Jeremy Saulnier is no stranger to violence. The director made real headway with his 2015 film, Green Room, which features a neo-Nazi Patrick Stewart trying to kill a punk rock band that witnessed a murder in his Pacific Northwest club. But he had really cemented himself in blood—in the action-thriller genre—years before, with Blue Ruin (2013), a crowd-funded, family revenge tale, and Murder Party (2007), a comedy-horror hybrid about hip sadistic art students. (He was supposed to be one of the directors for the forthcoming season of True Detective, but departed the show after two episodes.) Though Saulnier's newest project, Hold the Dark, a Netflix original that recently premiered on the streaming platform, perhaps includes more gore than any of his previous attempts (it definitely has a higher body count), it's still something of a departure for him. Or, in the very least, a notable evolution: a sweeping, expansive work of art set, it seems, at the end of the world.
Here, Jeffrey Wright, one of the stars of that robot show everyone stopped watching, plays Russell Core, a writer and naturalist who travels to the small village of Keelut, Alaska, at the request of a woman named Medora Sloane (Riley Keough). Wolves, she writes to him, have been ripping children from their homes, and she believes her son to be the most recent victim. Since he's covered the beast before, can Core help her find her kid? Medora's husband, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård), meanwhile, is busy shooting a gun in Fallujah, and, in the only scene not in the winter-clad wilderness, we see his nihilistic tendencies without any misunderstanding: We know he's going to return home from the war, and we know he's not the type of man who'll let the kidnapper of his kin off the hook, whoever that may turn out to be. What transpires is a nearly biblical tale—of man against nature, light against dark—and, really, that's about all left to say. To explain more—to try to explain more—would ruin the story's mythic power.
Saulnier's a visually arresting artist, and he certainly didn't make it easy on himself this time around. He adapted Hold the Dark from a sparse book, a literary novel by the writer and critic William Giraldi, an instructor at Boston University and an editor at the journal AGNI, who's as protective and fierce about language as anyone in existence. (Here's Giraldi's view on the internet in a line: "I just can't fathom wasting a solitary minute on Twitter or Facebook," he said to the Huffington Post in 2015, "when Paradise Lost is waiting here.")
I emailed Giraldi to ask if he had any hesitations about giving his words to Hollywood. He immediately wrote back:
A writer can hear tales of ruin from other writers whose books have been adapted into films: "They savaged my story; they neglected the best parts; they changed the century and the city, made everyone Mormon and put 'em in orange leotards." When Netflix asked to turn 'Hold the Dark' into a feature film, I think I reflexively assumed a stance against what I feared was certain disappointment and embarrassment: 'I don't mind how you destroy my story, as long as your check doesn't bounce.'
But Giraldi is far less cynical than he initially makes himself out to be—and in his 300-word, impassioned response, told me about the generosity of Saulnier and his creative partner, the screenwriter Macon Blair, and how thrilled he was with the final product. "It is taut, lustrous art,"he wrote. "The writing, directing, acting, lighting, cinematography; the sets, sound, wardrobes."
I spoke to Saulnier about the process of translating Giraldi's literary novel to the screen, shooting a bigger-budget film for the first time, his creative relationship with Blair, and his continued growth as a filmmaker.
VICE: How did you stumble on Hold the Dark?
Jeremy Saulnier: Someone got the novel in Macon Blair's hands, and Macon, of course, is my cohort in all things cinematic, and he was really affected by it—had an emotional reaction—and he thought it'd be perfect for me, so he handed it off, right after we wrapped Green Room. We were trying to search for what was next, because the films we do have a long lead. Oftentimes a project—from development to completion—can take two to three years. We were kind of just searching, and Macon found this, and we thought it'd be a perfect fit. This was probably February 2015. I read it, and, you know, the way Giraldi writes—it's very cinematic, and it lends itself to adaptation in that it's sparse, visual, very atmospheric. The way he sort of builds his world is crystal clear to the reader in some respects, so I felt like, well, I could really see myself involved in this project, however this may work. Macon had adapted a novel before, but I was new to adaptation. I just didn't know how to do it, so we went through CAA [a major creative agency], and set it up—Macon and I equally attached as writer and director—and then we sold it soon after.
Your other films have been rather "insular," though that's probably the wrong word. What I mean is they were basically shot in a contained environment, most recently Green Room? Were you looking to do a bigger—and more expansive—project?
I certainly wanted to expand the scope and scale of what I've done on screen. But I was, and I still am, too scared to go above a certain budget limit. My movies are contained out of a sort of practical necessity—there has to be a way to make it outside the system, with individual investors. All my other films used available resources, but this was someone else's world. I never felt that my other films were at all compromised, but they were built, as I said, with what I had, or what I could get—as opposed to the imagination, without limitation. So Giraldi had already written this novel, and I felt, like, it was nothing but lift underneath us: that we could really have supporters come together and make this insane mythic tale. There were so many environments to explore. [Saulnier shot it in Canada and Morocco.] So many themes, too. You just never know when you first engage in development where it's going to lead—most of development dies somewhere in the process. The second or third draft. Maybe a competing project comes out, so you have to put it on the shelf. With this I had no concern, in regards to competing projects, because it was so, so particular.
What was the process from script to shoot? I'm asking because Giraldi is a very language-driven novelist. (He's seemingly one the last few literary critics out there in the world.) How do the words become visual? Specifically, the scene where Cheeon, Vernon's friend, and the cops have a ten-minute-long firefight.
Macon incorporated Russell Core—Jeffrey Wright's character—into that sequence. In the novel, Core is sort of sick, convalescing in a hotel room, which is not very cinematic. He's already somewhat of a passive protagonist in the movie—he's more of a witness, an observer—so we couldn't have him sit anything out. Which Giraldi thought was great, in regards to engineering all of this toward the big screen.
It was a 17-page sequence where Core comes to the village, finds a dead body in a nearby shack, and then is sort of swept up in this siege taking place across the village. So those 17 pages include some dialogue, and some set-up, but it was probably nine pages of pure action, nonstop—choreography, and pyro, and special effects, and stunts. It was a huge undertaking.
Is Hold the Dark a departure from what you've done in the past?
I'm more interested in the thriller genre, and putting protagonists in peril—I like kinetic, high-stakes, high-impact filmmaking. Mostly because when I entered into the industry, I was just in my backyard, you know, messing around, playing with costumes and models and sets and doing my own little choreography, and I got into special-effects makeup, so it’s really about arts and crafts—and even just the atmosphere you get from fog machines and graveyards at night. Like, the music video for "Thriller"—watching that as a kid, that was so cool—the music and the sound and the zombies, man. So, on a very practical level, I just like using all the arts and crafts. I like movie magic, but I like it done the old-fashioned way, in camera, and action-thriller-horror is, for me, the easiest way to use all the tricks in my bag.
Sure, it's been sort of my calling card. But I started out with a different vibe when I was making short films. Sort of, you know, day-in-the-life type, melancholy comedy. Not quite an indie darling as Garden State—but a guy on a moped trying to get a job sort of shit. As I aged, as I got softer—I stopped going to hardcore shows, which defined my youth, and couldn't skate anymore—my tastes in movies changed: I didn't want to see white, 20-somethings talking about their lives. And anyway, when I did do that, it was Murder Party. Like, if I'm going to have a bunch of these people in the room talking, they're all going to get killed.
I hope to keep evolving and devolving and trying new things. But I love the niche where I am. I love these hybrid genres. The crime thriller-horror genre, or whatever the hell Hold the Dark is. It is a departure, though, yes. I always wanted to be a director. I'm a writer, but my writing career was by necessity, to supply myself as a director with material that I could option for zero dollars [laughs]. Access to good scripts is difficult, even where I am now. It's hard to find projects that are really exciting.
Can you explain more specifically your partnership with Macon Blair? How do you two work so well together?
Macon's always sort of been the writer of the crew; he's really talented. For Hold the Dark, I had the luxury of—I certainly wasn't hands-off—but I let Macon get a full pass. He was in touch with Giraldi throughout the process, who was an invaluable resource. He was very supportive of us, very trusting; he could tell that we were trying to translate his story—not take all the commercial parts of it and bastardize into some weird Hollywood train wreck. We wanted to do the source material justice.
Most of my notes, they're always very practical. As far as my tastes and sensibilities, I was certainly averse to flashback sequences, and I tried to cull the script of some of those—but then I realized, in this sort of story, there's something deeper and enriching about going back in time, and it helps with the entire mythology of the tale. I let those pass, then, after I tried to remove them. I had never done a flashback before.
There are some passages where I wanted a line for Vernon Sloane—there's a sort of climactic sequence in a cave—and we needed this exchange to be deeper. And Macon and I would go back to Giraldi and ask what does, say, this line in the novel here mean to you. Then he'd write back paragraph after paragraph of biblical references, which were very deep. We were able to create this terse exchange [between the characters], then, that had such depth to it. There's no way to tell if people are going to get the full depth and breadth of what's happening, but that's the kind of nature of a literary work, and we were more than happy to let this story be what it is, and focus on the immersion, the experience, the tone, and the atmosphere. It's enigmatic and mystical, and leads to a rather unsettling, somewhat unresolved conclusion. To me, it's about defying cinematic convention: The end is usually where you have Hollywood types—for better or worse—come in and reengineer the ending, so it's going to meet expectations for an audience. We did shoot more—we did have more explicit revelations toward the conclusion—but when we did hit it on the nose, the film seemed to lose its power and its weight. There was more of an undercurrent driving the story, and less so the plot details. They ended up being a little too expository. Or, if the delivery of those revelations didn't ring true, it wasn't worth the risk. If the moment felt false, I just snipped it out.
The good thing is, when you ask so much of an audience, there are people who are left out and don't quite get it—and a lot of it is that they're expecting something very different, so it's hard to process. But so many people, you know, by asking a question, they're letting us know that they have the answer. So maybe they have to go back again and watch. Don't ask the filmmakers what the end is about; ask yourself. You figure it out.
Do people ask you about the end all the time?
Yeah—a bit here and there. It's a total success for me if you experience it, and you are somewhat bewildered. Like, you're asking yourself: What the fuck was that? Like, I was transported somewhere, it felt real, my mind is a bit scrambled, but what a ride. Some people really dig in—they get all the clues. And it really is designed—a few people in every screening will get the mystery behind Medora and Vernon—but, for most, if you watch it a second, or a third, time, everything you need to know is in there. The characters and the language, they're really speaking to you, and they're revealing a lot more than having these very surface level conversations.
This is a film, it strikes me, for the big screen. Did you have any reservations that most would view it on Netflix?
That most people would experience this on a smaller screen was obviously something I knew from the very beginning, and I certainly would love people to see it on the big screen if it's available to them. I'm waiting to see what the cinephiles in New York, and San Francisco, and LA do; if they go out and support it in theaters, that's great. If they stay home and watch it on Netflix, that sort of proves a point [laughs]. I'm not the sort of filmmaker, at this point, who demands a big-screen, theatrical release, or even a wide release, for anything I do. I've experienced everything as a filmmaker—straight-to-DVD releases to large theatrical releases—and this is all just a variation of that. Netflix, they're a great partner, and they really take care of their filmmakers. I just want to keep making movies, keep telling stories. So many times in this business, writers and originators are discarded in the process, and directors get all the accolades, for whatever reason—but it was really cool from the author of the novel to the screenwriter to me the director to all these sorts of producers and executives, we were all on the same page.
And, ultimately, when Giraldi saw it, I was delighted by his response. When you make a movie, oftentimes you want it to reach a certain audience—you make it for a certain crowd. I often make movies for a very narrow target. Green Room was for the eight or nine kids I grew up with, making movies with and playing in punk rock bands with. Blue Ruin was targeted to, well, my mother being one of them. And with the Hold the Dark, there was really only one person [laughs].
Should I ask what you're doing next? Is that annoying?
The funny thing about doing two projects in a row that were not my own material is, 1. I'm a little bit rusty, in regards to my own writing, but 2. I've accumulated four or five screenplay ideas, so I all of a sudden have a backlog. I actually love the process, too, of adopting a novel—I'm looking to do another one soon as well. Macon and I are certainly trying to kick into gear and start a company and get things going. It's great to be pursuing projects that aren't your own, but it's also great to have original scripts, to always have something in your back pocket. If all else fails, you have something you can control.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
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