Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room isn’t just a heart-pounding thriller featuring Sir Patrick Stewart as a villainous club owner. It’s a tribute to punk and hardcore and what it takes to make it as a band when you’re young, broke and brimming with energy. Much of the experiences of the film come from Saulnier’s own experiences growing up in the DC punk scene. We sat down with Jeremy after his hometown screening to talk with him about punk, filmmaking and the intersection of the two.
Can you tell us about your connection to the DC punk scene?
Jeremy Saulnier: It started for me when I heard a Dead Kennedys album back in ’85. I was very intrigued by it, I dubbed a copy of it from a guy that I met. I knew him for one day. This stranger that I met on a cross-country road trip introduced me to punk rock and hardcore. I was a skateboarder. A lot of my introduction to punk and new wave come from older, cooler kids that I was hanging out with on the blacktop.
This movie is such a throwback. Green Room is about participation, showing up and creating a scene because of your presence. Back then, you had to go hunt down music. Look at t-shirts, who’s wearing what, trying to remember band names on t-shirts and trying to track down that record store. And you would just go get it and buy it blind and pop it in your cassette deck and listen to it. Sometimes you wouldn’t like it. But, because you bought it, you play it ten more times until you like it, and you get to know it, and you really have to study it. It’s such a tactile interface.
My buddies and I made movies together in our spare time. We were always into punk and metal and rap and all kinds of stuff, classic rock– whatever it was. When we got our licenses, we would drive across the Memorial Bridge into Washington, DC. We started going to all of these shows. That’s when I really got into the hardcore scene. We started a hardcore band in Virginia. Played a few shows in DC but nothing major. I really love attending shows, and I felt this real and raw energy there that I had not experienced in my life before so it’s really intoxicating and very cool. A great outlet for somebody who was physical and needed that individual self-expression, much like skateboarding, but not an organized sport scenario. I just loved it. My friends were musicians. I was more a lead singer in a hardcore band, I really wasn’t a musician. I was not that talented. I was always trying to be filmmaker. It was really fun to try to fuse the worlds together, both with the common theme of showing up and participating and making it alive and trying in some way to harness the energy that I fed off of when I went to shows.
Did you always want to make a film about the hardcore scene once you entered it?
JS: In the late ’90s, I was in school, I kind of drifted away, I still went to a few shows but I really put the blinders on and pursued filmmaking. But the music — and moreso, the good time — stuck with me. A lot of my favorite parts of the punk and hardcore scene are after shows when your ears are ringing and you’re just in the parking lot talking with your friends. When you’re drenched in sweat with a cold neck. It’s so physical. I wanted to remember that. I wanted to archive it. Through film, I lost sight of who I was. I didn’t go to shows anymore. Once I got the opportunity to make this movie, I felt like I had a mission to finally do something on screen that was sort of an archive. So I used so many stories from my friends, and a couple of my own, about being in a band and just setting the stage for this thriller set around punk rock music. It felt great to use songs that I’ve heard and was listening to in my teenage years. Something written by my high school bandmates even made it to the screen. It’s like coming full circle.
Wait, so the songs in the film were written by your high school bandmates?
JS: Yeah, so The Aint-Rights (the fictional band featured in the movie) perform three songs. One of them is a Dead Kennedys cover. The other two were written by my actual band. A few of the kids from the band were at the [DC] screening last night. It was really fun to show them the movie they inspired 20 years ago.
Why did you choose thriller/horror/whatever you want to call this film as the genre to tell a punk story?
JS: Well, I just gravitate towards those films because of the visual opportunities they allow me. When I first got my hands on a camcorder, I wanted to get rough with it. I wanted to take it in the backyard and make movies and set stuff on fire and just have a blast. I really love the feeling of being scared. I like horror movies. I like makeup effects, too. That’s the other thing with scary– it’s tactile. It’s very grounded in real texture. When you do an action movie, you’re choreographing stunts, it’s about timing and precision. You’re sculpting and painting with makeup effects and engineering rigs and walls. It’s really fun. It has an arts and crafts level that I love. The intense thriller would really benefit from that, because if I was going to try to harness the energy of punk and hardcore and metal and all of these aggressive-sounding music genres, what better way to use that than to have it evolve into a very intense action thriller?
You did something really interesting with sound in this film in that there are basically two types: diegetic punk music and this very minimal ambient, vibratory score. Can you tell me why you chose not to have a soundtrack?
JS: There was always the design for there to be wall-to-wall music. But because it came from the world of the film, I did want to add another layer on top of that. We’ve got a lot of death metal, grindcore, punk rock, hardcore — whatever it is. When there was quiet, I wanted to hear that quiet. I wanted to hear the wind through the trees. I wanted to feel the dampness of Portland, Oregon. So the score was just very transparent, synthetic, electronic. Because when you have blaring grindcore or punk rock, you cannot compete with that on a score level.
So then it was about really making sure that we transitioned from the wall-to-wall music with the noise on the PA system and drop to dead quiet. And then we start to build the score naturally. I’ve had a few montage sequences in some of my movies, but I have a hard time finding a place to slap on music that’s prerecorded. I like a really custom-fit score that complements the story and can sort of tuck back and be as invisible as possible. Those big soundtrack moments can be a bit of a distraction for me.
Who were you listening to when you were visualizing this film?
JS: I was primarily alone in my bedroom on a laptop. Very, very quiet. The only song I actually wrote into the script was “Nazi Punks (Fuck Off)” by Dead Kennedys. I had a soundtrack in my head that probably was my high school bands, the people that helped influence the film back in the 1990s. It wasn’t until the reality of trying to license all the music — the back to back to back song to song to song — curatorial process of finding the right fit. Initially editing a few scenes, I cut to music, I fell in love with it, I had to have it. There were key sequences that I had to fight for.
How do you get your actors to establish that band dynamic? Was that based on your dynamic with your own band or other people you know?
JS: They’re great actors. They got the fact that I was leaning on them to bring a certain physicality, a lot more for the character than exposition. Then you get them in hair, makeup and wardrobe and they look punk. We had an opportunity to have them become a band. I didn’t want to add needless band conflict or backstory to the storyline. Because I know being in these bands, where you don’t make a lot of money, tours wear you down. You can quit any time.
Once the “band” was down in Portland, Oregon, they did function as a real band. They practiced during the weekends, they even wrote an original song together to go through that creative process. They really bonded through that. They were learning the songs that were prerecorded for this film that they were to perform onscreen. But I think that really helped them to gel and to bond. They were so tight they would hang out after work and on weekends. They became a band. And by the time we wrapped the movie, they played the wrap party as The Aint-Rights. Anton [Yelchin] had been in a punk band and Alia [Shawkat] had played a little bit of guitar but Joe Cole and Callum Turner, the drummer and the singer, had never been near a band or an instrument. The fact that they went from zero to an actual band in just a few weeks was really insane. Because I knew this would be scrutinized by musicians. Callum, who played the lead singer, especially. The vocals you hear in the movie are his actual vocals.
And, for the question that any journalist who has seen the movie will be asking: what’s your desert island band?
JS: Black Sabbath.
Green Room is currently in theaters nationwide.