Q&A: Blue Ruin’s Jeremy Saulnier & Macon Blair

The film’s director and star discuss their gripping indie thriller

Apr 25, 2014 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


In the intense, unflinching Blue Ruin, a beach bum named Dwight returns to his hometown when he learns that the man imprisoned for murdering his parents many years earlier has been released. He plans his revenge on the person who forever changed his life, despite not being equipped in the slightest to carry out his mission. The fallout of Dwight’s actions—and his mistakes—propels the narrative, and keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat throughout every minute of Blue Ruin’s short but riveting runtime.

Filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier and star Macon Blair grew up making films together, and Blue Ruin is the culmination of their multiple decades of collaboration and friendship. Saulnier and Blair sat down with us to discuss their grungy, grounded thriller, which is one of our favorite films of 2014 thus far. 

 

 

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: You’ve been making movies together since you were kids. You’re in your 30s now, and finally have what should be a breakthrough film for both of you. Is this how you dreamed of things progressing from the very beginning?

Jeremy Saulnier: This has been my dream since I was eight. I think there was a fantasy about breaking in much earlier, because we’ve always known what we were meant to do. But, we couldn’t convince anyone else for quite some time. So, Blue Ruin is the result of that fantasy being crushed, and us coping with a new set of expectations and embracing reality.

Macon Blair: Right now I don’t know that I would change anything. I think everybody would hope to get their foot in the door earlier. There was the idea that right out of film school we’d show up and then we’d be in show business, and we’d be done. Of course, that’s not how it works. It took much longer than we’d have hoped, but I’m not going to complain about that.

What sort of shorthand have you developed over 20 years of collaboration?

MB: Gestures and noises. [Laughs]

JS: I’m an intuitive and visual filmmaker; I’m non-verbal, and I don’t consider myself cerebral in how I approach narrative storytelling. For this film in particular, the writing process was a gift for me because I could do a few passes and take my time to shape how I was articulating this vision. But when you get me on set, I know what I want to do, but there are times I become overwhelmed and become an incoherent, stuttering mess. People like Macon—especially Macon—are some of the few that can get what I’m talking about.  Macon—who was involved with the process early on—was able to take it from there.

MB: Whether it’s because of our long association or just by chance, we’re pretty in tune with what we like and don’t like. Even if Jeremy’s on the other side of the room working with lights or trying to figure out another technical thing, I have at least a general understanding of what I think Jeremy is going to want out of a scene, until he tells me otherwise. I have a good idea of what we want to sell or communicate, and so it feels pretty comfortable most of the time. When one of us is overwhelmed, we don’t have to be like, “he wants this” or “he is feeling this.” It can be kind of like, “Do it… [waves arms, makes crazy noise]” and I’ll be like, “I’ve got it!” and we’ll do the take like that.

JS: Gestures and sound effects are our shorthand, yes.

How long ago did the idea for Blue Ruin start germinating? I know you set out to make something that would showcase each of your talents.

JS: We’ve had different scripts and ideas over the years, but there’s only been one objective since we started, and that was to put Macon in front of the camera and make a movie star out of him. I wanted selfishly to stake claim to his breakthrough performance. He was getting supporting roles in other movies, so it was like, oh, shit. I’d promised Macon we’d make a movie together, but I was powerless to do it.

The beach bum character first popped up around 2010, just in conversations. It was going to be a dark comedy for a bit. Then came this period where I was attending film festivals as a cinematographer and sort of assessing the market, and Macon was writing these cool, dark crime screenplays that seemed out of reach for us to make with our meager resources.

So, I embraced this dark crime world that Macon was living in, but the thing was that they were always written for big bad-asses. They were still character-driven and grounded, but they weren’t for Macon, of course. We never even thought of that. But then we thought, this beach bum character, you put him in one of these dark crime scenarios and this could be fucking alchemy, man. We could embrace the fact that the film is grounded, and overextend the character on purpose. He doesn’t belong in this narrative and he’s out of his depth. Basically when we thrust these two things together, then the conversation started to pick up speed. 

A big part of what makes the film so different is that its lead was cast so far against type for a revenge thriller. Macon, what inspirations did you draw from for your character?

MB: Jeremy had a really clear idea of who this character was, and why he was making all of these choices. I quizzed him about all of this stuff and made sure that it made sense to me. If there was something we disagreed about, we would talk it out. It’s not an exciting or sexy answer… I didn’t sleep in a car, or eat garbage.

JS: He took fishing lessons.

MB: I did take fishing lessons. But yeah, it was a lot of talking with Jeremy, and making sure that we were in sync so that we weren’t making these decisions when we were rushing around with an underpaid crew in borrowed locations. So, as far as preparing for the role, that’s kind of what it was: hanging out and bullshitting for ten months.

JS: While growing a beard.

MB: While growing a beard.

I understand you already had a lot of your locations picked out before you started writing the script. That’s pretty similar to Roger Corman’s school of filmmaking –

JS: We’re trying to steer this towards the highbrow. [laughs]

MB: Robert Rodriguez.

Which locations did you have already that you knew you’d write into the film?

MB: All of the principal ones.

JS: Except for the diner scene, all of the settings were either on our home turf or came through friends and family. The night invasion sequence is in the house I grew up in. The scene where Dwight visits his old friend and the finale were shot at different locations on the same property, which has been in Macon’s family for generations.

I did the most complicated blocking in the house that I grew up in. I even incorporated a trick my friend played on me in our youth, when we were playing guns.

How did you work that out? Was it just like, “Hey, mom, can you clear out for a few days so I can bring in a big crew and film something really violent?”

JS: Oh, yeah. My parents stayed with my uncle for the four or five days we were there. We tore it apart, added a door here, and took things off hinges there. It was funny, because when my dad came back and saw the house, he was remarking about how someone had moved his papers. It was like, he had no idea.

The whole making of this film was very much a friends and family affair. Do you think Blue Ruin would have been possible without all of those close-knit ties coming together for it?

MB: No, I don’t think so. Part of it was the practical resources. We couldn’t afford houses like that, we couldn’t art direct a place like the lodge. There just wasn’t money for it. It was very much the support of people that we knew or were in our families, who had a belief in what we were trying to do. Without that, there was no way.

JS: We had a million dollar budget for that other route, but that was never a reality. We got it in the can for a fraction of that. And the thing is, we didn’t change a single word of the script from that million dollar budget to what we made it for.

There are a lot of really tense scenes with dark, twisted humor mixed in. Were there any moments that maybe played out differently than what you expected from the script?

JS: There’s one scene where the intention was to go for a shock with brutal violence, and to have it be a gut-punch to the audience. But at our premier [at Cannes], there were cheers and applause. I was like, “Wait a second, who are you people? I thought this was supposed to be an upscale, art house crowd, the epicenter of cinephiles.” But it’s all about context. They weren’t actually celebrating the brutal act of violence; they were celebrating the fact that one of their favorite characters survived the encounter.

Macon, you grew that big, unruly beard for the early part of the film. But then it gets shaved off partway into the runtime. Were there ever any fears along the lines of, oh, shit, I hope we don’t have to go back and re-shoot any of those early scenes?

MB: Big time. [Laughs] It was such a scheduling hassle. If you see him in one scene with a beard and one set of characters, and then you see him in another scene without, you have to travel all of those people twice. Once it was shaved, they built a day off into the schedule so they could watch all the footage and be double-sure we’re not going back. We weren’t going to do a fake beard at that point.

JS: We didn’t shoot the beard-shaving scene until weeks later, so we had to keep it in a couple of Ziploc bags. I still have it in my basement, by the way.

Your special effects crew probably could have pulled off an emergency fake beard, if you’d needed one.

JS: There’s something about that... Straight makeup and beards are really tough. A lot of times they’re harder than gore and blood.

MB: If you’re in a close-up shot, you’d need Lord of the Rings’ makeup people to make it work. 

JS: You just don’t falsify shit if you don’t have to. We shot with a real beard—that was real Macon—in a real, rusty car on a real beach. We realized then we were making a real movie, and there were no compromises being made at all to the visuals.

What are some of your favorite revenge films?

JS: I think an influence on this—as far as revenge films—would be Unforgiven, because back then it was a new take on it, and it was much more artful. It was seeped in regret and awkwardness, but had these really big, emotional moments. For me, it was a lesson in downscaling things to increase dramatic effect. Macon and I were talking about the end of Taxi Driver, the end of Unforgiven, these super small-scale finales I think carry way more weight than Hollywood spectacles. I’m not trying to convince the world, but you can’t raise my heartbeat with another fireball, or another downed building. It doesn’t elicit a response at all.

MB: He mentioned Taxi Driver, and that was one I thought about a lot. I don’t know if strictly speaking you’d call that a revenge movie, but in the sense that it’s about a damaged person lashing out at the world in a way that’s horrific and sad. When there is a big explosion of gunplay, it’s not played for thrills—it’s really tragic and awkward and strange, not sexy. I think that’s closer to the way those things were approached in this film, at least hopefully.

JS: In The Bedroom was a nice appropriation of that genre. It was so real and accessible, and sad and misguided.

MB: Oh, yeah. And also hung up on procedure and detail. It wasn’t kicking a door down and mowing everyone down. It was more like, “Pack your suitcase, we’re going to buy tickets for the airport,” in a very slow, plotting way. It still results in, “We’re going to kill this guy,” but it’s more about how you get to that point, rather than that point being the thing.

JS: It’s a very grounded take on revenge. That, and Kill Bill Volume II. 

MB: That one’s also very grounded. 

Blue Ruin opens in New York, Los Angeles, and Austin on April 25th, and is available on iTunes and On Demand. To find out more about the film, head to blueruinmovie.com. To read our review, click here



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