When Debra Granik brings her film Stray Dog to the Brattle Theatre this weekend, it’ll be something like a homecoming. The filmmaker—she previously directed Winter’s Bone—grew up in the Boston area, seeing movies all over the city. She ripped tickets at the Coolidge, was a regular at the Harvard Film Archive, and saw films at many of the theaters that left us long ago. When we asked about the experiences she had growing up around our Boston’s film culture, she put it plainly: “I pretty much binged.”
Granik’s craftsmanship was born here as well, alongside her cinephilia. The experiences she relates at the start of our interview could form the basis for an article of their own (at least.) By day, she paid her dues in the nonfiction sector, making industrial health and safety videos. By night, she’d often work in Somerville as part of the Vernon Street Video Collective, a woman’s radical-action group dedicated to visual art. That’s not to mention her time creating political video works at MassArt, or shooting footage for filmmaker Beth Harrington in the North End.
If you read the review we ran in this week’s issue, then you already know how we feel about her latest movie. Stray Dog weaves a spiderweb of intersecting national concerns—the lasting effect of combat on veterans, the immigrant experience, the economic implications of rural life—without explicitly politicizing any of them. The construction of the film itself is as diverse as the characters populating it: some shots are observed, some others are composed; the imagery strikes an objective chord, while the editing seems driven by Granik’s authorial voice. The movie, produced over two-and-a-half years, has the qualities of a Maurice Pialat melodrama; it balances scenes of intense passion within an ambiguous—sometimes even dreamlike—timeline. It’s an astounding cinematic experience. So once we finished quizzing the filmmaker on her past, we got straight to asking her about the production of her Dog.
You met Ron Hall on the set of Winter’s Bone. When did you realize that he was a movie in his own right? Does that happen immediately, or were you already shooting footage before you decided he was the subject for a feature?
Debra Granik: These projects often starts with an inexplicable attraction. There’s something about the way Ron moves, or his dialect, that attracts my attention. Or there’s something I want to know from him—I see the “Vietnam” tattoos on his arm, and want to know what that meant to him. Or maybe I always wanted to talk to veterans who’d had that experience. But if you come out of a place that’s not your own, and you’re still thinking about someone there afterwards, then there’s going to be an urge to go back.
And what attracted you to Ron on a cinematic level? How early are you thinking about the shape of the final film?
It was a life that was really photographically available. There’s a lot of texture there. There’s the gravel drive, with all these humble dwellings, and a bunch of bearded men. There’s small dogs. On that level, it’s a photographic paradise: there are layers, textures, unexpected qualities, lyrical qualities, and downright beauty. But I didn’t immediately say “Ron embodies a bundle of American themes and I know there worth discussing.” No, I went back a couple times, then came home again, looked at the footage I was collecting, and asked “what am I getting here?” That’s when you realize [you have a film]—when the footage contains something unexpected, or when it’s surreal, or when it gives you a stomachache, or all of the above.
I read that you would shoot in sessions that lasted between 7 and 10 days. Is that accurate? Were early shoots longer or shorter?
The first shoot was 4 to 5 days. And that spurred us to keep going back, and then the shoots got longer. We also collaborated with local shooters to get footage of one-off events we weren’t there for, and also to get footage of events that can’t be planned (like a funeral.) We knew when Ron’s family would be having a music night or a potluck or something like that, so we’d always try to structure things so we’d come down to Missouri on one of those days. So he was a featured player. He could articulate and communicate to us what he was doing on a daily basis.
And once we get there, there’s some level of verite. You embed, and you’re quiet, and the phone rings whether you’re there or not. A cake burns, or dinner is cooked, either way. But other things do have to be planned for. The subject, after a while, knows how your crew works. And they begin to collaborate with and accommodate that. I joke that when you get deep enough into a project, you start to get emails from your subject saying “there’s something you’re going to want to film!”
There does seem to be a level of balance between what’s planned and what’s merely observed in the film. There’s a scene where Ron’s neighbor Bobby comes over to pay rent. And there’s a beautifully composed shot of Bobby walking in the door—that’s not the sort of thing you would catch on the fly, right?
Yeah, and we have like four different versions of Bobby paying rent. There was one instance where we really loved the lines and the exchange—but [the image] was blue and black, and on a video-level it was super compromised. And so the next time Bobby came up, we altered the blinds in Ron’s office, so that Bobby would be illuminated. And we held them up, too, so that we could get the shot of Bobby walking in the door. So that’s halfway between documentary-style shooting and traditional composition. I’ve seen Bobby go through that gate, and be greeted by those dogs, so many times. And the thinking is “I really like that, I’ve become accustomed to that, I want to get a shot of that.”
Some of the imagery in the film has an inexplicable quality. There’s the scene where Ron reveals the specifics of his military service: he’s talking to a clown.
I know! That visual. When Tory [Stewart], the editor, would finish a scene, we’d always be freezed on a frame. And in that case, in those moments, I would succumb. My America, our America… We live in a very cacophonous and unexpected set of crosscurrents at all time. And we have to learn to cope with the fact that in this very rural community center, they’ll be a neighbor in a clown suit who’s listening to an older vet speaking about wartime experiences. That just is. My brain goes crazy to think that while we’re talking, people are reenacting everything under the sun, from the Middle Ages through the American Civil War. There are people reenacting Vietnam, people dressed as Native Americans. It’s a psychohistorical bazaar—America is the bizarre bazaar.
The editing in the film often has us going back and reconsidering the footage we’ve already seen. Especially in the first 15 minutes—when you introduce that trailer park, there’s no indication that Ron is the proprietor.
That’s a big risk. We are a culture that loves clarity and causality. There’s way more room for ambiguity in the European film tradition. When we create narratives in this country, even our closest colleagues will say things like “Do you think we maybe need some more explanation in there?” There’s a lot of pressure on today’s editors to never leave any doubt for anybody. And if viewers have to work too hard, they make that out to be a negative thing.
So was that to intent—to structure the images that would constantly provoke and then deconstruct specific expectations about this culture and this region?
I mean, that’s the dream of what editing does for our thought process, right? Editing provides an opportunity for us to compare two things. Or to alter a feeling that has been produced by a first piece of information, via a second piece of information. Editing allows for that at all times. You’re not looking for the “gotcha” moment, as Albert Maysles said. You’re not looking to throw your subject under the bus. And if you show something unsavory and problematic, you have to ensure that you show the other elements of the person’s life too. Because the unsavory aspects are never all there is (unless you’re making a movie about a sociopath.) The responsibility of editing is to fan the cards out—to show the full deck. And when people say “what do you want people to get out of your film,” the answer is “I want them to ask questions.”
STRAY DOG. NOT RATED. PLAYS AT BRATTLE THEATRE FROM FRI 10.23—SUN 10.25. DIRECTOR DEBRA GRANIK IN PERSON FOR 7PM SHOWS ON 10.23 AND 10.24. SEE BRATTLEFILM.ORG FOR OTHER SHOWTIMES. $9-11. ALSO AIRS ON PBS AFFILIATES (INCLUDING WGBH) ON NOV. 9.