Jeremy Saulnier on punks v nazis movie Green Room

Feature by Josh Slater-Williams | 06 May 2016

Jeremy Saulnier follows up revenge thriller Blue Ruin with Green Room, a nail-biting punks v nazis siege movie. He muses on punk rock, genre labels and casting Patrick Stewart as a white supremacist

The Skinny is chatting with American director Jeremy Saulnier in a crowded dining area of London’s Mayfair Hotel. His newest film, Green Room, is having its UK premiere later that night as part of the London Film Festival. It’s his follow-up to 2013’s critically acclaimed thriller Blue Ruin and the comparatively underseen Murder Party, from 2007. The three films share actor Macon Blair (Blue Ruin’s hangdog protagonist) and acts of violence instigating considerable turmoil, but Green Room sees some more recognisable stars join Saulnier's talisman on the cast list.

The leads include Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots and Alia Shawkat, as well as rising Brit stars Joe Cole and Callum Turner. The most well-known player, however, is Patrick Stewart as Green Room’s antagonistic authority figure, the owner of a far-right club in a secluded part of the Pacific Northwest. Most of those younger actors play the members of a punk band hired to play the venue, only to become witnesses to a crime that subsequently sees them holed up in the club’s green room at the mercy of figures who want to eliminate all loose ends.

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“I think it was certainly a nice shift for him to show a different side to his craft,” Saulnier says of Stewart. “I consider [his character] Darcy to be very practical. He’s never sinister in his intentions, he’s just brutally indifferent when it comes to his own interests. He suddenly loses his cool once in awhile, but it’s through language or little tics. It’s not through a big monologue, but I think it’s more powerful. And Patrick definitely remarked on set that this is the quietest he’s ever worked in his life. So that was fun.”

The content of Green Room has an element of personal resonance for Saulnier, though it’s thankfully due to the film’s music elements rather than any experience with neo-Nazis terrorising him. “I was making movies ever since I was eight years old,” he says, “and I got introduced to punk rock around the same time. I was into the DC hardcore scene for a while – very much an observer, never really considered myself an OG member of the hardcore scene, but I was there. And all the while I was making movies with my friends. For school we’d convert any kind of book report or big project into some kind of film. And I always thought I could meld the two worlds together. It took a long time for the opportunity to arise, but when it did I leapt at the chance.”

The soundtrack, therefore, contained some of these formative tracks. “A lot of the music in the movie is stuff I heard in the 90s when I was in the punk scene. Also, some of the music in the movie is from bands [involving] my high school friends. So they were written by my high school friends; bands that performed for me in the 90s. The punk rock show in the basement of the Mexican restaurant – I played that show. It was very personal, in that respect.”

Saulnier's favourite punk movies

We inquire into any favourite punk movies Saulnier might have, and additionally any highlights when it comes to the siege genre: “Just cool vibe and aesthetic-wise, you have SubUrbia, Repo Man. I love Straw Dogs; as a reference, that was a big one." One siege classic he hadn't seen before embarking on Green Room was John Carpenter's fat-free Assault on Precinct 13. "I knew that if I’m making a siege movie, I shouldn’t watch that until after I write it," he says.

"So I did finally watch that after I wrote the script, before I shot Green Room. I was aware of the similarities, but I didn’t want to borrow too much, so it was a treat when I finished writing the first draft and finally watched it. That movie was great because it was such a simple movie, and a good old-fashioned exploitation film. So it became an influence after the fact.”

A quality shared by Carpenter’s film and Green Room is their tightness and economic storytelling: so much is said visually through small details; every shot has a clear purpose. “It was hard designing the script, but everything we shot was for a reason," explains Saulnier. "The biggest thing in editing is where you emphasise things. We had so much coverage because of the nature of the shoot – between four and eight people in a room, the coverage is just so intense.

"And it’s all this physical action back and forth, so editorial was key, doing several passes to make it all seem as if it were spontaneous and immediate. It was shot over the course of 32 days and it’s supposed to be one crazy night. It’s funny how we shot on soundstages and really built it from scratch, but it seems like we went somewhere and shot it really fast; all that production value is wasted.”

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At another point in our chat, Saulnier also references visual storytelling with regards to the way he tends to wrap up his films (no spoilers): “I like to bookend things with montage. It’s a way to visually sew things up. I really don’t like to do that in an expository way as far as characters stating their thesis, or having a Lord of the Rings moment where they all come into the bedroom. I like to visually re-explore landscapes; that’s certainly a theme. I think it’s fun to visit characters where they should be natively and not force them into a proper wrap-up. We’ll travel to them. It’s a more emotional coda to bring it altogether.”

If this interview seems a little vague regarding specifics of Green Room's narrative elements, there’s a good reason. The film thrives on its unpredictable nature, the uncertainty of its character and story directions. Things don’t always go the way you might be expecting based on what’s been set up. One suspects it’s been a hard film to market.

“In a perfect world,” Saulnier says, "the trailer would just have an abstract montage of imagery – just to get the tone across. The pure experience is watching this film thinking it’s one thing and then having it spiral very violently downward. You’re trapped in a room and you’re not getting out. Ideally, the only bare naked exposition you could have in a trailer should be the first act, but then you’ve gotta throw in some one-liners and some cool action montage...”

One thing the director is keen to emphasise regarding how people come to the film is that he’s happy with whatever genre labels they choose to thrust upon it: “People have called it a haunted house film, or a horror film, called it a crime thriller. And they’re all true. I have no problem [with it].

"The reference as we shot it was: it’s a war movie. And that’s how I looked at it. It’s a war film where on one side of the door are professional soldiers, and on the other side of the door are clearly inept protagonists – it's total amateur night inside that room. I like hybrid genres. I like when there’s a discussion about what it is. Because that means it’s not that easily placed in a genre. So it’s a welcome discussion for me.”

Green Room is released 13 May by Altitude