In her Oscar-nominated movie “Winter’s Bone,” filmmaker Debra Granik introduced audiences to Jennifer Lawrence.
But when shooting that drama in Missouri, she came across another captivating individual. Captivating enough to spend the last four years crafting a documentary about him.
Ron “Stray Dog” Hall is a Vietnam veteran who manages an RV park in rural southern Missouri. With his burly frame, American flag tattoo, leather vest and requisite Harley, he prompts plenty of assumptions based on his appearance.
But Hall is also a steadfast supporter of his fellow soldiers and a philanthropist who helped the teen twins of his Mexican wife immigrate to America.
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“It was a chance encounter,” Granik says. “I never set out thinking I need to make a documentary that looks into someone like Ron’s generation.”
Granik describes the 60-something Hall, whom she met while casting locals for “Winter’s Bone,” as “a tremendously deep thinker, philosophical, curious.” She said it was the duality of his nature she found so initially intriguing.
“It was all the ‘ands.’ Someone could be this and this, not this or this,” she says. “Someone could be extremely interested and knowledgeable about high-powered weapons and be an expert marksman. Then they could be very squeamish about hunting. Ron frequently says, ‘I have no desire to kill one of God’s little creatures.’ There can be deep, supercharged emotions about the Second Amendment yet a real gravitas about the deployment of violence. That blows my mind!”
The cinematic result is “Stray Dog,” which earned a nomination for best documentary at the Independent Spirit Awards and won in the same category at the Los Angeles Film Festival. The feature screens twice this week as part of the Kansas City FilmFest.
“Stray Dog” serves up a daily snapshot of Hall’s life, whether traveling to attend funerals of Vietnam vets, undergoing therapy to contend with his post-traumatic stress disorder, taking online Spanish lessons or voluntarily repairing the home of a stranger whose daughter was killed in Afghanistan.
What truly makes the doc distinctive is Granik’s decision to let the action unfold with no setup, voiceover or titles.
“We filmed all the classical interview material: sit downs with Ron, one-on-ones with two cameras. It gave us so much insight. We expected to use that as voiceover. Yet the live action repeatedly took over,” says Granik, who shot “Stray Dog” with a four-person crew.
“I don’t want to aggrandize Ron, but I like the way he puts together his words. He’s a very articulate person who has a charismatic way of delivering some of the stories of his life,” she says. “He’s not afraid to offer up a forceful, astute opinion. Meanwhile, he’s got this strange tolerance. Like, what are these Mexicans doing in his house?”
“I love that the film is not lecturing you,” says Veronica Elliott Loncar, executive director of the KC FilmFest. “‘Winter’s Bone’ was such a great movie with such great characters — and great villains. And that’s who Ron played. He had the perfect look for it, but he couldn’t have been more different from that person. There’s more to him than you might think. You hear that a lot about how movies approach a subject, but they don’t always deliver like this.”
Hall’s Missouri lifestyle provided quite a culture shock for the 52-year-old Granik. A petite Jewish liberal from Cambridge, Mass., Granik graduated from Brandeis University with a degree in politics before earning a Master of Fine Arts in film at New York University.
Her directorial debut, “Down to the Bone,” starred future Academy Award nominee Vera Farmiga in a tale of a homemaker hiding her drug addiction. But the 2010 adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel “Winter’s Bone” proved Granik’s career breakthrough. The best picture nominee about a teenager searching for her missing, meth-cooking father in the Ozarks received Oscar nominations for Jennifer Lawrence and supporting actor John Hawkes. It also earned an adapted screenplay nomination for Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini.
Apparently, the East Coast native just can’t stay away from Missouri.
“Whatever is different from what you know is by definition interesting,” says Granik, whose crew set up at Hall’s home in Reeds Spring, 10 miles outside of Branson. “You can’t ride on assumptions. You can’t be ho-hum. It forces yourself into a position of observing, gently inquiring, checking back and asking to explain and verify.”
For Granik, that culture clash is not necessarily an easy adjustment.
“Some of it is very painful. Expectations are very different for behavior and etiquette. It’s not always fun. Sometimes I feel isolated, or I feel like I’m not coming across,” she says.
Granik is working on adapting another “Bone” project: Russell Banks’ novel “Rule of the Bone,” which focuses on a 14-year-old drug dealer in Jamaica. She’s also actively involved with a new documentary that is being shot in New York (where she keeps her office) for a change.
“It’s about life after incarceration. We’ve had a 25-year war on poor people. Now we’ve got this demographic struggling to re-enter mainstream life,” she says.
Despite being drawn to heavy, bleak themes, Granik views her occupation with the kind of optimism the sagacious Hall would appreciate.
“Where did we all on the filmmaking side learn that it has to be heartbreaking, unpleasant and abusive?” she asks. “Let’s kill the notion that it’s a tyrannical work environment. Filmmaking can be and should be wonderful.”
Kansas City FilmFest
The four-day Kansas City FilmFest, which runs Wednesday through Sunday at the Screenland Crossroads and Cinemark Palace on the Plaza, allows movie-lovers to indulge in both rarified cinematic fare and mainstream movies.
The decidedly populist actor and comedian Rob Riggle will add star power to the proceedings. The former Overland Park resident will receive a KC Legend Award for Outstanding Achievement in Film and Television in a presentation at 7 p.m. Thursday. Audience members will have an opportunity to ask Riggle about his roles in comedies including “The Hangover.”
Although a wide variety of full-length and short features are slated to be screened at the festival, many of the most compelling offerings are documentaries.
“Where the Buffaloed Roam: An Ode to the Kansas Budget” takes a sardonic look at the state’s controversial financial maneuvering. (5:25 p.m. Thursday)
A 1 p.m. Saturday showing of “Rolling Papers,” an examination of “pot journalism” in Colorado, will be followed by a forum featuring Edward Cantu, an associate professor of law at UMKC, and Chad Troutwine, one of the film’s producers.
Bob Gale, the co-writer of “Back to the Future,” will attend a 7 p.m. Saturday screening of the film. A replica of the car made famous in the movie will be parked in front of the theater from 4 to 7 p.m. Saturday.
Aspiring filmmakers can find more than inspiration at Kansas City FilmFest. Gale will dole out advice during a free screenwriting workshop at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Unity Temple on the Plaza.
Wednesday, April 15, at Screenland Crossroads, and Thursday, April 16, through Sunday, April 18, at Cinemark Palace on the Plaza. KCFilmFest.org. Festival passes are $45. VIP festival passes with benefits including access to a lounge are $80. Tickets to individual films are $10. Tickets to the Rob Riggle presentation are $20. Gale’s screenwriting workshop is free, but attendees must register in advance.
Bill Brownlee, Special to The Kansas City Star