Jeremy Saulnier emerged from the shadows last year with his not-quite-cult independent smash Blue Ruin. About a man fatally ill prepared to strike justice on the man responsible for his parent’s slaying, Saulnier managed an original voice in a familiar setting. With this year’s Green Room, he’s managed to strike the sweet spot once more. An uncompromisingly violent tale of a hapless punk band (played by Alia Shawkat, Anton Yelchin, Callum Turner and Mark Webber) who come head to head with a Neo Nazi club owner (an intimidating as hell Patrick Stewart) is shrouded in viscus and plays like a violent assault to the senses. Visceral and mean, Saulnier has sharpened his edge as a filmmaker to craft a siege film set in a seedy underbelly society that’s absolutely boiling with tension.
From our review,
“Hot from the critical heralding of Blue Ruin, Jeremy Saulnier returns to the world of white trash and movies with colors in their title with Green Room. An ultraviolet fantasy of viscus and vengeance, Green Room is as unapologetic as a Misfits album, as dead-serious as a KKK rally and as boastfully savage as a scalping. Characters find themselves torn to kibble by attack dogs, slashed to crimson ropes by box cutters and blasted in the face at point blank range with shotguns.” [Full review here]
I would emphasis that Green Room is not for those of weak stomached persuasion, nor will it lead to sweet dreams anytime soon. Nonetheless, Jeremy Saulnier has created something that is neither horror nor thriller, and all the better for it. Join us as we discuss Jeremy’s punk rock background, the poetry of violence, writing vs. directing and where he sees himself in the mix, Green Room‘s most brutal moments, making Patrick Stewart a Nazi skinhead, cozying up to the industry while maintaining his artistic integrity and, naturally, how he would fight off attacking Neo Nazis.
Tell me about your in route to the white supremacist scene? I’m sure there was a lot of online research done, but how did you really get to know the ins and outs of that world? And did you have any particular harrowing stories that you’ve researched?
Jeremy Saulnier: Yeah. I had been familiar with the culture just being in punk rock and hardcore scene. In the 90s, on TV, there was a skinhead presence that existed in a way that was just disturbing to a suburban child from Virginia. You know, I would just get on TV and see people proudly wearing swastikas in broad daylight. When you’re in the punk scene, it’s weird how they’re just there. They’re not really welcomed, but they are the cause or attracted to violence. That’s something that was a little disturbing to me, so that stuck with me. Even back in the 90s, there used to be an undercover documentary that we would watch about these skinheads. Again, if you don’t like hangout or really get into ideology, you’re right next to each other at shows.
Just having that presence, that tension there. For researching the film, you know, I didn’t want to get too much ideology, you know. The movement was very active online, and the photographers who have done shoots within the culture. So, there’s lots of research available and I also compiled as much information as possible to get the background. Ultimately, what I wanted was soldiers, you know. I was making this punk rock war movie and I didn’t want to get too much into ideology. So, if you know who they are and what they stand for, that becomes one of the themes in the film. Does it really matter? Is that what they are really fighting for?
The film is kind of hard to define because it exists in this grey area between art film and, not anything quite as derogatory as torture porn, but kind of something along those lines. How did you go about creating this poetry of violence?
JS: I think the key is, you know, the story, the ultimate scenario, is purely violent. It’s a brutal, blunt force conflict. I did treat it like a war movie. So, the violence is the highlight because it’s so grounded and pretty realistic, but that’s how I treated everything, you know. I tried to ground it in realistic performances. I tried to ground it in set design and wardrobe and all these elements head towards realism. It’s sort of deeply human and awkward. The protagonists are real kids. So, when the violence hits, I treat it like any other part in the movie, but because people aren’t used to seeing violence treated in a very graphic, realistic way, people see the real characters, not just, you know, slasher movie victims. It’s all the more impactful. I figured that having a reverence for loss of life and the characters in the movie helps. We used the violence to heighten the impact of the storytelling. In storytelling, you’re supposed to have a real reaction for the audience, ideally in a physical way. You can feel it in all the performances and the aesthetics. When the violence hits, it’s all the more shocking.
In terms of just the sheer brutality, there are some images that are just like so gut wrenching – for me, first and foremost, Pat’s “accordion arm” after that first encounter– even for horror aficionados, which I’d like to consider myself. I think the box cutter for instance is especially insane. I’ve never seen it used in a movie quite like this. You play with a lot of unconventional weaponry — the box cutters, the florescent light bulbs, the dogs. Was this always a part of this script or were there things that cropped up during the production design of the film?
JS: All of it is baked into the script. There’s so many references to violence. I don’t seek it out, but man, are we hammered with it in modern day media. I just can’t shake some images that come across on cable television; news, documentaries, you know, or UN footage, a prison documentary on a cable TV network. It’s something that I kind of try to transfer to the audience in a sort of cathartic expression. These are things that have haunted me. You know, I’ve been robbed and the box cutter kind of got in the way. It’s terrifying. When people are slashed, it’s something I can’t shake. So, you know, all sorts of types, even dog attacks. Someone in my family was attacked by a dog. It’s haunting stuff and it comes out naturally and enters the script in an organic way.
Hypothetical situation: say you are back in the 90s and you were touring with this band, The Ain’t Rights, and you find yourself in this horrible situation. How do you think you would react?
JS: Well, a lot of my reactions are baked into the script. I mean a lot of the exchanges between the characters are the thoughts that would run through my head.
So do you see yourself as a collection of all of them? Or is there one particular character that’s like a cipher for you?
JS: The characters are based on certain personalities of people that I knew growing up. But, yeah, I’m certainly present in how some of them react. I certainly identify with Pat, the protagonist, because he’s, you know, a little more passive, a little more observational. That’s kind of how I feel. The band, I kind of jump between characters and try to speak from their point of view. But I think that almost is my personality: to exhaustively debate and scrutinize and analyze all the options, so I could do that through each character and keep each voice a little more unified. But my major point is to analyze through multiple characters. I play myself.
If you had to elect a weapon of choice to fight neo-Nazis, it would be?
JS: Probably a cell phone.
Touché. Your films have involved these characters who are very impulsive and they make these spur of the moment, gut reaction decisions that often just turn out horribly wrong. It’s sort of these split second “Oh, I’m going to grab my cellphone!” Or “Hey, the guy that killed my family is out of jail, so I’m going to hide in the bathroom stall and try to murder him.” There’s always this element of unpreparedness and improvisation, and yet, you orchestrate it so meticulously. Can you talk about how you orchestrate such a whirlwind of chaos and how your gut helps to inform creative decisions on set?
JS: I start with just trying to make characters relatable, not necessarily agreeable or carrying a big backstory, but just that they function as real people. When you have these special situations or scenarios in real life, you know, people rarely—even trained professionals– act with grace or precision. So, I really latch onto the idea of letting humans be impulsive, and I write intuitively. What’s fun is when you start down that road, there is a certain amount of cause and effect that you can really capitalize on. So, I start with impulsiveness, and it starts to craft itself. I just build momentum and tension, keep evolving or spiraling downwards. And then, it’s always good once in awhile to check your writer’s voice to know this is narrative; actual craft. But let it come naturally. I want the knowledge injected to formulate… I don’t want this to be a “movie”. I want this to be entertaining. So, if the scene is unfolding in a half-assed way, that impulsivity comes through. And the key is not to try too hard to adhere to formula. Once you’re off that terrain, you gain so much from the audience. Because if you pull the rug out from underneath them, and they can no longer predict where this is going to go, they’ll know. And you use that even more tension. But, yeah. I focus on my craft and my structure, on themes and visuals, and not so much on monologue, exposition, hitting certain plot points in the script, checking boxes.
Talking about your writing process, in the past you’ve kind of served as a Swiss army knife for the various productions you’ve been involved in. You’ve written, you’ve directed, you’ve casted, you’ve done special effects, you’ve been a cinematographer. But as time has gone on, you’re taking on less and less of these roles. This time, you only wrote and directed. But I’ve read that, while you were busy writing this, you’d been hoping that you would find the perfect script and it would sort of just come across your desk and you would direct that. So, is that the ideal for you? Just being able to direct? Being able to whittle everything else away and just focus on being a director?
JS: Well, sure, I’ve fallen in love with the process of writing, but yes, I mean– the thing is, when you write movies and you build a big film from the ground up, starting with a blank page, it’s a two or three year process often. Sometimes, even more. It’s two years if you sprint the whole time, you know. I also try to learn my own way. I don’t even know my process as a writer or even as a director yet. I’m still learning, because in the film, if they’re under duress or cross production or there’s so much at stake that I can’t bear it. So, I kind of want to settle down. I want to see if I can practice my craft and become what I thought a director was. It’s very hard to do in the current system where you have less and less time to shoot, and less and less opportunity to actually be an artist. You have to be a Swiss army knife. That’s what I did to break in. I wrote just to generate material that I knew I could get done. Those first two films, when I talked about breaking in, I was very pragmatic in my approach and worrying about everything else but directing.
Green Room was my first foray into the actual industry. It was a huge learning curve for me. I kind of survived it, having come out the other end and having a film that we can all stand by and is getting so much support by the distributor. It’s exciting. Like to make it through that process, it’s huge. And now, I want to take a break to jump on some projects and to see what it’s like to only direct– to be a caretaker of a story, not the creator.
Yeah, not the architect.
JS: Yeah. Right now, we’re in a vacation. It is a part of the process, so I will always come back to that eventually. But now, I want to use momentum and keep directing and keep learning my craft.
It’s funny that you say that you want time to learn your craft, because I think not only myself, but a lot of people look at your films and say, “Oh, this is a breath of fresh air, because it doesn’t feel overwrought.” It doesn’t have to adhere to all these Hollywood or even standard independent film necessities. Of course, this is a product of your writing as well, but do you think there’s something to being an outsider and not “understanding the process” that allows you to flip the formula on its head?
JS: Well, yes. I want to make different sorts of movies. One day, maybe even soon I’ll do a traditional studio number. I like those films too. The only way for me to make these sort of original stories and variations are in my creative DNA through and through would be to write. That’s where my idiosyncrasies and inherent style comes from. But also, I rarely get a chance to really visually tackle the way I want to. Because I’m not the best out there, so I sort of work with more talented cinematographers as I sort of work my way up the rungs of the ladder, I can do less and less and trust more and more in people with more experience and craft than I have. So, that’s definitely exciting. And then, I definitely think it’s important to understand the process in how it relates to the industry and sometimes, bigger budget movies mean less control.
And then, there’s this new flexibility within the budget scale. That’s what I do. I’ll pull a Soderbergh and then retreat to the woods with my friends and make a very small scale, independent film on my own terms and be grateful. That’s a great comfort now. Soderbergh kind of redefined the director’s guild, you know, to go super low budget and have none of the contracts. Once you go big, it’s hard to go small again. But now, it’s really about what suits it at the time.
Speaking of that, being able to work with your friends and marque talent as well, do you feel like you have the best of both worlds now? Because you’re working with Patrick Stewart and Macon [Blair], who you’ve been friends with and collaborating with for years now.
JS: Yeah, it feels just really gratifying. It took like, you know, sixteen years to break through. But now, I can take a little breath. Now that we’re here, we get better access. Macon is one of the best actors I’ve ever known in my entire life.
JS: But to showcase that took decades of trying to light it up for him. Now, it’s great. Now, I’ve broken through. I’m taking a breath, you know, between movies. Macon’s off making his movie in Portland. He’s directing his feature. Now, we’re here. There’s more available, and more people I admire greatly to work with. So now we’re here. Now, I guess it’s just staying true. We’re here because we broke through on our terms, and stayed true to our visions for better or worse. And people are responding to that. The key is to make sure we maintain that level of integrity and tell stories that are original and not really get intoxicated by the access we have. We have to stay true to people who are dedicated craft people who want to tell stories together. I think actors respect that.
So are you know being approached far more than you did before? Was that something you saw after Blue Ruin’ and has that been ramped up even more?
JS: Oh, for sure, yeah. The thing is that Blue Ruin is still paying dividends in that it took a long time for it to penetrate the industry. Especially this year, you know, for about two years after the release of Blue Ruin, a lot of people are just now responding to it and really getting excited and engaging. I certainly get my fair share of scripts submitted to me. It’s absolutely amazing. I’ve been trying very hard to stay disciplined about which scripts I pursue. A lot of them are very well written like the craft level is phenomenal. But sometimes, you just don’t see yourself as the best fit.
Again, it’s at best a year or two of your life, making this movie. And sometimes, you just want to wait for it to come out in theaters, so we get it. The big thing is just trying to be disciplined enough about knowing when the right film comes along and doing it for the right reasons, not just because it’s bigger or more expensive, you know, the budget scale. You want to do something that’s bigger, more exciting, on a story level.
While also being something organic to your voice.
In the transition between your films, I feel like your style and your sensibilities have this very unique quality to them that haven’t changed too drastically yet. And still, you’re working with more cast and crew, more recognizable names. How do you internalize those shifts? Do you feel like the stakes are higher? Or is it like you’re going so fast that you don’t have the time to stop and think about it?
JS: Yeah, the stakes are certainly getting higher. It weighs on me. I have like guilt, you know, from years of begging for favors and debts on everyone that works on movies. And now, I got what I asked for, which is terrifying. Now, it’s my movie they ask for, not theirs, which is something I don’t take lightly. I aim to please audiences, I aim to please all my collaborators with that sort of mentality. It’s a lot of pressure. So, I try to take that in stride and try to relax, and I just appreciate more the opportunities I have and trust more in all those around me. I’m sort of one of those freaked out, nervous filmmakers in that it took so long to break through. I don’t trust my environment yet. Everything is a little too precious.
But maybe that’s why I’m more meticulous. I think I have a good solid background in a technical trade, so even on the crew side and being from the camera department and having shot so many films for my friends, I really know how to make a movie because I’m very comfortable on set. I’ve been in special effects and all the physical things, the tradecraft of filmmaking, I feel very, very comfortable with. But navigating the industry and getting projects all the way through the process unmolested is something I’ve got to watch out for. Because, you know, the challenge isn’t really kind of making movies. I know they have their challenges, but having to set yourself up to give yourself room to do your best work. That is also my job for people who are working underneath me– for department heads and my actors is, “What are we here to do?” Are we here to sort of make the day and come in under budget or are we here to do our best work? And that, of course, is my mission. It’s confounding sometimes when it isn’t the mission of others, so that is what I’m watching out for, making sure I set myself up. It almost fails because I fail sometimes.
One more question for you. Patrick Stewart – this role is such a revelation for him. He’s crafted this identity as the likable, wise, sage hero-type, and he plays so against that in this role. Did he get ahold of the script and come to you? Did you write this with him in mind?
JS: It happened an assistant somewhere suggested his name randomly, because of a mutual connection, at our management company. Patrick had just joined Anonymous Content, and it was just serendipitous timing, you know? The thing is it’s very hard to get different interests alive. We should be looking for highly valuable, famous movie stars. That is their job. My job is to ignore that and to look for highly trained, highly skilled, and dedicated actors. I also think that my casting process is largely aimed on craft first and foremost, and experience is great, but enthusiasm is essential to the project. Because the worst feeling for a director is knowing that the cast doesn’t want to be there. That’s crushing. But when Patrick got the script and responded to it, and watched Blue Ruin, he got on the phone with me. I was going for the kill because it lined up. It was both a “You’re a remarkable actor with a lot of talent and dedication” and “You’re a famous movie star.”
With a decade long career on stage and on screen, it was great. Patrick Stewart kind of swooped in and saved the day for me. So, we got on the phone. I was kind of shocked, I definitely needed to talk to him because we had ten days until production, and he was very kind and generous. He had a few questions, wanted to know a few details to be expounded on. He got a feel for his sort of character history– again not to effect the script or change any dialogue, just to give him a little more authority over his character, to know where he came from. So, once he sees that, he dug in. We were pretty on the same page as far as what we wanted to build in his performance, and he’s on a plane. It was a last minute change. I don’t dare think about what would have happened to this film if he didn’t sign on. It could have likely imploded.
Anyways, it’s just really cool. Not only that, but he’s just a delight. Showing him a cut, you know, after he took this big risk on this unproven director, he just loved it. It’s so much fun, and he got it, and that was a huge relief for me and a huge relief for him. You know, on set, it’s a pretty tough shoot. We shot a lot of Oregon weather in the fall. It was hard to keep focus at times. He was just really, really happy with it, and to know that someone like him was really satisfied is all I need to know that this was a successful venture.