‘Green Room’ Director Jeremy Saulnier on Making a Siege Thriller Based on His Punk Past
It’s a simple case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time in Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, except that place happens to be a metal club filled with violent neo-Nazis. After playing a show in the backwoods of Oregon, punk band The Ain’t Rights discover a dead girl in the venue’s green room. When bassist Pat (Anton Yelchin) tries to call the cops, Macon Blair’s Gabe locks them inside while Patrick Stewart’s club owner begins a brutal cover-up on the outside. What was supposed to be a quick gig turns into all-out warfare between the punks and the skinheads.
Anyone familiar with Saulnier’s previous film, the Cannes breakout Blue Ruin, knows the filmmaker has a knack for crafting gut-punching intensity around graphic spurts of violence. With Green Room, Saulnier turns the gore and tension up to full blast, channeling the raw aggression of the punk and hardcore music cultures he grew up around. The results are a nightmarishly fun genre movie that feels as fresh as the blood it keeps on spilling.
I sat down with Saulnier in New York to talk about his third feature film, which also stars Imogen Poots and Alia Shawkat. He told me about his youth as a skater punk encountering Nazis, what it was like killing off his characters on set, and how his obsession with the green room evolved into what’s already one of the year’s best films.
I can tell punk rock is important to you based on Green Room. How does it fit into your background?
It sort of defined my youth. I realized I have no archive of it because if you look at me you wouldn’t say, “That dude’s punk.” But I grew up skateboarding in the ’80s so it was very much associated with that crowd. […] In the 1990s when my older friends had their drivers licenses we’d go across the bridge from suburban Alexandria, Virginia to Washington D.C. That was the real s—. That was a little scary. For a 15- or 16-year-old kid it was pretty intimidating, very alive, very exciting. In the ’90s there were Nazi punks and they were scary s—. I was athletic and in great shape, but I was not tough, just a wallflower. I loved getting in the pit, but I didn’t partake in any of the actual aggression, I was a very happy kid. [Laughs] But I’ve always loved the aesthetic and the style, so it seemed natural to bring it to the cinematic world once I had a chance.
Did the film originate as a story about punks then become a thriller, or was the genre your initial vision for it?
It started with this obsession with the green room. Being a fan of punk and being in hardcore bands, I knew it’d be in that world. Also the film has grind core, death metal, punk rock, and hardcore. I knew it’d have to be some kind of aggressive music genre because I’m not really loyal to any one. But I knew that the key to this film was the physical space, the fact that I could have a siege movie backstage during a live concert. That was exciting, having the peripheral action being throbbing base coming through the walls and having the band trapped inside. I just wanted to see a band in an action movie. I haven’t seen really that. So the concept came first, and the music and the world where I come from was natural to me.
What’s so cool about [punk bands] is they are largely not successful. They’re sort of on the road, destitute, Mad Max aesthetic, stealing gas from cars. It was just so natural to that world. A lot of the stories that led to the first act of the movie are just taken from my friends and touring bands. I was a singer in a hardcore band for a few years. We didn’t tour too much, but I played the Mexican restaurant show [the band plays] in Green Room.
You played at that actual restaurant?
Not the actual restaurant, it was just based on a show. It was a strip mall Mexican restaurant and what’s so cool is you don’t know how pathetic it is when you’re in the band. You have three people with backpacks just staring at you and a bunch of Mexican restaurant customers eating take-out, but you give the best performance that you possibly can. Then you realize how absurd it is, how sad it is, but the cool thing about it is that you don’t give a s—. […] When you’re a punk band, you kind of just don’t care. It’s about the experience of just showing up and being there, and you don’t need accolades. You do it for yourself, you do it for your friends, you do it to just be part of the scene.
That’s kind of hugely important to the movie – you know, in the ’90s [punk] was huge, it was at its peak, but I sort of had to introduce that into the movie where [the band is] searching for the scene. It’s not quite there. […] So they’re forced to do this backwards concert for skinheads, but before s— hits the fan there’s a moment of transcendence where they find each other. They bond because it’s just the pure energy of the music. Then all the other crap, the dividing lines and the ideologies and the mis-channeled energies, is what’s poisonous. But there’s a moment of purity there.
This film is very different from Blue Ruin, from the larger scale to the tone. What were the challenges in going from that feature to this one?
Blue Ruin, whatever it was, was very special to me and [star and executive producer] Macon [Blair]. So for Green Room I kinda wanted to shake things off and have a little more fun and play more to the films I loved growing up. I wanted to build upon the tension in Blue Ruin and I saw audiences at festivals across the world really respond to the tension. […] But the main challenge was actually bringing my sort of method of making movies and introducing that into the film industry.
I self-funded my first movie, Murder Party, and my wife and I primarily self-funded Blue Ruin, so Green Room is very much execution-based. It’s very hard to pitch and it might seem esoteric when you’re reading the script. The challenge was, “How do I make this very sort of independently-minded film within the system?” I had to learn union regulations, and also I was tired of always being in debt to everyone on my film sets […] So this was 10 times the budget of Blue Ruin and on a much bigger scale. It was very exciting in some ways, but I wasn’t quite ready for it and I never would have been.
When writing, did you imagine you’d have a cast as well-known as this one?
No, I never thought I’d have access to such high-level casts so I haven’t been tracking people. […] I acknowledge but I don’t really prioritize star power. I just want good actors. And that was fun because I got to have both. You know [casting director] Avi Kaufman came on board Green Room, which was a shock to me, our first big addition of legitimacy. Like, Avi Kaufman is casting a very sort of aggressive punk rock genre film, that’s just the coolest thing, that combo. And we were able to stay very artistic in her casting office. We just stuck with who was true, who was dedicated, who was great, and we found this cast mostly out of self-taped auditions.
It was very difficult finding 25 and younger, that crowd [who] would’ve had the experience that I felt comfortable putting the whole movie on their shoulders. So Anton [Yelchin], Imogen [Poots] were the foundation there. We found Joe Cole and Callum Turner from the U.K. They self-taped, they had that raw energy I didn’t find elsewhere. And Alia [Shawkat] was the last to come on board because that role was written for a male. I just write what I know and when I was a kid every single band I knew growing up in the ’90s was a bunch of dudes, just a sausage party. We had cast the role then the guy who was playing Sam, I think he had to do Disney reshoots. It was a big studio film and [he had] obligations. He would’ve nailed it, but I’m glad ultimately that it gave me clarity. I was sitting with the producers and we’re like, “Let’s just open it up to females to just get the best actor.” So my producers had worked with Alia on a Kelly Reichardt movie and she self-taped from Europe, and it was great. It was what the film needed. It kind of tipped the scales towards, “Ah, this feels right.”
She’s one of my favorite characters in the film.
Mine too. She’s fantastic. Also, when writing these characters, you never know who’s going to survive. But when people died it was, god, f–ing brutal for me. And as we started to cast all the roles, I got real sick to my stomach when we killed on set. There’s a certain amount of fun in arts and crafts and special effects and make-up, but you really feel like it wasn’t a slasher movie, just something different, something unsettling.
Having done two thrillers, what would be your dream project to make?
I’m at a place where I’m in talks and nothing is real until it’s all done and I’m on set. But I’ve got a bunch of dream projects that are lining up now. They happen to be things I don’t own myself [that] I didn’t write, so I’m subject to the mercies of many different parties. But I just want to stay true to exciting movies and human movies, character-driven, yet compelling and visual and not loyal to any genre. My next film that I plan on writing I will lighten up a little bit as far as the brutality, I need a break too.
I’d love to tackle a studio level movie at some point. It’s just got to be the right one in creative alignment with what I want to do, which could be a decade or two or trying.
Green Room opens in limited release on April 15.