In this monthly column we spotlight new Blu-ray/DVD releases by interviewing directors about the scenes that stood out most for them while making their movies. This month, we talk to Jeremy Saulnier about his breakout thriller Blue Ruin.
One of the standout indie films of 2014, Jeremy Saulnier’s slow-burn thriller Blue Ruin has transformed him and his friend and lead actor Macon Blair from unknowns to hot commodities. The film is a stone-cold revenge tale with Blair playing Dwight, a drifter whom we meet at the start of the film living a simple existence out of his car. Haunted by the murder of his parents, he launches a bloody act of vengeance following the release of the man who killed them.
In one of the movie’s most tense moments, Dwight goes to his sister’s house and realizes that by showing up he’s put her in danger. He pleads for her to leave and then stays to watch over. That evening he’s visited by a pair of brothers wielding a crossbow and bad intentions.
Here Saulnier looks back on that sequence, which was shot at his boyhood home, a location that was vital for the scene’s success. And one that almost killed him.
“It was about going all the way.”
“The night-invasion sequence at Dwight’s sister’s house was a very important scene for me. It directly followed what was the most emotional part of the film, which is the diner scene. I had always envisioned using the house I grew up in, so it was very easy for me to plot the scenes and previsualize and have it all blocked out in my head as I was writing. That really eased the process.
"But the bulk of this film was shot in central Virginia, closer to Charlottesville, and my parents’ house is in Alexandria, which is two hours up the highway. We had to absorb that into the movie by checking out of hotels where the cast and crew had been staying for weeks and do a big company move.
"It kind of displaced the crew once we were in a groove. And we were initially trying to cast another location for that sequence, but when we looked at a few houses we realized eventually it was so important for this kind of filmmaking to actually utilize this familiar ground and make it easier to realize the scene you had envisioned and not just make it easier on the schedule and the crew. It was about going all the way and fully realizing what was intended.
"That’s a very rare thing to have on a film set. And luckily as the chief financier I made the call and it was totally worthwhile, because not only did we stage several dialogue scenes there and just wanted it as a home base, it was also the setting for the most intense action set piece of the movie."
“Man, I can’t believe I was beaten in my own house.”
“It starts off as a slow-burn, nostalgic sequence where Dwight is holding down the fort literally, waiting in this house, and at a certain point when he sees his old car has shown up outside, the sequence shifts dramatically and his trip down memory lane is interrupted and we shift from a steady camera to all handheld and very kinetic.
“So, I started with the house. And when you write action sequences, they almost always get rewritten for locations once you find a location. Or, if you’re doing a big studio build it’s different, but I couldn’t afford that. I blocked out the action sequence according to my knowledge of my house, so it was so key to shoot there. There’s no dialogue, there’s nothing happening other than the action -- the kinetic cat-and-mouse game we have between Dwight and the Cleland brothers, who come to the house to seek revenge.
"Because I knew my house inch for inch, I blocked out this intricate defense sequence. In fact, I implemented in the scene a trick that one of my friends pulled on me when we used to play guns at the house as kids in the ‘80s. He opened the bathroom door just a crack and then turned the light on. I went up the very same stairs that the Cleland brothers go up in the movie and looked straight ahead in the bathroom. Meanwhile, my friend was waiting for me on the side and fake killed me.
"It always stood out: ‘Man I can’t believe I was beaten in my own house.’ It was such an intense thing for me back then that my friend beat me on my home turf, so I employed the exact same move for Dwight to play on the Clelands."
“I had forgotten… how pitch black suburbia is.”
“This was the only scene in the whole film where we artificially increase the sensitivity of the camera. And it was our biggest lighting setup because I had forgotten, being in New York for so long, how pitch black suburbia is. So not only was that scene so important in visual execution but it was also the most technically demanding sequence in the whole film. We used every light in the truck. We had to light as far as two-and-a-half blocks away just to see the background detail, but I really wanted to play with a realistic approach to night cinematography, so most of our lighting was outside the house spilling inside.
"There was a lot of free rein to move fast indoors, but it maxed out our capabilities technically. We had to hire some extra local grips and electricians for the sequence. But when you are your own financier it’s easier because there’s no one to filter your ideas through. You can be bold. Technically we really pushed it to extremes using a super-fast lens speed and a high-exposure index. But it was the halfway point of the film where the tension shifts and starts to build again."
“We’re not reinventing the wheel here.”
“Because it was a wordless sequence and it was just people moving through space, it was all about getting your horizons right and getting the geography correct. It was the most coverage of any scene in the entire film, so when it came to post it was daunting to look at all the takes. The hardest part of the process was to carve out form in the massive amounts of coverage that we had. Once we lined those up, all the takes that had the magic in it -- hard sharp focus, technically right -- then it was easier to string them together.
"We went through several passes to get it the way it had to be. And it wasn’t until we added the score that we really knew we had created the tension that we had to. And we’re not reinventing the wheel here. It’s old fashioned, keeping it dark, keeping it kinetic, and relying on music and atmosphere. I love all that. And we did add some special effects, like the crossbow bolts flying through the air. We put that in digitally afterwards."
“I just hit the ground.”
“This was the night that I hit bottom. It’s physically exhausting, because as a director and cinematographer I never had a chance to sit down, and once we went handheld for the sequence I was always carrying a camera and working on two hours of sleep a night. I didn’t know if this would work or not; I was terrified. And at a point when we were shooting at street level in the scene I physically collapsed.
"It was the only time I did it [during] the whole shoot, but I just hit the ground. And the crew came to my aid and helped me up. We powered through another take after I had about a five-minute break on an apple box with the camera on my shoulder. But it was the tipping point where I realized we did something, and it was worth it and everything was coming alive. I looked through the lens and Macon was just on his own and selling it.
"In the scene, because there were no words, I relied so much on [his] ability as an actor to physically convey everything kind of on his own shoulders. And even more, he’s doing a very tough thing; he’s the protagonist doing an action sequence up against adversaries, and he puts down the gun. That’s a very hard sell. People said in the script phase, ‘He can’t put down the gun; he’d never put down the gun.’ Because you give up the advantage. So that kept me up at night. But he came alive in that shot and just sells it. That’s when I knew the whole sequence would work and if I can just power through the rest of the film it will all be worth it.”
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