Jeremy Saulnier And Anton Yelchin On The Punk Rock Roots Of ‘Green Room’

After Blue Ruin spent the better part of 2013 and 2014 playing the festival circuit, building up buzz and a handful of awards along the way (it’s currently at 96% recommended on RottenTomatoes), writer/director Jeremy Saulnier made a decision that could turn out to be the best of his career. He struck while his name was hot, moving fast to revisit an old idea he’d written about a punk band that gets trapped in a club’s green room at a remote show for some neo-Nazis.

Less than a year since he was at the Independent Spirit Awards for Blue Ruin (where it was nominated for a John Cassavetes Award, a prize awarded to productions working with a $500,000 budget or less), Saulnier was already back on the festival circuit with Green Room. (Here’s our review from Toronto.) A24 is giving it a platform release, starting in New York and L.A. this Friday. One of the major differences this time around — aside from studio backing, being a known property, basically everything — is that Saulnier was working with known actors. Patrick Stewart came aboard after joining the same management company as Saulnier. An assistant got Stewart the Green Room script and, so the story goes, it so unnerved him that he went around his house turning on the perimeter lights the night he read it. (It sounds like the kind of classic bullshit Hollywood anecdote that someone in promo invents for press tours, but who knows, maybe it’s true?) Either way, Stewart’s Darcy, a calculating and orderly skinhead leader, is a singular character.

In addition to Stewart, Saulnier had Alia Shawkat (forever blessed/cursed to be known as Maeby Fünke from Arrested Development) this go round and Anton Yelchin, sandwiched between his roles in minor movies like Terminator Salvation and Star Trek Beyond. Also returning was Saulnier’s long-time friend, collaborator, and Blue Ruin star, Macon Blair, playing Gabe, a sort of good German-type skinhead functionary. It’s logical to assume that Saulnier had written a nice role for his friend, but apparently it didn’t happen that way.

“I’m against nepotism,” Saulnier says, explaining that he thought Blair was too closely associated with Blue Ruin and didn’t want the baggage for Green Room. Instead, in a Tori Spelling-esque move, Blair put together his own audition tape, which eventually won over both Saulnier and casting director Avy Kaufman. For this, Blair went all out, shaving his head and covering himself in Nazi-themed temporary tattoos — custom-made by a guy who needed to know what they were for before he’d even make them.

“I said ‘It’s for a movie,'” Blair says. “And they were like, ‘Can you send us some documentation?’ and I had to send them a Variety article about ‘Jeremy Saulnier to make punks vs. Nazis movie!’ before they agreed to do it.”

For this press tour, though (A24 is taking the film from city to city, like a rock band), Saulnier was joined by his Green Room star, Yelchin. The two have an interesting dynamic: the younger Yelchin already the old pro, who slips easily into “press tour mode,” willing to intellectualize virtually any aspect of the script or his character, often provoking ball-busting smirks from Saulnier, who’s still a little loathe to wax philosophic, a quality that comes through in his notably non-introspective movies. That could change soon, though, the more of these press tours he endures. Could this be the last candid interview Jeremy Saulnier ever does? I’m willing to say so if it makes this piece seem more important.

The movie, it’s a lot about tone and it’s got this visceral quality to it. I was wondering — question for you, Anton — what did that look like on paper? What were you thinking when you read it?

Anton Yelchin: Actually, what’s interesting is on paper, it’s a very materialist screenplay. It’s very, very detailed. I find that really interesting about Jeremy’s films. They’re very grounded and very particular to the material aspect of the characters’ existence. In Blue Ruin, it’s the layout of his car. I remember watching that introduction in the car, you see how meticulously that’s laid out. You know that was all laid out on paper. I assume so. Then in this film it was things that you don’t even realize on first read. The moment where you see the charger plugged in, that one little shot. In the screenplay it’s like “they plugged the charger in” or “the hair clippers are already on the counter.” Things like that.

Jeremy Saulnier: When I write scripts, they’re very tactile. I adhere to the old “if you can’t hear it or see it, don’t write it.” I’m also from the crew side, so all these details are for prop departments. Every prop is in all caps. I’m the kind of guy where I’ve been on set. I’ve been a cinematographer, so when I switch from a certain angle or if I know we’re going to do a car mount, it’s a new scene. It can be broken down for all the department heads to really know it’s all there and you can all break it down and be prepared to shoot it.

That seems like it works great if you’re writing for yourself. If you were writing a script that somebody else was going to direct, you think they would try to talk you out of putting in all that direction in there?

Saulnier: Well, for this film it’s impossible, because it is so tactile. We are interfacing with all these props and all these details. Also, I probably won’t write a film ever for anybody else, so who gives a shit?

[To Yelchin] Did Jeremy give you any research for this film?

Yelchin: Yeah, actually, there was a lot of… He basically sent an email to The Ain’t Rights [the fictional band in the film] with the punk, sort of, what we needed to know. Suburbia was on there … What’s the one where Social D[istortion] and all those kids hop in the car and they go–

Saulnier: It’s a whole bunch of links, me and Macon put that together. That was during pre-production and–

Yelchin: –I forget what that one’s called. It’s this awesome documentary, all these hardcore kids go out on a bus, then the bus is breaking down, and Mike Ness is so fucked up and he’s writing that song and it’s great. [I’m guessing this is Punk’s Not Dead –ed. Update: Nope, it’s Another State of Mind, thanks commenters, that didn’t take long.]. Some of it I’d already seen because I really love punk music. Decline of Western Civilization, I was familiar with that, and I think Repo Man was on there. There was stuff I added on there just for me because I knew that I loved it. There was like a breakdown of songs to familiarize ourselves with and things like that. Which was a joy for me because I love all that shit. I just hadn’t listened to it in awhile. I plugged in my drive with all my music and I went through it. I was like, “Oh, my God, I have so much awesome punk stuff that I haven’t listened to in a long time.” That was really nice, digging out old CDs. That was a blast. There was a lot of material.

Does going through all that ’80s and ’90s punk stuff, does that help you make a contemporary movie? Are the characters meant to be living in a bit of a bubble in that sense?

Saulnier: Yeah, because my references were all ’90s, when I was in the punk scene, the hardcore scene. I just had to account for that, meaning [the band in the film] were holding on to the old days. They’re not on social media. They kind of refuse to acclimate to the cloud. That became a theme in the movie. When I was doing research, I was like, “Where did this vibrant scene need to go?” I’m a family man now, living in Brooklyn, doing bullshit like buying pastries for little kids. I went to a couple metal shows for research, because my buddies from my high school days, the bands I was with, they still play in metal bands. I’d go to Brooklyn shows, just kind of listen and write down some dialogue and some detail.

But the hardcore scene as I knew it had kind of vanished. It was so vibrant to watch it in D.C. The Ain’t Rights are kind of scavenging throughout the Pacific Northwest trying to find the true school scene. They find Tad and he’s one of the last remaining guys. He actually has ‘zines and does his little posters and shit.

So I had to account for that, in that it wasn’t what it used to be, and this band refused to acclimate and refused to go virtual and digital.

Yelchin: One thing I’d add, I went to a friend’s house recently and people were just hanging out and this girl that I knew from back in the day plugged in her iPhone and started playing Liar and The Misfits and she played The Damned. This is not a girl in a punk scene. I think, in a weird way, all of that kind of more palatable punk has actually through osmosis become sort of what people like to listen to, like the cool shit to listen to.

I love The Misfits. The Misfits are always going to be fucking awesome. That being said, I think the… I remember going to an actual punk show and there were bands from the Inland Empire that played crust punk and girls like that, they weren’t at that show. Do you know what I mean? But if you want go see The Damned, The Damned are playing Coachella now.

With kids that grew up with iPods and stuff, do you think that music is less of an identity for them and more just something that you can mix-and-match?

Yelchin: Well, I think that identity in and of itself is more readily available. You don’t have to fight for any kind of identity because the status quo is open to anything as long as you buy it. You go to Urban Outfitters, which is sort of the end of anything transgressive, and everything that was once transgressive…

Sitting in this city [San Francisco], all of ’68 is on perfect, beautiful, 180 gram vinyl at Urban Outfitters. I think that’s the world we live in. Whereas when I think of punks and when I think of punk culture, it was always people that weren’t the status quo and were in either Reagan’s America or Thatcher’s England or even in New York in the ’70s that weren’t into disco who were doing their thing in very limited numbers.

Now you have models wearing Clash t-shirts. But before The Clash became a stadium act, it was really… I mean, this is all in hindsight for me, but in the research that I’ve done, it was a sort of oasis for people that weren’t into whatever the status quo was, and now the status quo is that. It really is. They’re not that esoteric at all at this point.

Saulnier: That’s one thing you see in Pat’s character who’s talking about it on screen, is that it’s the texture, meaning it’s physical. You have to be there. The scene isn’t… I’m not declaring it dead, it’s just scattered. You had to show up.

When I was a kid, I was a skate punk. I was a skateboarder that listened to punk because that’s what you did when you’re a skateboarder. You’re introduced and you have to go hunt down records and buy them blind, ask my mom to drive me to the record shop. You had to go and get fliers and show up at the show and hear these bands that do not have big record deals.

The whole point is, it is a physical thing, it’s not just the music. For Christ’s sake, if you bring home a lot of the music I listened to in the ’90s, I would never listen to it again–

Basically every album I was inspired to buy at a punk show sounds like shit.

Saulnier: I mean, are you fucking kidding me? But that’s what Green Room‘s supposed to be, too. It’s a physical thing. It’s a film you can’t exploit and repackage in an 8-episode limited series. It’s an insane, 16-hour onslaught. Shows are like that, too. You’ve got to show the fuck up.

I’ve experienced your movies in the festival context now, and I think of them as sort of punk in the context of festival movies. They’re not really meditative, they’re not super introspective. Are you thinking about context at all when you’re making them, about the context of where they’re going to play?

Saulnier: Not so much, because I never thought that we’d hit Director’s Fortnight [at Cannes] twice in a row. I do think the films are the films and they’re what I want to make and they stand on their own. But, it’s awesome to see them play at these huge international film festivals and I do see them as counter-programming. I was surprised actually at the reception. I thought they’d be a little more divisive.

I went to Cannes for Green Room but what happened was there is so much dramatic weight, and at Sundance there’s so many of these devastating documentaries and Green Room was a good, old-fashioned escapist punk rock thriller, and people love it. We get tired of being intellectual, it’s exhausting. This movie is exhausting in its own right, but it’s physical and it’s involuntary. That’s what’s so fun about it is people just have a blast.

As far as counter-programming, I wouldn’t call it sleazing it up a little bit, but I would say it’s giving your brain a little rest, infusing it with some rock-and-roll. I think people respond to that. The funny thing is after… Not just festivals, we’re doing these previews, we just did Boston and Chicago and Seattle… and the people who come up to me after the screenings are not who you’d pick out of a crowd like, “That’s a Green Room fan.” And they often say, “This isn’t my type of movie, but I really liked it.” Like the guilty pleasures, bring it on.

I think you give a lot of people that are in the film festival audience the freedom to like that kind of movie that they might not otherwise. Like, “Oh, that is actually what I like.”

Saulnier: As long as it’s at this prestigious platform, if the tastemakers say it’s okay.

[To Yelchin] Did you see it for the first time in front of an audience or did you get to see it before that?

Yelchin: I did, but I actually saw it for the first time in Cannes, which was cool because people were super down with it. I was kind of tripping out when I saw it too, so it was great.

Do you see anything that you did in this movie that was a departure for you as an actor?

Yelchin: Yeah, I try to do things differently all the time. I think that what I’m happy with is by the time the movie closes, I don’t want to say what happens at the end, but Imogen [Poots] and I and everyone degenerates in this way. I think for me, a departure? I don’t know. I just try to create different characters.

If I think about what I’ve done in the last year, the three movies I’ve done were Green Room, then I did this film with my friend Gabe [Klinger], this experimental film [Porto], and then played Chekhov [in Star Trek]. None of those characters are similar in any way. I’m proud of that.

I think it’s challenging sometimes for an audience to see that, because movies come out in this wildly erratic fashion. People that make films, they know, “Oh, well, my movie might come out in five years. It might get shelved.” You don’t know. But audiences take things as they come, so, “Oh, the thing that you did five years ago, that’s the last thing you did, right?” And you’re like, “Well, I was in a different place actually when I did that.”

So, yeah. I don’t really think of things as truly departures, I just try to find new things creatively that I can do.

Saulnier: This is pretty aggro for you, man.

Yelchin: What? Accurate?

Saulnier: Aggro.

Yelchin: Oh, aggro. I don’t know, dude, I’m pretty aggro, I played Kyle Reese, you know, shot some shotguns.

Saulnier: Oh, that’s right, that’s right.

Yelchin: My action past. I know you don’t see it now, but–

[Seeing the publicist waving a finger] We’re wrapping it up? Okay, got it.

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.