Thursday, April 28, 2016

INTERVIEW: Jeremy Saulnier & Anton Yelchin on Green Room

After making a splash with the crowdfunded 2013 thriller Blue Ruin, writer-director Jeremy Saulnier's next project is an even darker dive, the survival horror film Green Room. Following a punk band's harrowing encounter with neo-Nazis in the green room of a hole-in-the-wall bar, the film stars Anton Yelchin as one of the unfortunate band members, and features a chilling performance by Patrick Stewart as the enigmatic white supremacist leader.

I had a chance to discuss the film (which also features a supporting turn by Imogen Poots) with Saulnier and Yelchin during their recent swing through San Francisco, and you can read on for some highlights of our chat, including Saulnier's shying away from studio pictures, their mutual fondness for the punk scene, and whether Yelchin swapped Star Trek stories with Patrick Stewart:

Jeremy, I read an interview with you from last May, and you were talking about how, after Blue Ruin, you had the opportunity to make a bunch of studio pictures, but you chose this.

Saulnier: For sure.

This is interesting to me, because I feel like, for many filmmakers, the prize is making the studio movie. And so, the idea that you went from your well-received indie movie to exercise that clout onto something that's personal -- what was the thought process there?

Saulnier: I was totally afraid. (laughs) No, I'm a little older than a lot of these young directors that do an indie. They get sucked up into the studio system, and it works great sometimes, but more often than not, if you talk to them after their first studio movie and see how they feel, I think it's...

Kind of the soul-crushing experience, a little bit?

Saulnier: It can be, and it's not because studios are evil. It's because they're designed a certain way. Release dates come first, movie stars come second, and then the script might be delivered a week before you shoot, or it might be delivered as you're shooting. That's not how I make movies. I would love to do a studio movie, but the process is something I'm not ready to do yet. Actually, after Green Room, I feel much more prepared to take on a studio project because my goal is to incrementally earn enough respect to retain a certain amount of creative control.

Anton, what drew you to this project?

Yelchin: I've always loved punk music, since I was in my early teens, since middle school. The fact that it was a punk film in a kind of earnest way, as opposed to...you see it a lot in kind of teen movies, there's a punk...

The token punk character?

Yelchin: Yeah, and it is -- in the eighties -- it's a funny cliche, you know, but now it's sort of tired, and I think also wildly inaccurate and irrelevant when you do see that. It just was never my experience in high school or middle school. There were actual punk kids that went to punk shows, and there wasn't one; there were a bunch.

And this is a film that was clearly devoted to a love of that world. I didn't know at the time that Jeremy had been in a band, and that's where his love of it came from, but it was palpable when you read the script that there is genuine affection for this world and a genuine knowledge of it, and I really responded to that. So, it was the combination, and now in hindsight, I know because that's Jeremy. So, I basically liked it because it's something that Jeremy would make, but I only know that now because I know Jeremy.

Saulnier: And no one would know from looking at me that I was in a punk or hardcore scene.

Yelchin: Except for the Vans!

Saulnier: (laughs) But that, I think, is another thing about why I made the movie, is to have an archive. I had a very vibrant history, in my formative years, of making movies, and being in the hardcore scene, and going to all these amazing shows, and being fully immersed in it, but this is...tried anymore. So, put it on screen.

I have no experience with punk culture, so that was actually my question: How accurate is this to that scene?

Saulnier: The film takes a severe left turn and sort of evolves or devolves into an insane siege thriller, but I think people who are in the scene really respect it for its authenticity, but the key, like yourself, is that you don't have to bring the knowledge. It's about immersion in this world and not about foreknowledge. So, I think it was about not getting too bogged down in who's who, and ideology, and why punks are punks. It's about: can you hear this? Can you feel this? Holy shit, there's a live concert going on, and these kids are dead meat! And then, it just became a narrative, but it was sort of propelled by the energy and the sounds of the punk rock scene. But I think, texturally, it gets high marks for authenticity, but it's been a while since I've been in the scene.

One thing I really appreciated was how the audience and the main characters are on the exact same page, and how, essentially, we in the audience are discovering at the same time. When I take stock of my own reactions, it was that pit of uncertainty in my stomach where it's like, in real life, when you feel like something bad is about to happen. I could feel that while watching it, and that's just when I sum up my reactions to that. Was that a conscious choice?

Saulnier: For sure. From my sort of limited knowledge of the industry, an anomaly to be able to actually put human beings on the screen, to have them be so identifiable, not because of their backstories that are injected into the narrative or any kind of bullshit monologues that are expository. It's about: these people really behave like humans, and so, you're with them.

Immediately, you're sort of coupled with them on this insane journey because they're acting like real people, and they're debating among themselves, the same things that you might think in this kind of traditional cinematic scenario. It's a siege film. There's Nazi punks outside a door, but they don't go too gonzo right away. They just really debate and try and figure it out, and the dread is: holy shit, there's really no easy way out, and this is going to end very poorly! And that feels bad.

They're not all going to get out of this.

Saulnier: Yeah, it's abrupt and brutal and grounded, and I think that's what makes it seem...you know, I don't break the rules of genre cinema just to do it, but I adhere to the world I created, and when you're governed by those laws, it's not pretty.

And speaking of not pretty, using neo-Nazis, that seems like one of those no-brainer type of black hats. We don't see neo-Nazis that much as villains. Was it because of a connection with the punk rock scene that it seemed like a natural?

Saulnier: Yeah. When you look at the vibrant, supportive community of the punk rock or hardcore scene, there's so many different types of people and different ideologies, and subgroups, and offshoots of music, but the Nazi punks were certainly picked, not because they're Nazis but because they are -- among this whole diversity of people, they are the most likely to serve as soldiers, meaning they have uniforms.

They're militant, they're organized, there's a hierarchy. They are affiliated with gang culture, and what ideology they have, it's not about racism; it's about militancy and weaponry, and they're most likely to be soldiers within the scene. So, I picked them because of that. They served a very narrative purpose and a utility. If I was going to have civilian band members trapped in the Green Room fighting off soldiers, well, among the scene, those were the guys.

Well, definitely, the scene that sticks out to me is, Anton, when your hand is out there and...I made the mistake of eating lunch right before I saw the movie.

Saulnier: Oh, dear.

So, I had a very visceral reaction to that, and I'm definitely not used to watching movies that are as visceral as that, and you mentioned how this was something aimed at your 19-year-old self. I'm assuming stuff like that was part of that process?

Saulnier: Yeah, but also, it doesn't revel in the gore. I think it's...so, some of the moments of impact are just an absolute gut punch, but that's actually me trying to be more responsible. When these make you feel dread, and you might want to lose your lunch, that's not high-fiving. That's not clapping. That's narrative impact, and it's very pure and very real. So, the violence is very graphic, and it's very curated, meaning when I want to rub your face in a very brutal act of violence, it's because this is exactly what the characters are having to face.

And I think the most gasp-inducing moment of the entire film is a quiet...it's almost surreal, but it's a full frontal box cutter situation, and it's very intentionally full frontal, and it's quiet, and it's because you are now witnessing what the character is witnessing, and she is becoming a killer, and that is a very big step for her.

Like most of the violence, when you actually shake the entire experience off of watching Green Room, and you look back, hopefully for a second or third time in the theaters, you realize that all this violence was sort of dished out reluctantly with a sort of pragmatism and a necessity and not to satisfy a bloodlust. It's dark as shit, but it's all to serve a very particular reason. So, that's why it's approached as a war film. There are tactics, and there are strategies, and there are endgames here.

So, Anton, you and Patrick Stewart get to be part of a very unique fraternity by way of your mutual involvement in Star Trek. How much did that cross in your mind? Did you guys get to share stories about sitting on the bridge of the Enterprise at any point?

Yelchin: There was no reason for us to talk a lot at work. So, I stayed away from that intentionally, and I think he did, too, probably. We spoke mostly in the van afterwards about everything other than Star Trek, actually. That being said, I think, that's not to slight that for the fans. I'm sure people get a kick out of that. I don't slight that whatsoever. I'm very fortunate to be part of that world. I just think, for us, it wasn't really conducive to anything at work.

Because you have an adversarial relationship.

Yelchin: Yeah. Literally, the first thing we shot together was the very end. Our confrontation, essentially, and then the rest of the time we spent with a door between us. So, there wasn't a lot of reason to, and I didn't really want to, and he's such a wonderful actor that his very presence is kind of, in that mode, very terrifying, and so, to break that...but, like I said...

Saulnier: But it's fun now that we're promoting the film.

Yelchin: Exactly, yeah.

Saulnier: It's fun to make these connections, but certainly on set, this was really about ignoring and shedding all of the franchise affiliation, and having it be very new roles. But now that we're here marketing it, it's fun to see the crossover.

Yelchin: And also, that's the kind of wonderful thing about film culture, is the interaction between films and who works on what, where they were before, and now what they're doing now, and that inevitably informs how people view a film, but I think this film is, like you said, so visceral that I don't know that anyone, at a certain point in the movie, is really thinking that. I think they're just so f***ed by the movie.

Saulnier: We had a Fright Night conflict, too. I was like, oh, shit. I was making Blue Ruin in the summer of 2012, and Fright Night came out. I'm not a big fan of remakes in general, but it was just crazy. This is me and Macon Blair. We had not gotten accepted into Cannes. We were just making a really low-budget revenge movie, and I went to go see, at Rehoboth Beach, Fright Night, and I saw Anton and Imogen Poots onscreen, and I really enjoyed the remake, but it's so bizarre that two years later, I would be working with them.

I was having dinner with them last night, and I am their elder -- I'm almost 40 -- but still, I was like, kind of having a little fanboy moment: "This is insane! I'm at a rooftop bar talking to Immy and Anton, and we just made a punk rock murder movie! This is the coolest thing ever!" So, the crossover's fun after the fact, but when you're on set, you've got to drop all that and stay true to the story at end.

Speaking of Patrick Stewart, his performance is the freaking creepiest thing I've ever seen. And the fact that it's Patrick Stewart, who everyone knows...

Saulnier: Well, the philosophy -- and I say this a lot, but it's true -- is you've got to waste production value, and we certainly didn't waste Patrick Stewart, but the key was, like, his presence is enough. If we can have him, and me and Patrick work together to just bring down his level of performance as far as the intensity and the volume, and he remarked about midway through his first week of exteriors that, like, "This is the quietest performance I've ever given on stage or screen." I was like, wow, setting a Patrick Stewart record is very much an honor.

It's your claim to fame, right?

Saulnier: Yeah, because he doesn't need to do much, and for Darcy, we were on the same page, as far as there's not a lot of monologue, so there's not exposition. It's just his presence and his pragmatism and his authority. That is what is so scary, is that he doesn't need to have these moments, and the one moment I love when he actually loses his cool, and he face-palms Macon Blair as Gabe, he takes a breath, and then he apologizes, and then they move on because he's actually...

That's out of character for him.

Saulnier: Very much so, yeah. So, it was really fun to explore that with him, and I'm very grateful he did our movie. We didn't expect him to stoop down to our level.

*****

Many thanks to Jeremy Saulnier and Anton Yelchin for their time. Look for Green Room in theaters everywhere starting tomorrow. For more movie talk, be sure to check out the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast at this link or via the embed below:

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