A year ago, little-known writer-director-cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier was about to unveil his second feature, a low-budget revenge thriller called Blue Ruin, as part of Directors' Fortnight, a scrappy under-the-radar festival that's concurrently held down the street from the much-glitzier galas in Cannes. The Virginia native had worked on various aspects of others' below-the-radar films; his directorial debut, a Brooklyn-based horror movie called Murder Party (the tagline: "Everybody Dies….") won prizes at festivals in Canada and Colorado, then quietly disappeared. Before Saulnier made his new film, which charts the dark odyssey of a transient who discovers that the man who murdered his parents has just been released from prison, he considered himself nothing more than "a has-been" artist.
Flash-forward to the present: Having a FIPRESCI International Critics Prize under its belt after its debut just off of the Croisette, along with beaucoup critical acclaim after a successful year on the festival circuit (including a Spotlight slot at this year's Sundance), Saulnier's gritty, grindhouse-ish indie hits theaters on April 25th, courtesy of the Harvey Weinstein-owned boutique label Radius. The buzz for this modest little film is deservedly big. This, then, should be a moment of triumph for 37-year-old filmmaker after years of obscurity. But while Saulnier is grateful for the attention, he acknowledges the difficulty of stepping into the spotlight — and the promotional duties that come with it.
"I'm entirely uncomfortable with it," he confesses with a laugh, calling from his publicist's New York office. "I love talking about movies, but when it's my own work… It's why I gravitate towards filmmaking: I can express thoughts and articulate visions visually. Then I can just present it to audiences — it speaks for itself, ideally. But having to speak about it is tough. I'm not used to it, and I hate hearing myself revert to talking points that I've already done."
Well, let's see if we can help. Blue Ruin follows along as Dwight (played by actor Macon Blair) travels from Delaware to Virginia, hunting down and slaying his parents' killer. Most films would focus on Dwight's dish-best-served-cold payback, but Blue dispenses with the killer within 20 minutes — setting in motion a violent familial feud and opening the door to an unpredictable treatise on the limits of vengeance.
But for the filmmaker and Blair, Saulnier's best friend since childhood, the movie was also a homecoming. Having both settled in Brooklyn with a wife and kids, the duo returned to the Virginia of their upbringing to shoot the majority of the movie, even filming in family members' houses. "When we started to go back through these areas," Saulnier says, "I just felt this deep emotion. My hometown is being overdeveloped, and it's disappearing — the house I grew up in could very well be sold the next couple years. I needed to archive these spaces, just from a personal standpoint."
"The first time we started working together," Blair says, "I was in seventh grade, Jeremy was in sixth grade, and a bunch of us in the neighborhood made a cops-versus-drug-dealers movie. It was just an excuse to shoot up a bunch of people and rip off Miami Vice and RoboCop. We kept doing that sort of thing throughout high school and then on after film school."
Their giddy genre exercises culminated in Murder Party, a gory 2007 horror-comedy whose midnight-movie trappings didn't portend greatness. ("It didn't really knock us into show business the way we naïvely hoped it would," Blair confides.) The film's failure as a calling card prompted Saulnier to reconsider his ambitions. "The comfort zone for Macon and I is slapstick comedy, zombies, blood and good times," he says. "[Our friendship] started out us pretending to be filmmakers. [After Murder Party], we realized we had so much more to say and do. We embraced the fact that we had to wrap up this childhood arc — this insane fantasy of wanting to be filmmakers— and just make a film that was right and true. We used everything at our disposal and put everything we had into [Blue Ruin] ‘cause we thought it was likely going to be the end of our film careers."
Though making a living shooting other people's films, Saulnier envisioned Blue Ruin as his last best chance to prove himself as a director. As for Blair, "I had done very small supporting parts in small movies, but I definitely did not have any kind of sustainable acting career. I was very lucky to get to do the projects that I did, but I was holding onto my day job for dear life." Saulnier emptied his brokerage account, his wife liquidated her retirement account, and both of their mothers threw in money as well. A Kickstarter campaign and Saulnier's American Express Platinum got them the rest of the way to the film's budget, which was less than $300,000.
"Jeremy said, ‘We'll do this as a really stark, brutal revenge movie, and you're gonna be the lead,'" Blair recalls of the early conversations. "And I'm thinking, ‘That's a terrible idea.' I'm imagining Liam Neeson or Clint Eastwood. I was like, ‘Bro, you need a big, tough guy who's credible kicking ass…and that's not me.' He was explaining, ‘That's precisely the point: You don't belong here, and that's why it's hopefully going to be interesting.'" Dwight's soft-spoken, doughy presence — aided by Blair's admitted queasiness around guns — makes the everyman character a fumbling, uncertain and most unlikely vigilante. You almost think the film could slide into being a dark comedy: the inept action hero.
But for Saulnier, Blue Ruin also represents a reckoning with the carefree action movies he made growing up. "I wanted to tell a traditional genre story," he says. "I wanted to be badass and showcase my affinity towards [action] choreography, makeup effects, and all that gunplay that I grew up watching in the ‘80s. But I just thought, at a time in America — especially in 2011, ‘12, there was this string of abhorrent acts of violence that made me miserable — I couldn't celebrate violence. I couldn't do a film that was akin to those awesome genre spectacles of my youth." In other words, Blue Ruin is what would happen if the characters in Saulnier's favorite escapist childhood films confronted the real world's unpleasant complexity.
It's a surreal odyssey, no more so than for Saulnier and Blair, who find themselves in the unlikely position of finally being in demand after years on the margins. Saulnier joked that he felt like a "has-been" filmmaker when he set out to make it. Does he feel differently now?
"Macon and I saw the film premiere together in France," he says, "and we were shocked by the fact that we had made a real movie. We were just so unaware of what we had actually completed; it was a revelation. It wasn't so much that we're better or worse than anyone else out there. It was the fact that there's room for us. We belong here."