Blue Ruin is a barebones thriller that takes the motivations of revenge to the psyche of non-killers. Echoing the lawless nature of a western, the film from writer/director Jeremy Saulnier follows a broken man named by Dwight (Macon Blair) as he learns firsthand about the capacity for violence, by ways of self-defense and in offense aggression. His act of revenge against someone who hurt his family 17 years ago begins a cycle of violence that threatens to destroy two entire families.
Saulnier had directed one movie previously, 2007’s Murder Party. In between that feature, he was the director of photography for acclaimed indies like Putty Hill, In Our Nature, and I Used To Be Darker.
I sat down with Saulnier in an exclusive interview where we discuss the film’s rules of violence, his new understanding about race in the film market, the strong women that surround him, and more. Sprinkled throughout our conversation are teases for his next project, a siege at a punk rock show involving Nazi skinheads and fat cats.
Blue Ruin is now playing at Chicago’s Music Box Theater, and is available on VOD.
Can you think of a scene of violence that really struck you when your film knowledge was budding?
Oh yeah. There are two that are totally, permanently seared into my brain. One is the opening SWAT team scene from Dawn of the Dead, in particular the exploding head, the shotgun to the head. And the arrow to the eyeball in Friday the 13th Part 3, the first one that Jason had the hockey mask on. Those were played for me as a young child on a VHS recorder over and over in slow motion. It was really scary, I was tortured. My older cousins did it to me in the basement of their house. It was trauma, but I knew that it was fake, but it was still disgusting and it seemed real, the impact seemed real. That was very influential in my cinematic upbringing that I had the joint experience of terror and delight.
There’s an interesting line where one person experienced with weaponry tells Dwight, “No speeches, no talking.” This is interesting in a way that calls out a popular convention in movies. But then in the climax, you use this idea. Granted it has obvious intent, but was there any trepidation to reverting back to this on your part?
For me, Dwight is an amateur assassin, and [Dwight's ex-soldier friend] Ben is a pro. When Ben is given him these guidelines, Dwight is kind of tuning out. But he does actually employ those tips at the onset. The issue is, “Is [Dwight] fully invested? Is he really on mission?” The answer is no. So once he does that, in a reaction to a certain statement, he is on-mission, but Dwight uses the whole speech thing because he is buying time, because he doesn’t want to deal with what he is going to have to do, until the hand is forced. It’s funny, it also breaks other rules as well. But yeah, I love that sloppiness, and I love that inconsistency in the character.
It gives some credit at the same time that while it may seem expository in films, perhaps there is something human about people jabbering before pulling the trigger. It is the last moment of connection.
A big thing like that for me was the interrogation scene between Dwight and Teddy. Those were strict rules, like “What would you actually say?” Because Dwight, I had exposition, but Dwight is trying to get information. So when Dwight has the upper hand, he is extracting it, but the rule is that Teddy’s not really giving him good stuff. And then, when the tables are turned and the upperhand is reversed, then information is given that is important to plot, but it’s only to make it hurt, it’s not to inform Dwight. He even says it, “I’m not going to satisfy your curiosity.” But he wants Dwight to know about the man who killed his father. So when I write these scenes, there are absolute rules, and it is about adhering to the character’s true motivations and trying never to bend from those. Unless, I veto myself as a storyteller, because there is the issue … it’s funny when people will take this film, and they’ll try and dissect it as a message movie, and that’s absolutely not what it is. It’s a story. There’s lots of messages in there, but they are at conflict with each other, and a few of our higher-profiled mixed reviews were, which I welcome, were about this film not knowing what it is. That’s where I take offense, because this film is exactly what it is, the problem is it’s about complications, and it’s about conflict, and it’s not about having one answer or one solution, and not making a stream-lined narrative, because I could have changed a few lines of dialogue throughout the whole film and made it a message movie, or made it more stream-lined or wahtever, so that it can be easily categorized. But the whole point of the film is not to do that, and to invert what you’re used to, for better or worse.
When you were writing ‘Blue Ruin’ then, were you conscious of its potential reception as a message movie?
I only tried to diminish the amount of politically charged material. I removed stuff that was too critical of gun control laws, but the issue is that it’s all context, because this story takes place in Virginia, where there are very lax gun control laws. So, people see [Blue Ruin], and they’ll see the environment, and sign some kind of inherent protest there. But I personally … yes, I have issues with certain gun control laws, but also guns save the day in Blue Ruin, guns are a terrible thing … they’re used in the film as a tool.
Was dialogue being taken away as Blue Ruin passed through different storytelling stages, or added?
Well, there’s one thing I had more than exposition, and that’s ADR. So, I designed the script to be enigmatic, and that the backstory was there, and the characters could only talk amongst themselves. Never to the audience. But, I figured if you’re catching up with your sister after seventeen years, there’s going to be some legit informational exchange happening. So I did pepper that big diner scene with much more exposition about the shared history, and in particular, her history since Dwight had abandoned the family. But, that was just as a backup. When we edited the film, it was very clear that the story had way more weight, the less detail we got, the more people could fill in the gaps and assign their own meanings and beliefs to it. So, when we cut the scene for the emotional exchanges, it was all the more richer. So I do shoot overshoot exposition, in terms of story needs.
There is an interesting sense of equality in this movie, regarding the roles of minorities and women in the film. The one police officer is played by a black woman, and then later it is the sisters that have the final word, so to speak. However intentional this may be, are you conscious of this inequality that has made it into movies, as life itself is more diverse, and responding to it?
Yes, because on a very practical scale, when you cast the lead, you cast somebody else, and they’re all kin, and all of the sudden when you have two white people, now you have nine. I wanted to reserve roles that could be for people of color not based on these two families. Actually, there was a major role that was reserved for a person of color, but no one was emailing me back when I was making this movie, and I had to rewrite the role last minute for a white person. But it’s not something where I want to dictate my stories, but I am cognizant of it. Unless it’s for narrative reasons, my roles will be open to anyone. I did want to populate the outside world with a variety of people.
The problem is, someone who is seeking a Latin actor, I don’t know how to reach … there’s definitely a prominent theater company that specializes in that arena, and there’s lots of great Latin actors, but they wouldn’t return my emails [laughs]. It’s tough. The issue is, from a marketing standpoint, that race does directly impact foreign sales. We have our issues here in the US, but it’s only now that I’ve gotten a peek behind the curtain of the world-at-large and the international markets that it’s not a secret that once you start talking about what movies you want to make that there is rampant racism, and if you have people of color in starring roles, there is about two or three that will sell movies overseas, and the rest is tough to get off the ground. So I have my issues with America, and its racial problems, but it seems like this is a new era of real leading roles for women and minorities that weren’t there before. My next movie is going to be all white people, too. It’s about Nazi skinheads.
It’s about Nazi skinheads?
So, it’s about race.
Let’s go back to the white male of ‘Blue Ruin’ for a second. When you were constructing him, how much were you thinking of what modern masculinity means?
It’s funny. For me, the character is more wrapped in nostalgia. He’s a wounded man who had been carrying so much weight and never really lived past his 17th birthday, and he still was alive and had a beating heart, but his presence sort of ended then, and he just was a zombie nomad wallowing in his own grief. But then, this film has a slightly dated feel, because I really wanted it to seem a little retro. Even the cell phones are a few years old. But there was certainly a statement not so much about the modern man, but the modern woman, and about modern female strength, and for me, the end of patriarchy as we know it. As a father of two daughters at the time, and three daughters now, the reign of man is coming to an end and I look forward to it. Blue Ruin is a lot about testosterone and male aggression in general, and how it leads to so much miscommunication, and no one listening to each other.
In a sense then, ‘Blue Ruin’ is inspired by your own placement within your interaction with women.
I am surrounded by some very strong women. The strength of my life is my wife, my kids, my mom. It’s all ladies. And most of the couples I know, the women are the ones who are really strong, and have opinions. My wife wears the pants. Maybe we shouldn’t be leading the world, and having these goofy stand-offs with the media on high alert.
Do you have interest then in making a film with women, specifically about women?
The script that I just wrote is an interesting exploration of an almost totally male environment, and it sort of hearkens back to my punk rock days in the 90s, in Washington D.C., with a band on the road. For what I know, it’s all dudes. You’d go to shows and see ten girls for every thousand weird dudes. Btu this film I wrote, for me there is a fun little unlikely character, and it’s sort of passing the baton to the new era of female action helmers. So I am very excited about that. But again, because it takes place at a Nazi compound … I told my casting directors, no one has to be white, they have to pass for white. They can be bi-racial, or any ethnicity that will pass for white, playing a punk rock show for a bunch of angry Nazis.
Do you think there is a tangible point when filmmakers given women “power”, and it’s really just turning them into men with female bodies?
It’s tough because it’s not so much male or female, but which hormones are flowing through you and what’s the context. Estrogen comes out in certain situations, and testosterone comes out in other ones. And maybe this is too broad to be quoted, but if you want to intrude on some lion cubs, what is that mama going to do? She’ll fucking tear you apart. And what is the father going to do? Run around and eat some gazelle. There’s certain situations where the female can be as aggressive or moreso than any male ever. But it’s all about motivation. Are you protecting your pride, or THE pride? It’s context. My wife can be aggressive and if you fuck with her kids, she will lay down her life for them. But if you besmirch my film on Twitter, I will hold a grudge for the next decade. I don’t know what it is. But it’s so funny how we rule the world, and have done such a shitty job with so many wars. It’s not good. Especially now, I think now is a very aggressive time in America, especially. The world throughout, but there’s so much carnage in our society, and so much hatred, and I am victim to that. I get pissed everyday thinking about all of these insane political parties going back and forth, and again, my new script is a little bit of self therapy concerning conservative power structure and aggression, but more about learned aggression; the carnage we do to each other. What are the motivations behind this stuff? Two fat cats shot-calling and then steering everyone in this pointless direction. It’s pissing me off. So, if you can’t do anything about it politically other than just vote twice a year, you make a movie. And you murder lots of Nazis.
When are you aiming to start shooting that?
Well, now that I’m in the real world of filmmaking, who knows. We’re trying to fast track it for this year, but it’s not official at all. It’s in the very initial stages. It should be fun. It’s like a punk rock siege movie. A punk rock show goes wrong, and this band is trapped in the green room overnight, with the skinheads trying to get in. But it’s about, “What are the real motivations of the guy who owns the venue? I don’t know!”