STRAY DOG: An interview with Director Debra Granik
By Sarah Wolfe
In a small, rural Missouri town lives a man called Ron “Stray Dog” Hall. This Vietnam War veteran is tattooed, leather-clad and a bona fide biker. He runs a trailer park with his wife, Alicia, who recently emigrated from Mexico. Upon first appearances, he’s a tough guy through and through. As Debra Granik’s intimate and powerful documentary reveals, however, there are far more layers to this protagonist. A compassionate soul, he still struggles more than 40 years later to make peace with his combat experience. He always helps out his friends and neighbors. And, you can find him attending military memorials and offering support to his fellow veterans.
When Alicia’s teenaged sons arrive, it creates an even more vivid and tender portrait of a family and a community living on the fringes of society, doing what it takes to survive. Also, we are offered a very real account of the long-term effects of war on our veterans.
Salem Film Fest Writer Sarah Wolfe recently caught up with Debra Granik, Academy Award-nominated director of WINTER’S BONE, to discuss her newest work, STRAY DOG. Here they talk about rural America, veterans and the compelling main character of her documentary.
Sarah Wolfe: This was such a great film. So much humanity to it. When it ended, I was craving to know more about the future of Ron’s family.
Debra Granik: Thank you! We had a lot of trouble knowing when to stop! We actually went down and filmed three months later when Alicia’s sons had learned enough English to land jobs. We could make a sequel with all the footage we shot; show how being in America is no longer new to them and they’re now learning how to survive like Ron and his community.
SW: You met Ron while preparing to film WINTER’S BONE. What was your first impression of him?
DG: I was sitting in a pew at this biker’s church scouting for local people. My very first impression was this massive arm with this blonde-grey fur and embedded in it the word “Vietnam” tattooed into the skin. It made me think, “What’s his story? Why is that word on this man’s arm?” I knew what the reference was, but I wanted to know what it meant to him. What part of American history does his life cover and what themes does it touch on? When I approached him afterward in the parking lot he was super friendly—not at all put off by a stranger coming up to him. At that point I was able to explain why we were there and asked if he’d be willing to read the script and book. Not only was he was willing, he was on time and he was so articulate. I asked if he’d consider auditioning for WINTER’S BONE. He thought it was a far-out idea, but his attitude was, “Yeah, if it’s not hurting anyone, why not?” He’s very open to trying new things.
I appreciated that biker culture gave Ron life experience about how men settle things. It’s actually almost chivalrous, with seemingly ancient clannish protocols like giving someone a dress down. Confrontations are handled through steps to stave off fighting. He was no stranger to that so I thought he could bring integrity and some oomph to the role. He gave it a good shot and drew in his friends and neighbors to the film which was very helpful.
SW: And what compelled you to make a documentary about Ron?
DG: After the film, I went to say goodbye to him and all the materials and humanistic things in his life—his dogs, his bikes, his neighbors—were all right there in front of me. It was like I was being handed another story. This one was about scrappy survivors navigating life. Unless you live in an RV park or come from a similar background, you probably drive by places like Ron’s all the time. It’s a rare moment when you’re invited in. We started off filming a lot of things about the management of the place. We knew the veteran’s ride to D.C. was important to him, but then we realized that was like an actual pilgrimage. That gave me and my editor/producer, Victoria Stewart, a strong sense of direction. We saw there was plenty to work with and Ron was willing; that we could create a rich portrait.
SW: How long did you spend filming Ron’s family and community?
DG: Our first shoot was in 2010 and our last in 2013. We had to schedule trips to stay for a while. In between those gaps we had a local shooter grab footage of one-day things we wanted to capture but couldn’t be there for—like military funerals that weren’t planned. Ron would call us and say he was heading to a memorial and our local camera person would follow him.
SW: It’s so interesting in STRAY DOG to see Vietnam vets like Ron talking to more recent vets about PTSD. That wasn’t something that was recognized back when Ron was a young veteran himself. How long has he been offering free counsel to fellow veterans, encouraging them to seek treatment?
DG: When we met Ron, he had only started helping others like that in the past seven years. That happened much later in life for him as with many other men from his generation. PTSD was first mentioned around 1982, but there wasn’t really treatment available for Vietnam-era veterans. Then people like Fred, one the film’s younger veterans, came of age after it’d been officially recognized and could talk about it much more openly. Ron himself received an intervention from other veterans who were traveling through his RV park. In their very manly way, they said, “Dude, we’re a lot like you. With all due respect, brother, we think you have a problem.” He was so reluctant because so many people of that generation didn’t want to go down to the VA and meet with some white coat. But there’s been a big paradigm shift in the VA where they now have counseling centers, which are very different from the hospitals. It’s so much less medicalized and more humanistic. The biggest difference is combat vets perform the counseling versus med school-trained shrinks. We see Ron’s therapist in the film. He himself wasn’t a combat vet but he was a biker, which Ron could identify with. Though he doesn’t like going, Ron respects the value of those counseling sessions.
SW: What did Ron think of this film? Were you able to show it to his family and community?
DG: Ron’s had some really wonderful experiences with people who loved the film. He’s been enjoying travelling on the circuit with it. I really wish he could come to Massachusetts. The neighbors really liked it a lot, too. And Alicia’s boys thought the whole thing was a hoot. Ultimately they enjoyed being acknowledged and it wasn’t lost on them that they were sort of emo, cosmopolitan guys who really stuck out in a rural country town with rough-hewn dudes.
SW: They certainly saw firsthand that America isn’t this mythic land of wealth and opportunity as it’s often portrayed.
DG: Absolutely. Oh, and as far as reactions, I will say the bikers with the organization that sponsored the Washington, D.C. pilgrimage ride were leery and a bit freaked about us filming. They kept saying, “You got to understand our era. We hate the image that’s been created about the gnarly, difficult vet and we’re filled with piss and vinegar about the potential of being exploited. How do we know we’re not going to get thrown under the bus again like it’s been done so many times?” Also, I think they were concerned with maintaining the mystique of the biker and their overall privacy. It was hard as a documentarian to feel all that suspicion even though it was completely understandable. We ended up arranging the filming by making it clear we were following Ron and not speaking for or making an assessment of their organization or all veterans. This was just about Ron and his experiences within his veteran community.
SW: What do you ultimately hope audiences carry away from this film?
DG: That it’s worthy as a culture to always be asking ourselves what the costs are to people who participate in America’s wars. What does that look like over time? There have been so many recent strong films about the experiences of soldiers—especially of Iraqi and Afghani vets. This is the more longitudinal look where we’re seeing many more years that have gone by since the Vietnam conflict. This film was also made in the spirit of capturing a generation that won’t be here forever. We can’t close our ears. The history of the Vietnam War and the legacy of that generation is still something we need to know about.
Lastly, STRAY DOG is about acknowledging that when you meet a certain kind of person you wouldn’t normally talk to, and the two of you are willing to have a dialogue, you’ll probably discover they have many layers and a story to tell. That’s why I yearn for and enjoy doing portraits of the lives of ordinary Americans.