Jeremy Saulnier interview: making Blue Ruin & good thrillers

Blue Ruin director Jeremy Saulnier tells us how what would have been his final feature film became a breakthrough hit at Cannes...

From a limited set of resources, director Jeremy Saulnier, actor Macon Blair and their collaborators made Blue Ruin – one of the best indie thrillers we’ve seen in years. About a lonely drifter who one day embarks on a revenge mission, it’s pared-back, unpredictable and elegantly shot.

The story behind Blue Ruin is as intriguing as the film itself. Saulnier and Blair had been making films together since their childhood, and Blue Ruin was intended as their final collaboration – “Macon and I had really given up on our quest to break into the industry and become legitimate filmmakers,” the director says.

As a result, they put everything they had, creatively and financially, into their revenge saga, and steeped the film in their youthful memories: at least one character’s based on a childhood friend, while the filming locations are ones the filmmakers regularly frequented as teenagers.

The air of nostalgia and lonely realism seeps into the finished film, and perhaps explains why it’s not only a refreshingly different kind of revenge flick, but also an acclaimed one. Selected to screen at the prestigious Director’s Fortnight at Cannes last year, it was picked up at its premiere by Radius TWC – one of The Weinstein Company’s distributors. Far from signing off Saulnier and Blair’s careers, Blue Ruin sent it off in an entirely new direction.

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Here, Jeremy Saulnier – who also wrote and shot Blue Ruin – describes the film’s fascinating story in his own words.

Congratulations on Blue Ruin first of all – you must be delighted with the response so far, I’m sure.

It’s mind-boggling.

I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the origins of the story.

It was Macon Blair, my best friend. I’ve been trying to get him in front of the camera in a lead role for 20 years, and I really designed the whole film around him. His beach bum character was spooling around in my head for two years prior to making Blue Ruin. And I just wanted to explore our old stomping grounds. We had this rich experience in our youth, making films as a collective. In our vacations, Macon and I would spend a week every summer going to the Delaware shore.

To be honest, Macon and I had really given up on our quest to break into the industry and become legitimate filmmakers. So what we were trying to do with Blue Ruin was archive our 20 year arc, and bring it to a close. Really just revisit our stomping grounds and use locations that were near and dear to us and build a narrative out of that.

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I thought of this revenge scenario because it had an automatic thrust to it – a very compelling and familiar arc that needs no explanation. It’s a revenge mission; it’s so simple. But what we do is, we take that scenario and… you wouldn’t try to compete with the spectacle and tight choreography of action films that we love. We downscale it to our world. We bring it back home.

With Macon in the lead – who obviously isn’t your traditional action helmer – he really embraced it. Like, we’re going to make this weird, hybrid movie that is what might happen if one of us tried to embark on a traditional, cinematic revenge mission. It was really shaped that way: Macon first, then the character, then realising that the action films and genre stuff of our youth was out of our reach. So we brought it home and made it attainable.

The stuff we dealt with in our narrative was the stuff that ends up on the cutting room floor in most action movies. The minutiae, the inconvenience and the blowback of things that usually have no consequence in the cinematic realm. 

That’s what made it so refreshing: how little machismo and righteous fury there is in it. He’s very human, Dwight’s character. How did you develop him with Macon?

I was much more comfortable with the idea of an ordinary person going on a revenge mission, and Macon was not. I had to convince him and negotiate around the character. Is he a bit off-kilter in terms of his emotional stability? Is he actually a bit crazy? Does he drink – does he wallow that way, or does he drink tea? Is he quiet?

We had a lot of exchanges about the character. But what set Dwight apart was is that he is compelled not by bloodlust, but by this deep current of sorrow and emotion and obligation to his family. He himself is reluctant. I think that’s why audiences can connect with him: he never thought he’d survive the first part of this revenge mission, so when his initial mission is completed early in the movie, the audience and Dwight both have to live in this limbo. A very unfamiliar territory. The last two-thirds of the film would come after the credits roll in most revenge flicks.

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Macon, as Dwight, it was his challenge to slowly win people over, because there is no justification for his act. Only this enigmatic back story that is gradually revealed. It was delightful to do things that aren’t done, and only because we didn’t get much financing. We had to trust audiences to fill in the gaps. To not rely on needless exposition and flashback sequences to justify everything.

Your use of telling the story through imagery rather than lots of talking was another thing I liked. For example, Dwight’s car, which is so tired and full of holes – it bespeaks a huge history without further explanation. That was really interesting.

Yeah. I definitely wanted to do that as an exercise. I was working as a cinematographer, and I was going to lots of film festivals and seeing lots of these American, dialogue-driven, contained films, and I just wasn’t reacting to them.

I have a wife and a mortgage and kids, and yet my daily experience is more hectic and riveting than a lot of these American indie films! They’re about people moving apartments, or painting a wall. They were really mundane. I like escapism, I like thrills and chills.

I wanted to do a visually-crafted movie. I wanted it to be very quiet, and very formal, and very classic in its aesthetic approach. And I hadn’t been seeing these. I thought, where are the directors who know their lenses? There’s so much of this handheld free-for-all. I got frustrated, then I thought, instead of me bitching and moaning about it, why not go and do something? Something that I can showcase for audiences, and see if they respond?

It started, for me as a cinematographer, to take the helm as director but really rely on the camera, to navigate the narrative quietly and not hit the audience over the head every two minutes. 

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I was wondering what thriller films inspire you, because it seems to me that fewer and fewer of them are being made in America at the moment.

I was inspired by the films of my youth. I love action movies, horror movies, mostly for the atmosphere and the heightened experience. I was inspired to do something that was more akin to those films I saw early on than the ones I was currently seeing. What I was seeing these days – I wanted to deviate from that as much as possible, and sit inside my own little niche. I’m not sure I’ve answered your question, though! [Laughs]

Well, it struck me as I watched Blue Ruin that it’s been ages since I’ve seen a suspense-filled thriller like this.

The Coens. Early Michael Mann. Those films of the 80s really inspired me. And also films like Unforgiven by Clint Eastwood, and also In The Bedroom, which is really a down-scaled, emotional take on a killing, a revenge mission. But I agree, it has been a while. And I was really excited, because I realised, “Wait a second. What we’re about to do, I haven’t seen before.”

That’s very invigorating to realise as a filmmaker. Not that this is uncharted territory, but that it’s at least going to be refreshing. We thought, we’d better hurry up and make this before we lose our advantage!

I thought the attitude to violence was really interesting as well – it doesn’t revel in the bloodshed, even though there’s a lot of it.

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Exactly. There’s only one scene that contains a gratuitous gore shot. And that’s to mislead the audience, to make them squirm. But the reason is because there’s a punchline that follows. That was the key to the violence and the gore and the makeup effects – I embrace the fact that it’s a craft and a worthy art. I grew up doing special effects makeup,  I was a zombie for Halloween. So there’s the technical prowess that I appreciate, and again, when you have a life-and-death situation in a film, it’s a heightened experience. You get the heart rate pumping.

What I wasn’t going to do was a standard exploitation picture. That genre had to take a backseat to the drama and the emotion and the setting. The violence was used as a narrative tool. It had to have an emotional shock and people had to feel the loss, feel the weight of a life lost on screen. Also, it had to have a direct influence on the path of the narrative, and justify the story.

While there are pseudo political messages going back and forth, some of them are at conflict with each other in the movie. Primarily, my focus was the audience and the narrative. So if violence was used it had to respect the path of our protagonist, and carry weight. 

Devin Ratray’s character was a great contrast to Dwight as well. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about casting him?

Sure. Devin came in to audition for Teddy, and the dynamic was totally wrong. He was too young. But we had a really great rapport, and I thought, he’s a great actor, but he’s too young for the role he’s auditioning for. But being a low-budget, independent film with meagre resources, you can’t let an actor like that go. I did some rewriting of the Ben character, and reworked it for Devin. He was so kind, and I said to myself, this is what I’m looking for between Dwight and Ben. So I knew I could do it without even having a second audition. I said, “Do you want to play Ben?” And he was onboard.

We designed the film so people like Devin or Amy Hargreaves weren’t working for more than five days. Our budget was so low, convincing them to take a whole month was nearly impossible. But if you ask them to devote, basically a long weekend of their time, then it becomes, “Well, why not? I can get a credit, I can practice my craft, and not get too bogged down in a production.”

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I used and abused Macon all the time, and made him the protagonist in the film, but kept all the big character exchanges compartmentalised. So Devin would come in and blow us all away, he was fantastic, but within three days he was back up in New York working. We were so honoured to have actors like Devin.

The Ben character’s modelled after my friend and next door neighbour – who’s also called Ben! The gun collection in Blue Ruin is my friend’s gun collection. Not literally, but I interviewed him. He likes guns. He doesn’t hunt, he doesn’t harm things, but he was a good model. He would be the guy I’d go to in this scenario if I needed a gun. I don’t know a mobster that could meet me in an alleyway and pass me a gun. So what I’d do if I needed one? I’d go to Ben. So I modelled the character after my good buddy who’s a gentle soul, but also a gun aficionado.

I used that dynamic from my youth. A lot of this film is about nostalgia and youth. Dwight and his journey to uncover the truth about his past – this tragic event that set the story in motion – he’s retreading on very familiar ground. He’s almost regressing, going back to his youth in tracing this event. It was parallel to my experience, in that we were shooting in these places from my youth and Macon’s youth, so as Dwight was visiting his haunting grounds, so were Macon and I. It was great to see it come alive in the camera.

This was a low-budget film as you’ve said. How instrumental was Kickstarter in getting it made?

We needed it. Ultimately, it was only about nine percent of the budget, total. But this film was never actually funded; it was paid for in instalments, by necessity – on credit cards, and whatever it took to get it done. The biggest hurdle for us was cash up front. So my wife and I invested all of our money. We borrowed some from our mothers. But to greenlight the film, we were short $35,000 cash. That was to make payroll for the crew through a legitimate company. So it was an absolute perfect scenario for Kickstarter, because it wasn’t asking people to give us all the money, it was more that we’d given all we could and we needed a literal kickstart to make this film a reality.

Once we did, we shot the film and got it in the can, and then went back to our day jobs. Because we had a closing window of time – I couldn’t wait another year to do the film, because I had a third daughter on the way, and Macon had his first son on the way. Macon and me were thinking we’d do this film and maybe retire. It was going to be our swansong. This was it.

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So Kickstarter made it a reality. We had a limited time to shoot it, with no other resources and no other investors. It was a great way to bridge the gap between where we were and where we needed to be. It really came together. But only after we’d invested everything we possibly could ourselves. We were all in it together.

The success of the film was a shock to everyone. It was a crazy ride. But again, we needed that push early on. It was a great vote of confidence, too. It was a nominal amount of money for each person, each Kickstarter backer. But when you get turned down by financiers, it doesn’t help your confidence when you’re making a movie. Then you get 400 backers who are behind your movie, it’s a real welcome boost. 

It must have been incredible, then to take it to Cannes. What was the experience like there?

It was a surreal fairytale. We were so shock. We hadn’t even planned to finish the film in time. We submitted a first cut to make the deadline, then we thought we’d regroup in the fall to finish it. Then, when we got in, we had to fast-track post-production, so much so that I had never seen the finished film, and nor had Macon. In fact, no one on the crew had. So it premiered at the Director’s Fortnight theatre in Cannes.

We were so grateful to be there. Edouard Waintrop and Benjamin Illos from Fortnight had programmed our film – that was the lottery ticket. An obscure filmmaker with an unknown movie was plucked out of the hat. That was the huge shift in our story. Someone, without any prior knowledge, happened to like our movie – and they were at one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world.

Once we were there, we had so much work to do technically behind the scenes that we didn’t have the time to psyche ourselves out or over think anything. We were just there. By the time of the premiere, we’d already had our first offer to sell it. There was a press screening that we didn’t attend in the morning, where someone made the first offer. That person was Tom Quinn at [film distributor] Radius.

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So we suddenly went from obscurity to, “Oh, we have less than a month to get ready”, to founding ourselves at Cannes, premiering the film, and then we sold it two hours afterwards. We were amazed. We had a champagne toast with our team, and we were like, “Who are these people who are drinking champagne in Cannes? Oh, it’s us! Me and Macon from Virginia. This is absolutely insane!”

Then, of course, our trajectory shifted totally. Our access to the industry was a reality and all that. It was such an insane vortex, this film, from a near cautionary tale to a huge success story.

That’s a great story. I take it, then, that this isn’t the swansong you and Macon originally thought it would be. Do you know what you’re going to do next yet?

You know what? I don’t. There’s a tonne of things up in the air, and I’m hoping to announce something as early as this month [May]. There’s definitely been a shift in our trajectory. The main thing for me is, I tend to be an over-thinker, and very precious. Now we’ve put everything we had into Blue Ruin – it had a 25 year build-up, and it was such an amazing thing for us. I know one thing: I’m not going to try and do that again. I’m not going to expect anything anymore. But now that it’s a viable fact that I might make more than one movie in the rest of my life, I’m just going to try not to over-think things and use my intuition, which is why I got here – Blue Ruin is very much an exercise in intuition and trusting your gut.

So I’m going to try to move forward, not bite off more than I can chew, but slowly work my way up in increments. I’ll set my sights on Hollywood a bit later, but right now, I want to stay in the genre space, and work with as little filtration as possible – what comes from me goes straight to the audience. I don’t want to be too watered-down by financiers and script notes. Most of all, I don’t want to abandon all the lessons I learned on Blue Ruin: basically, trust your gut, stick with your friends, don’t look back.

Jeremy Saulnier, thank you very much.

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Blue Ruin is out in UK cinemas now. You can read our review here.

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