One from the vaults, first published in Filmink almost exactly five years ago on May 13, 2016.
In the terse, savage thriller, Green Room, a touring punk band called the Ain’t Rights (Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole and Callum Turner) find themselves locked in the titular chamber after witnessing the aftermath of a murder. Outside are a veritable army of Nazi punks, led by the implacable, ruthless Darcy (Patrick Stewart), intent on eliminating all witnesses. Writer and director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin) explains how his roots in the DC hardcore scene affected his take on the venerable siege thriller.
You came up in the Washington DC punk scene. How did that background inform your work on Green Room?
I used that as a jumping off point. I pulled from my own experiences and that of my bandmates who were in other bands and did more actual touring, and I just referred to people I knew growing up for characters – there’s a real Tiger, there’s a real Sam, there’s a real Ed. I wasn’t very literal; they had certain things I wanted to embody and I wanted to create an homage to this amazing, energetic scene that I was part of, that my friends were part of, that really influenced me growing up – which was sort of concurrent to my becoming a filmmaker. I wanted to start off there and use that very realistic and atmospheric approach to lead in to this punk/hardcore world.
And then when we get to the siege scenario, it was all fiction and fantasy from there – but it was fun to finally archive all these memories I had, and more the texture and the atmosphere that defined me, and put it on screen. I walk around now and I would never be picked out of the crowd as a hardcore kid or a punk rocker. I’m just a normal dude now – I’m pretty square. So it was something I had to do; just put it on screen and finally archive what had defined me growing up.
You said some of the characters are based on people you knew. Did that help you when it came to quickly and economically describing the characters onscreen?
Yeah. I like to believe that I always define characters through action – currently; you never know as tastes change. A lot of filmmakers I think are cyclical in their explorations. I just can’t stand injected conflict that seems false, or artificially beefed-up backstories. I don’t mind a rich character, but I want to portray people as I see them. I want to put real characters on screen and not robust characters that are contrived, which is what we expect out of movies. I used my friends as more of a dynamic – who was the manager, who was the adult in the band, who was the observer, who was more of a passive presence – and just be influenced by that and make them seem real by proximity – you’re immersed in their world, you’re watching them, and their physical expression and the atmosphere created is as much about the characters as any sort of banter or backstory.
And then of course they can seem human and seem real and relatable. They’re imperfect – that’s of course a huge fascination of mine, exploring ineptitude and humanity.
The characters in the band and their relationships come across fairly quickly and strongly. Is that down to rehearsal and bonding time, or is down to what’s on the page and the performances?
It’s a bit of both. We certainly did not have proper rehearsal with the band, but as we got into production the band did form a real bond. They were playing catch up, trying to learn instruments and get ready for the big performances, most of which were in our interior schedule, which was two weeks after we started, so we had a couple of weeks to get everybody on the ground, but the entire band was never together until the first day of production.
It was a very tight situation for us, but once we were on the ground in Portland, Oregon, the fictional band would come in and play real music and even write songs together, so the bonding did take place and by the end of the shoot they became an actual band and performed at the wrap party. Which was really special to see because two of the people, Joe Cole and Callum Turner, had never been near a band or near an instrument in their lives, and seeing them performing was just really delightful. And Callum especially is… Joe was trying to learn drums and that’s very difficult to do in a few weeks, but Callum, by the time we were filming, he could be in a punk band. He’s a real deal singer and those are his actual vocals that we hear in the movie, and it was really exciting to see that come alive. The way they interacted was definitely great because they were friends, and as far as the characters in the movie, I wanted to make that dynamic relatable and true, which is like when you’re in a punk band, when you’re in a band that makes no money, there’s not a lot of the high end problems and the tensions that come with big contracts and big tours. It’s voluntary – you have to be there because you want to be there. You can call it quits at any time and there’s no consequence. I didn’t want to do the whole rock and roll band coming apart because of success because they have none; it’s voluntary and it’s important to have that seem real.
The band also explicitly has no social media presence, which is more underground than underground.
It was certainly relating back to my experience in the punk and hardcore scene, which was pre-internet, pre-cellphone, and it was so pure and so real and it required attendance, meaning it was a physical thing: you had to be there to experience it. The music was not just something you click on and listen to alone while you’re browsing the internet. The whole point of the music is to show up and move your body and interact with people and seek and be proactive. You had to go and track down records, you had to go to shows to find out when the next show was gonna be, and you had to get drenched in sweat to be in these crazy clubs, in the pit, wherever it was. It was so physical and so real and so present.
When I was doing research for this film I realised that the scene as I knew it, it’s not completely dead but it’s not as big or as vibrant as it was when I was in it in the mid-1990s. so this is a band that’s not on a big successful tour, they’re just kind of scavenging. They’re trying to salvage what was pure to them about the scene. So they’re a little more off the grid – it’s certainly something they do. I think a lot of this kind of music, this really aggressive, physical expressionism, it’s fleeting for people. It was certainly fleeting for me; I don’t go to many shows now, I’m too old and too damn tired, but it was so important to me at a certain point, and for the Ain’t Rights it is as much for themselves as anybody else – it’s not for accolades, it’s certainly not for money, it’s about trying to stay present and hold onto the participatory nature of punk rock.
When did all the disparate elements of the story crystalise for you? When did you know you had something workable?
I did a lot of research. I knew the general premise for a long time, almost a decade – I knew I wanted to set a movie in green room. I’d even done a little short comedy that took place in a green room with a heavy metal band just as an exercise. It’s an idea that I always wanted to explore. After Blue Ruin when I actually had the skill set and the resources to do it, I decided to explore as a writer, so I cranked through the first 16 pages of the script in a couple of days and it started to crystalise and become a real thing. As I was writing it would become more exciting and I would go back and research more. Because I had such a long time to think about the general premise, using that as a jumping off point was great because I had a firm foundation but I had no idea where the story was going to go. So as I got into it, this whole thing is basically an exploration of minutiae and procedure in detail, to the point where it wasn’t until I was writing every little detail, every nuanced line of dialogue and visualising the sets and the props, it didn’t come together until it was almost like real time as I was writing. It’s always fun to keep it intuitive and keep it alive, so I had a fresh perspective on a very old idea, which is a good combination to have.
Were there any particular films that influenced you on this project?
I usually try to avoid that, but just before I wrote I watched Straw Dogs just to examine it from a filmmaker’s point of view as far as the bare bones plot and the intensity of it and the texture, how that could serve as all that I needed to get out of a movie. The Green Room plot is a bit more involved and layered, but it was certainly the main reference as far as like a siege movie and not so much a horror flick. I knew that the general setting and the look of a punk club with the black lights and the black walls, the graffiti and the colours and the wardrobe, even, it looks kinda horror movie-ish. I wanted my references to be outside the horror world and be towards siege movies and war films. So I watched Straw Dogs and I referred tonally to Platoon and Apocalypse Now and less of anything in the horror genre. And finally I watched Assault on Precinct 13 after I wrote the script, because I knew it had a similar premise but it was one of the few John Carpenter films I hadn’t watched. That’s one of the few I had to actively avoid until after I wrote the script, and then as a treat I watched it after doing the second draft of the script. I felt safe because I had avoided the exposure, but I used it as a texture reference – the way it embraced exploitation cinema and got really down and dirty and had very little plot other than the setup. It was encouraging – this is a fucking classic that I really, really enjoy, and it didn’t try too hard to be more than what it is. It embraces what it is and it revels in it and it succeeds in a very inspiring way. I felt that I could make a bad ass sort of down to the bone exploitation movie and have a lot more fun than I would have making some other sort of contrived, plot-heavy flick.
When and how did you decide to use skinheads and neo-Nazis as your villains?
It was always gonna be the Nazi skinheads, because of how they function within the hardcore and punk community. Back in the ‘90s they caused a lot of trouble but they were the odd fringe element that was in present at almost every show in metropolitan areas, whatever. In my home town in Suburban Virginia I didn’t see them ever, but going across the bridge to Washington DC in the mid-‘90s there were probably Nazi punks at every show I went to, just about. It was the easy and only choice for me because they function as soldiers. They dress in uniforms, they are aggressive, they have the ideology – the content was not my focus, but the fact that they have a militant philosophy that they rally around. The militancy itself is what made them the villains in my film because they’re more likely to be organised. have a hierarchy and have access to weaponry and participate in crimes peripheral to the punk/hardcore scene.
Other groups in the punk/hardcore scene did not function so clearly as soldiers. I chose them because of that and used ideology as sort of twist, in that I almost dismiss it completely. The power of the ideology is real, but the contents therein are completely empty. While it affects them as a group and how they function in my film, it doesn’t really come into play.
A couple of reviewers are completely dismissing the fact that this is plausible, that a punk band would play [Dead Kennedys song] Nazi Punks Fuck Off to a bunch of Nazis, but I’ve met people who’ve actually done that. I don’t want this film to be esoteric, but if you’re in the scene, or you’ve been around these kinds of things… I think people just have critique about how dumb the band is for playing a gig that’s predominantly skinheads, but if you’re in the scene… first off, 25 year old kids do stupid shit all the time, and in the scene that’s the point. There are skins at every show. You don’t fear skins, you don’t fear the white power band, you just laugh at them. People are so irreverent in terms of philosophies and ideologies. The music consultant on Green Room is of Arab descent and he loves some of these old white power bands because of their music, and they don’t give a shit about what they’re saying sometimes, so you can dismiss that. It’s very clear in the community that people do crazy stuff and It’s like jailhouse posturing and showing no fear, which does earn you more respect. It’s kind of playful and aggressive and it makes sense in that world.
What was your casting process like? In particular, how did Patrick Stewart come on board?
The casting process was amazing. It was like being a kid in a candy store as far as all of a sudden I had access to legitimate talent that I’d never even dreamed of having access to before. Blue ruin had brought me a certain amount of currency with the acting community and they were just getting to know me. What’s great about when you cast young people is that the 25 and under crowd are very aggressive and energetic, and offering them opportunities to helm an action flick like this was very exciting because they do not come along very often – they’re always off being indie darlings or boyfriends, girlfriends, whatever they play. To let them go full aggro is super exciting.
Getting a big movie star to play Darcy was a lot different. A lot of people, they sent the script out and it has hard to engage with the various movie stars for that role. There was pressure from the financier and of course I just wanted to get an actor who would just come on board and inhabit the role, so there was a little conflict there. Patrick Stewart satisfied both our needs. He had just joined the same management company that manages me, so suddenly we had this inside connection. They passed him the material and he responded to it. We hadn’t found the right Darcy – we were 10 days from production and we were in a very dangerous position.
All of a sudden Patrick gets his hands on it and he responds to it and I jump on the phone with him and he just shows up! Looking back, we might have imploded as a production; I’m not sure what would have happened without him. He jumped on board with very little notice and we kind of got our bearings together as a director and an actor during the first week of production. It was tough because he flew in to do his finale first; we just shook hands and met and then “Now action!” Boom! But he was just a very kind soul and almost the cherry on our crazy little punk rock movie – he classed us up to that level and he was just a gracious man. He boosted the morale of the cast and crew and all of a sudden we were legit.