A hardcore punk-rocker turned self-described “filmmaker, absentee father,” Jeremy Saulnier emerged on the independent film scene in 2007 with Murder Party, a low-budget horror-comedy infusion that flew under the radar. For Saulnier, his under-seen debut didn’t propel him in the direction he was hoping. In fact, the project was met primarily with crickets. However, resourceful and determined, he pivoted to cinematography, shooting other people’s dream projects as he waited to once again create his own. After a five year hiatus, Saulnier—with the assistance of his wife—made one final play to actualize his directorial dreams. That parlous gamble was Blue Ruin, a laconic, immaculately shot family revenge story unlike any other. Against the odds, the all-in hand paid off. The movie premiered and won over the hearts of Cannes attendees. Critics followed in suit. The general public, less so.
But the moderate success of the movie elucidated Saulnier’s strengths as a filmmaker. Now working with financiers, Saulnier has been gearing up to release Green Room, his first ever “traditional theatrical” feature film, through A24. Simultaneously excited and exhausted by the eight cities/eight days publicity tour, the emerging talent discussed brawling at punk-rock shows, growing up in the 1980s, and begrudgingly accepting the safer world his children live in.
The AV Club: Are you more self-critical of your work now, even with your recent successes?
Jeremy Saulnier: I think even more so. When you’re young, your world is small. You’re not worried about your place in the market or competition. When I grew up making movies, there was no defined role. Just eight or nine kids making movies without planning. No department heads.
AVC: Do you wish it could’ve stayed that way?
JS: The goal is to go back to that. If you surround yourself with the right team, you can have that freedom. An inherent language you can trust, and not spend your energy on pitching ideas. Instead, we’ll just go fucking make a movie. All of it is dependent on cast. Then you have schedules, which rarely line up. I would’ve never survived if I entered into this field that way. Thankfully, my breakthrough came with working with my best friend. No gatekeepers. And that was Blue Ruin. With Green Room, you are having to deal with a lot of people who are investing a lot of money into your movie. You can’t just say, “Oh, just trust me.” Blue Ruin was my last chance to be reckless with the money that my wife and relatives gave me.
AVC: How does your wife feel about all of this?
JS: She’s the reason why I’m here. She’s not stupid. We waited a long time. Saved up a lot of money. And when I showed her the script for Blue Ruin, she went all in. And she went through a lot of pain when I was away shooting. She was with two young children, pregnant with a third. She took on that burden like a champion. She leads our clan. I try to make movies and bring home some bacon. We’re very collaborative in the risks we take.
AVC: You’re 36 making your second film, with two kids and a third one on the way. That seems like a daunting undertaking.
JS: I really went insane. I slept an average of two hours of night. One REM cycle. My brain would just shock me awake after one REM cycle and I would be terrified, because I had everything on the line. My one true talent is that I can turn off my brain when I need to. The risk averse part of it, the analytical part of your brain that would say, “This is a stupid idea…” I can fool myself and others around me that we have to do this. My wife and I—we’re very complementary in that when we go all in on something, we go all in. We make calculated risks that work out. Taking no document loans that are now outlawed. We took one of those. But it was nerve-wracking to do Blue Ruin under that duress emotionally. Looking back, it was all worth it. Every single day was a struggle on that movie.
AVC: What happened on Green Room?
JS: The one thing more terrifying for me—more than investing all of my money—is to have someone else investing all their money into me.
AVC: It’s easier to disappoint yourself than other people.
JS: Exactly, and the stakes are so high for movies. I hope I get over that. I hope it doesn’t affect my creative juices.
AVC: It seems unavoidable.
JS: You’re probably right. It’s like when you first dive off a high-dive. Your body and your mind say, “This is stupid.” As a human, to jump five stories off this platform. I know there’s water there, but it’s not natural. But then you do it and it’s a free fall. When you get to the other end, it’s exactly what people said it was. Until you do it, though, you don’t believe it. It’s like a storm: The only way to get through it is through it. The only thing I bring to filmmaking is intuition.
AVC: Although a Confederate flag appears in the film, the political views of these characters are a bit more nebulous.
JS: The flag appears only in one place, but since it’s in the room, it finds its way into the frame. It’s really about researching and making it seem authentic. Where we place things was carefully crafted, and while the flag sneaks into the frame, it’s very rarely full frontal, because it’s distracting. That was a way to visually drive home a point, without verbally preaching about whatever their ultra-left, extreme ideology might be.
AVC: Are they ultra-left?
JS: A lot of white-power movements are socialistic. The working class. The right and the ultra left meet at racism. And nationalism. But socialism is usually where these things are born.
AVC: Did you meet some of these people?
JS: Nazi skinheads were at the shows I went to back in Washington D.C. It was a little scary. I was young. I was part of the hardcore punk scene, going to shows every other weekend. I was in a hardcore band. All my friends were in the punk scene. We weren’t just that. We were filmmakers, and loved metal. Big fans of ’80s and ’90s rap. For me, I was very athletic throughout youth, so it was a very physical expression—much like filmmaking. The films that my buddies and I were making… they weren’t chamber dramas. They were us getting killed. Running around the woods with guns, getting hit by cars. Being evil wizards. It was hardcore punk. Really kinetic.
AVC: It sounds like an intimidating scene.
JS: Within my suburban neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia, it was positivity and about the music and love, with mutual respect and support. In D.C. it was the same, but adults. We were going to these all-ages matinee shows, and were among the youngest. It was scary shit. Once in awhile I would get beat up in the pit, and I’d have to recover from that. It was unbridled aggression and physicality.
AVC: When was the moment you felt you no longer belonged there?
JS: Well, I went to college at NYU [around 1994], and I got more immersed into the hip-hop scene. It’s about strife, and people that want to educate you on history. And people who just want to party. I was still going to hardcore shows, too. I would see Slayer when they came to Roseland. I was agnostic musically. But more and more as I became a professional and a father and husband…
AVC: You’re wearing a nice button-up, collared shirt now…
JS: A lot of hardcore kids, if you give me a certain haircut, we didn’t dress that different. When you’re young and you’re at the show, you’d be part of it. A lot of hardcore kids look like skaters. When I was there, there was so much infusion of metal. Krishnacore. Vegan kids. A trend was wearing letterman jackets like jocks. Tattoos, too. If you saw me in 1993, shirtless, at a hardcore show, you wouldn’t think I was an imposter. But you look at me now and I’m hanging out at Brooklyn bakeries.
AVC: Do you think that change was inevitable?
JS: The vibrancy of the hardcore scene, it’s harder to take now. It’s participatory in nature, and as I moved off of music and pursued film, it became less a part of my world. With my movies, it’s fun to fuse punk into it. I was into a lot of tough guy shit. Local bands out of Baltimore and D.C. that were really aggressive. But I wasn’t violent or angry.
AVC: At these shows you were violent, though.
JS: The thing is, when it’s consensual and it’s physical, it’s not necessarily violent. It’s posturing. It’s fun. Even if you get hit. In the pit, I was a victim to some people who were violent and I’d run away. I wasn’t trying to get into fights.
AVC: What do you think attracted you to that scene in the first place?
JS: It’s probably because I was a skateboarder. Being associated with that skate culture. The older kids I would skate with, they introduced me to punk rock. The soundtrack to skateboarding is punk rock. When you’re kicked off private property, it’s punk-rock. It’s perfectly aligned. I fell in love with it age 8. I was the kid at the picnic trying to put on my Sex Pistols tape and getting thumbs down from all my classmates. Then I found my tribe. It was in line with being an ’80s kid, and wanting to vandalize shit, run around, be bad, and get into BB gun wars. Things you can’t do these days. The things that I did, in my neighborhood, would not require a SWAT team to respond. The movies I was making. The fake blood spilling into the street. The weaponry.
AVC: Have we become softer, or just more responsible?
JS: It started off with becoming more litigious. No one will ever experience summer camp like I did. It was fucking Meatballs. You would sneak out of your tents at night, and the counselors would duck-tape you to trees if they caught you. They would physically trap you. And it was so fucking fun. And dangerous. And no one ever got hurt. But by the ’90s, as my summer-camp time was coming to an end, things got shut down. Counselors got fired. People started suing people, and it became a litigious society. Then you have post-Columbine shit. When people would drive by me and my friends covered in blood with these very realistic plastic weapons with a camera, they would stop and say, “You boys okay?” And we’d be like, “Yup, just making a movie.” Nowadays the SWAT team would come, and for good reason. It was a more analogue time, and a less precious time.
AVC: More freedom?
JS: I was skateboarding alone at age 9 till 9 p.m., and I’d come home later for dinner.
AVC: And now you have kids.
JS: Now I’m a total wuss. I’m in Brooklyn, so I can’t let my kids hang out at 9. Luckily, we’re by Prospect Park, so you let ’em play in the dirt and the mud, get bit my mosquitos. Do all that shit. It’s not quite the same. But even when I go back home, it’s not the same place. Yuppie neighbors. Different times. But what a great time to grow up and be making movies. And Green Room, for me, was a way to archive that.
AVC: In Green Room, the characters play the desert island game, where they get one band to listen to on an island. What’s yours?
JS: Black Sabbath.