Director Jeremy Saulnier wasn’t trying to reflect today’s political climate when he set out to make Green Room—it just kind of happened. The gruesome horror thriller—in which a down-and-out punk band plays a Nazi skinhead venue in backwoods Oregon and finds themselves fighting for their lives—opened last year at Cannes. Since then, much has happened to breathe relevancy into a throwback punks vs. skins narrative. Namely: Donald Trump and his legion of racist supporters.
Classic horror cinema is often conversant with its time—George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead explored racism in the turbulent late ‘60s, and Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left was that director’s response to the carnage of Vietnam. The fantasy catharsis often comes via characters who exhibit extraordinary heroism when thrust into previously unthinkable situations. But just like Saulnier stumbled into a narrative that has more political weight than it did just last year, so do his characters stumble into and out of their predicament. When the members of the punk band at the center of Green Room take a gig they shouldn’t have taken out of financial desperation, they find themselves barricaded in the aforementioned Nazi venue’s green room after witnessing the aftermath of a murder. The small-time band quickly becomes the prey of a group of white supremacists led by a character played by Patrick Stewart.
As Saulnier did in 2014's Blue Ruin, in the considerably more brutal Green Room he plays with the notion of ordinary people in extraordinary situations. His nominal protagonists are not particularly smart, strong, or capable of enduring their predicament, often to their peril, frequently hilariously, and always in service of the film’s tension. In a A24's New York office a few weeks ago, I spoke to Saulnier about violence, race, and relevancy. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation appears below.
Gawker: You got an R rating with a high level of gore. Was that a surprise?
Jeremy Saulnier: I was expecting more of a battle, but it passed.
Why do you think that is?
I think it’s America. If I had a vagina in there it’d be NC-17.
A dick and you’d be run out of the country.
But I’ve got just lots of gore. I’m kind of excited by it because I have a problem with [the idea that] because you don’t see a certain amount of blood, you can kill 400 people and it doesn’t matter. And then films like the ones I make, they get stopped, censored. I think if you feel the brutality, if it’s a gut punch when someone dies, it’s way healthier, no matter how graphic it is, than feeling zero impact.
Superhero movies trivialize death to an extent that horror movies have traditionally been blamed for, but that’s much worse, I think.
It’s just part of the carnage, you gotta have a certain amount. You have to destroy a whole city.
The scene in Green Room wherein a pit bull mauls a character’s throat—was that inspired by the similar attack scenes in Dario Argento’s Suspiria and/or Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond?
Not directly. It’s more inspired by my own little nightmares. I’m actually a big dog lover, but a few years ago my daughter was attacked by a dog. It got under my skin. It was a black lab, a real nice breed. Dog fighting was more of a theme politically. One of the few things about this movie is it comes across as this chaotic, unfolding disaster. It’s very haphazard and impulsive, but there’s a few little thesis statements in there and one of them is about dogs, and people, and learned aggression and how we breed ourselves and breed dogs to cause so much carnage, yet at our core, it’s just not our nature. Pit bulls are a very friendly breed, they just happen to cause the most fatalities because of how they’re built and how they’re bred, and that’s all humans. The dogs themselves are trained to have gameness, which is unrelenting will, to never stop fighting and to latch on until death. And it’s like: We did that. And we celebrate it, and we have the dogs fight, and we’re sitting there betting on it. It’s really kind of sick. It was more of a theme than an homage, not that I’m not influenced by all the films that I’ve watched, including Fulci.
What are your other thesis statements?
I usually keep those [to myself]. The thesis is never my intention. It’s more creating a story that I find compelling. For Blue Ruin, there’s so much injected into it by other people regarding political statements, referencing whatever, like, gun laws in Virginia, but it wasn’t supposed to be political. For Green Room, I was just a little more aware, as these statements and examinations would evolve naturally. I would be like, “I can say this when I go to France. I’ll tell ‘em it’s about American conservative power structure,” and it kind of is.
But that’s just about humans, how people at the top of the food chain don’t get their hands dirty, they misinform the masses, who fight each other and create carnage, meanwhile whatever ideology they’re fighting for is complete bullshit and the people at the top are protecting their own interests. That’s very much Green Room, and very much what’s happening in our country. I couldn’t help but make those parallels as I was writing them. And then I snuck in a few details to hit that. But... oh shit, I’m talking about it. I usually reserve that till after the film’s out.
With Green Room, you have made a movie about race, or at least where race is a dominating theme, with virtually no people of color.
There is an Arab and a Jew that we snuck into the band, but that was the thing: In the casting call you had to kind of pass for white to be amongst this band that would be welcomed into a white power enclave. It’s a little odd but it doesn’t usually get discussed because it does seem native to the environment. I’m part of the problem.
I interpreted this movie as a morality tale, with the dominating morality being: You reap what you sow.
Nobody here is without fault in your larger conversation about race. If you’re willing to rub elbows with white supremacists as a white person in this capacity, you’re condoning their ideology.
It depends. Rubbing elbows I think is maybe how we can bridge the divide. Like pit bulls aren’t inherently savage, I think people aren’t inherently racist. A big part of the skinhead culture is recruiting through a very pure attraction to a subculture and a music, or love of music that happens to be very aggressive and serves as an outlet. People are generally searching for camaraderie and a home, and just to repurpose whatever aggression or hurt they might have, and [then they] distort it and point it in the wrong direction. That’s a huge part of all of this. A lot of people who are racist think that they’re just realists and they’re just misinformed.
Being in the punk world in the hardcore scene in D.C., I was rubbing elbows with Nazi skinheads every show. But they also attracted violence. They were not really welcome, but yet they were there.
As far as the [protagonist band] playing a show, the danger is they do dismiss, “Oh, there’s skins at every show.” They don’t really understand what they’re getting into. It isn’t until the lights go out and the whole venue’s clear that it’s just them versus the Nazi skins.
I felt like the movie was asking me how much I would put up with in this situation, how much as a viewer I could tolerate within the characters, just in terms of relating to them. Imogen Poots’s character has that line, “I’m not a Nazi”...OK, but she’s still there, embedded in this scene of Nazis. There’s a dubiousness that comes with entering this environment, and what you sign away at the door.
Yeah, and for me it was just not to judge, knowing that you can easily get in with the wrong crowd if it’s the right time. Again, I think people are looking for a place to feel safe. It was about having people emerge from their stereotypes and not because Nazis are great people, but because people aren’t inherently Nazis. People in this film are forced to, in this insane siege situation and the conflict that arises, just forget all that shit. Their ideology, their affiliation, their labels are irrelevant to the situation and that’s one of the parts of the film that’s designed. As you strip that shit away, and you get down to just humans, we see them for who they are.
And that’s recurring in your movies. As in Blue Ruin, you present these horror/suspense tropes and then you wonder aloud onscreen, “What if an actual human being were in this situation?” as opposed to a usually teenaged protagonist whose wit and strength is effectively superhuman.
Exactly. It’s just so fun, and it’s what drives me. Like, “What the fuck would I do?” When I can actually inhabit the characters on either side of this door, it’s about just staying true to actual logic and motivation. I think it’s fun to have no cheap cinematic escape for people. You let ‘em butt up against an impossible situation and then someone dies. It’s not like, oh, then some kind of random act or clever twist will save them. Nope. I didn’t plan on the death order, I just let it happen and I was kind of traumatized when I wrote it when I would lose a character. It wasn’t up to me. It was up to where I positioned them in a story. Then when I couldn’t write my way out of it, they died.
You said you were in the hardcore scene in D.C. How much did you need to research on white supremacists before writing this movie?
We’d be at shows, and we wouldn’t really chat with the Nazi skinheads, but they were there. Being from the suburbs, Nazi skinheads did not walk around my neighborhood, but in D.C., they were there. It was very disturbing to see that, people wearing swastikas in broad daylight at a matinee show. They were very much a part of the scene throughout the country, and my buddies and I watched this HBO documentary, this America Undercover documentary, on a skinhead group down in the South. The culture seemed, when it was exposed in that light, very odd and kind of sad. You could see it was about a certain brotherhood. The people were there because they wanted a home, because someone’s teaching them how to be racist, how to go have a little 17-person march at the state capitol and wave a Confederate flag. It’s just very odd, it’s surreal to see that in modern-day America, this was back in the ‘90s. But their affiliation with the punk rock/hardcore scene was inherent to what my experiences were.
There was definitely additional research, but that was more about digging into the culture so that I could throw it away. In Green Room, there’s no speeches about ideology and recruitment. We get as far as [Patrick Stewart’s character announcing], “The racial advocacy workshop next Wednesday is still on unless you hear otherwise.” We’re not here to have big speeches about Nazism, it’s really about what’s the real ideology in play, and that we find out layer by layer as we navigate this punk rock music venue. It’s much more than that. There’s a motive that is driving this leader that has nothing to do with this grand purpose.
It was very prescient of you to set a movie in this world with all the Trump stuff that has happened since you started working on it.
Unbelievable. I sent this to my buddy in France, he’s a distributor, and he was like, “Punks vs. skins, are you serious? Is this a 1980's movie?” I was like, “Well, it’s actually a 1990's movie. This is more of a throwback to what I know.” I had to account for many things like cell phones, and social media, and the fact that I was in the hardcore scene at its very peak. I had to account for the fact that it’s not what it used to be and there’s this band on the fringes trying to scavenge what’s left of this scene. The scene is thriving in this remote venue, but it’s not what they expected. Unfortunately since my friend dubbed it a 1980's throwback, the film has become surprisingly relevant. You get militias in Oregon having a siege situation take place with the FBI, you’ve got this whole uptick, you’ve got shootings in South Carolina, and the Confederate flag, and Trump. It’s really disturbing. It’s now more relevant than it should be. That wasn’t my intention. I’m sad that it is so relevant.
Green Room opens in select theaters on Friday.