IN what promises to be one of the highlights of Glasgow Film Festival, director Jeremy Saulnier pits an earnest punk band against a group of Nazis led by Patrick Stewart
“I’m used to high-stakes filmmaking,” says Jeremy Saulnier with a laugh. The multi-tasking indie filmmaker is reflecting on his decision not to cash in on the heat generated by Blue Ruin – his self-financed, Cannes-winning breakthrough film – by taking a cushy studio assignment. “I was certainly tempted,” he adds. “Some of my good friends have taken that bait, but it’s very cheap for a studio to develop a movie up to a screenplay level and then just shelve it. Momentum is key in this industry.”
He knows what he’s talking about. Having previously made a horror movie that had festival success but went nowhere – 2007’s Murder Party – Saulnier’s career stalled with corporate video work until he and his wife sank everything they owned into Blue Ruin. It paid off, but he was essentially operating on fumes after the film came out, pretending he was safe and secure, but feeling that his heart was pounding on his chest every day. “That’s why I panicked and said, ‘I’m doing my next film now, because I can’t rest my career on anybody’s shoulders’.”
That’s also why he’s currently sitting in a London hotel bar discussing his new movie, Green Room, which – like Blue Ruin before it – is receiving its Scottish premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival. As it happens, the chat about his DIY work ethic is appropriate considering Green Room takes place against the backdrop of the US hardcore punk scene, where doing-it-yourself – driving cross-country to play shows for meagre fees, putting out your own records, doing all your own promotional work – is both a necessity and a mantra. Could he relate?
“Yeah, for sure. It’s such a struggle. You have the best intentions, but to fight for your place, to get enough attention to stay afloat – it’s almost impossible.”
The film isn’t about making it as a band, though. Where Blue Ruin put an intriguing spin on revenge by focusing on a protagonist completely ill-equipped to carry it out, Green Room revolves around an earnest punk band – fronted by Star Trek actor Anton Yelchin – who find themselves under siege after inadvertently accepting a paying gig at the HQ of a neo-Nazi hate group. The film’s relentless tension kicks into gear when the band witness a crime (involving another punk, played by Imogen Poots) and are imprisoned in the titular green room while the club’s ruthlessly pragmatic owner, a white supremacist drug lord played against type by Patrick Stewart, works out how to dispose of them.
“I approached it as a war movie,” says Saulnier of the ensuing violence, which is delivered with eye-watering intensity, but never feels exploitative. “Violence has to have a narrative purpose. You can heighten the stakes like nothing else if you can put people that are safe in peril. I feed off that. I had a hint of that with Blue Ruin and I wanted to increase that effect for Green Room.”
What he didn’t want to do was make a slasher movie. “I knew that this could easily be considered horror simply because it takes place in a contained environment and people are picked off. So I kept visually referring to Full Metal Jacket and Platoon.”
Michael Mann movies were another reference point. “They’re detail-oriented in a very naturalistic way,” he says, referring to Thief, his favourite Mann film. “I have a rule that’s akin to his way of working: when characters talk among themselves it doesn’t matter if sometimes it’s so esoteric you don’t understand them. As long as it feels real, the audience will fill in the gaps.”
Saulnier knew the punk world depicted in the film pretty intimately. Having grown up five miles from Washington DC, he became part of the politicised hardcore scene spawned by the likes of Bad Brains, Minor Threat, and later Fugazi. “I didn’t see many of those shows,” says Saulnier who, at 38, was a bit young for the first wave of DC hardcore. “But we’re from the same town and when we recorded our band’s demo in the 90s at [legendary DC recording studio] Inner Ear, Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye came into the studio.”
Saulnier admits he was more of a yeller than a singer – and more of a wallflower than an active participant on the scene. But Green Room’s white supremacist angle did come from seeing Nazi punks turn up at certain shows. “It was real and it was pretty scary for me. The energy and aggression of punk rock can be used by these organisations to channel hatred and act as a recruiting tool.”
That’s the purpose of the club in the film, though Stewart’s character Darcy is scarier precisely because of how calm and pragmatic he is. “We wanted to make a villain who was extra sinister not because he’s trying to be, but because he’s a self-preservationist. The brutal indifference of the character was what disturbed so much.”
It’s certainly a side of Stewart rarely seen on screen, although Saulnier insists he wasn’t out to subvert his image.
“I wasn’t aiming that high,” he says. “But he saw Blue Ruin, loved the heightened tension, read Green Room, and those things combined sold him on taking my call. He was very gracious and came in at the last minute – I think about a week-and-a-half before shooting. It was one of those perfect moments where he blessed us with his presence and then came in like any other actor on set and brought his craft and his dedication and just melted into our world.”
Even so, Saulnier says he still can’t quite relax about his own career. He reckons he needs to make another movie in a similar fashion before he can start taking those big offers that are beginning to come his way. “It’s kind of like being in a constant state of panic and disbelief. Sixteen years to break in and suddenly I’m sprinting to get things. But hopefully if I can get my fourth movie done, and if it doesn’t totally suck, then I’ve bought my fifth and sixth movie. I just don’t want to f*** up.”
• Green Room screens at the Glasgow Film Festival on 23 and 24 February and is on general release from 13 May. For a full programme and to book tickets visit www.glasgowfilm.org/festival