Blue Ruin: Jeremy Saulnier & Macon Blair on Beards and Revenge

Blue Ruin Macon Blair

I’ve been waiting almost a year for this interview. Blue Ruin was the first movie that jumped out at me on my one and only trip to the Cannes Film Festival last year. Radius TWC picked it up for distribution, and it is finally in theaters this week, after also playing TIFF, Fantastic Fest, AFI Fest and Sundance. Macon Blair stars as Dwight, a homeless man who springs into action when the murderer of his parents is released from prison. Not only isn’t it as simple as he thought, but Dwight isn’t as practiced in violence as most movie heroes. He’s resourceful though as we follow him out for revenge. I got to speak with Blair and writer/director Jeremy Saulnier about their journey in the last year, and the beard Blair sheds as Dwight in the film.

CraveOnline: For those of us who don’t know exactly how the festival circuit works, it’s a big deal to get into Director’s Fortnight. From there how did you get into Toronto, Fantastic Fest and other festivals?

Jeremy Saulnier: We were also ignoramuses when it comes to the festival circuit. I know very well the American regional scene, that you’re supposed to shoot for Sundance and then do all the others, but we were shocked and surprised that we were accepted to the Fortnight and it’s been an education. We’re still learning how it goes but I will say that once we were in Fortnight, all of a sudden we were legitimate. We were a real movie with a real premiere. Access became so much easier. We were invited to Fantastic Fest and Toronto the day after our premiere. So we knew we had these awesome premieres lined  up, North American and U.S. Honestly, being picked up by Radius with the Weinstein name attached, not only helped with the festival circuit but the rest of the world markets just climbed on board and we sold almost all of our territories within a week. Having the laurels of Director’s Fortnight changed the course of this film considerable.

Had you submitted to Sundance?

Jeremy Saulnier: We did. We submitted a two hour assembly three and a half weeks after we wrapped. We submitted the week they notified in November and they loved it. They said, “We just can’t do it. It’s too late. It’s rough.” And I think Trevor Groth and Charlie Reff at Sundance wrote back and said, “Keep us posted.” So the goal actually was to submit to Fortnight or Cannes to make an editing deadline because we had done the Sundance push, didn’t quite make the cut that year and we were going to regroup, go back to our day jobs, take our time, make some more money. There was one outstanding scene. It was an emergency room scene which is very hard to acquire on a low budget.

So you shot that in a real hospital?

Jeremy Saulnier: Yeah, it was an abandoned hospital in New Jersey and it cost us about $5,000 to reassess where we were and raise some more cash, and then blow it all again on that, but it was worth it. The ER scene is the culmination of a whole sequence of events. It is the punchline. So basically, we said, “The next biggie is Cannes. Let’s regroup.” The editor came back on board for free. “So let’s submit to Fortnight and Critics Week and Cannes proper, just do it to make the deadline and we’ll regroup for a submission to Sundance in September of 2013. They saw the film in its rawest form, no one else saw that. Let’s only show them the film in its finished form, full sound mix, visual effects and then hope to God we’ll get into Sundance 2014.”

But Director’s Fortnight sort of called our bluff and let us in. We were very shocked, so we had to fast track this prolonged schedule. All of a sudden we had three and a half weeks to finish as opposed to five months. We had to hire some new editors just to have this crazy push to get it done. We were aiming for Sundance. They were very supportive and still are, but no one thought we would get into Cannes. Edouard [Waintrop] there, the artistic director, I credit him with changing the course of my life and my career because he was that person who had faith in a relatively unknown director and cast. He was just like, “I like this movie. We’re putting this in.” The power of that showcase is immense.

Did you have to make sure you got all the beard scenes in the can before anything else?

Macon Blair: Oh my God, fuck yeah. That was a huge scheduling acrobatic move. The editing department, everything revolved around the beard because it was moving casts and locations. Once it was gone, it was gone.

I would be so nervous to shave it and re-watch every take obsessively to make sure you had every piece you needed before shaving it.

Jeremy Saulnier: Our UPM/First AD was amazing, Alex Orr, did a film called Blood Car. We met on the festival circuit in 2007. He was one of the few of my trusted collaborators from years past that actually answered my call. He was like, “If we do this through payroll and I get my days as a UPM, I’ll make the union off this film and I would love to help you.” So he did and he was an amazing schedule because he’s been a gaffer, a grip, a first AD, a producer, director. He knows everything. This film was designed to be as efficient as possible.

Aside from Macon Blair who worked for 30 plus days, no other actor worked more than five days because we needed to get good talent to come to this very small scale production. We needed to get them in and provide an environment to do their best work and get the fuck out before they peeked behind the curtain that we were on the verge of disaster every day. So get ‘em in, get ‘em out.

The beard forced us into one very inefficient thing. We had to ship the Cleland family down to shoot around the beard, and then ship them out. Double travel on our budget was a huge issue, but Alex Orr was like, “I’m going to shoot the beard out first. Then we’re going to take a day off and watch all the footage and make sure it’s all in the can.” And we did, so we knew we achieved everything we had to. You also have the Wes Anderson Luke Wilson beard shaving scene in Royal Tenenbaums. So many movies have that, we don’t want to show the beard being shaved. Let’s just reveal it, and we shot that towards the end of the schedule. The beard was the only significant scheduling issue we had and it’s still in a Ziploc bag in my basement today, just in case.

Macon, was this a unique chance to have a leading role?

Macon Blair: 100%. I’ve done small movies in supporting capacities, never had a leading role in a feature. This was a huge opportunity, literally once in a lifetime stuff so I treated it accordingly and to the best of my ability. I really need to capitalize on this.

Jeremy Saulnier: He also gave me the opportunity to direct because this movie has a Cinderella story and it’s 100% true. It’s a very emotional side of this and there’s a purity to it. There’s also a very cynical pragmatic side. As a director, cameraman, writer, we needed to revive our careers and show people what we could do and what we wanted to do. I knew Macon’s abilities and I’d never seen them fully realized. I knew as mathematics, Macon Blair was an underutilized asset that I could totally exploit. If I could use and abuse him for 30 days on a film set, then I would benefit as would he. It was a gamble in terms of the risks we took but I had every confidence in him and knew that I could just exploit his talents to my benefit.

What did you want to demonstrate in terms of a genre like a revenge story but with untraditional characters and untraditional ways it plays out?

Jeremy Saulnier: I wanted to showcase just what I learned back in film school in 1988 where you had to think about what you’re doing, and write a script and adhere to it and try and execute a vision in a traditionally crafted way. The revenge thing, I’m not quite sure where that came from but we had this one character that had been floating around, beach bum character. The scenarios around him changed, a dark comedy premise to this and that, but I’ve always gravitated towards genre films.

I like horror, I like action and I thought we may not have the ability to showcase Bourne trilogy scale set piece action scene, but we could do our own thing down and dirty, small scale and embrace that. So while we centered on a very traditional crafted thought through story, we wanted it to be really mundane and unpredictable. I thought we could embrace our weaknesses and turn them into strengths because I had not seen that shit before on screen. I had always seen experts with military backgrounds always making the right decisions, being super smarts.

The supporting characters he meets give him some really good advice that’s different than we ever hear in movies.

Jeremy Saulnier: I don’t want to say the film wrote itself, but if you sit there and think about what might actually happen if someone who’s a little more inept embarked on this very standard revenge mission, that is a wealth of material. To see the audience experience, if they tried to do this sort of thing, what might happen, they embrace the character. Although the character does some terrible things and it’s a very dark film, there’s this base level of connection that they see themselves in Dwight and love to see him flail, and see an antihero actually be the antihero.

Did you really vomit, Macon?

Macon Blair: Yeah, for some reason, I don’t know why but that’s sort of become a thing. We’ve done it a couple times in other movies. I guess part of it is when it’s done with an effect you can always tell because of the way it’s cut. You’re like, “Oh, they had something in their mouth.” I think just when you see because of the timing or the length of the shot that it’s actually a physical reaction, it’s just more impactful.

Real vomit always looks different from movie vomit because it’s more than a mouthful.

Jeremy Saulnier: Yes, and I felt really good because it’s a shared pet peeve. If you can’t show real vomit, just don’t show it because everyone can always tell a little cup of oatmeal. You’re trying to ration it, or you use a tube. It’s always horse shit, but last night after the screening, Charlie Reff from Sundance came down and took me aside and was like, “That was real vomit, man.” And I appreciate that because it’s also his pet peeve. He cannot stand and will always call out and gets distracted by fake vomit.

Did shooting mostly outdoors make it easier or harder for a movie at this level?

Macon Blair: We got really lucky in terms of weather. We had a couple of rain days. We were just on the verge of if we had one or two more rain days, it would’ve really blown the schedule so we got very lucky.

Jeremy Saulnier: Yeah, we had a great schedule. We had a little bit of stuff in our back pocket, if it rains, we can run and do these three scenes. But we really lucked out at the beach. There’s actually a lot of interior work but we used practical lights. All the night interior stuff is all lit but the volume of locations was 80 locations for this film. That’s real tough because we only had 30 days to shoot, so lots of company moves but that was where being a cinematographer kicked in and really helped out to have a technical background and to have vetted the script and done a lot of storyboarding. So we could roll up on location and wait for really good lighting, shoot for 10 minutes and be out. We were very efficient and mobile in that regard so it helped out. It was important to get out there and do all those quiet scenes in the rural environment. 

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.