It’s finally here. The movie that Portland has been anticipating for months and then more months, opens this Friday, April 22, at Cinema 21.
It’s been a long road for director Jeremy Saulnier’s “Green Room.” This white-knuckle, high-octane thriller about a punk rock band menaced by a band of Northwest neo-Nazi skinheads was filmed in the fall of 2014. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May, and has spent nearly a year making the rounds on the festival circuit.
Even without the local pride angle, “Green Room” is a must-see for genre fans. In something of a casting coup, Patrick Stewart plays the leader of the bad guys. Another Starship Enterprise veteran, Anton Yelchin (who plays Chekhov in the recent “Star Trek” reboots), plays the lead singer of The Ain’t Rights, a ragtag quartet who take a gig they’ll soon regret at a remote rural club populated by a thoroughly Aryan clientele.
I had a chance to sit down with Saulnier, whose breakthrough second feature was the revenge tale “Blue Ruin,” at the Sundance Film Festival in January. We reconnected when he was in town recently, accompanied by Yelchin and co-star Imogen Poots, for the cast and crew screening of “Green Room.” This piece draws on both of those interviews.
OAW: What led you to choose Oregon as the setting for “Green Room”?
JS: I didn’t want to set this movie, with its racist skinhead villains, in the Deep South. I wanted it to have an edge to it that wasn’t this burnt-yellow Southern country look. More importantly, Portland was the home of one of my producers, Neil Kopp. He suggested it as I was writing the script, and as I researched Portland it became the only location for the movie. It has such a wide range of environments. We end up spending almost an hour basically in one room, so it was important to get a lot of fresh air on either side of that, to explore landscape and offset the claustrophobic nature of the rest of the movie.
OAW: And you were able to tap the resource of local crew members.
JS: Definitely. We didn’t mandate local crews, but it certainly helped the budget. We found a lot of the key crew in Portland: the wardrobe supervisor, makeup keys, an amazing production designer named Ryan Warren Smith. It came down to “Are we choosing this person just because they’re local?”, and the answer had to be no.
OAW: Where were the interiors shot?
JS: The soundstage was in Clackamas. I like real, existing locations. But when we couldn’t find the right location for the club, we decided to do a rather huge build. It was definitely a bit of an overage [budget-wise] with the art department, but it was completely necessary. I realized that when I was writing the script for “Green Room,” I was choreographing all the movements—the hallways were locked in, the doorways, the dimensions of the room.
OAW: The design was dictated by what you had written.
JS: Exactly. If we had veered from that blueprint I had designed in my head, it would have been disastrous. It probably would have required a rewrite, because so much of the film is spatial and tactile. I did a rough, Google Sketch document mockup to show Ryan what was in my head, and he translated that perfectly into a real space. Sometimes in the script I had lapses of logic, or I defied time and space, so building it and working with it on the sound stage was a revelation for me.
OAW: What time of year were you shooting the exteriors?
JS: October and November. Portland is unpredictable in its weather that time of year, so it was really tough. We had to shoot all our exteriors first, and even as we were shooting things, they’d be lost. We had to buy two acres of corn field, because they were going to harvest all the corn two weeks prior to shooting. As we were finishing up the exteriors, the foliage was starting to turn orange, so it was an absolute race to archive all this lush, green forest. I learned to love the stage work. It was great to get up, get a coffee, drive to work, and make a movie. Punch in, punch out.
OAW: Did you have any opportunities to explore the city while you were here?
JS: I stayed in these cool little apartments on Mississippi. There’s a great breakfast joint, what’s it called? Biscuit?
JS: That’s it. I enjoyed the cost of living. I’m from Brooklyn. We would go to Gravy and spend forty dollars on brunch for five, and as a Brooklynite you’re just shocked. I didn’t really appreciate the city fully until after I left, because I was having such an insane time taking this movie on. It was my first time doing a $5 million-plus dollar movie. There were so many moving parts: big ensemble cast, pit bulls, shotguns, action scenes…it was pretty intense.
OAW: How did Patrick Stewart get involved, and was it a challenge to convince him to travel to out-of-the-way Portland to play a white supremacist, drug-dealing villain?
JS: He came aboard kind of at the last minute, and we were obviously excited to have him. Patrick is very grounded—he’s aware of his amazing filmography, but he also wanted to jazz things up a little bit. So he was really game. The whole crew welcomed him and the local actors we had playing his skinhead henchmen, they were awestruck.
OAW: Were you awestruck at all?
JS: I have an aversion to that sort of thing. I’m not a fan of people based on their stature or fame. I like good craftspeople.
OAW: As a Shakespearean, as a starship captain, and as a superhero, Patrick Stewart is always larger than life, with that booming voice. But here, he’s menacing in a low-key way.
JS: The approach we took was very intimate. If he’s going to be this neo-Nazi leader, let’s not go full mustache-twirling bad guy. The real scary thing is when you have people doing violent things who are just humans. When he read the script we had a very long conversation about the character and about the way to play it. He needed a little more backstory to really dig in as an actor, so Macon Blair, my creative partner, and I fleshed out this full history for Darcy. Patrick remarked one day that this was the quietest he had ever been on any set. A lot of his scenes are with Macon, so there was Patrick Stewart and my high school best friend, and they had these intimate exchanges that were often very quiet. That’s to kind of counter this supercharged soundtrack of heavy metal and punk rock and hardcore. I think he really appreciated the chance to sort of redefine himself.
OAW: The band in “Green Room,” The Ain’t Rights, do a Dead Kennedys cover at one point. Did you have any trouble getting the rights to the song?
JS: That was the only song that was written into the script, and it was built into their performance, so we had to get the rights well in advance. We composed a letter to the Dead Kennedys, and they let us do it. We had support from a lot of people in the punk rock world, including Lee Ving. Bad Brains gave us a song. My friend, who I based the character of Sam on, and who wrote a bunch of the songs the Ain’t Rights perform, his favorite band of all time is Poison Idea, and so we stuck a Poison Idea song in there. And we actually used a song from a Portland crew member’s band—they changed their name recently, I think it’s Patsy’s Rats now. They had two songs on the soundtrack, one of them is “Melted.”
OAW: You’ve made three features now, all of them intense genre pictures. Is that where you see yourself operating in the future? Do you have any concerns about being typecast as a genre filmmaker?
JS: I totally embrace genre. For me it’s about visual storytelling and it’s about tension, propulsive narrative thrust. But it’s more about my current tastes. My short film from 2004 [“Crabwalk”] was a melancholy comedy, because that’s what I wanted to do then. I think “Green Room” is pretty hardcore, and I don’t want to go any further down that road right now. I made the exact movie that I and my punk rock cohorts wanted to see at nineteen. It’s fun to target eight of my friends and make a whole movie just for them.
(“Green Room” opens on Friday, April 22, at Cinema 21.)