A Conversation With Jeremy Saulnier (BLUE RUIN)

Text Message Exchange 7/5/2012
(posted at the request of Jeremy Saulnier)

Tully: Not sure if y’all realized but today is the two-year anniversary of our official first shooting day of good ol’ SEPTIEN!

Saulnier: Bless you, sir. It was a game changer and I thank you for the opportunity!

Funny, i just mentioned Septien to peeps yesterday, citing it as an inspiration for what I might very well do myself this summer. FYI: I’m leaning towards making my movie with little help and no money. I’ll likely pull the trigger in a week or two. Just a heads up. I’m still on the fence, terrified because I’m about to leap off…

Tully: LEAP, DUDE!!!! I will miss you but I really feel like you have gotta do this for yourself!

Saulnier: Brother, I’m tearing up a bit. You are a swell dude. A rare breed.

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Back in 2011, Jeremy Saulnier shot Septien, a movie I wrote, directed, and acted in. We were friends before that, but once we emerged from that goofy war in Nashville, our bond was further strengthened. Beyond a mere sense of loyalty and trust in his exceptional skills as a DP, Jeremy was my top choice as cinematographer on my next movie Ping Pong Summer for more soulful reasons: he too came of age in the 1980s in the Delmarva region (Northern Virginia, to be exact) and was himself a breakdancing b-boy back in the day. For every reason on the chalkboard and then some, Jeremy was the perfect person for the job. But per the above text, it had been many years since he’d directed his own movie (watch Murder Party if you haven’t already), and it was clear that the time had come for him to take the plunge once again. While I’m usually quite adamant about keeping mentions of my own movie-making endeavors off this site, in this particular case, it’s too relevant to ignore. But to be clear: I haven’t written this intro to brag about being friends with a talented director, nor to publicize my own work as a director. I’ve written it to make sure the world knows that, per the above text exchange, it is I who deserve full credit for the existence of Blue Ruin.

In all seriousness, friendship aside, lest you think this post is a clear-cut case of inside baseball, watch Blue Ruin for yourself and then shut up, thank you very much. For every reason imaginable, Blue Ruin is without question the exact type of movie that inspired us to launch this website in the first place. Days before his movie’s official theatrical/VOD release through RADiUS-TWC on April 25th, Saulnier and I hopped on the phone for a chit-chat (visit the film’s official website for screening information). [*UPDATE* Now Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant, iTunes.]

Hammer to Nail: So… why did you turn down the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be the cinematographer of my movie to make your own little indie movie?

Jeremy Saulnier: You told me, man! I had been in the trenches long enough, biding my time, learned a great deal, actually—and truthfully—from you, and Matt Porterfield [I Used To Be Darker, Putty Hill] and Nate Meyer [Pretty in the Face] and Brian Savelson [In Our Nature]. I think being a DP is genuinely my favorite job on set, but I hit my saturation point and had that “go for broke and make another movie myself” [epiphany]. This time, technology had evolved remarkably since I’d made my last movie, so it was a lot easier.

H2N: Seriously, though, can you talk about that feeling where you knew what you were about to do was a gargantuan risk, but you had to do it anyway? Granted, I know you had the full-fledged support of your partner-in-crime Macon [Blair] and your wife Skei, and your Kickstarter campaign was successful, but for all those filmmakers who are teetering on that brink themselves right now, I’d love for you to get specific about what got you over the hump.

JS: I had never known success as far as getting a project off the ground and having it funded by other people, and so looking back, it was a very aggressive play to go all in on Blue Ruin. But I think that the real value was patience and having a parallel career helping people realize their dreams while I was along for the ride and being disciplined by not following my own impulse to make movies as a director. And then, things started lining up and I felt more comfortable to go into reckless mode and lobotomy mode. [H2N laughs] Actually, and this is not to gas you up, but on the set of Septien, I saw some batshit filmmaking take place in 16 straight days, but what I loved about it is that you cast your friends, and you trusted your collaborators who were in it for all the right reasons. The actors were invested in the movie, and that for me was [hugely important]. On other sets, when I saw talent that had more dollar value assigned to their names but [they were] less invested in the project, the director would be vulnerable and it didn’t feel right, so I absolutely built my entire story around my best buddy Macon Blair, and I wanted to selfishly stake claim on breaking him [out].

Also, in a comfort zone, it made more sense, because it’s so fucking vulnerable when you’re the director on these scrubby little independent film sets. You rarely get a chance to direct and practice your craft. It’s more like managing and making decisions, but when do you get a chance to workshop a scene with someone? I will say that Matt Porterfield taught me valuable things like when to scrap shit. When you have a scene and it’s not working on these creative levels, if it’s going south, then just scrap it and just get to the essence of the scene. Maybe do like a Malick-style, non-verbal shot instead, and choose your battles. But as far as taking the plunge? I don’t know, man, it’s part of a long play.

H2N: How long was it between the time you had the script in a place where you felt ready enough to go and when it actually went?

JS: Well, never. I mean, it was more about coming out of exhausted discussions about the character in this scenario with Macon Blair and my buddy Chris Sharp, and then… I like to talk myself in and out of things. We’d do cheesy elevator pitch stuff, but once I started being invigorated by the story, it seemed within reach. Particularly to take the dark crime genre that Macon and I both loved a lot. [Blue Ruin] was actually inspired in many ways by Macon’s screenwriting. He wrote a script in 2009 called The Sinners, a really dark, atmospheric crime flick and I fell in love with it, but it was just way far out of reach—it was in the tens-of-millions of dollars range. I’d been doing more of your standard, character-driven indie film scrips with Macon and Chris for a while, but I had decided to get everything we had and pool resources. We’d take the atmosphere that Macon created in The Sinners—that was a big breakthrough for us as a crew—but we’d just downscale it and make a film that is in its essence, I would say, the cutting room floor of most action movies. All the minutia and detail and things that are always breezed over in big, well-tuned, tightly crafted action scripts. We would find our own path and explore that shit.

H2N: When you see some movies you can just feel that the director and DP are fused in a special way. In this movie, the director and DP were literally fused! Did you feel the pressure of wearing two hats, or did your previous many years of simply DPing give you a maturity and wisdom to help ease the pressure?

JS: I definitely felt like I had reached a level of technical craft I could lean on pretty heavily. But also, from 2009-2011, I shot four or five features. Again, being a DP is my favorite job on set, because the creative collaboration you have is considerable but the burden you carry is minimal compared to a director. But in some instances I felt I was doing a disservice to the productions I was trying to help. I was trying to protect the image—getting an Arri Alexa and the best equipment I could—but I realize now I was failing my directors by not being able to move the camera fast enough, from laying dolly track to being able to bob-and-weave with the speed of production. You know, you have these really insane 18-day schedules, so [for Blue Ruin] as a DP I started to reverse engineer what I thought was broken, which was, like I mentioned before, going for big, famous casts, and just scheduling around them, scheduling around the individual, or focusing on scenes that are logistical in nature. The last thing people are concerned with in trying to execute these productions is story. It’s hard to be present on set and be creative when you’re just trying to make a day. So basically, I started to realize the most important asset on any production is shooting days. And I wanted to own the camera, and felt really comfortable just going for a mid-range digital cinema camera that I could buy a lens package for and have no one to answer to. If I needed additional shots, I could get in my minivan and do that, and that was key to making sure the story and the on camera stuff was what we were prioritizing above the pixels and all that shit.

I will say, the way that I’ve always seen movies—it sounds kind of pretentious—I see movies first. And so, when I write a movie I have production in mind and I see images first. So, actually, I think it’s hard to be a DP and a director, but for me it’s easier to add on writer, ‘cause when I’m writing, I’m blocking, I’m pre-visualizing, I knew where we were gonna shoot. When I was writing the script, I had Macon’s father email me the overhead schematic of the property that his family owned for decades. I knew where the farm was gonna be, I knew where the home invasion sequence was gonna take place, I knew every inch of them, so I was blocking and shooting in my head, having the locations in my back pocket, and that helped keep me really disciplined as far as schedule. I was asking for a ton—249 scenes in I think almost 80 locations total…

H2N: Whoa…

JS: We had so many 1/8th page scenes with no words. So there were crazy company moves. But having that cinematographer’s experience, I boiled the script down to scene headings, just so my AD could break it down practically. Every time the camera moved from interior to exterior, or went from a car mount to the street, it was a new scene heading. So at least when we made this film, the script being translated to the screen was not a shock. There were no surprises.

H2N: Alex Orr was your AD, right? Did your being so prepared location-wise in the writing actually prevent lots of scheduling issues when it came time to shoot the movie?

JS: Of course, a few key locations we were scrambling for during production. All the big scenes—big dialogue, big action—was on that home turf. Alex Orr was both our UPM and our 1st AD. That was crazy because it’s harder to be that than director/DP. Alex is a good buddy—we met on the festival circuit in 2007—and he agreed to be bad cop for us. It was sort of his job to keep shit in order and crack the whip. On Blue Ruin, we were always so close to collapse, ‘cause if we’d had one rain day that would have affected the entire production. But what’s cool was that Alex was rescheduling the movie every night on his laptop. Actors would have to shift a day and that would shift the entire schedule. Or we were scheduling around Macon’s beard, which was growing for 10 months at that point ‘cause of continuity and all that jazz. Flying the make-up artist up from and back to Atlanta. So it was a super-complicated shoot. I was just kinda marveling at what was going on behind the scenes, but luckily we had Alex Orr, we had Richard Peete, Tyler Byrne, and they were so kind about keeping me in the dark. I did storyboard the first two reels of the movie extensively, but then the reality of production and casting and Kickstarter videos… I stopped storyboarding at a certain point. But I had a good head start to shake the rust off—it had been five years since I’d directed a narrative that I cared about, so I was terrified going into it, but because of the beard continuity, I was able to shoot in chronological order and get my bearings and get up to speed as the crew was gelling; we started real small in Delaware with 10 people and then built up to a full crew.

H2N: Okay, so we met up in January of last year and were both seemingly on the same “let’s not rush our movies plan.” You actually seemed to have it figured out better than I did with regard to scheduling your tasks in a way that would be very fiscally responsible, i.e., working with people and post-houses that wouldn’t be overwhelmed or burdened with the typical fest crunches—basically, working around fest crunches. So, I go back to Austin, and we don’t talk for a few months, and then the Director’s Fortnight announcement drops and… so much for that! [JS laughs] I guess my specific question about that is if you submitted a picture-locked, or super-close-to-picture-locked, version to them?

JS: No. When we were first turned down from Sundance in 2013, it was a big lesson in trying to edit for a festival deadline and not for the film itself. We wrapped production on October 15th and submitted a cut like a month later, and we were very encouraged by their reaction, but basically, when I talked to you, I had finally wrapped production. We had shot an outstanding scene at a hospital that we could just not afford to shoot during production. And the strategy was, we had submitted to a few other festivals, but we pulled the two-hour assembly we had initially submitted and said, “What are we doing?” We thought this film captured something new and we had a lot of confidence in what it could be, but showing it so poorly realized was doing us and the film itself a disservice. It seems like bullshit, we did submit to Cannes, but I promise it was just to make that deadline, because the strategy was to submit to Sundance next year, to stop submitting, take our time, finish this film for cheap over a protracted schedule. We had Gene Park lined up for sound over a 12-week schedule, we had different people ready to [work] in between paying jobs. So it was like, “Let’s use Cannes’ deadline, see what they say,” but when we submitted it, it was a first cut of the second attempt to take the Sundance submission to a truer version of the film, a more merciful cut than we submitted to Sundance. And then we were surprised to be accepted, which was after a hilarious exchange between us and Fortnight, where we reached out to them for a notification date, and after three back-and-forths, where they wouldn’t tell us a date of notification but they kept giving us cryptic encouraging emails about Blue Ruin, they just got fed up with us and gave us an acceptance letter. So we had to go from first cut to premiere status in I believe it was four-and-a-half weeks.

H2N: Holy moly! But wait, to clarify: there’s Sundance cut, and then there’s movie you show in Cannes. Would you say what you submitted to Fortnight was a version in between the two?

JS: The two-hour assembly we sent to Sundance we had submitted elsewhere but we pulled all those DVDs—we told Janet Pierson [SXSW] to just crack hers in half. We didn’t want anyone judging the film so terribly realized. So we used Cannes as a deadline and got editor Julia Bloch back on for a four-week push, and the goal was that we’d do that four-week push and submit whatever we had at the end of that to Fortnight. So Fortnight got a 93-minute cut of the film, and it was in much better shape. Having that time and distance between Sundance and Fortnight, we became brutal. We chopped 17 minutes out of the cut in two days, I think. We felt much less precious about it. [We were more] content driven and not deadline driven. So the Fortnight deadline was just an arbitrary mark, and then we would do that and go back to our day jobs and push for a fall 2013 finish and submit to Sundance for the following year. So Fortnight got the actual first cut.

H2N: The first presentable cut.

JS: Yeah. The funny thing is, Sundance—Trevor [Groth] and Charlie [Reff]—had actually followed up, and I was submitting to Fortnight, but I didn’t even think it would be in the realm of possibility, so I promised Sundance—because they were our number one goal—the very first picture-locked version of Blue Ruin. And I had to email them like a douche after Fortnight accepted the first cut. [H2N laughs] No one actually saw the picture-locked version of the film until the premiere—including myself—I didn’t see the picture-locked version of Blue Ruin until I was in Cannes sitting in the Fortnight theater. Isn’t that crazy?

H2N: Yes, that is totally crazy. Right now we’re talking, and it’s not a year to the day from that premiere, but it’s pretty damn close, right?

JS: Actually, it’s a year to the day since the announcement that we were in Fortnight, and last night was the [NYC] premiere, so last night was a huge mile marker. It finally felt full circle, ‘cause we were shocked by being accepted into Fortnight, so we’ve been playing catch-up for a year doing so many festivals. We scheduled like four or five cast-and-crew screenings and canceled them all [because we] accepted every invitation to every film festival, so it was amazing to finally show the crew the fruits of their labor last night, and it was a real emotional night for everybody. The journey was over and now we can be promoters and try and sell box office.

H2N: And how do you feel? Are you optimistic? Or just relieved? Or nervous?

JS: I’m truly excited because I’ve been trying to do the math, I’ve been tracking other indie movies, and this film could go either way. It could just drop off the face of the earth in a week, or if it gets legs it could go for a few months. Who knows? All I can say is that there are zero regrets looking back, because the amount of press we’ve gotten, the generally warm reviews, and the push from Radius is kind of amazing. Because when we sat down and sold this movie two hours after the premiere, I was gonna stick to my guns and drive a hard bargain and insist that I would not sell it for less than five screens. And we’re gonna be on up to 100 screens. So for me, we’ve been given an amazing opportunity and an absolute fairytale festival run, and everything’s lining up so if the film tanks, it’s on its own merits. [H2N laughs] I’m going to every fucking Q&A they can book for me. I’m gonna hit the road and pimp the film to the best of my abilities. I can’t tell where it’s gonna go, but if it goes south, I can’t blame anybody for it… except Macon Blair. [both laugh]

H2N: Perfect ending!

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