Features | Written by Peter Turner 26/09/2016

Jeremy Saulnier | GREEN ROOM

Is there a more exciting director to have hit the independent film scene in the past decade than Jeremy Saulnier? With the colour-coded one-two punch of the low-key but brilliant Blue Ruin followed up by the harsher, more visceral Green Room, Saulnier has become the hottest writer/director in genre films to keep an eye on as he lines up future projects. Green Room sees a punk band witness a murder backstage at a backwoods gig, suddenly finding themselves trapped at the mercy of Patrick Stewart’s mini-army of Neo-Nazi thugs. We spoke to Saulnier about his script scaring star Patrick Stewart into locking the doors of his house and why the film uses Nazi skinheads as its perfect movie psychopaths. Warning: it gets political!

STARBURST: How does it feel to have scared Patrick Stewart into turning all the lights on and setting the alarms on his house while reading your script?

JEREMY SAULNIER: I love it. It’s pretty much my favourite story from the casting process on Green Room. Just knowing that from across the Atlantic, Patrick Stewart alone in his house was getting thoroughly creeped out by my material was so heart-warming.

We read that he said it was around 35 pages into the script when he really got scared. Any idea what scene it was that got to him?

I think it’s pretty much when we start to tighten the screws. It’s when things get locked down. His character enters around there so it could be that. When you read a script and you see when you enter, it’s the perfect time and from then on its downward pressure. All the band are trapped in the room and then the tension goes through the roof because you realise how alone this band is and how vulnerable they are with all these forces acting against them. Honestly, I bet it was because he was in an isolated environment in his house so he could totally identify with that. But he never said exactly what scene it was. It’s just this gradual tightening that can really restrict someone while they’re reading the script.

We love Imogen Poots’ Careful Now as the lights go out in the green room, which we suspect is around page 35. Have you got a favourite moment from the film?

That’s one of them actually. I just felt it was my obligation to fully explore the environment and the lights going out is that sort of haunted house feel that I loved. It’s not quite candlelight but it’s a big lighter and a cherry from a cigarette. But one single moment? That’s a rough one. I’m always my own worst critic.

It’s more of a general feeling for me. When I watch the movie, being so close to every frame and every visual effect, and every edit, you get a little lost and you don’t perceive it as a narrative you can really immerse yourself in. You’ve got a deadline and you try to make the premiere. But I do remember the feeling of elation when I forgot I made the movie and I was just with the audience at the premiere and started to get terrified feeding off the energy. That was when the shit hits the fan and Darcy starts to talk through the door to the kids when he arrives. He’s coming across like he’s pragmatic and he’s trying to help them and get them out of there but you know there’s something much deeper going on. Overall, when the tension ramps up, I forget about all the complications and the technical aspects that went into making the film and I just release myself and go along for the ride. About an hour in, I lose myself and get scared shitless like everyone else.

It’s so low key in many ways, particularly in terms of the villain’s ideology. When we heard the film would feature skinhead neo-Nazi punks, we thought there would be a character that would deliver one of those typical racist rants that you see in films like American History X or This is England. But this film barely mentions race. Was that a very deliberate decision?

Absolutely. I utilised the conflicts that are in the hard core and punk rock scene through the engine of the narrative, but not so much making it about ideology. Or at least the content of different clashing ideologies. Ideology is a huge part of the movie, but it’s more focused on how ideologies are used to manipulate people and to divert and channel negative energy to where it doesn’t belong. And also to serve as an outlet for people who are seeking camaraderie and really benefit from loyalty to one another. So it’s more about the function of ideology than the content thereof.

And I wanted to make this about people shedding that ideology and affiliation that they have with certain sects or for certain plans or whatever it is. And then stripping it down to just raw human beings in a survival story. So it was more about setting the stage and utilising the Nazi skinhead culture because it perfectly fit what I needed. I didn’t need a bunch of racists for my movie but I did need the closest thing that I could get to soldiers. That was more in line with the skinhead movement. Because they are organised, they wear uniforms, they wear boots, they’re very militaristic and they tend towards an association with firearms and illegal activities and dog fighting. So it seemed like a perfect fit as far as, in the punk rock scene, not these are bad guys because of their beliefs, but really because they’re most like soldiers. And I use them against my amateur protagonists in the Ain’t Rights.

I also felt how boring would it be as a filmmaker to just talk about how bad racism is. It’s relevant in that there’s been this crazy uptick in xenophobia and racism. But it’s very political and ideological. It’s a bunch of people lower in the food chain that are fighting against the wrong people. And that hierarchy of power structure, like who’s doing the fighting and who’s doing the hating and who’s benefitting from it at the very top? And that’s the most overt political statement in Green Room. It’s more about the contemporary American power structure we have. The people at the top fuelling this hatred towards people at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder and they’re fighting against each other and against immigrants and against people of different colours or faiths of whatever it is. Really it’s just a ploy to cause chaos and division so the people at the top can keep the status quo and can enjoy the spoils of the top 5%. Darcy represents people who are self preservationists and use ideology to control other people. That’s an undertone.

Ultimately, I didn’t want to do a skinhead movie in the American South about racism. I wanted to even keep that geographically in the Pacific Northwest, where people aren’t aware of the sort of Nazi or white nationalist presence. Just so it wasn’t a tired old American southern racist story.

Actor Callum Turner (Ain’t Rights lead singer Tiger in Green Room) has nothing but praise for you and the cast. How was the experience of filming for you? In some ways, it seems like a smaller film than your last film Blue Ruin, even though the budget must have been much higher.

It was me taking my style and my voice and carrying it on. But I did hit a brick wall with the industry. Blue Ruin which I did on 80 locations and 200 scenes and it was all about the environment and a quiet film with visual storytelling, but we spanned three states so it was a very big scale. But I made that outside the system with a lot of my own resources and a team of kids who were just out of film school. That’s a lot of value you get outside of the system.

But as a father of three and someone who’s trying to break through I had to carry my style to the actual industry. And that was very difficult as far as the transition because I wanted to go union, I wanted to participate in the profits of my own work and get residuals and I also wanted to provide for people. As any filmmaker you accrue a certain amount of debt over time. You have to ask favours from everyone. You develop a neurosis. “I’m so sorry I’m going to ask you to be in my movie... I’m so sorry to ask you to move this light. It’s not in the right place.”

And this time I wanted to be a provider. To help people to come up with me and to be part of a more sustainable working environment in American filmmaking. It was rough. So things cost a lot more. For fair wages and for safety and for many reasons, it was difficult. We shot Blue Ruin in 31 days and I got the exact same amount of shooting days for Green Room for over ten times the budget. So I was kind of put through a test. I wasn’t quite ready for it. A lot of the filmmakers that came on board, it was also their biggest budget film to date. So there was a very steep learning curve that we were all on together. It was just like any other indie set. There was not enough time. Locations and schedules were really hard to manage. So for me it was brutal as far as expectations meeting reality.

But this time I had such a great cast and a much more experienced crew. So I leaned very heavily on them. I didn’t recognise how wonderful it was until after we had wrapped. I was in a whirlwind of self-consciousness and self-doubt and a lot of downward pressure from the financiers. Because I also funded my previous films and there’s no better investor than yourself because you are obligated to feed your story. For Blue Ruin, I fed the story whatever it needed. I designed it to work around the pitfalls so when we couldn’t afford 31 days, I just cut the crew for the first six. So we could shoot with like ten people.

But with Green Room, I didn’t have total control. I had to ask and lobby and be political while trying to be an artist and oversee the biggest undertaking of my career this far, so it was very difficult. Looking back on it, it was just wonderful because of the access to the talent I had and the fact that it was well-received. On the shoot, I was just so close to every little detail that I didn’t even know what I was doing. Luckily we had the script as a map and I was there for the actors. It was just so wonderful to watch them take it and run. Callum was great. The enthusiasm of the whole cast is what I fed off because while it was a tough transition in the industry, the access to the actors was wonderful and not only for skill and craft, because that’s so much of how actors interpret characters, but also how they are as people and their genuine enthusiasm for the project. I only let people in this movie who really wanted to be there. I didn’t try and force anyone. Through that we had this wonderful ensemble and the whole cast really gelled. That’s how you create an environment where you can all be vulnerable. I can make a few mistakes here and there and know that I won’t be judged and so can the actors and we’re all there for each other. That was the best part. This bubble of creative-minded people who were so supportive. So in retrospect it was a fantastic experience but during the process I was thinking it would be the end of my career.

Well it certainly won’t be! So what is next for you? Judging by some of your recent tweets, we feel like we won’t be seeing you making a superhero movie anytime soon?

I’m always open to doing anything. But my gripe with the superhero films is now all these franchises are just taking all these amazing actors and they’re unavailable for months on end, if not years. It’s not just one film, it’s a franchise that takes place over four to six years. It’s almost like TV shows. That was my gripe, just looking at availability of the actors that I wanted to work with. They’re all on fucking Marvel movies.

I really don’t like to judge movies. I don’t gravitate towards supernatural or sci-fi but when I do look back at some of my favourite films; you got John Carpenter’s The Thing, you have Blade Runner, Robocop. I love sci-fi. I love it when it’s grounded. I’m just looking for something I can execute continuing with my aesthetic and my style. It would serve the serve the story. I read a bunch of scripts that are quite great but I don’t think that I’m the best person for the job. I want things that are not necessarily gritty but textured and visual. I don’t want to be trapped in a room again with just people talking. When I do it, I do it like Green Room. I make it as tense, visual and insane as possible. So it’s about the opportunity for me to tell grounded visual stories in any genre.

I’m in the process of trying to get a film off the ground on a much bigger scale. So that’s exciting and terrifying. I hope by the end of fall I will know my fate. But I do have lots of opportunities so it’s great to know that if something doesn’t work out, I can just jump on a TV episode or whatever.

I definitely want to get back on to writing too. I need to take a break and get lots of films and just go direct but the most pure, exciting and rewarding process for me is the writing. Because you control the universe. You can have fun and make terrible mistakes and just write over them. In the tension of production, there is no opportunity for mistakes because I have not yet had the luxury of doing reshoots for any film I’ve ever done. So the stakes are high!

Green Room is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.