In Green Room, opening April 15, a punk band called the Ain’t Rights, including bassist Anton Yelchin and Alia Shawkat in a Dead Kennedys t-shirt, book a show at what turns out to be a neo-Nazi community center. After discovering a crime backstage, they have to fight their way back to their van, past an army of jack-booted skinheads led by Sir Patrick Stewart. The drama is built around sectarian tensions within punk: over politics, attitudes towards violence, the question of purity versus pragmatics (or “selling out”). Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier made his name as an indie-film cinematographer before breaking through with 2013’s Blue Ruin, a thriller about an amateur revenge quest, financed in large part from his family’s savings. He is very frank, in interviews, about balancing creative ambition with the necessities of life with his family in Prospects-Lefferts Gardens. Green Room is dedicated to the high school friends with whom he took his first steps into moviemaking, and played in punk and hardcore bands.
First of all, what were your bands called? I think that ‘s the thing our readers will be most curious about.
The one I was a singer in was NTOF. It stands for “No Turn on Fred.” In our neighborhood in Alexandria, Virginia, there was this decades-long local tradition of vandalism, spraypainting all “No Turn on Red” signs with an “F” to make “Fred.” We figured it would be a way to get 300 publicity posters already up the second we formed our band.
What was the appeal for you, and what makes the punk and hardcore vibe cinematic?
It lends itself to high-energy, kinetic and sometimes violent situations. Oftentimes it’s very healthy, a contained expression within a group of consensual cohorts who, whatever they’re doing, it’s “in the pit,” and it’s sanctioned.
The film both taps into that vein of controlled aggression in punk music, and also maybe comments on a couple different punk attitudes, where the music is sometimes a substitute for violence for the sake of a (subjectively) righteous cause, and sometimes an incitement to it…
When I was in the hardcore scene, in the 90s, you had this insane expansion of subgenres: posi-core and emo-core and Krishnacore, and traditional hardcore and Baltimore style—that was big for me, tough-guy stuff. And when I went into DC in the 90s, there were lots of shows where Nazi skinheads were present. I was disheartened that some of my favorite-sounding bands, with incomprehensible death metal growl lyrics, when I’d read the liner notes or hear them in concert, I would see true hate, a very twisted ideology.
It’s certainly a designed element of the movie that, for just a fleeting moment, all the different ideologies come together and melt away, and there’s just the music, and its effect. Hopefully it’s a transcendent, beautiful moment, the slo-mo sequence in the mosh pit, where a hostile crowd and an out-of-town band can actually find commonality. But like many other scenes, humans get in the way.
But I really used Green Room as an opportunity to explore the hierarchy, and the power structure, of mainstream conservative America. I don’t talk too much about it, because if I start outlining certain things, it’s almost too obvious, and a distraction, but…
Maybe this is related to punk being a gateway to or a substitute for aggression: like Blue Ruin, Green Room is about average people who end up in an ultraviolent genre-film scenario. You’ve said it’s important to you that the action in your films feels rooted in people’s realistic abilities and motivations—do you feel like you’re offering a corrective to the way violence is generally portrayed onscreen, which is maybe more of a fantasy?
As a filmgoer I like exploitation movies, but when I make a movie I really want it to draw me in, and at least I’ll perceive it as a worthwhile if not lofty endeavor for the two years it takes to go from script to screen. I just think it’s more responsible for me, for my emotional investment, to treat every loss of life in my movies as a huge deal. The more plausible I make it, the more devastating it is when someone loses their life—and the more exciting it is when someone survives.
When you’re doing graphic gore effects, are you thinking about the audience much?
I was always a huge makeup artist fan. I’m a kid in a candy store when I get to work with top-tier makeup artists. But the key is these scenes are integrated into the story, to truly shock or surprise or devastate. I don’t want to give away too much, but there’s a specific scene in Green Room involving a box cutter—it’s about these kids taking that step, trying to be practical about how they’re going to get out of their situation, and that involves death. It’s supposed to be hard for the audience to digest, because that’s exactly what the characters are feeling. I could have cut away from that, but I absolutely chose not—and it’s brutal for me to watch.
And, you know, Fangoria has the Gore Score, I gotta at least place on that thing.
Around the time of Blue Ruin, you said—I’m simplifying—that the means available now to people making low-budget films are good enough that they don’t necessarily have to look like low-budget films. But were you able this time to to have access to a bigger canvas, brighter paints?
I had to abandon the Blue Ruin methodology—you cannot apply that to any group of people who want to make a living in the film industry. For me, that was, “How do you break in?” Not, “How do you continue?” All the union rules, that can be frustrating for somebody who just wants to get a movie done, but then you start to think about why all those rules are there, and then how I’m benefitting from the labor of other people, and how their committing to my film means we have to commit to their livelihoods.
On a visual level, what sort of textures were most important to the film, that you were able to achieve with your expanded means?
It was important we establish the open road, fresh air, lush coastal environments and inland corn fields—this great expansive exterior environment that would double up the impact when all of a sudden we’d find ourselves trapped. The challenge in that environment was to have it build into a pressure cooker. Lights start to go off, we lose certain elements. It was really fun to, for the first time in my career, work primarily in a soundstage, where we had control over our environment. We had smoke and fire extinguisher retardant in the air, all kinds of debris and dust.
Patrick Stewart has such a strong take on the role, with his avuncular not-entirely-convincing humility; was that at all a surprise?
Having him agree to do the movie was a surprise. But he just showed up and blended right in. What we did work on was, his presence is huge, and I wanted to make sure we grounded his performance. He has remarked, he was kind of shocked—this was by far the quietest performance he’s ever given. We had a fantastic production sound mixer, and so we mic’ed him very intimately. And that I think really helped this little crazy indie punk rock murder movie absorb such a huge talent.
We were very heavy on backstory, because his motivation… he’s not sadistic, he’s not trying to do anything other than damage control. He’s trying to undo a clusterfuck, which results in more cluserfuckery. All the players, whether or not they get violent, they’re reluctant participants. And it all comes top-down.
When he first came on board, he did need more than what was on the page, but he didn’t need more from the page, just something he could dig into… I gave him a detailed history of his character. That was based on a bunch of real-life references. The research for this film was extensive, and dictated a lot of the plot, too, as far as the details from the vernacular of this subculture—I know a lot about punk and hardcore, but I don’t know a lot about the white supremacist movement, that’s something I had to look into.
To return to an earlier theme, it seems like concerns at the forefront of the punk consciousness are similarly important for you.
This film was charged with that ethos. It got a little too much for a lot of people involved, and yet it survived. Green Room is a movie that is designed for almost a live experience. I think you get that same feeling of surviving something. ♦