Unfettered by what Hollywood mandates these days (sequels, superheroes, stupidity), Debra Granik has built a career on verisimilitude—an admirable dedication to capturing the lives of people most movies ignore. Granik is interested in the Ozarks of Southern Missouri, where everything, as Ignatiy Vishnevetsky writes in his review of her new movie, Stray Dog, “exists in a state of perpetual DIY repair.”

At the heart of her first foray into documentary is the eponymous Ron “Stray Dog” Hall (who had a supporting role in Granik’s last film, Winter’s Bone), a herculean figure who effortlessly exhibits wisdom, calmness, and pragmatism. A devout biker and recovering Vietnam veteran, Hall proves to be a dynamic subject, commanding the screen with his presence. Granik taps, pokes, and prods, unearthing a man, and community, full of virtues and vices. This isn’t simply a film about backwater societies, clawing and scratching to survive. There’s no PSA in its middle or a link in the credits directing audiences to a donation box. Granik, as she’s done throughout her small but impressive filmography, projects lives, naked and unfiltered, onto to the screen. These projections unveil an assemblage of characters you won’t find on the cover of Esquire or GQ. But they exist, and Granik finds something familiar in their unfamiliarity.

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The A.V. Club: Ron “Stray Dog” Hall plays a significant role in Winter’s Bone and is at the center of this movie. Where did you find him?

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Debra Granik: I met him in the Biker Church of Frampton. It was through chance encounter, being in the same pew. I was there explicitly for local people to participate in Winter’s Bone, and sitting next to him, stealing a glance, I was visually caught by this man and the tattoo on his arm. He was in leather, with a hairy arm that had the word “Vietnam” on it. All of a sudden that word… it was like his tattoo was vibrating for me. It made me think, “Where was he? How did he come of age? What piece of American history have you lived through, and would he ever tell me about it?”

I had to quickly abandon that set of wonderments because I had this very logistical question: “Would you be willing to read this script?” And he turned on his heels, with this very respected response, which was, “I don’t know who you are, but it won’t cause any harm to read your script.” And so he did. He was able to enlist other locals in the area for the film, which is what we needed for the scenes. By the end of filming I felt I couldn’t leave Missouri without saying goodbye to him, which meant visiting him in his real-life location. It had nothing to do with fiction, it had nothing with the set. The first glimpse I get is him holding three small dogs, and he lets me know that he just came in from therapy. He’s already greeting me with notions and facts that I couldn’t have predicted about this individual. The bikes were in the yard. His friends and neighbors are surrounding him. The scrappy survival of that park was evident. I realized he was very enmeshed in a web of life—and that the strands of that web were themes of American existence. Soldiering, and what warriors do after their wars. What veterans do to identify and support each other. What doesn’t work in the aftermath of war. Ron was articulate and specific. He became that irresistible subject because he’s willing to tell you what he’s got inside.

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And he has a performative side, but it’s not something that is triggered all the time. He needs to be in circumstances where he’s connecting. He likes to communicate with people. He needs to feel that people are entering in a sustained dialogue with him.

AVC: He ambled into your life unexpectedly. What do you chalk that up to?

DG: There are sayings and mantras that sometimes occur in filmmaking discussions, and one of them is that sometimes filmmaking is an olive branch or a reason or an excuse to be able to reach out and create an encounter with someone. If I was on the interstate and I saw Ron in the parking lot, I probably wouldn’t saunter up and strike up a conversation with him.

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I have to confess that the origin is that I was casting him according to type. I was looking for a burly patriarch that could be intimidating. The character was a problematic man in a large family system, and I sought out Ron because he looks badass. So there’s that metaphor of peeling back an onion. When another human being crosses your path and defies your expectations about who they are, what they think, and how they operate, it’s powerful.

AVC: So you leave room for these “chance encounters” in your work?

DG: I think when you practice photography or observation, you’re on high alert. You polish up your antenna and stick up your head, and you’re out there. You’re receptive, appreciative of details. It heightens reality. You’re trying to step into your alertness. If someone gets off on photography, they might also appreciate the texture of Ron’s RV park, of tattoos, bikes, sweaty bodies. I don’t want to call it “eye candy,” but it’s like you’re acknowledging, intellectually, that you’ve not really seen that before.

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AVC: And what you see, and what you show us, is life most people are unfamiliar with. Considering your upbringing [raised on the East Coast, a Brandeis graduate], what about this world fascinates you?

DG: We all have to acknowledge the life and the path we were born into. And the things that define us, they’re often somewhat narrow: our class, our race, our gender, where we grew up, what geography we were exposed to. The curiosity and wonderment of, “What it’s like on your path?”—that’s when you go into high alert. When you don’t know that path is when you’re observing more keenly. You’re trying very hard to understand things that aren’t pieced together the same way in your own brain. It requires guides. It requires informants. Sometimes I wonder about the people who can do very reflective work about their own ethnic group or their own families, or comedies that take place in the life that they’ve grown up in. That’s a very special fortitude. Other brains have a curiosity for what they don’t know—the life they’re not leading.

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AVC: You have that curiosity?

DG: I think so. I’ve also had to come to terms with the fact that I worry an awful lot about people and how they’re faring. When I worry about people, whether their job is squashing their spirit, pushing them into a darker pathway of not feeling good about their life, that forces me to look for what’s good. What’s going well. That stokes a lot of positive feelings. Although I do worry, I look for the hope.

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AVC: There’s this great passage in an interview with journalist Sarah Smarsh, where she talks about how poverty is generally depicted and reported on. She said, “Most journalists, I’d wager, don’t have direct experience with poverty but are somewhat aware of their own privilege, and that translates to treating reporting of poverty preciously and yet at a distance—this pity tone, which is just an indirect outlet for their own fears and biases. Do you think you’re telling the untold story because you drove your own car into the ghetto to get some quotes and a few shots of shivering children for a 10-inch write-up on the cost of natural gas and a family who had their heat turned off? If you’d stuck around you might have seen that family build an electric-blanket fort in the middle of the living room, huddle over a game of Monopoly and crack up all night long about how screwed they are.”

DG: Oh my god. What a scene. That was a great explication of what images we retain from an encounter.

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AVC: These are the kind of images we encounter in your films. But do you find it hard or difficult to resist the “pitying tone”?

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DG: I can feel a sense of inconsolable sadness when I’ve thought about it so much and I’m like, “I don’t know how they’re going to solve that!” That really plays out in meeting some younger people in this country, who already know the service economy is really going to beat them down. On the mental and physical health level, it will wear them down very quickly and leave them with nothing. That conundrum… I’m not sure what might happen differently for that individual.

But I wouldn’t say it’s pity. I just get mad at capitalism. I get mad at greed. I get mad at minimum wage. Why would some lives have to be squeezed so badly that it really is causing daily suffering, taking away the best parts of them? Time for imagination, time for pleasure, all the things that, in aggregate, make life feel meaningful. There are moments when it hurts to look closely. And so it comes down to that moment when they have the resourcefulness to create the electric blanket, and it lifts you out of that mire of thinking it’s all hopeless.

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AVC: Stray Dogs is replete with what Junot Diaz describes in The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao as “demolished dreams.” The scenes with Hall’s granddaughter—young, ambitious, and pregnant—prove to be particularly moving for that reason. You so badly don’t want her life to unravel before it even has a chance to begin.

DG: Yes, she was the one that we felt those emotions were very overwhelming because she was a very likable human being, and she did use humor to get by on a lot of fronts. It was very hard to see her, at a very young age, resign herself. She wasn’t seeing positive things ahead.

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AVC: How could she? What template does she have to suggest a positive, fulfilling life is possible?

DG: And sometimes a rural life—without agricultural culture, community, or land—it means that you’re a very long drive from everything. It’s a big cultural isolation in terms of any kind of schooling where you could get exposed to things that might push the positive buttons. The geography of where people find themselves situated, both in metropolises and in the heartland, really starts to matter.

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AVC: How has it mattered for you?

DG: I grew up in a suburban situation and I was constantly looking for the central, the town. I grew up craving. “Where’s the town? Where’s the people?” You get into a very isolated shell. I had a little posey that I felt incredibly entwined with. We traveled as a small group and we tried to do our little adventures and our coming-of-age stuff together. But honestly, for me, it was so exciting to come to a city and not have to use a car to drive to a plaza. My first decade of living in a metropolis was like, I was a people watcher. It meant the world to me to talk to strangers. I got excited about the fifth time I’d see the same person in the same bodega. I loved getting to know a certain clerk or barista. It took on a whole big meaning for me because of that atomization that suburban people do start to feel.

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AVC: Do you find New York suffocating now?

DG: [Laughs.] On a good day my love for the large community will bound out of my heart and I’ll see a stranger and I feel like I could kiss them because they did something very New York, clerical, or unexpected. Other days, God, the pain and suffering. I’ll be looking at someone who appears stressed, maybe I project onto them a situation that can’t be solved easily, and… [Sighs.] I find myself really pining for the crickets of Southern Missouri. To hear nothing at night.

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AVC: Thinking about the films you make, would your consider being a director a calling or a social duty?

DG: I can think of three prongs. At it’s best, you’re really enjoying the people you’re working with, the colleagues mean a lot to you. We’re jiving today, we’re in sync, and it feels very connected. It’s powerful and rewarding to be asked to think. When you’re in flow and you don’t feel thwarted and you’ve gathered the supplies and signed the paperwork, it can be like being high. When it’s working.

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As for social responsibility, sometimes [editor Victoria Stewart and myself] take solace in knowing this is an ancient job. Being a scribe. A notetaker. Every civilization has scribes that were supposed to take notes on the zeitgeist that they lived in. You were supposed to take these notes—call it visual anthropology, call it whatever. She and I are notebook people. We write a lot of notes in the field. It’s been around since people stood on the sidelines of the battlefields of Greece and Troy and tried to take down notes. So I connect it to an old calling. It’s very humbling, too. Because you can’t tell every story.

The third prong would be for people who really love teamwork, collaboration. It’s a job in which you can truly seek out and flourish, if that’s in instinct inside of you. I do relish bonding tightly with other minds. To put together the pieces of these stories.

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AVC: Are you familiar with the phrase “poverty porn”?

DG: Yes. I’ve come to feel that with the amount of image deluge we have in our world, there’s nothing that can’t be porn. It’s a suffix that actually fits the time in which we live. I need to use that word a whole lot. I need to use “porn” after a lot of subject matters, because it’s this breathless, hectic, maniacal race to scrape at every subject matter. And reality TV has so expanded that desperate race and scratching process. To paraphrase a colleague of yours, it’s become so easy to revel in degraded imagery, people living in poverty. Not lampooning, but trying to find a way to gross people out. Shock. That would basically qualify as porn.

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With Winter’s Bone it was really poignant for me and harrowing because it was filmed in real people’s homes. At the time that film came out, someone wrote “the hovel” and I was thinking the labeling is so intense. Ashlee [Thompson] would never think her house is a hovel. She thinks of it as a sturdy cabin her parents worked really hard to make into a home. It shelters them from cold weather. It has beds, it’s where they eat and live. I realized that I came across something that made me feel hideous because I asked for the trust of the family, and told them that what I believed at that time to be true. It was a point of mission to make the film authentically, without a set. They consented to that and here comes this description. It was a sobering moment.

We’ve come so far from understanding that there are regions in our country where people’s reasons for living isn’t for bigger, better, more. That was eye-opening in a way that I was not prepared for. There are people who live with a mantra that’s a point of pride: make it last, make it do, wear it out, use it up, or do without. They have that litany. With material wealth and in a culture where many of us defines our self-worth by what we have and what we own and what we achieve, it’s very hard to comprehend that there are enclaves all over our big country in which people are very purposefully choosing to maintain different values.

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AVC: Where do you find your self-worth?

DG: Making these films, and then, of course, if my kid has a good day I feel some self-worth. Cultural work—we’re told it’s meaningful and worthwhile. But some days you can feel so frivolous. Self-worth, the feeling of it, can come and go. Because there are days when either filmmaking feels like an insurmountable practice—here’s a lot of obstacles in the way to make it happen—or you think, “What does this all add up to?” You don’t know what to do with the footage, and you’ve asked a lot of people for their time and a lot of people to be patient with you. And then you lose faith that you can actually make a worthwhile story out of this. Also, you know, I don’t have Eastern religion. I’m a Western person, and therefore my self-worth is unstable. Believe me, there have been many different times in my life where I’ve tried to strap on some Buddhism, and you can’t! You can’t come by that cheaply.

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AVC: What would you like your body of work to add up to?

DG: For people to feel affection for how hard many people work to navigate their lives. Getting behind that mule and trying to plow… if people could have an affection or affinity or attraction to that effort, through my films, I think I would feel fulfilled.

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