Director Jeremy Saulnier is back with a vengeance, as he follows up his critically acclaimed Blue Ruin revenge thriller with Green Room, an intense punk rock siege warfare flick.
In the film, a broke punk band called “The Ain’t Rights” struggle to make ends meet on the road, as every little bit of cash they earn at gigs goes towards gas for the next show. After being ripped off by their latest promoter Tad who humiliates them by booking them at a Mexican restaurant, he offers them a much better deal if they’re willing to drive down close to Portland and play in a club that’s become a hot spot for Nazi skinheads. Although reluctant at first, the crew eventually caves when they learn how much money is involved, especially with the punk scene being on its last legs, and them possibly on their last tour.
When The Ain’t Rights finally roll up to the skinhead friendly concert venue, it seems slightly sketchy, but with Tad’s friend Daniel there to greet them, the gang’s preconceived notions soften, and their fears at put at ease. The band goes onstage, and an intoxicating static looms over the crowd. Waves of shaved skulls jump into the air, fists fly, and for a moment, it appears that the room full of people has evolved into a sea of pure energy. It’s magical. The collective effervescence is palpable.
The show goes so well, it’s hard to believe such an incendiary performance could be followed by such a heinous crime. When bass player Pat (Anton Yelchin) races back to grab a phone charger from the green room, he stumbles upon a ghastly sight his no one was supposed to see, let alone an out-of-towner. He and the band are suddenly held hostage in the room, cut off from communication, and given no information. The way things are shaping up, it seems that this won’t end well.
What starts as a promising sunny day of heavy tunes and hard cash quickly delves into a disastrous pitch black night overrun with machete-bearing adolescent soldiers, ready to execute anyone who tries to leave. They may have entered as band members, but over the course of the evening, Sam (Alia Shawkat), Pat (Yelchin), Reece (Joe Cole), and Tiger (Callum Turner) will grow into vicious warriors, if they want to fend off their predators waiting in the wings, and escape the Green Room.
At a lavish hotel in West L.A., in an immaculate suite that Saulnier casually described as “not very punk rock”, I sat down with the director to discuss his strangely relatable tale of unbelievably brutal events that occur over the course of a single evening. Whereas many revenge flicks or standoff films in Hollywood are lead by robotic figures who rapidly transition from completely inefficient to suddenly superhuman and heroic, Saulnier opts for more down-to-earth depictions of characters in his films.
“It’s just the only way I find the proper inroad into the story” Saulnier explains. “When I see artificiality or false notes or anything that doesn’t seem genuine in a movie it just wrenches me out of the narrative, and when I see people behaving like studio executives think they should, I just don’t buy it and I don’t invest in it as an audience member”.
It may not be as flashy, but Saulnier prefers characters who make mistakes, because it shows that they’re human, and therefore, that they’re just like the audience.
“You know, I’m not trying to like, be better or be snarky, but when I don’t buy it I just, there is no connection and I disengage. So for me, the reliability is just about grounding performance, and getting actors who have a certain amount of humanity. I mean, not that Anton [Yelchin] couldn’t play Spider-Man, it’s just a lot of people in the agency system are just kind of being bred to be superheroes, and I like people who seem real, like the friends I grew up with. And, of course, putting people out of their depth is something I delight in doing as a storyteller, it provides for a lot of material.”
Even the Nazi skinheads in Green Room appear to retain some morality. Gabe (Macon Blair), a follower of lead skinhead Darcy (Patrick Stewart) who works at the club and is on the brink of getting his red laces, shifts between his desire to please his superior, and succumbing to his nagging humanity. Like any gang member or child soldier scooped up by evil forces at an impressionable age, Gabe, in Saulnier’s eyes, is more of a victim of his situation than an active member of an evil force with an insatiable bloodlust. Salunier himself is no stranger to the punk skinhead scene.
“I have been familiar with that scene just because back in Washington, D.C. in the 1990s, there were Nazi skinheads and you’d see them at every big show. Not that they’re welcome, but you know” Salunier says, looking back on his younger years. “I remember, my buddies and I watched this documentary, [America Undercover Skinheads USA: Soldiers of the Race War] and when I saw that documentary, I saw how despite their ideology and their ill intentions, they were not menacing, they were people and they were I think broken and searching for something that an organization could offer them, you know, groups and comradery, even a place to crash. A lot of these kids are recruited, and they’re very vulnerable and they’re very angry at something and then that is perverted by these people who recruit them, and they use music to attract them, and they sell them on this line about racial identity and Nationalism, and it sinks in, and they have a purpose and a cause”.
To Saulnier, although their core beliefs are undoubtedly questionable, the reason why young people start self-identifying as Nazi skinheads has less to do with their personal racism, and more about being drafted during a moment in their lives when they are at their weakest.
“I think they’re mostly victims, and I treated them as victims. These Nazi skinheads, they’re real people and I think they’re trying to please. They have marching orders and they’re a bit reluctant, and their motivations again aren’t simple bloodlust, and I thought it was going to be interesting to cast some of them very young, which I think is the danger of that sort of thing, when you’re recruited so young. And the thing is, the dynamic is, it’s like kid soldiers versus amateurs, that’s what it’s like inside the Green Room. So, I think it’s true to the world to a certain extent, and then I made sure not to identify any certain groups or subcultures that I was referencing to keep it fictional”.
Green Room hits theaters in L.A. and NYC on April 15th, and goes nationwide on April 29th, 2016.