Unlike the gang of white supremacists that fulfill Green Room’s antagonist quota, director Jeremy Saulnier takes no prisoners. If you’ve seen Blue Ruin, his Kickstarter-funded 2014 debut, you are no doubt well aware of his penchant for uncompromising ruthlessness. That picture stabs temples and snipes faces without blinking. But Blue Ruin’s brand of violence is desperate. Green Room is another beast entirely, a film that gives shape to socio-political hatred and pits it against unsuspecting young people who find themselves with their backs against the wall in the face of methodical and unrelenting brutality. After a recent screening of the film at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Mass., Saulnier sat down with Movie Mezzanine sat to talk about his post-Blue Ruin growth, fighting for the integrity of his artistic vision, and why it’s good to ignore actors’ reputations and histories.
Movie Mezzanine: How did you find screening at the Coolidge last night?
Jeremy Saulnier: It was amazing. People braved the snow and showed up, and that’s the greatest fear: that no one shows up. But I’m loving the reactions so far. I really think this crazy punk-rock movie has some crossover potential. I think it’s exciting. I feed off the enthusiasm, and it was very much there last night, and I appreciated it.
Is that something you like to see? You like to watch the audience and gauge their reaction to stuff like this?
Oh yeah. You get so close to a film when you make it. This is a very technical movie, and it required so much precision in the edit and the sound design and the mixing, and you lose sight of what it is, because you’re one inch away from the screen just dialing in on all of these details. So for me, the most pleasurable part is [to] take a step back and then watch the movie reflected in the eyes of the audience. Whatever your intentions are, you lose sight of them, but to see it fulfilled with an audience is awesome. It makes you realize why you do this. This is a two-and-a-half-year journey, and all I’m asking for is 90 minutes of your time. When it’s successful, it’s very exciting.
So let’s talk about what led to this getting made. Let’s take you back to the days of when Blue Ruin was going around. What did you learn from making that that you applied to the process of making Green Room?
Not very much, apparently! I really thought I figured out this formula, and it was perfect. Blue Ruin served its purpose. It was engineered with available resources and built into the script, including the lead actor. Everything was at my fingertips, and I wrote it into a screenplay, so there was no big problem translating that onto the screen. It was also self-funded, and of course there was a lot of help from many parties, but I was in control. “Vertically integrated.” So when that premiered and had a lot of success and led to opportunities, I found that actually I had no way to translate most of that, aside from certain craft elements. But I couldn’t once again use the same locations, and I couldn’t custom-fit a script for my environment. I had to create a new one.
And so, when I wrote Green Room, it was more world-building than I had done before. Through no small amount of energy and time and money, we had to build it from scratch, from the ground up, and it was a union film with rules and regulations. I did not have total control. It was financed by another party, and it was an intense experience to boot up and make that movie in a very short timeline. I started the script in November of 2013, and we had wrapped by November 2014. That’s like from page one to wrap. Twelve months.
But I had the idea for a long time, so that was there, and I knew how I was going to set the stage. The other part of the process was the plot going forward after I set the siege scenario in the backstage room. Then it was exciting, and all brand new. I felt like I had to con people into making this movie. With no ill intention! The reason why Blue Ruin did well was because maybe it could have been better in different parts, here and there, but it was preserved as a singular vision and it happened to be mine. But I think it’s not remarkable for its brilliance. It’s remarkable because it was unmolested the entire time, and that’s what I was trying to preserve.
I don’t even get some of the things I do as a filmmaker, but I do trust my intuition. But when you go through the process of script notes and filtration and gatekeepers and financiers, it’s tough to preserve it, because you don’t have a proper defense all the time for your choices and your reasons. This line of dialogue, I don’t know! But what I do know is, let’s just make it unfiltered and see what happens. I had to fight hard to keep and maintain the integrity of it. I mean, technically we had great collaborators, and it was a lot easier to lean on them for this movie. It was my pleasure to not have to shoot it myself. That was too much to ask for this kind of movie.
But yeah, I think that was the biggest lesson: to trust yourself to maintain the integrity of the vision for better or worse. We got there, but it was a long journey. For everyone involved, it was our first film at this budget level, and it was intense, and we were all out of our depth, and there was a big learning curve there. I think we ended up with a really solid movie that we can be proud of, and now we can make bigger films and see what happens. It was an intense experience.
What was the most intense thing about it? There’s a top five list in my head of the most intense moments, but for you…
It’s actually more self-imposed stress[…]and not having total control over my environment. It was terrifying. Every stunt, every line of dialogue was just the make or break moment of my entire career. I didn’t quite trust that I was having the opportunity to make this film. I couldn’t believe it! “Holy shit! I’m really making a punk-rock hardcore movie with both Macon Blair, my best friend from high school, and Patrick Stewart? Is this actually happening?” It wasn’t until after we finished the movie that I really started to appreciate what happened, and the experience retroactively became one of the best times of my life. But during it, I was fucking terrified.
I think going forward, it’s going to really inform how I do things, but it’s hard to take lessons from each film because they’re all so different. They’re at different budget levels, and there are so many variables. That’s the main thing: I get overwhelmed with the mathematics. I think it’s about gaining a little bit of trust in yourself and others, and just doing your best work no matter what the circumstances.
It’s cool to see Macon in here, and I think for a lot of people it’s cool to see Patrick Stewart in here as well. How did Stewart wind up getting involved in this? He strikes me as the kind of guy who chooses you and not the other way around.
Completely. It was great timing, that was the main thing. He was looking to shake things up, do something new, and he had just joined my management company. And so an assistant there just passed his name along, and then through that connection, we got him the script and a copy of Blue Ruin, and he responded to both. It was a casting coup that came less than two weeks before shooting. So it was a last-minute save that, I think, who knows? If he didn’t come on board, I don’t know where we would be, so I’m eternally grateful for his faith. A relatively unproven director doing something that, on the page, might seem very esoteric, is a big risk, you know? A movie like this could go south if it’s not executed properly, or if it doesn’t have the cast it needed, because I put a lot of pressure on the cast. They needed to carry this whole film. And so when Patrick signed on, it just boosted morale. It was one of those things where we were in complete limbo, and then when he signed on, it was this inevitable conclusion. “Oh yeah, he’s the only Darcy. There could never have been another Darcy.”
He is so perfect, too, and I think what makes him so perfect is that people have an image of what Patrick Stewart means as a celebrity, as a figure, as a personality. I think this movie does something ingenious by taking that and completely corrupting it, because he still has a lot of the qualities we expect from him—but he’s a white supremacist, a total monster. It’s not just with Patrick, either, but the way you toy with genre. Is that intentional on your part?
Yeah, I don’t try too hard. I do a lot of ignoring things. When Patrick stepped on board, of course I knew who he was. He has a rich legacy and a well-earned reputation. My job is to ignore that, aside from his craft, and let all the outside influences and his iconography as being associated with these sci-fi franchises…I had to ignore that, and I had to work with an actor about a certain character. That was the fun part: to disregard all that and just let him be Darcy, and let him develop this very intimate, quiet performance that is brutally pragmatic. It comes across as nefarious or sadistic, but what you come to realize is, he’s just a pragmatist and a self-preservationist. That, I think, is at the root of a lot of real violence, and that’s very disturbing.
Also, we ground the characters. We have all kinds of directives, but this is entertainment, and both Patrick and I know that. It’s fun to understand that we are illuminating certain things in the world, and making some references, and this and that. But in the end, this is just an exercise in tension-building and having fun. It’s a tough experience that elicits an actual, physical response, but the goal is escapist entertainment with a little extra meat on the bone.
I want to go back to something you said earlier. You talked about world-building. I feel like that is another key to the movie. It feels very authentic to experience. Your portrayal of these supremacists, from their language, to their rules and tactics: Everything that they do is the result of research. Did you do a lot of brushing up on this culture?
I was certainly familiar with it peripherally, just having been in the hardcore punk scene. Most of the shows I’d attend, there was some sort of Nazi skinhead presence—not all shows, but most. Writing Green Room, I certainly did a fair amount of research, and it was disturbing. When I was researching Nazis, skinheads, or white supremacist culture, or dog fighting or dog attacks, it weighed heavily on me. For some of the special effects and makeup, I couldn’t even be part of the research. I let them do their own thing. The key for me is to know as much as humanly possible, and feel very confident in my knowledge, and then let it all drift to the background, just enough so when the characters speak, they speak with authority, they speak amongst themselves, and you feel like you’re witnessing something happening that may be a little bit hard to understand[…]but it lends an authenticity to the world, where you trust that whatever’s happening, these people certainly know what’s going on. They know what they’re talking about, and I’m just along for the ride, getting access to a subculture that I never would have had access on my own.
It’s a peek behind the curtain. They’re not going to give you a tour; you get to just watch, listen, and be immersed in the world. The film itself is designed as an experience. The key is full immersion in a subculture, and that has to do with the dialogue, the wardrobe, and the music, all this bass-heavy music coming through walls. It’s so environmentally important that the visuals, the audio, and the surround sound give you that full immersion. The research was a huge part of that, but as a cinematographer, I learned a long time ago to spend a lot of effort building the world, and going through great pains to put all the details in. Then you waste it. You let it drift to the background, and you shoot your characters and your story, and the world becomes even more powerful as a backdrop. You don’t stop and have inserts or close-ups of these details. You just let them all pass through, and it has this additive effect of authenticity. If you disregard all the detail, it actually has more effect.
And then I have the personal experience on the other side of the door of being in a shitty punk rock band.