Director Jeremy Saulnier is one of the unlikeliest cinematic success stories of the past several years. He makes movies with tiny budgets that should ostensibly be movie critic bait. But he also works in genres more associated with B-movies. His breakthrough film, 2014's Blue Ruin, was a revenge thriller, while his latest (his third overall and first since Blue Ruin), Green Room, traps a punk-rock band in a siege scenario, as they try to withstand an assault by white supremacists.
He's a deeply political filmmaker, but mostly behind the scenes, where he insisted on making Green Room to the specifications of film labor unions — even though that chewed up a big portion of his $5 million budget. Onscreen, however, his neo-Nazis tend to be more faceless forces for his heroes to mow down, rather than any sort of example of America's dark, racist heart.
But Saulnier has a major advantage: His movies are really fun. Green Room is a scuzzy blast from the murkiest corners of America, riddled with violence and gore and possessing some of the most vivid, economical character work in any thriller in recent memory.
That made it a good time to talk to Saulnier about his latest film, how he stretches his budgets, and why his neo-Nazis aren't as Nazi-ish as they could be.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
On building tension: "I confined myself to an indie filmmaker's comfort zone, which is — now what do I have?"
This movie is so claustrophobic and confined. How did you keep the tension going, while knowing you would be stuck in this one space, mostly?
You have to use the confined space as your greatest advantage.
For this movie, I set that premise up very early on, and once that scenario takes hold, with the band trapped in the room and the Nazis getting aggressive outside, it was really not minding that space and trying to dig in and find details and props and using the geography itself as a way to create the film out of that. I had a blast just making a laundry list of available resources.
Within this high-concept idea, I confined myself to an indie filmmaker's comfort zone, which is — now what do I have? I've got amplifiers. I've got microphones. I've got pit bulls. It was creating my own comfort zone to work with and then going full-tilt within those boundaries.
A lot of directors with a success like Blue Ruin probably would have gone up to a larger budget level, $20 million or $30 million or so. What did you like about staying at a smaller budget?
I was warned not to do a union film between $3 million and $6 million dollars, and I did it. I jumped right in.
It's a very tough budget level to work within. Most importantly, [paying] union wages, to be part of a sustainable filmmaking community was my primary objective as far as the business end.
You have all of the same problems as a $3 million dollar entity. You're fighting for schedule. You're fighting for budget. I was on a very steep learning curve, and it was something I probably don't want to do again.
It was a very valuable experience to take this from script to screen and all the way through release and see how the industry works. Most of my films were made outside of the industry, on my own terms, and I had flexibility and full faith and trust in those that I had around me. This was a lot more diplomacy and pitching and working within the confines of the industry and under the governance of the committee of people who are all very much invested in this film.
This film is so based on texture and noise and experience, and until it was fully realized and mixed and mastered and delivered, no one knew what the hell this film was. It was a lot of risks being taken and a lot of trust that had to be built.
On telling a story in one place: "There is a mathematical pleasure when it comes to screenwriting for me"
You say environment is important to you. How early did you have this particular one in mind in the process of creating this movie?
I knew I wanted to make a movie set in a punk rock, hardcore world. It was an easy next step to say, "Well, where does that take place?" It takes place in a music venue or on the road. Once I had the venue in mind, then you go, "What can I do here in this action movie genre space?"
The green room came up, and I had that eureka moment of, "I should set the film in the green room and have it be a siege scenario." So that premise was the real ignition for this film. That happened almost a decade ago. Luckily, I never fully developed it. The premise was there.
But until I sat down to write it, and really get into the characters and the plot, it was just that simple concept. I had the benefit of having this building inside me for almost a decade, but the plot details and the overall story just completely fresh. When I wrote it, I was able to surprise myself.
Is there a moment in the film you were really surprised your brain coughed up?
There's a mathematical pleasure, like solving problems, when it comes to screenwriting for me. Because I had written myself into this confined area, I kept having to write myself out of corners.
Two examples. One would be when I was able to inject a little bit of real world pragmatic calling of bullshit on Hollywood movies. My protagonist finds another layer beneath this concert venue, and they come across an air duct. I was able to have [the air ducts] be up to code, which is six inches, and they didn't serve as an escape mechanism. What you think should be in a movie, an easy out, became a dead end.
I've never seen that. We're going to talk about the six-inch ducts, and we're going to fucking forget about it. "Oh, wait a second, that's just a dead end." You start to feel unsure like, "Well, how are we going to get out of here. Maybe we're not. Holy shit, we're in real jeopardy."
The other moment was a very natural mining of the environment for a sequence. It was when I thought of the idea for Amber, played by Imogen Poots, and Pat, played by Anton Yelchin, to fend off a pit bull attack using available resources on the stage, which involves amplifiers and microphones and feedback.
You gave us just enough in all of the gross-out moments to let our imaginations take over, then cut away at just the right moment. How did you time all of that out?
It's very much designed in the script, but there was so much technical editing that Julia Bloch and I did. We were going through every single frame of that. No. 1, we had to sell the gag. You have to make it seem believable. That takes a lot of cutting, and a lot of amazing on-set special makeup effects, and a lot of discipline in how you show it.
[No. 2,] knowing when to show a reaction. Knowing when to throw away an effect and how to be in the background, and knowing when to go full frontal. That was usually starting with a very clear narrative intention to throw people off-guard, to let them feel the peril that the characters are in. Once, in particular, we're full frontal on a very disturbing boxcutter use, and that was to transition along with the character who is committing the act of violence as they go from kid to killer.
It's not just to establish a jump scare. It's to really pull the rug out from underneath them and have them feel like, "Oh, shit." That ray of hope has just been completely destroyed, and now we have no clue where this film can go. There's always intentions behind the violence, and it's usually coupled with a very strong emotional component.
On the movie's politics: "What I did need was people with combat boots and uniforms and insignias"
I'm interested in the way the character of Amber shifts her allegiances from being a neo-Nazi to joining up with the band over the course of the film. How did you chart that character's journey?
It's fun to play with that — her identity as a character and her back story, or lack thereof. She starts the film as a hysterical girl, crying in the corner of the room, and to play with that idea of maybe there's more to her. Just through her actions and her affiliation, she switches gears. She sees the real impact of violence, and that shakes her out of her labels and her affiliations.
That was fun to do with her as an actor, developing the character, and as a filmmaker, regarding how we shot her, so we dismissed her as a viable character for the first third of her performance. She had to acclimate to this new environment, holed up with an out-of-town band. When she becomes active and part of this group, we pay attention to her as a character and start to shoot close-ups of her.
She represents one of the thesis moments of the film, which is when you shake people down to their core, who your favorite band is doesn't define you. Lot of people in this [white supremacist] scene are recruited and manipulated, and they're often victims. She was transitioning from a victim to a heroine.
Nazis have been go-to bad guys in action movies for years. What makes neo-Nazis work in that role as well?
Their ideology certainly came into play, but it's not the content of the ideology. They are extremists even within this subculture. They are more militant, and they tend toward holding more weapons. What I needed out of the hardcore scene wasn't Nazis. I needed soldiers, and these soldiers served their purpose in my little punk rock war movie.
I didn't go off on a monologue about race or nationalism. But what I did need was people with combat boots and uniforms and insignias and that organizational hierarchy that would make them serve in my story as the more expert adversary that served as almost a militia.
That seemed to be the only choice in that regard. A bunch of pot-smoking metal-heads or hard Christians or vegan kids who are straight edge didn't quite fit the bill. [The neo-Nazis] served more of a practical purpose then an ideological one.
The character development in this movie is so stripped down and economical. How did you get it so lean?
I don't want to bash other movies, but I get driven crazy by character depth and back stories that are falsely injected into screenplays. It drives me crazy because I really think, trust the actors to perform physically and have a natural charisma. If you're just with people, you get their character. If you leave more to the imagination, then you can fill in the gaps.
The actors were really game in knowing that so much of this film is physical, and it had to be presented in that way. We're not going to do "recall past traumas." There's not conflict just for the sake of conflict. There's certainly enough in this movie as far as the blunt force exchanges between them and the skinheads, but I based a lot of these characters on real people I knew growing up. It wouldn't serve us to try and inject typical Hollywood arcs, when I thought it would be very unmotivated to do so.
I like the actors. I like the characters. The process isn't so much giving them all traditional, full character arcs where they're all fully actualized or learn a lesson in the end. It's really just you get to be up close and personal with these people and get to know them through trauma and comedy and very human moments.
Green Room is currently playing in theaters throughout the country.