new york film festival 2014

Debra Granik on Directing Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone and Her New Documentary Stray Dog

One of the great pleasures of this year’s New York Film Festival has been the appearance of a new film by Debra Granik, whose last feature, Winter’s Bone, was one of the breakout hits of 2010. That earlier film was a low-budget indie thriller set in the Ozarks, and it got Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Actress (for its young star, then a relative unknown named Jennifer Lawrence), and Best Supporting Actor (John Hawkes). Her new film, Stray Dog, partly returns to that milieu: It’s a documentary that follows Ronnie Hall, an aging Vietnam vet and biker who had a small role in Winter’s Bone.

Hall might look and sound like a tough guy — and he is, on some level — but he’s also a sensitive soul who has made helping other veterans, as well as their families, part of his life duty. He’s also profoundly articulate about the trials of living with post-traumatic stress, as well as the things he did (and made others do) during the war. This is a haunted man, and Granik captures his life with both unswerving attention and visual grace. The director spoke to us about her new film, how she works with actors, and why she’s taken her time between projects. Stray Dog plays the New York Film Festival again this Sunday, and it’s making its way through the festival circuit this fall and winter.

You met Ronnie Hall, the man you follow in Stray Dog, while making Winter’s Bone. What made you decide to do a documentary about him?
He played the part of Thump in that film. As I was leaving Missouri, I went to say good-bye to him in his real-life setting. I got out of the car, walked down the gravel path, and saw where he lived. And then, as he disclosed all the different things that were happening in his life — like the dogs he was taking care of, the military veteran identity — I saw that, in a very short time, a very rich array of both themes and literally concrete circumstances were right there in front of me.

I’d known something about veteran riders in a very loose and superficial way. But he described what it meant to him, and how it had led him to seek therapy after a whole adult life of trying to manage his own post-traumatic stress. What does it really mean to have something change in you very late in your life, after you’ve structured your life in a different way? What does it mean to be someone who has had a history of sometimes reckless living, and then to really want to change yourself? He came in a package — black leather, big bike, beard — that was very different from what was inside him. And the love he had for these little dogs in his life …The staying power this person had on me was remarkable.

Later, I went back to Missouri to do a small essay called “Hillbilly Up,” which was a piece that grew out of the Winter’s Bone experience. This word hillbilly had come up, especially by people who self-identify as hill people, as hillbillies. We had this roundtable discussion about the word, and he participated in it, and I saw how articulate he was. So, I had all the ingredients that a filmmaker might need: He’s granting you access, and he’s also articulate, open, and lively. And what he gets himself into and who he talks to are all really interesting.

Did you have to build any additional trust before you were able to start filming? 
Additional trust was needed. Like, what is it going to be like to have us to really, really stick around? We would come into Ron’s life and shoot for a week … that’s a long time. And we knew sometimes when he just needed us to back off, and then we would run and molest a neighbor. [Laughs] Even when he did get a little wary of the process, he never reneged. I would sometimes say, “Is it okay if we continue?” And he would say, “Y’all spent a lot of money on the plane down here.” It was poignant.

Ron helped broker that trust with other people we filmed as well. So there were some people who were like, “Oh, God, what are these coastal people doing with their camera?” Ron would explain exactly what he thought our purpose was, and he knew I was very interested in veteran rituals, and about soldiering, and life after soldiering and combat. And he was able to explain that this was something that was important to him. But without that introduction, without Ron owning it, we would not have felt welcome there. That happened on Winter’s Bone as well, with our fixer, our local guide. There’s no way to come into that community from the outside. You cannot just saunter in — literally, ever.

To what extent did the film you had in your mind when you started change? Is this the movie that you thought you were going to get when you started off?
No, because there’s not a real formal narrative trajectory. Some documentaries chronicle a movement, or a trek, a great contest or feat, so they really have this arc: “We’re gonna follow four 12th graders through 12th grade for one year.” This was more anarchic. Our only narrative that we knew going in was that it meant a lot for Ron to participate in the big ride for veterans. He does half, he doesn’t do the whole country — he goes from Missouri to D.C. He doesn’t go from California to D.C. He’s like, “And you could start that with me, and you could follow behind.” And that was the one structural cornerstone of the film.

But Ronnie also divulges that he’s become increasingly smitten with [his wife] Alicia across the border. So, he’s kind of implanted an immigration narrative into the story. And there is a real narrative there: There’s paperwork, there’s tests, there’s interviews, there’s green-card arrival, there’s green-card denial, there’s how to get [Alicia]’s sons here. Honestly, we didn’t know how it would play out.

Similarly, the theme of what it’s like to live in an RV park in southern Missouri with very scrappy financial resources — basically, living in poverty. Where do you put the parameters on that? Ron’s granddaughter brought forward some of those issues around what it’s like to try to exist under these circumstances. There’s a lot of journalism about poverty, but sometimes it just helps to see that there’s a real person who becomes a real mom, who is working with unsustainable wages that could eventually destroy her. And this was definitely a thread in Ron’s life: The boys who were arriving from Mexico would have to navigate this kind of poverty, and they were expecting something different. We actually had some scenes that really illustrated that contrast even more, like Ron’s granddaughter talking to [Alicia’s sons] Jesus and Angel. But that’s its own documentary, taking a cross section of 20-something Americans and seeing where they really sleep, what they really eat, what’s happening to their bodies, when they fall asleep in their cars.

It’s interesting because that also puts the lie to the whole “land of opportunity” canard. And yet, here’s Ron, a guy who sacrificed so much to defend this country. He’s the most patriotic of guys, in some senses.
Yes, and that causes a lot of turmoil for him. When he really stops and gets into it — especially in a safe environment — he understands the class issue involved in who fights. There’s a statement that he makes to Alicia that is really also dear to his heart. That’s actually when he gets the most sad. It gets buried in the patriotism.

Your films are all very lived-in, and they depict characters who are marginalized. Do you do a lot of research when preparing a film?
With Down to the Bone [Granik’s 2004 film about a mother struggling with addiction], that was based on an almost documentary sketch of a real-life family, based on notes and a deep collaboration with my co-writer, Rich Lieske. I documented that family for a long time, videotaping them and doing audio recordings. And then they appeared and participated in the actual fictionalization. The “life model” — that term that Robert Bresson uses — means a lot to me. A life model is a person who’s really lived an experience, and they can either be themselves in a narrative construct or documentary, or they might inform an actor who might try to represent them somehow. So, the life model was also able to bring Vera [Farmiga] to places and show her what her life was really like. The production designer was able to ask the life model if she could decorate the house with her own belongings. And that kind of research played out hugely in Winter’s Bone as well. Real people contributing real clothing, for example. Actually, a girl from that exact holler played Jennifer’s little sister.

In just two feature films, you’ve managed to get some of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen. Not just Jennifer Lawrence and Vera Farmiga, but also John Hawkes and Dale Dickey, and others. Would you consider yourself a hands-on director when it comes to actors?
It was just really different with each one. I mean, John blew me away. He has a deep trance that he goes into. I don’t know who’s doing what kind of “method,” but John writes these meticulous, small annotations all over his script. He has thought about some of the things he’s going to do, and he asks for certain access to research. He asked to go to bars with the people from the region. He asked to have a recording made by Ashley’s mom and dad, just to listen to cadence — not that he was going to imitate that, but he just wanted to get it in him. And then Dale had a whole different set of resources. Dale comes from Tennessee. She rattled off a whole bunch of aunts that had names that weren’t too dissimilar from southern Missouri. She said, “I am hill people. This is in my blood.” And oh my God, she was able to listen so carefully, and within two to three days of immersion, she was just very present and very comfortable chatting with locals. And there was actually someone that we thought was sort of a life character of Merab [Dale Dickey’s character in Winter’s Bone]. She was like a 90-pound, four-foot person with a whole bunch of rifles by the door. Dale loved seeing her house and just was able to shoot the shit with her.

And then Jennifer, at that time, was a super-intuitive person. She played it close to home, especially with the girl who played her friend Gale. They were friends on the set and had a lot of chemistry onscreen with each other. And then she was just so savvy and wise. She said to me that she was going to let John just really do his thing, and she would just respond to what he did. Because the fact is, he had started to really intimidate her. I don’t mean in a Lars von Trier sense; I mean, he was so somber and unyielding and withholding that she became increasingly uncomfortable in his presence, in character — and she worked with that. On both films, I had all these actors who are hungry, who don’t take interesting roles for granted. They came to the set because they liked the roles. And then they would try variations.

I would fail if I had to work with stars. And I also can’t afford to work that way. I can’t afford to have special circumstances for rarified individuals. So, I work with actors who have given me a sign that they’re willing to work in these more humble circumstances, in real-life locations. Probably the chemistry is a little bit self-selecting.

Winter’s Bone was a huge success. And obviously you were working on Stray Dog for a while. But I’m curious why we haven’t seen a new narrative project from you in that time. Has it been hard getting one off the ground? Or is it just that your process requires time?
I will always face the conundrum that the subjects I’m attracted to aren’t essentially commercial. They’re often living in poverty, which is a very hard sell. And I’m not seeking glamorous individuals. I mean, Jennifer and Vera are both very fetching human beings who can be very, very glamorous, but for me, Ron and his friends are also very, very physically beautiful. Not in that traditional sense, but texture, photogenic, body language, mannerisms. So, yes, I will probably always have trouble getting a project off the ground on the financial level, if it’s something I can’t just pay back with the guaranteed minimum audience.

But there is some very difficult math involved, even at the low budget level. For example, with unions, it’s sometimes really hard getting certain films made. Sometimes a film has to cost $2 to $3 million dollars, even though I’ve worked on some projects in the last three years where I felt that I could have made them for under $1 million dollars, if I didn’t get involved in some union kerfuffle.

So, sometimes the documentary is the answer, because you don’t really have to get involved in so much contortionist math. The beginning of a documentary, you can green-light yourself. It’s very refreshing. We’re not sitting there trying to sell something so hard. All we have to do is convince ourselves. But I’m not throwing in the towel on narratives. In fact, I think we just cracked our latest draft of this adaptation we’re working on. Oh, God, I think we got it. We’re not going to feel that way next week, when we reread it. But for a few days of bliss, you’re like, “Gosh, I think this time, this draft’s really working.” [Laughs.]

Winter’s Bone’s Debra Granik on Her New Doc