Most movie fans first became aware of the cinematic camaraderie between writer and director Jeremy Saulnier and actor Macon Blair with 2013’s Blue Ruin, the brutal and intense thriller that hooked and horrified those that saw it.
The pair reunited for Saulnier’s follow-up “Green Room,” although Blair had a smaller part, while he embarked on his own filmmaking career, overseeing the Sundance hit “I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore.”
But Blair and Saulnier are destined to always work together. Not only because they have known and worked each other since they were 11, but because their sensibilities mesh together so engrossingly, too.
“Hold The Dark” is the ultimate example of just how well the pair collaborate, as Blair adapted Will Giraldi’s novel, which revolves around a wolf expert traveling to Alaska to try and save and understand why 3 kids have been killed by the animal, just for Saulnier to direct.
I recently had the chance to talk to Saulnier about “Hold The Dark,” but first I wanted to know just how close close he is to Blair and why they work together so well. And his lengthy answer was a joy to listen to.
“Our careers have been intertwined since the age of 11. We have always aspired to make movies.”
“It was of course very easy when we had access to a camera in grade school and high school. But as we graduated, I went to NYU film school, Macon went to Virginia Commonwealth University, where we made crazy ass Super 8 movies, it got more complicated.”
“We were doing these melancholy comedies at one point, writing screenplays. Macon was the dark crime guy, I was the rock ’n’ roll zombie comedy guy. We almost switched places at some point.”
“I loved what he was writing, but it was always way above our weight class in terms of what we could afford to do on our own with our friends and resources.”
“Him and our good friend Chris Sharp, who is the star of ‘Murder Party,’ they are the first guys to have heard the very seed of an idea before it was ever written down.”
“We bounced ideas off each other, we’d write scripts, they’d had really great writing skills, but they were writing to break into Hollywood, and I was like, ‘No one is going to hire me to direct these scripts.’”
“So I started writing to use my friends as actors and to be able to self-fund movies. Then Macon was always the best actor amongst our crew, too.”
“So he was this really amazing resource that I felt I had to mine first before someone else got their hands on him. So that’s why I wrote ‘Murder Party’ for Chris and Macon and my buddies to star in.”
“That was my first attempt to do something as a filmmaker. With that came insecurity. People might laugh me off the stage when I present this film, so I wanted to laugh with them, and make it goofy and sleazy, have a good time doing it, not be precious.”
“From there we had distribution, but we didn’t make our money back. We kind of had to recover from that. We were still pursuing different careers. Macon as a writer and actor. Me as a camera-person and a videographer for corporate videos.”
“For ‘Blue Ruin’ our collaboration was really cross inspired. I wanted to do this dark crime that Macon was into when he was writing. I really wanted to showcase him as an actor. Because he was getting bit roles. Like most actors.”
“He did a stint on ‘Law & Order,’ which was really cool to watch and celebrate in our living room. But he is a leading man. But it is hard for someone like him to get that opportunity right out of the gate.”
“So I designed the whole film around him, and that was our big break through. That was about having confidence in each other, if not ourselves. Leaning heavily upon each other, that got us through the other end.”
“We got a bit of luck in how we were programmed at Director’s Fortnight in Cannes, too. But now we were in the industry, now we are a blip on the radar, but we still want to keep working together.”
“He still writes screenplays, I still write screenplays, we first provide each other with the first round of notes. We critique each other’s projects, and we certain know each other from a creative standpoint and we can finish each others’ sentences.”
So how exactly did Saulnier get involved with “Hold The Dark” then?
“Macon had read the novel. It was a surprisingly easy process to get this into development. I did ‘Blue Ruin’ and ‘Green Room,’ which I both wrote and directed.”
“So, from start to finish, those are two years projects. I was looking for material to jump onto. So when I read the novel it was just really exciting in that it was unpredictable.”
“I loved the descriptions, the sparsity of the language was very economical, it just cut through. I didn’t fully understand the full depth and breadth of it, I had to take a deep dive into it.”
“Then I just focused on translating the feeling that I have from reading it for the first time to the filmgoer.”
“So it was good to just focus strictly on directing this time round. I gave a few notes here and there. But otherwise I sat back and let the writers do the hard work.”
Saulnier is well aware that he wouldn’t have been able to direct “Hold The Dark” if it hadn’t been for Blair and his innate knowledge of how he works.
“The big factor here is that my best friend from childhood adapted the novel. There is ultimate trust and synergy from the beginning.”
“Macon custom built this movie for me. He knows my aesthetic, he knows my tendencies as a filmmaker.”
“So when Macon was writing it, the whole development team, all the notes that came together converged and we were all making the same film. That was the effortless part.”
“Because Macon had been thinking of me and custom built it for me. If it was someone else I highly doubt it would have been that easy a process and I would not have sat back.”
“When I got the material and script I did some customizations based on locations we had found in Alberta. I definitely conformed whatever scenes were written to the actual locations.”
“That way I get my bearings and can really pre-visualize what I am going to do at the script stage. There definitely was the same process, but I just didn’t have to go through 9 drafts of a script myself.”
Saulnier and Blair’s working relationship was clear for all to see during production on “Hold The Dark,” and during my conversation with Jeffrey Wright, who leads the film as Russell Core, he waxed lyrical about their creative partnership.
“Their working relationship is almost an unspoken one, it is so intimate. They grew up together, they are practically brothers.”
“Macon’s brother scored the movie, as he has with all of Jeremy’s movies. It was a really tight little suburban Washington DC circle that came together around this thing.”
“Macon wasn’t on set until later in the shoot. But by then they had been together on every single page of this thing. Just like they were on ‘Blue Ruin.’ You can tell that they understand each other’s language. I mean, they are each other’s language.”
“I could sense that, not in observing them together. Because they weren’t on set together that much. But I could observe it in the way scenes were written and then how Jeremy set them up to film.”
“There was a specificity of structure within each scene that was so well considered and that you could feel dramatic tension in all of those mythic elements living inside in a way that drove the performance and the storytelling down this crazy dark side of Alaskan hill.”
“Literally at times sat prior to the camera rolling looking at the space I was filming in and said, ’Wow! This is a really well built place in which to work.’ It was really gratifying.”
“Hold The Dark” is now available on Netflix.