Interview: 'Green Room' Director Jeremy Saulnier On Patrick Stewart, Inept Heroes, And "Full-Frontal Gore"

If there's a 2016 film more intense than Green Room, I'm not sure how I'm going to survive. Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier's thriller has a crazy hook – members of a punk band witness a murder and take refuge inside a concert venue's green room as a gang of deadly neo-Nazis lay siege – and the execution lives up the promise of that premise. Green Room is vicious and unrelenting and masterfully crafted by a filmmaker who has grown with each of his films. Between Murder Party, Blue Ruin and now this, Saulnier has proven himself to be one of the most exciting young filmmakers working today. Green Room is a serious frontrunner for any Best of the Year list.

So of course I jumped at the chance to speak with Saulnier about his film. Our conversation begins with his experience in the punk rock scene, touches on how to create effective cinematic violence, and yes, we do talk about casting the great Patrick Stewart as a calculating skinhead leader.

I saw Green Room at Fantastic Fest and I loved it.

Oh, wow. Cool. That was a great crowd.

I want to start at the beginning because a punks versus Nazis siege movie is such a wild concept. What aspect of that came first? Did it arrive fully formed?

Actually, I wanted to make a green room movie. Environment is very key to how I develop stories. Having been in a punk band and falling in love with the aesthetic and the energy and the music, I've been at lots of concert venues. I thought it would be really cool to capture that energy. What better place in a venue to set a siege thriller than the green room? It was my obsession. It's a lost relic now, but I did a short film in 2007 as one of those 48-hour film festivals that took place in a green room. I shot it in my basement, but it was this thing I was exploring. That was sort of a dark, gonzo comedy about a heavy metal band playing a record backwards and summoning a demon. Really kind of fun and hammy with a heavy metal atmosphere. So I was always playing with that idea. When I finally got the chance to do it the right way, I leapt at it. I knew it was my next movie.

The skinheads were certainly a part of the punk movement, especially in the 1990s when I was a part of it. I was in the hardcore scene in Virginia and when we sort of crossed the bridge into Washington D.C., we had shows that were much bigger with a much more eclectic crowd. You had all kinds of different subgenres of punk rockers and hardcore kids and amongst them was the Nazi skinheads. That was definitely bizarre that people would be out in bright sunlight during a matinee show, proudly wearing swastikas. That element of danger stuck with me. I knew they were part of the world of punk and hardcore, yet very different as far as ideology and structure. They wore uniforms and were easily identifiable. They were like soldiers. They had relations with outside gangs and criminals activities. There were also SHARP, Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice, a set of skinheads with a whole different set of ethics and belief systems who fought hard for all of the right causes. But it just so happened that the Nazi skinhead element is what piqued my interest, as they're our natural adversaries in this sort of world.

I was going to ask you about the research you did for this movie, but it sounds like many of the details were drawn from things you actually witnessed.

What was exciting about Green Room is that the idea never really advanced in my mind. I thought I should do a siege thriller in a green room. I didn't really have time to flesh out the story. The world and the environment of the narrative was with me for twenty years. That was part of me and something that I always wanted to bring on screen. But the actual plot, how the actual film unfolds structurally, was completely uncharted for me. So when I sat down to write, I had this deep well of knowledge regarding the world of punk and hardcore. I had personal experience from being in bands and my friends being in bands and touring and falling asleep in vans. I played that Mexican restaurant show showcased in the first ten minutes of the movie. But at the same time, I had no idea where the plot was going to go. So I had this brand new energy that I injected into this old premise. That's where I had the most fun, finally realizing what was bubbling inside of me for decades, yet having no clue where I'd take it and inhabiting the world of the characters on both side of the door. I would act both sides and always try to adhere to logic and very human choices and not play into too many genre tropes and standard, forced, contrived plot elements.

jeremy saulnier interviewGreen Room is like your previous films, Blue Ruin and Murder Party, in that the characters are often incompetent, which leads to both tragedy and comedy. They can't survive in the ways that most normal movie characters can.

In Murder Party, they're certainly a bunch of goofballs and I was making fun of them. In Blue Ruin, Dwight is certainly an inept protagonist, but he's not stupid. He's just inept. And tragically so. So it's heartbreaking and these moments of comedy arrive naturally out of situations. In Green Room too. The band members are not idiots. They're just real people. When you see a wrap-up of real life news stories or incidents where there are humans trapped in pressure cooker environment or things go wrong where there's chaos, people behave in very stupid ways. We're used to having our cinematic selves, the characters we watch, having some kind of skill set. They take some kind of leap and evolve so rapidly to our traditional heroes or heroines. We're used to that. But when you just let people be people, it's a flailing clusterfuck. That's really kind of exciting, not only can you be more truthful, but there is more comedy and there is more tragedy. There's a deep sense of relatability when you see yourself on screen as an audience member. It doubles the impact when you put the characters through the wringer. I definitely have a thing for putting characters way out of their depths and watching them flail. [Laughs.]

The characters we love and the characters we hate suffer such incredible violence in this movie. How do you find that fine line between being shocking and upsetting while also pleasing the midnight audiences who are going to gasp and cheer every horrible moment?

In Green Room, the gasps are real. People are sort of white-knuckled watching this movie. That's what I love. The involuntary response their bodies create. It's pretty hard to do, to make people actually terrified. It's about making the characters relatable. It's about breaking a few rules, not just to break them, but to keep things off-balance. Let people know that they're not going where they're supposed to go. You go where the characters take you, which is terrifying because these people have no fucking idea what they're doing. As for the violence, because there's so much brutality in Green Room, and there's some full-frontal gore, it can be perceived as sensational. But the way I treat it, if you look and scrutinize every moment, it's very reverent. It's about these characters. It's about these kids, these band members, transition into killers. It's a gut-punch every step of the way. I make it hurt. It's important that when you see someone die in a movie, for me, there's some kind of reason behind it, whether it be motivated by a character or serving a definitive narrative purpose. It's never just for entertainment, but the overall effect is to entertain.

There's nothing sadistic in Green Room. There's brutal indifference and self-preservation, but there is only one act of unmotivated violence and that's what sets off the whole film and sets the whole plot into motion. Everything else is brutal, pragmatic, and reluctant. If anyone could just erase what happened that night, they would. They would all just go home quietly and resume their own pursuits. This is about a clash. This is about a war. It's more responsible and more impactful when we show these kids becoming killers. There is a full-frontal shot of that happening and it is, without fail, the most shocking moment in the movie. But it's also quiet and reverent and disgusting. If you watch it two times, you'll notice there are no gratuitous close-ups when there's a death. We definitely have a little fun with make-up and the non-fatal wounds though. I have certain rules and I break them. I don't let them govern me. But I tend towards that deep respect for characters. When life it lost, the impact must be felt. Otherwise, the characters weren't there and the actors weren't doing their jobs.

Speaking of actors, we have to talk about Patrick Stewart. How'd he get involved in this? It's not the kind of role we normally see him taking on.

The thing about someone like Patrick Stewart is...when you're doing an independent, punk rock genre flick, Patrick Stewart has to choose you. [Laughs.] He got involved because he was looking for something fun, something adventurous, to shake things up a bit. It just so happened that he had just joined the same management company that I was part of. The name got tossed around and after the initial barrier of "Wait, Professor X? Seriously? That wouldn't work!" I started to get text messages with photos of him with this beard and not in his normal superhero get-up. The thing about Patrick is that he has such a long career, but he's known popularly as a couple of these characters in science fiction franchises. He was excited about doing something different.

Anyway, he got his hands on the script, really responded and was deeply affected by the tension. This was late in the game. We were in deep shit, actually. We were trying to cast the movie and he just swooped in and saved the day and lent his support and his craft and his dedication to the film. He was just a huge asset. Also, once he was on board, everything clicked into gear. We had reached a new level of legitimacy. Not that we were all worshipping his star power. We were just excited that he was interested he just kind of melted into the cast and crew. It was really exciting. We just had another great actor who was really invested in his role join the ensemble. I was expecting something different and I was very much comforted by his presence. We had a rapid-fire ramp-up to establishing this character. He basically signed on the week before we shot him, so he was on a plane to Portland from England [very quickly]. His first day on set, we shot his big finale. We had to work backwards with his character, establishing his character from act three and backtrack to act one and his big intro. He really classed up our otherwise sleazy movie. [Laughs.]

jeremy saulnier interviewMacon Blair, who has been in all of your movies so far, is an incredible actor. I was told he originally wasn't going to be in this and had to audition.

Yeah. I just didn't know how to... I was with Macon through Blue Ruin and we got so tight and we were best friends. So with me knowing him in that role, I just couldn't get [Blue Ruin protagonist] Dwight out of my head. I couldn't shake that character. Macon has been a leading man in all of my movies. He's sort of my muse. But I didn't quite see where he fit in. He's a fantastic actor, but sometimes even I need a little distance. I also have an aversion to the whole nepotistic automatic role-giving that people give actors. I didn't think he'd fit in. But he just proved me wrong. He went out on his own and did a self-taped audition. He got in wardrobe and had to get some temporary tattoos made on the internet. He had to prove he was an actor because the company that made them didn't want to do Nazi insignias. He had to convince them he was an actor and show them his IMDB page. He went all-in and gave a great read and won the role on his own. That's why I love him. He doesn't expect anything to be handed to him. I hope he forgives me for not initially thinking of him, but he won it fair and square. As soon as I see it, I'm not going to doubt it.

The role of Gabe is one of the underlings of Patrick Stewart's Darcy and he's the venue manager. So he's trusting and he's smart but he's also a little bit reluctant with the ideology and the violence associated with this gang culture. So he has this deep humanity and vulnerability, but he was able to transform physically for us, too. He was just perfect. He was a huge asset, not only as an actor but he's someone I loved having by my side throughout this process. This was my first time making a movie in a union world and it was a whole different set of rules and regulations and challenges. He helped me stay creative and make choices that were for the best for the story. He's also a deep well of knowledge about movie trivia. I was a battering ram. I kind of broke through the industry having to be a jack of all trades. I write shoot, edit, direct, whatever I have to do. Macon has been amassing this amazing knowledge, so he's my guy when I need to know who an actor is, because I don't watch a lot of TV and I stopped watching movies because I had to get my own off the ground. We're a great team.

When I watch this movie, I see a filmmaker who should be doing whatever the hell he wants. What's next? Are offers coming in?

Oh, yeah. There are lots of offers. The key is to stay true, but not be governed by anything other than an intuitive attraction to stories. I'm considering some big studio movies, I'm considering these really amazing dark genre films, and a lot of them are on the cusp of becoming real and becoming produced. One of them might even shoot this summer, but I don't want to jinx it. I know I want to take a break from writing and try to do some material that's been generated by someone else just so I can focus on directing and practice my craft. I don't want to wear too many hats and be spread too thin. I want to do one thing and do it really well. But I will always circle back to writing because I think writing is the most pure and joyful experience as far as creating stories go. There are no boundaries, there are no foreign sales estimates, there's nothing that gets in your way. It's really fun to problem solve. I just want to enjoy the fact that I do get opportunities and not be too precious and maybe take some chances and just keep rocking and rolling.