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Jeremy Saulnier on the Catharsis of Making ‘Hold the Dark’ and Creating Conflict Through Performance

Written by on September 27, 2018 

jeremy-saulnier

After his first feature Murder Party did not attract the attention it deserved, Jeremy Saulnier spent time away from the director’s chair, spending seven years as a cinematographer. For his next film, Blue Ruin, he took a big and quite literal gamble: he and his wife mortgaged their home to fund the subversive, stripped-down take on the revenge thriller. Unlike the bumbling, all-too-human characters at the center of his work, Saulnier came out of the experience on top, with the film premiering at Cannes and taking home the FIPRESCI Prize. With a newfound momentum, he followed up Blue Ruin with Green Room, a savage and barebones thriller which carried over his love of very human characters who are very out of their element–along with further exploring his gag-inducing special effects, coal-black humor, and tension.

With Hold the Dark, Saulnier widens his canvas in exciting ways, tackling his first adaptation and embracing a unique narrative propulsion seldom found in genre cinema. Melding elements from a number of genres, Saulnier creates his most dense work yet in a film all about dichotomies–in codes of life, men and nature, knowing and unknowing. These differences lead to conflict, and perhaps, truth. The awkward and savage nature of the characters always found in his films are now contrasted with an ominous mysticism and otherworldliness, effectively evolving his thematic concerns and, by extension, his lexis.

Ahead of the film’s release on Netflix this Friday, we sat down with Saulnier to discuss working with words that were not his own, expanding his scope, and creating conflict through performance. We also discuss new technical challenges, the differing codes of man, and trying to make sense of the world.

The Film Stage: So, your first three features (Murder Party, Blue Ruin, and Green Room) are all very stripped down; the characters and the plotting come out in the midst of a maelstrom of moments, but with Hold the Dark there is a sense of delving into things more. You’ve always let scenes breathe when they need to, especially in Blue Ruin before this, but here the whole film is able to breathe while still maintaining a real sense of forward momentum. How did you determine the pacing?

Jeremy Saulnier: Yeah, it’s something we certainly had to find in the edit. There’s a wealth of material there from the novel and we shot a bunch of extra dialogue and exposition, and parts of the mythology of the iconic masks that are featured in the film. But you know, when you’re doing a literary adaptation–as I learned–sometimes you really have to focus on that experience; the sight and sound of it all, and pull back on exposition and not always defer to the literary depths that you’re going for as far as having it all on camera. When you pull back, and let it breathe and function in a more enigmatic way narratively, you then regain the weight of the novel without spelling everything out.

The pacing is certainly unconventional, and that is what I embraced. For Green Room especially, that was an exercise in tension-building. That was my goal: I want to do a nightmare scenario as I see it unfold, and just keep ratcheting up the tension. People responded to that quite well. But for Hold the Dark, I was able to break out of the box I put myself in. Because, when I write, it’s not always just because it’s a narrative I’m attracted to. It’s also because it’s at a certain scale that if I really had to, when all the Powers-That-Be say no to me, they’re not making my movie, I could get my credit card out and make it myself.

And so there’s a very particular engineering to my stories, from Murder Party to Blue Ruin to Green Room. But for Hold the Dark, I didn’t have to go through the seven or eight drafts to get this in shape, or go pitch it around town as an original story. The writers—William Giraldi who did the novel and Macon Blair who adapted the screenplay—did the heavy-lifting, and it was way beyond any scope or scale that I would write for myself, out of mistrust of the industry. So, it was a playground for me! It had a lot more atmosphere and weight to it, and there was a reverence for the material and the story being told. But also, the cinematic landscape was expansive compared to my other films and I was able to really challenge myself, to flex new muscles, and to explore practical and narrative challenges that I hadn’t before: aerials, animals, war scenes, deserts, and really protracted dialogue scenes that had their own weight. So, it was all good for me.

I think it’s smart to make sure you understand the medium you’re working in and not try to emulate the novel at every turn, but just sort of be conscious that overall you’re getting the impact of it. As you said, this is your first script where you haven’t written it, and it sounds like it was kind of freeing to work with material that wasn’t initially from your own mind.

Oh, certainly. Giving up a little bit of control here and there, not only with second or third unit doing some additional photography, but me not being the sort of all-knowing author of a work. You know, any actor or crew member or collaborator that would come to set having read the novel, would have an interpretation of the material that was as valid as mine. But I welcome that, in that collectively we had to figure it out together and make sure we were all telling the same story, and doing the source material justice.

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I know that you said on Green Room, some of the more difficult technical elements were handling a lot of actors in the space.

Yeah.

Here, as you said, the scale is much bigger. So what were some of the newer elements in Hold the Dark that challenged you?

Yeah, I’d never been up in the air scouting in a helicopter, in high winds and snowstorms trying to design the aerial sequence. I’d never shot a war sequence with armored personnel carriers and helicopters. I’d never worked with so many animals on set. A lot of the pitfalls they warn you against, we dove right into. And that was cool, but I’m also very technically-oriented as far as practical effects, make-up, action, camera movement. So, shooting the centerpiece action sequence was actually more of a fulfillment of a childhood dream in that I could tackle something big and menacing, and narratively of course, really devastating and impressive. But behind the camera, the act of making it was what I’d be waiting for my whole life. Which is: enough time, enough money, and the resources to dial in an action sequence as I envisioned it without any compromise. So, some of the most challenging stuff was actually easiest because we were so scared during prep, that we did extensive previsualization and rehearsals with the stunt team and the armorers to make sure it was safe to execute the scenes. Other than that, it was relatively easy.

But, when you’re trying to fine-tune Alexander Skarsgård, we sat there for just a few extra minutes before our first take of Alex on camera as Vernon Slone, just trying to fine-tune the pitch at which he should perform because it was almost a wordless performance. How do you direct that? How do you find that on camera without a lot of rehearsal? So that was a challenge too, directing the physicality of some of the actors, not just the intonation of their words.

Speaking of both of those action scenes—the war scenes and then the later, central setpiece—I think it’s really interesting and effective where you put the camera. Because in the war sequence, there’s a perception of emotional distance and detachment for the character that’s in it. That’s contrasted later with the central action piece, which is much more hectic and doesn’t sensationalize any of the bloodshed, and I think it’s really clever the way that progression takes place visually in the story.

Yeah, for the Iraq war footage, the whole directive there was to have this kind of removed, Kubrickian following vibe. You’re definitely with Slone, in close proximity, but he is very clearly governed not by the laws of the land or the U.S. government or the armed forces. He’s sort of carving his own path, somewhat literally; it’s surreal, and we let the trappings of war and all the background bullet hits and fires and fighter jets really recede into the background. You know, later in the film, everything gets a little more up close and a little more personal.

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Diving into some of the more thematic elements, I think Hold the Dark continues an interest from Green Room about codes and different ways of life, and how for certain people there’s no disputing these codes and how they’re just sort of the blood that’s running in people’s veins.

Yeah.

These codes are always causing conflict, at home and at war, and with each other. What intrigues you about the moral codes and the rituals of certain lifestyles?

Hold the Dark is certainly about the power of observation and non-intervention. And about not understanding, just knowing. And that was what I was going through. I don’t want to sound like an old man but, in this day and age, it’s hard to figure out what humans are doing and why they’re doing it. It’s very frustrating because we want to know, we want to identify, and to put things in boxes and analyze it. But, Hold the Dark let me, as a filmmaker, find the cathartic release in not trying to figure it out, in the power of observation and letting go, and actually bowing to the forces of nature and the wild, and embracing the fact that humans are animals. That the intellect by which we’re governed is a construct and it can be confusing, and an obstruction to true understanding; in that, you know, just breathe fresh air and just watch and when something dangerous happens, run away. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.]

It’s pretty simple, intuitive nature. And the code is an aboriginal thing. With Vernon Slone, like you said, it’s in his veins, he’s governed by that. We don’t know exactly what’s going on in his head, and the characters in the film even make that mention: they’re never gonna truly understand Vernon Slone, but you can observe behavior and again, know it but not really understand it.

Hold the Dark continues your fascination with the awkward humanity element. Like your previous films, it creates tension and humor, but it also keeps the human beings at the heart of the story; someone falling down a hill or struggling to count the rounds in their gun. Do you always look for ways to humanize the narrative and keep it feeling grounded, despite the more heightened genre elements?

Absolutely. I think the reason why my films have an impact on people as far as the level of violence and tension [is concerned] is because my focus really is narrative conflict through performance. I really, not only as a filmmaker but as an audience member, I just want to see people that I can relate to. But not in the traditional pet the dog, save the cat kind of way. Just people that are vulnerable and flailing through these situations. Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) is actually more of an experiment than I’m used to dealing with. He’s not completely out of his depth in the Alaskan outback, but he’s a retired naturalist. He’s not a typical action hero. So, while he has an expertise, I find I always gotta have someone that’s in over their head to really connect with them.

Hold the Dark hits Netflix on Friday.


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