Five years after he maxed out some credit cards and asked strangers for money on Kickstarter to make “Blue Ruin,” Jeremy Saulnier has leveraged the success of that tense, violent thriller into a formidable career. First, there was the punk death match of “Green Room,” a $5 million Cannes sensation that pitted a cast of young stars (Joe Cole, Alia Shawkat, Imogen Poots, and the late Anton Yelchin among them) against Patrick Stewart and his fortress of pissed off neo-Nazis. As turns out, he was just getting started.
Now, after a curtailed stint behind the camera on the new season of “True Detective,” he’s back with “Hold the Dark,” a murder-mystery so beguiling and ambitious that it became too risky for any traditional production company to finance. Lucky for Saulnier, Netflix was willing to foot the bill.
Adapted from William Giraldi’s novel of the same name, “Hold the Dark” tells the story of a retired and withdrawn nature writer named Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) who ventures to the desolate village of Keelut, Alaska in order to help Medora Sloane (Riley Keough) hunt the pack of wolves who ate her young son. Alas, Russell finds that the situation far more twisted than it seems on the surface. And it only gets worse after Medora’s soldier husband (Alexander Skarsgård) returns home from the Iraq War.
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Shot in the frigid tundras of Alberta, and centered on an eight-minute shootout that has a higher body count than all of the director’s previous films combined, the gnarly and contemplative “Hold the Dark” finds Saulnier expanding his examination of violence across an epic canvas. IndieWire sat down with Saulnier to chat about the upside of working with Netflix, the challenges of depicting violence in an increasingly violent world, and why anyone who’s expecting “Hold the Dark” to be “Green Room 2” is in for one hell of a surprise.
Every film you’ve made has been considerably bigger — and more expensive — than the one before it. A24 was originally supposed to produce “Hold the Dark.” At what point did that plan fall apart?
It was actually a very amicable departure — their enthusiasm was keeping the project alive for some time. I won’t get into specifics, but it wasn’t about the size of the budget so much as the fact that the deal we had was weighted towards a separate foreign sales company, and that’s where we ran into traditional problems like casting, and the below-the-line budget, and not agreeing with the foreign sales projections. To be honest, I’m still learning about the business side of things, and prefer to step back from it and make a creative bubble around what I’m doing. But once I had a trusted producer friend come on and analyze the deal, it was very clear that with the cast I wanted and the production asks required to do this thriller-Western-mystical-hybrid-adventure film, our team was not ready to make it. It was as hard for A24 to let it go as it was for us to leave.
When we pivoted to Netflix, it was great. My producers had done a film very successfully with them the year prior, so there was already a rapport there and a lot of enthusiasm. And because their model allows for a whole different kind of risk assessment, they could give me more freedom to cast the film as I wanted.
Were Netflix as creatively hands-off as we’ve been led to believe?
I can’t speak for anyone else’s experience with them, and I won’t try, but for me there was a certain amount of trust. This was my fourth movie, and it was probably a $22 million movie that we were making for under $15 million. So we still had the exact same constraints that any indie film production does, just on a much cooler scale. We’re talking about landing airplanes on frozen lakes, 17-page action sequences, and stuff like that.
This was a beast of a movie from the start. After the pivot to Netflix, the impending snow window for North America meant that we had to blast through production and really get into it. We had to go scout in Morocco, and then come to Calgary and start shooting, and then go back to Morocco and start shooting over there. It was insane. And there was great support there, but I couldn’t even blink — I wasn’t paying attention to anyone or anything beyond what I had to do on a given day.
In post, I really found Netflix to be invaluable. Their notes were extensive and incredibly valuable, but it was always in the spirit of just trying things out and making sure that I felt comfortable. I had more notes than I could handle, but that was a good thing because they weren’t mandated. So I could pick and choose, and that forced me to experiment, and also to defend the things I wanted to keep. And you have to remember that I didn’t author this story from the beginning — I was not the world’s foremost expert on “Hold the Dark,” so much as I was a faithful caretaker and translator for it, so I really welcomed the collaboration from Netflix and everyone else. I needed a lot of help.
In hindsight, is the tunnel-vision you were locked into during “Hold the Dark” the only way for a filmmaker to maintain their sanity through this process?
I’ve actually had a breakthrough.
People ask me what my process is, and I have no fucking clue. Or, at least, I had no fucking clue, because I’m just flailing around and trying to make these movies happens and hit all these deadlines. But now I’ve figured it out: It’s that I’m not embarrassed to ask for things. If it’s me asking to lease a Lamborghini, that’s goofy. But if it’s me asking to do something that would preserve or protect the story, it’s everyone’s job to support that. And I feel like after doing “Hold the Dark” and “True Detective” back-to-back — they actually overlapped — I reached my limits. Like most directors, I still have impostor syndrome, but I’m no longer afraid to ask certain things on behalf of the production and demand that they be delivered.
Did you pull out of the third episode of “True Detective” season 3 solely because of those scheduling conflicts, or was it also because of creative differences between you and Nic Pizzolatto?
I don’t speak on the record about that.
Well, that says plenty.
It was a tough time, but I’m hoping it will really catapult me into a new realm of filmmaking because I found my limits and I was able to function at a high speed in a very tough environment, and I’m grateful for that experience. But, um, I’m eager to kind of put that in my rear-view mirror.
The confidence and command you display in a relatively big production like “Hold the Dark” is every bit as strong as it was in your previous work. Watching this, it’s easy to imagine you scaling up to a $40 million movie, or an $80 million movie, or whatever you want.
Oh, I’d happy to make something that big. The issue is that it’s hard to find the right material at that size. “Hold the Dark” is a unique project because it allowed me to scale up exponentially while being even weirder than I had been before. It invites the audience to really lean in and participate in finding their own interpretation of the story, as opposed to a movie that ends with someone’s head exploding and people know when to high-five before the credits roll. A more contemplative approach would not be easy to get off the ground in a traditional studio environment.
The movie keeps digging into the idea that even our most deep-seated moral codes are more flexible than we allow ourselves to acknowledge. Especially when it cuts to the Iraq War, where “right” and “wrong” are shown to be completely topsy-turvy.
People chime in throughout the movie about the various boxes they want to compartmentalize behavior into so that their intellect can make sense of things, but what they know is just a construct, and it means “no more or less than… wind blowing.” Those boxes are just something we use to navigate the world, but other animals and other humans might not.
Saying “we don’t know shit about ourselves, or about animals, but we can just observe and be close to it” was cathartic for me in this day and age. People paint this as a very grim movie, and I’m not gonna argue against anyone’s interpretation, but for me I found it very cathartic to let go and forgive humans for all their atrocities and violent tendencies, because this film lets you step out and really observe people as animals. Not in a brutal or uncaring way, but from an observational perch.
How are you dealing with expectations from your previous work?
“Hold the Dark” is challenging and discomforting and vexing by design. If people don’t like it, that’s fine too, but this is targeting a different audience — people who wanted “Green Room 2” are having to do a hard reset and assess this as a whole different animal, which is part of the point.
The story hinges on at least three different pairs of fathers and kids. You’re a Brooklyn dad now. Were you able to find a way into this fucked-up story by looking at it through the lens of any parents’ desire to protect their children, and/or the hope intrinsic to having them in the first place?
Yeah. Definitely with Russell Core. As a filmmaker, I’m often gone. I leave the house for more than a month at a time, and I worry about the toll it takes not only on my family, but also on myself. And Russell being absentee… that was a deep connection and gave me great empathy for him. It’s a positive exchange — he’s not bitching or moaning — but he’s looking back with regret and he’s filled with warmth.
I don’t know the timeline of when in your career you started to have kids, but was there something about that experience that altered your approach to violence?
Absolutely. That was “Blue Ruin” for me. I love genre. I’m a makeup artist. I love doing makeup for Halloween and experimenting with the practical effects of gunshot wounds and blood tubing. I would re-create John Woo movies when I was in high school. The art of cinematic violence is still very appealing to me — the choreography and the visual language is just exciting as hell.
I was on a track to do comedies and balls-to-the-walls gonzo gore movies like Peter Jackson’s “Bad Taste,” because I fucking loved those movies as a kid, but I turned a corner while writing “Blue Ruin.” I had two daughters at the time and a third on the way. That’s one thing about kids: They put the fear in me. “Blue Ruin” was going to be my swan song. It was my last directorial effort before I resigned to exclusively pursue camerawork. I had a third kid and I could no longer jeopardize my family’s financial future by blowing it on independent film.
But not only was “Blue Ruin” written in that environment as a father, it was also during yet another uptick in mass shootings. They make me feel so awful, and real violence sort of destroys my will to celebrate cinematic violence. I still like aggressive movies, I still like to be transported, I still like peril — and that means the threat of loss of life — but I had to do it more responsibly, I guess. This might change, but when I make movies now, it’s all about performance reverence for life. “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room” are very much about violence. The body counts are extremely low compared to any Marvel movie or action movie or horror flick, but the deaths matter more, because my real interest is in creating dramatic tension through character.
Would you consider taking a page from the likes of Paul Greengrass and Peter Berg and making a movie that dramatizes real-life violence?
Yeah, I’ve seen some scripts along those lines, and I make no rules or myself, but so far I’ve veered away from that stuff. I’m definitely pursuing some true stories, but as far as mass shootings and that kind of violence, I keep — for my own sake — a very sturdy firewall between truth and fiction. I like that chaotic, violent parallel I put my characters in strictly in a fictional space. I keep my sets very comfortable and safe for my actors, and for everyone involved, because what I love is fiction, and I’m scared to death to re-create or somehow commercialize horrific acts of violence.
Netflix is putting this movie in theaters, and it’s definitely the kind of thing that benefits from the big screen. When it comes to that process, how much of an advocate do you have to be for your own work?
There are parts of me that still have that guilt factor because of the risk that Netflix took on the movie and the freedom they gave me to tell this story. So I don’t push too hard. There are times in my career where I will, but this is another instance where I trusted the team. They just let me know, “Hey, we’re putting this film in theaters in six markets,” and I said “Well, thank you!” Of course I wanted it, but I didn’t expect it. With Netflix, every individual filmmaker has their own story and their own objectives, but Netflix is a beast. They’re a huge company. Not only do they have your film, but they also have dozens upon dozens upon dozens of other films. And so far as the pecking order and who gets what, I let the powers that be decide, because I’d eventually like to earn my right, whether it’s my right to shoot on film or my right to open a film in X number of theaters.
And also, if I make a movie that I do not believe should be in theaters, I do not want it in theaters. I wouldn’t ask Netflix or anyone else to put $30 million in publicity and advertising into this film and expect to make a profit. But because they are content-oriented and want people to just be… they do nice, sturdy rom-coms, they do big sci-fi, I have my little niche that complements their overall slate, so wherever they put me I’m happy to be. I really don’t have any complaints so long as I can keep telling stories. And even if I ever get to the point in my career where people won’t let me tell stories and I get put in director’s jail for some reason, I got plans. I did “Blue Ruin” with my best friend, $160,000 cash, and some Kickstarter money, and I can do that again. If I can do this for a living, you won’t hear any complaints.
“Hold the Dark” will be available to stream on Netflix starting on Friday, September 28.