Judging by his track record thus far, there are a few things one can reasonably expect from a Jeremy Saulnier movie: Gorgeous, color-coded cinematography, excruciatingly realistic body trauma, and a level of tension great enough to trigger sense-memories of actual panic from the viewer's own life.
The filmmaker's latest is the one that really seals it—like duct tape over a machete wound. Green Room spends just enough time introducing the punk rock band at its core before dropping them into a hellmouth of a situation that's only going to get worse before it gets better, if it ever does. Green Room follows on the heels of Blue Ruin, a singular tale of revenge that plays out like an arthouse Death Wish, if Paul Kersey only went after one specific family. Saulnier has hinted that after these two movies, he might be ready to move beyond this ultrarealistic-thriller niche. Perhaps that's because he appears to have perfected it.
Even if the filmmaker does move on to other genres—and probably other, much higher budgets—he'll be bringing with him the finely tuned skills at orchestrating audience expectations that we've come to, well, expect. With Green Room out in theaters now, Co.Create talked to Jeremy Saulnier about escalating tension, the space-bar test, and pulling the rug out from beneath the audience.
"I think the discipline of not sharing information can be great," Saulnier says. "Especially with the band in Green Room. I'm going for a really impossible situation. Like, this cannot end well—some people have to die. What is so terrifying is when you are in the middle of this situation and you have no access to any information around it and there are other people lurking outside that know everything and you are at their mercy completely. So if I can put the audience in that perspective, it's so anxiety-inducing because you know there's terrible shit happening and this poor band is so tragically ignoring that, you just feel for them.
One of my rules is with all of the foreknowledge and the research that goes into making a movie, you don't stop and explain to the audience. Because if you give them full immersion into the environment and the characters talk amongst themselves and never to the audience or for their benefit, the audience leans forward—their eyes are wide open, their ears are more tuned in because they are a bit out of their depth and they're playing a little bit of catch up. When you make that an active role for the audience then you have a lot more of their attention and you can do a lot more with that."
"Tension comes not only from technique, but from investment in character," Saulnier says. "Because if you're in a typical slasher film scenario, you might have some tension that builds up eight seconds before the kill, but you know that they're there to get killed. And in this movie, if you're really invested in the characters and you really want them to live and you really appreciate them on a deeply human level, then the peril is real and intensified. But they have to be like real people. These characters trapped in the room, they're having real debates. And that's also me writing, like, trying to figure the fuck out what would I do, what would my friends do. If you're the aggressive one that had some kind of physical prowess, what's the best move for you, and if you're just scared shitless in the corner and you don't want any confrontation, what's the best move for you? So they have these debates and they do absurd things because the alternative is certain death. But I think humanizing and adhering to the logic within the world and the characters and not movie logic, that's the thing."
"In Green Room, there’s a confined situation, there's always that physical boundary," Saulnier says. "But then when the characters break out of it, the tension only escalates if the open space becomes as dangerous as the confined room. You invert it at some point so that the room now becomes a refuge and then we don't know what should happen. Like, they've achieved a goal, they got out, and then shit hits the fan again. So it's all about utilizing the environment to keep pulling the rug from under the audience and what they expect to be the next logical step in the film ends up being an even deeper pile of shit."
"You have to have reverence for the loss of life if the violence in a movie is going to have any narrative impact," Saulnier says. "Violence serves its purpose by either creating shock or dread. I mean, almost in every screening we've ever had [of Green Room], there's audible gasps because [spoiler] is not unexpected as far as a jump scare—it's unexpected as far as a quiet, full frontal bloodletting that is tragic and sad and graphic. It makes you feel like, ‘Oh fuck, this character is transitioning into a killer and this is what they have to witness, so we're gonna see it too.’ There is some kickass action in the movie, but there's also some real dreadful gut punches to make you inhabit the role of the character.
Sometimes the violence is just to show the stakes. And when there's a non-fatal wound, I'm much more apt to go in for a closeup because it's like 'Holy shit, this is a real trauma.' When there's a [spoiler] incident that sets things off, and it's not anything but prosthetic make up effects and a great performance but it seems so fucking real and the whole film shifts right then and there and you have that established as a real mortality and real peril—at that point you have a lot of control over people's expectations."
"The sense of how long to hold a shot for is totally intuitive," Saulnier says. "I have something called a space-bar test where usually, when you're on an edit system, you can play and pause with the space bar on the keyboard. I'll watch a scene with my editor and the goal is to hit the space bar when you think a shot is over. And it's fun when you both hit it at the exact same time. You know that you're totally on the same page. It's very intuitive and it's always based on the shots that precede and follow it. It's all a montage. The perfect length of a shot can change once you finalize the rest of the film around it, though. So it becomes a matter of sometimes killing your darlings just for pacing.
One of my favorite shots in Blue Ruin was probably the longest in the movie. It's when Dwight is invading the Cleland home at the end, he kicks down a door and it's handheld and we go around the entire house. We see him stop, search and he goes back around into this room and just the moment with the character is so great. But it didn't quite work with the cut to the next logical shot. So I had to cut about 30 seconds out of that shot because contextually it was the only way to go. But the thing is, if you let some of these shots linger two or three more frames then we will reveal that a boom mic came in or someone's eye line is off. Half of the edits of the movie are just edited out of necessity and then the rest is all creative."