Green Room, a taut thriller directed by Jeremy Saulnier, is a great music movie. Even though it’s not really about music, the whole thing buzzes with the queasy energy of a really loud rock song. Plus, all the gruesome action happens inside a scum-covered venue, and the protagonists—played by Anton Yelchin and Alia Shawkat, among others—are members of a hapless DIY band.
“When I watch movies that are about punk, they turn me off,” Saulnier explained when we met up inside a roomy, wood-panel Manhattan studio. “Green Room is not actually about the scene—it's within the scene.” The filmmaker, who grew up playing in hardcore bands, had just finished recording an interview for Green Room Radio, an online radio show hosted by hardcore historian Tony Rettman that A24 put together in the weeks leading up to the film’s release.
Below, read Saulnier’s thoughts about music’s role in his work, and why the best punk movies are the ones that don’t try to be.
The Ain’t Rights, the fictional band at the center of Green Room, is explicitly a small town band. Why was it important for them to be from the suburbs?
For them to be out of their depth. Plus, that was my experience. I didn’t want to write for any other type of band. That’s when you get in trouble. I also didn't want to was inject the sort of required amount of band strife or tension. When you're in a shitty punk band, there's not a lot of money going around, and the road can wear you down, but you're all there because you want to be there. You can break up at anytime. The world will not feel the impact. Your wallet will actually probably get fatter. I wanted to have relatable people that didn't seem like characters in a movie. I want trying to build a false arc. All of a sudden you're with them on the road, and then you get to know them.
How does music play a role in your film work?
Sound and score and music is as important to me as picture. Music is huge. The thing is, I never had the chance to collect. I rely on other people to feed me music. Pursuing filmmaking I have neglected that side of my personality. One of the things about Green Room is now I'm just really hungry to get back and learn more about music—not just punk and hardcore. I felt that it was lacking in my life, so I lean on friends. For Green Room, I had a bunch of my old bandmates and their friends and connections be consultants. I was trying to call back all the music that I had forgotten, and they reminded me. Some of the music is stuff that my friends wrote, but I look forward to learning more about music and having it play a bigger role in my movies moving forward.
How has the concept of “punk” manifested in your earlier movies?
There's certainly a punk rock vibe throughout my films, and maybe that's more behind-the-scenes. My first film, Murder Party, put my high school friends in front of the camera. It was really DIY- style, done with a certain amount of irreverence—or rather, ignorance. No access, no in-roads to the industry. Blue Ruin, too, was designed as a battering ram. We achieved a certain level of tone that I'm proud of, but we needed to smash into the industry. The goal was to break in, get our foot in the door, and then let all our buddies in and make Green Room. You know, kind of fuck up our hotel room. It's the only film I could have made at that juncture. We had to sneak this one in under the radar. It's fun to see that it's being embraced because it is different. We'll see moving forward. I might soften up.
Have you thought a lot about your next project?
Lots of thought, lots of projects. I'm developing many things. [My next movie] will probably be a little less violent. I'm in it to tell visually kinetic stories. I like the textures and the thrills of genre movies. As long as I can make films that are exciting, that will draw in the audience, that feeling of electricity from music or movies that have higher stakes, then I'll do what I can. Other than that, I'm agnostic as far as genre and labels.
You mentioned during the radio interview that you wanted to create the feeling that the movie wasn't trying too hard, which is actually a pretty "punk" mentality.
As a cinematographer, I learned about the concept of wasting production value. When you sit there and hang on close-ups of details and you show people how authentic you are, you know you're a tourist. To get full immersion in a world, you let it go.
It took a whole lot of energy and people power to build that concert venue on a soundstage from scratch. Every shitty sticker and peeling paint. The key was to make it seem totally authentic, [which involved] a lot of research, whether it be my own personal experiences and those of my friends. I knew enough about the hardcore scene in general to feel comfortable. Then you just let it all go. You have the characters talk amongst themselves. You breeze by details. With that full immersion, the audience may miss a few lines of dialogue, but they know the people on-screen know for damn sure what they're talking about. That way audience members are more attuned to what's happening. You don't stop to give them the backstage tour, but they are there with you.
Were you nervous about the music world's reactions to the movie? Punks can be volatile.
A lot of musicians will try to call out actors for being fake when they're performing live. We cut the musical scenes to make sure it would stand the test of real musicians scrutinizing every frame. As a filmmaker I seek acceptance. You want to please the audience, you want them to be satisfied. I hope the punk and hardcore and metal scene embraces this movie, but this is a genre film. This is a punk action movie. I feel like I made it as true as I could.
You mentioned that in the original script, Alia Shawkat's character was a dude. Watching, I was glad to see a female-identifying human in what's clearly a male-heavy scene. Were you happy with the switch?
Now it's the only option. I could never envision another version of this band. We were casting for energy and performance and not gender. She's great. She even started things off on the right note. I didn't want the punk movie to have too many fucking hair colors, so Tiger was going to have blue hair. I told her, don't dye your hair I don't want Power Ranger shit. And she dyed her hair red anyway. I was like, 'Fuck you! I guess that's kind of punk though. I guess it stands.' She has it in her heart. She won it fair and square.
Are there elements of your hardcore past that have carried into your life now?
I am old and reminiscing and I feel fucking proud. You had to go buy records blind, take 'em back, listen to 'em. And now you can just click stuff. It was just so fun when you had to check the flyer on the wall and go show up somewhere. I wasn't like an OG. I didn't, like, have any sway. But it was fun, and it was good to relive it actually, because I have a terrible memory and this is bringing it all back. I'm gonna go to D.C. tomorrow to show all the people that inspired this movie the movie. If it passes that test, then I'm going to take a big sigh of relief—and then take a break.