Interview: Jeremy Saulnier and Anton Yelchin on GREEN ROOM

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In the first of a series of interviews, SHOCK talks to the people behind blistering new neo-nazi thriller GREEN ROOM.

It might not have been his debut (that would be the 2007 splatstick comedy MURDER PARTY), but 2013’s BLUE RUIN was certainly a break out movie for writer/director Jeremy Saulnier that put his name on the genre map. The tragic, violent, and sneakily comedic revenge thriller established Saulnier as one of the most intriguing and dynamic filmmakers of his generation. A guy able to milk more heart, drama, and shock value out of credit cards and loose change than most filmmakers can pull from $100 million. It was the type of unexpected indie success (setting records in the mysterious world of VOD distribution) that typically earns directors a trip to the big league studio system. However, Saulnier admirably and wisely didn’t take that route. Instead, he went with his gut and delivered a thriller so vicious, visceral, and intense that it may as well be a horror movie.

GREEN ROOM debuted at last year’s Cannes Film Festival where it brought some welcome sleaze to the black tie affair. A long time passion project for the director, GREEN ROOM follows a wayward punk band (lead by Star Trek’s Anton Yelchin and Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat) who accept a bad gig to pay for their van ride home from a failed tour and end up at a neo Nazi skinhead concert. Without giving too much away, things go bad in the titular GREEN ROOM, leading to a claustrophobic battle of wills between the punks and the skinheads (lead by Patrick Stewart of all people, in a creepily controlled performance). Things get messy, bloody, and intense. It’s a wild thriller from Saulnier that will make viewers’ palms sweat, yet one that is laced with a morbid wit and twisted sense of humor.

If BLUE RUIN marked Jeremy Saulnier as a director to watch, then GREEN ROOM confirms that the guy just might be a new genre master and by the time the whole nasty and violent affair wraps up, fans should be anxious to see what the guy cooks up next. Shock Till Ya Drop was able to chat with the burgeoning filmmaker and his lead actor Anton Yelchin during last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where GREEN ROOM knocked the giddy and gore-hungry Midnight Madness audience square on their ass. Read on for some dirty details of about the making of one of most likely cult films to emerge from 2016.

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SHOCK: Jeremy, I gather this has been a project that you’ve been working on for quite sometime. Was there a specific origin to your interest in a Nazi vs Punks tale?

Jeremy Saulnier: Well, I’d thought of the idea years ago, but the movie iself was totally fast-tracked. It was a year and two weeks from when I wrote the first page to when I wrapped production. Then, you know, there was post. It’s always about a two-year journey overall. But yeah, I made a short film in 2008 about some metal heads in a GREEN ROOM. I’ve been obsessed with this idea for quite some time.

SHOCK: Was that a siege story as well?

JS: No, that was about some guys playing a metal record backwards and summoning a demon. Then they get murdered.

SHOCK: That sounds about right.

JS: (Laughs) Yeah, it was more of a comedy. But I’ve loved punk rock and hardcore. I loved it for decades, but I was in the DC scene for about four and a half years before I went to college. I loved it. Basically, when you get your license in Virginia, you jump in the back of a dodge covered in metal stickers with five friends, weigh it down until the shocks are at capacity, and then drive across to DC. I was a skater kid and all that. But it was intimidating. It was real. There were men. There were Nazi skinheads there. this was the early 90s. And you know, there was some violence involved. And when there wasn’t actual violence, there’s always the threat of it happening. There was always tension when the Nazis showed up. The pit was brutal. I got randomly beat up a few times just for being there. But I still loved the scene. There are lots of little politics in any scene, whether it be the B-boy hip-hop scene in New York or the punk scene in any regional area. There are the pit regulators who want to manage people, the violent people, the positive people who just want to support the scene.

SHOCK: So you always wanted to set a movie in that world?

JS: Pretty much. It was part of my DNA from an early age and I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of making a movie out of it. So finally after BLUE RUIN offered me the opportunity, I decided that instead of going to the studios to turn back and make that movie that I always wanted to make. You get fearful that someone else will come up with the idea, you know? “How come no one’s made a movie called GREEN ROOM set in a fucking GREEN ROOM during a punk concert with grind metal coming through the walls?”  I had to do it. Then once the mission was set in motion and I actually had the opportunity to do it, things came together insanely fast. It was a whirlwind. I told everyone involved, we’re not going to go into development and wait for two years and cast and recast and schedule and reschedule. I said, “We’re fucking doing it in the fall and then I’m out.” I didn’t want to overthink it and get too smart about it for my own good. I wanted to make it fast and deliver a blunt force movie with the most intensity that I could. And we did it. It was terrifying (Laughs), but we did it. The experience was brutal.

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SHOCK: I loved the tone of the movie. It’s very intense like you said, but also quite funny without ever detracting from that tension. It was almost Coen-esque in a way. I was curious, was that a tough tone to nail down when you were writing?

JS: Not at all. I gravitate towards comedy. It’s more situational. Anton and I were on the same page. The onset performances were just brutal and heartbreaking and genuine. Any comedy that the characters are aware of just falls flat for me. I think Paul Thomas Anderson movies are hilarious. It’s a deep human component to the humor that makes it resonate, that melancholy shit. But in GREEN ROOM, the opportunity for comedy is naturally there because the situation is such a clusterfuck. Logistics come into play and when you trip up the usual narrative flow of a genre flick, you have a lot of leeway for comedy. All you have to do is basically say, “What would I do? Well, maybe I’m not that smart. Maybe I wouldn’t be a hero. Who would do this and who would do that?” Then these things just evolve naturally. You never stop for comedy, just let it happen.

SHOCK: Anton, were these the sort of things that attracted you to the movie? Because it’s very different from the other things you’ve done.

Anton Yelchin: Yeah, I honestly just wanted to work with Jeremy and this was certainly a film from Jeremy, you know? I was excited just bt the title page because it was his film. Then it was a film based in the punk rock scene, which I loved. My favorite thing about seeing the film for the first time in Cannes was that I found myself laughing at things that were so miserable on the day. That’s so awesome, you know what I mean? If you can’t sit in a movie theater and laugh at the brutality that you felt…I don’t know…that feels important to me. We went on this insane journey and every day on set was this insane effort to create this brutal madness that was happening. All of us were feeling these intense things…

SHOCK: Yeah, you must have maintained a level of panic for weeks on end during the shoot.

AY: Oh yeah. All of us did. You have to understand we were in this tiny room. All of us. Eight actors plus Jeremy and the camera crew and the sound crew. There must have been fifteen people crammed into this little space, filled with smoke. Eight people are crying and fucking freaking out screaming bloody murder. Then we get to sit eight months later and see it and laugh and enjoy and hoot and holler. It’s beautiful. I did not sign up for that tone to be honest. I had no idea. I just trusted the vision that I admired in Jeremy’s films. That’s why great filmmakers are worth seeking out, their vision. (To Jeremy) You were saying before, “Why hasn’t any one thought of this?” Well, because you had to fucking think of it. That’s why people like us like your films. You wait for great filmmakers to see what they’ll bring. That’s what’s rad about it.

SHOCK: Was that make up prosthetic on your arm as uncomfortable to wear as it looked?

AY: No, it wasn’t uncomfortable at all actually. But it just makes you feel fucking weird. I feel like by the end of the film, we were barely people anymore. We were like creatures just hobbling around. I do have a series of photos of my fucked up hand doing strange things like grabbing toilet paper. Did you see those?

JS: (Laughs) Yeah. And you know, thinking about that effect, without spoiling anything, he had to sell that marquee special effect entirely. He wasn’t very flexible.

AY: Oh Yeah, that first day was crazy.

JS: Yeah, the prosthetic was amazing. But he really had to sell it to make that wound seem like it’s dangling and hideous. What’s terrifying is his performance. Because I come from a special effects background, that’s what I find fun. I can coach out all sorts of little things and movements.

AY: Yeah, he had me holding that pose for hours before we even shot. Just to loosen my wrist up.

JS: Oh yeah, it’s all about the details. That’s what sells these things. So I always lean on the actors to be the keepers of their characters. They’re very good at keeping track of where they are emotionally and bringing truth to it. Not just focusing on how they are dangling their wrists. But that’s important (Laughs).

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SHOCK: Even by your standards, I was surprised by the level of intensity and violence in this film. Did you just decide as a dream project to let this one rip and not worry about how far you were going? Or did you shoot in a few different ways to have on options on when to dial the violent up or dial it back?

JS: I let it happen naturally. I knew this was going to be a very violent film. But the real challenge and my proudest achievement is basically creating all of the tension without the violence. There’s a big inciting incident, then after that the body count is relatively low. But the impact is insane. I feel like if I directed The Hunger Games, people would be barfing everywhere. There’s actually less of a body count in GREEN ROOM and far less actual violence happening. When you have a franchise like The Hunger Games, it’s fun even though it’s still a bunch of kids murdering each other for sport. But you set it in a dark future and shoot it in a certain way and people just think, “Well, ok that’s fun. Next. It’s a game!” But in my movies, you’re trapped with real people who you observe and feel like you’re a part of their experience. Even the Nazis, when they die its not fun. The impact is harsh. I let it happen. I like to navigate between pleasing genre fans and being true to the story.

SHOCK: And it all has a certain messiness to it. It doesn’t feel choreographed. It’s more real and chaotic.

JS: Oh yeah. And also there are times when I feel like full frontal is actually more responsible. Disgusting, brutal violence is more responsible sometimes than letting 90 people die in your movie, but never letting the audience feel the impact of one of those deaths. The impact just isn’t there. So we do it for a reason and when shit goes south in GREEN ROOM there’s dread, actual dread. The audience is like, “I know I want to have fun, but I’m a little uncertain about this because it’s so brutal.” That’s what I want. To evoke a real truthful emotional and physical response to this stuff. Because that’s what I feel is lacking when I go to see a studio movie. They can do all of the pyro in the world, I just don’t give a shit. But when it’s character based and a little bit off center and you can’t quite predict where it’s going, then all of a sudden the audience is really enthralled and energized. I feed off that.

SHOCK: I have to ask about Patrick Stewart and how you landed him. Was that type casting based on his hairstyle?

JS: (Laughs) Actually, no. He just came to us through a shared management company. Honestly, I never aimed that high. So when he reached out through that company, I was honestly nervous to say yes at first. I thought he was way too big of a star to be in this cruddy punk rock movie. I didn’t think he’d fit in. But he was looking for an adventure and he was so dedicated and interested in the role. When I realized it wasn’t about packaging and a deal, but that he wanted to play something different and was truly invested, that made a big difference. So, when he came to set, he acclimated to our environment. We didn’t have to acclimated to his, which is what I was worried might happen. He was completely game and we had a blast. The big payoff for me was when he finally saw the movie and he said it was “really classy.” When you’re doing these kind of movies and you shift it one way or the other with the wrong actor, then the whole thing is ruined. The trust level there is insane. To have him on our set was such a huge treat. To have him say that it was classy was nice because that means he felt that he was in good hands and had a ball. He’s here promoting our little movie, which is amazing. He’s elevating it. His value as an actor is huge industry-wise, but on set none of that matters. It’s all about whether or not he’s game and he totally was. That was a pleasure.  

GREEN ROOM is in theaters and On Demand now.