To hear director Jeremy Saulnier and writer Macon Blair tell it, their Netflix movie Hold the Dark was both their easiest project to sell, and their most difficult to shoot. Saulnier and Blair grew up together, and have worked together throughout their careers. Blair produced Saulnier’s first three projects (2007’s Murder Party, their 2013 breakthrough Blue Ruin, and 2015’s standout Green Room), and has appeared in all four of his films, most memorably starring in Blue Ruin.
But they’ve never done a project like Hold the Dark, which Blair scripted as an adaptation of William Giraldi’s 2014 wilderness novel of the same name. Normally, Saulnier writes his own scripts; this is his first book adaptation, and his first time shooting a script Blair wrote. And the film is full of other firsts as well. Largely set in Alaska, with a side sequence introducing one of the main characters in Iraq, it had Saulnier dealing with extreme weather, his first combat sequence, his first aerial photography, his first extensive work with animals, and more. Westworld’s Jeffrey Wright stars as a naturalist and wolf expert drawn to Alaska by a woman (American Honey’s Riley Keough) who says wolves killed her young son. When her husband Vernon Slone (Alexander Skarsgård) comes home from Iraq, he launches a campaign of violence against the local area.
But getting the film funded wasn’t on the list of difficult challenges. Hold the Dark is Saulnier and Blair’s first joint project for Netflix. It was a natural step following Blair’s own directorial debut, the quirky, bloody Netflix original feature I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore. Back in 2017, Blair told The Verge that making a movie with Netflix was a completely positive experience that gave his movie more reach than it would have had as an indie feature. The streaming company was apparently eager to work with him again. Hold the Dark, now streaming on the site after playing the Toronto International Film Festival and Austin’s Fantastic Fest, was a quick and easy sell for the filmmaking partners.
At Fantastic Fest, I sat down with Blair and Saulnier to talk about the new film, how they set out to make it different from their previous projects together, and why the hardest thing on the movie was just taking a breath to be happy about making another film.
This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
One thing we talked about when I last spoke to you, for Green Room, was how after Murder Party, you wanted to get back outside for Blue Ruin, and after Blue Ruin, you wanted to go back to an enclosed environment. And now here you are in a vast open setting again.
Jeremy Saulnier: I definitely have always thought I should just be guided by the material, whatever it might be. But there is a directive: if you spent, as I did for Green Room, the vast majority of a production in one room, basically there is a desire to not atrophy and just go do something very different.
While considering projects, that’s certainly factored in. But Hold the Dark offered so many different new opportunities that I couldn’t pass it up. Yes, I wanted to lean into an environmental film that was utilizing a vast landscape, and disparate landscapes. From Iraq, which was shot in Morocco, to Alaska, which we shot in Alberta. It’s rare someone like myself gets an opportunity to upscale to something near the level of a bigger studio, but with such amazing, unique material, and without having to normalize at all into something mainstream. It’s upscale in so many respects, but I got to keep it really odd and dark and beautiful.
Visually, your films look starkly different. How did you want this one to stand out from your previous projects?
JS: Well, I certainly have some continuity just as far as the very technical aspects of lighting and camera movement. But I really liked the material and the environments we created here, and how they come alive. Ryan Smith, my designer on Green Room and Hold the Dark, he creates the world. My approach — I just like to do grounded naturalism. Hold the Dark narratively goes to new depths, or heights, in terms of the mysticism and folklore of the culture. But I like to keep a pretty formal approach to how I place and move the camera. I take my cues from the material and the environment.
Green Room, because it was so self-contained, aesthetically was very different. We only had about 20 feet to operate, so shots are tighter. It was all about the editorial process — “How do we combine this ensemble cast within the size of the room?” Here, the question was “How do we capture the majesty of this amazing landscape? How do you keep a war scenario intimate and downscale?” We let it all go into the background, and made the choice to just be floating behind Slone and carve into the space, almost ignoring all the peripheral violence and mayhem around him as we stay with this single character.
When you describe “formal camera movement,” do you just mean in terms of fixed cameras and pre-planning?
Yeah. Dollies, cameras on tracks, not a lot of handheld, and keeping the camera movement based off actors and narrative. Going in with a clear intention guiding the narrative, and not being too aggressive with the camera. Not using a lot of additional texture or techniques in the color-grading process or the lensing. Very simple — mostly clear glass, subtle movement, approaching the aesthetic as if we were shooting film without filters. Doing it all in-camera, including the design, the scenic painting, the makeup, all the textures live for the camera and in front of the camera. It’s fun — a lot of arts and crafts going on, so the camera can be very simple, not too treated or affected.
It’s a pretty straightforward narrative, apart from the mysticism aspect. The complexity is all in the people. Was that an aspect of the novel? Was it a draw for you?
Macon Blair: Yeah, for sure. The atmosphere, and the way the story would take these really jarring unexpected turns, and also how it would set up these difficult questions and then not clearly answer them, in a way that was hopefully still satisfying. All of that was attractive. The narrative, as far as who has to get where and when, is pretty simple. It’s more about everybody’s internal life as they’re going through this straightforward journey.
A lot of that in the book was in their heads, so you’re in this very close point of view with the characters. For the script, we were trying to get outside of their heads, because you can’t just have somebody sit there, while you wonder what they’re thinking. So one of the main directives was externalizing the events of the book.
How long have you been aware of the novel?
MB: I didn’t know about it until my agent sent it to me, and said, “I thought you might be interested in this.” It had some crime aspects, and some things that were similar to other stuff I enjoyed in the past. And I read it very quickly, and loved it, but was also keenly interested in it as something for Jeremy to direct. He read it shortly after that.
Not really knowing how to go about it, we just kind of raised our hands and said, “We want to make this movie.” We presented a little document about how we would approach the material, and then Netflix came back very quickly and said, “You’re hired to do this.” I don’t think we were expecting it to fall into place quite that easily. There was a long writing process, but getting it up and going was shockingly straightforward. Netflix said, “We loved it! Can we do it?” We were like, “Yes? I guess we’re doing it!” That’s about what happened.
Was the internality of the characters the biggest challenge?
MB: For me, it was that — it’s a very thin book, but it’s so rich, and even for a two-hour movie we had to lose so much of it, just to make it fit. So for me, as someone who loved everything about the book, the difficult thing was stepping outside of the story to be very cold-eyed about what was necessary and what was not. There were some things I wanted in there, and maybe held onto a lot longer than I should have. But with time, we distilled it down to what was truly essential, and let anything go that’s not part of that.
The Iraq sequence is so necessary for understanding Slone, but it’s also so far out of the world of the rest of the film. How did you approach the visual and narrative differences between that sequence and the rest of the movie?
MB: For me, it was important because that was a similar sequence in the novel — it feels vital in framing and introducing this character who barely speaks in the movie, and is very mysterious. It sets up what he’s about, and the themes of the movie, in an appropriately nihilistic way, very succinctly. For me, it was just trying to write in images and sound cues that would make the cut from Alaska to Iraq feel necessarily jarring.
JS: I just did as I was told. The way I approached the Iraq stuff is basically, Slone is always Slone, always has been Slone, always will be Slone. He’s impervious. He doesn’t register the difference between Alaska and Iraq. They’re both barren lands, they’re harsh, and he is sort of a hunter-killer, dispassionate, beholden only to his own code. And so you notice that in Iraq, we’re really just with him. We’re often close to him, following or leading. We don’t go off and cut away. We’re doing POVs from his perspective.
I wanted to embrace the striking difference in the visuals as far as where he is, but also ideally make them harmonize, in that he is consistent throughout. To make him a disturbing, quiet waypoint for us. I wanted to keep those sequences singular to his character, and not go chasing explosions.
MB: Even when we got a helicopter for the day!
JS: Yeah! It’s tempting, when you have all that gear! But it was about wasting it all. It’s all background. The armored personnel carrier, the helicopter, everything we had, it’s always a wide shot, so we’re always on him. That was the key. I definitely approached it — not to compare myself with him — but the idea was to keep it Kubrickian, surreal and quiet and odd. When that goat beckons Slone into that back alley, it’s like a horror movie. We’re just with him, and the fighter jets are just background.
Why did you want Jeffrey Wright for the lead role?
JS: He just has a certain weight. He’s in great shape — he’s an avid surfer, he’s really athletic. I felt he could be a balance between a retired outdoor person who’s at home, and is familiar with wolves, and living on his own, and has a certain skill set, but also brings this academic side. That gravitas that was needed for him to function as an observer and a novelist. He would know how to use a weapon, but it’s been a while, and we can still have that Everyman thread we’ve had in most of our movies, where he’d be out of his element, and somewhat fumbling when it comes down to traditional action setpieces.
I’m a huge fan of his work, and I thought, “How exciting would it be to cast Jeffrey Wright?” And then it’s rare that you talk to your financial partners, and they say “Who do you want to star?” and you say “Jeffrey Wright?” and they say “Well hell yeah, let’s do it,” and then you actually get that.
You’ve said this was your most challenging shoot by far, between extreme weather, and wrangling a wolf pack, and all the aerial shots, and a combat sequence. What was hardest?
JS: That’s tough, because collectively… there is an anecdote there, actually. It was all so tough. It certainly wasn’t the cold because some things, we expected. The complexities of the big shootout scene, or working in really harsh conditions, we were prepared for that. We had a great crew, and enough experienced producers who could see it coming.
For me, the challenge for my whole career has been to be more grateful and try to enjoy the experience. So for the first time on Hold the Dark… we were in these amazing locations, these majestic mountainsides. I made myself, several times, stop and breathe the fresh air. I would fall back into the snow and look up at these mountains, and just made myself grateful. Now, that’s tough, because when you’re directing, it’s under such duress. You have such a limited time for everything. Every frame of film is precious and high-stakes, and it can explode your insides. It’s so, so stressful.
And the key is, you always get through it, but man, I better start really appreciating the opportunities I have, and being among such great collaborators. The hardest part is having the discipline to make myself take a minute to say “Thank you.” And that was a huge leap forward for me.
MB: I can’t top that!