Filmmaker Debra Granik has never made a documentary before, but her narrative films have come as close to truth as fiction usually can. “Down to the Bone” was a harrowingly realistic look at drug addiction that launched Vera Farmiga’s career, while the Oscar-nominated “Winter’s Bone” was steeped in the poverty-stricken, meth-addled landscape of rural Missouri.
But “Stray Dog” is the first time she has made a straightforward documentary. She is bringing the film to Madison along with its main subject, Ronnie “Stray Dog” Hall, this Sunday for a special screening as part of the UW-Cinematheque fall series.
“Documentaries are generous,” Granik said in an interview from her New York office. “They give you all the gifts. Your brain couldn’t create Ron and his neighbors. Your brain couldn’t even think of that.”
Hall is an intimidating-looking man, a burly Missouri biker who lives in a world of firearms, moonshine and line dancing. He’s a father figure in this community, and especially interested in reaching out to other veterans. But he’s also a soul tortured by his own memories of the Vietnam War, and “Stray Dog” shows him finally wrestling with those demons.
“I think in his lifetime he is very afraid of his own aggressive impulses,” Granik said. “That’s what made him fascinating to me – he knows he can go to the brink, but he doesn’t want to.”
Granik first met Hall while finding Missouri locals to cast in “Winter’s Bone.” She found Hall sitting in church, of all places, and knew he’d be perfect to play a terrifying drug kingpin.
“I ran after him in the church parking lot,” Granik said. “But he’s got this big heart, and he was able to turn around and see this strange woman flailing in the parking lot and listen to what she had to say.”
Over the course of the documentary, we see Hall go through therapy, help out friends, and, most touchingly, forge a relationship with the twin 19-year-old boys of his second wife, Alicia. Granik said she thinks the process of having his life filmed aided Hall in getting some perspective on it.
“I do think there is something about external reflection that could make us go further in our reflection,” she said. “He already has an inclination towards pondering – but for the kind of man he is, it’s taken him his whole lifetime to touch a feeling. “
Having made two feature films with strong and complex female characters, Granik said she relished the chance to explore the notion of masculinity, something that seemed mysterious to her.
“Masculinity, that’s the great unknown,” she said. “Ron represented a person that I’d never really got to talk to. When the person is open-hearted and the person is accessible, wow, that’s matchmaking for a documentary filmmaker.”
One thing that’s noticeable about “Stray Dog” is that Granik doesn’t use voiceover narration, subtitles or any other visual information one might expect in a documentary. The camera merely records Ron’s life as he lives it.
“It was never a dogma, and it was never a decision,” Granik said. Without sounding too mystical about it, it was where the film led us in the end.”
Granik said she’s excited to bring Hall and “Stray Dog” to Wisconsin (in addition to their Madison stop, Granik and Hall will present the film at the Milwaukee Film Festival). It’ll be the first trip to Wisconsin for Hall, and she’s reassured him that he’ll feel at home here.
“I told him, ‘These are good people. This is a setting where you’re going to feel really good.’”