One Room, 30 Days

Trapped in the cramped, dingy green room after witnessing the murder, the four members of the Ain’t Rights are joined by the victim’s frightened friend Amber (played by Imogen Poots), a skinhead hostage who towers above them (Eric Edelstein), and a small army of neo-Nazis—including Macon Blair, Mark Webber, a couple of pitbulls and the ruthlessly pragmatic head honcho, Patrick Stewart—waiting outside the door. It’s an insanely claustrophobic situation where blood spills, bones break and violence impacts the trajectory of everyone involved. As the tension ratchets up, you can almost hear the characters’ hearts racing.

War of attrition: Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart) leads a small army of neo-Nazis in Green Room

War of attrition: Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart) leads a small army of neo-Nazis in Green Room

“With eight people in a room, even if you’re disciplined and go with just two takes per person, that’s 16 takes of the same scene,” says Saulnier. “So keeping the energy alive is a very difficult task.” The cast had to remain in a constant state of panic, grief and fear for two-thirds of the shoot, which transpired in Portland, Oregon.

“It was literally about keeping your heart rate up” says Shawkat. “We would jump and hyperventilate. After hours, it would get kind of depressing. But it would also be absurdly funny—we’re all sitting in our own corners of the room, crying and rocking back and forth for eight hours. You start to get this muscle going where you’re able to go in and out of the mood faster.” Even through the tears, though, Shawkat felt like she was part of something special. “I remember talking to Anton and saying, ‘I feel like this is my first real auteur film.’”

Poots, for her part, developed a strange attraction to the space. “You start to miss the place you dread. They created a space that was just disgusting, but you kept wanting to go back. You didn’t really go to work to have fun; you went to feel fulfilled. I think that was at the core of it.”

Yelchin says that the camaraderie he shared with his cast made the set a safe place to be emotionally raw… and he had another secret weapon for maintaining the proper head space. “I didn’t wash my clothes for 30 days. There’s something about putting on the same disgusting T-shirt every single day, the T-shirt that’s got two weeks’ worth of sweat, fake blood, snot and tears on it. It really creates a mental world that you can tap into.”

He laughs: “I wonder what they did with that T-shirt—probably the most putrid, rancid T-shirt in the history of mankind.”

The Ain't Rights: (L-R Callum Turner, Joe Cole, Alia Shawkat and Anton Yelchin) play a gig to a crowd of skinheads

The Ain’t Rights: (L-R Callum Turner, Joe Cole, Alia Shawkat and Anton Yelchin) play a gig to a crowd of skinheads

A Place to Rock

Saulnier found Green Room to be an exercise in world-building. While writing the script, he fashioned a distinct sense of place for his very particular brand of white supremacists. But, imagining what their remote rock club would look like, he had unintentionally blocked nearly every scene out in his head. He knew every nook and cranny of the fictional venue, every hallway and door and corner. Unfortunately, no such place existed in the real world.

“I almost felt embarrassed that we built an entire concert venue on a sound stage,” Saulnier confesses now. Still, “it was perfect for the script, because I knew just about every camera angle I needed to capture the action.”

Even the custom-built set presented significant technical challenges. “Inside that room, you could only move so much; you could only look in so many directions,” Porter says. It was important that their compositions never become boring or repetitive, and so they mixed things up, sometimes using lots of cuts and singles, and other times letting a scene play out in a wide shot.

The goal? “Character-motivated action,” Porter recalls. “As the characters start exploring things, or breaking things, or lights get shut off, or furniture gets rearranged, the space evolves. In every scene we looked at where the material came from and where it was going, and found new ways to tell the story without repeating the same visual language.”

What Porter refused to do, however, was fly away walls to accommodate his shots. “This is an indie thing: I don’t like to falsify spaces. I wanted to be trapped in that room. It grounds the work and ups the level of the realism, and I think the audience can feel that.”

Porter used the ARRI Alexa with dark blue and tobacco filters. The camera, he says, let him “push it to the limits. If I wanted to shoot with one foot candle, it never shied away from me. With the Red Dragon, you can get some good-looking blacks and beautiful dark imagery, but if you make any mistakes, you don’t have any chance of recovery. Time and time again, the Alexa came back with something more interesting than I expected.”

While “swooping” camera movement was an objective, director and DP quickly ruled out using Steadicam, because it didn’t deliver the kind of rigid framing they wanted. Instead, everything was on a dolly or a slider. A real find came in the backroom of a Portland camera supply house, where Porter found an abandoned zero-gravity jib, which allowed him to “set the base on a track the way a traditional dolly would, but it had this counterbalance system, so I could move the camera anywhere within a 10- to 15-foot sphere around the dolly.”

“It’s hard to imagine how technically difficult this film was, because it all seems haphazard,” says Saulnier. “But we had intense practical effects, we had visual effect shots, we had pitbulls and firefights. No one will ever know how much we did to create a world that seems like we just found it, shot it and left it.”

Saulnier shoots an early sequence in a corn field

Saulnier shoots an early sequence in a corn field

Leader of the Troupe

If there’s a constant refrain among Porter and the cast, it’s an appreciation for the depth of Saulnier’s vision and the confidence he exuded on set.

“I find trust and respect to be very intimately intertwined,” says Poots. “Wanting to better the project, but also seeing the person in front of you as a human being—Jeremy had that. He just knew how much to direct, when to draw back and let you breathe before going into a scene.”

It was Saulnier’s incredible attention to detail that struck Yelchin. “Jeremy was meticulous about the details, which later in the film come together: how many cartridges there are in a gun, or where the band find their weapons to fight the Nazis. Over the course of the film you realize that humans use this material reality to try to combat the sublime experience of being alive.”

If that sounds overly poetical for a high-intensity thriller, rest assured that Yelchin is accurately channeling the artistic sensibilities that make Saulnier’s films stand out. In a genre that often ignores the moral implications of its violence, Green Room is a conscientious portrayal of humanity at its rawest, in which even the villains have moments of doubt and regret. The film earns its jolts honestly, by confronting the way men (and beasts) can be corrupted by desperate self-interest.

“It’s about cliques and clans and all that stuff, but really it’s about stripping all that away to expose human necessity,” says Saulnier. “There is no nefarious plot; everyone involved is a reluctant actor. It’s that pragmatism and brutal indifference that is, to me, the most terrifying thing about human beings.” MM

Green Room opens in theaters April 15, 2016, courtesy of A24. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Spring 2016 issue.

Errata: An earlier version of this article (which also appears in MovieMaker‘s Spring 2016 issue) quoted Saulnier as saying, “It was real tough to work with an assistant.” Saulnier actually said, “It was real tough to work within the system.” The correction has been made to the above text. We apologize for the error.

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