there may exist, the amount of urban trauma that may be happening until we get to meet some people who are living that life, it’s easy to dehumanize them and we call them “urban thugs” or “scary people.” Maysles said maybe if he made a documentary about Iraqi people going to school, being at home, taking care of their animals, maybe it would rehumanize them to Americans. It’s the same in our country, within our third world. We have a lot of countries in this country, so that country that lives on the margin, which survives on wages our other countries couldn’t survive on, we expect them to buck up, not to sell marijuana for income, we expect such an incredible standard from them. Sometimes I feel I have to make the films about the folks in the third country, because it’s such a hard country to live in.

And then if they make movies about those topics they’re sci-fi …

Or zombies! These people aren’t zombies, they’re hard working people.

Since you mentioned Maysles, watching Stray Dog I kept thinking about Grey Gardens, precisely because I thought of your film as a great companion to Easy Rider. We can imagine Ron being like Dennis Hopper back then, someone free-spirited and “cool,” and now he’s someone who the country forgot. Did you feel there was a direct connection between your film and Easy Rider?

His bike is painted the way the bike is in Easy Rider and actually in the many discussions I’ve had with Ron, I’ve never discussed the bike similarity thing. It’s weird! I felt it a lot and I thought about it, in a superficial way, but I think that some of the emotions in Easy Rider, obviously not the heist idea, but the road imagery and the curves, have almost an abrasive quality to them. There is something very exhausting and non-negotiable about the texture, having the wind hit your face. There’s a part of biking that probably has a medicinal effect, because you have endorphins as well.

And all soldiers coming back from the war are holding on to a bag of adrenaline addiction, whose body has been jacked up in a way that may come down after time, but some people need drugs and alcohol, others find ways to keep that level. Ron has always talked about the danger in the physicality of riding, you’re very exposed, you have to be very alert, you’re navigating on the highway. Vietnam riders even ride in a formation, which might be dangerous. It’s very precise riding, they often look so aloof, but mentally it’s like being in an armored vehicle.

Can you comment on the differences between directing Jennifer Lawrence and then doing a documentary?

Ron takes direction really well, if I say to him “it was powerful to see the bikers getting refueled” he’d tell me “if you wanna do that tomorrow, why don’t you go ahead and get set up?” He would give me his itinerary, to let me know they’d be stopping, he was a very cooperative subject, he was interested in collaboration. If I wanted to capture things I’d missed, he would do them again, but what I mean is he knew I wasn’t asking him to do anything outlandish, or to do something he would never normally do.

I guess what I mean is there’s people in everyday life, where there’s something about them that they enter a scene and even though they want to know how to do something, deep inside they already know the answer. An actress like Jennifer Lawrence, that’s a whole different thing, that’s someone who has a huge amount of intuition herself, but takes direction in hugely fast response time, she’s so receptive. I don’t know what it would be like to work with Jennifer now, in the sense that she’s been in so many more movies, but at the time she was very not defensive, very willing to hear something and try it. Jennifer’s extremely versatile, if she had to play a badass executive tomorrow, she could do that for example. She’d find someone like that, observe their traits, mannerisms, while Ron can only be close to Ron’s experience. They’re apples and oranges.

Winter’s Bone is essentially a folk story with mythical undertones, I mean, there’s even “witches” in it at some point, and we see how Ree runs her house and takes care of her siblings when their father vanishes, and while Stray Dog is about a man, we see how much he depends on his wife. I was wondering if your intention in some way was to demythify the role of patriarchies, and show us the importance of matriarchies, which is something most American filmmakers for some reason stay away from.

[chuckles] That’s so interesting, I remember right after making Winter’s Bone people in Europe asked me questions about that: “Oh are the Ozarks more matriarchal?” It was so touching. I’ll botch this, but there’s a really wonderful person named Meredith Sisko, she sings in Winter’s Bone, she’s from the Ozarks and she’s a self taught person, a musicologist who knows about the myths and she’s an Ozarks cultural scholar. She would answer that by saying that the women, in some sense, are not always in the foreground, but they really understand how hard life is, and how hard life is for men in a macho culture. That there’s nothing easy about having to be out there, holding postures, and she probably would say there is really a division of power, and that at least in the Ozarks these powers are much more balanced.