After writing and directing the self-financed, darkly comic cult film Murder Party (2007) and the slow-simmering, lo-fi revenger Blue Ruin (2013) – the latter being selected for the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes where it won the FIPRESCI Prize – Jeremy Saulnier has now turned his craft to the genre-inflected siege thriller Green Room that pits out-of-their-depth punk rockers against drug-dealing Neo Nazis. Here is an interview conducted with him during the London Film Festival.
Anton Bitel: Were you ever close to tears while making Green Room?
Jeremy Saulnier: Oh yeah, I cried, I think two or three times. Just the crushing weight of making a movie – and not having full control. The weight of being spread too thin through energy and having to deal with so much decision-making that it literally cripples your mind. Also the weight of being unsure, and the weight of thinking that everything’s at stake, physically and career-wise – that’s very difficult to sleep through. I mean, so much energy when you’re in the business of making movies goes towards simply stating your case, or trying to fight for, and explain, and get approval for, things. For my last film [Blue Ruin] I was the sole financier and I would only worry about the quality, and if we incurred a budget overage I would absorb it and move on, and pay for it later. To be free and creative – they don’t really go hand-in-hand.
AB: How far did Green Room meet the vision you had in your head before you made it?
JS: I would say 89%.
AB: What was the 11%?
JS: Just things like not having enough time for a few sections which I envisaged. And then having to be very practical about how we – not artistically approached scenes, but how we archived pages of the script so we could move on. It was just very practical substitutes, which can be good or bad. It’s hard to come up with an inventory list of certain things, but we definitely pushed our budget to the limit, so small details like police uniforms or things to do with props were not what I wanted. So that ended up dictating how I edited some scenes.
AB: All your films place ordinary, relatable people in genre situations where, because of the characters’ grounded ordinariness, they don’t obviously or easily belong. What does realism bring to genre, or at least to genre’s borders?
JS: I think realism, from my protagonists’ point of view, offers a whole lot of opportunity for a filmmaker like myself who just wants to see relatable people – not relatable like “Oh, I know your backstory”, “Oh, I’m sympathetic” – just people behaving in a way that humans should in traditionally cinematic situations. I’ve had so much fun getting to almost rewrite typical movies in a way I think is much more grounded in the human. It’s more exciting, because when you break certain rules or when you deviate from certain genre standards, and you have realistic people leading the way, the conflict and the dark comedy just come more naturally to me, and I think audiences love seeing themselves in these movies, you know, experiencing it from that point of view. It’s almost like I’m just trying to challenge these tropes – and surprise myself. During the writing process what I’d do is just let the characters behave as they should, in my opinion, and to write myself into corners and then have to write my way out of it, but always with people making what they think are practical decisions based on self-preservation, and never for the convenience of the plot or the writer or the audience or anybody – except for being true to the stage that I set.
AB: At the London Film Festival, Green Room has been programmed in the Cult strand. Does the Cult label fit for you? How would you define Green Room?
JS: I like there to be a conversation about how to categorise my movies. I certainly I approached this movie as a war film as far as the aesthetic I was trying to achieve, and if it’s labelled a horror movie or a cult film or an action thriller or a crime thriller – whatever it is – they’re all true, and I leave it up to programmers and marketers to define them in that space. But for me, I sort of thrive on ignoring boundaries between genres, and doing that cross-pollination – that’s a way to keep audiences on guard. Once you throw them in one direction and then take them in a severe U-turn or whatever it is, they start to realise that they’re not in a predictable cinematic environment, they’re going to be less at ease, and that way the thrill of a heightened experience is, I think, multiplied. For Green Room, the mission statement was an exercise in tension building, and just to ratchet it up and make this more of an experience – and a little less intellectual than some movies, as a nice bit of counter-programming for the marketplace. I always wonder, what do I want to see? I have a very busy day, I’ve got a wife and kids and a mortgage. When I sit down andÂ watch a movie, I want to be transported, and I want to have an experience I can’t get domestically. It’s a safe space to go through a whole shitstorm of brutality and excitement and punk rock and whatever. It’s just something I wanted to do.
AB: Green Room is also a film about attack dogs and lapdogs, with the boundaries between the two poignantly blurring. Do you see Green Room as a comment on the manipulative demagoguery in America’s power structures?
JS: Absolutely. That was there from the beginning. I was using an ultra-leftwing group to sort of set the stage, but really to critique the American mainstream conservative right and the hierarchy. It applies to both sides of the aisle in our political structure, but really it’s about the current hierarchy in the culture and the power structure that just drives me nuts, where you have those at the top protecting what are very clearly their financial interests, misinforming people and causing lots of carnage down the food chain – literally here. All this was supposed to be more [for] a second or third viewing, because again it’s about not being too political, but it’s all there for sure, from Darcy the leader of the skinhead gang [played by an against-type Patrick Stewart] and down to the pitbulls, it’s all there.
AB: What were your influences?
JS: Straw Dogs, for sure. Visually I referred to Apocalypse Now, Platoon, The Road Warrior, RoboCop. I like those Seventies and Eighties movies. It’s that pre-CG era of naturalism, and I just like the texture: the dust and the blood and the gloom and the steel. John Carpenter’s The Thing – the makeup in that is so astonishing, you know.
AB: Assault on Precinct 13 as well?
JS: That was an influence after I wrote the script, because, having known about that film, I’d never watched it – one of the few John Carpenter films I never saw – and so, knowing that it’s a siege movie that takes place in a contained environment overnight, I figured it best that I wait until I’d finished Green Room – the screenplay – before watching it. Once I’d finished my draft, I did watch John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 and I fell in love with it, because again it was exactly what I was going for as far as its simplicity. It was a bluntforce exploitation movie, and it owned it, and it’s superfun, and had that amazing grit. There was a danger of it being too close, but it was far enough, and I felt like I had enough going for Green Room already as far as the plot elements, and just the texture of the punkrock hardcore scene, that it was a nice way to stage it. But I was more thinking of Straw Dogs as far as that wonderful craft that Peckinpah has – and his gravitation towards violence. For me it seems very natural to those environments, but I think it’s more responsible – it’s also more fun – to show it full-frontal, for its emotional impact. And if people retch, it’s fine – I think it’s more dangerous when you can see 90 people killed in a film and it matters not.
AB: Do you strive for creative independence? If so, how?
JS: I strive for it, and I’ve achieved it through failure up till now, meaning I could not get financing or support for my first two movies, so I self-funded and therefore had total creative freedom for the first two. The third one was more of a – battle – but I ended up with total freedom. Creative independence is, I think, key to telling individual stories. When you filter things through a committee for better or worse it becomes diluted – so I think it’s very important. How I achieve it is – yet to be determined.