Interview: Anton Yelchin on GREEN ROOM, STAR TREK, Hardcore Punk & Softcore Porn

Featured Critic; Toronto, Canada (@filmfest_ca)
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Interview: Anton Yelchin on GREEN ROOM, STAR TREK, Hardcore Punk & Softcore Porn

Getting to interview filmmakers and actors can sometimes be quite a thrill, sometimes a surprising dud. The fluctuation in quality is sometimes disheartening, when people you’d like to think of in glowing terms give pat answers honed by years of simply not giving a shit.

On rare occasions, however, something kind of magical happens, where you meet a spirit that’s almost electrifying. Anton Yelchin was such a person, a person who was clearly passionate and committed to his craft. More than that, he exuded a love of cinema, namechecking art films and blockbusters alike, showcasing a genuine adoration for his chosen profession. What was clear was that this was a guy that worked his ass off to be where he was and took nothing for granted, taking in every moment like it was his last.

We spoke on a sun-spackled beach front in Cannes as part of a very small roundtable conversation with two other journalists, writers who became my friend after that day as we recognized our shared interest from this very talk. It was that kind of chat, that kind of feeling sitting on the shores of the Mediteranean, talking about a project (Jeremy Saulnier’s masterful Green Room) that we all seemed to love the same way. I had originally planned on saving this interview for that film’s eventual home release but on today of all days, the day when something as trivial as a rolling car could cut a man’s life so short, I felt it important to remember this spark of a talent.

I only knew Anton via our discussion in a professional situation, but I still felt I knew what made him tick, what drove his passions, and how happy he was to be doing what he loved. From Star Trek to Alpha Dog to his upcoming work with another passionate cinephile, Guillermo Del Toro, we can only mourn the man and miss what was to come, all while cherishing the work and memories he left us with.

So here, in a slighty edited form, is that conversation. It’s a bit rambling, a bit all over the place (as most of my chats are), but it should hopefully give a sense of just what a terrific guy Anton was and what a pleasure it felt like to be in his presence. We began with a discussion of his love of music, especially apt given that he was meant to be headed to a rehearsal with some friends.

Were you personally connected to the whole hardcore punk scene?

Oh hell, yeah. I had a punk band for awhile. I kept trying to get us to play, kind of 80s type hardcore. Because the hardcore that the Ain't Rights plays is more like late 80s, 90s, like, it's like New York thrash where it switches up and shit, but I like the 30 second void. I like void a lot and shit like that, so yeah, I was really in to that.

Could you talk about working with Jeremy Saulnier on set? What was your response was to BLUE RUIN, and was that what drew you to the project?

Yeah, I really liked and continue to like Blue Ruin a lot. The idea of genre is that it's sort of an organizing force. Traditionally, it's the construct by which you can analyze, and not only cinema. You can place various things into it. In noir, which is so sort of anti-meaning, the plot really moves, you know? What I like about Jeremy's films that it's like genre collapsing in on itself. Let me take this back - there are certain films like Maltese Falcon, there is no movement to the plot really. It just moves because it has to, but things are just happening as opposed to being pointed in some fashion to say, oh well, in the end there will be some sort of payoff. You'll get the reveal, the guy will die, or it's completely arbitrary and absurd. [Similarly], you spend all of Blue Ruin wondering what the grand answer is to why this is happening.

In any other genre film, or films from the 40s or 50s - other than like Kiss Me Deadly or something. The more I go through my favourite noirs I'm finding a lot of examples to counteract what I'm saying! [Take] some wonderful ones like Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal - it's very simple. Guy gets out of jail, guy falls in love with one girl, other girl assists him, they defeat the bad guy. If it was Jeremy's film, it’d be guy gets out of jail, you're not really sure why he's in jail, he doesn't get with either of the chicks, the bad guy has no real reason to be against him, you can get robbed.

It's just compeltely absurd.

…And she gets eaten by a dog.

Yeah. That’s where the melancholy comes from - There is no explanation, which is what genres usually offer. This happened because he stole something, this happened because he slept with this guy's wife, this happened because he's a psychopath. In [Blue Ruin or Green Room] there is no answer - It happened because it's absurd. There's no reason. Why do these kids get murdered, pointlessly, by these Nazis? Because. Because the Nazis had no better idea. They didn't really have to. They could have let them go and nothing would have happened. So, there's that melancholy that runs through the fact that when dealing with the unknown we just cannot have answers.

Did Jeremy come to you with a script?

Yeah, I read the script and skyped with him, I was working on a film at the time. A ways down the line it came to me and I went to Portland, read some stuff for him, it evolved kind of traditionally.

Did you find it a challenge to bring your character Pat’s arc to life on screen?

I like to map things out. I feel like most actors map stuff out - I don't know, that's a weird statement, I don't know what the fuck most actors do! But I like to map stuff out. Pat, you know, is a very Jeremy like character. Based on Blue Ruin, he wants to know that there's some logic or some reasoning behind these actions so that he can actually reason his way through a situation that is becoming exceedingly absurd. So [playing Pat] was really mapping how his reason is trying to counteract and make sense of the impending absurdity that he senses, but he's just not the kind of person [who can] say about a situation, oh, I can't figure this out. I mean, he literally goes to the very end, loses all of his friends, shows up to these murderers, to the residence, and thinks he's going to sabotage. I mean, I think it's genuine.

It played as a joke last night [when Green Room played Cannes], and it does play funny. But Pat genuinely thought he was going to sabotage the crime scene when it's obvious there's no way out of this other than violence. There's no way out. Either they're going to get shot, or they're going to shoot them.

In Pat's mind violence is sort of the unknown, it's this chaotic realm. He can figure his way out of this. So it was building that step by step - as a reasonable guy, how scared is he here? Because suddenly, there are these points where he's realizing, oh fuck, I may not be able to figure this out, then he's realizing, no I've gotta figure this out, then he's realizing ok, my objective is to protect my one remaining friend. It's subtle, but there are shifts.

I feel like you have to look for the arc, even if that's not what the filmmaker will use in the end, for your own mind, to be able to differentiate every moment and understand that you have to build something, so that's that.

And Jeremy's there to keep you straight.

Yeah. I sent Jeremy some e-mails and he was, I talked to him about stuff, and I feel like he trusted us a lot with things and on the day that things were off, he'd just tell us.

I know you said you were in a punk band, but when you're in a film, you don't really need to be able to play an instrument.

No, you don't really need to play an instrument if you're in a punk band as I'm sure you know. I'm not very good at guitar, but I can play fast, sloppy songs and have a great time. And I really like bass now. I kind of want to play bass in a band instead of playing guitar.

Would you have the time for it?

Yeah, I mean, I had this band for a while, we never took it super seriously, but I would love to go to Japan and just play Japan. Like do a tour, to have a 9 song, 10 song, just a demo. I don't like clean sounds anyway. Just record a demo in my garage and then go to Japan with it.

Why Japan?

Just because they have amazing music there. I love Japanese punk. I was really in to Jelly Roll Rockheads, which is a crazy. Their songs are like 17 seconds, you know? And Total Fury is another like Japanese hardcore band, or Guitar Wolf and Boredoms, and they have beautiful psychedelic music, like Ghost - I just love their music. There's an avant garde guitar player that would just sort of howl and moan and play these really dissonant things on guitar that I listen to a lot. I feel like there's definitely a sense of things that I like in Japan that I'm really in to so I want to go there. Plus it would be fun to tour around Japan, why not?

Music's obviously really important to you, is that one of the things that you think the film gets most right? And I have to ask, what's your desert island disk or desert island band?

Someone asked me earlier, so I can tell you what my desert island punk bands are for sure. Misfits and Badbrains would be my desert island punk bands. Desert island band, I don't know, it would be like, I don't know….

It would not be Steely Dan?

No, it would not be Steely Dan. Insane Clown possibly. Could you imagine” It's like a bad dream - You wind up on a desert island and it's just Insane Clown.

Jeremy has his own interest in the hardcore scene - is that one of the things that you two bonded on on set?

Yeah, it's something that I just responded to when I read the script. To be honest, the thing that I most felt in talking with Jeremy was that he said the film is sort of him saying goodbye to a certain part of his life, a certain part of his youth. This idea of saying goodbye to something and having it come in this form, where a guy is losing his bandmates, his family, his best friends, is really heartbreaking to me. I could feel that melancholy, and that sadness when Jeremy talked about it. Plus, yeah, hardcore music.

Do you connect with being a poor artist?

Well, I'm better off than [Green Room band] the Ain't Rights. I've been working since I was a little kid. Maybe if the Ain't Rights started when they were 9, they would be, I don't know. The thing is, I never toured around with my band. While we were in L.A. We went to Santa Barbara, it wasn't really a tour, just loaded in to a truck and then drove our shit up there. So that was something that I'm purely imagining. It's rooted in my idea about what it would be to pile in to a van and go on tour.

Having acted for that long, how do you pick your roles?

Sometimes I probably should be more careful. But if I really like a character, I'll go do that film. It might not be the brightest way to choose a project, because the movie might suck, but the character might be great. I feel like if there's a great character, you can take away, even if necessarily you have doubts, maybe about the movie as a whole, the adventure of studying something interesting is pretty exciting.

So you are looking for these films that are totally different, as opposed to signing up for a franchise

The only franchise I'm a part of is Star Trek and those have come I guess 4 years apart or something. So in the four year interim it's pretty much like it always is for me, just auditioning and reading scripts and stuff. I'm sure for the guys in Avengers or Marvel, where they crank them out and they seem to be doing a lot of those, it makes sense that they might want to [escape]. But for me, it's not really relatable in that sense.

I have to ask the nerdy question: Did you and Patrick Stewart ever talk about the shared connection of working on STAR TREK?

We didn't really. I met him one time - he's such a gracious man I don't know if he remembered or didn't remember – but we met somewhere at some party and some people were hey Star Trek guys, you should talk! It was incredibly awkward. But not on set, no, we didn't.

Might be awkward bringing it up as a question.

No, it's not awkward, but it's a funny thing. What do you say to each other? “Hey, I like your uniform!”

You have the one pivotal scene with him, of course, but for most of it you’re physically divided. Could you talk about working with such a giant of the stage and screen?

There's something kind of fascinating about acting with someone who's behind a door, because you're supposed to be studying their body, their energy, and you have to feel what they're feeling through their voice. Stewart obviously has such a tremendous ability to convey everything through that voice.

Also, my side of the movie, or our side of the door is so different from his. I remember just having meltdowns and him saying “it's all right gentlemen”. That voice sounded so terrifying! It was the worst thing I could hear in a way, from the most kind, lovely, gracious human being. But on set, the energy is very heavy.

He was actually there for those scenes? Because he could have easily been done with a script reader

Oh yeah, we were doing them for each other. You're absolutely right, someone else, less gracious and less kind would piece that on me. But no, we were doing them together.

His voice is in part honed by his stage work. Is that something you’d like to consider doing?

I think I would love to at some point challenge myself and do that. I don't know enough about theatre unfortunately. Even if I read a play, I envision it as a film. I just really love films. I'd be a fool to slight theatre in any way, it's just simply that I've grown up not going to theatre or going to the theatre but going to see films and watching films at home.

There isn't much of a theatre scene in L.A. My parents love theatre, the were in St. Petersburg in the 70s and there was a thriving theatre scene. In L.A., not so much, you have to be really committed to seek it out.

What are the films that you would watch? What are the films that continue to excite you about cinema?

When I was little, my folks said if you're going to do this [acting thing], you'd better know your shit. They took me through film school 101. 70s American New Wave films, Scorsese, Midnight Cowboy, I watched Scorsese, Kubrick, films like Scarecrow, Peckinpah films, Fellini and Antonioni, Truffaut, Goddard, DeSica, all when I was a little kid.

Were they in the film business?

No, they're figure skaters. They just loved movies.

It's always exhilirating to hear an actor who actually knows cinema history

Yeah, people don't really give a shit. It's funny, my parents built this wonderful sort of background for me and then my tastes went all over the place, stuff I don't think they're even in to, and so I've had to revisit things that I saw when I was younger that I loved. I watched [Fellini’s 1983 film] And The Ship Sails On for the first time since I was 12 or 13 or something and I loved it. Going back, there's so many films I saw when I was a little kid that I've got to see again.

Did you watch anything in prep for this? And when was the last time you saw Straw Dogs?

I haven't seen Straw Dogs in a long time -  I saw it for the first time when I was like 12 or 13.

Not a happy time to see STRAW DOGS

My favourite movie was Taxi Driver. I saw that when I was 13, yeah. I also watched [Just Jaeckin 1974 soft-core porn] Emmanuelle. I fucking loved that movie. That movie I think has influenced all of the festishes, sexual fetishes I have. When I think about, why am I in to this, I'm like because of  Emmanuelle.

I’m just thinking that GREEN ROOM film owed a lot to STRAW DOGS.

I think it's got sort of a Peckinpah hardness, kind of materialism. I mean, maybe we should have put a gang-bang in it. I'll talk to Jeremy if we could maybe throw that in there.

When you read a script, are you a guy who then re-watches films for inspiration, or are you simply in the frame?

No, I definitely do. I watch different things, like, for this though, I watched [Penelope Spheeris’ 1983 film] Suburbia, and I watched the punk rock documentary made by her, The Decline of Western Civilization. I watched that great road movie, where they go on that shitty tour with, that ill-fated tour where they had the bus, they got on this bus - I'm sorry guys, I got two and a half hours of sleep, no the road movie, these idealist hardcore kids, they got on a bus and drove across the country and the bus kept fucking breaking down, and they lost everyone, and people would peace out. You know the band I'm talking about, I'm blanking, very prominent, anyway, he's on the tour and they're all fucked up, it's a really, it's a great film. [He’s talking about Another State of Mind, the Adam Small and Peter Stuart documentary about Social Distortion and Youth Brigade].

So I watched that, and then I watched Deer Hunter, actually, as it’s about people trapped and trying to figure out how the fuck. Pat's like the DeNiro of this crew. I watched this one [Fugazin/Minor threat punk rocker] Ian MacKaye interview over and over and over again to get the cadence of how he speaks. But I'll pick random shit sometimes.

Switching gears, you looking forward to doing a Simon Pegg-written STAR TREK?

I feel like Simon's, Simon's a) very smart and b) very funny, so I'd be surprised if he doesn't bring those qualities to the script. If it's a really stupid film that lacks humor, I'd be really surprised. So I think it's a great choice, it was very smart of them.

And then Scotty will be in every scene?

Yeah, we're like, Scotty, Scotty! And in the rewrites, they'll be constantly taking lines away from people. “No, Scotty!”

What about Justin Lin taking over?

I think it's great. The thing is, I really trust J.J., so he wouldn't put someone on a film just arbitrarily. I feel like Justin's got great ideas about things, the little things he's told me. I met him and I really look forward to it, I think it's going to be great.

Given where J.J’s headed, if you had your choice, would you have been in STAR WARS or STAR TREK?

I'd say Star Trek of course, why would I . . .

But as a kid....

I'm also not a big sci-fi guy. That's the thing. I wasn't a Star Wars guy growing up. I was a Spaceballs guy.

Regarding these big franchise, some of the people get tired of it, feeling sort of locked in. You're clearly a guy who brings a ton of passion to all your projects, yet are you still finding doing the huge things as exciting as doing the indie things?

I've done a couple of big films, but like I said, this is the only franchise and it's a really fun character. He's not the straight man, ever, so I can fuck around. I love Walter Koenig's performance, I think it's wonderful. I think he did something that is so joyous that there's a wealth of things to go through try to bring them into the new films. Som yeah, I have a blast, the character's great.

You get the same thrill out of doing something like that as you do something like GREEN ROOM?

It's different, this Green Room is a lot heavier. The actors I'm really inspired by right now are silent film actors and so just the experimentation is really put in silent films. People like Fairbanks, Conrad Wiene, this guy Rudolf Klein-Rogge. I don't know if I'm good enough, or know my shit enough to figure out how to bring that successfully to a role, but it's certainly what interests me right now, with that kind of experimentalism.

Is it frustrating that your colleagues don't give a shit about your craft or its history the way you do?

No, there are people that give a shit. There's a filmmaker named Gabe Klinger, who's also, some of you guys might know him, he's a critic as well, he made a film about James Benning and Richard Linklater, called Double Play. I just worked on his first feature, his fiction film [Porto], and Gabe is like an encyclopedia. I was lucky enough to work with Joe Dante - I feel that Joe's my guru, my film guru, he knows more about film than anyone I've ever met. It's encyclopedic. Every film, everything.

When I meet people like that I'm inspired by that. I feel like, shit, instead of lamenting that I have no one to talk to, I'm like, fuck, there's so many people to talk to! In order to talk to them, I've got to get up on my game. But then there are people like Brady Corbet [24, Melancholia] - Brady's fucking up on his stuff. I met him once in New York, I don't know if he'd remember this, but, and I had a great talk with him and I was very inspired by it. There are plenty of people that give a shit.

But on the other hand, there's a lot of people who don't give a shit.

That's true.

Is it hard to work with them?

No, because the people that I become friends with that I work with, I'm not going to go like, oh, you haven't seen this film, well, fuck you. I'm not like that. So obviously, if I become friends with them, if I become close with someone it's because I appreciate something about them but people that have nothing to offer and haven't seen good films, I just don't like.

Can you tell us a bit more about Gabe's film?

Gabe basically reached out to me through my friend [director] Michael Almereyda and said I have a short story, and he wanted to make an improvised film based on this short story. We talked about the character and we agreed it would be sort of influenced by Lon Chaney. There’s a kind of grotesque nature of Chaney's characters - they're obsessive, but at the core, they want love. They do fucked up shit because they're deeply want to be loved.

Gabe ended up writing an outline and then an 80 page script that we rewrote with Lucie Lucas, who ended up being in the film as well. We shot on 3 different film stocks - on 35mm, 16mm and on 8mm, and it basically follows two people who spend one night together from birth to death. One part of the film is one duration of time, during a certain part of their life. One is another length of time in a different set of years in their life, and then one is that one event.

I found that really interesting because what it really explores, which is the same thing as Double Play, is how cinema is creating spatial constructs within time.

That's all we have - We construct things when we carve up time. That's about how we do it on an individual basis. How we do it with each other, how that creates contexts within time and then that affects not just our perception of the moment, how a moment can last - it can be 5 hours and that stays with us for the rest of our lives, and 20 years pass by and we don't remember them. A film can be an hour and a half and deeply impactful, and 7 hours and not so impactful.

I find Gabe to be a very interesting thinker and so I feel like the film is going to be interesting.

Can you think of a contemporary film that you've seen that has excited you in the way that classics do? And have you read a script and thought this is not right and then seen the finished product and thought, oh, I missed this?

I've definitely made some poor choices when I've agreed to do things like. I've never seen a film that I thought was amazing but definitely saw actors do things where I knew that was a good part and for some reason I made the wrong choice. The films I'm really excited about now are Romanian films. Corneliu Porumboiu has a film here [Le Trésor], unfortunately I won't be here, hopefully it will get sold in the States, I'm really rooting for him, I think he's amazing. I think Cristi Puiu [Sieranevada] is amazing, I think those guys are so hard core.

You're making us all look bad, man.

No, they're dope. Those guys are hardcore and I really love their films. I really liked [Kornél Mundruczó’s 2014 film] White God. I know people are mixed on that movie, but I had a blast. I really liked it a lot. I saw it at the Nuart Theater L.A. and someone at the end went “boo!” and I was like, fuck you. I was so pissed. Don't ruin my fucking shit by booing at the Nuart! It's not a film festival, what are you doing?

What film would you boo?

I don't think I'd boo a film.  But I do like watching films with the sound off sometimes. I've watched people's screens on the plane on the way over here and I saw the best film. It was like part Hobbit, part 12 Years a Slave, part I think the Julianne Moore film Still Alice, I thought this is a fucking great movie, I can sort of mix and match. So I'm just going to re-cut those movies.

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Anton YelchinBlue RuinGreen RoomJeremy SaulnierPatrick StewartStar TrekMacon BlairDevin RatrayAmy HargreavesKevin KolackCrimeDramaThriller

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  • kidlazarus

    Damn shame to lose this guy at such a young age. Enjoyed everything I've seen him in...even if it wasn't a good film he brought great, quirky, nervous quality to his performance. Great chemistry with Cruddup in Rudderless. Good, grim time in the Green Room.

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