Green Room director Jeremy Saulnier on recreating his teen years through horror films

And how the movie's war against skinheads reflects his own past in the DC punk scene

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With writer-director Jeremy Saulnier, the conversation always comes back to violence. Given that his films are only moderately gory by horror standards, it’s significant that the conversation around him still keeps coming back to the shock value of his work. But the secret is that his movies use violence sparingly and ruthlessly. Their imagery is graphic, but they don’t linger over the bloodshed, which makes them feel more realistic — and more horrible and powerful at the same time. Saulnier’s breakout feature, 2014’s Blue Ruin, focuses on the aftershocks of murder, as a depressed, homeless man (played by Saulnier’s friend and co-producer Macon Blair) attempts to avenge his parents’ killing, and sets off a bloodbath in the process. And Saulnier’s new action-horror feature, Green Room, similarly follows how one killing leads to another, as a punk band walks into the green room at a backwoods bar at the wrong time, and sees something that makes them targets for an entire community of close-knit white supremacists. Both films follow the assumption that violence is a choice that ends choices: once characters commit to solving a problem with murder, they set off a chain of events that seems inevitable, and that draws more and more people into the maelstrom.

But Blue Ruin and Green Room aren’t just memorable for their bloodshed. They stand out for the effectiveness of their tension, for the way they build escalating situations that get progressively more thrilling and cringe-inducing as the protagonists’ situations worsen. And they stand out for their restraint. Casting Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Patrick Stewart as Green Room’s primary antagonist certainly helped: His calm, civilized demeanor as he plans and directs a wholesale slaughter is one of the most chilling things about the movie. I recently sat down with Saulnier in Chicago to talk about how the films he watched in his early years affected his filmmaking, about working with Stewart, and how Green Room comes down to one central idea that has nothing to do with the level of gore onscreen.

Tasha Robinson: You’ve said you made this movie for your inner 19-year-old. What about this story is pitched toward a 19-year-old? Do you think teenagers are more likely to want to be shocked, or to respond to this kind of extremity or authenticity?

Jeremy Saulnier: You know, no one’s ever asked me that before! It’s more, I think, the culture, and the experiences I had with cinema when I was a teenager. We had to drive to our local video store, Video Vault, in Alexandria, Virginia. We’d hop in the hatchback with all the death-metal stickers on the back, and drive down and go through the selection and pick out VHS movies. And some of them were just stinkers. But once in a while, we’d find these really great atmospheric movies, these genre films. And we’d go through and rent some every weekend. There’s something about my experience with my friends — we’d watch movies together. Six or eight of us would sit down and watch Fulci movies, or Scorsese movies, or John Carpenter movies. And it was just the feeling I got when watching those movies — I have an attraction to being scared. I got scared very early on seeing The Exorcist. My cousins would torture me by making me watch Dawn Of The Dead and Friday The 13th Part 3 over and over, just watching the kill sequences. So I had a very traumatic entry into filmmaking, but I found peace by reverse-engineering it, learning to do special-effects makeup, and knowing how they did it. So movie magic became my primary focus when I was eight, nine, ten years old. I’d get makeup books and read them.

So I think making movies for me is the same kind of reverse engineering of my youth. It’s a nostalgic re-engineering, making movies that elicit the responses I had to '80s genre films. I don’t see those films coming out any more. Some films are great, but they’re blatant references to these movies, or they’re remakes. With Green Room, I wanted to make a new 1980s genre movie, a movie that gave me that feeling, instead of a movie that was referential to the era.

Green Room is just also alive with the energy I had when I was 19. It was very much the physical expression of being part of the hardcore and punk scene. This movie at least tries to harness the energy and tension and aggression of the music itself.

Green Room

(© A24 Photo by Scott Patrick Green, courtesy of A24.)

A lot of the movies you’re referencing fetishize violence. With the Friday The 13th movies, the violence is blunt, but the stories revolve around the gory kill sequences. When people die in Green Room, it’s almost unremarked, and sometimes it’s barely even glimpsed. How did you get to that idea of what violence should look like on film?

That is me outgrowing my 19-year-old self. I want to treat it a little more responsibly. Not that this is some kind of social message, or that my intentions as a filmmaker really cater to that social-message side of me. Violence for the sake of violence doesn’t sit well with me as an audience member any more. I still like a good makeup show. I like the intensity and the atmosphere of genre films. But I don’t like just waiting for the next kill. I like characters. I like people. And I find there’s a nice balance right now, where I can have the aesthetic of a horror movie or a genre flick, but I have genuine reverence for my characters, and for loss of life. The way I explore it is, when you have such relatable characters, such normal people onscreen, the violence has to adhere to that. It’s awkward and brutal and sloppy, and not easily digestible. And it always has some kind of narrative purpose behind it.

The main goal of Green Room for me, as a filmmaker, was an exercise in tension-building. How can I keep ratcheting up the tension? How can I make this pressure-cooker burst? And most of that is created without violence. When it breaks loose, I embrace it and go full-bore.

With Blue Ruin, you emphasized how important it was to you to get out on the road, to capitalize on exterior shots and a variety of settings. Why did you want to get back to that pressure-cooker feeling? Were you intentionally creating a contrast with Blue Ruin?

In my first film, Murder Party, there is an overnight siege situation in an abandoned warehouse, and I swore off doing that ever again. When you’re first coming up, you’re told, "Make it cheap, make it doable. Have people talking in a room. Keep it to interiors, keep it to minimal locations." It was harder than anything else I’d done. Being trapped in one area, cinematically, is very troubling. So Blue Ruin was definitely a way to get out on the open road. Green Room just happened to be a premise that required me to go back into a siege situation, into an enclosed single-location scenario. It’s a huge technical challenge. It’s not something I wanted to do, just technically speaking. But because of the scenario—this is a premise I’ve wanted to do for more than a decade. So I bit the bullet and went right back in.

I’d learned a lot, having done it once before. This time, I was able to have the claustrophobic close-quarters intensity of the green-room situation be complemented and contrasted by the exterior work, which was all moving camera. Me and [cinematographer] Sean Porter, our intentions were to make the cameras like swirling sharks. We kept moving, to create this undercurrent of dread surrounding the green room. It was also a challenge for the actors, to keep that emotional charge, that heightened level of expression, over the course of 20 days. In that room, it was very difficult to keep continuity. But yes, the next movie will not be in a contained situation. [Laughs] I want more fresh air, to be able to take a breath and do scenes that aren’t so… Basically, when you commit to something in a movie like this, you’re stuck with it. If someone dies on page 20, where their corpse ends up affects the entire rest of the movie, and all the blocking thereafter. You make these decisions in the moment, but you have to commit to them. And they will affect all the choreography and the rest of the shooting schedule. It can get really messy, because there’s no way to undo what you’ve done.

Green Room

(© A24 Photo by Scott Patrick Green, courtesy of A24.)

Once your agency hooked you up with Patrick Stewart, once you realized he was a possibility for the role of Darcy, what convinced you? What made him right for it?

Honestly, first I had to shake off his star power. As a director, that’s not really my concern. So I had to step back and take a breath. Simultaneously, people were texting me photos of him with a beard, outside of his superhero garb. I had a moment of clarity where I looked at his actual face, who he was physically. And it lined up perfectly with the references I was using for his character. I had photos of some of the political mouthpieces for these white-supremacist organizations, and looking at them and at him, I thought, "Wow! Actually, he’s perfect!" Of course, the whole team definitely knew the value of Patrick Stewart as a bona fide movie star with an esteemed career. But I had to discard that until I fully welcomed him on set and realized he actually wanted to do it. He wasn’t just being forced to by his management company. I didn’t have to twist his arm. He wanted to try something new and different to shake things up, and for some reason, it just lined up perfectly. Our film was right there waiting for him. Once he was interested for real, I pounced on him to try to seal the deal. To my delight, when he stepped on set, he was just another generous actor who brought his craft and was there to be part of an ensemble.

I’ve read that you wrote a detailed backstory for his character to help convince him to do the role.

Yes, when we first spoke about the character. He didn’t want to change the script, he didn’t want to add artificial monologues, but he did want something to sink his teeth into. So me and [co-producer/co-star Macon Blair] we had all this research into skinhead groups. We just compiled the research and used these references to build a fictional, linear backstory for his character. And once he had that, he said "I’m in."

What can you say about that backstory?

I can’t go into it. I don’t like people knowing more than what’s there in the film. It was just a compilation of actual real-world references we were using and I definitely don’t want to point to any particular individuals. They were people in the white-power movement in the UK and the US, looking at their backgrounds, and how they operate. I made a point in the movie where someone’s asking about these so-called skinheads, and who they are, what gang they are, and the character Tad says "They’re not affiliated." I wanted to make sure that we aren’t calling anybody out here. People will fill in the gaps. They know all they need to know. I’ve learned a lot about the culture that’s not onscreen, but of course you feel it. You feel you’re steeped in that culture, that all the characters know what they’re talking about, even if you don’t get every little line of dialogue. That part’s kind of esoteric and insider.

Green Room

(© A24 Photo by Scott Patrick Green, courtesy of A24.)

So much of the film has this sickly, queasy green tinge. Is that a deliberate outgrowth of the idea of the green room?

It just kind of lined up that way. Florescent bulbs tend to go green, and so do these mercury-vapor lights, outside in the parking lot. And the world itself, there’s so much military-surplus gear, with Army jackets and olive-drab clothes. And then of course we’re shooting in Oregon, which is so lush and green and blue and cool. It started to seep into most of the imagery. But inside the green room, there’s definitely some orange, warm light, and warm wood paneling. We tried to balance it a little. But the colors just happened to be of that world.

There’s a line toward the end where one of the characters tells Patrick Stewart’s character, "You were so much scarier at night." That winds up feeling like a moral lesson, like a statement for the film. How was it intended?

Honestly, you just have to realize that they haven’t really seen each other, as this whole thing unfolds. They get just a fleeting glimpse of him through the crack of the door. That was a fun dynamic to play with. It was just more about exposing people for who they are. That’s a lot of that happening in the movie. The theme is really about stripping people of their affiliation, their ideology, and their labels. They’re all getting down to the basics of who these people are. Through this need to survive, they throw away all of their identities. So what’s being said there, it’s about uncovering "Who are you, really? You seemed so sinister, but you’re just a guy."