Green Room hits theaters on April 22nd and it’s sure to fill any unmet cinematic hardcore punk/gore needs that have been growing lately. I saw it myself and was quite a fan, so I naturally jumped at the opportunity to interview writer-director Jeremy Saulnier. One day I’m sitting in a theater, watching a punk band duke it out with machete-wielding neo-Nazis with a side of vicious attack dogs, and the next I’m sitting across the table from the man who masterminded the whole thing, expecting him to be at least a little psychotic. So I’m setting up for the interview while he’s chilling out on his phone and the first thing he says is,
“This is gonna sound so lame… (puts on a mock arrogant voice) ‘lemme just email my agent real quick.'”
RR: Green Room is technically a horror film, but once the action starts going it doesn’t feel like a genre film at all. How did you clear your head of those conventions before you sat down to write?
JS: Well I approached it as a war movie. So it’s a battle film. The hook is that it sort of seems like a horror film that is satisfying some kind of blood lust from a sadistic killer, but we’ll soon realize that it’s just a mop-up operation and it’s all very practical and tactical…sort of adversaries in a war. But you know, the fun thing is in the green room on one side of the door it’s amateurs and on the other side it’s…semi-professionals. It’s a war film between civilians and soldiers and that was fun. Because I knew that in the environment there’s a lot of horror elements. You’re in a structure that has black walls and black lights and it looks like a haunted house. That was kind of fun to play with, just as far as the environment itself it’s like a haunted house movie.
RR: I heard that you did a ton of coverage of the dialogue in the green room, so I was just wondering how you kept that constant high tension with the actors.
JS: Well the great thing was that the actors were so invested, you know, that they were their own caretakers and they preserved the integrity and the emotional groundedness and the heightened level of physicality from take to take. And we were definitely tracking it. Often times we would go back and check takes for continuity. Because yeah, the spatial choreography and well, the things you do when you’re shooting such a contained scenario…when you’re in one room, if you have someone get killed and the body drops, wherever they drop you just bought into that for the rest of the movie. And it has lots of impacts that you don’t see coming and you have to deal with, kind of be flexible. So it had to evolve chronologically. the good thing was we got to do a lot of work chronologically once we were inside. We shot the finale first–totally out of order to satisfy a two week exterior shoot–once we got into the green room, it was really fun to take it step by step. Um…….what was the question again?
RR: You nailed it.
RR: I’ve got to ask if you have a desert Island band?
JS: It’s black Sabbath. Yeah, Black Sabbath.
RR: OK, rock on.
JS: They’ve got a good diversity of blues and metal, some folk once in a while…Ozzy’s kind of hippy dippy.
RR: At this point you’re definitely an indie success story and I was wondering if you had any tips for staying true to a script on a tight budget?
JS: I mean, the tough thing is, you know, through my failures I have succeeded like many people. But the advice…I don’t even know! My advice…keep with your day job, keep close to the film industry, buy real estate, own a condo, and then make your move. I self funded both my movies after I had bought either an apartment or a house because I could not break in…the only way I could break in was on my own terms with my own money because I could not translate these ideas and pitch them to financiers or producers. I mean I had a lot of people interested in making movies after my short film, but nothing actually happened. It’s about being realistic and diversifying, but stay close. Because what I would do is corporate videos and commercials and I would lose my mojo completely, and I would jump off and take a crew position as a cinematographer and I would be with directors and be on sets, but it wasn’t a yearlong investment, it was a six week investment and I could just learn from them and just bide my time.
The discipline is not when to make a movie, it’s when not to make a movie. It is to shore up your defenses, you know? As far as artistically it’s just about…learning your craft. I came out of film school when directors had to know lenses and they chose composition and like it was very technically oriented and that’s what saved me is I could shoot my own movies…I could write, direct, shoot and edit if need be…luckily I got an editor for all my films, but you know I am…I think I broke through because I had the ability to actually make films by myself. Not necessarily like alone on set, but I could fund them, write, them, shoot them, edit them if need be–which is not a fun model. It was after I got out of film school and then all the sudden digital video and everything…everything crashed, the economy crashed. And I’m from the world of, like, internships or mentorships and like traditional union tracks you know? And this is now, it was in disarray and you had to have a backpack on and a DSLR and all this shit and do things that most crews wouldn’t have been asked to do ten years ago. So my advice is just don’t stop. That’s the only thing that’s actually true is…I have a lot of more talented friends that have dropped out of the film making business and I am alone and I, I am considered a success just because I hung on for almost two decades.
The thing is like, you don’t have to win, you just stay on a track and eventually, you know, if you don’t break through….like I was ready to be a cinematographer full time and a technical trade to fall back on and I loved. I have more fun being a cinematographer than anything else because it’s a huge creative contribution–it’s a singular department head position, you definitely oversee the crew but it’s a blast. Directing is a thousand jobs in one and it’s very hard, very overwhelming and the last thing you get to do is direct. It’s daunting and it takes a lot of endurance and, uh…I don’t know…I don’t know what I would have done, because in the end you can prepare, you can make really good movies, but you also need good fortune. And I lucked out by getting…not getting to Sundance and getting to director’s fortnight at Cannes, that was serendipitous where someone took a chance on the DVD submission…a gatekeeper saw my work and responded to it and that’s when the career took off. Someone had to put a stamp of approval on my work.
Blue Ruin would have been Blue Ruin regardless of where it premiered, but because of The Directors’ Fortnight championing my movie, I am all the sudden sort of…my access card to the industry was granted. So you need to do everything you can and a tastemaker has to weigh in and if they don’t you’ve got to make another movie and then another movie. And the key is just keep surviving. The good thing is that when I came out of film school, digital video was not an option. It was awful. And with Blue Ruin I incorporated a lot of corporate video techniques. I was asked to wear a backpack and have the slider and the tripod and this little canon camera and do architectural b-roll, corporate headquarters. It ended up I used that skill set on Blue Ruin.
I shot most of that on a canon camera on a five foot slider with a tripod I could run around with in a backpack. I had more support, but I was finally able to use that aesthetic that was previously diminishing my creative skills in a way that allowed me huge opportunities to move fast and focus on what’s in front of the camera instead of the camera itself. That was the big thing in blue ruin is I gave myself a lot of time, I spent my own money, and I didn’t set myself up for failure. A lot of people who have scripts, they’ll take the money, they’ll try to get a famous person, and their schedule’s impossible, the actor’s not really invested, they’re just doing it to appease somebody, I don’t even know, and they’re set up to fail before they shoot. You give a director an impossible schedule…it won’t end well. So I think you have to just set your own terms but know when to take a leap. That was the timing I had with Blue Ruin. Knowing when to make it, knowing when to pull it from certain festivals and finally finish the edit and make it what it could be and then resubmit and then it kind of took off.
But…I could go on and on! The lesson is I have no idea how to break in except just staying in the game…that’s all you gotta do. And then it’s up to a lot of other factors (laughs).
Interview conducted by David Goodliffe