When Jeremy Saulnier arrived at the Cannes Film Festival’s Directors Fortnight in 2013 to premiere his tense revenge thriller “Blue Ruin,” he was at the end of a long road. Having worked for years producing corporate videos while developing his career as a cinematographer on sleeper hits like “Putty Hill” and “Septien,” Saulnier had completed just one feature as a director — 2007’s Slamdance-winning “Murder Party” — and struggled for years to get another one off the ground. It was worth the wait: “Blue Ruin” scored a lucrative distribution deal with Radius-TWC, struck a chord with genre fans around the world, and suddenly turned Saulnier into a in demand director.
However, despite the many offers that came his way, Saulnier once again paved his own path. This month, he was back at Cannes with his follow-up, “Green Room,” which he also wrote. The wild survival tale revolves around an Oregon punk rock band (headed by Anton Yelchin) trapped in the eponymous room after playing a gig at a venue riddled with neo-Nazis — one of whom turns out to be a menacing drug lord (Patrick Stewart) intent on killing the group before they can leave the premises. Shortly after another lively Directors Fortnight premiere, Saulnier sat down with Indiewire to explain how “Green Room” came together in the wake of his success with “Blue Ruin.”
When did this idea first occur to you?
I started it on November 9, 2013 at the tail-end of the film festival circuit for “Blue Ruin.” I’d already thought of the idea; it was bouncing around for quite some time. I had some assignment for one of those gimmicky film festival experiments where several filmmakers work on one assignments. I did a little precursor to “Green Room” there — this story where playing a death metal record backwards summoned a demon. It was an obscure thing I did a long time ago. But I always wanted to set a movie in the punk rock world. So I did.
What does that world mean to you?
It defined my youth. It gave me an outlet for athleticism that I didn’t find in organized sports. But I was a very energetic skate punk. I liked being part of that scene, but I didn’t have a troubled youth. I wasn’t aggressive. I responded to the physicality and the communal nature of it. The aesthetic is really cool — much like “Mad Max,” but more contemporary and cheaper to execute: the mohawks, the boots, really cool visuals.
What’s your relationship to that scene now?
It was fleeting for me, very real and intense when I experienced it live, but now that I don’t go to shows the hardcore music of my youth has not translated to the turntable music I listen to now. I still like me some rock ‘n’ roll, heavy metal and whatnot. Occasionally, I’ll put on some Minor Threat. I’ve moved on as far as musical tastes go, but the spirit resonates. It’s an important part of my artistic career to harness that youth. It’s also about injecting that punk rock history into it. One of the first songs the Ain’t Nice, the band in the movie, performs is a song that my next door neighbor wrote in college. Another song they perform was by one of my high school bands. So we were able not only to refer to punk rock, but to include it as part of the movie’s soundtrack.
Where did the idea for the villains of the story come from?
When I was in the scene, during the early 90’s, there were actually Nazi skinheads at every show. There was that threat of violence outside the venue. It just stuck with me. They were native to the environment. This seemed like the perfect way to address that.
You’ve said that you think of “Green Room” more as a war film than a horror one. What sort of movies were you thinking about when you conceptualized this story?
When I was writing it, I was thinking about “River’s Edge,” “Straw Dogs,” and war movies like “Apocalypse Now,” but never horror. I knew “Assault on Precinct 13” would be in the same wheelhouse, but I never had seen that film. I referred more to John Carpenter’s 1982 “The Thing,” because it really is just people talking in a room.
When I finished the draft of “Green Room,” I finally watched “Assault.” It’s a kindred spirit. It embraces that it’s an exploitation movie — that kind of pure cinema from way back when is hard to find. It’s not jokey or self-referential. My movie, while it refers to a certain era and aesthetic, is not supposed to be some kind of film filled with references. It’s supposed to be real, rounded, hardcore.
How much thought did you put into the violence? It’s very specific — cracking bones, sliced flesh, and so on. You don’t cut away from the grisly details.
This is definitely my adolescent dream. It was made for my 19 year-old self before I got too soft to make it. And it was just under the wire, because now I’m too soft for it. I wouldn’t even make it this year. It’s funny to see the response from the young genre fans. It’s insane. That’s who I made it for. Getting to fully realize that part of it with the makeup effects — there’s lots of supplementary computer graphics here, but they’re done with subtle compositing and augmentation that makes it have the very same feeling of 1980’s makeup shows.
How quickly did the project come together after “Blue Ruin”?
At first, I wanted the perfect script delivered to me on a silver platter. I had access to very high level material. It was exciting. A lot of it was studio or had cast attached. But I didn’t want to go straight into that world.
I was intimidated by it. “Blue Ruin” was a smashing success, but had very modest roots, and I built it from scratch in an alternative way. It was engineered to bypass the system. That worked great. But to work within the system, I needed time to acclimate — to understand why there were all these rules about never doing a union movie in America for $3 – $6 million. So I did just that. I did just what you’re not supposed to do.
When I found I didn’t have a deep connection to the material offered to me, I thought, “Well, I could wait six months, and keep waiting, or I could self-generate again.” So I thought about which ideas I had ready to go and this one seemed the most appropriate. I was fearful of trying to meet expectations of replicating the tone of “Blue Ruin.” We’d achieved something very singular and I was proud of it — which is rare for me — and if I’d tried to do another one of those, it would have been a mistake. That’s why I looked backwards to my past, my punk rock roots. The bandmates with whom I hung out were also the people I made movies with at a young age. It was always part of the same thing.
That’s what led to your Lab of Madness filmmaking collective?
Previously, it was Western Pictures. Generically, we were called the Barnetti Clan, based on two brothers, Sandy and Tim Barnett. They were part of the crew and they still are. I dedicated “Green Room” to the Barnetti Clan. It’s an homage to that part of my history. I felt, also, that as I get older — I have three kids, a wife — I think I’m maturing, but I’m not sure. I am getting a little softer. So I felt, if there’s ever a time in my career when I can fast-track a movie that was made for my 19-year-old self, it had to be now.
Which explains why you worked on such a tight schedule.
So I just wrote it fast and early the next year had a draft. We announced here, at Cannes, last year and started making it. We wrapped production in November 2014. It was important to make it fast. It had to be done in the same spirit I wrote it. If it was overthought, it wouldn’t have the same energy.
How would you describe that energy?
It’s not a super-clever plot as far as the mechanics of it. For me, it’s very structured thematically, visually, atmospherically. There were little things about the movie very constructed. But the feeling of the movie had to be loose, impulsive, and immediate. So I let that guide me when I wrote it. It was fun and surprising.
And you wound up with some well-known actors. It looks like a bigger movie than “Blue Ruin.” Was that anticipated?
Whenever you ask people for money, the new standard model is a bias toward foreign sales — which means cast, cast, cast. That was easy for me this time because we had Avy Kaufman onboard as our casting director. So we looked at some great actors. Movie stars are welcome in my films, as long as they’re right for the roles. That was just part of the process. Also, I filtered out bad apples to make sure the people who were onset were kind, generous. It was very physically and emotionally draining. I had done a movie in a contained setting before — “Murder Party” — but I’d forgotten how technically difficult it is to make that visually interesting and maintain the tracking of everyone’s experiences. It’s a day and a half of stories over the course of the movie.
How did you do that?
It was a huge challenge, because it’s all constructed. When I watched it for the first time, it seemed like a breeze, very natural and native to that environment. But all the interior sets were constructed, built from scratch on a soundstage. That was a breath of fresh air beforehand; once we found ourselves in that room, it was mostly about tracking performances. We did a ton of coverage. By the nature of having an ensemble cast in one place, we were going to do at least three takes per person per scene, which was sometimes 12 to 16 takes, just to archive coverage.
It was always about keeping our characters in line and figuring out who was pushing who into the frame. It came down to just making sure we captured the right performances. Then, through editing, we tried to enhance the feeling of overlapped dialogue. We had to do all our exteriors first because Oregon was changing — fall foliage was coming in. It was a race to get it all covered. Then we went inside the soundstage for 20 days. Things got crazy in the edit room.
What sort of support staff did you have?
It was a pretty big union show. All the hard work is invisible: We had stunt doubles, dog wranglers, dog puppets, special effects technicians, practical effects. It was really intense.
When was that overwhelming? There must have been certain days…
Oh, yeah. I knew going into it that it was going to be too much to handle as cinematographer. So I had Sean Porter onboard. He was really great — and pretty versatile. I’d seen his previous movies and they’re really different stylistically, so I figured he’d be the best DP as far as being able to translate what I wanted in a way that would allow him to add his own artistry. Cinematographers put their own print on a movie, but you do yourself a disservice and the film if you can tell who shot each movie. Sean is invisible. He can do intuitive handheld work as well as he can do classic setups.
What took up the most time?
It was mostly scheduling — action scenes, blood effects, makeup and stunts are where I’m comfortable, but because of the bigger ensemble cast, the scheduling kind of disrupted things. People were flying in the day before they were shooting their finale sequences, running from set to wardrobe fittings.
How long did Patrick Stewart stick around?
I think he was there for about two weeks. We had to take care of his exteriors and then he stuck around for soundstage stuff. He was fantastic, really generous. He’s really looking for new adventures, to shift gears. When he came onboard, he was just like any other cast member — really dedicated, invested in telling the story, super grounded. No complaints.
But did these name actors impact expectations for the project?
For me, it was just the logistics of scheduling. These are talented people who are very busy. To get their schedules to align is insanity. Once we were on set, it was like any other movie. Their dedication to the craft was apparent from their bodies of work, but I was very encouraged by those amongst the cast who were really to audition, send in tapes from the UK, or come into Avy Kaufman’s office to sit down with me and talk. It was my first foray into a legit production that was financed and cast properly. I’m not encyclopedic insofar as my knowledge base of who’s who. I’m more of a fan of movies individually and the performances in them. So I had to do a lot of research on cast. I had to research every name. I know them by their characters. Now I know why people warn you against doing a union film on this scale. It was very ambitious. The shootouts, the battles — all that was very technical.
How does that impact what you want to do next?
I would like to step up. This experience has been exhausting and challenging, but not only did we survive, we got into Directors Fortnight, so if this is as hard as it gets for me, I’m in good shape to take on bigger projects with a few more resources. You never want more money. You want more time. We had no rehearsals with the cast. I think Anton came up to Oregon during pre-production for one day. It was similar to “Blue Ruin” in that working under duress was standard. But I had really good people around me. It took me a little while to appreciate that — having total control.
I want good people. I come from the crew side, and holy shit, it’s all about bringing people up and maintaining a level of trust and integrity so you can avoid mutiny and foster relationships that will continue on to the next job and the next job. The key is to build a team. I hope I’ve proven myself to them.
How close is the movie to the way you envisioned it?
It’s damn close. It was very stressful to go through this, but I was learning step by step how the industry works.