As arguably few surprises resulted from last week’s Cannes lineup, last year’s inclusion of “Blue Ruin” came as an utter shock to its DP-turned-director, Jeremy Saulnier. “I was on the way to a corporate video shoot in Cleveland, and had sort of accepted that this movie wasn't going to break through and I'm going to go back to my day job,” he said when we sat down with him recently in Los Angeles. Passed over by Sundance and on uncertain terms with the Cannes jury, the film persisted, making it into Directors' Fortnight, thoroughly wowing audiences, and picking up the FIPRESCI Prize as a result.
The response also spread to our writer Gabe Toro, who called it “a film of almost unbearable tension” when he saw it at TIFF, its tale of a homeless drifter (played by Macon Blair) stalking his parents’ murderer finding fresh, dark, and occasionally funny new routes in the genre that are best left unspoiled. For Saulnier, who directed the 2004 short film “Crabwalk” and 2007’s horror comedy “Murder Party," it’s been a journey that he hasn’t taken for granted; we caught him on the eve of his first major theatrical release, celebratory, engaged, and practical, as he spoke about the project’s origins.
Jeremy Saulnier: The roots of "Blue Ruin" are so scattered. It was pragmatism; it was also that our first feature film, "Murder Party," was such a self-parodying splatter-fest that it kind of pigeonholed me as a director—suddenly all I could do was horror comedies and I had much more to say. Years went by just staying afloat, but then I got back into filmmaking as a cinematographer.
It was great to help others realize their visions, but I love genre filmmaking, visceral and visual storytelling, and I was kind of frustrated. I couldn't deliver the coverage they wanted with these big fancy cameras and impossible schedules, so we were doing visual compromises that were, in a way, my fault.
With “Blue Ruin,” I wanted to make a movie with my best friend, where I could really showcase Macon, nudge him a bit out of his comfort zone by not doing self-parody or gonzo humor. We were gonna make a real movie that might be interpreted as legitimate art, but we weren’t going to totally shed our love of blood and guts, cars on the road, wind and dust and sand. I wanted to have these elements that were usually too expensive to harness, so I bought my own camera and constructed a whole narrative around Macon.
There were more comedic iterations of the script, right?
Yeah, that was our comfort zone, though. I went to Sundance one year as a cinematographer, watched 22 movies, and just got so tired of indies that had this amazing naturalistic appeal with characters thick with realism, and then these other genre films that were for me too stylized. Too surface-level, kind of sloppy or just brutal, with little emotional depth. It was always tongue in cheek. I'm getting a little older, I'm a father, so I couldn't stomach that anymore. One film at Sundance made me sick to my stomach, and it was for no other reason than I was just losing my fortitude. I was like, "I'm getting soft, man. I gotta make a movie quick."
When the revenge plot popped into my head, it was just about grounding the film in a very mundane scenario that needed so little exposition. Vengeance—it has so much thrust behind it. And then we would embrace the fact that we're not going to do a high-concept movie with huge spectacle and action sequences, but rather something down and dirty, streamlined, so when we approach it it'll be from the POV of an unlikely protagonist. We'll have someone embark upon a mission that might have someone from the audience wondering what'd they do.
In which areas did you want to push Macon out of his comfort zone?
He's a great performer—his inherent timing and physicality is something you can't teach—but he never got the opportunity to do these really emotional exchanges. So that was terrifying for both of us. “Blue Ruin” is largely without dialogue and relies upon classic visual storytelling, but we also sometimes had to park production and get some page numbers in there. We had these compartmentalized action scenes like the home invasion scene, and then there was just a sit-down between Dwight and his sister (Amy Hargreaves). The diner scene is the emotional epicenter of the movie, and Macon just turned it on and Amy gave him everything. She cried off-camera for him and provided him with an environment. That's when I knew we had the movie in the can.