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Alexandria native Jeremy Saulnier made a name for himself with Blue Ruin, a revenge thriller about a drifter who goes after the paroled convict who wronged his family. The film is lean and efficient, with no wasted shots or lines of dialogue. Green Room is the follow-up to Blue Ruin, and represents an evolution in Saulnier’s work. It’s about a young punk band from Arlington and how they end up in a deadly stand-off against a coldhearted neo-Nazi (played by Patrick Stewart) and his thugs. If Blue Ruin is more of a slow burn, Green Room is a pressure cooker. By casting a fresh-faced cast as the punk band—Anton Yelchin is the bassist, while Alia Shawkat is the guitarist—it’s all the more harrowing when they run out of options and pick up whatever weapons they can find. Recently, Arts Desk talked with Saulnier about his process, how he achieves authenticity, and the Dead Kennedys.
Arts Desk: [In the film], the siege has an organic quality to it. Do you think more about results—where you want the bodies to end up—or the process to get there?
Jeremy Saulnier: I think more about process. I like to keep it alive and intuitive, so I’ll set the stage to get a sense of geography, and mine that for whatever I can. [The action] looks haphazard and chaotic, but it’s carefully controlled.
Arts Desk: How much time do you spend blocking with your cast?
JS: A lot! I’m a camera person, so I’m a very visual storyteller, but [during the siege] I was forced to be outside of my comfort zone—being rigid in my visual approach. I didn’t really know what was going to happen, exactly, until we got the actors in a room. We did traditional blocking and rehearsing, because when you’re doing shooting in such close quarters and in continuity, an early decision must be owned for the rest of the movie. When a body drops, you own that. After you define the space and where objects exist inside it, then you can move the camera and be as precise as possible.
AD: When you were writing, did you set up furniture and whatnot to get a sense of space?
JS: I did some overhead diagrams, for sure. Once we built the entire concert venue on a soundstage, I realized the script had some impossible connections between the hallway and the green room [where the band is stuck]. It was fun to translate what I thought worked, which turned out to make as much sense as an Escher painting, into something physical.
AD: In terms of on-screen violence, how do you strike a balance between what’s grisly, and what’s too much?
JS: It’s really about knowing what the impact should be, narratively and emotionally. I also find that the impact is more disturbing when it’s grounded and realistic. The more graphic scenes have a reason to be there—I want to show real peril and mortality. There’s one scene in particular that involves a box cutter where the whole movie shifts. The rug is pulled from underneath the audience, and they feel that something happened on screen that’s unlike most cinematic violence, which is terrifying. Some of that happens in full view because that’s what the characters perceive, and by seeing it along with them, you feel a huge transition taking place.
AD: One thing that surprised me about Green Room is how some scenes had a cathartic, “fuck yeah” impact. Are those more difficult to achieve than ones of terror?
JS: By keeping it grounded and the stakes high, the film gets brutal and wears down the audience. I’m definitely aware that, first and foremost, my film should work as entertainment. There’s an obligation to keep it that way, so I inject little moments of hope or dark comedy. In this film in particular, what’s most important are moments of triumph. I want the audience to share that with whoever might survive.
AD: You grew up in the area’s punk scene, and you recently screened the film for your friends who are still in it. Were you worried that the punk stuff in the film would feel inauthentic?
JS: I was never worried about the people I grew up with, because Green Room is pulled from their experiences. The film is not a “cool contest”—this band is not the hardest one there is. They’re suburban and light-hearted. Instead, what I wanted to capture is the feeling of being on the road, and the stale air of being in a van for hours. That came from shows I’ve played, or shows my friends played while touring the southeast.
AD: An important character wears a Minor Threat shirt, and another wears a Dead Kennedys shirt. Was that something you always wanted for them?
JS: I gave my costume designer a list of bands, and those two were at the top. Luckily we were supported by Dischord Records and the Dead Kennedys. Dead Kennedys also approved the use of “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.” It was a huge coup for the movie, since the song was written into the script.
AD: I loved the detail that when the band plays “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” to actual skinheads, the crowd was kinda pissed, but not really, though.
JS: I realized that playing the song is the one thing that might help the band get a little respect from that audience. They’re surrounded by a hostile crowd, so it’s in the spirit of punk and hardcore to do a nice little “Fuck you” in order to get some credibility. And once the siege starts, it was fun to think about who gets to survive in terms of what instruments they play. That’s one way it was easy to subvert expectations.
AD: In this film and in Blue Ruin, a lot of the writing is so economical. How do you achieve that? Do you add a ton of stuff, then chip away at it?
JS: I have a lot of trust, basically. I trust the audience to fill in the gaps, to experience the film and not ask for additional detail. Doing that also requires a lot of trust in the cast, of course. They need to bring a physical quality to their performances, and a certain amount of charisma. I wanted to make sure that the audience would know the band. They don’t need to know their whole back story, or learn who they are by injecting needless conflict among them. Once the situation becomes extreme, the band are a very scaled-down version of superheroes.
AD: How did you develop chemistry between the actors who played bandmates?
JS: As soon as they were all in town to shoot in Portland, Oregon, they spent time in [a] practice space as a band. They practiced the playback tracks they wrote on camera, and also wrote some of their own songs. Anton Yelchin has been in a punk band, so he knew that the process of writing a song was the key to them bonding. By the end of the shoot, they were so tight together, and even hung out on weekends.
AD: Music is obviously very important to the film. It starts off with recognizable punk songs, then transitions into this more classic-sounding score. What was your process like with your composer?
JS: It was difficult to find a way for the score to creep in naturally, without competing with the pounding music that’s in the script. We had punk, obviously, but also metal and grindcore. It’s meant to be overwhelming, so what I found was a crucial hand-off where the film goes dead quiet. The feeling is meant to be eerie, and the score builds from there. Still, the score contains some themes and tones from the earlier section—feedback in particular.
AD: The action in the film is sudden, and you don’t dwell on it. As a film goer, which is more fun: that type of action, or something a little more gratuitous?
JS: I like to have my cake and eat it, too, man! This film was an exercise in tension-building until I couldn’t do it anymore, so I relieved the pressure with action. Tension-building is exciting because you feel that with an audience. It’s almost as hard as really good comedy. In this film particularly, building tension came down to keep track of specific frames. I didn’t want the dialogue to seem haphazard, or blurted out. Still, there’s always a point in the editing process where I take a rough cut home and realize, “Ok, we really have a movie here.” After that, I can really hone in on what I want to achieve, like bullet hits that look more authentic in post-production.
Green Room is now playing at Landmark Atlantic Plumbing Cinema, Regal Ballston Common Stadium 12, ArcLight Bethesda, and Angelika Film Center at Mosaic.