A Conversation About Violence With Blue Ruin's Director and Star

Jeremy Saulnier's Blue Ruin spends its 92 minutes tightening itself around your neck and intermittently striking like a snake. Part genre flick, part meditative indie, Blue Ruin follows protagonist Dwight (Macon Blair) through mostly backwoods Virginia in his attempt to avenge the death of his parents after their murderer is released from jail. Dwight, though, isn't exactly built for vengeance as his bumbling and repeated fuck-ups show. The result is a brutal, sometimes darkly funny exercise in suspense that reminded me of Breaking Bad and the Coen Brothers.

Blue Ruin played Cannes last year, where it was warmly received and ended up winning the festival's FIPRESCI International Critics Prize. Last week in the office of Blue Ruin's publicist, I spoke with Saulnier and Blair, who have been making movies together since grade school. Below is an edited and condensed transcription of our discussion about their film.

What were your objectives going into this movie?

Macon Blair: To get a job

Jeremy Saulnier: Get a motherfucking job. We kind of broke through at Cannes, so we have this art-house appeal and the critics have been very, very warm with their praise. But what I love about this movie is that it's unfiltered and it was designed as a calling card for both Macon and myself. We were intentionally overextending but trying to do a dark crime movie, and also embracing the fact that we couldn't afford to do it right. [I knew that] whatever film I did [after 2007's Murder Party] was going to have Macon Blair in the lead role. It was designed around him. He isn't right for this kind of genre, but that's the whole point. We're gonna embrace that early on, we're gonna talk about it, we're gonna negotiate the character.

We love it. It's a hot mess. It's been received so well. We weren't thinking about distribution. We were like, "How are we gonna get in festivals?" It was between cynical, hard-ass genre and dreadfully mundane, contained independent film, dialogue-driven stuff. So it was like, let's design something to go right between there: classically told, formally lensed but has that sort of independent film, character-driven element to it that would appeal to arthouse audiences.

Blair: It was sort of a last stab. Jeremy was getting read to have his third kid. I was getting ready to have my first. We had day jobs, but we hadn't had any kind of career in movies the way we hoped we would and we felt like our window of opportunity was about to be over, and that would be the end of it. It was sort of a last, Hail Mary sort of pass, and maybe it would tank and we wouldn't get any subsequent jobs but we'd have at least this last little stab at it.

Is it a coincidence that you were living with this frustration and came up with a movie that is brutal and violent?

Saulnier: Sort of. You're not incorrect, this movie is brutal, but the body count is very low.

Well, of course. It's not a slasher movie.

Saulnier: It was about having this conflict of exploitation versus legitimate narrative that would stand on its own emotionally. It was about not trying to abandon our genre roots and do something totally out of our comfort zone, but bring that love of genre into a place that was disquieting for everyone. We would still have the on-screen violence and do choreography and make-up effects showcases, but it would go down in a very uneasy way for the protagonist, myself, and the audience. I think the violence resonates more because it's so grounded in the narrative and emotionally. It takes a huge toll.

What strikes me about horror sometimes is that it commodifies death to the point of making it too easy to consume.

Blair: We were somewhere and our movie played and White House Down played. It's like 100 people get machine gunned, and it's rock and roll good times. In Blue Ruin, a few people get killed and it's more upsetting. People have a harder time with it. It's like, "Wait a minute, they shot up the White House!"

Did you feel any specific responsibility to society in portraying violence or making a movie rooted in it?

Saulnier: Reluctantly, yes. When I was writing the first draft of the script, I believe Aurora happened right around there. I know Sandy Hook took place after we wrapped production. It was an inner conflict. I like genre movies. I like John Carpenter '80s movie. The Thing is my fuckin' favorite movie, just about. It was about how do we treat violence. As long as we were true to the narrative and we weren't veering toward exploitation... One moment was done for explicit, let's make people squirm, let's make it hurt, because it had to do with payoff of a joke. Other than that, it was about, even from the page, making sure that I was wincing and felt the shock of violence and didn't want to celebrate it. Although that backfired at our premiere. When the showcase death in the movie [happened], the closest we come to a spectacle of brutal violence, there was a roar of applause and cheers. It was like, "This isn't what we intended, this is supposed to be an art movie, damn it!" I realized that I was focused on the violence but the audience was just very happy that our protagonist survived that scene, and it was that release. And so the violence is important to the story in that it charges things emotionally, it ups the stakes beyond anything else. I mean, when life or death is at stake, that's how you get heightened tension. To do it otherwise is to hyperbolize the mundane. I think it's really fun to explore violence as a narrative tool. But again, our strength is to ground it and make it really blunt and hard to stomach.

Blair: And awkward. Not cool. It's a mess.

In that respect it kind of reminds me of Breaking Bad.

Blair: Yeah, that was horrific, but it was never like, sliding across the hood of a car with a one-liner to the camera.

A lot of reviews have discussed the movie's relationship with guns. Are you making a specific statement about gun ownership in America?

Saulnier: There sorta was, but I tried to remove it before we shot. There were two lines of dialogue in earlier drafts that were jabs at certain gun laws involving gun shows, and there's one that remains [when Macon's character is presented a gun]: "Gun show, no papers." But it's true of the environment. Virginia is renowned for its lax gun laws. I removed what I thought was overly political and carried on. But when you take that and you export it to Europe, it becomes this absurd…

Blair: [The audience at Cannes] thought it was a satire when he's going through the house and in every nook and cranny is a pistol.

Saulnier: During our Q&A [at Cannes], the first question was about guns. I tried to explain that I really enjoy guns and I enjoy shooting them, and I then I went on to say, "But in America, if we can't treat them properly, if we can't handle them, they should be taken away." It was translated as, "I love guns!" end of sentence.

What's your relationship with guns, Macon?

Blair: I like the make believe. Guns in real life make me extremely uncomfortable. Even on set, even in a safe, contained shooting environment, they make me really uneasy. It's not my thing.

In Todd McCarthy's Hollywood Reporter review of Blue Ruin, he wrote: "The way [guns] are brandished, particularly by Ben, will set gun lovers to licking their chops, but there is a simultaneous queasiness to these scenes that will lead others to conclude that the film is some sort of critique of the gun culture, however imprecise and vaguely intentioned. There's a definite have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too aspect to the handling of this issue that leaves a muddled impression." What do you think of that interpretation?

Saulnier: That is, to me, a perfect assessment of that. My biggest problem with Todd McCarthy's review is spoilers. That [paragraph] is a perfect encapsulation of the fact that there is no message. The film is at conflict with itself, and I embrace that. I enjoy the fact that that starts conversations. In France it was about American gun culture. In Texas, there was applause and laughter at inside jokes about gun nomenclature.

I will take issue with the word "muddled." I would call it "complicated." The reasons people in America love their guns and want to keep their guns are real and true. The problem is when you take this concept of defending your fort or the good guy with the gun, you start to see that as it plays out statistically, it's a fantasy. Blue Ruin is about that, it's about indulging in the fantasy of a good guy with a gun and smashing it against the reality and statistics of what might actually happen, this conflict of noble intentions but a complete rolling clusterfuck that is wrought with unforeseen complications that you don't usually see explored in movies. The reason it might seem muddled to him is that there are so many opportunities to sort of...

Blair: ...Have a speech. It doesn't happen.

Saulnier: I could satisfy either side by changing like five lines of dialogue in the movie. Actually, I've had this conflict with myself, there was an ending where Dwight made a very different choice. It was going to be a bold choice, but I said, "Fuck, this is a movie. This is for audiences." They can bring their baggage or not, but I don't like when narratives get bogged down with messages. That's why I love this movie, and why I think it broke through.

Blue Ruin is out in select theaters, iTunes, and on demand today.