MM: Talk to me a little bit about working with your gaffer, Jeremy Mackie, who I understand is also a DP and director.
SP: Jeremy is one of my favorite people. I have known him for years, from that band of really tight-knit Seattle filmmakers. He always had his hands in a lot of things. He did sound for a while, he did color correction, and was always shooting and gaffing. It’s that filmmaker inside of him that a lot of people respond to in Pacific Northwest crews. A lot of those people are doing it, not because it’s a job and they can get their union card and their healthcare, but because they love movies. I knew gaffers and key grips that had DVD collections that would put any director to shame. Jeremy is one of those people. You can talk to him about the reasons why, not just the how or the what. It’s like, “This is the mood, this is the tone, this is where the characters are headed, this is what we want to do and that just gets them going,” and “I think you can go the other way, put this fixture here, make this thing this unit.” The latter can be kind of deadening and boring, and I would rather have him experiment and find something that is exciting to him. It is tough, too, because people tend to not stay once they get to the field. Jeremy really does want to shoot and direct, and he’s very capable of both. I think that’s where he’s going to be really happy, although a small piece of me is very sad because I’m not going to be able to [work with him as my gaffer].
MM: Was there anything unexpected that popped up shooting Green Room?
SP: I think what was really interesting was working with the production designer so closely. We really wanted a huge amount of flexibility on the set, but ended up discovering that we couldn’t really have any fixtures inside the space. This was a massive venue, so everything had to be designed into the production design. Ryan [Warren Smith, production designer] and [Jeremy] Mackie worked closely and did such a great job that all the fixtures in the space were completely practical.
It was daunting because it was the first time that Jeremy and I worked with a full union crew and went the whole nine yards to have this whole thing rigged out. It really pays off when you can walk into a room and point to a light and be like, “Change this many percentage points,” and then be ready to shoot. I think one of the biggest challenges we went in knowing about was how to marry really tightly connected interior spaces that had nothing to do with each other. We had a great exterior that just couldn’t work on the interior, to the point that Ryan had to reconstruct the whole thing on a soundstage that matched to scale. It was really crazy to build that inside another building.
Jeremy had such a good sense of what he could and could’t get away with. Technology is changing to a point where you can say, “Let’s not sacrifice this shot because there’s another building in the background that doesn’t work. We have the tools now; it’s a real thing that we can take care of.” It was exciting to work with someone who just got visual effects and was like, “No, this is totally going to work; let’s go for it and not sacrifice anything.”
MM: I’m always amazed by filmmakers who have this great sense of what I call “cinematic geography.” They really know where to place you so that the audience understands everything and nothing ever feels like a cheat; everything feels like a natural progression of that world. That was something that both Blue Ruin and Green Room do so brilliantly.
SP: A thriller’s job is to place you in a state where you are tense, but not necessarily confused; you know what’s going on and where people are, which creates tension because you know they’re really close to getting caught. We had whole conversations about what you can and cannot cheat. If you push things too far, you lose that sense of authenticity. I think that audience members may not be able to pin it down while watching the film, but subconsciously they can tell, “This doesn’t quite work; this doesn’t make sense.” [Spoiler:] Even the drug cave that’s underneath the green room was specifically designed so its geography to the actual location out in the real world all made sense.
The climax in the movie is this pretty ambitious sequence. It starts with the kids leaving the venue when it’s dawn, that first light, so they have to make their way through the woods into this clearing, where there are all these special effects and squibs. In Jeremy’s DP mind, he’s like, “Oh yeah, all this happens in the first of light.” Of course, I’m super nervous about that; producers are super nervous about it; and we spend a lot of time thinking about the ways in which it could be successful. We’re talking about a large area; actually, multiple large exterior areas that have to be matched up together perfectly all at the right time of day, so it feels like one continuous dawn gradually getting brighter. That was pretty nerve-wracking. We had three days to do it, like a dozen scenes, with all these effects. It’s really complex stuff.
MM: Thank God the weather helped.
SP: Exactly. The weather could have totally destroyed us. Especially in the Northwest; it’s so volatile—could be sunny one day, raining the next. It got to the point where we were coming up with some crazy ideas. At one point I was like, “The only possible way I can see us pulling this off is to reshoot the whole sequence at night with balloons and lighting it for dusk, because we’re just not going to have the control otherwise.” It went through many iterations like that and ultimately we got it.
The AD and I spent a lot of time together looking at each shot—which way we could look, what time of day we could look at it. We sent out people on multiple occasions to do light studies for each of the locations, so we could go, “OK, we have an hour-and-a-half window at this location. We have to make sure all of the special effects and make-up blood effects are ready.” We spent a lot of time in the middle of the days prepping everything and rehearsing and ultimately got insanely lucky with the weather. There’s maybe one shot in the movie where there’s a sudden break I would probably rather not have, but other than that I couldn’t complain at all. Just had to rely on some good old-fashioned luck and timing.
MM: What are you doing next?
SP: I just finished Mike Mill’s film 20th Century Women, which was equally ambitious and awesome. I know that’s getting put together really quick. There’s a lot of films on the horizon for the summer, so I’m taking lots of calls and talking to more people. We’ll see. Just trying to stay as open as I can until the right thing shows up. MM
Green Room opens in theaters April 15, 2016, courtesy of A24.