At first glance, Jeremy Saulnier doesn’t exactly strike you as the kind of guy who fits the bill of a typical filmmaker. He dresses in a military surplus jacket, waxes about his love for hardcore music, and often limits his words to avoid sounding “too full of shit.” That last facet of his personality alone not only separates him from the vast majority of directors we’re used to reading about, but from the movie bloggers who write about them as well. (*puts on Dunce hat*)

Likewise, Saulnier’s films have shown a tendency to deviate from (or simply pay no attention to) the norms presented by their genres. With his 2014 sleeper hit Blue Ruin, he flipped the script on a standard revenge tale by focusing the bulk of the story on the aftermath of his protagonist’s retribution, rather than the lead-up to it. With Green Room, Saulnier takes a similarly familiar “single room” thriller, places it in an entirely unfamiliar setting (the green room of a Neo Nazi-run punk venue), and creates something that challenges both our perception of traditional character arcs and the tropes that most horror-thrillers live and die by.

The result is an intense and visceral experience that embodies the nature and the soul of its grimy subject matter without ever feeling really exploitative, so ahead of Green Room’s world premiere this weekend, I sat down in a roundtable interview with Saulnier to talk violence, genre subversion, and of course, heavy music.

As a storyteller, is there anything specific that draws you toward violence?

It’s not so much the violence as the threat of violence. I gravitate towards intense storytelling and from the audience’s perspective; I just like to be excited. I find, as I’m a little older, I have such a rich experience with my family, I’m very fulfilled, I’m surrounded by love…violent filmmaking is a good outlet. It’s not so much about examining the loss of life, it’s about heightening the stakes. There’s no real intellectual reason; I just kind of dig it because of the opportunities it provides me as a filmmaker.

And if anyone knows violence, it’s Nazi skinheads. Is that why you decided to place them center stage (no pun intended) in Green Room?

When I was in the hardcore scene back in the ‘90’s in Alexandria, Virginia it was “legitimate” but insolated. When we got our licenses and we’d drive across the bridge to Washington D.C., most of the big shows would have at least a few Nazi skinheads, which was surreal. They would attract violence, but most often in D.C. they were the victims because they were not the majority. But they were there, and there would be fights.

And there were some bands where I loved the music, the aggression, and then you’d read the lyrics and realize they’re f*cking preaching white power. There’s something about [hardcore music] that attracts vegans, Nazis, Harikrishnas…it was a huge umbrella for so many subcultures within a subculture, but the Nazis stood out. Not because of their ideology, but because they wore uniforms. They were soldiers, they wanted to be separate, and that just stuck with me.

With both Blue Ruin and Green Room, you seem to make a point of subverting genre tropes. Is that something that you intentionally set out to do before sitting down to write a film, or something that evolves naturally as you do?

It very much evolves naturally. I do like these genre films, but all I do is I set the stage and then I let it play out as I think it should in a more authentic way. That inevitably bumps up against convention. It’s not that I’m not aware of it, I try to disregard it, and once in a while I’ll do a little nod, but it always has to have a real motivation. There’s a part in Green Room where’s there a typical speech that starts to evolve and there’s just no time, so that person’s cut off.

Patrick Stewart Stars in Green Room

The last line of the movie definitely feels like a direct challenge to a prototypical character arc.

Totally! It totally is an irreverent line that defies convention in some way, but really, it’s supposed to be true to the character. When those things line up, I let it happen. I think its fun, but I never intend for it to be false or contrived. That’s what drives me crazy…that films are sometimes pre-packaged. People that should know otherwise tend towards safety and familiarity and they want to recycle the same plot or think “Oh, you need a character arc here,” and you’re like “Why?” Would the person in that situation actually start talking about the past? Is that native to the environment? The answer is usually no, so it becomes about how can we build characters without having to force the character to do things that seem for the sake of the audience.

You have to go along for the ride. I won’t allow the characters to take a moment and explain to the audience what they’re thinking or doing. They have to just do what they gotta do.

That being said, I imagine you needed to do a lot of research on Neo-Nazi Culture. 

The research was brutal. I was researching skinheads, the white-supremacist culture, dog fighting… I was definitely losing my stomach. But I’m huge on research. I inject just enough detail to make it authentic. The key was to do a ton of research, and to feel like I got a sense of the procedure and the structure and the vernacular… and then throw it all away, let the characters take the foreground. The challenge is not portraying Nazi skinheads as bad guys, it’s in portraying them as humans. The whole thing is about whatever we come in with, the perceived gangs or affiliations or ideologies or labels, the film strips that away eventually. So the goal is to immerse yourself in the world, make it feel authentic, until it all drifts away.

You’ve spoken in a few interviews about Green Room being your first truly financed film (Blue Ruin was funded almost entirely by Kickstarter) and how it might have been safer to direct one of the “studio” movies you were offered after Blue Ruin. Is the pressure from financiers to cast big names the reason you’ve avoided taking one on up until now?

Well, I think there are certainly movies where “movie stars” are welcome, but the key was for Green Room that I didn’t need movie stars, I needed dedicated actors. Thank God we had that overlap. Movie stars are welcome if they want to bring their craft and actually show up, but [the decision not to take a studio project] was just the result of my ignorance and lack of trust in the industry because I had never had that access before.

I have thicker skin now, I have more experience, I’ve been through a tough production, and I’ve seen that if you just stick to it and rely upon your collaborators, you can really find a great place. Green Room is positioned well to cross over; it’s a very esoteric movie. If you look at it on the page, I think we created an atmosphere that is very accessible to any audience. You don’t have to have punk rock knowledge or hardcore knowledge to enjoy it.

Imogen Poots and Anton Yelchin in Green Room

Speaking of which, I noticed that you included a few heavier bands in your special thanks that didn’t seem involved in the movie – Mastodon, Intronaut – was that just a matter of you speaking to the influence they had on Green Room, or your filmmaking style?

A lot of cool people reached out and helped out during the process. Some of them were people we knew through other bands, some of them just donated stickers that you might’ve seen in the movie, some of them were just the result of our art department reaching out and seeing who wanted to be a part of it. Discord gave us a lot of stuff. Anyone who offered their support and gave us their product or their logo was thanked.

Green Room is now in theaters. Be sure to check out our official Screen Junkies Review of the film.