Novel Ideas: Moviemakers Jeremy Saulnier and Macon Blair on Adapting a Book for the Screen and Building Atmosphere

In September, director Jeremy Saulnier and screenwriter Macon Blair attended Fantastic Fest 2018 to present Hold the Dark—a fully-immersive cinematic adaptation of William Giraldi’s 2014 novel and the latest offering from the acclaimed duo behind Green Room and Blue Ruin.

Following the film’s screening in Austin, TX, the pair spoke to a packed audience about pressing their personal limits and crafting a veritable descent into the underworld in the frozen north.

On Adapting the Novel for the Screen 

Macon Blair (MB): I was trying to find something that Jeremy could direct. I read the book in two sittings, and felt it could be something that would fit in his wheelhouse and also be something bigger than what he’d done before. We were pretty literal and faithful with the adaptation. We wanted to preserve what we thought was so cool about the book, and that was our pitch when we were trying to get the rights: we didn’t want to change it up and make it into an action story. We really wanted to preserve the weirdness and the grimness of the book, and it was already so beautiful and horrifying that the pressure was just to not mess up William’s very beautiful novel. 

The parenthood theme was very apparent in the book, and I that’s one of the things we latched onto. If there was one thing that we amplified it was the idea that Core [Jeffrey Wright] felt that he had dropped the ball as a father.

Jeremy Saulnier (JS): My home life is really very happy, so when I make movies I’m like, “I don’t need more of that shit!” [laughs]. I want to go for a ride, and this was certainly that for me.

Jeffrey Wright Russell Core in a scene from Jeremy Saulnier’s Hold the Dark. Image courtesy of Netflix

On Directing Something New

JS: I’d done Green Room prior to this, which was an exercise in tension building and containment. But I couldn’t do that again. I had to destroy all those barriers and go out into the wide open. It was my first war scene, my first time working with so many animals, my first legit ariel sequence. It got to be negative 30 celsius at times when we were filming, but I didn’t notice it or feel it because when you’re doing this movie you’re asking for cold. 

It’s mostly real snow in the movie. My terror with all the challenges we faced making the movie was to have to relent and fall back onto artificiality and CG and having to build wolves in 3D. If this movie had CG wolves, it would have ruined the whole thing.

On Building Tone and Atmosphere

JS: The source material hit Macon and myself at the bone marrow level. I felt an intuitive connection to it, and I got it, and so I could be the translator. To do that visually, Macon had done the heavy lifting along with William to create the story and the architecture. It’s a difficult tone to achieve. It’s a hybrid of many different genres: there are only a few sort of “light” moments, but it is beautifully odd. I just wanted to be true to the material and hire actors who got it, who could bring their own ideas and be their own protectors of the characters. 

Macon’s brothers [Brooke and Will Blair] have scored all my films. We had been through a couple of rounds of just trying to figure out what this movie needed. I was referencing westerns, I was referencing Michael Clayton as a crime movie, with some of that cold, cool atmosphere in some of the scenes. I wanted not to go full synth, and they were really stoked—because that’s what I like, that kind of Carpenter synth—but they really wanted to pitch me on using real instruments. This is the first film we’ve done where it’s not just those two dudes with a keyboard. They hired cellists, we had Inuit throat singers come in and record…and I remember when they finally delivered the theme at the beginning, I was like “Oh shit, that’s it, we have a movie now.” That was the last layer to go on. Like all my films, it’s not there until everything converges.

On the Film’s Deeper Mythological Themes

JS: I had to find my rudder, so I could do the material justice and have something to tell the actors. Like with Slone [Alexander Skarsgård], it’s not PTSD, it’s something very different. It’s beyond the laws of man. I found own my way into the material, but at this point I don’t like talking about it too much. One of the special things about William’s novel—and hopefully the film itself—is that you really can bring a shit-ton of depth to it if you are willing to. For me, it’s very literal. It’s magnetic, and mystical. And for me, I figured it all out. But it’s no fun if I tell you. MM

Hold the Dark is now available to stream on Netflix. Featured image photograph by Arnold Wells, courtesy of Fantastic Fest.

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