For his second feature film, the subdued revenge thriller Blue Ruin (in theatres this Friday), writer and director Jeremy Saulnier took a different approach to a well established genre. Instead of crafting a tale of one man’s love for bloodlust following a grave injustice, he and lead actor Macon Blair conspired to tell a film that was almost purposefully sloppy and methodical in its approach. Blue Ruin doesn’t unfold its tale of vengeance through conventional storytelling, but rather through the eyes of a character who really doesn’t know how to exact it despite having dwelled on a lot of bad memories.
Blair plays Dwight, a hirsute hobo living out of his car, who finds out that the man who murdered his parents is due to be released from prison. Once again reminded of all the pain and anguish that was caused to his family, Dwight snaps to a different sort of reality where he wants to off the well connected man responsible. Essentially childlike in his reactions (and often saying very little), Dwight has the passion, but not the knowhow to carry out the bloody execution perfectly. It complicates things and brings down a world of danger upon Dwight and the life of his considerably better adjusted sister (Amy Hargreaves).
Favouring quiet moments of suspense instead of skipping directly to action beats doesn’t seem initially like the style of Saulnier and Blair upon meeting them at a Toronto hotel room this past fall while they were in town for the Toronto International Film Festival. Both are highly enthusiastic, chatty, thoughtful, and gregarious people who love talking movies. It just so happens that the movies they both seem to love are the ones that allow the audience to infer their own conclusions and to use their instincts to create a more favourable kind of genre moviegoing experience.
We talked with Saulnier and Blair about the film’s subdued nature, the creation of Blair’s character, trusting the audience to come to the right conclusions, and where Bliar’s exceptional facial hair now resides in Saulnier’s house.
Dork Shelf: This is a very hard film to make, maybe not necessarily in terms of subject matter or style, but it’s very hard to depict revenge as realistically and as sloppily as your film does. That feels real and was what drew me in. This shows how absolutely messy and emotional the art of revenge can be even with a supposed “master plan” in place. This man at the heart of the film that you play, Macon, has put a lot of thought into what he wants to do, but he hasn’t gone all the way through. What was it like crafting a character and a story around kind of a classical kind of idea and taking the Hollywood kind of polish away from it?
Jeremy Saulnier: We really took refuge in that to keep the story realistic and grounded. We weren’t beholden to a traditional trajectory or narrative, so we were free to take all of these left turns and be awkward and explore new territory. It’s a purposely inefficient narrative and a complicated scenario.
In cinema, everything is always so well structured and perfectly timed. For me it was easy. I wouldn’t say effortless, but it was natural for us to examine what a real person would do in a very traditional, cinematic situation.
DS: It seems like that could open you guys up a bit more for improvisation and any kind of happy accident that might go awry on set.
JS: Yeah, although there wasn’t very much of that actually on set. A lot of those things happened during the process of discovering and finding out about the workings of this character. There wasn’t time to really do improvisation on set, so we shot the script pretty much exactly as it was written, but before that during the scriptwriting phase there was a ton of back and forth.
Macon Blair: Well, not just in this movie, but in pretty much everything Jeremy has done, a big thing that he does is that he always makes sure that the film feel big, but emotionally real. There has to be a real honesty to it that you can only find by really planning that out in advance. How do we make this so it isn’t a fantastical situation? That was the question we always had to keep asking ourselves and keep coming back to. What would you do in a situation where you have become this person on a mission and you get injured in your leg? Would you do surgery on yourself or would you go get some help to fix it up? In a kind of regular kind of unstoppable revenge flick you would expect someone to just go ahead and stitch themselves up and be a tough guy, but I think the other option is the one that makes the most sense. (laughs)
DS: Everyone has that moment where they just don’t want to go to the doctor and where they will try everything humanly possible and almost push themselves to that point of trying to fix things up on their own before they give in and just go.
MB: (laughs) Yeah, and here we also get to go a bit in the opposite direction, too and give him a but of Munchausen Syndrome, too.
DS: A lot of the set up for the film is free of dialogue and really sparse and requires a lot of instinct on you guys. What did you guys go through to set up the film with an absolute minimum of dialogue?
JS: This film is pretty much the tip of the iceberg in terms of the context of what’s going on in this man’s life. I think the key of understanding this entire cycle of violence and the inciting incident comes from knowing there’s a whole lot more of that iceberg under the surface. We set it all off down to years and what happened when. His whole narrative was thought out in advance, and once we had that set out for us, we went about totally disregarding it and only showing the audience what would come natural to this character in this environment in this story. Macon and I knew a very detailed history, but it felt like the whole point was to not be expository or pander to the audience. We wanted to keep it all very surface level and to keep the tension high and play with the depravation of information rather than providing an over abundance of it. It makes it a lot more participatory for the audience when there isn’t that scene at the beginning where someone sits them down and says “Do you remember twenty years ago when this happened?” They have to play along here and hopefully be complicit in what Dwight’s doing because there’s no reason or justification that we’ve given him at the outset. You just have to trust that things will be made clear.
MB: Audiences are too smart nowadays. People have seen it all, so it’s great to work on a film that has faith in them. Sometimes during the script phase we would get notes where people would have issues with wanting to know why things are happening or how so and so would know so and so. Whatever the question would be, I would ask them, “Well, what do you think it is?” Invariably, 100% of the time they would guess the right answer. It gave me such great confidence before because even those who were nervous about maybe not knowing something exactly were filling in the gaps intuitively, which means we were doing it right. It was great to hear that.
JS: There was an initial attempt to acquire traditional financing. People responded to the script really positively, but there wasn’t any money down. Nothing hit escrow (laughs), so we had to come up with the money ourselves and put it together that way. We put together all of the locations, props, everything. It was culled together from so many resources: friends, family, favours. At times it was quite traumatic for all involved, but the great thing was that we got to maintain 100% creative control over it. We didn’t have to sell it. We just said it was a new space for us to work in. It wasn’t super high concept or intricate. It was just a nice procedural that focuses on details and is grounded it reality.
That’s where I thrive. I love cinematic minutae that you never see. Everything is so effortless nowadays and they always cut out the parts that I’m the most curious about in movies. There’s always such a rush to get to the next big beat, but I want to see how hard it is to get to that beat. We get mired down and watch our character flail about as he tries to get there. It’s a traditional cinematic set up with someone who’s out of his element, but he’s not prepared to make this effortless journey. It’s quite the opposite.
DS: It’s a story that’s built upon this perpetual cycle of waiting. Every few scenes, Dwight is having to wait around for something to happen. It’s an interesting way to look at the thought process of someone capable of waiting around for that long. Even then, your character tends to get kind of bored…
MB: He falls asleep at one point! (laughs) That’s one of the things I loved to see in the film was this dude’s inconvenience. You always think the film is going to build to this really standard, elevated finale where he kicks down a door and regulates, but this movie kind of comes to a more abrupt kind of halt. It was really tricky to balance that though process, but for the audience it keeps them on the edge of their seat. Even when I watch it I love how you can’t really get a handle on this film. You’re always curious where it’s going to go and what I’m going to do. Everything is on high alert.
DS: That plays into that kind of genre expectation quite nicely and what you do throughout the film, which is that you really get the tension rising and then at the last second you pull back and do something different that can be even more intense.
MB: They sit there for so long they lose track of what I’m going to do next or what the movie is going to do next, and it’s fun to play within that.
DS: As an actor is it fun and freeing to play a man of few words?
MB: (laughs) Yes, absolutely. I feel more comfortable when things don’t need to be said. Some of that is really just the nature of the story. He’s alone for most of the movie, so there’s really no reason for him to talk. Even when there are other people he’s not very good at talking. That’s definitely freeing for me. It’s fun to rely on your body and face and not so much on the words.
DS: He’s also not a very physical guy because he’s been going through this prolonged state of shock for such a long time. Even when you set about your business, there’s a cold, mechanical feel to it almost like a sleepwalker. Did you do any research on people who have experienced that kind of shock?
MB: No. (laughs) Not so much. There were some homeless people that I had met in New York a long time ago that I took some cues from: the way they walked, combing their hair in a certain way, these tiny little things that you don’t see in the movie. I was thinking about that, but not really in terms of the connection to the shock he was feeling. It wasn’t so much shock as just someone who had a fuse blow. It’s someone who was unable to stand up to the stress in the same way his sister was.
That was something we talked very heavily about. When something like this would happen, most people would find a way to grieve and move forward with their life. For whatever reason, this guy’s make-up was just insufficient and it just broke him. His response was to just check out of life and become this secluded hermit. It was more about a numbness and a removal from feeling that comes back all at once when he hears this person has returned back home.
He even has to learn how to walk with purpose again and he’s really conspicuous. He doesn’t have it in him. Everything is impulsive and an emotional lashing out. He never has a carefully orchestrated plan of retribution. He doesn’t know that one thing will lead to another. It’s kind of like a little kid throwing a tantrum. He’s been stunted at the age where this terrible thing happened and he was a much younger person and he never grew up from there.
JS: And in the design of the film around that character, the colour palate was designed to have this kind of feeling of a regression back to childhood and to this terrible, tragic event that’s responsible for the whole narrative.
DS: Finally, I have to ask you about that beard you were rocking in the film. Was that really your beard?
MB: Oh, hell yeah.
DS: Were you glad to see it go?
MB: I was SOOOOOO delighted. I’ll admit that I was a bit of a complainer about it, but I was proud I could grow it. (laughs) When I shaved it – and this is so gross – we had to save it in this plastic bags where we would need the clippings for insert shots when you see him cut it off in the movie.
JS: I actually still have the beard in my basement! We were so paranoid, or at least I was, that we were going to need it for reshoots because we couldn’t believe that we even got the movie made or what was going to happen with it along the way. I have all of the props STILL in my basement even after we’ve played at a few festivals now. Everything is still waiting to be reshot.
But that beard on his faced served for me as a beacon! Macon proved how committed he was to it and all those around him were suffering because of this huge beard that just traps all this dirt. Seriously, if we had to shave that beard and not make the movie it would have been the end of my directorial career. (laughs) I was happy with so much of what happened, but we had a window of opportunity to make the film that was closing, but the beard guided us to our inevitable point where we knew we had to have this in the can. It was going to be like it was our last movie ever and it had to happen. We willed it to.
MB: We did it all for the beard. (laughs)
JS: Actually, that beard caused our ONLY scheduling issue. (laughs) We had to have the cast travel down to Virginia and New York and then back again just because we were shooting chronological because of this beard.
MB: That beard was such a hard actor. I hope he shows up in more stuff.