My love for Jeremy Saulnier’s previous film, BLUE RUIN, is well documented. It was one of the best films of 2014 and made me anxious to see what Saulnier was going to do next. When I was invited to sit in a roundtable interview with him just before the release of his latest film, GREEN ROOM, you better believe I jumped at that chance. He was friendly, gracious, self-effacing, and seemed honestly interested in speaking to a group of critics about how lucky he is to be a filmmaker.
Why violence? What interest you about it?
It’s not so much the violence as it is the threat of violence. I think just gravitate towards intense storytelling. From an audience perspective, I just like to be excited. And I find as I get a little older and I have such a rich experience with my family – I’m fulfilled and surrounded by love – violent filmmaking is a good outlet. And it’s not so much to examine the loss of life, it’s to heighten the stakes. To give myself the opportunity for choreography and special effects makeup and fast moving cameras and objects that collide. It’s just more exciting, period. It doesn’t always have to involve death, but so far it’s worked out pretty well and I’m examining it. I’m troubled by it and I’m excited by it at the same time. It just makes for the high impact cinema that I’m innately attracted to. There is no real intellectual reason- I just dig it. And I like the opportunities it offers me as a filmmaker.
What specifically drew you the story where neo-Nazis are your antagonists?
When I was in the hardcore scene, back in the 90s, I was in Alexandria, Virginia. It’s a legitimate city, but insulated. We would drive across the bridge from Alexandria into Washington D.C. We were hardcore punk kids, but we were not familiar with the “real” scene, the birthplace of hardcore and a vibrant punk environment. In the 199’s, most of the big shows would have at least a few Nazi skinheads, which was surreal. You see people proudly wearing swastikas at shows and they would attract violence. Most often in D.C. they were the victims, because there isn’t a majority of Nazis at these shows, but they were there and there would be fights. And there were some bands that I fucking loved their music. I was very much attracted to the aggression, and I liked a lot of heavy music. And some of them, you would read some of the liner notes and they were fucking white power. There’s something about it that attracts vegans, Nazis, Hare Krishnas; it was a huge umbrella for so many subcultures within a subculture. The Nazis stood out not because of their ideologies, but because they wore uniforms. They were soldiers, they wanted to be separate. They had different structures and almost a gang affiliation.
That just stuck with me. I went in and out of the hardcore scene from Washington D.C. and I went to college in New York and went to shows there where I got more into b-boying and hip-hop for a bit. But I realized that all the scenes are kind of the same. There are people who want to regulate it and preach and teach about history and people like me who are attracted to it for the physicality. For the hip-hop scene, I was more into the b-boying because it’s a physical expression. That’s why I loved skateboarding as a kid and why I loved hardcore music as a teenager.
So then I get through college and I’m trying to work and I’m obsessed with trying to become a filmmaker and I’m getting softer, I’m having kids, I’m a family man. And I realize that all of this history is not archived. It’s pre-internet and I’m just a square on the street buying a fucking croissant. It’s lame. I’m like, “dammit!” So when the opportunity arose to make another movie after BLUE RUIN, I kind of was like, well, shit. I have this history in the hardcore scene. I know it well. I lived it and I can use it for this idea which had been floating around. The idea for GREEN ROOM actually predates BLUE RUIN, but I just didn’t have access to a club or the resources to make that movie. So as soon as BLUE RUIN did well I was like, fuck it, I’m making GREEN ROOM. I know I shouldn’t, I should make some bigger, classier studio film, but this is a film where I was actually the caretaker and can make this insane movie that I generally felt no one else could make at that time. Then once I had the things in place, I knew the world it was set in, I knew the general premise of the siege situation backstage. And then it was all brand new and became exciting again, and I got really excited about the process. It seemed like it was this inevitable thing and it offered me closure after 20 years by having this history that I could finally archive, put it on screen and put it to bed.
The antagonists seem more authentic than a lot of the skinheads you typically see in film. How much research went into getting that right?
The key was to do a ton of research to just feel like I got a sense of the vernacular, the procedures, the structure and the customs, and then throw it all away. Let the characters take the foreground. The challenge is not portraying Nazi skinheads as bad guys. The challenge is portraying them as humans. The whole thing is about whatever we come in with as far as the perceived gangs or affiliations or ideologies or labels, the film strips that away eventually. So it was to immerse yourself into the world and have it seem authentic, then have it all drift away. The research was kind of brutal. I was researching Nazis, skinheads, this sort of white supremacist culture, dog fighting, dog attacks. I was definitely losing my stomach for this film as I was making it, so it was good to get this all in just in the nick of time. I’m huge on research. I inject just enough detail to make it authentic to the characters. The rule is they have to talk amongst themselves and never to the audience. You get insight into a culture, but you don’t get a tour. You kind of let it unfold naturally.
What about how the film is set up? It’s not always conventional here in terms of character arcs and structure.
It evolved naturally. All I do is set the stage and let it play out as I think it should in a more authentic way. That inevitably bumps up against convention. It’s not that I’m not aware of it, but I try to disregard it. Once in a while, I’ll do a little nod but it always has to have a real motivation. There’s a part in GREEN ROOM where there’s a typical speech that starts to evolve, then there’s just no time, so that person is cutoff and they just keep going.
The very end of the film is a direct challenge to a typical character arc.
Totally. When those things line up, I let it happen. It’s fun, but I never intend it to be false or contrived. Films are sometimes prepackaged and people who should know otherwise tend toward safety and familiarity. They want to recycle the same plot or they’re like, “Oh, you need a character arc here,” but why? Would the person here actually start talking about their past? Would that be native to the environment? The answers usually, no. How can we build characters without having to force them to do things that seemed very much contrived and think of the audience and not themselves? i keep trying to inhabit the characters. Again, there’s some exposition in GREEN ROOM, but it takes place during an interview. It’s very much motivated. They’re talking about themselves, why they’re there, but other than that you just have to go along with the ride. I won’t allow the characters to explain it all.
When creating a story, do you start with political issues or personal issues?
Anything political kind of seeps in, but I really start off with a premise and just try to examine it. I think for BLUE RUIN, it’s more of a propulsive motivation and traditional mission that we’ve seen a thousand times. I just wanted to explore a personal version of what might happen if anyone at this table would indulge and embark on a revenge mission. I think it would be very difficult. And just how messy things get. I love minutiae and things that are often disregarded in bigger action movies, that’s where I thrive. In GREEN ROOM too, it’s information deprivation and very specific procedural details on what’s happening, but the terror is that you’re watching it unfold and the people outside this room know what they’re doing. It’s brutal and hard to experience in the moment. Only later do you realize that it’s pragmatic. It’s not a sadistic bloodlust that they’re trying to fulfill. It’s just a mop up operation. So, it’s fun not adhering to structure and formula when you don’t have to. I do very simple movies. Blunt force movies. By trusting the audience to fill in the gaps to create more of an experience and less of a lecture it becomes very fulfilling for people to get to see relatable characters onscreen behaving like humans. That includes fucking up miserably.
What was it like casting GREEN ROOM? The actors are much higher-profile than your previous films.
It was great. We had Avy Kaufman on board from very early stage, and having someone of her caliber and having someone of her caliber associated with this movie was huge. I never expected to have access to this level of talent. i don’t track actors. I don’t know who anyone is. I just cast on the merits of their craft. I meet people if they’re willing to go on tape and they’re we just see who the best fit is. I just happened to line-up that way, which is a rare experience. I get to cast whoever I want. When you’re with people with a little more sales value or star power and they happen to be great actors, that’s great, but if they’re not enthusiastic about the material or don’t want to be there and show a certain amount of investment, then they’re not welcome. Not because I don’t want them. It’s because when you’re building a cast and you’re making a movie, everyone is so very vulnerable and the collective energy is such an important thing. When actors bring dedication to their craft, and investment in the story you’re trying to tell, it is the most valuable thing on Earth.
The younger cast was very easy. Giving the 20 and under crowd access to a nontraditional but satisfying action scenario? They leaped at it. I had to fend people off. They are always the gird friend, or the boyfriend, or the indie darlings. But now they get to be in warpaint, fending off Nazis, during a live concert? Sign me up! That was really fun. As we got deeper into the process it became clear that we did not have our Darcy, but that we needed our Darcy. But then Patrick Stewart stepped in last minute and boom. He satisfied everyone’s needs, creatively and financially, and sealed the deal.
What was your evolution of experiencing working on GREEN ROOM just after BLUE RUIN?
I have trouble comparing the two because they’re so different. BLUE RUIN was all homegrown. Available resources, my best buddy [Macon Blair] as the actor. I knew all of the variables going in and I just wrote it into the script, so there was like zero translation problems.We were shooting at my parent’s house, or Macon’s cousin’s property. I knew it all. I had diagrams the I wrote for the locations. GREEN ROOM is completely built from scratch. That whole venue was a set built on a sound stage. I never had the opportunity to do world building before or even work on a sound stage in a contained, controlled environment. So, as I leap from film to film, the learning curve is still huge. I don’t even know how that will apply to my next film, but I hope in the near future to stabilize and actually enjoy the process a little more. Right now, I can’t believe the run after BLUE RUIN. I can’t believe I get to make movies and have access to scripts and actors. The meetings I’ve been having the last couple of months have been insane and I’m still terrified. From the indie film world, you never trust your environment. You feel guilty for making movies because you owe everyone on set. “I’m so sorry can you paint that wall?” “I’m so sorry, can you do that take again?” Now I’m like, “Is this actually my profession? Is this actually my life? Holy shit!” The key is too enjoy it more, but not lose the nervous energy I have to really preserve what ever intention I have artistically.
I have a few things in the pipeline that may go in to production soon. You never really know until you get on set. I would totally do a big studio movie if it’s the right fit and I would totally retreat back into the woods and make a little indie with my friends. Getting bigger and bigger does not always prove to be the right path. I would much rather bob and weave between different scales of projects, and keep making movies that excite me as an audience member.
What’s the right fit?
Meaning just creatively. If I like it and feel like I want to do two years doing it, then it is worth it. I eventually want to expand and do types of films that may be a little less brutal than GREEN ROOM the next time. Maybe more. Who knows? I do want to make a film that my mom can watch with her friends. One day make one that my daughters can watch. I may just wait for them to turn 18.
Who is your desert island band?
Black Sabbath, because they have a good discography.