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The Director Who Obsessively Explores Evil in Hopes of Understanding It

Jeremy Saulnier discusses his disturbing new Netflix thriller ‘Hold the Dark,’ why he loves making genre films and how he feels about ‘Green Room’ in the wake of the alt-right movement

Darkness envelops Jeremy Saulnier’s movies. Whether it’s his 2014 breakthrough Blue Ruin or his punk-rock follow-up Green Room, evil is never far off — neither is violence, which the director wields with a considered thoughtfulness. In Blue Ruin, which told of a drifter’s quest to get revenge on the man who murdered his parents, setting in motion a bloody feud between two families, death has a weight to it, and those who kill often execute their bloody deeds in clumsy, very human ways. Green Room found a struggling young punk band accepting a nightmare gig somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, only to face down a group of vicious skinheads who want them dead. Saulnier’s films have a love for midnight-movie carnage — they exude a down-and-dirty genre thrill — but they’re also thematically rich, using pulp pleasures to explore violence and lawlessness.

His latest is just as menacing, but it’s also his strangest — which is very much the point. Based on the William Giraldi novel (and adapted by his longtime friend, actor and filmmaker Macon Blair), Hold the Dark plots a course into the mythic, following a retired naturalist (Jeffrey Wright) as he journeys to the middle of nowhere in Alaska, where a distraught mother (Riley Keough) believes that wolves have stolen away her son. The more he investigates the child’s disappearance, though, the more aware he is that something wicked is afoot, locating something almost primal within this desolate community and its unforgiving landscape.

Unlike Saulnier’s two previous, acclaimed films, Hold the Dark (which comes to Netflix on Friday) has met with mixed reviews, some critics willing to get on this atmospheric thriller’s surreal wavelength, but others dismissing its trippy weirdness. I found it deeply engrossing, and consider it a compelling step forward for a director who keeps pushing the boundaries of genre filmmaking, marrying serious intent to B-movie instincts.

But for Saulnier, Hold the Dark was also therapeutic, a way to process (as he puts it) “so much awfulness” in the world. I recently spoke to the 42-year-old filmmaker about this version of self-care as well as how Green Room’s portrait of America’s burgeoning alt-right movement is even more relevant today than when he made the movie. But mostly, he discussed topics he cares deeply about: genre filmmaking, depicting violence properly onscreen and the importance of making snow angels along the way in order to stay sane.

Once again with Hold the Dark, it seems like you’re fascinated with this notion that evil is everywhere — that we can’t escape it.
For me, Hold the Dark is really open to interpretation. Some people might take away a nihilistic [perspective]: Yes, evil is pervasive, and it does permeate the world and all the people in it. But [the movie] is also about how do we define evil? Is it really “evil,” or is it animal? Is it instinctual and inherent to any sort of creature on the Earth? How do we define it, and how do we get close to it enough to accept it?

For me, the material was somewhat redemptive in that there’s so much awfulness today outside of filmmaking, outside of the narrative world. It’s hard to cope, but Hold the Dark, as a work of fiction, helped me cope and made me see people as animals. I found forgiveness in our actions because maybe all the intellectual power we use to define actions are all just contrivances. [Maybe] the reality is: Don’t ask those questions. Don’t try to analyze and use your intellect to make sense of everything. If you can get close to [evil] and know it, that’s all we can ask. You can accept it as part of our nature and then move on.

Your movies work as genre pieces, which sometimes don’t get the respect that more “serious” films do. And yet, you have these serious themes in your films. How do you reconcile that?
I definitely veer toward genre filmmaking — the categorization of [my] movies, I leave that to others. I always end up with some odd hybrid of different genres, which I think is exciting and not contrived — I just end up there. But I love genre cinema — I like high-stakes cinema. I like putting people in peril — it’s a heightened experience. It’s just my preference as far as an audience member, not just as a director.

With high stakes often comes violence, and I approach it in a very human way. If the violence doesn’t serve a certain purpose, it shouldn’t be in the movie. For violence to have an effect, it’s got to be really focused on character and grounded in human performances.

But I don’t mind people defining my movies as one genre or another. Is Green Room officially a “horror movie”? Those are fun discussions, but I stay out of them because, for me, there’s so much depth to the movies I make because I’m doing them — it’s two years of my life. I know the nuance of the characters and all these intentions that might or might not be available to the audience. I’m happy to have a much deeper experience of my films than other people might.

We just premiered [Hold the Dark] at Fantastic Fest, and when the audience cheers [at the end], it’s almost shocking because you don’t trust that people are gonna get what your intentions are — or see the layers that you left uncovered that are deep currents within this film but are intuitive, emotional and hard to define. But when people latch onto that and get it completely, wow, it’s gratifying to see people understand this movie. It’s very enigmatic, and I love that our trust in the audience paid off.

When I tweeted my review of Hold the Dark, your composers responded that the film is “definitely not for everyone.” The response has been more divisive on Hold the Dark than your previous work: Do you feel like you made a movie that’s not for everyone?
I guess it does target an audience. My goal is to fill a certain void in the marketplace — and I don’t mean “marketplace” in like a [commercial] respect. I mean marketplace as far as the landscape of filmmaking. As an audience member, I seek certain types of movies. I try to have an intuitive approach to filmmaking, but I found out when I did Blue Ruin that it was a very specific film, and I found a certain audience there — it was, again, a lesson in trusting the audience. It was troubling material, it takes its time and it leaves a lot for the audience to connect [on their own] — but they did, and I love that.

I love having the audience have to lean into a story and bring something to the experience. It makes it more intense for them. It’s more interactive for them, and it pays off because, sometimes, people will [ask me], “I was wondering, were you saying this [in the movie]?” And oftentimes, they’re 100 percent right.

A lot of studios in their approach to filmmaking, you have to spell things out — you have to hit certain points and check certain boxes. But to me, that becomes boring. Hold the Dark might not be for everybody, but it’s certainly for me and for likeminded audience members and filmgoers.

But I can’t think too much about that. I tend to overthink and try to please. But when something hits you on a much deeper level, that intuitive instinct kicks in, and you know you have the right material. I’ll read a very well-written script, but I’ll feel like there’s probably eight or nine directors that I know that could nail this — it’s not specific to me. But this novel and this screenplay, I felt like if someone else got to do it, I’d be very jealous. I wanted to be the one who could translate it and be the caretaker of the story.

You’ve often shown the pain and tragedy of violence, and that’s especially true in the new film, which features a long, incredible shootout. How do you walk the line between “I want this sequence to be really amazing” and “I need this to have weight and stakes to it”?
You compare body counts from film to film, and generally [mine] don’t have that high a body count. But the impact from each death, it has to be shocking and really disturbing, and it has to mean something. [I have] a certain general reverence for life, and so, when people die in my movies, I want that reverence to translate in that you feel the loss.

In that protracted shootout, the point in the novel was that it just won’t end — it’s an act of endurance and survival on the part of the audience as well as the characters. It’s certainly exciting to be filming this stuff — it’s mostly all practical effects and choreography and aggressive behind-the-scenes filmmaking — but the violence in my movies can have higher impact because I really care about the characters. I don’t want them to go. I don’t want to just do a kick-ass piece of choreography and dispatch characters like they don’t mean anything. I make it awkward and brutal, and hopefully when the audience gets through it, they’ll feel like they survived something themselves.

Thinking back to Green Room, your film ended up being this surprisingly prescient examination of America’s rising alt-right movement. Everything that’s happened since the film, what do you make of this world you sorta stumbled into?
It’s bizarre as a filmmaker. I was researching Green Room in mostly 2013 and 2014, but back then, I was referring to my personal experience in the punk rock, hardcore scene in Washington, D.C. Sometimes, you’d be shoulder-to-shoulder at certain shows with Nazi skinheads. They weren’t welcome, but they were present, and it was odd for me to see kids wearing boots and swastikas in the streets of Washington, D.C. Surreal.

I thought maybe my approach to Green Room might be a bit dated — you know, punks-versus-skins is very 1980s and 1990s. But as I did my research, it became much more plausible — I was uncovering things in the alt-right movement before it was called the alt-right movement. The white-power groups and the white nationalists had been driven to the internet, where they were regrouping.

To see all the talking points — white victimhood and these false narratives for people to latch onto who want a movement — pop up in our mainstream national politics two years later is really disturbing, and a tragic result of so many different forces colliding. It makes Green Room so much more relevant. The punks and skinheads in Green Room are just the left and the right. I wish it wasn’t so relevant, but it gets more relevant every day. Maybe that’s why I went to the Alaskan outback [for Hold the Dark] — it’s something beyond these contrivances and rules of politics and governance. It’s just the elements and these animalistic qualities. Finding forgiveness there was easier for me than to just stick around. [Laughs]

Hold the Dark feels like it’s not really of this world — it sorta slips the bounds of everyday life. Was it a way to talk about our current reality in a more metaphorical kind of way?
That’s a pretty good summation. It’s also a way to distill [evil] into an unknowable thing. It’s exciting to observe and to not intervene — not be trying to wrap everything up in a bow — and to be engaged but not get all the answers. It’s beyond politics — it’s almost the laws of man. The [story’s] atmosphere, it has mystical qualities to it — it did seem like it was hovering a little bit above the Earth. I called my work in the past “hyper-terrestrial” because it was grounded — realism is so important to me. This floated a few feet above Earth, and I thought it was exciting for me to tackle that. It was a bit surreal. It was something I needed to do. It was very cathartic.

The movie’s so entranced by the natural world. Are you an outdoorsy guy?
Not really. I mean, I was a suburban kid. It was great to grow up in Virginia and run around, make movies, but I was outdoors. I was more of a skateboarder at a very young age, running around town by myself. Things that kids don’t get to do these days, I was doing them and getting in trouble. I was having adventures at summer camp.

I wasn���t really an outdoors person as far as, like, fishing, and I never hunted really. But I had BB gun wars in the nearby park with my friends in winter jackets and ski goggles. That, of course, wouldn’t fly today. [Laughs] I loved skateboarding. I loved the speed, the independence, just carving through air and doing tricks and hanging out with a little clan of friends and listening to music. It was good times.

But I’ve always been connected to aggressive physical things. That was part of my connection to the hardcore scene and punk rock and being in bands. I didn’t like sports too much, but I found a way for my body to be aggressive but do no harm.

I was curious because people often get away to nature to reenergize themselves. It seems like Hold the Dark did that for you.
It was certainly a gift, an absolutely challenging film to undertake. I wouldn’t describe myself as neurotic, but I internalize a lot of stress. I still don’t believe that I’m having the opportunities that I have — I’m shocked that we actually broke through and fulfilled our dreams from childhood.

But I don’t often enjoy the [filmmaking] process. I’m very particular, and I’m very technically oriented. I think the stakes are so high for every frame of film I roll, for every performance that I’m helping shape. But with Hold the Dark, I did find myself [thinking], I’m here in this amazing landscape in Alberta with majestic snow-capped mountains. And so one day, I just fell back in the snow during the location scout. There was this logistical problem that we were trying to deal with, and I was getting frustrated. [But then I thought], Wait a second, here I am making this amazing, very unique film. Let me just go make a snow angel and look up at the mountains and breathe the fresh air and shut up and be thankful.