GREEN ROOM THE INTERVIEW- Talking Shit with Jeremy Saulnier and The Blair Brothers

Punks on film is a complicated matter. There are some wonderful examples, your Repo Man or your Suburbia or maybe your first season of Degrassi. The vast majority of these films though are embarrassing, though some in truly wonderful ways. Take, for example, Punk Vacation. A truly bat shit revenge film, it is filled with the sort of caricatured costume Hollywood punks that no one ever admits influenced them to get into this weird scene we are a part of. So it was with some trepidation that Josh and I went to see Green Room, the latest film from the amazing Jeremy Saulnier. Saulnier’s first film, Blue Ruin, is an intense and emotional experience, and we both are big fans of the film. Green Room is a step up from his last film as far as distribution, budget, and cash. However, both films are intensely personal and uncompromising. We will be doing a full episode on Green Room as soon as possible, but suffice to say it is siege film in the classic sense, filled with tension and violence. Punk really functions as a useful context, a way to establish a world in which such a violent and gripping narrative can exist. It is not a dense film as far as plot, but most folks won’t mind this, especially those familiar with and fans of this genre. The film very economically introduces its characters and world, and does so effectively enough that each conflict in the film is not just exciting but devastating. The deaths matter, the stakes are important, and the film is not trying to make this easier for you.

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This interview was an awesome opportunity we were NOT expecting, so thanks to everyone involved, especially whatever promotion company thought that getting this film in front of folks who care about hardcore punk and exploitation cinema was a good idea. I sat down with director Jeremy Saulnier, but also composers Will Blair and Brooke Blair. The Blair Brothers began their work as composer working with their childhood friend, Jeremy Saulnier, and you may know their brother Macon Blair from a little film called Blue Ruin. I mention it briefly but let me reiterate, I was NOT expecting to find Jeremy in a SHEER TERROR long sleeve when I came in, and it was super cool to find out that hardcore was a big part of his involvement in “punk”widely construed because samsies.

In fact, I wanted to know so MUCH about the scene that Jeremy was involved in and which bands really affected him as a kid, and predictably that got left to the end and thus got short changed. Not making excuses, just saying these things just are way shorter then you think they will be!

NOT TO WORRY THOUGH, former guest of the show Tony Retman has been hosting a podcast related to the film called GREEN ROOM RADIO on which he has had not only a variety of hardcore luminaries discussing their worst show experiences, BUT he also recently had on Jeremy to talk about his experience in the scene. So check it out here!

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Ok, here it is:

I thought we would start with something fun that fits with the film: What are the best movie Punks you can recall and what are the worst?

Jeremy Saulnier: I mean, Return Of The Living Dead is hilarious, just classic, but I dunno about legit…you know, legit Punks. I like River’s Edge, which is not really Punk, its more like metal heads…but it doesn’t get too deep into it. It is set in the pacific northwest and deals with those kids and was a big influence on Green Room. I like the atmosphere, I like SLAYER, I am a big SLAYER fan so…

Worst? Oof, um, it is hard to recall off the top of my head but there has to be some…real 80’s token Punk, just terrible…what do you guys think?

Brooke Blain: not sure…

Will Blain: Suburbia was pretty legit right?

Yeah definitely, Suburbia is super legit

BB: I remember feeling like those were…those feel like the kids we grew up with

JS: I have to say tho, like, if there is going to be an all time great, it is Repo Man. I think because Emilio Estevez in that movie is not sporting a mohawk, he is not hyper Punk, he feels more real. He is so fucking Punk in it though and, I guess, he feels to me more like Hardcore kids, like the dudes I grew up with and went to shows with.

Well, movie Punks are often costume Punks, just a crazy outfits, bad attitudes, and not like in the scene

JS: Yeah, I mean, as far as how awkward it felt? I would say Adrian Brody in Summer of Sam was very tough to swallow, it is a rough one.

That is one of the worst, but I also dislike New Years Evil just because the Punks do “Punk stuff” but the bands play any kind of music. So I understand that you all grew up together, Will and Brooke: you started composing for Jeremy’s first movie?

JS: Crabwalk was our first collaboration

BB: Yeah we worked on a few shorts prior to Jeremy’s first feature, and some other smaller projects leading up to that one. We were getting our feet wet, learning how to do it, and we were playing in bands for the most part and then in between we would work on student projects and Jeremy’s films

Are you still playing in bands now?

BB: Not really. This is full time right now, just taking up a lot of our time and energy

WB: But I would love to make it work at some point, just find a way to do both

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Is it hard being a part of the film making world out of Philadelphia?

BB: Well actually this is something we talk about lot. Most of the work we are doing is the two of us in front of a computer, and so the bulk of that can be done basically anywhere. Then again, there is so much that goes on out in LA and we have an agent out there who hustles hard on our behalf. We have to go out there a lot for meetings or sessions or whatever, so we travel back and forth a lot.

WB: We have talked about relocating and if it became, you know, necessary we would, but this is working so we don’t really have to go out there.

BB: As long as we can make it work from here we like being here. If that changes and the difficulties become a bit more apparent… But right now it is going, it is working for us.

Jeremy, you talked a little last night about being very intentional about the kind of siege movie you wanted to make, I was curious how much of the violence choreography was dealt with in the script and how much was figured out on set?

JS: It was VERY much in the script. I had to plan and choreograph all those scenes down to minute detail. I had to storyboard those scenes twelve weeks before we shot. When you have makeup effects and visual effects and stunts signed up and you have dogs, you need to do very particular tasks, you have to start training WELL in advance to prepare. So it was pretty much all in the script. I mean a few things we had to figure out how to execute because at a certain point we hit our budget. When we hit our red line, we didn’t have enough to do some of the marquee effects. We had a great on-set supervisor who improvised with some prosthesis and took us all the way there. There was one, well, shotgun to the leg effect that just wasn’t in the budget, but we kinda came through. I certainly think about that as I write, that aspect of the film is important to me

BB: Well also the geography, that really came out of the script. You get such a specific and precise sense of the setting. That was very tight in the script, and you get a real sense of that

One of things I appreciated about the film was that the violence was realistic: it had consequences. The protagonists are in real danger, and while there are bad ass moments, characters we care for are not suddenly invincible just because we care for them. Was that a goal of the script to create that anxious feeling?

JS: Oh yeah, the thing is, when I wrote it, it was scary. I wasn’t forced to adhere to formula or convention, I was allowed to really write intuitively and really…scare the shit out of myself. I would inhabit different characters and different roles and I would try to write them with humanity and with a certain amount of logic, but also I would let myself be impulsive and make bad decisions, as I think real people would. The take away from intense situations is never “everyone acted effortlessly and rationally and with a great amount of skill and made flawless decisions throughout the process.” It is always a cluster fuck when you get people in pressure cookers. Even a few years ago, during an emergency in Times Square, trained police officers drew their weapons to shoot a suspect and shot something like 9 people. Folks never act like they do in movies, controlled and perfect, and it is frustrating to always see them fall into that category. So it was just great to be liberated from that and to let people be people and the consequences from that are tragic and kind of darkly funny, and certainly coupled with a lot more impact on the audience because you can very much relate to these characters, not because of their falsely injected back stories or monologues but because you feel like you are in peril right alongside them as they go through this experience.

This film was described to me, and I think by a lot of people writing about it, as “the most Punk movie ever” and to be honest that had me a bit nervous going in. Green Room could have been a gimmick, and it could of allowed the context to become the point. How did you avoid the temptation to “Punk up” the film? There isn’t even a “needle drop” so to speak, or anything that uses the music beyond a setting for a compelling story!

JS: Well for me, growing up in the scene and with the kids I went to shows with, there was never a conversation about how “Punk” we were. At least, not seriously at all. No, I wanted to basically throw it all away, and really that is how you use the production value to your advantage. You build the world, it’s real, and you just ignore it. You build, it’s real, it’s authentic, it’s full immersion but it’s not designed to take you on a guided tour of how real this is. The key was that all the characters had to interact in a way that was true to what they were thinking and what they were doing and that way the audience could lean in more and be more present and try to figure out what in the hell was happening cause if you start to really hold their hand and take them on a guided tour of the “Punk world” it becomes one of THOSE movies, yah know? There is tons of texture and nuggets, there is POISON IDEA and there is the DEAD KENNEDYS  cover and there are songs that I heard in the 90’s that were written by friends. Those are the songs that were very personal to me but these songs that I know and love, they were unreleased and unknown so they seem like original songs for THE AIN’T RIGHTS (the band portrayed in the film) and so I could put some of my greatest hits from my youth into a movie and they seem like brand new songs. They are sort of unsullied, yah know? I think it would be such a dangerous move to try to “over Punk” this movie, I mean, at a certain point the thesis is that it’s not a context and it’s not about cool as a currency.

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Well the story doesn’t rely on the fact that they are a Punk band. This could be a metal band or another genre. I think it works well partly because it IS a Punk band, but there is also a lot of metal in the film.

JS: Yeah, I wanted to diversify the sound track and to represent that at the club they play, so there is actually as much metal on the soundtrack as Punk or Hardcore.

I caught some OBITUARY right?

JS: Oh yeah, and NAPALM DEATH, SLAYER, and MIDNIGHT. We even cut to that SLAYER song, that was one that had to stay on from the temp track, at no small cost.

Despite the lack of those maybe overused needle drop moments, the film still has a lot of rock on the soundtrack, and some of it is at least somewhat recognizable so, Will and Brooke, I was wondering how that affected your work as composers. How did you balance that out, and how was that different than, say, your work on Blue Ruin?

WB: Well Blue Ruin was very different in that it didn’t have that preexisting musical stamp the way that Green Room does with all the Punk music, so we could just float a bit more atmospherically. A lot of Blue Ruin was outdoors: in the woods, on the beach, exterior. This was more contained, claustrophobic, and I think the tension and the stakes… Everything is a little bit ramped up. Then we had to weave in and out of almost continuous rock and roll. You are seeing it on screen in the action. So I think our intention was to find tones and sounds that would compliment what is already there and what you are hearing without being a Punk rock score. At times finding the same sort of grit and even distortion that compliments that setting but stays out of the way a little bit. We started off slow, let the audience get used to the band, but by the second half of the film, when the tension was really rising, it was mostly us, trying to maintain suspense.

There is a LOT of tension in the film, and so much of that is maintained and even amplified by the score. How did you manage that and was that experience new for you, creating and maintaining that sort of tension in the music?

BB: Yeah this is far more tense then say Murder Party. Well there is some tension in that one, but it is less serious. For Green Room the stakes are higher and it is much more realistic. A big part of this was just staying out of the way of the other sound designs and elements that go into making it so tense. For a lot of the movie we are more below the surface, just barely there, until the music is entirely out of the picture. From the moment that music is no longer playing in the club, we get to ramp it up, and that is probably where things start to escalate in the action. At that point the score starts to take up more space, but also from a sonic stand point there is still so much going on that we had to kind of figure out how to fit into that, and there is room for the sound design to grow and evolve.

Will and Brooke, have you two had the opportunity to work on any other films that you want folks to know about? Anything they should keep an eye out for?

WB: Yeah. After Blue Ruin we have been getting lots of offers and been able to work on a few projects. All things that we worked on a while ago, often as much as two years ago, but they all seem to be coming out now, starting to hit festivals and things. We were just at Tribeca for a film called Live Cargo, a black and white human trafficking drama that was shot mostly in the Bahamas with a really young and dynamic cast. First time director name Logan Sandler, an AFI graduate.

BB: and then a number of documentaries which is an entirely different ball game, just different kind of work, and then we have been able to do some interesting commercial work and short films

WB: You know what is really cool, any of these narratives that are thriller-y or dramatic that we are doing, maybe not the documentaries, but all these thriller like films we have been asked to do they have said they are fans of Blue Ruin and that was how they got our names and that is really great.

JS: You’re welcome

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When did Blue Ruin first sort of take off at festivals?

JS: At Cannes actually, it had a huge pop there, and I kind of hate this sort of tooting my own horn about it, but it just really blew me away and I was really grateful. It was at Director’s Fort Night. It was a cold selection from a pile of DVD submissions, it was a rare world premiere of an American Indie feature that came in without distribution of any kind. So it premiered first weekend at Cannes, it was the first sale of Cannes, so it got a lot of recognition. We didn’t even know if we had a film the day before; we were rushing to get the film done. We did the score in something like four days, we were locking picture and at the same time mixing, it was insane. We just threw it up on screen and we were like “wow this is a real movie”. We were all very excited and really had no expectations going in so everything was amazing and surprising, so it was the most insane sort of zero to world stage in a matter of weeks. Then again, though that is also sort of a blip on the radar, like now we are out there and we just exist. It has been two years, and Blue Ruin is still paying dividends two years later, now it is up on Netflix and the like, and it is still gaining a following. Actors seem to love it, really respond to it and feel like it is an actor’s movie. I think they really respond to how much weight in that movie I put on actors, I really trust them.

How much time between Blue Ruin at Cannes and you start filming Green Room?

JS: Well May of 2013 was our premiere and I started writing Green Room in November. That premiere was such a big stage for us and I was just terrified I wouldn’t have anything ready to go. I wanted to have something done and ready for our next opportunity. So that was November 2013, and we wrapped filming of Green Room in November 2014. So it was a breakneck speed because of, well basically fear, and that fear was from… well I spent fifteen years trying to get here and if we lose this momentum, if I don’t capitalize off this I am back to square one. I mean it was six years between Murder Party and Blue Ruin, so let’s fast track the next one, what’s an idea, Green Room is an idea, let’s just fucking do it. This idea has been with me for years, it has been haunting and it predates even Blue Ruin, so let’s do it. Let’s not over think it, let’s not over develop it, let’s just do it. Let’s get something done and sort of retain that intuitive, that sort of haphazard style.

There are a number of recognizable people in the movie, and obviously Patrick Stewart is huge and is great in the film, but you avoided getting anyone who is obviously associated with Punk and Hardcore to be in the film. Was it an effort to adjust the folks to that context, of both Punk and live music, to get the band ready to seem believable, did any of that orientation for them take a lot of work?

JS: They were cast based on the energy, and, yeah, this is Punk and Hardcore and metal, but the band themselves are pretty soft. They certainly aren’t a part of the cool contest or the who is harder than hard contest, that would contrast significantly with where they end up at that venue with those patrons and those bands. The actors though, and that is what I love, we are casting against type and we are casting for a certain naturalism for the performance and so they inhabited the roles effortlessly and most of them went on tape and kind of showed me what their initial reactions were and some of their instincts were to play the parts and they were spot on and cast on their merits. So once you put them in wardrobe and texture their world, it is not a big leap for them. Also, Anton Yelchinhad played in Punk bands, and Alia has played in bands before and is pretty feisty so… For example, I told her not to dye her hair. I said I don’t want fucking power ranger Punks. She wanted to dye hers red and I said “no, I don’t want that,” but she went ahead and did it anyway. “You are a little Punk, alright fine then, fine, you win!” Joe, Joe Cole the drummer, is physically intimidating himself and we had to slow him down a couple times on the set.

You have talked a lot in other places about Green Room coming from your youth, going to shows in the DC and Virginia area, and I was just curious, how did you get into Punk and Hardcore?

JS: My intro was this group of girls called the “green girls”. I was a skater, and I would always skate up at George Mason Elementary School when I was 8 or 9 years old and they would always have their boom box out and one of Green Girls, Claire, had a boyfriend named Mike who was a really cool skater and was very into Punk. So through them I would hear Punk or new wave and just get educated by the older kids. I first heard Hardcore Punk in 1985 on a road trip, some friends played me DEAD KENNEDYS and that really stuck with me. I dubbed a copy of it for myself when I got home. So skating for me was the first intro to Punk cause it was the only and best soundtrack for skating. Later, when my buddies I made films with got their drivers licenses, so then we all went to not only Punk but a lot of heavy metal shows, even like DEEP PURPLE baby. We started then though driving in the blue Dodge Omni across the bridge into DC, to some legit Hardcore shows in DC. There were some friends who would play locally, Jamie Parker is a drummer, and he was in a band..

What was his band?

JS:…Crap! I can’t remember. I will try and recall it later…anyways, then we started going to real shows and meeting people and being less on the periphery. I was a singer in a band, I didn’t have nay musical talent whatsoever, but I wanted to participate and be there. I didn’t write most of my lyrics I was just a kind of a shitty front man who could go nuts and who looked relatively, at the time, hard. The musicians and the writers, I loved being there. I was like an athlete without a sport, and I just needed to be there. It was the culture and the community but it was afterwards, when your ears are ringing and you’ve been smashing bottles and stupid shit. I kept going to shows throughout college in NYC but I also ended up in the Hip Hop scene. The mid 90’s was a phenomenal time in New York for Hip Hop so I started going to those events, and hanging with the rocksteady crew and trying to become a part of that world. It was similar in that if you were breaking in the circle that was very physical, like slamming in the pit, and I was very drawn to that physicality. But at both times we were all listening to a variety of genres of music. There was never a time when I was like “I only like Punk and Hardcore” but the thing about it was it was a fun and welcoming community. Of course there were Nazi Punks and they where on the outside of the community but they did exist and honestly they gave me nightmares.

Were they a large presence in DC at the time? Was that a threat you faced regularly?

JS: Really just the actual fact that there were Nazis walking around in broad daylight was very disturbing to someone like me. I am from Alexandria. It is a nice pleasant suburb in Virginia, and, funny enough, I had never seen a Nazi in real life. Back in the 90s, DC was the murder capital of the country per capita. It was a seedy, dark, scary place. The Nazis were there…it was kinda fun.

The fear factor is sort of missing now as someone who still books shows.

JS: I mean it’s like Williamsburg, Brooklyn or like the Epcot center now. People now are “Periscoping” shows live…just no, you could now do that. When you do shows out in remote areas, you’re no safer now. Whether it be our band or a friend’s band, you felt vulnerable. You drive up to a gravel parking lot, a little roadhouse vibe and no one to call. So it sorta felt real even though I’m soft core now.

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Yeah but you’ve got a Sheer Terror shirt on…

JS: Back then, tough guy shit. I loved INITIAL REACTION, GUT INSTINCT out of Baltimore. I like INTEGRITY out of Cleveland, SLAYER.

You know, INTEGRITY is playing  THIS IS HARDCORE FEST this summer. 

JS: A24 put this Green Room Radio together (with Tony Rhettman of New Breed Mixtape), and it’s like Hardcore is back in the limelight again. It’s fun hearing people talk about Hardcore.

You all talked a little bit before about being in bands as you transitioned into this composition thing, what were some of the bands you were in? What were you doing musically before you started doing composition work on Blue Ruin and Green Room?

BB: We bounced all around. We played in a bunch of different styles. By the time we started taking bands seriously, it was the early 90’s so I think honestly for us we missed the Punk thing. Grunge was the big thing. My band thought we were Pearl Jam and most bands thought they were Alice in Chains so no competition there. We got into Hip Hop for awhile. We played Indie Rock and Go-Go. Go-Go was central to DC, Maryland, a little further south, but it is contained. If you’re not from around that area, you had no idea that it exists but it is a vibrant musical scene. It’s totally DIY, it’s about trading tapes and not always with proper studio production or recording. It’s all live sound board tapes.

Were you doing something musically when you moved up to this area?

WB: We got back to our Rock’N’Roll roots and we started a band called East 100 that played for about eight years. It started to wrap up as Blue Ruin went into pre-production. In fact, the month that we played our final farewell show they started to shoot Blue Ruin. It was really perfect timing for everyone.

Ok looks like we are out of time, but thanks so much for sitting down with me!

JS: It was fun, thanks for having us!

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Liam O'Donnell
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Liam O'Donnell

Liam O'Donnell is co-creator and co-host of the Cinepunx podcast and Editor in Chief of the Cinepunx website. Liam has written about film, music, politics and faith for a variety of publications in real life and online. Despite his advanced age he can be seen moshing in the greater Philadelphia area, usually to a cover song. He can be seen sitting in the audience at the newest comic book film, the retro drive-in screening of a Fulci film, or catching a series of Jodorowsky films. Liam has worked in social services, events planning, arts curation, education, community organizing, faith communities, and scooping ice cream. He has worked with festivals like This Is Hardcore Fest and The Awesome Fest. Despite all these things, Cinepunx is definitely the coolest thing he has ever done.
Liam O'Donnell
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