Macon Blair is no stranger to Sundance.
The actor is the childhood friend of, and a long-time collaborator with, writer-director Jeremy Saulnier, and their breakout collaboration on 2013’s Blue Ruin is the stuff of indie film legend. Since then, Blair has been steadily building his reputation as a character actor and writer, securing gigs with directors like Stephen Gaghan (Syriana), Sean Baker (Tangerine), E.L. Katz (Cheap Thrills) and Steven Soderbergh.
But it’s his feature film debut, I Don’t Feel Alone In This World Anymore, that’s making the biggest splash. Aside from being the only Sundance film with a proper sentence for its title, Blair’s black-comedy crime thriller was awarded this year’s Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Dramatic Competition at the festival.
A Netflix Original that was sold on a pitch (you can catch it starting February 24), the film stars Sundance usual suspects, New Zealander Melanie Lynskey (Heavily Creatures, Win Win, Happy Christmas) and Elijah Wood. Lynskey is a depressed nursing assistant who is fed up with people being assholes. When her house is robbed and the police show little interest in hunting down her stolen laptop, meds and family silver service, she takes matters into her own hands. This means teaming up with her weirdo, ninja star-throwing neighbor (Wood) and diving head first into a bizarre underworld of skinheads, creepy drug addicts and a prick businessman and his overzealous bodyguard.
The movie’s oddball mix of eccentric humor and jarring violence owes more than a little to the work of the Coen Brothers, and yet Blair still manages to find a voice of his own.
Jeff Meyers, Moviemaker Magazine (MM): Getting the tone of a film to work is tricky. There are a lot of films that seem to walk the line between being dark yet comedic, all while trying to be compassionate with their characters. How do you found the right tone in your film? Is it pre-production, on set or post-production where you get it on the track that it needs to be on?
Macon Blair (MB): I think I would describe it—and this is probably not going to do me any favors—but it feels like some kind of Creative A.D.D. If it was going to be a bleak and dark type of story, then I would start to get antsy and want something else. Conversely, if it was a slap-stick, goofy, quirky thing I would get dissatisfied with that as well. So, I think it’s about wanting to have lots of pieces of cake and eat them all at the same time, and hopefully make that palatable for the audience. Whether or not that works, I don’t know. But I do know that as we were cutting the movie, there was a lot of attention paid to trying to make the shifts between the two polarities in the story as smooth as possible. We follow Ruth’s side of the story, which is melancholy and whimsical, but then there’s the more sinister group of characters that she’s going to intersect with at some point. Making those [two arcs] feel like they inhabit the same world was something we were trying to be mindful of.
MM: So, would you say that it was in the editing process that you worked hardest to establish your tone?
MB: I think so, because in the writing it all made perfect sense in my head. I don’t mind those kind of tonal jumps. I’m drawing a blank to give you an example right now, but I kind of like it when something is going in one direction and all of a sudden it takes a real [turn toward,] “I was laughing my ass off and suddenly I feel guilty for laughing.” Or the reverse of that: “I was feeling really depressed and suddenly my perspective shifted.” I like that kind of thing. But, as we were editing, I tried to be open to input from the outside. If people said we had to smooth some of the edges out a bit, then we definitely put a lot of effort into that. Some of it was sound design and score, and some of it was maybe looking at alternate takes that strike a slightly different emotional chord. It’s all subtle things. The story remained the same. The events of the story were all intact.
MM: Is it safe to say that your partnership with Jeremy, particularly on Blue Ruin, I’m thinking, became a kind of template for educating yourself as a director?
MB: 100 percent. But our relationship goes back to childhood and because he did such an amazing job on Blue Ruin it opened a lot of doors for him that I was subsequently able to walk through as well. That one in particular [was educational], because the resources were so finite and it was so by-the-seat-of-our-pants. We went through every line of that script to make sure that we were not shooting anything frivolous. You had to be sure that you needed it because there were so few resources. It was not a case of, “Let’s shoot a bunch and we’ll figure it out in the editing room.” We tried to be as efficient and disciplined in that as possible. Most of what was on the page ended up in the movie.
MM: What did you take from that experience you applied to this film, and what things required you to learn a whole new skill set?
MB: I think some of it is the way Jeremy pre-edits. He is very mindful of shooting something with the eventual edit in mind and knowing how things are going to cut together. [That mindset] was particularly helpful in the third act of this movie, which gets into a lot of running and stunts and choreography and effects. I had a great D.P. on this named Larkin Seiple, and we talked a lot about how one shot was going to cut with a subsequent shot. That is something I definitely took from Jeremy.
On this film, we tried to adhere to the script but there were so many performers in it who are so fun to watch. When it was appropriate, and when we didn’t have to get pieces of exposition in certain ways, it was fun to let them improv a bit and bring weird stuff that I wouldn’t have thought of to their characters. Christine Woods did a lot of that, and it was difficult—having to be ruthless with the edit and lose a lot of stuff that would have been hilarious but also would have made the movie two hours and 15 minutes long. She can go on forever. Robert Longstreet is like that too. And Elijah and Melanie would add little things. I think Jeremy has a very focused way of looking at things and sometimes I think I am—maybe to my detriment, maybe not—a little less focused.
MM: Despite the overlap in subject in style, you are an actor who became a director and Jeremy is not. Across the board, the performances in your film are great and you can feel when the director comes from an acting background. The performances start to individually pop, rather than pop in concert.
MB: Jeremy has a very deep, technical skill set and he comes into filmmaking by way of cinematography. He is tremendous. He knows false notes in performances, and he knows that sort of thing innately, but his experience was with the technical side of things and my experience was with the acting side of things, so I was much more comfortable when we’re setting up a scene and talking to the actors about emotional stuff. When it comes to where lights are going to go and what sort of lens we’re going to use, that was much more of a steep learning curve for me. I was very happy to lean on technicians like Larkin. I was much more comfortable talking about performance stuff with the actors. It’s fun too, because in the same way that a really skilled camera person can tweak the emotional tone of something by saying, “We’re going to open the iris of these stops and use a slightly different lens,” and then suddenly it feels differently, it’s fun for me to do that by saying, “Put a little bit more of a pause here and think about this here,” or, “Put your eyes on this side of the room.” Little things like that which can also tweak it, that’s a sandbox that is fun for me to play in.
MM: As a first-time filmmaker, what mistake did you make that you learned from and how did you fix it?
MB: I think there’s something to be said about the tonal thing. I think I could have bridged those gaps a little more organically or a little more smoothly. I don’t know that I would have done anything differently, but with a little bit of distance on it I can see the flaws there and I know I was a little over-ambitious. Given the shooting schedule, we had a very finite amount of days. In general, the schedule was very humane, 29 days or something, but specifically, when we’re on that island with the third act chase, that was private property and we we had a limited amount of time there; we couldn’t just grab another day if we wanted it. I think I was a little overambitious on what we were trying to do and I feel like you can see that in the way the final confrontation comes together. I think we got the best possible version out of it but we had to build some of the back-and-forth in the edit just because we didn’t have enough coverage, and that’s on me. If I had had more experience with the realities of stunts and shooting action sequences and stuff like that, I might have pared down the script and made it something that we could have nailed a bit better even if there was less stuff going down.
MM: That’s interesting—understanding the realities of production and then going, “I might have needed to write to that a different way.”
MB: Yes, or I would have said, “Let’s get four days there instead of three.” I feel like the movie is my kid and I love it unconditionally but when you have a kid, sometimes your kid is going to bite other kids at school. So, I am aware, that it is an imperfect, flawed thing, but I am proud of the work that everybody put in and I feel very grateful to have gotten the chance to do it. If I do get to do another one, those are things I will carry forward and I will try and not make those kinds of mistakes.
MM: Anything from a technical point of view that was revelatory for you? If today you could go back to the day before production started and give you some advice, what would it be?
MB: I think I would try and keep things moving to keep the energy up. Sometimes Larkin would have a way of looking at the sunlight and insist that it’s going to look a certain way and, to me, with the naked eye, it looks just great. And there’s a couple of shots in there where the sunlight is too harsh. But, frankly, it was fun to shoot! And so, he [Larkin] would be like, “Let’s slow down a minute,” and I’d say, “No, dude, this is great! Elijah’s got the ninja star belt on and we’re going to do this thing and stomp it out, it’s going to be awesome!” And we got the dailies back and we ended up having to go back and shoot it another time because the light was shifting in a certain way and it just ended up looking weird. I got ahead of myself because the stuff Elijah was doing was so funny and this banter he had with Melanie was so funny and I was so keyed in on that. And Larkin was like, “The shadows in the back of the frame look ridiculous.” He was right, of course. I think in the future I may be a little more patient and take it on the chin that we may lose a little bit of momentum and we may have to get everybody back up to speed, but let’s take 20 minutes and see if we can’t get some clouds to come in. MM
I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore is available February 24, 2017, courtesy of Netflix.