NEW YORK (AP) — Debra Granik met Ron “Stray Dog” Hall at a biker church in the Ozarks.
Granik, a 52-year-old filmmaker from New York, was in the Missouri mountains to make “Winter’s Bone,” the 2010 indie drama that catapulted Jennifer Lawrence to stardom and earned four Oscar nominations, including best picture. The man seated next to Granik — burly, bearded, tattooed and kind-eyed — caught her attention.
“His tattoo struck me really hard. I hadn’t seen that word on someone’s body in a really long time: the word ‘Vietnam,'” Granik says. “A dump truck of questions just cascaded on me in that pew.”
Granik, looking for local authenticity to her film, ran after Hall and cast him as Thump Milton, the backwoods patriarch of “Winter’s Bone.” Hall, a Vietnam veteran in his 60s, was skeptical but resolved it would be “pretty neat” for his kids to see him in a movie.
“I didn’t know she was looking for a drug dealer at the time,” he chuckles, “but it worked out.”
It’s a good story that could have easily ended there, with Granik returning to East Coast moviemaking and Hall back to the RV park he ran. But it didn’t. When shooting wrapped, Granik stopped by Hall’s home and was taken by the scrappy, neighborly existence he and others in the park were eking out.
“He also left this cliffhanger. He was like, ‘I think I’ve just fell in love with this Mexican woman,'” says Granik. “We got back to New York and I’m like, ‘Gosh, all I really want to know right now is what’s happening with Ron and his girlfriend.'”
Granik resolved to make a documentary about Hall. The movie, titled “Stray Dog,” opens Friday. It’s an exquisitely understated, patiently observational film about a so-called “ordinary” person — far from the follow-up project most seek after an Oscar-nominated hit.
“A lot of things my truest soul is attracted to have no commercial value,” says Granik, whose other projects (an HBO pilot, a Baltimore urban drama) didn’t materialize. “What do you do with a filmmaker like me in terms of the business world?”
The profound simplicity of “Stray Dog” lies in Hall’s rough-hewn compassion and an open-mindedness that would surprise many, were they to motor past him on the highway. In a country that has already begun forgetting more recent wars, Hall is still haunted by Vietnam and bound in brotherhood to fellow veterans.
His sensitivity comes through in scenes with friends and strangers, alike, at home and on the road with other bikers visiting the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. But he’s also engaged in the present, learning Spanish to better communicate with his wife, Alicia, tearing up while talking to a therapist or dolling out Viagra to his pals.
“He was someone who had felt a lot of fierce things throughout his lifetime and his willingness to consider another perspective or point of view — it wasn’t that that was endearing to me, it was extremely attractive to me and also hopeful,” says Granik. “Ron was going to be this complicated ball of themes.”
Granik and Hall, who spoke individually by phone, are, as Granik says, “canyons apart” culturally. But Hall came to trust her: “She’s real people,” he says. Granik spent more than two years shooting the movie. “You ever see the movie ‘The Never Ending Story’?” says Hall. “That kind of comes to mind.”
Hall’s vouching was also necessary for Granik (who’s currently making a documentary about life after incarceration) to win over a community extremely wary of outsiders.
“I ain’t trying to knock nobody, but I’ll tell you, brother, folks with cameras in Vietnam were not our friends,” says Hall. “They filmed a lot of bad stuff about us. The news was very slanted to one side. We did a lot of humanitarian things over there, but these were never filmed or talked about, just the blood and the guts.”
Yet Hall loves the movie Granik made. “It’s real. It’s just the way it is,” he says. “There’s no mask on it.”
There’s sadness and pain in “Stray Dog,” a raw portrait of American heartland poverty. But, for all his demons and struggle, there’s nothing impoverished about Hall’s life.
“All these things that people worry about …. it don’t mean nothin'” says Hall. “My uncle used to say, ‘You got a bad case of “I-wants.'” I’ll tell you, man, the luckiest people in the world are the folks who learn to be happy with what they got.”
The assumption-shattering anthropology went both ways, too, as Hall and his friends learned about Granik, the Jewish Cambridge, Mass.-native in their midst. Hall also came to New York last fall when “Stray Dog” premiered at the New York Film Festival, and was surprised to like the place and the people. He even got a foot massage in Chinatown.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP