Today one of our favorite movies of 2014 hits home video. It's called Blue Ruin, and it's about a lonely man (the superb Macon Blair) who is given the opportunity to punish the man who wronged him years ago, only to realize that there is no such thing as a simple murder.
That may sound like the premise for your typical revenge thriller, but trust us when we say Blue Ruin is far from your typical indie revenge thriller. The same can be said for the story behind Blue Ruin, which is almost as great as the movie itself. Below is our interview with writer-director-cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier and star Macon Blair from last year's Fantastic Fest, and it's a pretty insightful look into the cold realities of independent-film production.
After Saulnier and Blair made and sold Murder Party in 2006, it seemed like they were well on their way to Hollywood, but that just didn't happen. They still couldn't get movies made. They returned to working desk jobs until eventually they decided to go for broke, max out credit cards, and once again do everything themselves.
Thankfully, this time around they hit it big, and when Blue Ruin went from getting rejected at Sundance to world premiering at the Cannes Film Festival (check out an exclusive clip from that at the bottom of this page), it finally seemed like this fantastically talented pair of filmmakers were getting the success they'd been striving for all these years.
Movies.com: Blue Ruin is a deceptively complex piece of filmmaking, especially for something that was made on a nitty-gritty budget. How'd you make that work on such a limited production?
Jeremy Saulnier: Well first, thank you for noticing that, because most people don't realize that layered production value is hard to achieve. It's best when it's invisible, but people don't understand that, say, locations are a bitch to obtain. Thirty days was my schedule to bring it all together, and that was before I even finished the script. It was like, "I am shooting in 30 days, f**k this 18-day schedule." I'd seen too many directors I'd shot for have their dreams get crushed in this production bottleneck and ended up with a half-realized dream. I thought, if I'm not going to get the ARRI Alexa, even though I love that camera, I'm going to buy my own rig, own my lenses, buy my own sliders and so on so that I have total power and no one can tell me if or when I can go get a shot. I can spend eight hours waiting for the sun to rise by myself if I want to, or stay up over night shooting lightning plates for our lightning source.
So the goal was 30 days. We had 24 days of full-up production in Virginia, but before that we did four days of a 10-person crew on the Delaware shore to catch all the initial stuff in the film, like 10-second shots taken all over the place. It was really important to get that open-road feel, to show that this is a spatial journey happening. We had to be very mobile and very quick, and that was best suited to a small crew with two vehicles. And that was great because it had also been six years since Murder Party, so we got to shake the rust off with less pressure.
A location fell through, so the first scene of the movie was rewritten the night before and simplified, and I think improved actually. We benefited from a childhood friend, my mom's best friend lives in Delaware and she took us all into her home to use as a location. We crashed there and shot a scene there, and had the perfect situation where you're helped by a friend.
I was shaking with nerves. I was not ready to do this. I was all balls going in, I loved the idea, I knew Macon was the s**t and we needed to put him in front of the camera, but when we got to Delaware I was terrified of those four days. I was flabbergasted at the footage we got with this measly crew of 10 and this tiny camera that weighs three pounds. We didn't compromise at all. It was exactly what I wanted, if not better, and we were achieving like 90% of what was in the brain going in, which is rare on the indie scale. And so that small scale step up helped ease us into production.
Then we had two days in Brooklyn, which was the car on the beach being faked for Delaware just for practicalities sake because we cast locally and had to shoot locally. Then we went down to Virginia for 24 days and kept it light and lean. Lots of volunteers came in or worked for very low wages, which was not our intention but we just couldn't raise the original million-dollar budget.
Movies.com: When a movie like Murder Party hits, gets picked up, and gains a bit of a following, people have a set of expectations that your careers will rocket off, but that's not always the case. So, what have you guys been up to for the last six years?
Macon Blair: He was doing commercials and also DPing a lot of movies. I had day jobs. I would get little roles in movies while having a freelance desk job to pay the bills. We definitely thought after Murder Party, "Okay, we're in show business now," but the scripts that came Jeremy's way weren't quite right, and the scripts we were trying to get made that we'd written ourselves were too expensive for what people were willing to put up money for. And that kind of went on just long enough for us to get frustrated slash desperate slash terrified, and we realized if we didn't do something, it was never going to happen.
And so Jeremy just put the pedal to the metal and said, "F**k it, we are shooting something this year." He was also about to have his third daughter and was kind of like, "Never mind when we edit, but if we don't shoot it now we're not going to be able to do it." It was very much a ticking clock.
Saulnier: My wife and I are pretty good at calculated risk, and we knew once the third daughter was born that daddy couldn't blow our life savings on movies anymore. This was the last call. Murder Party was a smashing success for a first-time filmmaker in that it got into a couple festivals, it won a couple of awards, it earned a few fans and gained distribution. But, it did not make money. We did not profit from that film. There's still hope. We are in overages now, though we still have not even recouped all of our investment. So that was a great exercise, but we literally couldn't get another film off the ground and went back to our day jobs.
That was in 2007. Two years later in 2009 I realized I was already veering off course too much by doing all these corporate videos, so I got back into film as a cinematographer. So from 2009 to 2011, I was a cinematographer exclusively and it was like film school 2.0. I learned so much, all the while technology was getting more affordable and we were at a crossroads where I was watching and learning lessons from the directors I was shooting for while also realizing that now I can go buy a camera and make it look as good as anything else.
Movies.com: The movie looks just incredible.
Saulnier: It's 1080p. It's not 2K, it's not 4K. It's not the resolution. The lesson I learned as a DP was forget technical specifications, it's what you put in front of the camera and how good the actors are. No one gives a s**t about resolution. It can blow up fine. The bar is very high on all these new cameras. We didn't want huge hard drives and storage, we just wanted little CF cards we could load into a Canon C300 and go.
When the talent is there and acting, get over yourself as a director and get the most simple coverage you can think of to get that performance and then move on to your more visual sequences. It was great to employ what I'd learned as a DP in the field as a director. Learning to get over myself as a DP and let the story dictate was everything. I knew when to bend to the world. "Why not go hand held for this scene? Oh, because we're running out of time." Just focus on the story and not worry about anything else.
Movies.com: It sounds like this really was an underdog success story.
Blair: It really, really is.
Movies.com: Where were you guys when you got the acceptance to Cannes?
Saulnier: We were in postproduction and doing day jobs. I woke up with my bags packed for Cleveland, Ohio. I was going there to shoot B-roll for IBM and got an e-mail acceptance letter. It was so f**king weird to get on that plane knowing what was lying ahead. It was a fantastic experience for me to be in IBM shooting computer servers at this conference and thinking, "My movie is going to be at Cannes. How surreal is this?"
Movies.com: Were you locked at that point or did you still have a lot of post to get through?
Saulnier: That was our first cut. We had treated Cannes like a deadline just to get our first cut in. We had an assembly floating around, but then we ran out of money so we went back to our day jobs in advertising and whatnot. We realized we still had one scene we needed to shoot, which was the ER scene, so we saved up five thousand bucks and shot it in an abandoned hospital in Jersey in February. After we finally wrapped that, it was a huge weight off of me, because that one last scene had been clouding my head.
Our editor Julia Bloch - she's great and this is her second feature - knew this film was being funded in steps and always had a zero balance. We'd raise some money and spend it the next day. So she came on board to finish the movie for free, even though we had a rough start to our collaboration because we were rushing to make a Sundance deadline three weeks after we wrapped. It was goofy. We had great feedback from Sundance, but we just weren't ready. It was a two-hour assembly cut we had submitted the week they notified us.
We decided to restart our director-editor relationship the right way, and so she came on board for free and worked four weeks and, much to our surprise, our first cut was accepted into the Fortnight at Cannes, and so that turbo charged us to finish it all. I still can't get over it. It's not quite sunk in how romantic our story is. We were literally about to retire. We just couldn't get the gas; we could not get our second film off the ground, so we took it into our own hands and did a Kickstarter campaign and even cashed out our retirement.
Movies.com: We didn't know you guys had done a Kickstarter for this.
Saulnier: We did. We had a $38,000 campaign. Our Unit Production Manager Alex Orr, who directed Blood Car, is a pragmatist and he was just like, "Look, you can't go forward unless you have enough cash to make payroll."
Blair: You can't put payroll on a credit card.
Saulnier: If you can't make payroll, you're in for a mutiny. We were hiring people who didn't know us and we didn't know them, and they were very generous with their time, but we would not f**k with anyone by being that train-wreck production that ran out of money and couldn't afford to pay, so Kickstarter was a lifeline for us. We used it to green light our film and pay our crew, but the rest was just going into crazy debt for a year.
Movies.com: Has the story gotten even more romantic? Has Cannes opened up a bunch of doors for both of you?
Saulnier: Oh yes.
Blair: It's starting to for sure. I think we're getting taken a little bit more seriously than we were after Murder Party.
Saulnier: I'm getting access to some big scripts and the opportunity is more than I had ever hoped or dreamed for, for sure. Now it's like, "How do I not f**k this up?" Because we have to admit now that this is a good movie, we made something awesome and we're very proud of it, and there's a good chance that it's all downhill from here.
We've been so warmly received and we are living that annoying fairy tale that only a few filmmakers ever get to live. We had that moment where we did a champagne toast when we sold the movie two hours after our premiere in Cannes, so it's all true, and it's crazy, and the arc is amazing. And the arc will continue, but I can't see it going any higher.
And here's an exclusive clip from the Blue Ruin Blu-ray (and DVD) that beautifully captures that underdog, "holy s**t, we got into Cannes" spirit.
Blue Ruin is available now on Blu-ray, DVD, iTunes and more streaming services. We highly, highly recommend you check it out.
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