CS Interview: director Jeremy Saulnier talks his tense thriller Green Room
Blue Ruin director Jeremy Saulnier’s new film Green Room is the kind of well-built machine that only exists to keep you in a constant state of suspense and unease. It’s a deeply unsettling — and pulse-pounding — story of a marginal punk band led by Anton Yelchin’s Pat, whose touring troubles lead them to take a gig at a white power stronghold in Portland. After they witness a murder, they’re trapped in the club by neo-Nazi forces led by Patrick Stewart’s quietly ruthless Darcy.
A24 gave us the chance to sit down with writer/director Saulnier to discuss his punk rock roots, the hazards of researching neo-Nazis and why he wants to make a studio film next!
ComingSoon.net: Right off the bat I felt a special connection to this movie because my brother is deep in the Arlington, VA music scene. So when Anton Yelchin’s band was talking about how they were from Arlington, I was like, “Damn, this could be my brother touring.”
Jeremy Saulnier: No way. There you go. It’s a scary connection, too.
CS: Yeah, it’s really scary. He plays at clubs like IOTA, I don’t know if you know that place.
Saulnier: My high school friend Phil was the bartender at IOTA for awhile.
CS: And you actually gigged in the Arlington/DC hardcore scene in the mid-’90s. What was the worst gig you ever played?
Saulnier: You know, the gigs I played were pretty fun. They were small scale. But the saddest was probably a Mexican restaurant, which is in the movie. That was sort of a back-up show and it was fun to put that in there, because it’s kind of pathetic, when you look at it outside, looking through the windows of the Mexican restaurant, this hardcore band playing to about five people. But it’s also kind of beautiful and yeah, and they’re still there playing and it’s not really for the accolades or anything.
CS: Giving it their all.
Saulnier: I just saw some bandmates two nights ago that were at a New York screening. And we were talking about our worst and best show was when we fell prey to the typical pay-to-play scam, where a concert venue owner, they basically give you tickets to sell to your own show. So you do all the leg work. You generate all the revenue and you give it to this guy and he lets you play. You know, you’re basically doing…
CS: It’s like a bringer.
Saulnier: Yeah, it’s called “pay to play.” It’s a scam. And we got hip to that after a couple of shows, and our band leader, Sam Jones, invented a fake manager, “Mike Hill.” And the concert venue owner was like, “Where’s my money?” And he says, “Did you talk to Mike?” And he was like, “Where’s Mike?” And he would say, “He’s over there,” a totally fictional character. So we played our show, and then kept saying, “Go talk to Mike Hill.” And this is like, pre-cell phones, we just took off with his money because he took so much of ours.
CS: That’s awesome.
Saulnier: And it was fun, because I had forgotten about that story, but I remember that whole incident. Me and my buddies were all getting sick of this scam. Anyways, so that was like, we were getting totally taken advantage of, like a lot of bands do. And we got our sweet revenge, so we f*cking took off and never played there again.
CS: That’s pretty cool.
Saulnier: Yeah. (Laughs)
CS: I had friends in the Virginia hardcore scene in the mid-’90s, and there was a lot of playing at Holiday Inn ballrooms and stuff like that.
Saulnier: Yeah. And I’d been to some shows where I wasn’t playing, and it got pretty rough. I got assaulted a few times, but you go into the pit and it’s almost semi-consensual. Sometimes it just happens. And there was a stabbing outside of a club one time in D.C. that kind of scared the sh*t out of me. It was non-fatal, but I was walking and heard someone got stabbed on the way out. And they shut down the club. I was young. When I was in the hardcore scene it was mostly before college.
CS: When you’re doing a movie about neo-Nazis, I would imagine that’s kind of a delicate subject to research. You might’ve been flagged a couple of times.
Saulnier: Yeah, who knows how I’m being tracked? But certainly, the white power movement is alive and well digitally. I mean, they are very active online.
CS: Yeah, it’s online communities like [name redacted] and all of that stuff.
Saulnier: Yeah, don’t name names now. Yes. I’m very clear to not specify any groups in the movie. I even have a line regarding the skinheads in the movie, that they’re not affiliated, because I didn’t want to call anybody out. But in researching, I did know the culture as far as being close to it physically. And I’d seen some documentaries a long time ago, an HBO Undercover series on some skinheads down in the south. So I knew enough going in to feel comfortable. I did a lot of additional research just to get some details in there, and not only to make it authentic but to steer clear of individual groups, to make sure it was not exactly referring to one group, because Portland is home to some of the white power movement environments—not so much Portland itself.
CS: Well, I think the scariest part is that they’re depicted as decidedly human. Like even Patrick’s character, he’s not a monster, he’s just that terrible combination of misguided and charismatic.
Saulnier: Well, and I was struck by a documentary I saw that was a portrait of skinheads. When they’re in this sh*tty, I don’t even know, it was like an apartment or something, and they’re spouting all this ideology and they’re all into it and they’re doing the sieg heil, you know, they’ve been doing all that sh*t, it seems terrifying, in that these young kids are being recruited and their ideologies are being perverted and their hate is being mischanneled. Then you take them outside of their protest. You go downtown and it’s pathetic. It’s like 17 people walking, cars are buzzing by. Contextually, you feel like these are all victims. What is this ideology bringing to them? Is it just hate? So for “Green Room,” I wanted to really skirt ideology. I didn’t have a lot of speeches about racism and nationalism and socialism. I just wanted these guys to perform in my movie as soldiers. That was more about the hierarchy within the group and the structure and sort of their militant ideology lending themselves to extremism and weaponry and that kind of thing, and criminal activity.
CS: It almost has kind of an “Assault on Precinct 13” kind of vibe to it.
CS: Maybe I’m mistaken about this after seeing the movie only once, but I don’t recollect Patrick ever raising his voice.
Saulnier: Well, he does once. And then he apologizes for it, which is fun. He loses his cool for a brief moment, when he realizes what has to be done, which is a very messy, very bloody operation. But Gabe, played by Macon Blair, his underling…
CS: Who’s fantastic.
Saulnier: He gets face-palmed by Patrick Stewart. And it’s like three lines, and, “They’re smarter than you.” And then, boom. And then he takes a beat and he apologizes. And that was the fun of having him be very pragmatic and subtle and sort of effortless in his command, not so much barking orders and getting too nasty. I mean, we didn’t want any mustache-twirling Patrick Stewart baddy. Because a lot of the guys who run these organizations, they serve not as sort of evil generals, they serve as local politicians, you know? And they have a certain amount of charisma and they attract kids and they attract people. They go out and they hand out leaflets. That’s how this stuff works. You’ve got to attract people. And it was important that he had that certain—he himself, Patrick Stewart, had some gravitas, of like, when he steps on the scene, you don’t need him to do much to have that command.
CS: Absolutely. Has anybody mentioned how similar you and Anton look?
Saulnier: No, well, I gave him the blue Vans. (shows his shoes, Blue Vans)
CS: Oh nice.
Saulnier: You know? I wear these blue Vans and so does my buddy Sam, who the character Sam is based on. But no, I mean, Anton just lines up perfectly. He’s great because it’s very hard to find 25-year-old actors at the time with that much experience, you know what I mean? And he has such humanity and he brings so much, I guess of a cerebral element to the characters. He really thinks about everything. And this is a very physical movie. He’s not given monologues or a kind of back story to work with. So it has to all be just observed physically, and then he knew that. And we had tons and tons of discussions of notes on his character, but he doesn’t have the opportunity to just say as far as traditional character arcs. He just has to be a real person and has this very internal arc that he’s going through.
CS: The resemblance is there, though. Anton almost seems like a doppelganger, sort of the same way that David Lynch always casts Kyle MacLachlan, and they look exactly the same.
Saulnier: Oh yeah. I’m sure there’s something there to that.
CS: We don’t have to get too deep into it. But was there a certain sense of sort of mocking that kind of pretentious musician stereotype, particularly in the scene where they’re being interviewed for the radio show?
Saulnier: A bit. I think he’s nostalgic and trying to talk about the good old days, even though it’s a young kid. He’s sort of talking sh*t about social media or disregarding it. And I mean, it’s funny because it’s the only time you get to actually do exposition that way, because it’s an actual interview and they’re being interviewed, so why not articulate your thoughts on the scene in general, you know? But yeah, I don’t think of them as pretentious, just like naïve and they’re not the coolest. They’re not the hardest. That was a big thing, is like, this is a hardcore band. This is a punk band. But it’s not in the “who’s the toughest contest,” you know? Which is a big part of when I was growing up in the ’90s, it’s a cool contest, that’s kind of—this band, they’re not over that, they’re just not participating, you know?
CS: Right. Well, and you have that great moment where they realized like, death might be imminent—and they start saying, “Oh, my favorite band’s actually Prince.” You start to see those layers peel away, and you also see that among the neo-Nazis as well. Both groups are putting up a front, to a certain extent.
Saulnier: Totally. Yeah, yeah, a lot about that is like, your projected self versus your real self. And when you’re in a scene, it can be punk or hip hop or whatever scene you’re in, you know, there’s a certain amount of fronting going on. And it’s fun to be able to strip that down. But the thing is like, it’s not saying like, “Oh, this is about people really like, in pop bands.” It’s like, whatever music turns you on turns you on and it’s all valid and it’s all true and it’s all rock and roll, you know?
CS: Speaking of music, what were you listening to when you wrote the film?
Saulnier: A lot of this. I mean, a lot of music you hear in “Green Room” is stuff that my high school friends wrote in the 1990s. So The Ain’t Rights perform three songs on camera, two of them are written by my high school friends. One is a Dead Kennedy’s cover, another favorite band. But you know, I was nine years old skateboarding around, hanging out with the cooler older kids. They loved punk and they loved new wave. I learned a lot early on. I also had a classic rock phase. Then I got back into the hardcore scene in a big way, when I hung out with these new kids that were making movies, and we became this sort of posse, the Barnetti Clan. We ran around and vandalized stuff and made movies and went to punk shows and hardcore shows, metal shows. We loved music and loved movies. Sh*t, I don’t even know what I was talking about. What was I talking about?
CS: What kind of music that maybe isn’t in the movie that you listened to in order to get that creepy vibe, that dark vibe?
Saulnier: I think we used a whole lot of metal. I was very attracted to how hard it was, and like a lot of young males I just love that tough guy sh*t. But I mean, yeah, as much as I could, even some of the songs in “Green Room” are from our local Portland crew. You know, we were very much into friends and family. We had some marquee tracks. We had Slayer and we had Creedence Clearwater Revival. We had Bad Brains, Napalm Death, but primarily, it’s bands that I knew and friends of friends, which is really exciting, because the film has resonated on a much bigger level than I ever expected it to. But it is designed to please about eight people, you know? And I’m going to seen them on Wednesday. All the band members I was with in DC, they’re finally going to see the movie, which is a huge deal. If I can get their seal of approval, then mission accomplished.
CS: Do you know what’s next? Do you have anything percolating?
Saulnier: I have lots percolating, but you never know until you’re all set, or you’re making the next movie.
CS: Do you plan to stay within these kind of dark themes that you’ve been exploring, or could you see yourself veering off?
Saulnier: Well, I’ve certainly attracted a lot of dark material, as far as the script submissions I’m getting, which I like. I like anything kinetic, visual, action-based. That’s what I like, and I don’t want to get trapped in a room again for a little while.
CS: It’s hard to find fresh angles!
Saulnier: Yeah, but I mean, I would love to do a big studio movie. I’m hunting for one right now. You never know what’s going to land, because a lot of this is scheduling. To get schedules to line up in Hollywood is very difficult with actors and directors and cinematographers. But I’m after a studio movie. I have something developing with A24 that’s fantastic. And I think the only thing that I know is that when I write my next movie, I’ll control that, and there’s no set budget, it’s just whatever it takes to tell that story. I will fight very hard to protect creative control of the films that I write, but I would love to do a studio assignment. I would love to just go direct something that I don’t have to pour three years of my life into and just practice my craft and have fun and meet people, as long as it’s not a total stinker, you know? I’d be very happy.
CS: Yeah, I think I remember Guillermo del Toro saying something like, whenever he does a movie, he always picks something that only he could direct.
Saulnier: That’s what I felt about “Green Room” for sure, and “Blue Ruin,” so I don’t know about that going forward, but for when I write a film, I have to 100 percent do it how I feel, it’s only something that I can do.
Green Room is now playing in select theaters, and goes wide on April 29.