The 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival is honoring Oscar-nominated filmmaker Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone) with a tribute to her body of work this Saturday, Sept. 27, following the 7:15 p.m. screening of her latest effort, Stray Dog at the historic Oriental Theatre (2230 N. Farwell Ave.). The film, which marks Granik’s first foray into documentary filmmaking, screens one additional time during the run of the festival on Monday, Sept. 29 at 4:15 p.m. at the Times Cinema (5906 W. Vliet St.).
Also screening during this year’s festival is Granik’s critically-lauded, sophomore directorial effort, the aforementioned Winter’s Bone, starring Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) and John Hawkes (The Sessions), both of whom received well-deserved Oscar nominations for their revelatory performances in that film — Lawrence for best actress and Hawkes for best supporting actor, respectively. Winter’s Bone screens once at 11:30 a.m. at the Downer Theatre (2589 N. Downer Ave.) on Saturday, Sept. 27.
When Granik got word of the festival tribute, she was indeed honored but also felt a bit daunted — in the best possible sense — by the news.
“Don’t get me wrong, I was thrilled, honored, and felt great,” Granik shared, “But, then I was like ‘Oh shit! Let me make some more films first!’ It isn’t that you don’t ever feel good about yourself, it’s that you never want to feel complacent. What may play to one crowd may not play to the next. One can never take it as a given that they’ll churn out a mess of award-winning films. It’s quite the opposite, really.”
To her credit, she’s made three critically-acclaimed feature-length films over the past decade. In 2004, she made a rather impressive feature directorial debut with Down to the Bone, an independently-financed drama centered on an upstate New York mother (brilliantly played by Vera Farmiga) who enters rehab in an attempt to overcome a cocaine addiction. The film garnered Granik the 2004 Sundance Film Festival prize for best direction in the Dramatic Film competition, and established Farmiga as a formidable new talent to watch.
Her second feature, Winter’s Bone (2010), another independently-financed drama, took the indie film world and Hollywood by storm. The film is centered around a young, resilient, wise-beyond-her-years teenage girl from the Ozarks named Ree (brilliantly played by Jennifer Lawrence) who sets out to track down her MIA drug-dealing father in an attempt to prevent her family from being evicted from their home. The film won several awards, including the coveted Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Film as well as the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award (the latter of which Granik shared with her writing and producing partner Anne Rosellini) at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. The film would go onto land four Oscar nominations, including best picture and best adapted screenplay.
In the official program for this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival, Granik is quoted as having said the following in regards to her work, “The question I’ve had for most of my life is, ‘How are you coping?’ Some people have these small, positive schemes for survival, a kind of strength that I am attracted to, maybe because I’m prone to the blues.”
So it’s rather fitting that Granik’s third feature (and her first foray into documentary filmmaking), Stray Dog, is centered around a husky, 60-something Vietnam veteran from Missouri by the name of Ron “Stray Dog” Hall who some might recall played the intimidating crime boss Thump Milton in Winter’s Bone opposite then-future Oscar winner Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook).
In the film, which screens twice during the run of this year’s festival, audiences witness Hall doing his best to cope with the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) he’s been dealing with for decades while also embarking on a new May-December romance with Alicia, a Mexican immigrant 23 years his junior whom he met during a trip south of the border. Filmed incrementally over the course of three years, Stray Dog is an intimate portrait of a fascinating person. It illustrates the bond that can be formed between a filmmaker and their subject when their paths cross at an opportune time, perhaps the most opportune of times, resulting in an unforgettable slice of everyday life that may be foreign to some but rings familiar to many. The film recently won the best documentary prize from the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Granik’s interest in the human condition dates back to as long as she can remember. When asked why she is genuinely concerned about how her fellow man is doing, she replied: “It’s funny, I always lose perspective over the fact that more people aren’t interested. I just always assume that the whole world wonders, if, say a waitress comes to your table, whether or not she’s had a good day. Or if she’s tired. I ask that question so many times a day, it hurts. I guess I was born with that gene. I always wonder how people are doing.”
She counts the talented likes of British filmmakers Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies, Topsy-Turvy, Vera Drake) and Ken Loach (Ladybird Ladybird, My Name is Joe, Bread and Roses) and French filmmakers Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Rosetta, The Son, L’enfant) among her filmmaking influences.
“Each of those filmmakers tackle issues pertaining to everyday life, they take on the lives of ordinary people,” Granik shared. “Those are the kinds of stories that interest me, that’s why I gravitate towards them. For instance, someone taking Wall Street for millions of dollars is one story, another kind of story. I’m interested in the story about the person who’s one paycheck away from possibly having no food or utilities or eviction. Leigh and Loach and the Dardenne brothers were and still are among the filmmakers I admire greatly that tell these kind of everyday, slice of life stories. I’m endlessly fascinated by what happens that can cause high stakes in ordinary life.”
Granik has several projects in the works, including two film adaptations of books by other writers, and a documentary about the U.S. prison system. She’s looking forward to making a return visit to Milwaukee after thoroughly enjoying her time here two years ago, thanks in large part to the sincerity and commitment she witnessed firsthand from the film students at UWM’s Peck School of the Arts.
“Those young men and women were eager to make that film department come to life,” she said. “They all want to do good work. Who wouldn’t be impressed by that?”
Granik is also participating in a panel during the festival titled “Working with Actors,” where she’ll run actors through their paces as they try to make sense of a small scene from a screenplay that’s a work-in-progress. Considering her films have put the talented likes of Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes and Vera Farmiga through their paces and subsequently placed them on the proverbial map, it’s become one of the festival’s most-anticipated events.
“What we’re going to do is work a scene, which is extremely hard,” Granik said. “It never gets easier, especially when you start from scratch. A scene gets built in a very piece-by-piece way, and for a long time it can seem like it’s not going to work, like it’s not gelling. And that can make everyone involved feel very anxious — certainly in front of a group of people. But we’ll keep going at it.”
She mentioned how working in such a manner affords filmmakers and actors the opportunity to try different variations on the material that they’re working with to see what comes forth.
Granik continued: “You can then question why some parts are working and some aren’t. Is it the humor? Is it something unexpected? We’re all coming to it raw, it’s not a scene that’s been filmed before so we won’t be able to compare it to something that’s already been done.”
Stray Dog screens on Saturday, Sept. 27 at the Oriental Theatre at 7:15 p.m. Filmmaker Debra Granik and editor Victoria Stewart will be in attendance. The film screens again on Monday, Sept. 29 at 4:15 p.m. at the Tmies Cinema.
Winter’s Bone screens on Saturday, Sept. 27 at the Downer Theatre at 11:30 a.m.
Tickets can be purchased at the venue’s box office or online at mkefilm.org
And, the MFF 2014 Panel, “Working with Actors,” starts at 2:30 p.m at Colectivo Prospect (2211 N. Prospect Ave.). Due to the anticipated demand for this event, RSVP’s will be required.