How They Did It: The Incredible-but-True Story of Blue Ruin

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Blue Ruin‘s director-writer-DP, Jeremy Saulnier, shares one of MovieMaker‘s greatest “How They Did It” stories of all time, lying, begging, and impoverishing himself on the way to Cannes glory with his sleek bullet of a revenge thriller. This article appears in full in our Spring issue, on stands now.

Prologue

I’ve come to embrace the story of Blue Ruin as one of smashing success. My initial attempts to diminish or deny this reality seemed more and more like false modesty as the fairytale unfolded. We sold our film to RADiUS-TWC two hours after its Cannes premiere. We played Sundance, Toronto, Rotterdam and dozens of other festivals. Reviews have been generous. Hollywood has called. I’m that shithead who won the Indie Film Lotto. But if it weren’t for a series of lucky breaks, the story of Blue Ruin could easily have been one of utter disaster. Truth be told, our production was perpetually on the hairy edge of collapse. That, of course, was kept a secret—until now.

Part One: Dead in the Water

In January of 2012 I wrote a script, which some people liked, a few people loved, and nobody wanted to fund.

Part Two: an Epiphany

But the script was there. I believed it to be a fresh take on the revenge genre, with an inept ‘everyman’ protagonist who, rather than dishing out steely-eyed justice to the deserving black hats, is instead ground down by the tragic, brutal and darkly comic consequences of his own ill-fated mission of vengeance. As stated in our investor’s packet: the depth of an intimate character study and the velocity of an action flick.

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Jeremy Saulnier, the lying, scheming mind behind Blue Ruin

We were asking for a million dollars. After all, we had stunts, car crashes, bloody gunfights and 80 locations across four states. We aspired to pay sustainable wages and keep the schedule humane. We wanted to do it the Right Way.

There was never a question of who would helm Blue Ruin—me. My best friend and collaborator Macon Blair would be in front of the camera. Given the opportunity to showcase each other’s talents, we had full faith. But by failing to woo investors, we were forced to take an appraisal of our own industry stock value. Then and there, we stopped spinning our wheels and came to a not-so-stunning conclusion: Macon and I were liabilities to our own production.

A corporate video director with a few DP credits whose last feature was a 2007 standard-def horror-comedy that’s still in the red? Wants his best friend—a video librarian and part-time actor that also writes comic books—to play the lead? For a million dollars? Nope, we wouldn’t hire ourselves either.

Part Three: “Fall Back!”

Perhaps we expected this all along, since our fall-back plan was already integrated into the narrative world of the script. The writing process was governed as much by real-world practicality as it was by artistic passion: Set pieces and complicated action sequences were designed around locations owned by friends and family. Key props and picture cars were already on hand (give or take some friendly harassment). We had banked on the home-team advantage from the very beginning.

As far as the over-ambitious nature of the script, our suburban Virginia film collective had been cranking out zombie-special-effects bonanzas and half-assed action flicks since grade school. Bullets and gore were well within our comfort zone. Macon and I were much more worried about three 6-10 page dialogue scenes that required deadly serious, highly emotional exchanges without the refuge of visual distraction or comedic self-parody.

We had to put ourselves out there for real. Especially Macon, who was tasked with carrying every scene in the film. Giving him his first starring role in a feature had been my mission for 15 years. I knew of his great (and previously underutilized) acting talents, and I selfishly wanted to stake a claim on having ‘discovered’ him. More importantly, I was plotting to exploit our friendship and take advantage of his kind and loyal heart. He’d give me everything he had and never voice a single complaint. A talented actor is key, but a fully invested one is worth his weight in gold. Hallelujah. But we still needed that cash.

Blue Ruin Dwight

Part Four: All In

My wife made the first move and emptied her retirement account. She’s a generous, supportive spouse, but she doesn’t fuck around when it comes to her kids’ college tuition. This was a calculated risk on her part and the gesture was a huge boost. I followed suit, and we dumped our entire liquid net-worth into the pot. Next, I played the role of deadbeat son/son-in-law and hit my family up for $25K. Our UPM advised against green-lighting production unless we had the cash on hand to make crew payroll for the entire shoot. If we bounced checks, we’d risk mutiny and forever sully the good names of our producers and ourselves.

We bit the bullet and launched a Kickstarter campaign to cover the remaining $35K shortfall. I was initially reluctant, but fumbling my way through a ‘pitch video’ forced me to clarify my intentions. I bought a camera, posted test footage, and received instant positive feedback. I presented storyboards and compiled look-books. The campaign was a success and I was grateful beyond words, but having the support of our backers was as terrifying as it was inspiring: we now had over 400 people to answer to!

Either way, we were officially green-lit. But the issues that caused investors to shy away would surely come up again when reaching out for cast. Who the hell are these chuckleheads? The only solution was…

Part Five: Subterfuge

Anish Savjani and Vincent Savino had devoted years to producing independent films, building a solid reputation and a well-respected brand for their company, filmscience, in the process. I’d been harassing them to produce several scripts since we met at SXSW in 2004 and had photographed a film for them the previous summer. They were on board from the start: the first to read the story treatment and the first to sign on. But they were already in pre-production on the film, Night Moves. Anish had warned me that our schedules might collide and that they might not be able to provide ‘boots on the ground’ for Blue Ruin.

“No worries,I told him. “We’ll just steal your brand.” Since it was established that Macon and I were liabilities, Murder Party—our first feature, a low-rent horror comedy and our only calling card—would be strategically disowned. I was re-branded as the cinematographer of Putty Hill and Septien (two acclaimed indies that premiered at prestigious festivals), Macon was re-branded as a ‘promising unknown’ poised for breakout success, and Blue Ruin was re-branded as strictly a filmscience production.

filmscience! The name attracted actors immediately, but our gracious casting directors at Powers/Kaplan identified some red flags that were cause for concern. Kickstarter? Are you fully funded? Is this film even happening? We love Macon, but the first thing everyone will ask is, Who’s playing the lead?”

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Macon Blair in Blue Ruin

Bullshitting colleagues is a terrible thing to do and I don’t recommend doing it. But with a darkened expression and an ulcerating stomach, I lied. Of course we’re fully funded! Kickstarter is merely a long-lead PR campaign to build grassroots support and cushion the budget with soft money! The lead? Hmmmmm. Couldn’t skirt that one.

We blew pixie dust in everyone’s face, scrambled to a computer, logged on to IMDb and curated every photo on Macon’s actor profile page. He had been preparing for the role of Dwight, a ragged beach dweller bent on revenge, by growing a devastating beard for nine months. We uploaded a photograph of Macon taken in character while location scouting in Virginia—full costume, full beard, with a dead-eyed stare and an M-14 rifle.

Macon’s name didn’t woo investors and it wouldn’t attract talent. But when they heard he was playing the lead, they’d check IMDB. And when they did, Dwight was staring back at them. Seeing is believing.

Part Six: Lift Off

We fooled them all! Our film could have imploded at any time, but we were gaining momentum. filmscience was aware of the thin ice on which we were walking, but they trusted my word. I justified the morally compromised behavior by insisting I would eventually bend my lies into truth. We had an amazing cast now who dug the script and wanted to practice their craft. Some even came to my house to rehearse with Macon.

In the meantime, Night Moves was slated to begin shooting 2,800 miles away in Portland, Oregon. The filmscience team would do their best to oversee from afar, but I was going to need those ‘boots on the ground.’ I reached out to my usual cohorts and colleagues, and was tipped off to some young hungry bucks: Richard Peete and Tyler Byrne at indie production company Neighborhood Watch.

I generally fear young people (they were 10 years my junior, unreasonably handsome, and wore capri pants) but these gentlemen came highly recommended. So on July 17, 2012, I sat down with Richard Peete for the first time, complete strangers. Before we finished our coffees, Neighborhood Watch was in. This blind and reckless leap of faith nearly made me cry. Now I had to make a movie.

Part Seven: Production

Boots hit the ground six weeks later.

Suddenly all my bluster gave way to self-doubt. So many people had invested their time, reputations and money based purely on their faith in me. I dug deep for the fortitude to continue, but the wells were empty. So I went with denial instead. I willed upon myself a partial lobotomy, shutting down the risk-averse logic centers of the brain. I would push forward, propelled not by dogged determination, but by a self-inflicted neural short circuit.

Here, the story of Blue Ruin delves back into very familiar territory: the indie film war story. We all worked wearing too many hats and with too few dollars. Neighborhood Watch came through on set, and our UPM/1st AD, Alex Orr, was a scheduling mastermind. More importantly, he agreed to play ‘bad cop’ on set. He cracked the whip and kept to brass tacks. A director himself, he knew when ‘making the day’ wasn’t as important as making the movie.

That was key to our production. Everyone was a filmmaker, and everyone was heard. Carlos Valdes-Lora, our key grip, gave me the most insightful script notes I received. Cameron Morton, our 2nd AD (and additional stunt player), politely chimed in when he saw me making a creative choice that would later have proven to be embarrassing. We shot a version his way—and that’s what made the final cut. Rommel Genciana, our gaffer, offered me an inspired pep talk at the halfway point that brought me to tears and carried me through production. Our camera department, headed by 1st AC Ryan Dickie, kept the focus sharp and their director/DP on task. When morale dipped, I turned to costume designer Brooke Bennett and prop master Mike Anderson, whose unshakable positivity was a thing of wonder. And, as usual, the under-funded art department, led by Kaet McAnneny and Brian Rzepka, worked twice the hours for half the glory.

At times I was their fearless leader, at others a mumbling catatonic mess. To me, the entire production seemed a psychedelic blur. (And I wasn’t even the one eating shrooms in the back of the limousine picture car on our night off. Ahem.) While I lost sight of it from time to time, our fall-back plan was still firmly in place. Having the home team advantage paid dividends, as did a few other production strategies that allowed us to aesthetically transcend our limited budget:

1)    Being a triple threat.

I served as the writer, director and cinematographer of Blue Ruin. Call me a glory hound, but that move saved an estimated $30K in upfront fees and travel costs. I deferred all payment for my services and my camera gear. Also, the on-set collaboration between me and myself was effortless. (Except, perhaps, during heavy dialogue scenes—I found myself distracted by technical minutiae when I should have been focused solely on performance.)

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(L-R) Key Grip Carlos Valdes-Lora, Saulnier, and 1st AC Ryan Dickie

 

2)    More Days.

Of the three films I’d photographed the previous year, all had 18-day shooting schedules. We achieved great work, but under constant duress. Scheduling and logistics are integral to any production but when they are prioritized over capturing performances or executing scenes as they were intended, the film suffers. I demanded 30 days to shoot Blue Ruin. To make that work within our budget, we started with a pared down crew for six days in Delaware and New York and brought on the full 28-person crew for the remaining 24 days in Virginia.

3)    Fewer Pixels.

I forewent the biggest and baddest cameras on the market in favor of something light, lean and user-friendly. I purchased a Canon C300 and a five-foot camera slider from MYT Works. I could shoot pickups or capture a waning sunset on a whim without additional expenditures or equipment checkouts. During a three-man location scout (which included Associate Producer Chris Sharp, also the star of the previously disowned and now re-embraced Murder Party), a Nor’easter blasted through our Virginia neighborhood. We captured the post-storm carnage and later cut the footage into the film’s finale—all because our ‘A’ camera was in the van, ready to go. And by spending less on pixel counts and tech specs, we were able to allocate more resources towards production design, lighting and makeup during principal photography. For the price of an Arri Alexa with Cooke glass (which is my usual package), we brought on Toby Sells, an amazing Atlanta-based special effects makeup artist with credits on The Walking Dead. 2K, 4K, 6K? Show me an exploding head in 1080P.

4)    Ask less, get more. 

We offered roles only to actors who were willing to audition. It proved their commitment and their fortitude. If a performance in a cramped room, under institutional lighting, over the whir of industrial fans could bring me to tears, I figured we’d be safe ‘on the day.’ It also helped that we intentionally compartmentalized the narrative so that scenes with the supporting cast centered on brief, profound interactions with the lead. No actor other than Macon worked more than five days. That’s how you get top tier talent on a meager production. Get them in, let them work, and ship them off before they smell something funny. We thought actors like Amy Hargreaves, Devin Ratray, Kevin Kolack, David Thompson, and Eve Plumb were out of our reach, but we respected their time and they respected ours. Just in case, we further stacked the deck in our favor by recruiting trusted friends Brent Werzner, Stacy Rock and Sandy Barnett to round out the ensemble—all highly talented, all tough as nails.

Behind the scenes, we remained on the edge of implosion. American Express called me a week from wrap to inform me that my account had been flagged and the following week I would owe them $80K. That would take our cash to zero.

But when disaster loomed or reality beckoned, I leaned on Macon. He endured grueling physical demands, performed his own stunts and, feeding off the talents of his supporting cast, delivered the performance of a lifetime. All, as predicted, without a single complaint. He even broom-swept locations after wrap. When I saw him come alive through the lens as Dwight Evans, somehow I knew we were safe.

Part (Lucky) Seven: Post-Production

We wrapped principal photography on October 14, 2012 in a daze of triumph and delirium. But there was no time to recuperate as our editor, Julia Bloch, had started a rough-cut in a valiant effort to slap something together for the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. The two-hour assembly we submitted was very well received by the programmers but ultimately not accepted.

We re-grouped. Went back to our day jobs. Saved up some cash and blew it immediately on a hospital pickup scene we couldn’t shoot during principal photography. Finally, and officially, we were picture wrapped.

Mired in debt, my wife and I re-financed our house and prepared for the winter. And what a winter it was. Our third daughter was born on February 6, 2013. Our dog had to be put down on February 9. My father passed away on February 10. And Macon’s wife, Lee, gave birth to their son on February 20. The film that meant everything to us suddenly didn’t. And that was liberating. We had just submitted the Blue Ruin rough cut to several regional film festivals. Before they even had a chance to watch our screener, we pulled it from consideration. Nobody else would see this film half-realized. We wouldn’t set ourselves up for failure. We had abandoned the Right Way for production, but we could embrace it now.

The next big festival deadline was Cannes. I sat down with Anish at filmscience and we agreed: This is not a Cannes film. But we needed an arbitrary goal to get us back up to speed, so why not? Julia’s editing schedule freed up in the spring and she agreed to come back for another four-week round. Thankfully, it proved far more fruitful than the first. We were editing for content, for character, and for the integrity of the film itself. We submitted a solid first cut to Cannes and went back to our day jobs. We’d lock picture down the line and re-submit to Sundance in the fall. Their programmers had recently followed up to express their continued interest and support, giving us renewed hope.

Then on April 9, 2013, en route to the airport for a corporate video shoot in Cleveland, I received an acceptance letter from the team at Director’s Fortnight inviting Blue Ruin to premiere in Cannes that May.

I sat down with Anish at filmscience and we agreed: This is totally a fucking Cannes film! We immediately brought on board Memento Films International as our sales company and started the prep for France.

That’s when shit got easy. OK, first there was an absolutely insane effort to go from ‘first cut’ to picture-locked reels with polished visual effects (Justin Ball and Chris Connolly), post-sound (Cory Melious and Heard City), musical score (Brooke and Will Blair) and color grading (Alex Bickel at Color Collective) in less than six weeks. The post-production team absolutely killed it.

And that’s when shit got easy. Investors who had earlier opted out kindly offered us finishing funds. We kindly refused them and went for broke. We piled on more debt, but with an end in sight and a whole new set of expectations.

From the outside looking in, the world of festival programming can seem elusive, arbitrary and subjective. And it is. But this time our film was chosen out of a stack of DVD screeners and we were going to Cannes. Indie Film Lotto.

Copy of Blue Ruin Pontiac

Part Eight: No Regrets

There are things I would have done differently but there are absolutely no regrets. My father didn’t live to see the finished film (although he did fall asleep during a rough-cut, which provided me some valuable notes on pacing). But, before he passed, I found comfort in sharing with him the success of Blue Ruin. On his deathbed, my father was read aloud a letter I wrote him:

‘…If you can’t make the premiere of my new film, I’d like you to know that I am dedicating the movie to you, for the world to see. And I’ve got a feeling Blue Ruin will lead to my fame and fortune…’

Utter bullshit, of course. We had just been rejected from Sundance with six figures of credit card debt. But if time is running out, you sometimes need to bullshit. As long as you bend those lies into truth. MM

Blue Ruin opens in U.S. theaters this Friday, April 25, 2014, courtesy of RADiUS-TWC. All pictures courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.

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4 Comments

  1. Don laikowski

    May 1, 2014 at 12:57 am

    Thanks for this information this article is inspirational I am currently producing the feature film NIGHT GIRL. It hasn’t been easy and it has its ups and downs I’m determined to make this film and this is an inspiration knowing that it can and will be done.

    • MovieMaker Magazine

      May 1, 2014 at 7:04 pm

      That’s great, Don! Hopefully your experience is anywhere near as exciting and rewarding as Jeremy’s on Blue Ruin. Good luck!

  2. MovieMaker Magazine

    April 29, 2014 at 7:17 pm

    Thanks for the feedback, Andrew! We will definitely let Jeremy Saulnier know you enjoyed his article. And we think some parts of the aftermath are obvious, at least – Blue Ruin got picked up by RADiUS-TWC and opened in theaters April 2014. :)

  3. Andrew

    April 27, 2014 at 9:22 pm

    This was inspiring to read, but the end is so abrupt! I would have loved to hear about what happened after, your experience in Cannes and where did it lead you. Maybe you could do a second article (even a shorter one)? Anyway, I’ve enjoyed your film very much, thank you.