Green Room takes place close-up. It’s an enclosed-space-under-siege movie (the tradition of Assault on Precinct 13) where a DC-area hardcore punk band (the Ain’t Rights, played by Anton Yelchin and Alia Shawkat, among others) witnesses a murder in a skinhead-operated club (located in the Pacific Northwest) and are immediately made captive by the murderous collective that operates the club (led by Patrick Stewart’s Darcy, a reserved commander in chief with a game plan for sweeping all the evening’s bloodshed right off the books). Director Jeremy Saulnier maintains proximity the whole way. He’s close to his actors, who often fill half the frame with their sputtering faces. He’s close to his scene, which is documented with an almost comical level of specificity (from the soundtrack to the stickers on the back of the vans). And he’s close to the violence, which is produced using ultra-gory and meticulously designed prosthetics. He gets intimate with the texture of that, too—the way that a limb can hang by nothing but ripped skin and broken bone, or the way that a blade can separate flesh like a zipper being undone. He gets so close that you might prefer he pull back.
Saulnier visited the city for a screening of his film a few weeks back. Wearing a surplus-store coat and speaking about his time in the mid-’90s DC hardcore scene—he would commute from a suburban home in Alexandria, Virginia—the director spoke to a post-screening crowd about his bona fides. We caught up with him the next day to talk about his affinity for propinquity, in all of its forms.
Dig Boston: That was an energetic screening. There was a lot of revulsion, and a lot of applause.
Jeremy Saulnier: That’s good to hear, because that was certainly the intention—to create, above all else, an actual experience. There’s certainly some political undertones that are addressed [in Green Room], but it’s really about trying to access the involuntary nervous system. There’s a siege sequence in [Saulnier’s last film] Blue Ruin that people really responded to. I said, well, let me capitalize on that and try to ratchet it up tenfold for Green Room. It’s very much an exercise in playing with everything but the brain.
I felt like you don’t have a specific way you want me to react, in terms of politics, or any other subtext.
It’s not so much catering to that, but it’s about having trust in that. You can play with expectations. You can trust the audience to fill in the gaps. You can have them do their own calculus. If you’re doing a film that’s set in the hardcore punk scene, you don’t need to teach them a lesson. You don’t need to hear Nazi skinheads talk about their ideology. You might not know or understand everything the characters are talking about. But it’s certain that the characters know what they’re talking about. So you sit back, and absorb, and go along for the ride.
In terms of the texture, what compelled me was the way you document a real-world subculture within the confines of a genre film. You talked last night about how this movie lived in your head for a long time. What exactly was living up there? Was it “the scene”?
Having been in the punk rock/hardcore scene, the aesthetic of that—I was trapped into it. The weather of the texture. The blood, the sweat, the leather, the surplus gear, the combat boots, the mud. That kind of shit is my own personal Mad Max. Something I learned a long time ago, as a cinematographer, is that you should waste production value. You should build a world, but then shoot it like you don’t care. You don’t need insert shots of your details. But you should completely flesh out your environment. So we went to great pains to build this concert venue from scratch. It was all soundstage.
But it had to be unimpeachable! It had to be a real place that reflected the culture. I wasn’t a hardcore-scene guru, but I was there. I loved it. I was a skater, I liked punk rock music. I don’t pretend to own the scene—I don’t regulate that shit—but I wanted to be responsible in how it was portrayed. Because I haven’t seen it done very well. The biggest problem with a lot of punk movies is that they’re all about punk. Punk, punk, punk, punk, punk, punk, punk.
There is a lot in your backgrounds. But it seems to me that, throughout your three movies, you have a tendency to stay close to your actors. There’s not much space between them and the frame.
It’s intuitive. I don’t have any rules, but I certainly have tendencies. I think that might be one of them. With these intense, pressure-cooker genre films, I’m so trapped into the intimacy of being right with someone. Some of it is very practical. I let the environment dictate [composition] sometimes. For Blue Ruin, I had storyboards and a visual map for a good part of the film—but then I’d be in an enclosed location, and I’d just take a wide lens and go handheld in a bathroom stall.
There’s one particular master shot in this movie—the outdoors one, stretching from the venue to the trailer—and it’s like, “woah, a breath of air.”
In Green Room, the claustrophobia is created by close proximity within a tight frame. And then you break out into that mundane, nearly-static wide shot. And you see this wide open space—not only visually, but you feel the fresh air, and the birds chirping. That’s the whole contrast.
Violence in movies must be really important to you.
I was exposed to ’70s and ’80s exploitation movies very early. That really affected me. My cousins made me watch Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th Part III. And for the disgusting effects, they would play, then rewind, then play again. They were messing with me, but they didn’t know they were creating a monster. So my influences are Rob Bottin, and Rick Baker, and Tom Savini—the arts-and-crafts element of special effects makeup was huge for me. Movie monsters, too. Godzilla, and watching the Creature Feature every Sunday, was a big deal. Then gaining access to makeup books. Then my interest in scale modeling, recreating things, and photographing dioramas.
But the violence itself? I’m a Reagan-era ’80s kid. That’s Schwarzenegger, that’s Commando, that’s badass action flicks. And I love them. There was always a healthy line [for me] between fiction and reality. Goofy people today have sometimes been crossing that line. But I won’t let that infect my movies.
When I watch John Carpenter’s The Thing, I’m completely entranced by how I feel. And it’s not just the makeup effects, although those are a key part of it. It was the excitement, the fun, the dread, the tension, the cast, the setting, and the music.
I was thinking that there’s a lot of The Thing in your film. And your film also feels of a piece with the new Tarantino film [The Hateful Eight], given that that film also has a lot of The Thing in it. You know, in that all three are movies about people stuck in an enclosed space that might be the whole nation.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. In terms of politics, there’s this extreme right-wing [the skinheads] that serves as the antagonist in the film. But any political examination is more about the mainstream political climate in the United States. What I was really examining was power structure. It’s about the food chain. The people at the very top motivating the people at the very bottom. Who suffers? Who’s creating all this carnage? What are the real motivations? What are the stated marching orders, and what’s the actual agenda behind them? These things are all in play here. And if they’re too much a topic of discussion, they become too present, because they’re quite literal.
In Blue Ruin, there is an element of eye-for-an-eye-leaves-us-all-blind.
And in Green Room, that’s not the case.
As you go through the journey [in Green Room] you realize, retroactively, that the violence being done is in an entirely different context than what you originally were thinking. You think you’re faced with this chaotic wall of mayhem and sadism. You only realize later that it was reluctant, and brutally pragmatic, and that all parties would’ve rather not taken part.
There’s human randomness to it.
All the way through to the finale. I think “awkward realism” is how I approach it … I’m not anti-violence, or anti-anything. I think there’s a responsible way to use violence in movies. And I would much rather have people discussing why they think [my movies] are too much for them, than have them not perceive onscreen death at all. The high stakes, the life-or-death, the intensity of the experience. That’s what I’m excited by.
Conversation has been edited and condensed.
GREEN ROOM. RATED R. OPENS AT BOSTON-AREA THEATERS ON FRIDAY 4.22. OPENS AT COOLIDGE CORNER THEATRE ON 4. 29.