By Don Simpson | April 24, 2014
Not afraid to infuse some playfulness into the narrative of Blue Ruin, writer-director Jeremy Saulnier utilizes some classic narrative tropes — some more preposterous than others — from thrillers and horror flicks. All the while, with Macon Blair as his muse, Saulnier studiously re-imagines the revenge fantasy genre. For one, Saulnier’s opinion of Blair’s antihero protagonist is blurred beyond recognition, allowing the audience to come to their own conclusions about this character. While it is nearly impossible to not feel some semblance of sympathy for Dwight, it is equally difficult not to severely judge his actions. In Blue Ruin, revenge is, at its emotional core, clumsy and irrational. Steering clear of expository dialogue, Saulnier never allows Dwight to explain his actions; the true crux of Blue Ruin is Blair’s face, specifically his eyes, which allow for us to gaze directly into Dwight’s soul.
One of the most talented cinematographers of his generation, Saulnier relies heavily upon his purposeful framing and focus to guide the audience. Blue Ruin is an amazingly gorgeous film to behold, and it is even more impressive that the images signify more than just mere eye candy; the cinematography establishes and defines interpersonal relationships, while soliciting tension and intrigue. Additionally, Saulnier remains admirably steadfast to Dwight’s perspective, never venturing away from his own personal experience; thus giving the film the allusion of being intimately naturalistic, despite the highly fictional flourishes of the aforementioned narrative tropes. Dwight is certainly no John McClane, so we are keenly aware that his mission could fail and he could die at any time.
We sat down with Saulnier and Blair to discuss the unconventional aspects of this atypical revenge-fantasy flick that is sure to make quite a few Top 10 lists once December 2014 rolls around. (Check out my 9 out of 10 review of Blue Ruin from AFI Fest 2013.)
Don Simpson: Blue Ruin is definitely not a standard revenge-fantasy flick. Was that always your intention with this project, to turn the tropes related to the revenge-fantasy genre on their head?
Jeremy Saulnier: The beach bum character that this story centers around was in my head for years prior to Blue Ruin. I had written opening scenes for a dark comedy and talked to Macon about the premise, but for some reason it just gravitated towards a genre film. While assessing the film festival marketplace as a cinematographer, I noticed an ever-widening gap between the new American realism movement with its great characters and authenticity, and genre films which seem to have veered off towards a cynical, brutal and superficial level to which I do not respond (with a few exceptions, of course). I wanted to do something that would meld those two worlds by making a film that is really grounded in a character study, but would also have shocks of violence and thrills. I wanted something that would be a bit of an escape, but at the same time we embraced our limitations in terms of the scale of our production. Additionally, it was always Macon Blair as my lead — no matter how the narrative shifted around, I knew he was my greatest asset. So, then it was about bringing this unlikely action helmer into a very traditional cinematic space but explore his experiences from the perspective of an everyman. That is when the story just took fire and began to write itself.
DS: Macon’s character is a very atypical action hero. His actions open him up to criticism from the audience, but he is also very empathetic.
JS: The first act of the film is about indulging in the revenge fantasy and acting solely on impulse. After living as a reclusive vagrant for almost two decades, something is triggered within Dwight (Macon Blair). It is the standard “good guy with a gun” scenario. I can avenge this and I can do it myself as judge, jury and executioner. Not to give too many spoilers away, but we take care of that very traditional arc very early and quite abruptly, but without justification and context. What happens is that Dwight is enigmatic, he does this brutal act and the audience is not supposed to know how to feel about that. The audience will hopefully be jarred and it is okay if they are not on board with his revenge mission. Then, it was about exploring the aftermath — the blowback and repercussions — of such an indulgent act in a new way; so, as more of Dwight’s backstory is revealed it became Macon’s task to slowly but surely win the audience over. That was a really fun challenge to write Dwight into a corner and then have him try to find a way out, all the while exploring it from a very grounded perspective so the audience could relate to Dwight. For example, Dwight might flee dangerous situations instead of always moving forward for the sake of propelling the narrative. Dwight is flailing all over the place, which makes it more difficult to predict his actions.
DS: And I think Dwight’s empathetic nature is drawn directly from Macon’s physicality, he utilizes his eyes and facial expressions like a silent film actor, opening himself up to the audience.
Macon Blair: Jeremy truly gifted me with this incredible role. I had done a lot of supporting roles in smaller films and they were mostly comedies; even if they were serious films, I was typically the comedic relief. Blue Ruin was something very new and challenging; by far the biggest and juiciest role I have had a chance to play. I was very exciting but also extremely scary, because Jeremy had all of his monetary worth tied up in this film; if it stank, it would all be on me. Also, I was slow on the uptake. I thought that a revenge flick with me playing the lead didn’t make a lot of sense — I was thinking “tough guy, bad ass, delivering one-liners to the camera.” That, of course, was not what Jeremy had in mind with Dwight. He is a softer kind of character stuck in a very hard scenario and just that conflict alone creates tension, because you have this sense that Dwight can’t kick his way out of these situations. He could, at any moment, get wiped out. And hopefully it is kind of funny because Dwight doesn’t know what he is doing.
JS: Macon has an undeniable warmth to his very being. If we had cast the traditional action helmer for this film, it would have been a terrible mistake. Macon was cast against type and the whole film was bent around that. It was very important that since we are depriving the audience of history, context and motivation that we make his physicality so inviting. That was key to his character and this film. Also, Macon works for cheap… [Laughs]
DS: The stark visual transformation of Macon from his grizzly beard to being clean-shaven is a lot of fun, but that scene also marks a purposeful dramatic shift in pacing and tone for the film as well..
MB: Yeah, Jeremy had designed it so as Dwight’s revenge mission brings him out of his hermitic existence, he would regress back to how he was before the tragedy derailed him. It is sort of a journey back in time for Dwight as he returns to his “childhood,” both visually and emotionally, as he reconnects with his family and friends. Dwight never expected to get that far. He expected to complete his mission and the credits would roll. But that’s not the way life really works. You have to wash your hands and get cleaned up, then figure out your next steps. That is the first of — what we hope to be — a couple of dramatic left turns throughout the film.
DS: When I interviewed Matt Porterfield for Putty Hill (2010), he talked about how Hamilton (2006) and Putty Hill were both exercises in realism for him. How did working with Matt as cinematographer on those projects influence your own work?
JS: Matt and I kind of developed an aesthetic together. There is an effortless sense of collaboration between us that requires very little verbal communication. I really admired what he was doing, and his influences. Our tastes are very much in line with each other. No matter what I do, I always aspire for on camera naturalism. I really hate artificiality in lighting and staging; when I feel the presence of the crew and post-production, I get sucked out of the narrative. Putty Hill, especially, was a huge breakthrough for both of us. For Matt, it went to Berlinale and put him on the map. For me, it was about staying true to the naturalistic aesthetic. I didn’t use the coolest camera — there were much better cameras available at the time — but we made the conscious call that the camera package shouldn’t cost twice what the Director of Photography would get paid. We opted to use a lesser camera, but keep ourselves mobile. It was all about what Matt put in front of the camera. I didn’t have to do a whole lot. There was a lot of lighting, but it was very subtle and naturalistic. It was about the people who were in front of the camera, as well as the environments and spaces that we were navigating.
Putty Hill was a revelation because it was the first film that I was part of that I had zero disclaimers. I didn’t invite people to screenings but make excuses that I wanted a better camera or lens package. We shot Putty Hill in 12 days and I am so proud of it. That film was a confidence boost for both of us. It absolutely changed the way that I approached telling stories visually, and how to rely upon what is in front of the camera instead of what is inside the camera.
DS: Blue Ruin definitely seems to be a natural continuation of this visual-yet-naturalist approach to filmmaking. The cinematography is so precisely framed, yet never overtly contrived. The dialogue is sparse yet totally natural — there is even a moment towards the end of the film that mocks the ridiculously expository soliloquies inherent within most Hollywood action films.
JS: Yeah, the first twenty minutes of the film has one dialogue scene and it is about one-minute long. But Blue Ruin wasn’t just an exercise in visual storytelling, it is the way I see films. Seeing so many dialogue-driven films at festivals is a bit frustrating and exhausting for me; I wanted to retreat to classic storytelling by way of a visual narrative. That is how I see and write films, from a very visual standpoint. I see the film in my head and then I write it down. The “expository scenes” are just close-ups of the newspaper, which is in some ways kind of verbal. And Macon is influenced, especially in his physicality and on screen presence, by the silent film era.