Since Jeremy Saulnier’s second feature, the slow-burn revenge tale Blue Ruin premiered to rave reviews at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, Saulnier has quickly become one of the decade’s most exciting and anticipated new genre talents.
Saulnier is back—following up 2015’s punks-versus-neo-nazis Green Room—with Hold the Dark—an Alaska-set thriller tinged with mysticism surrounding the search for a young boy who may have been taken by wolves. Starring Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgård, James Badge Dale, and Riley Keough, his features have consistently drawn higher profiles casts. Hold the Dark represents many firsts for Saulnier: it’s his first adaptation, based on the William Giraldi novel of the same name. He didn’t write the screenplay; that task went to childhood friend and frequent collaborator, Macon Blair. And perhaps most importantly, Hold the Dark is Saulnier’s first film for Netflix, and the well-reviewed film premiered this Fall on the streaming giant.
Daniel Joyaux, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): You started your career as a cinematographer, and you also shot Blue Ruin, yourself. Do you think you’ve officially left being a cinematographer behind you, or is there a circumstance where you could see yourself doing it again?
Jeremy Saulnier (JS): I think I could do it again, but likely only for my own movies. I sort of embrace the efficiency of being a cameraperson and a director at the same time, when the circumstances allow for that to actually benefit the production. Blue Ruin was such a visual piece, near wordless for the majority of the runtime. So me being present, looking through the viewfinder when designing sequences and executing shots helped create an intimacy. But as I transitioned into the industry where other people were funding my movies, there were a lot more constraints and production concerns to burden you throughout the process, and I had to hand that off. It’s been good to seek new collaborators and to find like-minded people—I like it better. But there might come a time down the line where I need to operate my own camera again.
MM: In terms of choosing the cinematographers for your last two films, do you think it’s easier having that in your background because it means you know exactly what you want?
JS: I’m sure it varies from person to person, but because I do have a technical background and I know cameras and lighting, I also know the role of cinematographer, and it’s been great to act as support for the directors I’ve shot for in the past. I also know to not step on toes and let people do their jobs. Where all the scrutiny and the nitpicking takes place is the hiring process—once I hire someone, I help dial in the look and the aesthetic with the cinematographer, together. And then once production begins, after day one or two, I try to be as hands off as possible. But I’m always open to collaboration, and if a cinematographer I’m working with has an idea or an alternate approach, I make great efforts to accommodate them.
MM: When you choose a cinematographer, do you feel like you’re responding more to what you’ve seen in their previous work, or more to your conversations with them about what you want in your film?
JS: That’s the trouble with this industry, and I fell victim to it when I was coming up, is that people think you can only do what you’ve already done. You’re limited by your reel and what you can show people, despite what potential you may have that’s yet unrealized. I try to keep that in mind, but at the same time, when you’re hiring a near stranger, it’s very difficult to have that belief and trust beyond their current archive of capabilities.
So what I look at primarily is lighting; that’s the hardest part of cinematography to me, to make things look elegant and cinematic with high production value, but also naturalistic and grounded and subtle. The last thing I learned as a cinematographer is the art of lighting a set. Or the art of not lighting a set, depending on your approach and your environment. So that’s the number one gateway for my collaborations: “Can that person light naturalistically and elegantly?”
MM: With Hold the Dark, not only did you not shoot it, but it’s also the first film you’ve directed where you didn’t write the screenplay. So in a way it’s the film you’ve made that you had the least control over, or the least control over certain elements that you’re used to having control over. Is that something that you could feel during production?
JS: I don’t mind letting go of control when you can trust fall into awesome filmmakers and on-screen talent around you. There are a couple times where I got a little lost just navigating this deeply textured and literary material, and it’s hard when you only have a two-dimensional screen to work with. That’s the good thing about having the screenwriter and the novelist as resources throughout the process, and we’d tweak scenes together. When actors would ask questions I’d always have an answer, but I would often, without any reservations, just go double check, “Am I right?” Because when I’m not the author of the material—when I didn’t generate the script from scratch and didn’t go through the process of vetting it and going through draft after draft—the actors who have read the novel when they come to set, whatever whatever interpretation they might have is just as correct as mine. So I can’t be the one all-knowing author. I’m more of a caretaker and a translator. It’s certainly a new way to approach a film, and it also allowed me to focus on directing. How do I visually translate this and do it justice? That was liberating in some respects. I had to find my own way into the story.
The other part is the simple practicality of doing a gig. It was great to have a novelist and a screenwriter do the heavy lifting as far as the writing. Of course I was part of the development process, but Macon Blair did the bulk of the work on the script and I was just there to give minor notes. I certainly want to write again, and dig into whatever signature style I might have.
MM: What happened first, reading the source material, or reading one of the drafts of the screenplay?
JS: Macon gave me the novel. It was a perfect fit for just a deeply atmospheric visual story. The way William Giraldi wrote was very sparse, efficient, and descriptive. I felt it at that bone-marrow level that connects me to material. It’s that intuitive instinct where it’s an easy decision to sign on to a project. But after I decided to bring the novel to the screen, I did take a step back and made a point of not reading the novel again until Macon had gone through a couple drafts. Because you have to judge the screenplay on its own, and it was helpful to keep a firewall between me and the author. Macon talked a lot to Giraldi during pre-production, and I’d reach out through Macon to talk about some very key moments, sequences, or even lines of dialogue. I wanted to make sure I knew what he was referring to and Giraldi definitely unlocked a few mysteries for me.
MM: Did you to advise your cast and crew to read the novel?
JS: I definitely wanted them to read it, and they all did. I welcome their interpretations and their ideas that they can bring to the table during the process. Obviously when there’s a literary source, there’s a lot more material to examine and more depth to the characters and circumstances. The vibe in the movie is beautifully odd, disturbing, and somewhat surreal—so for everyone to get their rudder, it’s good for them to read the novel.
I’m still breaking through and climbing up rungs of the ladder, so I’m not one to give orders to Jeffrey Wright or Riley Keough or Alexander Skarsgård. I’ve been lucky in my cast hirings in that I’ve never been alongside someone who’s extremely difficult or not along for the ride. The cast was not only invested artistically, but they were kind people and reasonable people. So they were reading the book already. It was up to them, and they all chose to take a deeper dive into the material.
MM: Alexander Skarsgård has an incredibly menacing presence on screen, whereas Jeffrey Wright maintains a nice middle ground of frontiersman masculinity with a kind of uncertainty. How did you settle on those two actors?
JS: When this film kicked into gear for a North American shoot, it was as a Netflix Original. Unlike other financiers—who are beholden to the market and foreign sales and whatever other reasoning that’s creatively stifling—when Netflix asks you who you want and you say Jeffrey Wright and they say “OK.” It’s a very odd conversation to have. We built up the cast around Jeffrey. Alexander Skarsgård is basically exactly as Giraldi describes the character of Vernon Slone. Riley’s very courageous in the choices she makes, and I’ve been a big fan of James Badge Dale since Macon tipped me off to him years ago.
MM: This has been such a good era for horror films at the box office, but your previous film, Green Room, surprisingly under performed a bit financially. Within those two realities, was it easy or hard to make the jump to Netflix and leave a traditional theatrical release behind?
JS: When I earn the street cred or the financial history to dictate my own terms, maybe I will. But for now, if I can keep telling stories like Hold the Dark, I’ll go wherever and to whomever will accommodate me. And Netflix was willing to take the risk to make this movie, and they’ve been great partners. And I have no idea what I’m going to do or who’s going to have me, but if I can keep telling my stories, you won’t hear any complaints from me. MM
Hold the Dark is now available to stream on Netflix. All images courtesy of Netflix.