Interview: Director Jeremy Saulnier Breaks Down Blue Ruin
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Blue Ruin is a small film populated with damaged characters that are consistently surprised by their actions. It's very human, even though its subject matter is so dire. Directed and written by Jeremy Saulnier, the film stars his longtime friend Macon Blair as Dwight, a shellshocked, quiet beach bum who seems to have been existing in a sort of depressed stasis until he lurches to life to take revenge on the man that killed his parents years ago.
It is not, in the traditional sense, a revenge film. Dwight is often silent, his eyes filled with grief and worry, as he bumbles through a series of revenge scenarios. It's this that makes the movie so simultaneously heartbreaking and darkly funny, as well as a fascinating exercise in atmosphere. In fact, atmosphere is the film's driving force: brief scenes of elliptical dialogue flesh out the backstory, so we know just enough, but never the complete story.
Blue Ruin isn't so much about what happened in Dwight's broken life as it is about what's currently happening.
We spoke to Saulnier about the process of making the film, giving a behind-the-scenes look at three pivotal moments. Minor spoilers ahead.
Blue Ruin is out nation-wide today, and is also available to download on iTunes right here.
How did you come up with the concept for Blue Ruin?
I had to embrace the fact that I am an unabashed lover of genre filmmaking. I didn’t want to abandon that. The films I loved from my youth—John Carpenter’s The Thing, I was a big fan of Miami Vice the TV show. I was a Reagan-era kid. It's engrained in my filmmaking aesthetic and my taste. But also, I’m a father now. I’m a family man. I was afraid I’d gotten too soft. The genre films I had been seeing were actually too hardcore for me. I wanted to make a genre film that had character and emotional depth to it and work out of my comfort zone. It was absolutely designed with practicality as far as redefining my career, showcasing my best friend’s acting talents and playing the film festival market. Filling a void between really contained dialogue driven independent films and the aforementioned cynical, found footage, hardcore massacre movies. To get it off the ground was a rather large buildup. [It was] almost a 25 year arc to come to this crossroads where Macon and I both felt that our previous attempts to break into the industry and to break through as filmmakers were not—it’s hard to describe. I guess they were failures. We had made small inroads but nothing was clicking as far as the realistic possibility of us having careers in the industry. We thought, if we don’t break through with this film, we at the very least wanted an archive that would record the best of our abilities at this time, so if we did retire or find new careers, it would be on a film we could stand by and it would mark our paths, whether it be the end of one or the beginning of one.
To get it made—after this prolonged arc where we were dying to archive this experience, we went the traditional route for just a short while and we realized because of our collective history and track record, we were just not going to attract traditional financiers to this project. What we had going for us was a lot of experience and a lot of faith in each other—Macon and I—the script was built to reverse engineer what I thought was a broken independent film model with impossible schedules, where logistics ruled and the craft of filmmaking took a back seat. I gave myself 30 days, and I had all these parameters. I would own the camera, I would use available locations, props that were already on hand…we baked all this into the script. We basically used everything at our disposal and wrote it into the story from the beginning, so if we did secure financing it wouldn’t be a shock—there wouldn't be a big translation. We already knew we were shooting this movie. Whether it be the parent’s house for the key night invasion sequence or the two set piece dialogue heavy scenes that were shot in a property owned by Macon’s cousins. So basically, having been a cinematographer for so many years, I was leaning on my technical experience to break down the script and make it very realistic and do extensive storyboarding and really have all that together from the onset.
After we went to the financiers and embraced the fact that this was not happening the traditional route, then we went all in, liquidated our assets and put it all on the table. We still came up short, and that’s when we turned to Kickstarter. It wasn’t to fully fund the movie, it wasn’t to ask people for what we wouldn’t do ourselves. It was really to bridge that gap between everything we had and what we needed to make this film a reality. I will say that as far as Kickstarter, I was reluctant at first. I just felt uncomfortable because I do know this is ultimately a commercial endeavor. You’re asking so little, relatively, and you are giving rewards. The necessity of pitching your film, presenting your film, and taking it out to the backers was huge in that the vision I had was much better articulated. It started to take shape when we had to do a camera test and all these supplementary things that I thought were distractions from the process but ended up really helping me whittle down what I needed to do to fulfill this dream and execute this script. It was really cool. When our campaign was successful it was really encouraging to have 400 people behind your project. Not only do you have their support but you have to answer to them. It helps you commit and follow through.
How did you strike the balance between absurdity and realism?
it’s hard not to sound pretentious, but my process is very intuitive. I don’t always assign meaning and values to things. I can’t articulate my thoughts all the time. I don’t have that cerebral side that governs what I do. But I’ve always loved films that can navigate between genres, that aren’t one or the other. Films that are strictly comedies turn me off because the filmmaking craft is so obvious. Story takes a back seat. Certain requirements are fulfilled to justify them being within that genre. My favorite comedies are never labeled comedies. A film like Boogie Nights makes me laugh and cry and I appreciate that. As long as the filmmaking is first and the narrative is first then you can ride the line between pathos and brutal violence and flashes of comedy, or whatever it is, as long as you’re true to the narrative, true to the characters. It’s how I approach movies. I like to make sure that the character stays on course but as filmmakers we don’t have to take situations as seriously as our protagonists.
One of the few luxuries of this shoot, if you can call it that, was a 30 day shoot schedule. We never could afford to shoot the full 30 days, so what happened was we stepped up the first six days with a paired down crew—a splinter unit—we shot in the Delaware shores and we got all our beach atmosphere, and we started to define the character of Dwight. It was a pain the ass for production, but for me as a director…Macon’s beard dictated that we shoot most of the opening of the film almost in sequence. So as I was shaking the rust off, because my last project was six years prior, we had these hurdles, and one of them was defining Dwight as we meet him on the beach, sort of an enigmatic drifter. Now, as soon as we wrapped that paired down portion we went with our full crew for 24 days. The very first day of the full production was this bathroom scene. My first AD just thrust us right into this really pivotal scene. I was terrified to do it because now Dwight was taking his turn and it was amazing, it was a full day just for this scene. It was lots of bloodwork. We had to take Dwight to the next step. So basically, we got in that bathroom and it was shot all handheld by necessity. It was an extremely cramped set, and me holding the camera inches from Dwight, who is in the stall preparing to execute this man who killed his parents 17 years ago. We couldn’t find Dwight yet and it was this emotional scene where we had to sell the fact that Dwight has no bloodlust. Dwight is compelled by deep sorrow and is a reluctant avenger.
In that stall I was sorta panicking. Macon was doing great things, but we just didn’t have it. It was one of those things where you had to keep working it, and it's hard to articulate, but something happened and it clicked. Macon, in one take, just kind of put his hand to his face and something triggered, it just seemed really right. The following take, I just said, "go with that," that seemed just like something that I can’t describe, but the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I thought we were onto something. So after six takes of this very emotional scene for Macon where Dwight is the most visibly shaken in the whole film—he’s at war with himself, about to burst from the bathroom stall and murder someone. So that take, he just touched his face and something happened with his character. I knew immediately that we had achieved our goal there. I was heartbroken behind the camera, it was a quick moment but as soon as we got that take in the can I told the script supervisor to just cross out the other takes. We had it. Macon hit that point and the energy was just palpable. It was a huge relief for me. We were doing all this blood work and that takes so much time—prosthetic effects and blood and tubes—but for me the most important moment was when Dwight is preparing to strike in the stall. When Macon hit that note it resonated throughout the rest of the film so I knew we were safe.
The shot of Sam is there because that was—as far as the craft of filmmaking—a relatively mundane scenario. It’s basically a couple of over the shoulder shots in a diner. We’ve all seen it a thousand times. Macon and I had grown up making these splatter films, running around suburbia with blood packs and fake guns, getting hit by cars, so all the action stuff that surrounds the diner scene was our comfort zone. Macon was like, jumping though windows and running naked through lawns and that was absolutely fine and good, but this scene was bare naked acting, totally exposed emotion, it’s something that Macon and I had never done before. It was our most terrifying scene to shoot. We really benefited from casting directors—we got an amazing cast—we designed this whole film around Macon Blair in front of the camera as much as possible, carved into the narrative solo, but you had these really important scenes that would be compartmentalized where open exchanges would take place, but we wouldnt’ revisit characters. That was designed because we wanted awesome actors to populate this movie, we couldn’t afford to have them on for more than five days at a time.
We sat down at the diner and shot this scene that was the emotional epicenter of everything in this film. If we didn’t sell this scene everything that happened before it, happened after it would be all for naught. It was very generous of Amy Hargreaves, who plays Sam, to give Macon, off camera, everything she had. Macon came through—neither of us really expected him to—and delivered this amazing performance and we owe a lot to Amy Hargreaves. The scene was so simple, but was by far the scariest from my perspective and Macon's. When we got through those takes—this was another huge point in the film where it was halfway through production and roughly halfway through the film and we knew we had sold the character of Dwight. If we were going to win audiences over, it would be here. This is where all the genre elements and the blood and and the gore and the cars and the dust and everything went away and we were exposed with just a very simple setup and let the actors do their jobs. The craft and all the design of the film took a backseat.
One of the main things we did was try to deprive the audience of the standard justifications for everything and have more weight with the backstory by revealing less. Having her hint that she is somewhat onboard— not with Dwight’s indulgent maneuver to seek revenge, it was always in the back of her mind too, it shows the strength to carry on and to persevere is much greater to indulge in an act of violence, but also hinted at some collusion there. It’s about the fantasy vs. the reality. She may have been thinking about doing this for just as long as Dwight, but she went on with her life.
This is the big finale. It was by far the most difficult scene to shoot because it involved so much coverage and heightened levels of performance and tension. Eve Plumb was cast—I am an admitted ignoramus when it comes to who’s who. I heard her name, didn’t recognize it, saw her audition and didn’t place her as Jan Brady. She was cast because she was a great performer and on the merits of her acting and her audition. She was very generous on set, she was crying during scenes, even when she was off camera—again, it’s this generosity in creating the real atmosphere for Macon to play off of as Dwight. I remember Macon told me, it’s just a surreal experience where Jan Brady is pointing a TEC-9 sub-machine gun at him, and in between takes she’s like, "are you okay down there darling?" Making sure he’s safe. It’s like, what is happening? This icon of our youth is in a room with us in central Virginia—it helped us. This is a nice moment to recognize the arc of our careers and how our youth influenced our filmmaking and where we ended up. It’s a really nice moment.
I will say this though, when making a movie, never use a TEC-9, because a TEC-9 is the most unreliable weapon ever made. It took us over an hour to get that thing to fire off a full clip. We do have a nice blooper reel. Eve was very hesitant to handle a gun, but the gunplay is supposed to be grounded and awkward and real. Another fun fact is having an automatic pistol in a recliner is based on a childhood friend’s father from my youth. Some people think that the gunplay in this movie is a bit hyperbolized, but it was never intended to be satire or—I didn’t want this to be politically charged as far as gun control—but a lot of people that aren’t from areas where there is certain amounts of gun ownership don’t realize that there are a large concentration of guns in only a few hands. The placement of that automatic gun was a true fact from my childhood.
Sam Hockley-Smith is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor.
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