Stray Dog: Interview with Debra Granik

This project began with a chance encounter: while scouting and casting my film Winter’s Bone, I sat next to Ron “Stray Dog” Hall in the Biker Church of Branson. He agreed to play the part of Thump Milton in the film. Stray Dog brought his life experiences to the role, and he brought some of his friends and neighbors to help populate one of the scenes with locals. When shooting wrapped, we reconnected with Stray Dog to enlist his help in obtaining some audio recordings for the sound designer.

We found him at home in a little RV surrounded by three small dogs. As we talked that night, we got a glimpse of his broad web of family, friends and affiliations. His vivid descriptions and his questions piqued our interest, and we decided to come back and record some conversations with him and moments of his daily life.

When we returned, Ron had just been to Mexico and was describing his developing attachment to a woman he met there. We wondered where this would lead. Could Stray Dog come out of his solitary existence with his dog companions and venture into the volatile terrain of mutual expectations and domestication?  Did his narrative have room for a love story? With this new connection across the border, Ron’s ties and obligations proliferated. How would he handle the conflicting demands on his resources and energy?

Early on, Stray Dog would refer to his Harley as his shrink.  He shared his thoughts about what he and other vets seek from biker culture. Over his lifetime, Ron has sought ways to channel his post-combat need for high adrenalin levels and his natural restlessness into benign channels that are compatible with civilian survival.

He searches for missions, for ways to be helpful, which often involve trying to solve a problem for a family member, a neighbor or a friend, or just understanding when someone can’t pay their rent because of a non-livable wage.

The rituals of motorcycle culture are rich material for visual anthropology. Biker life has evolved from its outlaw origins, and many of today’s older bikers, like Stray Dog, are deeply embedded in the social institutions of their communities.

Everything in this world seems photogenic beards, bodies, leather, chains, chrome, velocity, embraces, protocols, and procedures. Bikers swap chili recipes and do charity toy runs with Santa on a Harley. Add to this the solemn pageantry of Veteran’s ceremonies, with their sadness and transcendent beauty.

Stray Dog’s story is also about a Midwestern workingman negotiating the convulsions of our times–gun culture, unemployment and underemployment in recession-era America. Why does a relative or a neighbor join a militia group? How do you advise a grandchild who can’t make ends meet working two full-time jobs? When does boredom, frustration, or lack of opportunities lead to changing the receivables on an AK 47?

As the Vietnam generation grows older, its history is being re-written, and is at risk of being whitewashed. Stray Dog is a warrior who sees the links between his struggles and those of today’s soldiers. He and some of his fellow vets can show us what PTSD is like many years later, long after the headlines fade.

Now we have a name for the way it changes the brains of soldiers. We know that it’s one of the costs of war, and we know this mainly because people like Ron have taken the risk to tell us about it.

As a filmmaker, my roots are in documentary observation. I like to work with non-professional actors in authentic settings in my narrative fictions, to impart an underlying sense of realism. For me, narrative is an attempt to look closer, to slow down and distill real life experiences. But documentary is different, and it’s a humbling process. Documenting daily life cannot be scheduled and bossed around. You can’t capture everything that you want.

You can’t demand retakes. Yet you can go far beyond the limits of your imagination. Instead of characters coming from the written page, they come, sometimes in droves, directly into your “who knew?” consciousness, with their unanticipated particularity.

Shooting and editing a documentary film is often a wayward and confounding journey of finding the narrative in a teeming mass of available material. It’s another way to approach the dynamic between the narrative and quotidian aspects of storytelling, which continues to motivate my work.

Director Debra Granik

Debra Granik is the Academy Award nominated director and co-writer of Winter’s Bone, which was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, and won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.