Back Against the Wall: Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room Lands like a Punch to the Gut

Is there a more overused word in film journalism than “visceral?” The adjective is applied and misapplied with such frequency that it has become the rhetorical equivalent of white noise.

And yet, anyone who saw writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin would be hard-pressed to deny that his low-budget revenge thriller was anything short of gut-wrenching in tone, execution and style. Not only was the feature taut, unpredictable and masterfully shot, it had a moral center that elevated it above your typical genre exercise. Critics and audiences took note, and Blue Ruin followed up its 2013 Directors Fortnight selection at Cannes with a long festival run that included both Toronto and Sundance.

Mistaking the film for a feature debut, many wondered where the 37-year-old director had been hiding all these years. As it turns out, in plain sight. Blue Ruin was actually Saulnier’s sophomore effort, coming six years after Murder Party, a horror-comedy that won the Audience Award at 2007’s Slamdance Film Festival. The low-budget slasher had its fans, but it didn’t exactly launch Saulnier on the trajectory he had hoped for. Instead, the Brooklyn-based filmmaker found himself helming corporate videos and taking DP work on indies like Putty Hill, Septien, See Girl Run and In Our Nature. It took the self-financed Blue Ruin, a film he recruited his childhood friend Macon Blair to star in, to land him on studio shortlists. Yet even when you get what you want, you don’t always get what you want.

Jeremy Saulnier, photographed in Toronto by Henny Garfunkel

Jeremy Saulnier, photographed in Toronto by Henny Garfunkel in September 2015

“I was on an airplane to AFI Fest in November of 2013, and I was scared,” says Saulnier. “I had been given access to a bunch of scripts, some of them studio-level, but I didn’t feel like the best candidate. I’d think, ‘This is really good, I want to watch this movie, but I don’t want to spend two years making it.’”

Saulnier was in a bit of a panic. He’d been on the festival circuit for Blue Ruin for nearly a year and he needed a job. As an insurance policy, he wrote Green Room, an idea he’d been kicking around for seven or eight years. It was a siege thriller about a punk rock band that witnesses a murder and ends up trapped in a remote Pacific Northwest concert hall’s green room, with a gang of white supremacists eager to cover up their crime… and anyone else in their way.

“I wanted to step up a bit with production and scale, and do an exercise in tension-building,” Saulnier says of the story. “As a lot of the industry moved toward television—elegant stories and well-crafted long-form arcs—what I wasn’t seeing were immediate experiences that elicited a physical response. I love for audience members to feel that charge, where your heart beats faster. That’s hard to do.

Green Room was never supposed to be overly political, or ‘about’ anything. There’s an extremely tight structure to it, but it’s supposed to appear like a very loose experience. It’s a clusterfuck. There is no crafty plot twist; it was about not letting myself fall into those narrative conveniences.”

By January 2014, the script was 60 pages. “I decided, I’m already this far—I’m going to let a few of these other opportunities go and stick with what I know. The lesson Blue Ruin taught me is that it’s all about timing. It’s as important to be patient and not make a movie as it is to be aggressive, go all in and make one.” By May that year it was announced that Broad Green Pictures and Filmscience would be producing, and by November, Green Room had already wrapped production.

Putting the Band Together

The inspiration for Green Room was Saulnier’s experiences as a singer—or a “yeller,” as he describes— in a punk band in the ’90s (“like Mad Max,” he says, “boots and braces and spiked hair and studs”). He was particularly interested in the way bands operate as tight-knit, occasionally dysfunctional, families.

“What’s important is the collective dynamic. In bands, there’s always strife, but it’s not, like, betrayal; it’s mostly getting pissed because someone is eating too many of the potato chips.”

With a green light and a budget nearly 10 times that of his last film, Saulnier set out to find the four actors that would bring his band, the Ain’t Rights, to life. As it turned out, Blue Ruin had attracted the attention of actors. And many were excited about the chance to play a band of punk rockers.

“Jeremy and I ended up bonding because we were both shitty vocalists in shitty bands,” says Anton Yelchin, who plays band member Pat. “I could relate to how the people you’re playing with are usually your best friends.”

For Alia Shawkat, it was an opportunity to further expand her repertoire of on-screen characters. She liked the narrative simplicity of the screenplay. “It was about ordinary people in a scary situation, rather than just another story about romance, or denial, or whatever,” she says. Her role, Sam—the only female Ain’t Right—was originally written male, but Filmscience’s Neil Kopp and Anish Savjani had worked with Shawkat on Kelly Reichhart’s Night Moves, and thought she’d be perfect for the part.

Shawkat had played classical and jazz most of her life, but she found punk to be a different thing entirely. Saulnier sent records from bands like Bad Brains and Dead Kennedys, as well as pictures and documentaries, to provide the bandmates a crash course in the scene that had so influenced him as a teen. (In fact, to expand Green Room beyond the screen, A24 has launched Green Room Radio [greenroom-radio.com], an online punk rock radio show with one-on-one interviews with punk legends and, of course, a playlist of hardcore punk music.)

Yelchin, Shawkat and actor Joe Cole started rehearsing the four songs the band would play in the movie. They got so good, in fact, that at the wrap party they even played two new songs that they’d written for fun. Rounding out the Ain’t Rights as lead singer was actor Callum Turner, whose schedule didn’t allow him to join the production until the night before principal shooting.

This is where Saulnier learned the difference between directing a do-it-yourself indie and helming a union shoot, with a cast that included in-demand actors like Imogen Poots and Patrick Stewart. “I’d only done films that I had complete control over; films that I’d built from scratch and self-funded. I had Macon Blair on Blue Ruin, and he’s an amazing actor, but he’s also my best bud, so access wasn’t a problem. I didn’t have to wait a month for him to read the script.”

Saulnier wanted his daughters to see Imogen Poots’ character and think, “Wow, there's a girl and she's kicking ass," she said. “That spoke volumes about him."

Saulnier wanted his daughters to see Imogen Poots’ character and think, “Wow, there’s a girl and she’s kicking ass,” she said. “That spoke volumes about him.”

For Green Room, Saulnier had to work within the Hollywood system. Which meant a lot of waiting. “I had a hard time transitioning to the business and political sides of things… The scheduling, and going through agents and managers, and levels of filtration, and everyone trying to do their due diligence… Holy shit. Every single person on your crew and cast is providing for someone, or has other movies to do. This is not the center of their universe; this is them donating time for a very small window. To get an entire ensemble cast to line up and be available for this small six-week window, it took so much energy.

“It’s something you don’t necessarily think of. In many ways it was like a mini-studio experience, where I didn’t have complete control and I had to fight to maintain my vision. I had a hard time with anything that affected the quality of the movie, and it was real tough to work within the system. It was the most stressful experience in my professional life.”

Finding a Wingman

Saulnier was smart enough to recognize that, unlike on his previous two features, there was no way he could serve as Green Room’s director of photography. “Blue Ruin had a single protagonist, and three-quarters of the film was almost wordless, so if I wasn’t looking through the lens I wasn’t able to tell the story,” he says. “Green Room is a very contained ensemble piece. If I’d been looking through the lens, I would’ve denied my actors my true presence.”

Though the film’s producers had Saulnier field a variety of studio-level DPs, he knew fairly early in the interview process that he wanted cinematographer Sean Porter. A fellow veteran of the indie world, Porter has established himself as a versatile and innovative craftsman, composing the images for highly regarded indies like It Felt like Love and Kumiko the Treasure Hunter. (“They’re two different movies, both very assured, [the former] with very intuitive hand-held camera work, the other with gorgeous, rigidly composed classical images,” says Saulnier.)

“It’s always nerve-wracking to have conversations with directors who are also DPs, because there’s always the question, “You’re so good at your job; what could I possibly bring to the equation?” says Porter. “The benefits? “A lot of the technical boundaries don’t exist. You can really open conversations about lenses and lighting choices. You develop a shorthand.”

Porter also liked that Saulnier understood the constant indie need for on-the-fly solutions and the ability to stretch resources past their breaking point. “He knows what it’s like to make a movie for under $100,000. I’ve been there and done that. He was looking for someone who was a shooter, but who, more importantly, would be his filmmaking wingman.”

An $8 million screenplay that, Saulnier says, was made on a $5.5 million budget, Green Room was the director’s first full union shoot. “It was time for me to make a living. I was 38. I had three kids. Daddy had to get a pension; Daddy had to get healthcare for the family. I’m happy it was a decision that had support from everyone involved.”

For Porter, a union shoot has its upsides and its downsides. “I think it’s a slippery slope,” he says, “but there’re a lot of reasons why it’s a good idea. The talent of the crew alone is huge; having experienced, hardworking people at your disposal really goes a long way. And there’s the great protection that it brings in not working people to death. It’s really the directors who need that. I’ve worked on so many movies where the producers insisted that a first-time director work a six-day shooting week. It’s so short-sighted to say, ‘Let’s save a couple of grand by forcing our director to work another day,’ when really they should be spending that time thinking about the material, watching the dailies, and prepping for the next week.”

Porter adds, however, that “there is this budget pocket where a union shoot can compromise a small film, of $3-4 million. A lot of money that would normally be going on the screen gets tied up in things like transport unions. It’s a scary place for directors, producers and DPs to work in. When you have so little money and you’re trying to make the best film you can, that can loom over a set.”

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