It's punk rockers versus neo-Nazis in "Green Room," a brutal, white-knuckle thriller from writer-director Jeremy Saulnier. In his third feature film, the young filmmaker delivers an absolute masterclass in sustained tension, and it's among the best films so far this year. You can read City's review of the "Green Room" here.
City spoke by phone with Saulnier about creating that sense of intensity on set, the occasional upsides of nepotism, and the appeal in examining our darker impulses on film. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.
City: All three of your feature films so far ("Murder Party," "Blue Ruin," and "Green Room") have delved into some pretty dark subject matter. What draws you to the sorts of stories that poke around in the uglier side of human nature?
Jeremy Saulnier: I just like compelling stories. I'm so busy these days, and I'm very fulfilled at home and at work, so when I sit down to watch a movie, I really want to be drawn in. Nothing does that better than life-or-death stakes.
I'm really kind of a cinematic adrenaline junkie. But knowing how hard it is to evoke those feelings in audience members, myself included, I think we're all a bit jaded now. Not intentionally, but I think we're just all experiencing a lot of overload--visual and audio stimulation--and sometimes it becomes too much. So I think when I make these kinds of movies, it's a way to scale that down and make things more intimate and have it be a lot more impactful emotionally and narratively with audiences.
I'd read that you spent a fair amount of time in your youth involved in the punk scene. Did you always have an idea that you wanted to use those experiences for a film at some point?
I'm not sure at the time I was actually concocting a plan, but I think it resonated with me after I stopped going to shows and being an active participant in the scene. I like to archive things, and I have a terrible memory, so I think this was a way to really draw on all the amazing memories I had before they faded -- to sort of put my stamp on a film with my knowledge of the punk rock and hardcore scene and then have it so I could keep it forever.
Just about everyone who's seen this movie comes out talking about how intense it is. Does that intensity translate to the set while you're filming?
Well, I'm always stressed out during production. But this particular film, being primarily photographed in a single room -- I mean, there's lots of beautiful exteriors, but they don't take up a lot of screentime -- so as far as the pressure cooker that we built inside the green room, it got very intense emotionally. We demanded that from the actors.
Just to maintain continuity when we're building that tension in between takes, the actors have to get really worked up. They often have to cry, and start heaving, and be covered in dust, and then we have to freshen up their blood. It becomes very physically challenging and it certainly wears on the actors and the crew. To the point where we had a very sensitive crew member who was in charge of keeping that continuity -- she doesn't naturally gravitate toward these kinds of movies, though she's since embraced this one -- she was often crying after these takes because of the emotional charge in the room and how real it felt.
Sometimes we had to create it almost live, like a stage play where we'd have Patrick Stewart on one side of the door and all these kids on the other side. We shot with two cameras, so you could hear Patrick's voice bleed through the door inside, and it was really terrifying. And the kids -- sorry, I call them kids because I'm a different generation, you know? Young adults. They're truly terrified and really worked up. You can even hear that. Sometimes when we used the lavalier microphones to get that intimate sound from their whispers. Sometimes I could hear Anton Yelchin's heart beating out of his chest coming through the microphone.
You've got a knack for creating characters that we care about; it matters to us when terrible things happen to them (and they often do). Do you get much in the way of pushback about that during production?
What's so brutal about this movie is that it's not personal. The violence is graphic and the intensity is real and the thing is, you cannot get this level of intensity without all that comes with it. This is a siege situation, and so I approached it as a war film. Something like "Saving Private Ryan" has more gore than this movie. It's disturbingly realistic and that's sort of what I was going for.
There's certainly a different storyline here, but this was about a contained situation with these kids. There's no bloodlust being satisfied by anyone in the movie. It's just a classic, bluntforce collision between two different interests, with different levels of skill and experience as far as being soldiers. As far as the amount of violence, I would argue that it's a relatively low body count. And if you're sickened by the violence, I find that a lot healthier than if you just shrug it off and don't even think about it.
How do you go about walking that line of keeping the violence intense but not making it too gratuitous?
Well it really is about your intention. And sometimes those intentions are to show it full-frontal but subvert expectations in not overly dramatizing it. It's going to be awkward and quiet, and it has to be from the character's point of view. Not from someone just trying to showcase makeup effects. The goal is to weave all that craft -- from visual effects and stunts, all the choreography that goes into it plus the makeup effects -- into the narrative so that it all has a purpose.
Unfortunately when you see violence portrayed in a grounded, authentic, realistic way, it's that much more disturbing. But that just comes with the territory.
Do you see yourself making something lighter in tone in the future? Maybe slapstick comedy?
Absolutely. I have a short film that I did in 2004 that's a pretty laid back, atmospheric comedy starring Macon Blair. But I like to mix things up, and this is certainly -- at least as far as I can tell -- the darkest, most brutal film I'll ever make. But it really is to satisfy a need in me and to satisfy that same need in audiences who just love genre filmmaking and love to be scared. It's really fun to feel peril in a safe environment.
Down the line, I want to experiment with other genres as long as I can tell them in a visual way. I stay away from standard Hollywood comedy just because the nature of the craft aspects are really lacking. It's often just multiple cameras archiving comedians telling jokes. That to me can be hilarious and satisfying as an audience member, but as a filmmaker I wouldn't want to invest years of my life in that. Whereas comedies of the John Landis variety are very cinematic and well-shot. Something like that I could certainly see doing somewhere down the line.
One of the many great things about the film is the way it so goes against what we expect from Patrick Stewart. How did he come on board?
He had just joined my management company, Anonymous Content. And with less than two weeks until production, he got his hands on the script through them. Luckily, he responded very favorably. He loved the unsettling nature of the script, and he was in the mood to do something dark. I just benefited from that fantastic timing. He's a gentlemen, a very dedicated craftsperson, and he brought that to the set. And he sort of surprised me with such a low-impact arrival.
And wow did he save our ass. The financiers were looking for someone with a name, and I was looking for someone with the skills to handle the role, and we both found our man in Patrick Stewart. When we first landed on using him, it was a risk. It was tough in that we were all still getting our bearings, trying to get production up to a certain speed, and run at a certain pace. We had to shoot the finale first and exteriors first, and then we started to settle into it and gain each other's trust and eventually begin a very good collaboration.
Actor Macon Blair has appeared in all of your films so far, including a small but pretty memorable part here. Did you write that role specifically with him in mind, or did things just work out right?
No, he had to earn that. I was so caught up in him being Dwight [the main character in "Blue Ruin"] that I couldn't shake that performance out of my head. But he was able to snake in there with a rogue, self-taped audition, and he blew me away. He blew away Avy Kaufman, our casting director, and he earned the part fair and square. Of course, once we saw that scene we knew he was the only possibility. It was fantastic.
He was always going to be a part of the production because he's my right hand man as far as the creative process and in sort of navigating the industry. He was there as a friend and creative collaborator and an actor, so he really helped. But I'm always weary of nepotism and I didn't want to just hand out roles to my friends. But going forward he will definitely benefit from nepotism since he's proved he can do pretty much anything.
What are you working on next?
I've got a bunch of stuff in the pipeline, but it's all in development. Nothing is officially in production yet. I'm looking at some bigger studio projects, and I'm looking at some medium budget indies, but whatever happens it's not entirely up to me. If all else fails, I'll just write another one. It's what I'm used to doing.