Brooklyn-based filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier has taken a circuitous route to the breakout success of his new thriller Blue Ruin. After his award-winning Slamdance short “Crabwalk” and his first feature, the 2007 horror-comedy Murder Party, failed to gain traction in the industry—despite the latter getting picked up for distribution by Magnolia Pictures—Saulnier retreated into steady, lucrative work making commercials and corporate videos. In the meantime, he applied his growing skills and technical know-how to his friends’ projects, serving as cinematographer to fellow Brooklyn-based indie directors like Matt Porterfield (Hamilton, Putty Hill, I Used To Be Darker), Michael Tully (Septien), and Steve Collins (You Hurt My Feelings). Realizing that his own directorial ambitions could be slipping away, Saulnier and his family poured all their savings and credit into Blue Ruin, and got an additional boost from a beautifully executed Kickstarter campaign. They were rewarded with a spot at Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight section, where the film quickly picked up distribution and became a favorite on the festival circuit.
Bearing a strong Coen brothers influence, Blue Ruin is also a showcase for Macon Blair, Saulnier’s best friend and long-time collaborator, who stars as a revenge-seeker who’s woefully ill-suited to the task. First shown as a beach vagrant with a ragged beard, Dwight (Blair) gets the news that the man who killed his parents is scheduled for an early release from a Virginia jail. Dwight seeks bloody retribution, but actually pulling it off is another matter. And even if he does, that doesn’t mean the cycle of revenge has stopped. While in town for the 2013 Chicago International Film Festival, Saulnier talked to The Dissolve about his past career struggles, the high stakes of self-financing as a father of three, and his belated Cannes fairy tale.
The Dissolve: There was a fairly significant gap between your debut feature and Blue Ruin, and in the meantime, you were a cinematographer for several films, and you did commercials and corporate videos. Did it get to the point where making that second feature wasn't seeming possible? How did it finally happen?
Jeremy Saulnier: We had done our duty as a collective. We have this crew called “The Lab Of Madness,” and we had done our post-film-school short and it did quite well. It was called “Crabwalk.” That did the rounds and we had a feature script to that we wanted to get off the ground. We just didn’t quite get the attraction we had hoped. So we just continued on, made little spec commercials, worked in that industry for a while. I always use arbitrary deadlines to help me motivate. Murder Party was me turning 30 years old and being like, “Shit, I don’t have a feature yet.” We took matters into our own hands because no one would quite come on board to fund it, and the good thing about advertising is it’s rather lucrative and allows you the freedom to make your own films and greenlight them without any other hassles. So we did that. Again, it was well received for a modest comedy, and we thought that would be an entrée. And it was in some respects, but I got many scripts handed to me that were, in my opinion… I wasn’t above them, but I thought as a business person and as a potential director, they were career-ending opportunities. They were terrible. I passed on a lot and I realize it’s so hard to attach yourself as a director to a script. Having gone through the process of making a movie, it takes a least a year, maybe two or maybe more out of your life. So, once again, we had spent our money on a movie and just had nothing to show for it financially and had to go back to our day jobs.
Two years after Murder Party, which was released in 2007, is when I realized, “Okay, I have one child and I have another one coming. I have to get back into the film scene, but not as a director. I’m not going to blow my whole net worth again on a movie, but I’m going to help my friends do that.” [Laughs.] So I basically came on board as a cinematographer and helped good friends of mine who needed DPs to realize their ambitions. It was awesome. It was a proving ground for me. I was re-introduced to state-of-the-art digital cinema, because I’m from the old-school film days where you had to save up to get the 16mm short ends to even process it. Half your budget was just film stock, and processing, and printing. I learned a lot. Matt Porterfield, Steve Collins, Mike Tully—good friends of mine. So it was these great collaborations, but I was able to observe and really pick apart what I thought was a flaw in the structure of independent cinema, which is mostly just the budget and schedule dictate how you make a movie—not the movie itself, not the script. I spent two years shooting movies and I finally got enough intel from all that experience that it was time for me to pounce. I saw there was also a void in the marketplace. There was a lot of quiet, talky indies or brutal found-footage horror movies. I said, “I’m going to sneak right in between them and have a quiet, formal genre film that could penetrate the art-house and the prestige-festival circuit, but also slap a nice trailer together and sell it for a buck.” And that was with a third child on the way. It was such a long, convoluted journey, but there were two other scripts we had tried to get off the ground. They were more sort of fun, small-time crime movies, just to get traction. So we just had to start from square one. But then once we realized, once again, it would be a self-funded indie and it would break us and batter us… once we decided that, it was a fast track from there. The end of 2011 is when I decided to do it and the first draft of Blue Ruin started January 1, 2012. And we had had it in the can by that October.
The Dissolve: One of the things that’s striking about the film, particularly on the budget that you have, is that it’s a very crisp, classical piece of filmmaking. Is that something that digital has allowed? Would it have been possible for a film to look like Blue Ruin does at the budget level you had to make it 5 or 10 years ago?
Saulnier: No. It was not possible. I think Murder Party was like, among the last standard-definition films ever made. [Laughs.] I just missed the digital revolution by months for Murder Party. I always regretted it. Murder Party is near and dear to my heart and I stand by it as a film. But was under-realized technically, I believe. The learning curve was very steep at that point, too; it was only my second feature I’d ever shot. I did feel the tools that were emerging at that time were out of my grasp. HD for me was like, $1,500-a-day rental for a VariCam. Then a year later, all of a sudden, everything changed. So for this go-around, for Blue Ruin, I totally embraced the cutting edge of digital cinema and I wasn’t too proud to shoot video. I was working with the Alexa for three films prior to Blue Ruin, and it’s an amazing camera, probably the biggest and baddest out there for digital cinema. I also noticed that the directors that I was working for really had a tough time with schedule in regards to camera movement, dolly placement, etc. These big cameras require big support, and to get a scene that’s actually articulated and designed how you want to do it cinematically takes a lot of effort, a lot of planning, and a lot of technical knowledge. I had that, but a lot of the directors I worked for were first-time directors and so the learning curve was too steep for them.
“It was a lot of bullshitting and bravado, and if it didn’t pay off I would literally, right now, be selling my house and moving out of Brooklyn”
And the consequences of moving the camera, you know, 10 feet when you have a dolly track and a Fisher 11 [J.L. Fisher Model 11 Dolly] and an Alexa are huge. So I said to myself, the key here is not so much the specifications of the camera or the resolution or the blah blah blah. Now that things have been so equalized, with having these side-by-side camera tests, they’re pretty much the same as far as looking of or like film image. Now, the video’s not a distraction, it’s just a tool. So I forget all my hang-ups about using the best cameras and state-of-the-art technology and use this smaller, more efficient, lightweight, low-power, high-capacity camera that would not require hard drives and 10-block batteries. I could just put it on a 5-foot camera slider which served as my dolly more than half the time—a dolly that could be moved in seconds or minutes and not a quarter of an hour or an hour.
So basically, the whole approach was to put every single dollar we had—mostly my wife and I, all our money and net worth—in front of the camera and not obsess over what the camera was. If you can take that scenario where you have this amazing camera that costs $25,000 to rent for three weeks, but you’re stuck with this impossible schedule in a room with white walls, you can just jettison the camera, get a cheaper one, own it, own the lenses, have total control over it as a cinematographer, get out of that set, get on the open road, focus on dust and blood and sweat and air and all kinds of cool shit you get when you get to go on field trips on a film shoot.
We had 80 locations, tons of eight-page scenes that are typically or nearly impossible on an indie film set. But I did extensive storyboarding and had some intimate knowledge of the locations, for all the key scenes and setpieces. Stuff that gave us the home-team advantage for the script phase, where I could write intricate night-invasion sequence in my parents’ house where I grew up. I just saved a lot of time in translation because I arranged that place and there’s no dialogue to fall back on it. The story is the space. So I used that and the lead actor’s cousin’s property, so we kind of knew where we were going so I could write with that in mind and be very efficient that way.
The Dissolve: That actually brings me to the Kickstarter for the film, which strikes me as a model Kickstarter in that if you are someone who’s donating to the film, you get a pretty complete idea of what the film is. You were able to test the camera that you wanted to use. You also have these drawings that were really detailed. Was the movie pretty strongly in your head before it finished? Was the movie as it came out exactly as you had imagined it?
Saulnier: Yes. Most of the shaping of the story and the film itself was in script phase. Because I had the knowledge of locations I could absolutely pre-visualize every shot. When I write, I usually write by necessity, just to generate material for myself to direct. It’s very selfish. [Laughs.] But I see films first visually and then just try and describe that on the page. That certainly helped considerably, just to make it efficient. There are a few scenes that got cut because they ended up being dead weight or actually weren’t fully realized by myself; I didn’t quite come through as a director on a couple scenes, and I had to get rid of them. It was still kept very efficient, and we had to because of the large number of locations and scenes.
I never finished the last draft I intended on doing. I had to shoot the third draft, which was fine. But the Kickstarter campaign was at first to me a burden and distraction; I didn’t want to ask people for help, but I came up short. I wanted this movie to be a commercial endeavor. I wanted to profit from it. I felt a little awkward about asking others to give their hard-earned cash but not participate in any back-end. But then I realized, the ask for that isn’t huge, and the benefit is, you know, tenfold for a filmmaker. So I embraced it. I faced my worst nightmare, which is being on camera, pointed the camera on myself in my office and just made this plea. It really helped me to verbalize what I wanted to do, to pitch the movie—which is another kind of nightmare. I could self-assess, like, “Is this film worth me investing all my money? Is this film worth others donating their money to it?” By the end of that process, I was much more informed about what my own intentions were because I had to express them to others. I was excited about the project and I was actually touched by the support because getting 400 people to come on board when no one else in the industry would is definitely encouraging and helped me move forward.
The Dissolve: The page does give donors a remarkably complete idea of what they’re putting their money forward to make.
Saulnier: Right, and as far as Blue Ruin fully realizing my intentions—I’ve often read these scripts for films by very talented writer-directors, but because of the circumstances of the shoot, they’d often be hitting 65-70 percent of what they wanted. So my goal for Blue Ruin was like, if we hit 85 percent of what I intended, we’ll be in good shape. I must tell you, we exceeded 90 percent on this movie, which I have never done with any other crew.
The Dissolve: You pitched Blue Ruin to your producer as “No Country For Old Men but with a protagonist who is a total idiot.” How far did you want to go with the idiocy part? Because the film kind of modulates that a bit.
Saulnier: I definitely condensed that I called him an idiot or a dipshit for the pitch. That’s just to sort of stand out. But as I wrote it and executed it, I stayed true to the character but never really thought he was an idiot. The more accurate term which I used in the written mission statement would be “inept,” but it doesn’t have the punch. [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: Not someone who kills people or is used to doing this sort of thing.
Saulnier: Right. He’s basically a minor-leaguer and he’s with the pros and he can’t do it. But I gave him a high-stakes scenario where, in most situations, cinematically speaking, there would be an expert protagonist at the helm, and just wanted to take away all previous training or expertise or knowledge that would help him and watch him flail. But still, for me, it’s a very emotional film and I try to stay absolutely true to that and never ever try to be funny. But by thrusting him, our protagonist, into these situations where he would be totally out of his depth, I thought it was just so fun to explore that. Any comedy would just be a natural product of that. It worked out. In the script, I of course knew there would be some sight gags for the audience to get in on, but for the character, he’s totally unaware how funny he is. There were some things that we knew would be funny, and on set we’d start to snicker a bit, but Macon and I both were hell-bent on making sure that Macon, as an actor, would never ever try to be funny, and that’s why the comedy works. If we went a little more toward that sort of slapstick territory, I think the film would fall apart. I’m tired of self-awareness in the movies.
The Dissolve: Part of the hero’s ineptitude has to do with him not being the killing kind, but there’s also this issue of proportionality. He wants an eye for an eye. That’s what revenge is all about. But he can never get it to quite work that way. Is there something you were trying to express there about the nature of revenge?
“This film has bought me a year to get my act together and come to grips with the fact that I might be a director.”
Saulnier: Yes, it was definitely an exploration of what I thought was virgin territory. In films, so many things serve the structure of the narrative and they serve the story. So often you’ll see this desire to wrap everything up or justify murders—whatever it is, it’s got to be tiny and it’s got to make sense. So what I wanted to do was just to really take a left turn and wrap that up at my first-act conclusion, [where Dwight] completes the mission way ahead of schedule, and sort of leave people as well as the main character in the breeze thinking, “What the fuck is happening next?” And once you deprive the audience of that tried-and-true course and realize that they’re adrift and they have no idea where the film is going to go, that’s when our new position took hold and we would actually explore new territory with the genre. It was very fun, and often in the writing process, I would find myself thinking in a very grounded, pragmatic way. Like, “How come in films, people never clean up their messes? How come it’s always so convenient they can just walk through and destroy a neighborhood and nothing ever happens or it catches up to them?” So after Dwight completes this violent act and people are sort of put off-guard, the rest of the film is all about him trying to clean up his mess, trying to right his wrongs, and failing miserably, but coming face-to-face with the repercussions of these indulgent acts for revenge that are never explored. I was telling somebody yesterday, I was inspired by myself, in an argument with my wife in traffic in New York, and I indulged in hitting my windshield and broke it. That was my like, “Fuck this!” macho explosion. A fraction of a second after my explosion I was like, “Fuck,” now I had to go to a glass shop in Brooklyn. It was going to take me two days to repair it. There were immediate consequences. And I never see that in movies. The little things you do can blow back and be pretty hardcore sometimes. Killing often has no consequence in movies. So I was like, “Let’s just really explore that and see what happens.” It would be a fucking mess if someone like you or me were to go off an indulge in a revenge mission.
The Dissolve: You cast Macon, your friend and longtime collaborator, in the lead. How did you write the role to reflect certain qualities that he has as an actor?
Saulnier: That’s hard. I’ve known him since grade school—about 30 years we’ve known each other—and he came first. Macon, my best friend and trusted colleague and collaborator, he’s also a writer and we have this sort of brain hive. This film started off, before it was a revenge movie or Blue Ruin, it was a Macon Blair vehicle. He was there first, just waiting for me to write something around him. It has been my career ambition to get him his first lead in a movie. I knew he was an untapped well and that he was an underutilized resource. And I just barely got under the wire, because he’s starting to get more jobs and get on the radar. It’s very selfish of me. I have to put my stamp on his ass before he goes out there. He’s such a great performer and his physicality, for me, was a huge part in betting my career and the whole film and my net worth on him.
I’ve also seen actors on sets who weren’t invested in stories, and it’s toxic and debilitating to directors. So I said, “30 days for me and I’ll take Macon Blair as my lead because that’s someone who I know will give as much, or more, to the movie than I would.” Having that trust from the very beginning was huge, and I could just pre-visualize him. I knew every little move he could make and his nuances, physical acting, and the way he could go berserk, too. I just wrote the film literally with protagonist floating in my head and I was kind of the puppeteer. I knew what was happening and could rely on him and he would call bullshit on me if there was a false note in the script about the character or some backstory we hadn’t discussed. To get this film to work, there was a ton of backstory and a timeline and a detailed history of all the characters in the movie, and that was developed with Macon Blair as well. It was hard, because the faith in Macon as an actor and me knowing that Dwight was the right character came before the movie did.
The Dissolve: It’s remarkable watching the movie, when the beard goes away, seeing how vulnerable he ends up looking. Was that a thought, too? What he looks like with a beard and what he looks like without a beard and how that was going to going to play visually?
Saulnier: I always tried just to make sure he needed to go through a transformation, and that’s a pretty easy one. The beard was a big deal for scheduling. The only major inefficiency of the whole production was the fucking beard. We had to travel down actors and travel them back up to New York twice because we had to shoot around the beard. What was great was that it forced us to shoot the first 20 pages in chronological order, which is a rare gift because you can actually get up to speed, develop your aesthetic, develop your pace, and define your movie from the first scene out. It was really a great help, because when we wrapped the beard scenes we had the first act done and we were in decent shape. The physical transformation was important because, for me and Macon, the character needed to regress. He starts out in this isolated world and he’s kind of withered and apathetic and he gets some terrible news and something is triggered within him. This mission is not only about revenge, but about getting back to what caused this entire thing. This character regresses in age and, it’s like an origin story, he goes back to his youth. I can’t talk about the end because I’ll give away spoilers, but he definitely regresses and it’s important that he did that, emotionally and physically. There’s also practical reasons. He had to cut that beard for an engagement party.
The Dissolve: Once it was done, how did you set about getting the film out into the world?
Saulnier: We submitted an unfinished version to Sundance and we submitted to one other festival, but then I said, “Let’s just pull it. I don’t want to submit any more half-realized versions.” Then we used Cannes as a deadline. “Let’s push for four weeks, submit to Cannes, just for shits and giggles, and then we’ll plan for a fall attack with finished visual effects, no more missing scene cards, none of that.” Then the Cannes directors’ board called our bluff and said, “You’re in.” That was another scramble, because we planned on this 12-to-16-week post schedule so we could all keep our day jobs and work on the film on weekends. Instead, we had to fast-track it for Directors’ Fortnight, which is an awesome problem to have.
The Dissolve: Cannes is thought of as this place of auteurs, and not always friendly to genre filmmaking. Did that help you in a way? Did it give the film a little bit more pop than it might have had elsewhere?
Saulnier: Yes. There’s a kindred spirit in the man that runs Fortnight, named Edouard [Waintrop]. He’s a fan of genre, it’s obvious. As far as our film, I was on track to becoming a decent cinematographer who had aspirations to direct that were never really realized, and I was becoming a bit jaded and disgruntled. I had a short that did great at festivals and I had a feature that got distribution the first time out, but I got no love from certain publications. I’m never going to make “The 25 New Faces Of Film,” these things that you track. All the while, I’m shooting films for people who go to Berlin and Sundance and these awesome festivals, and I’m very happy to have been on board for those, and I like to see their success, but there’s also that professional jealousy and self-loathing that starts to creep in. I’m a corporate video guy. I can make talking heads look pretty good. It’s a good living, and I’ve got a family to support, but I was getting to the point where I really saw the fact that my career was not going to be as a director. This was a last-ditch effort. The whole Cannes experience was that, all of a sudden, I went from a semi-respected cinematographer/crew-person that helps people make movies to the dickhead who got into Cannes and got the fairy tale. It was crazy just having that accumulated sense of, “It’ll never be me. The gatekeepers won’t pick me. I’m getting too old now. I’m not the 28-year-old hot shit that’s going to dazzle them with a short and then go right into their first feature. I just do these slow-burn attempts, and they’re getting to be sad.”
When we got in, it was just a crazy overnight turn-around where it’s like, “Oh my God. Check the email again. Okay, we’re in Fortnight, they called our bluff. Let’s do it.” It’s hard to come to grips with the fact that I’m that asshole now who got into Fortnight. I premièred the film without having seen it before in the room. I’d never seen the finished picture and sound, so I watched the world première at Fortnight along with everyone else. I was quite impressed, not so much like, “Oh, we made a great movie.” I was like, “We made an actual movie. We fooled everyone.” [Laughs.] I had no idea we had an actual film in the can, because we were uploading visual effects after we had shipped the movie. It was such a whirlwind that we had no idea how to adjust. We had an offer on the table to buy the movie before I had even seen it. At the press screening, someone saw it and put their offer in, that was Tom Quinn. The première at Fortnight was amazing, the embrace was huge, and there was a spotlight on me. It was crazy. I felt that maybe I’m not a fraud.
We got whisked away into a suite overlooking the Croisette, with an intense negotiation to sell the movie. We sold the movie two hours after it premièred, had a champagne toast, all wearing sport jackets and shit. It was absurd. The Variety review came out and it was insane, it was really positive, and it was a perfect première. All of a sudden, I could get a movie made the next day. I was getting scripts offered to me that had money attached. Just getting that VIP access card was insane. I have representation now. I have agents, and I’m just getting everything together. But if you talked to me a year ago, just me mentioning CAA or Anonymous Content, or talking to some big studio about a movie is absolutely absurd. It’s true, and I’m trying not to be a dick about it, because I know what it’s like to be on the sidelines waiting for your turn when some asshole gets that fairy tale realized. I’m kind of quiet on Facebook about it. I’m almost embarrassed by the success of the film. Although I do feel there are many opportunities for me to fuck this up. Blue Ruin has already exceeded my expectations. It could just disappear now and I’d be happy. The next film… Ooh, now there’s expectations attached, because I came out of nowhere.
The Dissolve: I’m going to assume, then, that the model of staking your entire fortune on your next movie is probably not going to apply?
Saulnier: No. My wife is very thankful, because she actually cashed out her retirement for Blue Ruin, too. It was crazy. It’s one of those things where you have to have your ear to the ground, know what the environment is, and do a serious self-assessment. I didn’t think I was some kind of genius, but I’ve been to festivals and I’ve seen what’s out there. I knew at least there was a place for me and a place for my films in the marketplace. I could carry my own weight. It’s against my nature to brag or to lie or to subdue people, but I had to turn that on a little bit. Nothing dishonest, or that would have negative effects on people, other than myself, my possible reputation. But I had to lie about casting. I told them we were fully funded and we weren’t, so the casting directors could get casts attached and move forward. We were never fully funded. The whole time, we were always bullshitting our way through it, putting all of our cash into it in spurts, putting $180,000 on my credit card. It was a lot of bullshitting and bravado, and if it didn’t pay off, I would literally, right now, be selling my house and moving out of Brooklyn and moving on.
The Dissolve: Those are really high stakes, especially because you have children and a family.
Saulnier: That's why I averaged two hours of sleep a night on set. I collapsed one night because when my wife would visit set, the veneer would crack and I’d just cry. I’d be like, “This is so fucking dumb. I can’t believe I’m doing this. Who are these kids who are doing their first movie, learning how to make a movie? There’s a dipshit at the helm!” [Laughs.] I was a lot like the main character. I was inept and out of my depth, but I did have a good technical fallback. Knowing camera and knowing the consequences of scheduling and casting we knew, “I don’t want anyone fucking this movie up. I want awesome actors who are invested and who want to be part of the project. You have to read your lines, audition for the role. I don’t care if you’re offer-only, your agent is being difficult… you’re out of the movie for both of our benefits. I can’t deal with that shit. I’m too invested in it. If you can’t read a page of dialogue, you’re not in. You’re not going to work more than four or five days, so you can come and before you assess how low-budget our job is and how terrible the food is, you’re out and you’re done. You’re wrapped.” Macon, of course, we could use and abuse the whole time. [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: This career you’ve had in commercial and corporate filmmaking, is that scuttled at this point?
Saulnier: I’m calling it a hiatus, because I do know that things could turn around and I could be back at square one if I fail to capitalize on the success of this film. I think this film has bought me a year to get my act together and come to grips with the fact that I might be a director and I might have to go pro and actually earn a living off of this, which is daunting because I’ve only done things by necessity. I firmly believe in the technique of underpromising and overdelivering. Now I have some choices to make about the next film, and if I want to do it on the independent scale or go for a studio movie. But I think whatever the best story is around I will attack.
The Dissolve: You’re not looking to write?
Saulnier: I am. Macon Blair is an amazing writer and some of his screenplays inspired me for Blue Ruin. His tone and his dark crime screenplays were just amazing, but they were always $17 to $40 million movies, so I was always pissed. Macon would show me a draft of a script and I’d be like, “This is fucking awesome. I would love to direct this. Why don’t you write something that I could actually fund?” Macon is a very modest person, so we knew we wanted him to be a lead, but he would never put himself in a dark crime scenario because he’s just like, “I’m not that guy.” I took it into my hands like, “I will write a dark crime movie for you, but you will be the lead and you must accept the fact that you’re the guy.” There was initial hesitation on his part like, “I can’t be in a revenge movie,” and I was like, “No no no, the whole point is we’re not going to put you in a revenge movie. We’re going to build a revenge movie around you. It’s going to be hilarious.”