Jeremy Saulnier interview: Green Room, Patrick Stewart, Rebel Ridge

Jeremy Saulnier Green Room
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Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier talks to us about the making of the 2015 survival thriller Green Room, which is getting a new disc release this month.

In October 2014, writer-director Jeremy Saulnier had a bit of a problem. Green Room, the follow-up to his micro-budget thriller, Blue Ruin, was nearing the start of shooting, but he still hadn’t managed to cast the role of Darcy – a club owner and leader of a group of rural Neo-Nazis. Most worryingly, as sets for the film were being built, Green Room’s financiers had threatened to withdraw funding if Saulnier couldn’t find a ‘name’ actor.

Fortunately for Saulnier, the script had been sent out to the legendary Patrick Stewart, and despite – or perhaps because of – the less-than-appealing nature of the Darcy character, he agreed to star at the last minute. “He kind of saved the movie,” Saulnier tells us almost a decade on.

Released in 2015, the $5m thriller Green Room seemed destined for immediate cult status. Featuring the late Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole and Callum Turner as a four-piece punk band who wind up stuck in the back room of a remote club teeming with violent neo-Nazis, it’s an economical and uncompromising survival thriller, with a drily villainous performance from Stewart and a committed turn from Imogen Poots as a young innocent caught in the crossfire.

Although it wasn’t a huge hit on release, Green Room was deservedly well-received critically, and, years later, only feels more relevant than it did in 2015. As the film gets a new physical release courtesy of Second Sight Films (it’s out on 18th March), it was a pleasure to talk to Jeremy Saulnier about his personal connection to the story, the late casting of Sir Patrick Stewart, and his next film, the long-in-gestation Rebel Ridge.

I rewatched Green Room last night, and it’s striking how little it’s aged. It has a kind of timeless quality – aside from the odd glimpse of a mobile phone, it’s quite a classic-style thriller, isn’t it.

Yeah. The funny thing is, when I wrote it, it was deemed as dated. I think one trusted financier was like, “Is this some kind of 80s punks versus skins thing? That can’t happen today.”

And a couple years later, it became far more relevant than I would have liked it to be. But yeah, it holds the test of time because It’s inspired from my adventures in punk and hardcore back in the 80s and 90s, and my [musician] friends doing little tours around the East Coast.

I just stuck to my guns. I’d been doing a lot of research. The Neo-Nazis had gone into the shadows, but they were still there, and this was still a plausible scenario. And I had to just do a little finagling, as far as making the band [in the film] destitute enough to be sharing a single cell phone. And a lot of people who make horror films, you’ll see, the number one thing is, ‘how do we get rid of fucking cell phones?’ Today, you see a lot of contemporary horror, the younger directors are really embracing it. But I like humans on their own. I don’t like social media being a huge part of my movies. We’ll see how that goes!

The feel of a bunch of friends in a band travelling around in a van has that patina of truth to it. And I think musicians have said in the past that they appreciate how believable that feels.

Yeah. During the writing process, I called up my high school buddies, and some of my contemporary peers in the film business with or worked alongside in my day job at an advertising company. I knew a lot of rockers, and I did a lot of research within my own circle. Because I didn’t go on big tours – I was a screamer in a hardcore band. I know the dynamics, but I wasn’t really a musician. I was more in it for the physicality and the aesthetic – I loved the music, I loved the energy.

I watched my friends and was a fan of my friends. And when they asked me to… I used to lift weights, and they said, “Hey, you want to be a frontman for a couple years?” – I was just screaming into the microphone, and I’d work out. But I really admired my buddies. They were the talented ones, so I mined them for their experiences and for their opinions on their desert island bands. It was really fun to research – not just to go to the library or go online or track someone down. I was retracing my own steps, reconnecting with my own buddies, and telling a story that was steeped in all their memories, and it was really fun to see it realised on the screen.

At what point did you first think about having these far right, Neo-Nazis as villains? Was that based on some sort of personal experience or your friends’ experiences.

Oh for sure. So back in the 90s, that was the last time, in the States at least, where you would go to a punk show, and it would attract a very diverse crowd. It was Washington DC, it was a Black community. A lot of people would come in from the suburbs or from DC itself. So you’d have sharps, skinheads, you’d have Neo-Nazis, you’d have emo kids… there was a little trend in goofballs wearing varsity jackets.

There’s all these different subgenres, and I was just there. Back then I was pretty simple – I liked the hard shit. So yeah, we’d see Neo-Nazis. But in DC they were the minority – they often got beat up. There was often fighting and violence. I stayed pretty clear of that, but I got my ass whooped a couple of times just in the pit, so that was kind of random [laughs].

But there were times where there was fear. I remember going out to Manassas, Virginia, a suburb, pre-cellphones. It was a metal show – a lot of hard, grown men. I was 16, and we all rode there in a Dodge Omni hatchback. We were high school kids, and you’d think, ‘Oh shit, this is a rowdy crowd, this is more of a rural crowd. And if something went down, we’d be in deep shit.’

That’s kind of the birth of this movie: what could go wrong? Everything. Being in bands, the concept of green room – and the title Green Room – had been with me for decades. I did a short film – a goofy comedy about a metal band conjuring a demon by playing a record backwards in a green room.

I just liked that concept, and no one had done it yet. So when I had the opportunity to strike, I thought, instead of going to Hollywood and trying to find these cool scripts and become a – quote, unquote – legit filmmaker, I was like, “let me dig back into the crates and see what I got”. And Green Room was an idea that I had.

I felt like I was the only person that could make that movie, and this would be better for me to carve a space out and tell that cinematic truth that I want told and not get hosed on a big Hollywood endeavour I could easily get fired from. You feel very replaceable when you feel a script come your way. You know, anyone can direct this, which means that you can easily be fired. But if you own the script, it’s your vision. It’s harder to pry you away from it. So it was partially strategic.

But in my research, it was basically my memories of these nefarious Nazi types from the 90s – I don’t see them around anymore. Let me go do some research. And then I found that in the early 2000s and mostly 2008, after Obama was president, there was a huge backlash, mostly online. So if you looked for it, it was like, “Oh, what’s this video of burning an Obama effigy? That’s horrific, 1960 shit. That’s KKK shit. That’s Neo Nazi shit.”

Credit: Second Sight Films.

And then the more I searched, the more it was, “Holy shit. This is still here?” They’re changing their outward facing appearance. But the language, the hate, and the sort of the newly-revamped online community was only growing.

So this whole ‘dated punks versus skins thing’ became a little more contemporary. And I found the Pacific Northwest in the US where we shot it was actually a hotbed of this. And so it became more relevant – I just had to find a way to sort of weave it in. And by the time we made the film and released it, unfortunately, the so-called alt right movement, allied with Neo Nazis and skinheads of that ilk, had come out of the shadows and marched all over the streets.

We were right back to 1993 when I saw these shady people wearing bomber jackets and swastikas with pride. By the time we released [Green Room], it was full circle, and it became highly relevant, and people called it prescient. But really, it was me thinking about my childhood and those harrowing experiences, and it just ended up happening out in a cycle in American culture where it went right back to square one and became, unfortunately, of-the-moment.

Briefly to your question: the way we treated them in the film, as far as antagonists, I always thought, ‘hey, Nazis are bad guys. They’re low hanging fruit’. As far as the audience is concerned. So he goal was to humanise everybody, including the brutal, hateful elements. And the philosophy was, it’s all there. It’s certainly representative of American culture. The war is still raging now between right and left, but it was about distilling all that.

Ideology, affiliation – all these things that people are being geared up to do to each other. The film sort of sheds all that, and those who survive at the end are the ones who can become their true selves and jettison their ideologies, their affiliation, their cliques, whatever you want to call it. They’re just stripped down to human beings in that survival mode. And that’s how you get through this movie. You don’t survive by making speeches or sticking to your guns or having these things that you think define you become you.

I thought it was interesting that you don’t do what Assault On Precinct 13 did, which is turn them into this faceless enemy in the shadows, which you easily could have done.

Yeah. As a writer, I knew generally where I wanted to end it. It’s pretty cathartic in some ways, but it’s a brutal road to the end of this film. Having no roadmap was part of the tension-building exercise – it was to make sure that I didn’t arc things out. I just set the stage for horrible events – a sort of impossible situation for our protagonists. And when I couldn’t write them out of a corner, they die. So yeah, it was just a process of surprising myself, and letting it play out in a way that, if I was shocked and saddened by a death, I hoped that the audience also felt that reverberation on the screen.

When I was writing a siege scenario, to make it scary. It wasn’t just yet to write scenes that serve the protagonists. It was like, ‘These Neo Nazis – they’re not a bunch of goofs.’ Not that I’d side with their ideology, but I would say, “Well, what would one do if one was trying to secure a venue that they knew every inch of? I’d wait there with a machete.”

So when somebody comes out of a window, are they home free? Hell, no. They’re right there. And I would have to sort of really strategise about how we’re going to solve this… it was sort of method writing. I had to give the story what it needed. I didn’t want to resort to lazy bullshit – I wanted to make sure I kept ratcheting up the tension and using every ounce of what little intellect I had to put more pressure on the band inside that room. It didn’t serve me to get too bogged down in their politics. It says so much more by letting it be a more pragmatic approach to the issue at hand – because once shit goes down in that green room, no one’s going to care about their online blog or recruiting new people. It’s like, ‘solve this fucking problem’ – and that’s the centre of the film.

It strikes me that the films that you’ve made so far are about people that are cut off from society in some way. Blue Ruin, a guy lives out of his car. In Green Room, they’re living out of a van. Even Hold The Dark is isolated – it isn’t surburban or even urban. Is that something that interests you, dramatically?

Yeah. I mean, a lot of that is pragmatism – how you can compartmentalise scenes and spaces and not be in the real [world].

I was born and raised in Virginia in the suburbs. So Blue Ruin was all my old haunts, like the beach, the childhood home I grew up in – that’s my familiar space. And also just just to make it plausible, it was taking him off the grid – it worked really well. It’s a singular story, it’s on Macon Blair’s shoulders and I want to just keep it quiet, keep the dialogue to a minimum, make it visual.

Green Room was definitely about just making it hurt. So we get rid of the cell phone issue. We do call the police, we get rid of them pretty soon. We do all the things we should do. Then when Green Room resolves… the whole first half of the movie is just getting them cut off from the rest of the world. And that was really fun, and impactful. So when you finally know that the cops have come, we’re not doing shortcuts, we’re trying to check off all those things one should do – the smart choices – and then deny [the characters] those avenues out. And then we’re there.

Hold The Dark – that’s a novel I was attracted to visually – it’s very otherworldly. And that was part of the attraction. So it felt really neat and atmospheric, and as a director, just to explore that environment was a pleasure.

The latest movie [Rebel Ridge] is the opposite – it is actually hurling someone headlong into a small town, but it is bureaucracy, it is the justice system, it is a militarised police force. All these things that go down. But it’s a lot of interactivity and talking and fighting. And it’s much more thrust into the mix. So maybe I had my fill of that [isolation] and I wanted to go in a different direction.

Credit: Second Sight Films.

I was going to ask you about Rebel Ridge – hopefully we can come back to that in a sec. But it strikes me that you’re good at getting genuine performances out of your actors. Obviously, Anton Yelchin, god rest him, was a fantastic actor anyway. But it just struck me how raw and vulnerable he is in this. What’s your approach with actors and getting those performances?

I was blessed with the fact that this was a $5 million movie, which for me was, you know, over five times the budget of my previous film. But it was sort of under the radar as far as the need to package it and get stars that check the boxes for foreign sales – to kind of make sure we’re safe financially before we even shoot the movie.

Avy Kaufman cast the film, she was great. And I had the luxury of having people read. And so I was able to pick the best people for the role. When Callum Turner auditioned, he was in the UK and sent a self-tape in. I think a lot of the agencies in the US were trying to always groom the next Spider-Man. And I was having a hard time in the US to just find regular-ass looking people that had a grounded style of acting, and just seemed like people I knew growing up.

I didn’t want to fly people and get visas from the UK, but Joe Cole came over from the UK as well. So when I’m sitting there watching people say my words, I just know that they get it. Directing them is quite easy. The level of enthusiasm and commitment that comes from them was a gift to myself and the production that everyone [has] that collective energy. And they feed off each other. There’s maybe a little healthy competition, but really just camaraderie and the wonderful union they all formed.

Anton actually came to me. We’d made some other offers. I’m new to the business at this point. I track films. I love performances, but I don’t track actors – it’s not my job. I’m mostly an audience member. So when he came to me, I was a little hesitant at first – I was like, “I don’t know. Does he look a little old here?”

Luckily, a couple of the first offers passed, and then after a Zoom call with Anton, I thought, ‘oh man – he’s the real deal’. And his voice was just perfect. It had that vulnerability. It had that pitch, it had that tone. He was in a punk rock band at the time – he’d recorded demos.

Again, he was by far the biggest actor and most experienced as far as the ones I’d considered. And so when he came to me, he became the only Pat after I talked to him and got used to him. Because he, Zoomed and he had this shaggy-ass hair from some other set. And I was like, ‘I don’t know if he’s right.’ Because, physically, I had to have him match who Pat is.

That was the same with Imogen Poots. She was one of two people I was considering, and added value to the movie as far as star power, but she’s really fucking good. I’d seen Anton and Imogen in the Fright Night remake, and I was a little nervous. Like, ‘Ah, they’ve already done that pairing – what should I do?’ But they had great chemistry, they’re good friends, and that friendship infected the rest of the crew.

Now, we had not cast the role of Darcy until deep into prep, and we were about to shut down. We seriously needed a name, and what we had wasn’t quite doing it for the foreign sales prospects. Patrick Stewart kind of swooped in two weeks from shooting and said, ‘Fuck it, yeah.’ He kind of saved the movie.

Then I remember going to the set. Because we were building the set, and I was thinking, ‘Ooh, we’re going to be a very troubled production’. And maybe it was just a bluff, I don’t know, but they were gonna shut us down. So I remember when Patrick Stewart said, ‘Yes’, I had our team print out his headshot, and I went to the back. And we had all these push pins with headshots of the whole cast. There’s always been this big void where Darcy should have been this whole time I went there.

Credit: Second Sight Films.

I just stuck Patrick Stewart’s picture on there. And the crew started coming around, saying, “Are you serious? Like, what the fuck is that? Patrick Stewart?” It was great.

On set, I was a conductor, and I helped them through it. But [the cast] brought really amazing energy to it. Anton would text me with all these insights and ideas. I’d be like, ‘Dude, you got it, just say the word – you’re good’.

With Imogen, she brought a feral nature to her character towards the end of the film. It’s like, that’s a creature! I was like, ‘Holy shit, this is awesome’. But they were all good sports. There was no difficulty, just some harrowing shit: dust, blood, fire extinguishers – all this stuff was just thrown at them. And to keep that level of anxiety and heaving, breathing, crying, snotting scenes was really intense. So I kind of just let them do it.

Actually, the one mistake I made in conducting it was, in one scene I said, “Maybe just take it easy here”. And I made the wrong call, because I was so anxiety ridden by watching them getso worked up and emotional, it seemed so painful. I said, “Let’s do this quiet” – and there’s a little bit of discontinuity in one scene.

I remember thinking, “Anton was right. I should have fucking let him go full bore.” But I was just so shocked by what I was putting him through. I don’t remember doing much on set, just conducting and helping them through the story points, and they found that electricity as a collective.

I’ve not got much time left, so can we return to Rebel Ridge? It feels like each film you’ve made builds from the last in terms of budget and scale. Do you feel like that’s the case with Rebel Ridge?

We’re actually mixing the movie in a couple of weeks. It’s finally done. It’s been a long, long journey. The most tumultuous as far as slamming right into the Hollywood I’ve tried to avoid, but a lot of the key players, the executives at Netflix, the cast, the crew… we came back three years in a row to make that movie. The pandemic shut us down. We had an issue that shut us down in year two. I thanked everyone when we wrapped for their cinematic fortitude in getting it through.

It was going to be my quickest script-to-screen, writing-sale-to-production ever. And then we got tripped up a few times. But I love the movie. I think, whatever happened to us along the way, it allowed us to cast a young man, Aaron Pierre, who’s on the rise, who would not normally be allowed to helm a… I think the budget’s $40m, $37m, whatever it is, [film]. Definitely keep that budget ceiling going.

It was a very special opportunity to showcase him in his first bigger lead role in a live-action movie. So now, after so much delay, I am just raring to go. Excited to share it with the world. And it’s a little different. I won’t give too much away as far as expectations, because people who know my movies, they’ll carry that into this one and it’ll add to the tension [giggles] of what’s going to happen.

I think I’ve had enough time with it. It had a tumultuous birthing process, but because of that, it’s my first movie where I’m fully at peace with it at the release point – whatever that might be, we have not found the release date yet.

Green Room, for instance, I just was traumatised by the experience as far as [it being] my first paid, professional movie, dealing with the logistics and the insanity of financiers, studio, union crews. It was hard to adjust from Blue Ruin to Green Room. And I didn’t fully appreciate Green Room for what it was until years after I made it. I realised that whatever vision I had for it that I felt was compromised, I think most of that got through to the audience. I think it’s actually an honest, thorough rendition of what I wanted to portray.

With Rebel Ridge, I’m like, ‘No, it’s not a perfect film, but man, it’s the best it can be’.

And I’ve never been so excited to share a film before it’s out. Usually I’m calling my agent and, like, ‘My career’s over. I’m fucked! What can we do? Find me some television. I don’t know!”

No. For me to call my agent say, “Hey, guess what? Like, this film isn’t at all a piece of shit” is a big step forward. So I’m very excited to share it.

Jeremy Saulnier, thank you very much.

Green Room is out on Limited Edition and Standard Editions from 18th March via Second Sight Films.

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