“Let’s not talk about Trump, everybody,” director Jeremy Saulnier says upon entering the room. “Star Trek and Trump – we know what’s coming.” The director of Green Room’s distaste for discussing Trump or Trek should be quite understandable. His new film deals with a punk rock band being cornered and terrorized by a gang of neo-Nazis. The racial animosity of Green Room’s villains will bring out multiple comparisons to Trump, and the violence employed by his supporters at his rallies. The leader of the neo-Nazi gang in Green Room is played by Patrick Stewart, of course, most famous from his role as Captain Jean-Luc Picard, and the leader of the punk band is played by Anton Yelchin, who is Chekov in the updated version of Star Trek. With those two rules quickly established, Jeremy Saulnier and Anton Yelchin would be ready to discuss the heart-pounding intensity of Green Room, one of the best films of 2016.
For many, Patrick Stewart playing a villain is a great departure for the actor. “It’s actually not,” Saulnier was quick to say. “He has a decades-long career on the stage. We’re all aware of the franchises he’s associated with in the marketplace. It’s my job as a new filmmaker – I’ve been making movies since I was eight, but having access to that level of talent…”
Before the director can finish his statement, his actor interjects. “Patrick Stewart wasn’t in your movies when you were eight?” Anton Yelchin sarcastically asked.
“No. He may have been an action figure. But not the real deal,” Saulnier replied.
“I don’t have reverence for studio franchises,” he continued. “I don’t have reverence for perceived market value or foreign sales assessments, and I think I used my ignorance as a tool because I just want dedicated actors. I just want people who have a certain amount of craft that can help me tell very grounded stories. So we had to completely ignore – his stature is, of course, deserved as a craftsman. But as far as all his other affiliations, you know this movie about shedding affiliation and becoming who you are, and Patrick just wanted to try something new and was shaking things up. I benefited from that timing, where he was handed Green Room at the moment when he wanted to try something new, and a bit nefarious. I think he was attracted to playing the villain, and not to just be the sadistic evil villain, be someone with a brutal pragmatism that could still be a very subtle performance but carries so much weight.”
As to what brought Anton Yelchin into the Jeremy Saulnier’s nightmarish world, “I saw Blue Ruin and thought there was this kind of beautiful melancholy quality to it.”
“We tend to build these systems out of logic and order or structured space to assuage how terrified that we are going to come out on the other end and it is going to be absurd. And I found that really moving. And then I read the script, and it was a punk rock film in a very earnest way. Like you could tell whoever wrote it loved this and experienced this, and then I came to know that Jeremy indeed had,” the actor elaborated. “There’s still that melancholy undertone of people, for no good reason, falling into deep shit and trying to figure their way out of it only to realize that it was just deep shit.”
“I definitely referenced war movies and more grounded films, because this is a film about tactics. And it’s ultimately a siege thriller, not necessarily a slasher film,” Saulnier explained of the influences he incorporated into Green Room. “The way I treated the interactions and the violence itself was war. I was referencing Platoon, Apocalypse Now, and River’s Edge was just atmospherically a perfect film for me. It actually is a Pacific Northwest movie, it involves some metal heads but it’s not about metal. It’s a beautiful noir tale about a murder and friends banding together to try and cover this up or do the right thing and call the cops. So it’s more atmospheric, and that’s what I really – when I was giving marching orders to the cast and crew it was keeping it grounded, we’re making a war film, not a horror movie.”
The intensity of the story led to an exhaustive set for some of the performers. “It was a total shit show. That’s how I felt,” Yelchin said of capturing the film’s unrelenting tension.
“And this film takes place over 16 hours, but over the course of 16 hours so many changes are occurring that the characters take for granted that the actors can’t,” the actor continued. “So a lot of it was mapping out, but a lot of it too was watching everyone else work, because I’ve quite been with a cast that is under so much emotional duress in such a confined space for so many days. You end up inevitably feeding off that, whether you want to or not and that ends up informing your performance.”
“It was exhausting,” Saulnier recalled. “I remember some crew members weeping after some days.”
However, all the duress can be seen on the screen. “It’s an exercise in downscaling,” the young director said. “I think by steering clear of spectacle, and artificiality, and pyrotechnics, if you make it intimate and relatable, the tension you’ll experience in Green Room, I think I can say, is ten times what you’ll experience in any of these big studio franchise movies. Because you will not only experience real peril, but you will also experience the elation of survival. Not to talk shit about Star Trek, which is coming out in July!”
More than any other film of recent memory, Green Room really captures the essence of punk rock, from the dingy shows the band The Ain’t Rights play to the authoritarian streak that has festered itself within the subculture since the beginning. “They’re based on real people that I know,” Saulnier said of his characters. “So there’s not a lot of that typical band conflict, because there’s no record deals here. This is not like fighting over million dollar contracts. These are people who are in it for the common experience. The shows themselves are kind of pathetic, but they’re so beautiful because these people are performing to a crowd of eleven.”
“It’s really not that much of a challenge to vilify Nazis,” Saulnier explained. “It is a challenge to humanize them, and to show them as victims too. What I know of that culture, because back in the 1990s, there were skinheads at every show, many of them were Nazis. Which was odd, a kid from Virginia going across the bridge in broad daylight, people wearing combat boots and swastikas. What was so repulsive about it was also so beautiful, because they were there with the Hare Krishnas, and the vegan kids, and the tough guys from New York and Boston. What an insanely diverse crowd. And there was violence.”
Saulnier continued. “So my whole thing with the characters is treat everyone with respect and reverence, so when lives are lost, brutal as it might be, I want everyone to feel the impact and know that these underlings, these Nazi skinhead soldiers – the whole thing is that if anyone there could erase the night, they would. They don’t really want to be there, but they’re forced to. That’s the dynamic I was exploring, the complexity of hierarchy and power structure.”
When I asked Saulnier about the idea behind the punk characters actually fighting with an authoritarian right, as opposed to just fighting through their music, the director was quick with a sarcastic quip. “Technically they’re ultra-left. They’re White National Socialists, okay?” he said mocking a typical talking point about the semantics behind the Nazi Party’s name.
“The whole point is about ideology not actually mattering,” Saulnier said in seriousness, shedding the quick sarcasm that preceded it. “This is actually about soldiers and preserving enterprise. That was the key. It was like, whatever the marching orders are ‘Fuck the system,’ or ‘Let’s fight over ideology,’ what they’re really fighting for is something they have no clue about, which is somebody else’s enterprise. That is very relevant to today’s culture, and one of the few intentional political undertones of the movie was about hierarchy, and power structure, and who is giving marching orders and for what reason, and who is fighting, and who is getting hurt, and maybe it’s for reason that don’t actually benefit them.”
“The punk rock style and that mentality is there, but it’s also about breaking it down and shedding that punk rock mentality and becoming a human survival story. Because maybe your favorite band doesn’t really define who you are,” Saulnier concluded. And his point really hits home to me, as he echoes a slight variation of a sentiment I’ve recently expressed.
Even if their favorite bands don’t define who they are, Jeremey Saulnier and Anton Yelchin were happy to explain their favorite punk bands. “I’m a huge fan of Minor Threat, Black Flag, Bad Brains,” the director said. “I wore this shirt today, Gut Instinct, because they’re a lesser known Baltimore hardcore band. I fell in love with them.”
“I think my two favorites are the Misfits and Bad Brains,” Yelchin added. “I think the Misfits – they have an EP, when they were thrown in jail in London, there’s three songs on it, one of them is “London Dungeon.” I think Glenn Danzig is amazing. Samhain is amazing. He’s just pretty great.”
“My junior high school film, Zombietown USA – Misfits all over it. “Ghoul’s Night Out,” Saulnier said to Yelchin.
“I listen to Bad Brains’ first record every day to work,” Yelchin continued. “I don’t know why. It had nothing to do with the mood as much as the ferocity. It’s so ferocious. Bad Brains are like from a different planet, descended here to play this crazy music.”
“Fuck that, they’re from DC,” Saulnier added, representing his hometown.
“Which to me is a different planet,” Yelchin quipped. “I grew up in the Valley.”