As arguably few surprises resulted from last week’s Cannes lineup, last year’s inclusion of “Blue Ruin” came as an utter shock to its DP-turned-director, Jeremy Saulnier. “I was on the way to a corporate video shoot in Cleveland, and had sort of accepted that this movie wasn’t going to break through and I’m going to go back to my day job,” he said when we sat down with him recently in Los Angeles. Passed over by Sundance and on uncertain terms with the Cannes jury, the film persisted, making it into Directors’ Fortnight, thoroughly wowing audiences, and picking up the FIPRESCI Prize as a result.
The response also spread to our writer Gabe Toro, who called it “a film of almost unbearable tension” when he saw it at TIFF, its tale of a homeless drifter (played by Macon Blair) stalking his parents’ murderer finding fresh, dark, and occasionally funny new routes in the genre that are best left unspoiled. For Saulnier, who directed the 2004 short film “Crabwalk” and 2007’s horror comedy “Murder Party,” it’s been a journey that he hasn’t taken for granted; we caught him on the eve of his first major theatrical release, celebratory, engaged, and practical, as he spoke about the project’s origins.
Jeremy Saulnier: The roots of “Blue Ruin” are so scattered. It was pragmatism; it was also that our first feature film, “Murder Party,” was such a self-parodying splatter-fest that it kind of pigeonholed me as a director—suddenly all I could do was horror comedies and I had much more to say. Years went by just staying afloat, but then I got back into filmmaking as a cinematographer.
It was great to help others realize their visions, but I love genre filmmaking, visceral and visual storytelling, and I was kind of frustrated. I couldn’t deliver the coverage they wanted with these big fancy cameras and impossible schedules, so we were doing visual compromises that were, in a way, my fault.
With “Blue Ruin,” I wanted to make a movie with my best friend, where I could really showcase Macon, nudge him a bit out of his comfort zone by not doing self-parody or gonzo humor. We were gonna make a real movie that might be interpreted as legitimate art, but we weren’t going to totally shed our love of blood and guts, cars on the road, wind and dust and sand. I wanted to have these elements that were usually too expensive to harness, so I bought my own camera and constructed a whole narrative around Macon.
There were more comedic iterations of the script, right?
Yeah, that was our comfort zone, though. I went to Sundance one year as a cinematographer, watched 22 movies, and just got so tired of indies that had this amazing naturalistic appeal with characters thick with realism, and then these other genre films that were for me too stylized. Too surface-level, kind of sloppy or just brutal, with little emotional depth. It was always tongue in cheek. I’m getting a little older, I’m a father, so I couldn’t stomach that anymore. One film at Sundance made me sick to my stomach, and it was for no other reason than I was just losing my fortitude. I was like, “I’m getting soft, man. I gotta make a movie quick.”
When the revenge plot popped into my head, it was just about grounding the film in a very mundane scenario that needed so little exposition. Vengeance—it has so much thrust behind it. And then we would embrace the fact that we’re not going to do a high-concept movie with huge spectacle and action sequences, but rather something down and dirty, streamlined, so when we approach it it’ll be from the POV of an unlikely protagonist. We’ll have someone embark upon a mission that might have someone from the audience wondering what’d they do.
In which areas did you want to push Macon out of his comfort zone?
He’s a great performer—his inherent timing and physicality is something you can’t teach—but he never got the opportunity to do these really emotional exchanges. So that was terrifying for both of us. “Blue Ruin” is largely without dialogue and relies upon classic visual storytelling, but we also sometimes had to park production and get some page numbers in there. We had these compartmentalized action scenes like the home invasion scene, and then there was just a sit-down between Dwight and his sister (Amy Hargreaves). The diner scene is the emotional epicenter of the movie, and Macon just turned it on and Amy gave him everything. She cried off-camera for him and provided him with an environment. That’s when I knew we had the movie in the can.
Where can people get a chance to see your earlier stuff pre-“Murder Party”, like the short film “Crabwalk”?
“Crabwalk” is unobtainable right now—we used some Black Sabbath in it so we’ve been trying to recut it. It was shot on 16mm, so I’ve always wanted to archive it since back in 2004 when it was just living on standard definition. So…soon. Not on the “Blue Ruin” DVD, but maybe streaming. They’re fun, very different: “Crabwalk” is kind of—it’s almost played out now, but it’s a nice American indie about some dumb shit trying to get a job. It’s very melancholy and it has a nice vibe. And we had a zombie comedy too.
From the plot description, “Crabwalk” has the same “shedding-of-the-facial-hair” transformation as well.
Yeah, that was a mustache. And we actually had a feature script called “Mustache,” of which Crabwalk was a short version. It wasn’t really the same plot, but the same character. Yeah, facial hair is key to all of our projects.
Did you primarily hone that naturalistic approach working as a DP with Matthew Porterfield [director of “Putty Hill” and “I Used To Be Darker”]?
Sure, Matt and I developed our aesthetics together, we went to film school at NYU. We just had this effortless collaboration that gave us energy and because we started so early we defined ourselves together. I shot his first film “Hamilton,” his second film “Putty Hill” and then “I Used to Be Darker”.” Putty Hill” was a big breakthrough for both of us because Matt did tons of prep, embraced his limitations and was so good at fighting the right battles.
I saw him on the set of “I Used to be Darker” and we were trying to work a scene with one of those crazy schedules—18 days. It wasn’t working and then boom, he rewrote it on the spot. It was a really pragmatic approach. Be nimble, move on, and stay true to your overall narrative. But don’t get sunk. The aesthetic I’ve always had from a visual standpoint, I do not like artificiality. I don’t shoot movies that want that, because I just don’t feel it. I’ve only shot films for friends, mostly for favors, and so I have an influence over the look. If someone wanted something hyper-stylized though I would just bow out. Artificiality drives me nuts.
It seems like the film was designed for efficiency, but if you were given that million dollars to make the film where would that have gone?
We actually asked for a million dollars on the movie. $1,060,000. I can’t tell what would’ve happened if we’d gotten that, but I know we would’ve had to answer to a lot of people. We fought all those battles, made those compromises early on, and so I wrote them into the script. When our budget went from $1 million to $200,000 instead, we didn’t have to change a page of script. It was under more duress and unsustainable wages and extremely high levels of stress on my end, having had to self-fund it, but looking back there is absolutely no regrets.
We really tapped out all of our resources on “Blue Ruin”. The picture car, the key locations were all friends and family. This was likely going to be our last movie; we had no expectations as far as it boosting our careers. We just had to finally do a proper send-off if it wasn’t going to work out. We had to do a film that was at the very least the best that we could deliver at that moment. Then, if we had to take on new careers or alternate paths in life we’d know that we had this archive of our best efforts.
How are you and Macon feeling at this juncture?
Oh, we are hardcore going forward. I’m not taking the bait. I’m not learning the lessons of “Blue Ruin,” trusting your instincts and friends and embracing limitations, and going to go bite off a huge franchise where I’m just a hired hand. I still aspire to make studio movies, big ones—I’d love to helm the next “Bourne” trilogy—but I’m in no rush to get there.
I think it’s best for me to earn my way up the ladder so I can retain control. Not to be an evil dictator, but rather so that there’s one voice behind these things. I listen to everybody, test screenings, brutal script notes, but the end result has to be my call. Macon is a writer and an actor, and we’ve definitely gotten repped up. We have managers and are actively pursuing bigger and better projects. But this steep curve from where we were a year ago to where we are now—that’s never happening again. We’re embracing the wild ride and not being too precious about our futures. We’re going to have to earn it and take our time.
“Blue Ruin” opens in theaters and iTunes on April 25th.