Jeremy Saulnier interview: Green Room, John Carpenter

Director Jeremy Saulnier’s back with a new thriller, Green Room. He chats to us about John Carpenter’s influence, action and more.

Blue Ruin wasn’t Jeremy Saulnier’s first feature film (that was 2007’s Murder Party), but it was the one that saw his career roar off into the stratosphere. Made on a tiny budget, the intimate, exquisitely-shot revenge thriller caused a sensation following its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Suddenly, Saulnier found his film, funded via a mixture of loans, credit cards and Kickstarter, thrust onto the world stage as it racked up rapturous reviews and even a couple of independent movie awards.

Three years later, and Saulnier’s back with another thriller which, as he says himself, is both bigger and smaller than Blue Ruin. Green Room has a cast of familiar faces (Patrick Stewart, Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots) and a larger budget (a still staggeringly lean $6m), yet it largely takes place in one claustrophobic setting. Yelchin plays a member of a punk rock band trapped in the backstage room of the movie’s title as an army of far-right thugs (led by Patrick Stewart, cast fascinatingly against type) threatening to bash the door down. In short, it’s the gig from hell.

Superbly acted, unfeasibly gory and nail-bitingly intense, Green Room is another personal, handcrafted film from Saulnier. As the movie opens in the UK, we caught up with him to talk about the challenges of filming in a claustrophobic environment, his thoughts on John Carpenter’s huge influence on the current generation of movie-makers, and lots more besides.

I read that the inspiration for Green Room came from your teenage love of punk rock.

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Yeah. I just wanted to set a movie in that world. We did the math and the venue seemed to be the most logical place to set it – and then I settled on the green room itself. It seemed like a unique opportunity for me to do a siege scenario. It was really about capturing the atmosphere and texture of a world I was losing my grasp of, because it’s now 20 years since I was active in the scene, you know? And I had no archive of it – this was pre-cellphone camera, pre-internet. I had a few snapshots here and there, but that was it. I thought it would be really fun to dive back into that part of my past, and to put what I know on-screen as far as the set-up.

Of course, it gets totally into the fiction realm once the siege scenario’s unfolding, but yeah, I wanted to fuse my love of genre filmmaking and the punk rock scene. That was my mission!

What was it like to create the dialogue scenes in this? Something like 12 Angry Men reminds me how tense and exciting you can make people talking in a room look. I wondered what your approach was.

I wouldn’t compare Green Room to that work of magical [filmmaking]! But I love to have control over that. I find that most movies are so contrived. So artificial. I wanted to explore… what I was looking for was more realistic behaviour and human interaction. Miscommunication and being somewhat inarticulate under pressure. But every sentence means something emotionally. It was really fun to inhabit the characters as I was writing them, and to let them talk really naturally amongst themselves. They weren’t talking to the audience; they were really talking from their own perspective. That’s fun, and kind of rare to see that projected on-screen – especially in the genre space, really. You see stark, beautiful movies a lot, but there’s just no drama associated with them. [Green Room] is a very traditional action movie, but with a very grounded, human edge to the characters and the way they interact. 

I remember you saying the same thing about Blue Ruin as well. You had very ordinary people thrust into a revenge-thriller scenario.

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Yeah. Blue Ruin was much more action-oriented as well as being a very visual movie. For most of its running time it’s primarily words. So yeah, it’s creating something where the dialogue becomes action in Green Room – the way they interact with each other.

Where do you think that’s come from? Is it a result of your influences, or is it more borne out of frustration because it’s something you’re not seeing in movies?

It’s just how I approach filmmaking. Of course there are heightened moments and hopefully the action sequences, even though they’re scaled down, they’re very intense and cinematic at times. But I do like to approach all aspects of filmmaking in a grounded, realistic, human way. Whether it be naturalistic lighting, or weathered, authentic textures in the production design. Or the way the violence is portrayed in a realistic way. I guess I gravitate towards that in all the elements.

It’s a case of being true to my nature as a filmmaker. It’s also creating content that is for audiences that don’t respond to artificiality and big, goofy unfinished scripts being produced for $100m that don’t make any sense. They have lots of amazing design elements, and they’re visually stunning, but you don’t know what the hell they were thinking when they put it together. They take either terrible shortcuts, or they go with these predictable plot twists, you know? I want to be intuitive and grounded with everything. 

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Did Green Room feel like a natural progression from Blue Ruin, which was very low budget, to this, which was something like $5m, wasn’t it?

Yeah, between a $5-6m budget. It seemed natural. I was very proud of Blue Ruin. It was a very modest film with meagre means. Then we had the amazing [Cannes] premiere and all of a sudden we were on an international platform. It was just amazing. I was also wary of trying to replicate the tone and the mood of that movie. It was done in such a rush that I’d never seen it finished until we were entering it. But I definitely wanted to scale up in terms of the budget range, and maybe actually scale back in terms of what was expected and where I was emotionally. I wanted to make a really fun, brutal, suspenseful movie for the genre crowd, maybe with a bit of cross-over. Almost revert emotionally, but scale up technically. Have some fun making a movie like the ones that inspired me as a kid. Using a simple premise and to mine everything I could from it.

I really love the texture of the filmmaking from the 80s from when I was growing up. I loved the use of miniatures and matte paintings – it was all done with a certain hands-on craft. That’s what I wanted to explore in this film.

You’ve no doubt been asked about John Carpenter a lot. I saw the other day you ran down your top five Carpenter movies. But why do you think he’s become such a touchstone for a younger generation of filmmakers? What is it specifically that makes him so interesting?

I think one thing is atmosphere. It’s hard to find that atmosphere in movies today. His movies were as big as they needed to be. They Live was a pretty big movie, but no bigger than it had to be. It’s that great, on-the-ground filmmaking where it’s a sci-fi scenario but it feels so… I guess authentic. They’re done in a grounded way. The way you feel when you watch The Thing or Prince Of Darkness or Halloween… there’s an electricity that is often lacking in film.

His films are true and sincere, and they’re not self-parodies. I think a lot of films these days are so self-aware that, for true film lovers, it gets to be a little exhausting. Like, they’re not even making films like [John Carpenter’s] anymore – they’re making films that refer to films. But his films are original and authentic. They have a great sense of time and they’re also very politically relevant in their intentions. Sometimes they’re just texturally amazing. Looking back, they become very relevant. Assault On Precinct 13 is a very basic exploitation cinema, but it’s switched on to its time.

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He’s a hands-on filmmaker. The way he does his music, his score work is just phenomenal. That’s one of the biggest influences I see in modern horror films. His soundtracks are so – sometimes a little too in line with the subjects that he pioneered. 

It feels as though he’s finally getting his due. Because for a while he was pushed to the side a little bit, especially by some critics. Now you have filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino referencing him for The Hateful 8.

Oh yeah?

He said that Hateful 8 was partly inspired by The Thing.

Oh sure, yeah. That’s one of my favourites of his. It’s a phenomenal movie.

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You had a great cast of actors in this one – Anton Yelchin, Patrick Stewart. How was that?

I’m very careful not to let any celebrity consideration change how approach making movies. I grew up with a very tight-knit group of filmmakers, and there was no real division of jobs or division of labour. We just loved making movies. We were supportive of each other, and we enjoyed the process. This was the first access I’d had to such an experienced cast and the high-level craft they brought to the table, but I also vetted them for enthusiasm and the passion for telling a story and playing these roles. Because then you have these amazing self-support systems where we’re all in it together. We feel comforted and emboldened by each other’s energy.

So I was lucky enough to work with the cast, and all of them were enthusiastic and kind. I was bracing myself for some sort of Hollywood power dynamic or fussy types, but they were all very professional and dedicated and intense. Sir Patrick Stewart included – he was a late addition. He came on ten days before we shot, but he just swooped in. He was an ensemble member. It was a morale boost when he came on – he put us in a position where we all wanted to do our best work. We were shocked that he had interest in the movie! [Laughs]

He came up with great questions about his character and dug right in. We took it from there – it was a fast process.

One of the big suspense scenes early in the film involves the Dead Kennedys’ Nazi Punks song. That seemed like such a perfect choice that I don’t know what you would have done had you not got the permission to use it. Did you have a fall-back song planned in case you couldn’t?

There was no fall-back. We were shocked. It was approved during pre-production, but I was expecting some big shake-up when the licensing didn’t work out or something, but we had the support of fans. It was amazing. I got caught off guard by the support not only from the Dead Kennedys but the punk rock, hardcore and metal communities. They all rallied and worked out great deals for us. We had wall-to-wall music in this movie up to a certain point, and we got a lot of support from labels and especially the bands themselves. But there was no-o-o replacement for that song in that part of the film. I was very lucky to get it approved. 

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So with Blue Ruin and now Green Room, are these the first two chapters in your own Three Colours trilogy? Can we expect Red next?

It’s not next. I don’t know if I’ll ever do another movie with a colour in the title again. It was more a coincidence! Green Room actually pre-dates Blue Ruin as an idea, its title. I never even thought I’d do another movie after Blue Ruin [Laughs]. 

Do you know what you’re going to make next?

I’ve got a lot of cool things in development. I’m going to take a bit of a break right now and start writing something. And also see what opportunities come – there are some bigger studio projects I’m pursuing, and a really fabulous indie film in development right now that I hope will go in the winter. There’s nothing official, though.

How important is it to retain authorship of your own work, and do you think sometimes some indie directors give that up a bit too easily when they’re given these huge offers from studios?

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Of course, it’s always to each their own. But the way I’m trying to navigate this is not with wide eyes and a certain amount of trust. I want to make sure I’m protecting what I do and what I deliver to audiences. That’s the main thing. I want to make sure I establish myself as a filmmaker. My next film will be my fourth movie, but I’m more impactful now, with having Green Room and Blue Ruin so close together. They definitely speak for who I am as a filmmaker.

I would love to try new movies – bigger movies, a studio film perhaps. Scripts that I have not written myself just to practice the craft of a director. I’d be wary about making sure whatever I want to do is in line with the financiers and the producers and the writer want to do. I think the line where it gets real dangerous is with huge studio franchises – or very scaled down independent productions too. There’s a lot of the same problems in independent film as there are in the studio world. But it’s the matter of compatibility and communication.

I want to make sure I can incrementally earn my way up the ladder so I have enough trust, so that when I get to the bigger films. When you make a film you have to be very bold and go all-in and take a huge risk – that’s how you get the best reward. That’s how you get the audience excited – not by hedging your bets in casting in a way that is expecting and uninteresting. So we’ll see. I might go for films that are $50m, and I might get actor friends to come out and make a little independent film like Blue Ruin again just to have fun and keep it creative.

That’s the goal!

Jeremy Saulnier, thank you very much.

Green Room is out in UK cinemas from the 13th May.