CS Interview: Jeffrey Wright & Jeremy Saulnier on Hold the Dark
Netflix released director the intense new thriller Hold the Dark to streaming this past weekend, and now that you’ve seen the film (or plan to see it soon) check out ComingSoon.net’s exclusive interview with star Jeffrey Wright and director Jeremy Saulnier below!
Hold the Dark is an adaptation of William Giraldi’s novel of the same name. Retired naturalist and wolf expert Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) journeys to the edge of civilization in northern Alaska at the pleading of Medora Slone (Riley Keough), a young mother whose son was killed by a pack of wolves. As Core attempts to help Medora track down the wolves who took her son, a strange and dangerous relationship develops between the two lonely souls. But when Medora’s husband Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård) returns home from the Iraq War, the news of his child’s death ignites a violent chain of events. As local cop Donald Marium (James Badge Dale) races to stop Vernon’s vengeful rampage, Core is forced on a perilous odyssey into the heart of darkness.
The film stars Jeffrey Wright (Westworld), Riley Keough (Mad Max: Fury Road), James Badge Dale (13 Hours), Julian Black Antelope (Blackstone) and Alexander Skarsgård (Big Little Lies).
Hold the Dark is directed by Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room, Blue Ruin) and is written by his longtime creative partner Macon Blair. Neil Kopp, Vincent Savino, Anish Savjani, Eva Maria Daniels, Russell Ackerman, and John Schoenfelder produced the film.
ComingSoon.net: You guys know the old screenplay cliché of “save the cat” or “does the character pet the dog or does he kick the dog?”
Jeremy Saulnier: Of course.
CS: So I feel like you invented a new thing with this movie, which is, “Does your character walk past the rapist or stab the rapist 20 times?”
Saulnier: Well, there you go. That’s another thing that they can incorporate into screenwriting books.
CS: Exactly. Ready for the Robert McKee seminar. But yeah, so working under Netflix, that’s a different proposition. What luxuries did you have as a filmmaker on this project that you didn’t have previously?
Saulnier: Netflix was a great partner for this film. Number one, they were willing to take the risk. I mean, this is not a film that is homogenized or normalized by the standard sort of studio machine in that it’s a very complex narrative. It’s non-traditional in many respects. I mean, it has a lot of really exciting elements to it and a whole hybrid of exciting genres. But you know, they offered a lot more creative control and they’re not beholden to the same models that studios are as far as how they define success or profitability. That unlocks a whole new realm for filmmakers as far as navigating new cinematic space and trying new things.
Jeffrey Wright: We’re really potentially in a position to shape their cinematic culture from the ground up, as opposed to having stepped into an established order, you’re stepping into an established absence of order that you’re asked to help create, you know?
CS: I have a friend who’s in development at a big production company, and he’s always bemoaning the fact that every script he gets, the protagonist is either a teenager or a 20-something. Can you both talk a little bit about what having a middle aged protagonists brings to the story?
Wright: Middle aged? What are you talking about? (laughs)
Saulnier: So that’s tough because it’s inherent to the story. Again, I just see character and he is another sort of everyman. This time, for me, Russell Core has a little more expertise, so he’s not totally out of his element. He’s a little rusty, but he’s not in over his head like my other protagonists have been. And I liked having more of a solid protagonist, one that would guide us and not just flail through a movie, but have some sort of reserved academic approach, as well as when duty calls, a more aggressive physical approach, like Jeffrey’s. Because we aged you up by about 10 years.
Wright: Like Jeremy, I mean, I read the script. The character was as he is. And I think for me, particularly now within this landscape that you kind of allude to relative to heroism, it’s all super human, sci-fi alien abilities. And that’s fine. That’s a fun type of heroism. But I think for me, maybe more fun is the unexpected hero. I see Core in some ways as kind of an alien wolf at the beginning of this story, who sets off into the wilderness because his pack has been dismantled and he’s heading off into the void. Why? We don’t know. Allegedly, he’s going for seemingly noble pursuits. But he could be just stepping into the backside of society and staying there. He could be on his last journey. But unwittingly, he finds himself in these ordinary circumstances that ask him to be more than he was when he began the journey. And so, I really enjoyed the idea of this unexpected hero or unexpected survivor. And the mythology that’s built into that of the everyman journey towards some perhaps strange redemption, towards some type of meaningful personal discovery or not, the heroic elements of that ordinariness were what appealed to me, and I think stand out against the foil of all of this other heroism that really lacks on a certain level, a certain humanness. So this was a much more grounded kind of mythic tale, that given the landscape that we were operating within and also given Jeremy’s… particularly “Blue Ruin” that existed in a similar lawless void, where mythos and the loss of nature and all of this stuff emerge, in that we were set on the world’s dark side of the moon. It just was really attractive and really gratifying to play.
CS: You guys got to have your “Wild Bunch” scene with the machine gun in the hayloft. The scene is really tense. It has all these peaks and valleys and different points of view. How do you approach that scene so it didn’t become just “rat-a-tat-tat,” bullets and squibs?
Saulnier: Certainly taking our cues, as did Macon Blair -who adapted the novel from the original author, William Giraldi- that’s this sort of devastating set piece in the center of the narrative. Just trying to keep it analogous to the experience I had as a reader, which was shock and an awful dread that crept in. But the elation of surviving it, that was the goal, is to sort of to treat this as a really oppressive, brutal experience to be as raw and real as possible, and to make sure that we started to—just that we had all of these waypoints, anchors with each of the characters. We have Russell Core, who takes shelter underneath the truck and observes enough and waits enough and is shocked. The shock wears off, where he’s sort of forced to take action. It just will not end. And that was a feeling that, as Macon described it before, it’s a waterfall and that just won’t stop. And you have Marium, who’s trying to save his fellow police. And you have Cheeon, who’s sort of ending his world and it’s this awful, nihilistic, dispassionate sign-off, with a lot of real emotion and angst behind it. It’s a very complex scene and we showcased Core really getting into the grit and taking matters into his own hand. It was a big shift for his character. As far as how we approached it, it was always behind the camera, safety and the enjoyment of being involved in a really kinetic and practically realized scene. But story-wise, I think the reverence of understanding the loss of life and that the peril we put our characters in is for a very clear cinematic purpose.
CS: Yeah. And I mean, and that’s a great moment for you, too, because your character is kind of meek and reserved up until this point. And now, he gets to unleash this bravery that’s inside him, to pump that shotgun and really get into the thick of it. Was there a sense of the character’s arrival for you in that moment?
Wright: I’m not sure. I don’t know. I think the arrival, if within that sequence there’s an arrival for Core, I think it has to do with Marium because for me, the frame around that scene and the way Jeremy films it, the most exaggerated and stylized moment within that is when Marium finds his family at the end of it. I mean, that in some ways is the most heightened moment within that sequence. That’s what all of that exists against, is the loss and the loss of love, the loss of life. All of that for me, when I saw it, that’s what most impacts me about it. “Oh shit, this is what that means.” It means the opposite of all that is really revered in that sequence, which is that reconnection to those things loved, which is exactly what Core’s arrival is about. It’s not about picking up a shotgun and firing it in the direction of a guy holed up in a hay loft. We’re firing at the foot of the steadicam operator. It’s not about that. His arrival is something, again, much more ordinary and much more meaningful.
Saulnier: And I think in the action itself, when he does charge Cheeon in the nest above, it’s pleading. It’s anger. It’s frustration. And he even says, “Stop it!” And he’s questioning. But I think it’s more of that pleading nature that we were going for. I think the audience can really understand the full arc of that mini narrative, not only with Marium reuniting with his family, but the other end of it, the bookend on the front, which is Marium versus Cheeon just talking at the door, and Core sort of colliding. He has his own discovery which leads him to that. But yeah, I think the shooting is like a set piece action sequence, but the bookends are what make it actually have all that impact.
CS: I saw the film with a friend who was seeing it for a second time. Even after seeing it a second time, we were both kind of questioning the relationship between Alexander and Riley’s characters…
Saulnier: Listen, because you’re questioning it, you got it. That’s what I love about this movie, and it happened with all of my movies, is in the script phase, you get notes. You get studio notes. They want to know more. They want you to spell it out. And I asked them, “Well, what do you think it is?” And 99 percent of the time, they’re 100 percent right. So because people are questioning and wondering, they really know. And we didn’t spell it out.
CS: Well, my first instinct was I think the husband was protecting the wife, despite what she did. And then, somebody was like, “Oh no, they’re brother and sister.” And I was like, “Oh shi*t, it’s the photograph of when they were kids and all that stuff.”
Saulnier: So watch it a third time, and every single thing is there. This was what’s fun about it. You really do have to kind of give it full attention and let yourself sort of reexamine it and come out, if you watch it a few times, I think all the answers are there.
Wright: Yeah, what you probably didn’t catch, and I’m going to give this away, is that Core is actually the father. Watch it again. (laughs)