[Editor's Note: This interview was originally published on Film Threat.]
Blue Ruin is the biggest success story to come out of (Warning: pun ahead) the blue this year. Tapped out on funding to finish the film, writer/director Jeremy Saulnier took to Kickstarter. Shortly after, he met his goal of $35K (and a few grand more). After he finished the final cut of the film, it went on to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival Director’s Fortnight, where it won the FIPRESCI Award (fun tidbit: winning this prestigious prize puts Saulnier in the same company as Paul Thomas Anderson, Jean-Luc Godard, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Terrence Malick, Aki Kaurismäki, Pedro Almodóvar and Michael Haneke, to name a few(. That’s a pretty damn good start if you ask me.
Blue Ruin started making the festival rounds and it’s all I heard about after it screened at Fantastic Fest. “Blue Ruin! You must see Blue Ruin!” pounded Twitter. Walking into it blind, I finally got my chance to see it at Sundance. This unconventional revenge movie is so violent and relentlessly suspenseful… if you can sit through it and not have that holy-shit-something-insane-is-about-to-happen squint on your face once during one of its extreme scenes, dear reader, you’re a lot tougher than I.
A day before moving from New York, I interviewed Saulnier and star Macon Blair (who’s performance is staggeringly batshit-crazy good). We talked about the usual interview stuff — the making of Blue Ruin, taking a financial leap of faith, Kickstarter, eating croissants, etc. — but I got a lot of good answers out of them and this is perhaps one of the best interviews I’ve ever done. Enjoy.
First off, I want to congratulate you for making curmudgeon Buzz McCallister from Home Alone do something awesome, and for allowing Jan Brady to let off some steam for being the middle sister. That was a lot of fun to watch.
Jeremy Saulnier: Seriously. [laughs]
On a more serious note, one of the most admirable things about how the violence in Blue Ruin is handled is that it’s not glorified. Dwight knows what he’s doing is wrong and immoral. How did you balance the extreme violence and make that message clear when you were writing the screenplay?
Jeremy: It was certain a delicate balance and it came through this connection with the movies of my youth and exploitation films I love and the current state of, well, my current emotional state, and it happened to coincide with gun violence in America that made me sick to my stomach. So, I thought I didn’t want to abandon the roots all together, so I would probably still do amazing make-up effects and do a sort of technical showcase, but that violence had to be grounded in character and emotion so that when life is lost in Blue Ruin, it didn’t go down easy, and it was very tough to stomach for me, for Dwight the protagonist and the audience. So we weren’t all celebrating and cheering any time someone would die. It wasn’t, there’s no one-liners that come after or before death. It’s just awkward and grounded and blunt-force. But also I stay true to that rule that it had to be tied to emotion and the audience. It had to have an effect on the audience that was worthwhile to the narrative, not just to the…
Macon Blair: Gore score.
Macon, you’re the actor committing revenge and your character knows what he’s doing is wrong and immoral. How did you bring that mood to your character without overplaying the message?
Macon: I think we just, any sort of thought about message or theme or anything like that was discussed and handled months before we got to set and we’re shooting and, when we were shooting, we just kind of put all of that aside and it was all about hitting particular story beats and keeping everything very real and never trying to play anything as deliberately funny or deliberately awkward. Just trying to have it be like, sort of Jeremy’s catch phrase but a sort of motto he went back to a lot was, what would you do… like me, or him or any one person who isn’t an action movie star in these kind of situations. Would you be careful, would you be hesitant, would you… you know, all of those things that normally you might not see and, in a B-movie, a pulpy movie with tough guys doing tough guy things, and so we weren’t really thinking about a message or what it means about this or that, it was just about how is this real person going to behave when he’s in a stall with a guy with a knife who is trying to choke him and let it exist only on those terms. Any other meaning or value will take care of itself later on.
Jeremy: You know, and I was very competent with what we’re… he’s compelled more by a desperate need for closure and deep emotion and sorrow, not blood lust. So he’s reluctant from the beginning, and I think that helps the character to arrive at a line where he’s not a badass and he doesn’t have evil intentions, and his intentions become perverted throughout the film as the downward spiral. He started from noble intentions, as comical as that sounds.
Dwight’s story on why he ditched his sister, vanished and went vagrant remains a mystery, why do you think this was important to leave out this part of his story?
Jeremy: I wanted to rely on the audience more, and I was just personally embracing the fact that we didn’t have the financiers or distributors on board from the beginning, to keep the vision pure and protect the audience and let them do some work and fill in the gaps. Now there was a detailed history that we established for Dwight with an almost year-by-year timeline, and Macon and I were aware of this, of course, and we had each character in their own journey in their perspective. The rule was the characters could never talk to the audience, they could only talk amongst themselves. There are scenes with tons of exposition just between Dwight and Teddy, and it’s native to that environment because it’s in an actual interrogation scene at gunpoint, and there’s clear motivation and the need for information and to extract it.
And there were even other scenes, like the diner scene had a lot more exposition in there, and we touched upon a history between Dwight and his estranged sister and their parents who were murdered 17 years prior. In the edit we had all of that in there about handling the estate, and what has been going on for the last several years, or decades rather, with Dwight’s sister, but it simply detracted from the scene because, when we cut for pure emotion, it had a lot more weight and it just worked better. It was just one of those decisions where you can’t really actually justify, but when you watch it played out, it speaks volumes as to what these two actors, Macon and Amy Hargreaves, bring to a role that can get bogged down in exposition; it hurts the story and it deflated the tension. I think a lot of this movie is about exploring how much more weight can be applied on certain things when they’re not revealed, and the audience can fill in the gaps on their own.
I also think the unknown is a lot more terrifying, which is why Michael Meyers is my favorite of the slasher guys — we never know why, he’s just pure evil.
Jeremy: Which is why [Rob Zombie’s] remake was kind of problematic.
Macon: I hated it!
Jeremy: It’s just a guy with a rough childhood.
So Macon, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character look so menacing one minute, and ready to apologize to a butterfly if he hurt its feelings the next. How did you get into the right mindset to switch from one emotion to the other so quickly?!
Macon: [laughs] I don’t think we thought about it in terms of switching from one mindset to another, it was just Dwight was very fearful and hesitant and uncertain about what he was doing, even when it’s putting a knife into somebody’s head. Jeremy was saying he felt compelled to do that, but he wasn’t diving into it. I think a lot of that might be just the visuals, costumes, big scraggly beard, and just looking a little crazy. Beneath all that is the same sort of rabbit-y, little awesome guy that is making all these wrong choices and saying “I’m an idiot, I’m an idiot, I’m an idiot!” stretched out over the whole movie.
But yeah, the beard and the beach bum clothes: it certainly suggests a certain type of menacing thing that’s probably not there. Even when I was just walking around looking like people do, I would go in the stores and others would look at me a little closer and I would have to go out of my way to be like, “Now I’m taking out my money because I’m only going to pay for this bottle of milk and I’m not going to steal anything and everyone can relax.”
Macon: And I will say as far as the character of Dwight is when the film starts, he’s been carrying this trauma for almost two decades; he is much more focused up to a certain point and methodical in some ways, but when we get to reel number two and the whole revenge scenario, you think might it’d be the slow burner and might culminate at the end, as it usually does and the credits will roll… it’s abruptly completed and it derails the audience and Dwight. So Dwight was never intending to live past the encounter in the bar bathroom. So from then on, it is about the shift in Dwight because his motivations, and this compulsion to do this one thing he’s been carrying for seventeen years, evaporates. So he’s left in this sort of surreal limbo, and he’s clinging onto things and acting a little more rowdy because he’s confused, the world keeps turning and now he has to explore the unforeseen blowback and consequences of his actions. That’s sort of when we hit the uncharted territory, and it impacts Dwight as well. He’s trying to sort of undo what he did?
Most revenge thrillers, the anti-hero is confident throughout the film. In Blue Ruin, Dwight is terrified, bumbling, and is the most unconventional character to get revenge ever portrayed on screen. Since this would be new to audiences, why did you feel confident that it would work?
Jeremy: Well, just because we hadn’t seen it before, and it was a nice little opportunity for us to explore uncharted territory. That being said, a lot of it was by necessity.
Macon: We couldn’t go the other way with it.
Jeremy: We were going to go kind of serious and get a badass action hero or a badass action star to be in our movie. Because we like traditional dark crime movies and genre films, but it was about having these worlds collide. The films we wanted to make, we couldn’t afford to do so we had to downscale it, and thrust one of us inside it, and embrace that and now we’ve got in there where it’s like a nice release for the audience and ourselves. So we weren’t compromising, we were just embracing the fact that we couldn’t support spectacle, we couldn’t afford two weeks to shoot one action sequence. We would have to just make this not an enemy, but embrace it early on and construct the narrative around our limitations. And I do think, and I’ve said this before, Blue Ruin is so much about the scenes that would normally be cut out of a regular action movie. It’s about minutia and details and having a… solid trajectory derailed by random occurrences and unforeseen consequences. So I think for us it was just fun to explore consequences.
We touched a little bit on funding before. Getting this film funded was a gutsy success story – can you share how it come together for the readers?
Jeremy: It has been stated Blue Ruin was never actually funded. There was no actual financing that was secured to green light the film. Its entirety is sort of hodgepodge and bit-by-bit. We failed to get traditional financing early on and we immediately retreated. Luckily, we had already anticipated that, because as a collective we’re proud of our body of work but no one has really ever come in to finance these things. We always had self-funding or going to friends and family. So knowing there’s no chance in Hell at making a movie past the summer of 2012 that was self-funded, because he had a son on the way or a daughter. So we had this weird time where we couldn’t wait for people to come in or pitch to their people or this or that, we have to go either way, so as soon as we failed to get the million dollar budget, Plan B kicked in immediately, because there was this closing window of time.
Anyway, my wife put in her retirement account. she liquidated it completely. I followed suit. Then we did Kickstarter, to bridge the gap from where we were to where we had to be to fully fund just production and then payroll. So that was 160k to actually shoot Blue Ruin. With my credit card standing by, we ended up in more than six figures of debt on that, but there was no proper accounting going on. The movie has to be made: period. We were completely reckless about our approach to funding, and going all in and then some. I went in to negative net worth to get this thing done. The film had to be made period. We will clean up this mess down the line.
So we shot the movie after we sort of submitted to Sundance in 2013; we didn’t get in. We stopped, came to an abrupt halt, went back to our day jobs, saved up 5k to shoot the hospital scene. So we saved our money to just blow it. Then, during the spring of 2013, we decided to get back up and raise a little bit of more money. Just again, been back to our day jobs. And I, I didn’t give a shit. I was, whatever we couldn’t afford? Credit card. I had over $100,000 on my Amex card. And you know there was a possible scenario that was looming which was if we did get into a top tier film festival, we would just have to, my wife and I, sell our house and move. Period. And luckily before that happened we were accepted into Cannes.
Once we got into that festival, the assessment of our outcome changed dramatically. We went even further into debt to finish it off in time. But when you know you’re going to be premiering in Cannes, it’s such a modest budget. You can’t guarantee it, but you can safely assume you’ll make your money back. So, yeah, it was always funded in steps, never the proper way, and always in reckless abandonment.
But also I will say I waited six years from my previous film to do it again, and it was certainly reckless and aggressive to just make this film happen no matter what in the year 2012, but it was also about I had been biding my time and been very patient for six years straight. That was as important as being aggressive, it was like knowing when not to make a movie, which was six years leading up to it. But when we went, we went all in and went aggressive, and in that time period, cameras got from “we could only afford standard definition” to beautiful HD quality and would blow up to a big screen.
With the film already being classified as a cult hit and you won an award at Cannes, what do you think this says about the future of Kickstarter?
Jeremy: I have no idea what that says about the future of Kickstarter! But I will say, for us, we used it in a very traditional way. Whereas, we needed a kickstart; we only asked people to come in after we were maxed out. So it was about bridging the gap between future and reality of making this movie or not. And honestly, back before the arguments about Kickstarter for me… what’s so great about Kickstarter is that it’s crowd funding. It’s democratized, it’s voluntary. So if people want to fund a Zach Braff movie, by all means! I mean, of course people will sort of player hate on millionaires asking others for money…
I think if Zach Braff would have just been like “Fuck all y’all, I’m keeping the money for myself,” people would have donated anyway.
Jeremy: Honestly, it’s tougher now that they’ve changed the rules about the FCC and equity, because if we had 400 people getting infinitesimal residual checks, it would be more than we could support. We were just extremely grateful, and for us the value was, we could have actually raised that much money, but having that show of support, and having that crowd behind you, and also having a crowd behind you that you had to answer to, was key in our journey because we had to shade the conversation and pitch the movie and sell it though to other people, and in doing so we sold it through to ourselves. So, I mean, I’m grateful. Now, shipping rewards could be a pain in the ass. Again, we have to do these things to get it done and I don’t know about in the future. Macon, do you have anything to say about that?
Macon: I’m not the guy to ask about trends or anything like that; Jeremy and I were hesitant and kind of embarrassed about asking other people for money. But it was the difference between able to pay our crew or not pay our crew. Which means makes make the movie or not make the movie. And the other thing too was that it was really helpful in terms of being forced a self-assessment. If you are going to be maxing out your own credit card is one thing, but if you’re going to go out to the public and say, “Can I get like $20 bucks from a couple hundred of you,” then you really have to look and see is this worthwhile what we’re doing. Does this make sense? Is our approach credible?” Jeremy produced this pitch video that was sort of the vetting process of what are we talking about trying to do here. Are we just making it up as we go, or is there a design and a plan and a goal and a place where people feel like they are going to give their money to the movie. It’s not just going to be because we had a dream, we want to make a movie because there’s a very precise plan in place that hopefully will result in a movie that people would want to watch.
Jeremy: I think you just cracked it. I think what it was, that self-assessment, and pitching to ourselves. Because when Macon and I were forced to look at our project from the financer’s perspective and say, “Would we give one million dollars to Macon and Jeremy to make this off beat revenge movie?” The answer was “no.” But then we finished the Kickstarter process; Macon ran most of that site, he did most of the groundwork and manages that stuff. Then we were forced to do this pitch video when we saw our project realized on that Kickstarter page we created. We said, “Does this have anything? Would we be willing ourselves to spend $35 dollars or $1,000 dollars or $5,000 dollars on this project to see it realized?” The answer was a resounding “yes.” I think, by making the commitment smaller and giving ourselves that self-assessment and yes, we wouldn’t give a million bucks, but we would certainly give a much smaller amount to just roll the dice. I think the power of Kickstarter is reducing the risk and expanding the amount of people it can support; it is a lot more feasible.
You’ve been in a few films and witnessed first-hand this successful funding story. Being no stranger to writing yourself, any chance we’ll ever get to see your graphic novel Hellcity brought to the silver screen?
Macon: I’m working on it! I’m working on it. I mean who knows, I keep bringing it up to the managers and agents and it’s going around. It actually started as a screenplay and everybody was like, this is ridiculous, this will never be a movie. And so my buddy Rick Spears had a comic company at the time, said we’ll do a comic book. Like Terry Gilliam style weirdo detective story with monsters in it, but I don’t know. But it’s something I keep my fingers crossed about but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
I’ll cross my torso and fingers as well. Question for you both. Answer at the same time. I’ll do the 1, 2, 3 and you both answer: In the end, after all the people he’s murdered, do you think Dwight becomes a villain too?
Jeremy: I had a hard time with [the finale]. I really fell in love with Dwight during the process. But he has his faults for sure. But his intentions were pure. He did the best he could.