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Interview: Jeremy Saulnier Talks Green Room (Exclusive)

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Interview: Jeremy Saulnier Talks Green Room (Exclusive)

Finally uncovering a humbling outlet that effortlessly inspires you to rely on your creativity to help you attain your goals is often a liberating and welcomed experience. But when that resourcefulness is suddenly driven largely by your natural instinct to protect yourself in a dangerous situation, your desire to prosper is quickly altered to taking an initiative to solely survive. Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s new crime thriller, ‘Green Room,’ is rightfully garnering acclaim, as the filmmaker relied on his past experiences in the punk rock world to craft a horror movie that’s intriguingly set in the intense musical genre. The drama smartly shows how a band that’s finally on the cusp of achieving wide-spread recognition may instantly lose their dream, just because an impromptu decision exposes them to a threatening situation.

Serving as Saulnier’s follow-up film to his critically acclaimed 2013 crime thriller, ‘Blue Ruin,’ ‘Green Room’ debuted to rave reviews at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. His latest drama opened on April 15 in select New York and Los Angeles theaters, and it will receive a national expansion by its distributor, A24, on Friday.

‘Green Room’ follows down on their luck punk rock band, The Ain’t Rights, which includes Pat (Anton Yelchin), Sam (Alia Shawkat), Tiger (Callum Turner) and Reece (Joe Cole), are finishing up a long and unsuccessful tour. The band is about to call it quits when they get an unexpected booking at an isolated, run-down club deep in the backwoods of Oregon. What seems merely to be a third-rate gig escalates into something much more sinister when they witness an act of violence backstage that they weren’t meant to see.

Now trapped in the title green room with several of the club workers, including the increasingly anxious and rebellious Amber (Imogen Poots), the musicians must face off against the club’s depraved owner, Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart), a man who will do anything to protect the secrets of his nefarious enterprise. But while Darcy and his henchmen, including the seemingly loyal Daniel (Mark Webber), think the band will be easy to get rid of, The Ain’t Rights prove that they’re much more cunning and capable than anyone expected, as they turn the tables on their unsuspecting captors and set the stage for the ultimate life-or-death showdown.

Saulnier generously took the time recently to sit down for an exclusive interview in New York City to talk about writing and directing ‘Green Room.’ Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how he had been developing the idea for the crime thriller’s story for almost a decade, and when he decided to finally write the script, the characters and story quickly developed, because of his intuition and background in the punk-rock world. He also noted that he was able to cast such a talented and versatile ensemble cast, as he found a multitude of actors who were also able to quickly develop an emotional and personal investment in the characters and plot.

ShockYa (SY): You penned the script for the new crime thriller, ‘Green Room,’ which follows a young punk band, The Ain’t Rights, as they witness an act of violence backstage at an isolated club, and subsequently must face off against the club’s depraved owner in order to survive. Where did you come up with the idea for the film, and what was the writing process like as you were working on the script?

Jeremy Saulnier (JS): The idea for the film had been festering for almost a decade. But I never fleshed out any of the plot, or developed any of the details and characters; I just had the general concept. So it was fun process, in that I had the idea with me for so long. So when I sat down to finally write the script, the process was lightning fast, and I tried to keep it intuitive.

During the process, I felt like this film was a little too hard-core for me. So I wanted to harness the energy that I still had, and in part, pay tribute to the genre films that I loved growing up, as well as the punk, hard-core world that I was in when I was a kid, before I lost that edge. So I was on a mission to fast-track the project. I thought, I’m going to write this movie, and I’m going to make it very quickly. If I don’t hit the window of the fall of 2014, I’m never going to make it. I don’t want to make it after that. I wanted to harness all that I have left in me, and put it into this crazy, punk-rock thriller, and then be done.

It was a fun process, because by giving myself that hard deadline, I was able to keep it so unfiltered and unpolished. Despite the design and all of the hard work that went into the screenplay, it’s very intuitive and impulsive, and it’s not over-thought, workshopped and developed. That way, we were able to maintain the purity throughout the process, and I think that’s an anomaly in this industry.

SY: Besides penning the screenplay, you also directed the drama. Was it always your intention to helm the film as you were working on the script? What type of directorial approach did you take as you were helming the thriller?

JS: I see the stories I’m working on when I’m writing the scripts. I’m a camera person, and am very visual, in terms of how I approach storytelling. The production on this film was really tough, as you’re fighting for more time. The good thing of having that pre-visualization from the script stage, as well as the resources and capacity to build some of the sets, which perfectly aligned with what I had envisioned, on a soundstage, created an easier translation of the script.

On some days, I felt like there was a certain amount of triumph. I felt really in sync with my actors, and we were getting exactly what we intended. But on other days, I don’t even remember some of the things that happened, as I was so out of sorts. I think trying to run around Oregon during the fall, with all of the unpredictable weather, and all of the stakes being so high, including just meeting Patrick Stewart and the rest of the cast, just blew my mind.

We then did the second part of the shoot over the course of 20 days on a soundstage, in a controlled environment. I started to get my footing as a director on this film, as well as figuring out the precision of the performances and action choreography. It was a tough and steep learning curve for me.

SY: ‘Green Room’ features Patrick Stewart, who you just mentioned, as an iconic screen villain, alongside a talented ensemble of young actors, including Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots and Alia Shawkat. What was the casting process like for both the band and the club workers, and figuring out which actors would work best each side?

JS: Avy Kaufman was our casting director, and she’s one of the most renowned casting directors in the world. That lent a certain level of respectability to this otherwise scuzzy genre film. That was great, because it attracted a lot of great people. The project itself offered an opportunity to a lot of these young actors who have never received that chance before. So the chance to be in this punk-rock horror film was very exciting for them. So I got to have my pick of actors who I was able to work with on this movie, which was an embarrassment of riches.

But I also made sure that the people who were cast had the skills, because we were asking a lot by putting a lot of people in this small room. Not only are the actors trapped, but the crew and I were also trapped with the actors, and we were relying on their performances. So if there was anyone who didn’t live up to the rest of the cast, and the ensemble as a whole wasn’t strong throughout the filming process, then we would be in grave danger. So I picked people who I thought I could really trust, based on their level of craft and level of investment.

There’s a lot of emotional and personal investment in these characters, and I really needed the actors to help me tell this story. So by creating this self-supporting network within our cast and crew, and everyone being so vulnerable, as the roles call for such emotionally-charged performances, we were all able to encourage each other.

SY: Once the actors were cast, what was the process of working with them on developing their characters’ ever-changing and intense emotions, motivations and relationships? Were you able to have any rehearsal time together?

JS: We didn’t have much rehearsal time together, but we did have some time to work together. Some of the actors read for their roles, so I intuitively knew they understand their characters, and could speak the dialogue that seemed native to the punk-rock scene.

Anton visited the set during pre-production, and we had a nice day to walk around and talk. We were also able to rehearse one of his speeches, which is one of the few monologues that’s only partially interrupted. Other than that, we kind of threw everyone else into the fire.

The band was trying to learn how to be a band as we were shooting the movie. Their very first performance as The Ain’t Rights was Day 1 of production. I don’t know how we got the coverage. Callum Turner, who plays the singer of the band, flew in the night before, and he barely made it; he had a visa issue coming from the UK. But we didn’t shoot the next performance until about two weeks later. By that time, we had established a real band. They had written a song together, and knew all of the songs that they needed to perform on camera. By the end of the shoot, they played at the wrap party for the film.

SY: Thrillers are compellingly driven by their music. What was the process of working with the film’s sound department to create the overall score, as well as The Ain’t Right’s songs, to elicit intense emotions in the characters and audience?

JS: Growing up, I was part of the D.C. area punk-rock scene, so I know a lot about this type of music. So I wanted to infuse the whole film with the music that I grew up with. A lot of the point of this film, for me, is to have this wonderful archive of the experiences I had growing up, and have defined me as a filmmaker.

So The Ain’t Rights performed three songs, and one of them is a Dead Kennedys cover. The Dead Kennedys is the first band that I had ever heard in the hard-core punk-rock genre, and The Ain’t Rights performance is a nice homage to them. The other two songs were written by one of my high school friends, who drew inspiration from the good old days in the 1990s. The songs were recorded by a band in Portland, who were able to give it a live feel. We used the pre-recorded tracks from the Portland sessions as our playback on set.

SY: After The Ain’t Rights arrive at the club, the rest of ‘Green Room’ takes place over the course of one night, as they fight to protect themselves from the club workers. What was the process of creating the overall look for the characters, including working with the hair, make-up and costume departments, to reflect how their struggle is affecting them physically?

JS: We had Amanda Needham as our costume designer, and she was great. We did a lot of work based on references. There was a lot of research that went into this film, and there were some wonderful photos that were taken in this subculture that we referenced. Amanda did a lot of texturing and weathering of the costumes that the actors ultimately wore in the film, so that their clothes really looked lived in. I definitely had some ideas in mind for the looks of many of the characters, as they referenced people who I knew while I was growing up. The process was all about making sure the clothes passed the test, and looked like the clothes I wore when I was involved in the punk-rock subculture.

SY: What was the process of creating the action sequences for the thriller? Did you mainly use practical stunts on the set, and did the actors perform the majority of the physical elements of their roles?

JS: The actors were pretty game to performing the stunts. Again, the physicality of these roles was a huge component to their performances. We didn’t develop a lot of backstory or exposition, or do a lot of monologues about past traumas. The arcs in this movie aren’t traditional; they aren’t just to develop the characters. The arcs are abrupt, and are developed just out of necessity, as it’s a survival movie. The characters’ arcs are just about surviving the night, and that’s all they can ever hope for.

Since so much of the actors’ performances were physical, that even affected how the actors exchanged dialogue, as well as their head-space and the characters’ subtext, when they were in this cooker-pressure situation. To sell these gags, make-up effects and action sequences, the actors did a lot of the stunts themselves. But they didn’t do anything that would put them in danger. But it was important to me to have as much of the actors’ real faces on camera as possible, especially when their characters were getting shot or otherwise getting hurt in general. So there’s a lot of good, old-fashioned stunt work in the film. If I ever had to cut away in a shot while the actors were performing their stunts, I would bring in the stuntmen to help finish the shot. But I tried to have the actors perform their own stunts as much as possible.

We used wires and rigs during some of the action sequences, as we had some amazing dead falls, when someone got shot and dropped down to the floor. So the wires helped sell these gags. But sometimes, when we were running out of time, and it would take an hour to rig the wires, we would have to say, “Let’s just do it for real.” So the stunt teams would be there, to make sure that everything was safe. We would pad the floors and do real take downs. The fun thing was seeing how everything was seemingly integrated, as we’d cut from the first-team actors to the stunt performers seamlessly.

SY: Besides working as a writer and director, you have also have served as a cinematographer on films, which you mentioned earlier. How did having that camera experience influence the visual approach you wanted to take in telling this type of gritty drama, and figuring out the cuts and angles, like you also just spoke about?

JS: I’m first and foremost a director, but I have done some camera work to pay the bills and learn the craft of filmmaking as a day job. I’ve always seen stories visually, so having that experience as a cinematographer is invaluable. It helped me develop a firm grasp on the technical aspects of filmmaking.

I was able to employ a wonderful cinematographer for this film, Sean Porter, who saw things the same way I did, and could help me, both technically and creatively. Being a cinematographer myself, I thought I’d be all over my cinematographer on this film with my lighting preferences. But I realized that when I solely work as a cinematographer, I don’t like to step on my directors’ toes, and I just want to serve their vision.

So as a director, I give my cinematographers a lot of leeway, and allow them to provide a large artistic vision of their own. So it’s all about hiring the right people. I don’t want to step on their toes, as I instead want to lean on them. So collaborating with them always informs the story and the way that I work. Being able to speak the technical language with the cinematographers helps them, so they don’t have to just interpret these abstract ideas. You can say, in a very crew-friendly way, what your intentions are, and you can move a lot faster that way.

Watch the official green band and red band trailers for ‘Green Room’ below.

Interview: Jeremy Saulnier Talks Green Room (Exclusive)

Written by: Karen Benardello

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As a life-long fan of entertainment, particularly films, television and music, and an endless passion for writing, Karen Benardello decided to combine the two for a career. She graduated from New York's LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic. While still attending college, Karen began writing for Shockya during the summer of 2007, when she began writing horror movie reviews. Since she began writing for Shockya, Karen has been promoted to the position of Senior Movies & Television Editor. Some of her duties in the position include interviewing filmmakers and musicians, producing posts on celebrity news and contributing reviews on albums and concerts. Some of her highlights include attending such festivals and conventions as the Tribeca Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, SXSW, Toronto After Dark, the Boston Film Festival and New York Comic-Con.

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