Interview: Jeremy Saulnier
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Ahead of the release of his gloriously brutal slasher-thriller Green Room, we sat down and chatted with exciting new director Jeremy Saulnier about his career so far.
After sweeping Sundance back in 2013 with his low-rent revenge chiller Blue Ruin, funded entirely on credit cards, Jeremy Saulnier became a go-to name on many critics’ most anticipated lists.
His early effort Murder Party saw some attention at festivals but never really took off in the same way, but now with official funding and a cast of movie stars (including the one and only Patrick Stewart), Saulnier returns with Green Room.
Following a young punk band’s night of hell as they find themselves trapped in the titular green room, pitted against a gang of angry skinheads, Saulnier’s follow-up effort is just as nasty and even more polished, making itself known as one of the year’s finest thrillers.
We had the pleasure of chatting with the upcoming talent about Stewart, his own take on violence and what the future might hold.
So you famously funded Blue Ruin entirely on credit cards, and Murder Party was a similar set-up, but here I’m assuming this had a lot more stable funding behind it?
Oh yeah, ten times the budget of Blue Ruin.
Did you find your approach to filmmaking any different now that you had a much bigger budget? Were you a lot more comfortable with your creative decisions?
Well it was tough because I did approach it in the same way, but I needed to adjust for the industry. When you’re entirely self-funded and self-governed it’s all effortless as far as above-the-line and below-the-line; I’m a ghost-producer and a camera-man and a writer and it’s all kind of seamless, so having more money was important, because I could finally participate in the sustainable community of filmmakers.
I could actually do it for a living, and not have to go into extreme debt, and make a film under extreme duress, and not owe every single person the crew and the cast a huge favour. You develop a certain debt to everyone around you.
When you’re making an independent film it becomes this kind of exercise in incurring your own debt, and this was the first time I was actually providing for others; creating an opportunity for them, where they could come and make a bit of money and practise their craft and come home with some pension and health-care! So that was a huge new step for me.
But that came with a lot of sacrifices. As far as being part of the community there’s lots of limitations imposed and rules and regulations that you have to adhere to, so you end up fighting the exact same battles. We had over ten times the budget of Blue Ruin but the exact same amount of shooting days, so we still only had 31 days to shoot the movie. It was a tight squeeze given all we had in front of us, but it was worth it.
I definitely learned a lot; the learning curve was very steep and tumultuous at times for me to acclimate and not be self-governed. There was a lot of emailing and talking and conference calls that I wasn’t ready for, but going forward I think it was a very good experience. My skin is thicker and I’m a little more acclimated to the business side of things.
Obviously a major part of having the bigger budget was being able to attract bigger stars, and here you managed to cast Patrick Stewart in quite an unexpected role as a villain. How did you go about choosing him for the role and then getting him on board?
Really we were kind of in a bind. We couldn’t find a person who met my standards, but it was one of those lucky breaks where Patrick had just joined the same management company I was part of, and so we got him the script through that company. I’m not sure if it would’ve worked otherwise, through a cold-call or a submission or an offer, but it was from his own team so he just kind of jumped on it. He loved the opportunity it could offer him, being in not only a dark film but also being part of an ensemble. It was really about creating and working together. The film itself was really a way for him to be a part of a collective, and I think he was just looking to shake things up and play a bad guy too.
We were looking for these big actors, but it’s really they who choose you ultimately. They have the power, they have the choice and in this case, the generosity to lend their talents and their skills and the value of their long careers. It all just added up to the perfect match of the experience and craft I needed and the star power and gravitas that my investors wanted. It was a really great last minute lucky break.
I’m glad you mentioned the darkness of the film because Green Room is certainly brutal: there were moments you could feel the audience squirming. I know Blue Ruin and Murder Party both had their fair share of violence too - what is it about violence in films and violent narratives that you think is interesting?
Well Murder Party was just a straight-up gory horror comedy, for good time sake. But Blue Ruin was a very dark film, that was also very emotional and prior to making it, I had actually been working with comedy; atmospheric, naturalistic comedy.
I was always into visual storytelling and atmosphere, but you know, violence in horror movies and in general are a really good way to break in to the industry. You have the action and the genre crowd: they’re the ones that really love movies, they’re not just fans of actors, they’re fans of the craft and art and they like the atmosphere and the tension in horror and thriller. So I did Murder Party, then Blue Ruin with my best buddy as the lead actor, no big names in the cast for more than a couple of scenes, and I think just the kinetic nature, the high stakes involved with violence is what I’m actually attracted to.
The violence itself, I treat it with respect, but also a certain amount of craft and authenticity. It just so happens that when I go for a violent act, it has to be perfect, and brutal and real and that’s how I approach all the elements of the film. When I try to do set design with my designer or with the cinematography, I try for this grounded naturalism and keep it as real as I can get, and the violence I guess has just intertwined with the story I wanted to tell right now. It’s very propulsive and exciting and kinetic, and again high stakes, which is just such a thrill. I just want a little more out of my movies: I want to feel excited, I want to feel terrified. When you’re watching horror films it’s just that exhilaration, experiencing real terror in a very safe place, it’s just wonderful.
So as I move forward I’ll definitely gravitate away from then back towards violence; I’m not just obsessed with that *laughs*, I just happen to like really thrilling stories that have enough adrenaline in them to keep me really exciting. So we’ll see where that goes, it’s more for the visual opportunities I think in high stakes storytelling.
Talking about the future, I feel like I almost have to ask: between Blue Ruin and Green Room, are we likely to see any more colour-related titles to round off the trilogy?
It was an unintentional doubling-up of the colour titles; Green Room actually pre-dated Blue Ruin as a title, I just never actually thought I would get to make Green Room, so it just happened to line up that way. But you never know, down the line - I’ll keep my options open maybe. I can finish the trilogy down the line maybe.
So if Green Room has been planned for some time, and it’s such a niche topic (hardcore punk rock etc.), is this an area that you know quite a lot about and feel quite passionate about?
Yeah, I was definitely deep into the hardcore punk scene in Washington D.C. back in the 1990s, and I always wanted to make a film set in that world. I had the premise for Green Room for a long time; the tone wasn’t there, I didn’t really know what it was going to be, I just knew that it was a backstage movie that was set during a live concert. Just to have the raw energy of a live performance infused into this scenario.
But I didn’t have the capabilities or resources to do any kind of world building. I didn’t have access to a rock club, I couldn’t do that logistically, so I put the brakes on that and designed Blue Ruin because it was within my means. I wrote it with all my available resources in mind, so making it was already within my means. I accepted all of the limitations before I had even written the script.
So then when I finally had more opportunity afterward Blue Ruin, I did Green Room because I had access to more money and I could actually build that world. The whole rock club was what I had mapped out in my head as I wrote it and it had to be built from scratch, so I needed a significant amount of resources to do that.
Lastly, it’s always nice to end on this question since we’re a student publication, but you seem better qualified than most to answer this considering your career path: have you got any tips for any upcoming filmmakers who might want to break into the industry?
I did everything I thought I should do to break in, I made a short film that did well at festivals, I made my first feature on my own terms, but I just never got another official project off the ground. I couldn’t pitch them properly, I guess I wasn’t the best in the room, as they say. So I had to deviate and keep to my day job, and build my own little studio at great risk.
Murder Party and Blue Ruin cost pretty much my entire net-worth, along with my wife’s, so I had to put everything into them and I had to be patient and have a day job, and pursue other things.
There were times that were creatively, I guess, soul-sucking. But the advice I have is to just stay close to the industry that you want to be in, to be around people. When I couldn’t direct my own movies, I became a cinematographer, so I was still able to be on set, and I was close to producers and directors and actors, learning the craft as I was practising it.
I guess the only real advice I have that does apply to everybody is to stay in the running, stay in the game, because most of the people that I went to film school with have subsequently dropped out of the industry to pursue other careers, and I am only here because I refused to quit. And even if I couldn’t have been a director, which has been my dream since childhood, I would’ve become a cinematographer. Having a skill that is technical was a great fall-back plan, and it helped me stay active and stay alive in the filmmaking world when I couldn’t otherwise function as a director.
If you don’t quit, you still have a chance!
Green Room is released in the UK on 13th May by Altitude Entertainment.
Read our review here.
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