Everything I knew about BLUE RUIN writer-director Jeremy Saulnier when we sat down last October during the Chicago International Film Festival was what I had experienced watching the film itself. At least on this particular film, he seized upon of the filmdom's most tried and true formulas--the revenge thriller--and found a way to deconstruct its elements into something simple yet totally unexpected. The film almost pushes its lead character, Dwight (played by the great Macon Blair), into becoming an assassin, despite having no training or the stomach to pull it off like a professional. It's a bloody, brutal, dark and sometimes amusing indie that deserves your attention and adoration.
Saulnier began his filmmaking career as a cinematographer (which he still does), for such films as IN OUR NATURE, SEE GIRL RUN, and last year's quite excellent I USED TO BE DARKER. He transitioned to director with 2007's MURDER PARTY (also starring his childhood friend Blair). BLUE RUIN has been on the festival circuit for the better part of the last year, winning the FIPRESCI Prize after playing in the prestigious Director's Fortnight position at Cannes last year, where it premiered (almost by accident, if you believe Saulnier). I'm pretty sure this interview keeps things spoiler-free, but tread lightly if you plan on seeing the film soon. Please enjoy my talk with Jeremy Saulnier…
Capone: How has watching the movie with a crowd been for you?
Jeremy Saulnier: It was great. It was important for us to bring it [to the U.S.]. We started off on the international film circuit and shown it exclusively to the international audiences, mostly European. It was very warmly received, but there were certain things, some of the vernacular or nuances that didn’t quite land like they would have with a hometown crowd, so it was great. And also, I do have a hard time watching my film with audiences, so I was actually in the back hallway taking sound mix notes as a reason to justify my being there. For some reason, I had to make an excuse for myself to stay because I normally wouldn’t and haven’t, since the premiere at the Director's Fortnight. It was the first time I was monitoring Twitter and that sort of thing.
But it was also our first test, because the script and the film itself, there was no compromise and it's maintained it’s integrity from the very beginning, but I packaged it as a Trojan horse film that was a on-the-surface, cautionary tragedy, artfully done and emotionally devastating to get into these awesome festivals. But within that movie is a regular-ass, crowd-pleasing genre film, so this was our first test of that Trojan horse theory, and it worked; we were so well received. The reaction was actually, I think, too warm. [laughs] When it finally comes out, people are going to be nothing but disappointed.
Capone: The thing that I found most interesting was that in most films that are packaged as a revenge thriller, the revenge doesn’t happen until the end of the movie. Here, it happens at the very beginning of the movie, and everything else is about cleaning up the mess that the revenge starts. And with every attempt at cleaning up, things get worse. It’s almost like you reverse engineered it to a certain degree.
JS: Yeah, it was definitely about adhering to certain conventions as far as offering people a compelling story and some unexpected turns to keep their interest and be true to the eventual arc of the narrative. But we also embrace the fact that we need to somehow defy dimension just to make us stand out and to not try to improve upon the proven formula of the revenge film. It’s pretty satisfying. You set it up, you justify this murder and what’s going to happen, and it’s a slow burn. And the climax is almost invariably killing the person who did the wrong in the first place, and you’ve righted the wrong and justice is served.
But for us, we were like let’s just throw a curve ball in there and get that part over with before expectations can even be reached. It’s unconventional in how it’s executed as far as what his intentions are and without a lot of exposition, and there’s no motivations at all. There’s no justification. Our character is very well motivated, but we have no idea what he’s up to, and we're not rooting for him when he commits this terrible act of violence. We actually did have uncharted territory to explore, and somehow we could embrace all of it. It was out of necessity, too.
Capone: And a lot of times wiht first- or second-ime in the filmmakers, the films are very dialogue heavy; they feel like they have to over explain everything, and you’ve taken this very bold approach of “How about if we have as little dialogue as possible?” Then the audience has to figure it out for themselves and use its brain a little bit, which I guess is sometimes a scary thought.
JS: You know what’s funny is that during the writing process, there was some feedback like, "Look, you really want to know more about this," or "You have to explain that." And I would ask people who wanted more, needed to hear more explanation, “What did you think my intention was?” Or “Where did you think the character was?” And 100 percent of the time, not once were they wrong; they got it right. They knew exactly and they don’t trust themselves. They say, “It has to be dictated and written out.”
And there was some dialogue that was cut from the film, but that was mostly for time and some dead weight that we didn’t need. But I do roll with the art house crowd, and nothing pisses them off more than plot points that are explained or exposition that is out of control. So I had to protect myself from the art house crowd and avoid those boo’s.
And also, there was also a--I wouldn't call it a cynical decision, but it was something that, as a cinematographer, I go to film festivals and I watch a lot of movies and I noticed there are a shit ton of films that are white people talking in the room, and their locations are drab and it drove me crazy. So I made it an imperative that we have to get out on the road. I want dust and blood and sweat and all kinds of shit, and I want to have people quietly doing something--a lot of drive, a lot of action, but just no talking for as long as possible.
Capone: There are these long stretches where it’s fairly quiet punctuated by these explosions of violence, which is so much more satisfying than just having a movie that is just wall to wall gun play or explosions. Life is not a constant series of exciting moments for most people. And I love those locations, which I understand those locations all belong to people that you or Macon knew?
JS: Most of them. We knew Delaware, Macon and I, we both vacationed in that area for decades, so the opening beach sequences, we had intimate knowledge of those locations, and we just wanted to put them on film. And so that was one, and all the set pieces we did, we had to have control over. We’re not going to pay enormous location fees, but also not only were they free and available, but we had that intimate knowledge, so I could write scenes specifically for locations, like to the doorway and hallways. The whole night invasion sequence that takes place, that’s my childhood home, and I wrote the entire six-page action sequence of that in a single word based on a detailed choreography that did not change from the script to the screen.
Capone: When you’re writing a scene where you’re having people break into your childhood home, is this a nightmare coming true? Did you run this though your head as a kid--if someone break into your house and kills you in your sleep, this is how it’s going to happen?
JS: It’s funny, the choreography came not so much from my childhood fears, but from playing guns in my house for decades, and there was an actual strategy deployed during gun fights when I was about,, I’d say 14 or 15 years old that were used in the movie. Some distractions, like opening the bathroom closet. Everything that’s ever happened in that house, I used it all. It was fun, but knowing, in the writer's chair, every inch of that space made it for a very efficient shoot. I knew exactly where people were going to go, lined up, and there were no translation problems there.
Capone: I’m assuming you wrote this with Macon in mind for this part. Do you share it with him as you’re going, or do you drop it on him when it's done? Is there any collaboration during the writing with him?
JS: Yes. I don’t really have a tried-and-true process yet because this is only my second screenplay and I write by necessity. I write to generate material that I can direct, becaus no one else will give me the good shit. I actually found my notebook the other day, and in 2011, there's a page that just said "Macon Blair Vehicle: The Beach Bum Project." And it was a character I had been thinking about for quite some time, but it was originally a dark comedy, and that shifted around, and I just wanted to make something serious. I guess it could be as simple as the mood I was in or what I felt I hadn’t seen in the marketplace or the festival scene, but I wanted to go real and go big and emotional and sad and brutal, and not lean on my sort of goofy slapstick comedy roots, which I still embrace, but not this time.
There was a lot of discussion before I wrote anything. I was talking about the ideas, I was pitching them to Macon and another friend. I talked about it a lot, I’d bring it up in discussions, I would pitch it to people, I’d pitch it to myself and then I pitched it to a producer. I was tired, I had a certain deadline, my third kid was on the way, and I knew I had to make a movie in the summer of 2012, so at the very end of 2011, I was like, “Okay, it’s going to be a revenge movie, here’s the three-page outline,” and he was onboard.
And the next day, I started writing and writing and writing really quick. The first draft was four weeks; I went into a little foxhole and did that, came out, and usually I don’t want to share too much too soon, because I know it’s not the right place, and I can pick it apart myself so why let other people do what I can? But, it was a great thing to have a hard deadline and a closing window of opportunity. So I shared it with my inner circle and got some great notes and feedback. Macon and I had always talked about the character, and I had to sell him on certain points, one of them being the overall motivation for this person to embark on this revenge. For some reason, the thought of an Everyman like myself or Macon endeavoring to murder someone as payback was much easier for me to fathom than him being evil. He was much more resistant to it. Perhaps I’m a little more aggressive or evil, but it helped me a lot. I had to sell it to him, and he had to come back to me with ideas. We didn’t compromise, we just had to sell each other to the point where the character did shift a bit.
But, because of the nature of the production, we knew what time we needed to shoot. I did do the writing by myself in the room, and I always had Macon there to interject or add. We had discussions about like, "Should he drink or should he not drink?" And Macon would put his foot down when he felt like something hit a false note, or we couldn’t do this, or he’d seen it a couple of times. We’d compromise.
Capone: I think an alternate title for the film might have been THE RELUCTANT ASSASSIN, because in most revenge films, the person seeking revenge has some sort of training or he used to be in the military or something along those lines. Here, he just a guy with a knife and a dream. Was that something you wanted to emphasize, that anyone can do this, or was this guy special?
JS: It wasn’t some crazy high-concept approach, but it was "What if someone like you or me just did this?" And that was just an instantaneous well of material because, to stop and think, “What would I do here? What would someone who’s a real, mortal, human being do in this situation?” And I wanted to connect with audiences in a way where they would see themselves on screen and relate immediately. I had my character first do something terrible, which would turn people off, and then slowly make our protagonist earn their interest and love. But, it was all about staying true to the character and the environment.
So much was a result of this collision of a regular person doing an extraordinary mission and having a film that would connect with audiences, so they wouldn't be yelling at people for going into dark places without the upper hand or making stupid decisions that were obviously necessary for the plot to move forward and not that would be true to them in that environment. So I want to see someone come into a movie that they’ve seen before, they’ve seen a thousand times, and derail it immediately and explore like what happens when he goes totally off the rails and he tries to get us back on and screws up all the time. A lot of the comedy came from that, but it was never trying to be funny. It was just like, let’s just see when the mortal man embarks on this mission.
Capone: The way Macon reacts to his own actions is funny sometimes; he seems shocked by what he’s capable of. He almost flinches as he’s slitting the guy's throat in the beginning.
JS: I pulled on my own experience there. I was in an argument with my wife and I was young and an idiot and I got really pissed off about some minutia, right? And I got so pissed, that I hit my own car windshield. I indulged in this act and I cut loose and hit something hard, and it broke, and then within two seconds my entire emotional state reversed and I thought, “Shit, I have to get it fixed.” It totally wasn’t worth it, but I allowed myself to do it and I indulged and I paid the price.
And I wanted that to happen where it’s like in all these films, they commit an act of revenge and it’s all sewn up nice and tight because the film ends. But life keeps going, in theory, and it would be so fun to see someone who reverses his stance, tries to right his wrongs, and clean up his mess. And, explore the unintended consequences of all these acts of violence you see in all these movies. I had a very bizarre reference to AUSITN POWERS when I saw that scene in AUSTIN POWERS where a henchmen died. One of these like hundreds of extras in the background, and it cuts to this suburban kitchen, and the housewife gets a call letting her know that her husband has died at work. It’s a riot, because you’ve never seen that movie. You see all these people die in films, but no one ever cares, and there’s never a consequence. So, I was inspired by AUSTIN POWERS believe it or not. Let’s explore the unexplored.
Capone: I hope that’s in like the press notes.
JS: Of course not. We got into Fortnight at Cannes, so I have to be an auteur and a genius. Everything has to be intentional.
Capone: I might have heard something about you pretending when you were in Europe that there was a anti-gun statement buried in your movie, but then in Austin, you said something different.
JS: I was unprepared to talk about guns because I’m from Virginia. Guns are everywhere. To the French, it was absurd how many guns were in my movie.
Capone: It’s not that many guns either.
JS: Also, there’s not that many deaths, but I think one of the few things I can say is that this is a successful movie in one respect because the impact of the guns and the violence and the death is astronomical compared to--more people die in three minutes in most action films than die in my entire film, yet people are making this about guns and violence and politics. So there certainly were intentional references to certain gun laws. There’s also a little sequence that showcases the ethicacy of minor governmental measures like the sugar locks. There are also moments where a rifle can save the day. There are references and there is intention behind it, but it was not ever supposed to be a foreground thing.
So when I got to Cannes, we had the first Q&A. First off, we were very well received and it was a great experience, but I wasn't prepared to talk about guns, and I am myself conflicted on the issue, but I didn’t think my personal views would be so scrutinized And I tried to make a joke like, “I love guns, but if Americans can't play nice with them, they should take them away.” And that was translated to "I love guns" period. They wanted it to be "The film is a political jab and some kind of message movie," and there is that in there. There’s little pokes at gun laws.
But for me, the story was always the key, and guns are part of our environment here, so at least in Texas they got that. They got all the jokes, and I didn’t have to play the auteur. The main thing is, I write films from the gut level. I like visual storytelling, intuitive story telling, everything comes from somewhere. I don’t always know where it originates. I type all the words, I shoot all the images, but I do not know always where it comes from and I don’t know why I do things the way that I do or why characters do things they do in a film. I feel like it’s from a non-cerebral part of my body. It was fun to show it in Texas, because they just didn’t talk about that. It was part of the environment, part of the story, as I intended it. Politics never came up, and that was a relief.
But, I will say that the things I said in France were true. When I wrote this film, there were three atrocious mass shootings, and they pissed me off because I embrace genre films. I love on-screen violence. I’m a former makeup artist. It’s an art form to me. I like exploding heads, monsters, aliens, all kinds of fucking shit on camera, but in my personal life, it was really easy for me to separate the two. There’s a line between cinematic violence and actual violence, and when assholes take up arms and murder people in mass shootings, it just ruins it for me because it does effect me. It helped this film become what it was, because I couldn't do more of the sensational, choreographed stuff that I wanted to do and showcase my action shots. I was making it more emotionally true. But I remember during certain parts of the screen writing process and post-production, we had the Aurora one and then Sandy Hook, and it really affects you and makes you less enthusiastic.
Capone: Does it make you look at your script and say, “Man, I've got a lot of guns in here,” even if you don’t really have that many?
JS: Exactly. And if forced me to justify the violence dramatically. I didn’t want people to clap; I want people to be shocked. One occasion in Fortnight actually and in Austin, when there’s a certain moment--I don’t want to spoil it--but there’s a certain moment in a certain field where someone comes to an end, and it’s a bit of a surprise and I wanted it to be brutal, terrifying, and shocking, but people started clapping. And I was a little bit, not turned off, but I was a little bit shook by that. What have I done? But then I realized what happens is they were not rooting for this violence or for someone to meet their end; they were rooting for the main character and that this very troubled protagonist had won them over. I actually realized that’s the reason then the film is so successful.
But it’s funny, I do speak about the film with different people in different ways. If you catch me at a Q&A with my friends or my family in the audience, I’m an idiot. Because the facade of being a smart director just comes crumbling down to nothing. But when people don’t know me, I can play fancy-pants and say it was all intentional, and I’m a really smart guy.
Capone: I mean this in the best possible way, but BLUE RUIN seems like a weird movie to be at Cannes' Fortnight. Do you feel you maybe got away with something?
JS: [laughs] I think what’s awesome is that this film was never intended to be a Cannes film. We were targeting top-tier domestic festivals in the U.S., and when we got into Cannes, we had submitted our first cut just to make that deadline, and it was shocking to everyone involved. We had to do a double take. But it’s a new age in genre; I really think it is. Too many times, I’ve heard the phrase "elevated genre," but it is taking hold, it’s being appreciated, and I think there's a glut of indie films that are just talky, self indulgent and mundane, and people need some sort of visceral experience. The stakes are higher--life and death circumstances, whatever it is.
And now there's a whole new breed of directors our there; it’s shifting. And then when Edouard Waintrop, artistic director of Directors' Fortnight, came onboard years ago, he shifted it. He embraced genre films and he’s been programing them for a couple of years now. He is one of those gatekeepers that finally let the genre guys in. And I credit him with changing my life and my career trajectory by legitimizing this kind of movie. We definitely made our film skew toward an art house audience to help our chances, but we didn't let our genre fans down. It had been proven as an art film throughout this international tour, and then we got to Texas and it was our hometown crowd.
Capone: What is it about setting a crime drama in a fringe community or out in nature that makes it more interesting to you?
JS: It’s hard to tell because, for us, a lot of the environment came first. So knowing we were going to revisit our old stomping grounds, I wrote the story to adhere to them. It’s not to say every location in the film is like that; we had to go find bars and highways and swamps, wherever it was. A lot of work went into locations, but set pieces were on our home turf, on our old stomping grounds. I think being in a familiar setting, a mundane setting, adds a new element of danger that the audience can identify with. "This could happen in my house, in my home. If I made these choices, I would suffer the same consequences." And also just having the home-field advantage. But, our approach to locations was to use what we had as long as it asserted the story, and shoot them like we didn’t care, not a lot of wide, exterior establishing shots or let people know exactly where we were. We were just like, follow the story, follow the character, and it can all be incidental.
Capone: The scenes with the sister--there are only a few really--but they seemed really important. There’s a family drama element to this story. Talk about incorporating her into this story. There’s that tension between them that’s strictly about things that have happened in the past and not just about the danger Dwight has put her in.
JS: Right. When Dwight reconnects with his estranged sister, that’s made to sell the movie because without selling their relationship and showing their emotional connectivity and implying the hardship of their past. If we were successful there, then stakes mattered and the film was justified, and we we're with a protagonist the rest of the film. If we failed there, everything would be all for not. So, the approach there was to really explore that dynamic and have their exchange be this tip of the iceberg to a very detailed history we developed of the characters.
Capone: I was going to ask you if you had a history in mind for Dwight.
JS: Yeah, so what I did was develop a timeline and a history of everything that happened and the incident that caused all of this back and forth, the original killings, and researched what happens to people when they go to jail and what happen when get out, the families, the department of corrections, whatever it is. I knew everything that would have happened, but when I wrote the dialogue, I made sure that if both the characters knew what we knew, we wouldn't hear anymore. They would never be talking to the audience, and that is an occasion where it’s always safe to overshoot on set then have to add ADR. So there was more exposition in that scene and there was more history to discuss and specifics. And then we did a cut of it, and it was simply too long, then we cut it too short, so we added back time.
If we stayed true to the emotional exchanges and that sort of truth, then the whole scene would ring true. But if we started cutting for efficiency or choppiness, it would fall apart. That was one of the biggest scenes in editing that we had to find, and we ended up cutting out even more than I did in the script phase, and you see more emotional truth, and so people bought it. There wasn’t much you needed to convey, and I was a little worried about detailing their history, and then I realized that those two actors in that diner sold the history without having to again go down that road of exposition.
Capone: This is one of a few films where I wondered what would have happened to him if his initial act succeeded and he'd gotten away with it. Where would he have gone after that? Would that have suddenly made him snap out of his walking coma, or would he just kept going in that drifter lifestyle?
JS: For me, he knew he was inept, he knew he was compelled, he knew he couldn’t fight it, he knew his life was pretty much already over, and he had to move forward, but did not expect to live. He didn’t expect to win that battle. And everything afterwards is just this trance he’s in, and then he snaps out of it and he's finally aware of the consequences and has new prospective, and then for the rest of the film, his motivations are pretty much 180 degrees from where he started.
Capone: Thanks for talking, Jeremy.
JS: No problem, I hope I made sense because [laughs].