I was looking at your IMDb credits, and I admit I did not expect to see something Oprah-related.
Jeremy Saulnier: (laughs) I learned a lot on that show, my friend.
JS: For sure. What I did on that show was, I shot the dramatic recreations. This was an interview show - primarily talking head interviews - but I got to shoot these very abstract, visual stories, shot on DSLR cameras. I used a lot of things I learned on that show on Blue Ruin. I was using these little Canon cameras, with a cheap little slider and a dolly, and you could still get very cinematic stuff, and you could set it all up in three minutes. Ya never know, y'know?
Well, I don't have a segue from Oprah to this, but: I'm curious about the way you use violence in your films, and particularly in Green Room. You have a very specific way of punctuating scenes with moments of violence that are, like, soberingly graphic.
JS: The key is knowing how to integrate violence so it has that impact. You can watch (something graphically violent) in closeup, but contextually, you might laugh, or think it's ridiculous...but in my films, I really try to use it as a narrative device. It should have a serious, visceral, emotional impact that's coupled with performance, the dynamics of cinema - just characters and shots - so when we hit you with the carnage, it's meant to throw you completely off and defy expectations.
Sometimes you see a non-gratuitous closeup of a wound, and if it's a non-fatal event, then it's just a fucking makeup show. Other times, you're going to quietly sit in the theater and collectively gasp when you see something unfold that is just, y'know, stomach-churning. And the reason is, now you're with the character. The character has to step up and become a killer, and you've just gotta sit there and watch it, full-frontal. It's about coupling that graphic violence with a narrative purpose. If you can perceive these acts of violence as threats, it's because you're seeing that through the character's eyes.
And once in a while, y'know, for narrative reasons - or entertainment reasons - we need a win, some kind of satisfaction once in a while. But it has to serve the story and it has to serve the audience, whether they like it or not.
You were a fan of punk, attended a number punk shows earlier in your life. I understand that some of the White Power stuff you saw during these shows influenced Green Room. Was there a memorably horrific event you witnessed that stuck with you, or was it just the general violence of the shows themselves, of the pit?
JS: Yeah, well, in the pit, there's definitely a physicality - you might see some bloody noses - but it's consensual. It's a contract you kinda sign if you're going to enter a pit where a whole bunch of people are slamming into one another and flailing around with closed fists. There's an energy that's palapable.
In DC in the 90's, yes, there were some Nazi skinheads at some of these shows. And certainly, cinematically-speaking, Nazi bad guys are sort of a low-hanging fruit. But in the punk scene, that's who it is, y'know? They have an ideology that's about hate and separatism and aggression. They are the fucking bad guys! So, this wasn't like typecasting or whatever; this happens. And in the (punk) scene, these guys will often attract violence. So this was a very natural extension of my observations.
It's also that these guys tend to be affiliated with other things - criminal activities, or gang culture, they're wearing uniforms...they come dressed that way for a reason. They want to be perceived as sort of a militant thing. Those are the soldiers. So in the movie, those were my guys. They served as soliders, and that worked, because I was making a war movie. It just happened to be set in the punk rock world.
Have you heard any response from the White Power community to the film, either positive or negative?
JS: Nope. I've been very careful, uh, not to engage.
Yeah, I would imagine.
JS: (Laughs) Yeah, I made a very specific point in the script - in a spoken line of dialogue - that this group (in the movie) is not affiliated with any known organization, because I didn't want to cause anybody any...I didn't want to get too political. It was more about using this kind of outside group, that's capable of being violent and militant, especially in the Pacific Northwest. But I didn't want to engage. As a filmmaker, I just tried to make everybody human, to be respectful of all cultures. And then it's about: can you survive the night? And during that everyone sort of sheds their labels, gets stripped down to their basic human elements.
Do you still go to shows?
JS: I have not been in a long, long while. I went to one metal show while I was researching Green Room, just to put my film back in that world. But I've sort of moved on from being an active participant. I still have a whole lot of cassette tapes with dubbed 7-inchers on there in my closet at home, so I carry it with me wherever I go, but I don't show up.
I think you can still appreciate it, while growing out of the environment.
JS: Right! And when I was (going to punk shows), I was very physical about it. I'd be in the pit and dancing my ass off. It took a certain athleticism. Now I'm just not capable of doing that shit anymore. I was at a Slayer show in '96 where I almost broke my neck. I'm definitely moved by it, but as you get older...I think part of the fun of this film was archiving my experience with with it, because I just can't be there anymore.
Shit's intense, man!
And the movie's intense! I can't overstate how intense Green Room is. I felt exhausted after the first time I saw it. I wonder if filmmakers, specifically ones in your position, get to experience the intensity of their own films. You're so intrinsic to the process, and then you're watching the edit...this may be a dumb question, but: does it even work on you, the same way it works on everyone else? Or are you just focusing on the technical stuff?
JS: Yeah, we had to pour through so much footage - me and my editor, Julia Block - and we edited this film in a very technical way. There's so much coverage. We had this wealth of amazing performances and people to work with. But it was exhausting. You're choreographing the violence and selling all these gags to have the impact they needed, so you definitely lose sight. And this is only my third movie, so I'm still learning the process - and I don't really have my own process, I'm usually at the mercy of the sets or the budget constraints and I just do whatever I gotta do. I say "Yes" to everything and I accommodate.
But for me, on both Blue Ruin and Green Room, there was a point in the editing process where, once we get far enough along, I just take the DVD to my house. I watch it. And that's when I see the movie, as an audience member. Now I'm getting distracted by the story, now there's a real movie here. For me, that's the most exciting part. And then I'll end up doubling down, with more confidence. Once you know you got something there, you sort of dig in and you don't come up for air until you're at your premiere. And at our premiere, at Cannes, I was definitely distracted by technical issues, because the sound mix wasn't finished - and for me, a sound mix is half the movie - but I felt very good about the picture edit. And the audience, well, of course they had no idea what my intentions were, but we got a very good reaction.
But once we finally mixed it - when we premiered at Toronto - then I felt, alright. We're there. It can't be any better, as far as what we'd archived on set. Now, sonically, the bass is throbbing through the walls, everything has a much sharper sound, it's heavier and bigger...everything was great. It's sort of an aggressively loud movie. Once that was done, I didn't watch it again. Now I like experiencing Green Room through the audience, seeing how they respond to it. I might watch it again in a couple years.
I never would have pegged Patrick Stewart fo the (villain) role, but as soon as I heard about it, I was like, "Oh, that's brilliant". And then in practice, it's even better. How did you guys arrive at Patrick Stewart?
JS: Well, we were out to cast, and I didn't know where we were gonna end up. But (Patrick Stewart is a client of) my management company, and he was looking for new projects, looking to shake things up a bit. My thing is, I'm not concerned about star power. And at first, I may have even wondered if he was too famous to be in this movie, but the fun thing is, if you toss that aside and look at the text messages I got from Patrick Stewart - with photos of him looking bearded and a bit more haggard than usual - he lined up better than anyone else we were even talking to, or talking about. He looked just like some of the references. So, fuck the X-Men. Fuck Star Trek.
JS: That can't infect my decision-making process, y'know? I can't let the baggage - or the value, rather - of these franchises impact my movie. And (Stewart) lined up better than most people. And the second he was interested, he sorta never stopped fighting until he was signed up. He loved the tension in Blue Ruin and responded ten-fold to the tension in the Green Room script.
And in the end, he was just another cast member! He was a dedicated person, invested in the movie and the character. That's how I choose actors. I mean, of course they have to have the chops to be considered, but if you don't really want to be in the movie, then I don't want you there. Y'know, I've sort of been spoiled by Macon Blair (the star of Blue Ruin and a co-star in Green Room). He is so dedicated. He gave me everything he had and then some, and that is cinematic gold, in terms of what you get onscreen. And Patrick was the same. He just blended into the ensemble cast and brought his craft. It's a very downplayed and invisible performance. When I'm on set with him, he's an actor and we are collaborators.
But now that the movie's done: hey, we got Patrick Stewart in our movie! This was a huge coup, and it's because he chose us. He graced us with his presence. He did the work. He was a great collaborator. We were very lucky to wind up with his interest.
Do you want to do something bigger? Or are more interested in the freedom that comes with staying with these smaller projects? For instance: I don't know how you feel about big, franchise stuff, but if I wanted to make another Punisher movie, you'd be the guy I'd call. But would that sorta thing even interest you?
JS: I'm gonna keep expanding the scale of my movies until somebody stops me. I also have no fear of going back to a very small budget environment.
I look at Steven Soderbergh and I look at how wonderfully he's navigated the system. He's very adaptable. He can do big Hollywood movies, he can do micro-budget indies. He's genuinely tried to stay creative. I think I'd be most comfortable just kind of incrementally building the trust of those around me where I can still retain creative control, and then up the scale of the films I make. Like, I wouldn't write my next movie just to be expensive. I want to tell stories that are exciting for me and the audiences. All I care about is my next project allowing me to do my best work as a director.
Green Room opens in limited release this weekend. See it immediately.