If you know the name Macon Blair, it's likely from his starring role in writer-director Jeremy Saulnier's revenge thriller Blue Ruin. Saulnier and Blair, best friends from childhood, had a difficult time generating interest in the project from backers as neither were really known in the industry at the time. They turned to Kickstarter and were able to raise a modest amount, but much of the funding came from Saulnier and his wife, who staked their mortgage, retirement accounts, and the entirety of their savings on the success of the film, much of which would depend on Blair, a completely unknown, untested actor, as the lead.
"Imagine someone asks you to hold this very fragile, incredibly valuable thing, and you're like, 'I think I'm going to drop it, and when I do, all my worst fears will come true,'" Blair told me over lunch, adding that he'd spent the weeks before shooting pacing anxiously around his house. "Jeremy was literally betting his house and the savings he needed for his three daughters. As the lead of that film, he was betting on me not to stink up the room, and if I had, it would have ruined him."
Needless to say Blue Ruin turned out to be a critical success, and Blair's directorial debut, I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore, streaming exclusively on Netflix now, solidifies his place in the industry. The hilarious, violent, and surreal film stars Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood as Ruth and Tony, neighbors who meet after Ruth's home is burglarized and, together, attempt to recover items stolen from Ruth's house, quickly finding themselves out of their depths. The film debuted at Sundance this year and took home the grand jury prize, further solidifying Blair, who also wrote the film, as a creative force no longer indebted to Blue Ruin. I had the chance to speak with Blair in his home city of Austin, just after his big triumph in Utah, to talk about his wild new film, creating a non-superhuman female hero, and getting exactly what he wanted in life.
VICE: The last time I saw you, you were winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.
Macon Blair: Yeah, that was startling, astonishing. It was tricky, too. It was only a few days after the inauguration, and I'm not articulate enough to deliver this big speech, but it seemed irresponsible not to say something, and so it was all very confusing, and I feel like I mumbled some things, and then people were like, "OK, OK," and hustled me off the stage. There was some champagne backstage, and I drank three in a row and then was like, Alright, calm down.
That night was intense because it was right after the immigration ban had been announced, and so everyone around me was trying to read the news on their phones and—
Keep things compartmentalized, but also integrated.
Right. And then so many of the speeches that night were political and moving. Including yours.
I remember feeling very conflicted. I had my phone with me, and every time I'd refresh, it there would be a new piece of information, and it was hard to be present with people, but it was also a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and I wanted to be able to enjoy it and be grateful and not be wound up the whole time.
"Moving forward, if what I'm preoccupied with is: What is going on in this fucking country?... that will absolutely find its way into my work."
Will our political climate affect the work you do moving forward?
For sure. Everything always has some degree of personal stuff in it. If I'm hired to write a gangster story, there'll be something about being a parent that would find its way into it. If it's a science-fiction story, there'd be something about my relationship with Dad. There's always something personal. Not because I'm planning it that way, but because I can't help it. So, moving forward, if what I'm preoccupied with is: What is going on in this fucking country? then to either a large or small degree, that will absolutely find its way into my work.
I think a lot of people in this country feel like the victims of gaslighting right now, which makes your film, which features a bond between two characters built by their willingness to take each other seriously, especially cathartic.
Yeah, Tony is so furious on Ruth's behalf!
I've never seen a device build a bond between two characters with such economy before. How did these characters evolve?
That was my hope, so that's good to hear. The general idea for Ruth was that she was a little isolated in the world. And so she and Tony would have a special friendship. It's not really a romance, but it is a special friendship that gives her something she didn't know she needed. I didn't know how I wanted to articulate that. And so the way that made sense was that, if I came to someone and was like, "Something happened that hurt my feelings," and they said, "Who the fuck hurt your feelings? What!" there would be a kind of magnetism there that I ended up wanting that scene to hinge on.
I haven't seen many films where women are given so much agency, but are also allowed to be real, human women. You see these movies with badass female leads, but they are sort of mega-competent larger than life action figures—
Right, they're superhuman.
But Ruth is allowed to make mistakes and not know what she's doing and is still a great hero in the film.
She also misbehaves. And it's not the end of the world. I never thought about it in terms of her being a woman or whether this kind of representation was common or not. I had an unformed character sketch in my head about a caretaker who'd decided that they didn't like caring about people, and it incrementally became Ruth. I liked the idea that someone would be so mad about something that their best idea would include ripping open a cereal box to get a fake police badge—a character with both righteous and, on the other hand, impotent anger. I just thought it would be funny to see. I wanted to do a crime story with a hero in the middle that we'd like and want to hang out with, and Melanie was the person I wanted to play that hero. There was no mission statement.
Tony is also a great character. His humor is so rooted in him, so singular and specific.
That's something I wanted. That kind of specificity is fun to think about. It's like making a mixtape—what is on the Tony mixtape? He's got a rattail and a dog that loves; he likes kung-fu and fantasy novels. And Elijah developed a lot of that character himself. He suggested a lot of details.
You've said elsewhere that you always had Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood in mind for Ruth and Tony. What was it about them as actors that you thought could illuminate these characters the best?
For Melanie, I'd keyed into her since Heavenly Creatures, which was more than 20 years ago. She had this intense ferocity in that movie that seemed appropriate for certain elements of Ruth. Away We Go popped into my head a lot, too, where she's just really vulnerable and heartbreaking and transparent, and those aspects I thought would be great for the beginning part of the movie. It's hard to articulate. I just liked her vibe. She seemed like a real person. I could imagine her walking into a frame and seeing my neighbor as opposed to a movie star playing my neighbor, which feel distinct from each other. And Elijah, he's just a charismatic, sympathetic guy, and I liked the idea of taking this weird, irritating character that people, almost on a subconscious level, would be on his side, no matter what he did. But I also really like [Melanie and Elijah] as people and wanted to work with them. And it's as simple as that. I wanted my wife in the movie, so she plays Angie. I wanted David Yow [for villain Marshall], because I've admired him for so long, and I wanted to give him a juicy role to play. It was my first time directing, and as far as I knew, my last time, so I wanted it to be a family affair. My mom and my dad are in it. My kid is in it. My brothers did the music. I wanted to populate the movie with the people I loved.
After Blue Ruin got accepted to Cannes, you said in an interview, "It sounds corny, but it's really how I think of [the film]: It's a fucking gift." Does that feeling remain now that you've had some sustained success?
One hundred percent. This is insane. For me, it boils down to this: I grew up making movies with my friends, and all I've wanted to do since is be able to support my family while doing what made me happy, and now I can do that. It's still month to month, and it's still a hustle, but we're getting there, Jeremy much more so, but it absolutely feels like a gift. Yeah, maybe by the sixth Q&A at Sundance, I'm going through the motions a bit, but that's not the same thing as not enjoying it. I liken it to the day my wife and I got married, and it was a whole day of people coming up and saying, "We love you so much, and we're so happy for you." And you would say back, "Thank you so much, I love you too." And you mean that, but at a certain point, you're just exhausted. It's never a matter of not enjoying it; it's just a physical stamina thing. That goes away, though, as soon as the credits go up and people are clapping. I'm like, "Fuck, man, we spent all this energy and time trying to make this little, inconsequential piece of entertainment so that people could be happy and enjoy something for a small amount of time and that is what's happening."
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I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore is now streaming on Netflix.