In 2013, Blue Ruin burst onto the scene, a grim whirlwind of stripped down revenge and graphic violence. Keeping to the colour-coded theme, American writer/director Jeremy Saulnier has returned with an even more violent blow-out of a film. Premiering in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, Green Room is the best neo-Nazi punk rock horror/thriller crossover you’ll see all year.
Over in Cannes to promote the film, Flickfeast had the opportunity to join Jeremy as he discussed his punk rock beginnings, onscreen violence and bagging Patrick Stewart as his chief villain.
Why did you choose this genre of music to base Green Room around?
Jeremy Saulnier: I didn’t choose it; it chose me from a very young age. I was on a road trip with my parents in 1985 cross-country and we stopped in Colorado. My dad’s friend’s son played Dead Kennedys for me and I was confounded by it. That was the seed planted. I ran around town skateboarding in suburbia with a bunch of older kids who were into skate punk. By the time I was in high school with the ability to drive, I was going to Washington DC five miles away seeing really amazing hardcore punk rock bands and I tried to sing in a band of my own. A lot of my friends were talented musicians; I could yell loud. I used to lift weights so I looked sort of tough at the time. I was the frontman. I was very attracted to the physicality of it all and was in the slam pit loving the vibe.
Was it an aggressive world?
JS: The punk rock world? Absolutely. I mean it was young and male and there were actually Nazi skinheads at lots of the shows. This was the early 90s and it was odd as I grew up in this suburban utopia and you’d go across the memorial bridge into DC to a show and there were Nazis. There was often the threat of violence. The pit itself is incredibly violent and I’ve never been that aggressive, I’m not the kind of person who has a lot of anger, I just love the athleticism of it all, I love the aesthetics and the music. Others were there to cause trouble and wreak havoc and it was really scary. There’d be some stabbings but mostly some people would go into the pit with the intention of hurting others and they were very strong and I was not. One of the bands struck fear into my heart as well. They were based out of Delaware and had a lead singer who was terrifying and I totally modelled the band in Green Room, the Nazi grindcore band on them. It was very scary stuff.
Was the physicality of the story the reason to put neo-Nazis in the film?
JS: I know the neo-Nazi presence as part of the punk rock scene. They are very native to the environment. The bad guys I know growing up were the Nazis. They were often also the victims. Just their presence at a show could result in a fight; it wasn’t always instigated by them.
Does the film ridicule them?
JS: I didn’t think so. It’s hard to love a Nazi but as far as Nazis go in movies, many of them are treated as very human. If you watch a documentary on Nazis, especially neo-Nazis, it’s sometimes laughable. It’s ridiculous, it’s pathetic, it’s sad. You see these people spewing this hatred and to the outsider it’s laughable, it’s goofy. I was actually trying to stay true. I remember seeing an HBO documentary and my friends and I were laughing our asses off as it was just sad. They don’t have a lot of thrust or power but they do some damage.
My real target here wasn’t fringe groups that commit the occasional hate crime, that’s despicable, that’s obvious. It was really a focus on mainstream American conservative culture and the power structures they operate in. If you look at the parallels there’s not a lot of ideology about racism or fascism. It’s just a club and they’re doing terrible things thinking there’s an ideology but not knowing there’s a different ideology at the very top which doesn’t serve their interests at all. They’re all fighting each other at the bottom for causes that aren’t theirs to fight for. The youth suffers – that is very literal in the movie.
So you didn’t go back to the neo-Nazi world to research Green Room?
JS: It came from memory as far as the physicality and violence of the scene is described so I definitely didn’t research it. Unfortunately, there’s an uptick in the number of hate groups and extremists in America and throughout the world. All these crazy clashes going on, it’s on the rise, and there’s more of a presence than there was ten years ago. So while I’ve not seen many Nazi skinheads walk the streets since my youth, they are there and this film takes place in the Pacific Northwest in America, in Oregon, where there’s a heavy concentration of these fringe groups now. You picture coffee and hippies and drizzle and they do have that progressive spirit but it’s also very left-wing.
The problem with America is the left and the right don’t know what their jobs are. Libertarianism is very anti-government but it’s not right-wing. There’s this confusion as to who’s doing what so all the arguments for the right should actually be on the left, it’s all reversed. The commonality is that the ideologies are screwed up and they are meant as distractions to divide people. Then there is this wealthy few at the top trying to make more money.
In some screenings the audience laughed and in others they’ve stayed silent. Can you imagine these two readings of the film?
JS: Absolutely. I love the fact it’s a mix. I had a tough time editing it, watching it over and over and over. It’s brutal. The whole thing is made to be a really rapid, insane experience that is hopefully going to affect people in different ways. There’s shocking moments of violence but I like that it will quieten an audience as much as it will bring laughter. The dark comedy, if you get it you get it and if you don’t you don’t. I’m not going to ratchet up the comedy. I’ll ratchet up the intensity because that’s the whole point of the movie but I think it’ll play different ways to different audiences. The dark humour comes naturally and will be destroyed if I try too hard.
How much of the comedy was there in the writing and how much did you find in the editing afterwards?
JS: It’s pretty much all in the writing. I’d have to track it laugh by laugh to check if that’s true. But I definitely like to write intuitively and if I go for grounded human exchanges, comedy comes naturally out of that. The only rule on set is if you find something funny you can’t let the characters know about it. If you’re in on the joke as characters and actors, it becomes an intentional thing and I like the more loose, organic comedy that comes from these situations.
You’ve said previously people will enjoy it more if they think of it as a band on the road movie and know nothing else going in. Is that to preserve the shock value?
JS: I always want to deprive people of any information possible. It’s very hard to have a pure cinematic experience. Festivals are an exception. I would always prefer to have a black box and no expectations and you can find your way through the story. That way the left turns and surprises are all the more effective.
Does that also help lure in people who wouldn’t normally watch a pure genre movie?
JS: Then you get a lot of walkouts but that’s also fun. Some people count walkouts as a smashing success.
Was it hard to balance criticising violence while exploiting it in the film?
JS: That’s kind of my thing. I like that. I’m always surprised in screenings when some people cheer and clap, but it’s never about celebrating the death, it’s about celebrating who survived as a result. It’s fun for me to play with narrative standards. In pure genre films you know what’s going to happen. It’s so fun to be surprised. I created a bunch of typical narrative devices that would lead them out of this enclosure and all are dead ends. It’s part of the design.
This is my most violent film. I had to get this one in before I go too soft. I’m the father of three beautiful daughters and I had to revert emotionally. I want to make this film for my teenage friends and myself and archive all the teen punk history and the crazy fun we had growing up. You could argue it’s about the perceived immortality of youth and me getting older, whatever, but it’s all there. The key for me was to do a really insane punk rock thriller, grounded and chaotic and very present. It wasn’t going to have tricky plot points or smart developments, it was going to be blunt force and human and messy.
Is there a certain limit in the use of extreme violence?
JS: Yeah, we cut around a few things and decided when to go full frontal and when to pull back and have things off-screen. For me it’s a matter of the heightened experience coming from the lack of knowledge and the deprivation of motivation. Every single act of violence in this movie is grounded in motivation and necessity. It’s revealed later as to why things are happening but to be in that immediate world of the protagonist where they don’t know what’s happening on the other side of the door, that’s what works. If the violence in any part of this is not motivated by very true intention and necessity, it wouldn’t be in the movie.
It does seem like a very rational film where characters don’t run off and do stupid things. How important was it to get that right?
JS: That’s the whole movie for me, putting real people in these situations. There would be more debates; there would be wrong and impulsive decisions. I had a lot of fun playing different roles and having genuine arguments with myself, one character trying to get out and one trying to stay in. It’s instinctual and human to have an adrenaline rush – fight or flight. Or to dump your adrenaline and sit there and do nothing. The pure part of the experience was to think like real people and have that debate but also not go back and change it to make it super whip smart and contrived. I would do one draft of a scene as I didn’t want it to be thought through and smart, I wanted it based on fear where you can’t second guess and do weird shit. I didn’t want to bring it full circle and tie up the structure, that’s not fun. I’ve seen that a thousand times, overworked plots. Whenever I see Hollywood movies the third act is the worst part. Everything comes full circle.
You took an enormous financial risk with Blue Ruin, was it the same this time?
JS: No but it didn’t seem any easier. I realise the real investment is energy and time and I was very lucky to get support from financiers and my producers and we’re here with a great sales team. It feels good to be supported but I also don’t have the executive decision making that I’m used to. They’re very good collaborators but I’m not used to going through executives and committees. It’s hard to adapt to, especially because of the breakneck pace of this movie. I started the very first page of the first draft in November 2013 and we wrapped production a year later. From the very beginning to the end of production was super-fast. I think that’s part of the design. If this is over thought and over developed and everyone gets to weigh in on the design of the script and story it won’t work. If you make everything the same that’s how you get the movies which are here at the market and not the festival that just want to sell a poster and a trailer and count their small return and move onto the next one and tell the same filmmakers the same formula and keep doing it and doing it and doing it until we’re all swallowed by the same movie.
How logical was it for you to make this after the success of Blue Ruin?
JS: Highly illogical if you’re talking about climbing the ladder. What I wanted to do was duck back down into the sewer, bring my friends up from 20 years ago and have a laugh. And then I’ll move on. But I couldn’t move on without making this movie. The way I approach filmmaking, it’s also a business for me, but it’s indulging in art. This is a movie that I think could last decades; become required viewing for crazy punk rock kids who come up through the scene and then move out of it. When I refer to the life of this film, it’s not supposed to be some crazy box-office smash, I hope it is, but films like Repo Man (1984) have lasted decades and are required viewing. That’s what I want this to be.
Which directors have influenced you?
JS: It’s the same ones as from Blue Ruin; early Michael Mann, John Carpenter. This, I had to reference Peckinpah and Straw Dogs (1971) as far as the grounded scenario with a siege goes. And the Coen brothers always, just because I’m most attuned to them visually. The way they tell stories is just masterful, they are two people but it’s a single voice, they are very consistent. I’m getting to know new directors now but I go into a tunnel on a movie for a year. Now I’m going to go out and see some movies and find new directors.
You have a very strong cast in the film. How did Patrick Stewart as the villain come about?
JS: That was a last minute save. It was very difficult casting that one role but he was looking for an adventure and was very aggressive about switching gears in his career. He wanted something new so we gave it to him. We talked on the phone and Macon Blair, my buddy and me, wrote him a detailed history of his character. I have a lot of things which are underneath the surface of my scripts which I don’t really want to have revealed in the film, but he needed something to grasp onto and once we gave him the detailed history he embraced it, he was flying to Oregon in a week and it was crazy because we shot his finale first. It was pretty insane but he was a trooper and very dedicated and the great thing was he wasn’t disruptive as a huge star; he was just another cast member as dedicated as any other. I’m very grateful to Patrick and it was very generous of him to stoop down to our gutter level punk movie and elevate it.
Green Room opened in Directors’ Fortnight at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Our review can be found here.