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Director of Netflix’s new thriller on its awkward, gory violence: ‘I think it feels correct’

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The Blue Ruin star talks about his directorial debut, his comics, and why Netflix is a great deal for first-time filmmakers

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Indie film fans probably know Macon Blair best from the films made by his childhood friend Jeremy Saulnier. Blair has significant roles in Saulnier’s Green Room and Murder Party, and he’s the star of Saulnier’s solemn, brilliant, messy revenge drama Blue Ruin. (He’s also a credited producer on all three films.) But Blair is also a film writer (The Monkey’s Paw) and a comics writer (Hellcity, a noir detective story set in hell), and now, with his new made-for-Netflix movie I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, he’s a writer-director. The film, a half-serious, half-comic crime drama, stars Melanie Lynskey as Ruth, a soft-hearted nurse who’s becoming disaffected with people’s awful behavior, and Elijah Wood as a weirdo neighbor who attempts to help her when her home is robbed by Christian, a local tough who’s working his way up the crime chain.

The film has some similarities with Saulnier’s work — the two men made amateur films together for fun as teenagers, and have worked together throughout their professional careers. And they both have similar unconventional ideas about the janky, startling, abrupt way cinematic violence should look. But where Saulnier’s films are largely grim, only veering into humor in wry, dark moments, Blair’s debut has an openly comic side. It’s a bit like a Coen brothers crime drama, with an ensemble of colorful, outsized characters and constantly escalating but faintly ridiculous stakes. The film, which debuted at 2017’s Sundance Film Festival in January, and won its Grand Jury Prize for drama, was produced for Netflix, and debuts on its streaming service on Friday, February 24th. At Sundance, I sat down with Blair to talk about the technology that made his film debut easier, the perils of having a style similar to Saulnier’s, his upcoming return to comics, and why the best thing he’s written that’s still awaiting release is Saulnier’s next movie.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

You’ve said that as a director, you wanted to re-create the vibe you and Jeremy Saulnier and your friends had when you were all kids making amateur movies together. How do you do that at a professional level?

I don’t know. Never perfectly, because when you’re making a film as a kid, it’s just for fun. Now it is a job, so you have responsibilities to deliver what you promised you were going to deliver in a certain way. You have to be responsible to budgets and crew members and everything. The idea that does hold true is just being excited about what you’re working on, and having it be something that makes you feel good and energized, and trusting that if it’s working for you, on some level that energy will spread outward, and it’s going to work for other people.

Obviously people have different tastes, and not everything is for everybody. But I think you can feel it when someone is really excited about something, as distinct from “Eh, I just need to show up and shoot something for a paycheck.” I am not a mechanical director. I don’t have the technical background Jeremy has. I come into it from a writing and a performance background, so I wouldn’t know how to shoot a script I had no personal connection to. It would need to be something I feel in my heart to be able to give that kind of attention and respect to it. Otherwise I’m like, “I don’t know, I guess put the camera there? I don’t know if that’s right.”

You said at a Sundance Q&A that this started when your apartment was robbed. When was that?

Oh, five or seven years ago, something like that. That sparked an idea, “Wouldn’t it be fun to chase that thread down?” But then I had an idea about a character whose job was supposedly to care for people, a nurse, and she’s losing her ability to care for people, and kind of losing faith in humanity. I also, at some point, wanted to do a small-stakes, character-driven crime story. This was the first time I was writing something knowing I wanted to try and direct it myself. So I took these things I had in my head for a long time, certain boxes I wanted to check off. “If I only ever get to make one movie, what are the things I want to put in it?” So I squished all those things together into a script, and I took it to some producers I had been working with on Jeremy’s movies, and they took it under their wing and brought it to life from there.

There’s such a visual difference between the early Ruth scenes and Christian’s scenes. How far did you go to make those look different?

We used different lenses. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, since they meet at certain points, but we used Baltar lenses for a lot of Ruth’s stuff, which had a little bit more softness, a more dreamy kind of quality. And then we used Zeiss Super Speeds for the bad-guy stuff, which was a little more sharp and literal and precise. It’s a real subtle distinction, but I think even if your eyes are not like, “Oh, there’s a difference there!” when you’re watching it cumulatively, it feels a little different.

Macon Blair in Jeremy Saulnier’s film Blue Ruin.
Photo: Anchor Bay

The lighting and the color grading on those scenes are also radically different.

For sure, and the bad guys’ scenes — a lot of their stuff takes place at night, or in these remote locations. We tried to stretch the exposure as much as we could, and put them really, really deep in shadows, to the point where they almost disappear in some shots. And Ruth, certainly at the beginning, is warmer, brighter. I tried to create these two different worlds with the idea being that you can sense, as the story goes on, that they’re moving closer to each other, and at some point they’re going to collide, and when they do, Ruth is going to be outmatched, and it’s going to be bad news for her.

I was very lucky, because I had a DP named Larkin Seiple, who shot Swiss Army Man, and he’s just a genius with cameras, with lenses, with light. He’s very familiar with the technical side of things. He did a lot of preparation work, tested different lens packages, and tested different LUTs [look-up tables, or color-correction calibration settings] that they designed. He had a DIT [digital imaging technician], and they were very keyed in about a certain look on the movie. We could apply it on set and kind of see what a finished, color-timed image might look like. You could get a head start on the look of the movie in real time, on the set, which was really an exciting tool, because you’re seeing it play out in real life. The mood is so affected by the color temperature, and they could adjust it right there on the set. We were watching the raw output with different LUTs over top of it, and it didn’t commit us to anything. It was just a yardstick, like, “This is kind of the version we’re going for.”

You’ve said that as an actor, you’re not really Method-oriented or into prep. You just learn your lines, show up, and listen closely to Jeremy. What has he brought to you that’s helped you as an actor?

The actor Mark Rylance kind of boiled it down. I read him saying this once, and it made perfect sense: “You are enough.” Often doing less is better than doing more. Jeremy is very keen about having things feel real and emotionally honest, not having to force “I’m sad,” and feeling you need to overcompensate, because otherwise the audience isn’t going to know that you’re sad. They will. They’re perceptive. Also, the camera is right there on your face, and the subtlest little things that go on can be read. People will interpret that the right way, because they’re smart. So keeping choices efficient and small, that philosophy is something Jeremy imparted on me. Everybody's got their own style, but I found that to be useful.

How does that philosophy apply when you’re directing actors for the first time, especially given that they take such different personal approaches?

I sat down with each of them individually before we started shooting and asked them what they liked. Melanie prefers to do a take or two and just bring her interpretation to it, and then if I need to make adjustments to that, I can. She prefers that to talking it all out up front. Elijah doesn’t need a lot of guidance. He comes up with very specific, particular choices, and he’ll pitch them, and he gets really excited about what he wants to do. We were both just really jazzed about what he was doing.

I tried to be mindful that everybody’s got their own thing, and they’ve been at it for so long, they know what works for them. It would be the height of insanity for me to be like, “Look, this is my method. You’ve had a 20-year career, but today we’re doing it this way.” So I just felt like the best thing that I could do would be to stay out of it as much as possible. I made myself available — “If you guys want to talk it through, I’ll talk it through all day, I’ll talk your ear off. If you don’t want to hear a word about it and just start rolling, we can do that, too. And if I have to do a version of that for you and then a version of that for you in the same scene, then I’ll try to divide my time and do that.” I just wanted to make it work for whatever their individual styles were.

Elijah Wood in Macon Blair’s I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore.
Photo: Netflix

Is it true this was partially inspired by 1970s detective movies?

Yeah, for sure. Either gumshoe or just small-scale sort of sleazy crime movies. Charley Varrick was one I talked about a lot, which is just this hapless bank robber played by Walter Matthau — eventually it gets into mayhem at the end, but mainly, you’re just watching him shuffle around and mutter and be Walter Matthau, and that’s kind of why you show up. Night Moves, with Gene Hackman, that kind of detective story where the stakes are very small — he’s just trying to find a missing person, talking to different low-life characters and collecting clues. Things like that where it’s more about watching these interesting people move around and sift through mysteries as opposed to “We’ve got all these gadgets and we have to break into the penthouse building,” you know what I mean?

As opposed to Mission Impossible.

Correct. Don’t get me wrong, I love Mission Impossible, but it’s not that. I like the more street-level, character-driven, gumshoe type stuff.

Is that fascination with 70s cinema and crime investigation the same place that your detective-in-hell comic Hellcity came from?

Whoa, a deep cut! Kind of! That one — I still like that concept, but I re-read that now, and I’m really embarrassed. I wrote that when I was very young. I was going through a heavy Philip Marlowe phase at that time, I don’t know if you could tell! So I wanted to take those tropes and apply them to a monster movie, with monsters everywhere. But I really dropped the ball, because all I did was lift those conventions, and the only thing that was new about it was the presence of monsters. If I had to re-write it now with a little more experience, I would try and subvert that sort of world in a smarter a way. But for the 19-year-old me, it was enough to just parody some hard-boiled voiceover dialogue and have it be monsters. You live and you learn. [Laughs]

Do you still own the rights? Could you return to it if you wanted to?

I own the media rights, so at some point I do still want to get that done as a movie, with a new pass at the script. As a movie, just conceptually, I feel like it holds up. I think it could be really cool visually, with demon effects, and that sort of hell landscape, and what you can do with digital effects. I don’t know who owns the publishing rights. I think Image still owns it. It’s a good question. It’s also the sort of thing where you could just take the concept and put new characters in it, which would probably be a better way to go. On one hand, it’s something I think about. On the other hand I’m like, “Life is short, and maybe you should spend your time trying to do new stuff, and just chalk that up to a learning experience.”

Image Comics

Are you interested in returning to comics as a medium?

Oh absolutely! Joe [Flood], who did the art for Hellcity, is doing the art on a new one I have, called Long Road to Liquor City. It’s like a 1930s hobo adventure romance, in a vaguely fictionalized version of America. It’s big, long. It’s supposed to be a trilogy. The first book is in production right now at Oni Press, who did Scott Pilgrim, and a lot of brilliant books. I don’t know when that’s actually going to come out, because Joe is tremendously busy. He does like eight books a year, or something like that. I don’t even think Oni has it on the slate now. But I’ve seen the artwork. It’s fun, it’s much more of a comedy, it’s much more of a love story. Hopefully it’ll be out before too long.

How have you developed as a writer, with all your different projects in different media?

I’ve gotten more trusting in myself. I used to spend so much time obsessing over everything, and editing myself to death. The space between finished projects would be much, much longer. And now I’m able to move quicker. I think I can spot what’s working and what’s not working a little bit better. Which is not to say it’s perfect all the time. I churn out some bad stuff. But I think I’m able to sense when I’m on the wrong side of something a little bit easier now, and I can course-correct, so I’m able to generate more stuff in a shorter amount of time, for better or for worse. I’m doing some TV projects right now, and doing feature screenplays, and at some point I want to write a novel. I have a book I’ve been working on for years. I’ll get a couple weeks off and go tinker with it, and then I’ll get another job that has a hard deadline, and it will go back in the drawer. I don’t know if I’m ever going to finish it, but that’s one of those bucket-list things.

What’s the best thing you’ve written that hasn’t seen the light of day yet?

Right now, I’m certain it’s an adaptation of a novel called Hold the Dark that Jeremy’s going to direct as his next movie. Now the trick with that is, it’s the best thing I’ve written because it’s an adaptation of a novel that is brilliant. So I feel like I did a good job translating that novel to a screen story, but I did not make it great. The book was great whether I was on it or not. So my adaptation, I’ll give myself a pat on the back for that, but it helps to start with brilliant material. That’s the one I’m most proud of, it’s the one I know that Jeremy is just going to knock out of the park, and it’s a much bigger movie than anything he’s done before, certainly than anything I’ve ever worked on before.

Is it thematically in keeping with other films you guys have done together?

I think so. It’s a lot more ambitious. It’s a little more of a character’s story, but it’s also a crazy chase story. It takes place in a really unforgiving landscape, up in the frontier of Alaska. It’s bigger, it’s emotionally deeper than anything he’s done before, but it is in his wheelhouse, of taking a genre people are familiar with, like a chase story or a mystery investigation, and doing really bizarre and surprising things with it.

I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore has a significant comedy angle, which makes it very different from Jeremy’s films, but some of the aesthetics are similar, particularly how you guys address onscreen violence. Were you concerned about your work being compared to his?

I maybe thought about that. There were a couple of times when we were shooting where my brain might have registered, “This framing, this angle might be too similar to something he’s done before.” So I might have deliberately abandoned things just to avoid anything overt like that. But some overlap is inevitable, because we’ve had such a close relationship for so long that our sensibilities about what we like and don’t like in movies, how we like and don’t like for them to look, are… It’s not a 100 percent overlap, but it’s like 90 percent. That includes dealing with violence awkwardly and sloppily, and sometimes for comedy purposes, and sometimes for horror purposes. Just making things awkward and scraggly is something we both enjoy, so I was aware that there would be comparisons. But being aware of that, I couldn’t go into it and be like, “Just for the sake of avoiding comparisons, I’m going to make all the violence in my film really slick and cool, and make it like Fast and the Furious. That would be dishonest. I had to go with what I liked, and if people find that it’s similar to his stuff, then they are right to do so, because we’ve been so close for so long.

Why does abrupt, awkward violence play to your aesthetic so much?

I think it feels correct. I enjoy John Woo movies, where they make a choreographed spectacle out of gunfights. I like kung fu movies. I enjoy those for what they are. But if I’m going to spend a lot of time and energy working on something, then the version that makes the most intuitive sense to me is something that feels satisfying as a genre element — it’s a genre story so you’ve got to have a shoot-out with the bad guys at the end — but it also feels real. It’s not super-sexy and precise, like every bullet lands exactly where it’s supposed to. It just seems more true-to-life that violence is unpredictable? It’s just as likely you’re going to shoot your own foot off as shoot the bad guy. That seems more honest, somehow. It’s also more fun to watch, for me and for Jeremy.

Since Netflix funded this film and it’s going straight to streaming, Sundance may have been one of the only times it will ever appear in a theater. How do you feel about that?

It’s a justifiable trade. Obviously it’d be great if everybody only saw movies on the big screen all the time. That’s the best way to experience them, and it’s not going to go away. On the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for being able to view something in your home, and have that control and that familiarity. And the fact of the matter is, for a first-time director with no track record to get to make a movie with the budget they gave me, with the creative control and the cast I got to get? First of all, just the fact that I got that package at all is insane! And literally the only people that would have done that is Netflix. So if the trade-off for that is that you get a very small window where people are going to see it theatrically, I still got the much better end of that deal.

And beyond that, while theatrical exhibition is great… If this movie came out and got one or two weeks in New York and LA and maybe one other city, no one would really see it. This way, it lives in perpetuity in a place where people can discover it in their own time. And by the way, it’s over the whole planet! It’s not just America — Netflix asked for transcripts so they could subtitle it into 60 different languages! Their posting process, in terms of getting it ready for international distribution, is insane! People in Thailand can watch it! And that kind of reach, especially for someone like me that nobody knows, is just berserk! So sure, a big theatrical run would be great, but I’m not The Avengers. I’m not Age of Ultron. This is dynamite. It’s the best-case scenario for this movie.

I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore launches on Netflix on February 24th, 2017.