Jeremy Saulnier’s movies won’t be typically identified as horror, but there’s few contemporary American directors more attuned to the dread that comes with being placed into a life-threatening situation. Saulnier makes movies about characters forced into morally compromising situations, focusing less on their ethical dilemmas than the moment-to-moment terror of the situation itself, going for audience immersion over philosophical discourse.
Drawing from the masters of the ’80s, Saulnier’s visual sensibility is both unflinching—gory money shots of julienne-sliced limbs are common—and gleefully suppressed, avoiding any opportunity to soothe a jumpy audience. Alongside recent American revisionists like Adam Wingard and Ti West, Saulnier is reinvigorating the pulp canon of the ’80s with contemporary moral codes and permeable atmosphere. Rest assured, Green Room, Saulnier’s new release, knows it needs to appease gorehounds, but blood never flows without purpose. And all bets are off on who’s making it home.
Corralling together marquee names like Patrick Stewart and recognizable faces like Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots and Alia Shawkat, Green Room immediately feels more expansive than 2013’s Blue Ruin, Saulnier’s previous film. Not only because of the juiced-up star power—Green Room is a loving reinvention of the siege story, part of a classic lineage with the likes of Rio Bravo and Seven Samurai, or more thematic bedfellows like Straw Dogs and Assault On Precinct 13. The entirety of Green Room centers on two opposing groups attempting to control a single space.
With its claustrophobic corridors and shuttered corners, it’s difficult to imagine a more appropriate location to find Saulnier than in the Hard Rock Hotel. Walking into the room, Saulnier’s worn down, but noticeably excited to talk about his latest movie—soft-spoken, but delightfully foul-mouthed and playful. He did, after all, just make the movie that was exactly the type of movie he wanted to see when he was 18.
(This interview was conducted in-tandem with another interviewer. Their portion of the interview has been re-printed with their permission.)
Paste Magazine: In recent interviews, you’ve talked quite a bit about how you grew up in the ’90s, and had scary experiences with Nazis while going to hardcore shows. In Green Room, Nazis are your villains, and they have a very loaded cinematic history. What were you most conscious about in not making those characters too straightforward, or too cartoonish?
Jeremy Saulnier: I knew Nazi punks would be low-hanging fruit for movie bad guys. But the thing is within the Hardcore scene, I didn’t pick them because they were specifically Nazis. I picked them because they wear uniforms. They tend towards militancy. They tend towards having weapons. If you go to a punk show, they’re the guys who actually might do this because of their organization—their affiliation with the other nefarious activities, and their gang culture. The Hare Krishna squad aren’t going to be the ones doing this. Neither are the vegans…you never know though (laughs). And neither are the straight-edge kids. The Nazi skinheads wear boots and braces. They want to be identified, they wear insignias, and have much more structure to them. I certainly alluded to ideology as far as the physical space—there’s some artifacts as far as the space—but we never really get into why they’re Nazis, or into promoting the scene. It just wasn’t really that relevant. It was instead about: How can we humanize them?, not How can we vilify them?
Paste : And you also don’t want people to watch this movie and be like, Man, I hope they fuck those guys up.
Saulnier: Right, it has to be much more troubling than that.
Paste: There’s such an intricate sense of movement to the film. You’re juggling more than half a dozen protagonists, and they’re all going into different parts of the club, and spreading out. How did you plan out the way that all the characters’ movements would coordinate together?
Saulnier: A few weeks into the location scouting process, we realized we had to build the entire interior location to spec because I had written [the script] with every hallway, exit, and doorway in mind. In a lot of my films, we get down into the minutiae, the detail. It’s about where people are standing, what people are saying to each other, and how close they have to be to the door, for instance. All of a sudden, it became inevitable. There were no options anymore. I did a Google sketch-up of the rough overhead plan of the entire venue. The funny thing was when writing it, I had a very clear vision of what this film was, yet when I was translating that to an overhead diagram, I actually defied the space-time-continuum. I defied logic spatial reality, and…gravity (laughs). And a few times, I was like, Oh wait, that’s physically impossible, so my production designer, Ryan Smith, he re-translated my diagram into something we could actually build. That was a huge part of it. When the Ain’t Rights move through the venue for the first time, we are getting a nice, little backstage tour. I tried to keep that movement fluid and continuous, so we could tie the space together pretty quick. It does come across, I hope relatively seamlessly. It was a huge challenge, but it was pretty visualized going in. The challenge was to actually indulge in world-building.
Paste:With this movie, nearly every person in the cast is white.
Saulnier: We snuck in an Arab and a Jew (laughs). But yes, everyone in the band is white.
Paste: Right, in the band, but it does seem like the entire movie has this “white trash” quality. It’s not just about the neo-Nazis and white power. The entire movie is about the corrosion of white power.
Saulnier: And when they’re playing shows outside, there’s a more diverse cast. That’s written into the script. When they’re playing the local Mexican restaurant, the local hardcore kids show up, and there’s a bit of diversity. I will say though, in the coastal town in Portland, it was hard to get non-whites to show up. It’s part of that world. Of course, within this sort of right wing or ultra-left white power establishment, it had to be primarily white people. But in the band, there is someone of Arab descent, but the key was they had to pass for white. If you’re playing a show at a Nazi-friendly establishment, the real conflict has to evolve from that. The Ain’t Rights are aware of that, and that’s why their first song is The Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.” They don’t feel part of that world. The fact that they’re welcome is creepy.
Paste: In Blue Ruin and now in Green Room, you have characters who intentionally live off the grid. They exist almost adjacent to society. In Blue Ruin, Dwight (Macon Blair) is right by a bustling town, but he’s staying in an abandoned car. And similarly, the band members of Ain’t Rights don’t believe in phones or social media? Is that remoteness a dynamic you normally gravitate to, or is that something you think about in terms of your storytelling?
Saulnier: Well, I don’t think about it, but I think you’re right. I think I don’t like a lot of urban environments. I’ve been living in New York for 22 years. And like a lot of filmmakers, I like my hometown. That’s where my cinematic upbringing took place. I like trees and rivers and dirt, and shit like that. I tend to just want to be there. And I don’t know why. I’m sure that will evolve, but I think it’s just visually and environmentally more rich for me to be away from the pavement as much as possible.
Paste: Similarly, there’s kind of a breaking point in both these moves where these characters want to accept killing, or accept death itself. What interests you about that moment?
Saulnier: Both those films have people who aren’t surrounded by death until these scenarios unfold. It’s more about them acclimating to that cinematic environment which I’ve thrust them into. They have to acclimate, and when they have to fight, that’s when we see the transition take place. Dwight in Blue Ruin has had this hurt for over a decade, and he’s, of course, experienced loss, but he’s very inept when it comes to avenging that loss. And in Green Room, there’s just no time for that indulgent behavior of going off the grid, and being your own person, and wallowing. They 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 realize that they’re no real match for the semi-professional soldiers outside the green room. They kind of have to go gonzo to fight.
Paste: Where did that paintball story in the movie come from?
Saulnier: Real life. My buddy, Rick Spears, took out some marines when we were getting trounced. That’s the thing: If you go full stupid, you can actually win. It’s awesome. It’s not just movie shit. If you’re up against a bunch of motherfucking badasses, you can do it. I’ve seen it done before (laughs).
Paste: One thing many people talk about with your movies is how the violence isn’t very traditionally heroic. You don’t often offer conventional catharsis. In your scripting and filmmaking process, do you have a conscious philosophy about building this untraditional thread of heroism?
Saulnier: I don’t know if I really have one as far as the violence. I just put them in the stew and cook them. I write very intuitively. I’m certainly very aware that this is entertainment, and I know where it has to go eventually, but I like to be surprised. The rule I have—and I break my own rules—is reverence for everybody, for loss of life, and for all characters, and finally to associate any 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.
When there’s a very troubling box cutter moment, that is very intentionally me rubbing your face in it, because the character has to watch this. It’s another one of the transitions from victim to killer, and it is not fun. You have to watch a very graphic thing take place that’s unsettling. Whereas there’s some parts where we need to show that this whole movie got very real, and there’s things like an insert close-up of a disgusting machete wound that haunts people. That’s the intention. It’s like, Oh, this is not the film I thought it was. Now I can’t see what’s coming, and I’m terrified.
It’s very much intended to throw people off guard, and not just to do that, but I let it go all the way—splatter the entire room. There’s always a reason, down to the editing. It’s tough when you’re with your editor watching these scenes over and over, and having to trim single frames from these shots. It was definitely about crafting the overall experience, and making it insanely intense. I want to pretend I’m going to uncharted territory, 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 just felt like this movie’s getting too dreadful. I need a rock ’n’ roll moment. I need something out of these characters. I’m my own studio. Jeremy, we need something that’s going to make people clap, and you feel it’s natural, and that’s where the whole paintball thing came from. Not to give spoilers away, but there needs to be a turning-of-the-tables moment. There needs to be something where you can sort of feel an elation, and not just dread. When you come out a film, and you feel it was extremely intense, and you survived, there is an exhilaration that comes with that. But if you just feel like it’s been nothing but a gut punch over and over, then it’s just dread, and it’s very unsatisfying. It’s definitely a fine line.
Paste: When you were cutting it, were there any movies you were looking to in terms of this type of pacing and sense of dread?
Saulnier: I definitely referred to Straw Dogs, because what I like about it is that it’s a very thin plot, and it’s very rich in experience—films like that. I didn’t watch Assault On Precinct 13 until after I finished the screenplay because I was scared it might be too relevant to what I was doing, but it ended up being a good textual reference. And again, it’s a very thin plot. It’s just the scenario, and it…unfolds, but the texture is so gritty and awesome. I was really inspired by that. Once I wrote it, it was just its own thing. I’m always influenced by certain aesthetics. I like the Coen Brothers for the way they tell stories. I like early Michael Mann for the grounded realism and research he does—the authenticity that he creates.
The Coen Brothers have this amazing visual language that’s always spoken to me as far as how they tell stories. And John Carpenter was just a big influence in terms of the tone of the movie. People have been saying they want Green Room to come out on VHS because that’s what it reminds them of. I miss that type of movie from the ’80s. I wasn’t trying to pay homage to the point where it 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. They’re movies with a lot of grit and atmosphere, and they just scared the shit out of me.