There are rules that modern horror movie villains tend to live by.
They work alone, usually, and if they do form groups they’re usually pretty small. They can be outsmarted, usually because they’re either not terribly bright or overly self-confident. They like to use their hands, or “personal” stabbing/slashing weapons not guns or bombs (Jason Voorhees with a machine gun is a very short, not terribly suspenseful movie, after all.) They can have an agenda, but usually a strictly personal one – and if they do have an ideology behind what they’re up to it’s usually a fictional one or a metaphor, i.e. how The Purge is very much about contemporary issues of race and class in the U.S. but set in a universe where massacring the peasantry for sport is a literal tradition instead of a figurative one.
But Green Room isn’t just a horror movie, it’s also a punk rock movie. And like any self-respecting scion of the punk scene, it regards rules as having been made to be broken.
The antagonists of Green Room are horror movie humans-as-monsters bad guys to the core, but their determined penchant for murder is where similarities between them and Voorhees or Leatherface clans end. These guys are an efficient, organized army operating under careful orders. They’re using knives and clubs for practical reasons, but they’re backed up by modern firepower just in case – and they aren’t above sending in some angry pitbulls to do their dirty work, either. And unlike your typical backwoods killing machine, they’re relentless drive to kill is coming from an all too real place: They’re neo-Nazis, a pack of angry young white-supremacists looking to earn their red laces.
“I love minutiae, the things that get discarded in bigger action movies. It’s where I thrive.” – Jeremy Saulnier
Saulnier broke out on the independent scene in 2013 with the stripped down revenge thriller Blue Ruin in 2013. But before that, he was just another kid taking part in the burgeoning Pacific Northwest hardcore punk-rock scene; where the genre’s aggressive tone and antisocial tendencies meant that “normal” fans often found themselves in the mix with both wannabe and full-blown skinhead gangs. Those experiences inspired Green Room, which follows a struggling indie punk band who agree to play a show at what turns out to be an isolated neo-Nazi club to pick up some extra cash. At first they don’t think it’s a huge deal – there’s always “a few” skins at a punk show (the ostensible leader even thinks to ask what specific affiliation the spot has, going down a list) after all – and they even feel emboldened enough to perform a cover of Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks F*** Off” as their opening number.
But that’s before they witness the murder of a female patron in the venue’s green room, and find themselves barricaded inside with the victim’s surviving friend. The venue begins to swarm with enforcers, under the direction of the white-supremacist leader Darcy (Patrick Stewart – no, really!), whose prized red shoelaces mark them as having drawn blood for The Cause already. The writing is on the wall from the beginning: The punks’ only hope will be to grab what weapons they can improvise and fight their way out, but Saulnier elects to mercilessly draw out the tension by letting a few first attempts fail to horrifying results – and giving equal screentime to the machinations of Darcy and his men as they arm up with blades, clubs and hungry pitbulls and coolly strategize how to clean up the “mess” as quickly as possible. According to Saulnier, getting these villains right was key:
The antagonists here feel a lot more authentic than the skinheads that you typically see in movies, where a lot of them are still just the guys in red shirts with the bald heads. How much research went into getting these guys to be what they really are today – the “Alt-Right,” that sort of thing?
“The key was to do a ton of research, and to feel like I got a sense of the procedure and the structure and the vernacular… and then throw it all away, let the characters take the foreground. The challenge is not portraying Nazi skinheads as bad guys, it’s in portraying them as humans. The whole thing is about whatever we come in with, the perceived gangs or affiliations or ideologies or labels, the film strips that away eventually. So the goal is to immerse yourself in the world, make it feel authentic, until it all drifts away.”
“But the research was brutal. I was researching skinheads, the white-supremacist culture, dog fighting… I was definitely losing my stomach. But I’m huge on research. I inject just enough detail to make it authentic. The rule is they have to talk among themselves, never to the audience. You get an insight and immersion into the culture, but you don’t get the tour. We’re not going to show you every bit, and just let it unfold naturally.”
What all that research translates into is villains who feel as real and lived-in as the punk rockers with who Saulnier clearly feels more immediately familiar. Stewart’s Darcy is a fearsome creation, the kind of matter-of-fact monster who wouldn’t feel out of place on a slow-burn TV drama like Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead. The actor seems to take particular relish in playing an evil variation on the “gently-stoic mentor” role he’s frequently typecast in. For the director, the chance to cast a veteran professional like Stewart was only one of the unexpected benefits of making a (slightly) larger feature to follow-up Blue Ruin.
When you do a smaller movie like this with big stars, do you have people looking in to make sure you don’t break the toys? Like, “We need Patrick for X-Men – don’t mess him up too bad!”
“The cool thing about doing a union film is that it’s rock-solid and safe. There’s some rules that are annoying for an indie filmmaker, as far as hours… I remember I was confounded by the inability to officially switch the hinges on a door, because the workers would have to come back on a weekend and I’m like “Holy shit, that’s like ten minutes with the electric screwdriver.”
“But when you’re part of a sustainable culture now and you actually take home a paycheck… for me, the fight was that filmmaking has just never been sustainable. I have to blow all of money on something and negate three or four years of working in advertising. So to be part of an industry with the prospect of providing for people and not just asking them to provide for you? Yeah. We had pitbulls, shotguns, pyro, heavy makeup FX, carnage, etc; but we had professional stunt teams.”
What came as a real surprise, though, was that one of showbiz’s oldest chestnuts of wisdom (“Never work with children or animals”) turned out to be more bark than bite when it came to working with the trained pitbulls whose presence makes for some of the tensest moments in the film’s blistering third act; where the audience is aware that the dogs are the first wave of attack but the remaining heroes have no idea what they’re walking into – though their eventual solution to the problem stands out as a clever literalization of the film’s “punk rock as a weapon” subtext.
“The dogs were sweet, oh man… so professional, and shocked us all with their proficiency. We had a very expensive dog puppet made just to insure us in the event of these dogs not doing what they were asked to do, and we used that dog puppet for just a single shot – because the dogs and the trainers and the stunt teams were given enough notice on the storyboards, they trained them for every action and they just nailed it. One dog, on one night, maybe didn’t leap as high as we wanted it to. Other than that, they were the easiest department to deal with.”
Green Room is brutal, punishing stuff; and true to the spirit of the hardcore punk scene that inspired both its heroes and its director, it pulls no punches. There’s no room for sentiment or artificial drama when lives are on the line, and definitely no room for assuaging an audience with artificial tension-release or false levity. While much of modern horror has favored mannered elegance or crude irony in recent years, Green Room aims to shove the genre back into the dirty, unforgiving realm it’s occupied in the past. Whether or not horror fans are game to follow it there is an open question, but the answers should come soon enough.
Green Room opens wide on April 15th, 2016.