Jeremy Saulnier And Macon Blair Talk BLUE RUIN
Jump forward six years to 2013. Saulnier and Blair have reteamed for their second collaboration, Blue Ruin. And they're going to Cannes, where the film premiered in the Director's Fortnight sidebar and won much deserved raves as one of the most impressive American indies in years. the film has won continued love on a lengthy festival run since and with the public release coming April 25th we now revisit a conversation I had with Saulnier and Blair when the film stopped in at the Toronto International Film festival.
ScreenAnarchy: Let's start back at the beginning. Years ago the two of you were together with Murder Party and now you're back together with Blue Ruin, which is a wildly different movie. So what happened in between? What did you fill the time with?
Macon Blair: After we did Murder Party I think we both had this very naïve idea that now we were in show business. We'll make huge movies. Obviously it didn't turn out that way so we both went back to our respective day jobs. Jeremy started doing some cinematography work and independent films and also some advertising work. I took little freelance jobs. I did a little bit of acting here and there but I wasn't getting as much as I wanted. So this was basically the combination of six years of trying to get the second movie off the ground. We had other scripts that were a little too expensive and unwieldy, we couldn't get the financing together. So this is something that was designed to be a self-starter. Because we got to the point where if we didn't make another movie now it was going to be too late. So Jeremy conceived it and developed it with the idea that even if we did get no outside money we could pull it off on our own.
Jeremy Saulnier: It would up the level of trauma but we could still do it. We had credit cards standing by and ready to go. We couldn't wait for anything. Ultimately we realized we could be considered liabilities to a film like this. If you saw Murder Party and saw the script we handed in for this ... I myself would not hire that director to execute this script. And so we ran up against financing issues and mostly timeline stuff. We got a good response to the script from many different avenues for potential finance but then we were just like, "We're not trying to hardball anyone but we only have three or four months to make this." The fall of 2012 was the absolute cutoff to make it. My third daughter was a bun in the oven, and you know, daddy shouldn't go off and blow the life savings on some indulgent cinematic endeavors. Macon's first kid was on the way. And so things just lined up.
We had so many scripts that just never took off but we had met so many people and come into contact with so many producers and I realized after working on three or four films that I knew everybody in the independent film scene. We had made great inroads and connections and we found that we were supported by a community, we just had to pull the trigger on something. And technology had finally come to the point that I would be very happy to shoot digitally, without compromising. I had gotten over my initial purist position. Film purist. Yeah, fuck it. It's so much more important what you put in front of the camera.
ScreenAnarchy: Murder Party was shot on film?
MB: That was standard def.
JS: That was more of a jokey horror comedy so the aesthetic wasn't paramount for me. It was like, whatever we can do we will do and have a good time. And fall back on that genre comedy element. We weren't putting ourselves out there too far. But Blue Ruin was more a more emotionally driven film, a movie that's pretty dead serious and it required no compromise in the aesthetic or tone. It was always on the edge. If it faltered here or there, if we had one terrible actor or one unbelievable makeup effect then the film was sunk.
So we started pulling resources together ... locations and props. The blue Bonneville in the movie was in my parent's garage for fifteen years and I was like, "That thing's on the way out, I'm going to use it in my movie and destroy it." Macon's family had property in Charlottesville, so we were going to shoot the finale there. The night invasion sequence, that's going to be in my house. Why? Because I knew it so well, I knew every inch of it and could choreograph an intricate night invasion scene without having to scout or build sets. We used what we had and built the whole story around it.
It came out pretty naturally and rather quickly once we had things in motion and a deadline looming, we just really cranked it out. Our one year anniversary of shooting the film was last week [this interview took place September 2013] and on the day of the anniversary I returned to the Delaware shore where we had shot and ... I know this is ScreenAnarchy, but I was very emotional. I was tearing up driving back because the trauma had then passed. We were on the verge of collapse every day of that shoot just because we were in it so high and I didn't change a word of that script from the million dollar budget down to the quarter million dollar budget. If we had one more rain day it would have been a disaster. But everybody pulled together and it was such a relief to return to the Delaware shore in triumph after our Cannes premiere.
ScreenAnarchy: What's the working relationship between you guys when you're doing the script? I've always assumed that Dwight was written for Macon from day one.
JS: Oh, sure.
ScreenAnarchy: [To Macon] Were you involved in creating the character?
MB: In a sort of workshop capacity. It's definitely Jeremy that came up with the character and we batted around some ideas and I would input "Can he do this? Or maybe he has this particular quirk?" Jeremy is definitely open and encouraging of that kind of collaboration. It was also ... the movie was built around the character and he had such a clear idea of it that I knew well enough to try not to jump in the middle of that too much. I have one hundred percent faith in his filmmaking instincts so I thought, "I will bring the best of what I can to it," but I didn't want to be like, "Well, I disagree, I think Dwight would do it this way."
JS: We did have some minor clashes in terms of motivations of actions and all it did was help me with the character. Sometimes I would just take what Macon said and write it into the character. I would often have characters surrounding Dwight voice Macon's concerns to Dwight ...
MB: ... And that nailed it. It made whatever the concern was that I was having trouble processing palatable.
JS: This film was sort of made under a certain amount of duress for everybody. The stakes were very high. But we had the luxury of a long lead time to discuss the character. We went back and forth on does he drink, does he not drink? We went back and forth a few times until we came to an agreement, "He does not drink. He drinks tea." That was great, we really had this exchange about the character and it was firmly ingrained into the script.
The script was very tight by necessity. I'm a camera person so I knew any time we would change a car mount or something, I knew it would eat up time on the set so it was planned visually from the inception, from the script stage. It was when we started wardrobe shopping for Macon that it really felt like it was coming together. Macon had started growing the beard ten months before production, seven months before we had any financing. At all. For me it was like this beacon ...
ScreenAnarchy: Now you have to make it, you haven't let him shave for months. If you don't make it go, you're dead ...
JS: The prospect of failure, of me having to call Macon and say, "It's me, you've got to shave your beard." What a nightmare that would have been ...
MB: I would have gotten over it but it's better that it worked out this way.
ScreenAnarchy: One of the things I love about the script is that it seems like there's a certain kind of aesthetic that's in common to you and, say, a guy like Jim Mickle and this group of young people who are obviously a little bit genre oriented and interested in commercial cinema but are also really drawn to a 70s aesthetic. I find that really interesting because that was the original indie wave and somehow we've ended up back there. Were those sorts of films things that you were looking at and trying to take your cues from in terms of style and how you were going to cut?
JS: I hadn't seen Mickle's We Are What We Are until after we wrapped Blue Ruin but yeah. I'm definitely not in the found footage, throbbing soundtrack camp of horror. Not so much because I find it degraded but I'm soft now. I'm a father of three - I was a father of two at the time - and I'm so attached to my family. I was very concerned I was getting too soft to be a hard core genre 'auteur'.
For this movie I thought I saw a void in the marketplace, a space where you can really do arthouse and really do genre. And I love, I thrive in between genres. I think people like the Coens are real masters at weaving between genres and different cinematic tones. It was very much by design to do a brutal genre film but have raw emotion and a very formal aesthetic attached to it.
It's hard to describe for me, especially when you're doing these junkets, I'm a very intuitive filmmaker and a very non-verbal filmmaker and don't always have a very exact motivation behind what I do. When I write a script I see it first and I write what I see. That's largely because of my technical side and how I've never really been able to separate directing from camera work and vice versa. So I do have this baked in, sort of technical approach to filmmaking where I incorporate sound design and visuals and very extensive story boarding. I do appreciate a more formal aesthetic. I like knowing my lenses and have a very craft approach to making my movies.
Michael Mann's Thief, I've been saying, is a major influence. Manhunter, too, but Thief has this amazing veracity to it, this research associated with it and the trade craft is so authentic that you never question it for a minute. It's not hyperbolized or overly dramatic, it's, "Shit, he found real thieves doing this." And I wanted to get to indulge in scenes in this movie that I'd have to cut out of other movies. To watch my protagonist have to fight his way out of these complications that could easily be cut out because they're not narratively efficient but the quagmire of detail and inconvenience was fun to work in.
ScreenAnarchy: You talked a bit about working on the low budget and the stresses attached to that. Were there things that you had to adjust on the fly or things that changed on the day where at the end you thought, "Well, that's not what I intended but it really kind of worked ..."?
JS: I can't recall many.
MB: There were some happy accidents. Our very first location turned out to be a Craigslist scam. We turned up to shoot there and it did not exist. We had rented a beach house that was not in existence. And we were like, "Well, we have this crew that's here and we have to start shooting in about eight hours." And we worked it out. And what we ended up with was way better ... it's the first scene of the movie and now I can't imagine it any other way.
JS: That was day one. It was a nice hurdle to have to clear on the first day. But other than that, and that was a huge one, but what astounded me about the production was we didn't change a word of the script from the original million dollar budget. And we lucked out in a lot of ways and things lined up for us, but we hit like ninety five percent of everything we intended to do, which was a shock.
MB: It was cool. We would be getting shots and he had a big binder with a script and all the storyboards in it. We would get something and every now and then he'd say, "Come here and look at the monitor." And he'd open up the binder and there'd be a storyboard he'd drawn eight months ago and it'd be exact. Dwight would be on the monitor filling up the air in the tires and there'd be this little drawing of Dwight filling up the air in the tires and it would be exactly what he had pre-visualized. The hair on your arms kind of stands up when you see things like that. "Shit, we're actually getting it." You expect things will be compromised and when things come together the way you'd planned it, it's really exciting.
JS: We have a shared history so having so much intimate knowledge of all these locations that were available to us, or where we had vacationed together - the Delaware shore, we'd been going there for twenty years and loved it, his cousin's property, my parents' house - we lucked out but we also had a lot of foreknowledge of the environment. So very at home. During the script phase it was all kind of baked in. I was surprised at how well the cast came together. Macon was my ace in the hole, but we had to surround him with really quality actors. So we made sure nobody had to work more than five days. If you ask some really talented actor to come down to this low budget movie for nothing for thirty days, they're gonna pass. But if you can keep it down to four or five days and they respond to the script ...
MB: Fuck, yeah.