Watching it is like finding money in the pocket of a coat that you haven’t worn in years.
Hands down, one of the most intense films you'll see in 2016 is Jeremy Saulnier’s “Green Room.” The plot is simple: a touring punk band called The Ain’t Rights (including members played by Alia Shawkat and Anton Yelchin) are holed up in the dressing room of a neo-Nazi punk bar. The group has just seen something they weren’t supposed to, and now the bar owner (Patrick Stewart) and his army of young men will do anything to get them out. With constant bursts of inspiration, writer/director Jeremy Saulnier treats this nightmare as a ruthless game of various moving pieces, hidden intentions and shifting power. Scenes of a quivering Yelchin and a stoic Stewart trying to negotiate can be as pulse-pounding as those when all hell breaks loose.
Before "Green Room," Saulnier wrote and directed the 2013 slow-burn revenge thriller "Blue Ruin," starring Macon Blair as an amateur killer seeking vengeance. The NY-based filmmaker also previously worked as cinematographer on various indie titles of note, including "I Used to Be Darker" and "Putty Hill." Saulnier made his directorial debut in 2007 with the horror comedy "Murder Party."
In a roundtable interview, RogerEbert.com spoke to Saulnier about his new film, its influences from John Carpenter and various 80s cult classics, how he's like his own film studio and more.
For all of the violence that occurs in this film, you don’t offer any conventional catharsis. What’s your general philosophy when it comes to what to show, and what not to show?
I don't know if I have one. As far as the violence, and the heroes, I just put 'em in the stew and cook 'em, pretty much. I write very intuitively, and I’m certainly aware that this is entertainment and this is a story, and I know where it has to go eventually. The rule I have is, and I break my own rules, but the general rule is reverence for everybody, reverence for loss of life, respect for all characters and to associate death with a narrative purpose and an emotional impact. There's always an intention behind how much you see and how graphic the violence is and how much you don't see, and when to increase the amount of tension and terror through the eyes of the protagonists. When there's a very troubling box cutter moment, that is very intentionally rubbing your face in it, because the character has to watch this. It is one of those transitions from victim to killer and it's not fun. Whereas there are some parts where we need to show that this whole movie just got very real, and there's an insert closeup of a disgusting machete wound that haunts people, and that's the intention. It's like, “This is not the film I thought it was, these are not the rules I'm used to, now I can't see what's coming and I'm terrified.” It’s very much intended to throw people off-guard. When the shit hits the fan I let it go all the way. Splatter the entire room.
There's always a reason, down to the editorial. And it's tough when you're with an editor editing these scenes, having to watch and trim single frames from these shots over and over, but it's definitely to create the overall experience to make it insanely intense. Like all filmmakers, I want to pretend, "I'm going to uncharted territory, this is brand new shit!" And it may or may not be, but I definitely wrote the film with a disregard for formula as far as how it would suppress my creative intentions. And once in a while I would embrace formula, because I would feel, like, “This movie is getting too dreadful, I need a rock and roll moment." I’m my own studio. "Jeremy, we need something here that is going to make people clap." You know? And you feel it's natural, and that's where the whole paintball monologue came from. There needs to be a turning of the tables, there needs to be something so you can feel an elation. I think when you come out of a film and feel like it was extremely intense and you survived, there is an exhilaration with that. If you just feel like it's been nothing but a gut punch just over and over, and only dread, then it’s very unsatisfying. It's definitely a fine line.
What were you most conscious about when choosing Nazi punks as your villains?
Nazi punks would be low-hanging fruit for movie bad guys, I knew that. But the thing is, within the hardcore punk scene, I didn't pick them because they're Nazis, I picked them because they wear uniforms, they tend towards militancy, they tend towards having access to weapons. If you go to a punk show, they're the guys who might actually do this, because of the organization, because of their gang culture. The Hare Krishna squad, they're not the ones who are going to be doing this, nor the vegans. Nor are the Straight Edge kids. And I certainly eluded to ideology, as far as the physical space, and there's some artifacts in it, but we never get into why they're Nazis promoting the scene. It was about, "How can we humanize them?" Not how can we vilify them.
And you also don't want people to watch the movie and just think, "Man, I hope they mess these guys up." Then it just collapses.
Right, it has to be much more troubling than that [laughs].
Beyond just its neo-Nazi villains, “Green Room” plays like a full-on white tragedy. Every person cast in the film is white.
We snuck in an Arab and a Jew [laughs]. And when [The Ain’t Rights] are playing shows outside, there's a more diverse cast. That's written into the script—that we have to show, when they're playing the Mexican restaurant scene that the local hardcore kids show up to, that there is a bit of diversity. I will say though, in the coastal town of Portland, it was hard to get non-whites to show up. And of course with the right wing or the ultra left white power establishment, it had to be primarily white people. And yes, there is someone in the band of Arab descent, but the key was they had to pass for white. That was the casting spec, that they had to pass for white. If you're playing a show at a Nazi-friendly establishment, that was the real conflict. The Ain’t Rights are aware of that. That's why their first song is "Nazi Punks Fuck Off," because they don't feel part of that world. The fact that they're welcomed is creepy.
How did you figure out the physical space of the story? Was it all written in the script, or did it change when you started dealing with locations?
A few weeks into the location scouting process, we realized we'd have to build the entire interior location to spec. I had written it with every hallway, exit and doorway in mind. Like a lot of my films, we get down into the minutiae, the detail: where people are standing, who's saying what to who, how close they have to be to the door. I knew it became inevitable, that we had to build this ... I did a Google sketch of this rough overhead plan of the entire venue. And then the funny thing was, when writing it, I had a very clear vision of what this place was. Yet, when translating that to an overhead diagram, I realized I actually defied the space time continuum and defied logic and spatial reality and gravity. I was like, "Oh, that's physically impossible." My production designer Ryan Smith then re-translated my diagram into something that we could actually build. That was a huge part of it, whenever we could be moving through the hallways, as The Ain’t Rights enter the venue for the first time, we are getting a nice backstage tour. And so we try to keep that movement more fluid so we can tie the space together pretty quick. It does come across I hope relatively seamlessly.
When you were cutting "Green Room" together, were there certain movies or filmmakers you looked to, in terms of pacing, or that lack of dread?
I definitely referred to "Straw Dogs," because I like that it has a very thin plot. And it's very rich in experience. Films like that. And I didn't watch "Assault on Precinct 13" until after I finished my screenplay because I felt I was scared it might be too relevant to what I was doing, but it ended up being a good textual reference, and again with a very thin plot. It's just this scenario and it unfolds, but the texture is so gritty and awesome, and I really was inspired by that. Once I wrote it, it just was its own thing. I am always influenced by certain aesthetics. I like Coen brothers, I like early Michael Mann, really grounded in realism, and the research that he does. The authenticity that he creates. And the Coen brothers have this amazing visual language that I always felt spoke to me, as far as how they tell stories. And John Carpenter was a big influence on the just the tone of the movie.
A lot of people want "Green Room" to come out on VHS, because that shit reminds me. That’s what I miss. I miss that movie from the 80s. I wasn't trying to pay an homage to the extent where [“Green Room”] would be a throwback, self-aware retro movie, but I wanted to evoke the very same feelings that I felt when I was a kid and had access to "The Thing" or "Halloween" or "Dawn of the Dead," these moves with a lot of grit and atmosphere that scared the shit out of me as a kid.
There’s this moment in both this film and “Blue Ruin” in which you can witness that moment when someone has finally accepted death, or the idea of taking another life.
Both of those films have people who are not surrounded by death until these scenarios unfold. It’s more about them acclimating to the cinematic environment of which I have thrust them into. Especially with Dwight in “Blue Ruin,” he’s had this hurt for over a decade, and he's experienced loss, but is very inept when it comes to avenging that loss. And in “Green Room,” there's just no time for that indulgence, to go off the grid and be your own person and wallowing. This is like, "Holy shit, we didn't ask for this." And as they start dying, those who survive have to step up, and the only way to do that is to transition into killers, and then realize that there is is no real match. They can't match the semi-professional soldiers outside the green room, they still kind of have to go gonzo.
Where did the pivotal paintball story monologue come from?
Real life. My buddy Rick Spears took out some Marines. That's the thing, if you go full stupid, you can actually win. It's not just movie shit. If you're going up against some motherfucking badasses, you can do it. I've seen it done before!