Jeremy Saulnier and Macon Blair has been making movies together their entire adult lives. Their most recent film Hold The Dark, a Netflix Original celebrated it’s US premiere on the big screen at the 2018 Fantastic Film Festival. Hold The Dark is a dark cat and mouse story about tortured souls possessed by demons of circumstance. It is by far the most unsettling film the two have collaborated on, and might be their best work to date.
Hold The Dark was adapted for the screen by Macon Blair, from William Giraldi’s novel of the same name. We recently sat down with both Blair and Saulnier to discuss this dark, unrelenting shift in their approach to violence, the difficulty of working with wolves in grueling climates, and partnering with Netflix. Hold The Dark was released on Netflix September 28th shortly after its Fantastic Fest premiere, and you can read our full review HERE.
“This film was a much bigger challenge, not only in the volume of material but the balancing act between the atmosphere […] and just hitting the perfect tone.”
So, what spoke to you about the novel, and what was your way into adapting the film?
Macon Blair: It was just being completely surprised by the book as I was reading it, and it did this great balancing act of being totally horrific and terrifying, and also kind of haunting and beautiful. So, I just responded to it as a reader, but was also eyeing it as something that could be adapted for a movie, specifically for Jeremy to make.
What was different about your collaborative relationship on this film, versus the other things that you guys have done? Was there more confidence this time because you guys have this rapport now after a few years?
Jeremy Saulnier: Confidence? No. [laughs] I mean, we had just entered the industry and Blue Ruin was up for an award at the Independent Spirit Awards, and we had just wrapped Green Room, but it wasn’t done yet. We were in L.A. together and he had mentioned it before via email, but then he actually said to me one day, “Hey, there’s this novel that I had access to. It’s for you. You should do this.” I read it, and it was very exciting. As far as our collaboration- we have a collective of filmmakers, we’ve been doing stuff together since we were kids- and Macon, to me, has always been the writer.
I’ve written most of my material, bouncing ideas off of Macon and our friend Chris Sharpe and many other people that we collaborate with, but as they were writing these pretty great screenplays that were a little bit beyond our capability, I started writing as a very practical solution to, “No, we’re gonna do shit we can afford. So, I’ll write this half-assed screenplay and we’ll just go make it.” But it’s finally a chance for Macon to really show his writing prowess, and the script that he adapted from William Giraldi’s novel attracted all the cast. My agents went nuts for it because it’s such a unique piece of material. You just don’t see these as an up and coming filmmaker who does genre [and] aggressive cinema, you get recognized by the studios because you could maybe translate that to big action or a kinetic filmmaking in some respect.
But when I get submissions, there’s something missing in all of these sort of standard submissions, but this piece that Macon delivered, everyone was going crazy for it, because you don’t see that very often. It’s kinetic, it’s elevated, it’s high stakes. It has a lot of scope and scale, and it’s also really artful and deep. And as far as the atmosphere, that’s what I was attracted to, because I could definitely deliver that. Can I really translate the full depth and breadth of the novel? I don’t know. But I can certainly be a vessel and translate my experience as a reader of the novel to the audience.
[As a reader], I don’t know everything but Macon was in touch with William Giraldi, the novelist. It was a very collaborative experience, and we would get some guidance once in a while because we had questions, and we wanted some answers. We found that, when we had the answers, he could guide us narratively and we could really direct the audience in a certain way, but we never wanted to actually spell things out. That was exciting for me, to keep it enigmatic and surprising.
Was there any concern before the cast was attached about getting a big enough budget for the movie?
MB: Always, yeah, but that’s why Netflix proved to be the perfect partner for this movie. Becuase it’s not traditional but also you have to shoot it out in the snow, and you need the helicopters and you need all this stuff, so it demands a certain amount of resources. But it’s not a “four-quadrant”, it’s not The Fugitive. It’s challenging and it’s difficult, and because they are down to take risks like that, they can fund it at an appropriate level. At the same time, the question as far as casting is not, “Who’s a big enough draw in China to justify the budget?”, but they were asking Jeremy, “Who do you want? Who’s perfect for the story?” and so he could answer that honestly and end up with the best ensemble for the story, but still have it be budgeted responsibly.
Can you talk about bringing your editor, Julia Bloch on this project? She’s been with you from Blue Ruin, and Green Room. One of the cogs in that machine that been so successful.
JS: She’s an indispensable part of our team now. She’s not only an amazing editor, she’s serves as a wonderful psychotherapist for me after the fallout from making a movie, and not knowing what you have. This is certainly our most challenging film, just being in the elements, photographing the wolves. You know, they don’t do what they’re told. So you’re just filming hours and hours trying to mine 18 frames here, 22 frames here. This film was a much bigger challenge, not only in the volume of material but the balancing act between the atmosphere, these sort of mystical elements, the aggressive action, the character motivations (or lack thereof) and just hitting the perfect tone took a lot of massaging. And you know, take out one word and you shift the balance of and entire scene. So it was very delicate work, very time consuming, but it was good to keep a team intact.
MB: That shorthand that develops over time, that’s something that’s beneficial between us because I can kind of predetermine what’s going to work for him what’s not, and you can kind of use that as a starting point and it feels like you [Jeremy] and Julia actually have the same thing, as far as a common language.
“Everything we did in this film was an expansion in scale and scope, and that was a huge challenge, but also, it’s a dream come true.”
Can you talk about your approach to the violence in the movie? Obviously, you don’t shy away from violence in the movie, but given the nature of this particular story, did you both have any conversations about how you wanted the violence depicted?
JS: Not explicit, because Macon and I are on the same page, and he knows me more than anyone else as far as a collaborator. The same approach that we both had going in- and that I don’t tend to glorify it, I don’t think- but the way I approach it is, “Is this serving a narrative purpose? Is this putting the audience through the ringer?” In this film especially, there’s not a lot of high-five moments happening. It’s oppressive, it’s shocking. I think the payoff is not high fives, but it’s audible gasps in a theater when it unfolds.
When I was reading the novel, it takes some very sharp turns and you’re just taken aback. You’re like, “Whoa. I didn’t see that coming. What is happening?” You lean in, and you’re like, “Okay, this is different than I thought it’d be.” So I was just trying to make the violence analogous to how it serves the narrative in the novel and Macon’s screenplay, and be oppressive and sort of enlist that survival instinct, so when you get through it, there’s this elation of still being alive. That’s the whole movie for me—it’s not wrapped in a bow for you at the end. You just experience it, and having that full immersion and coming out of the other end is the payoff.
MB: There’s a big shooting set piece in the middle, the idea was to not do it as an action sequence where the good guys win, but have it be something that people are hoping would be over as soon as possible, and then not allowing it to be over. Having it take longer, having it be unrelenting and unforgiving and awkward and weird and not cool was kind of part of the design. You’re very much with Core [Jeffrey Wright], hoping that this will all be over as soon as possible.
JS: The character of Core wasn’t originally in that scene in the novel, either. The way that Macon integrated him into the scene was really masterful, and now the whole scene is through his eyes, and his frustration and anger at the violence. You feel like he’s just exasperated and really just pissed off at this unnecessary act that has unfolded, and he’s just yelling at him. I think that was really powerful as far as the simplicity of that exchange, and hopefully it speaks for the audience there.
There’s been a natural progression with your films over the years from Blue Ruin to Green Room and with Hold the Dark as well. I’m curious for both of you, from your perspectives and looking at what you’ve been able to do together so far, was it conscious that, “Hey, this is the just the next logical step forward, and we’re really gonna push ourselves in ways we haven’t before?”
MB: From the writing, definitely. Knowing that it was something for Jeremy, I wanted to definitely stretch myself and try and do the best work possible, but it’s also very surreal. To come from making our own little movies in high school and then to be like “Somebody’s gonna pay for us to have a tank? And fly people to other countries to build a little town, or this little rock club?” Just to have these opportunities afforded us, you really do step outside of yourself a lot and it’s just like, “What the f–k is going on? This is insane.” And you try and act like it’s very normal but then you go home and you’re like, “WTF?”
JS: We’re still dealing with imposter syndrome, like, “When are they gonna pull back the curtain and expose us?”
MB: “Oh no, no, no. Sorry. You’re on the wrong list. You have to go [laughs].”
JS: I couldn’t agree more. It’s shocking that we get to do what we do. But we’re having to now settle into that. “Okay. We’re filmmakers. We faked it until we made it, and now we have to continue the ruse, but with a little more confidence.” Everything we did in this film was an expansion in scale and scope, and that was a huge challenge, but also, it’s a dream come true, and we wanna keep doing that. If you stop pushing against things and trying to break down walls and barriers, I’m not sure what that feels like, if it’s gonna be any better. But I guess our strategy has always been to keep going up, up, and up until we shit the bed, and then go into another Blue Ruin scenario, where we take it back into the woods, make a movie, and then come back again.
“Hold The Dark is this oppressive, awful, unrelenting experience that hopefully makes people see it through the eyes of the characters involved and feel that survival instinct kick in for real.”
Regarding that evolution in your films, I’m curious if you view violence differently now, or if that violence is always just in service of the story?
JS: As a filmmaker, you have to go out on the circuit and talk about it and I enjoy it but I don’t know if I’m the best person to articulate what I do other than through the films. Meaning, my gravitation towards violent movies is really about transporting people and as self-serving as an audience member. I like to be put in in perilous positions. I like the atmosphere of dark movies. Like John Carpenter films, it is as much the music as it is the lighting and the onscreen action but it has to serve a narrative purpose, absolutely.
That’s why the violence in my films is a topic of discussion because it feels, I think, different in that my investment is in the human characters on screen and in the reality of whatever unfolds seems so terrible to watch because there is real stakes and real peril. I’ve watched movies where a whole night club of people is dispatched one by one, and it’s just like “let’s talk about the choreography and how awesome that was” but it’s never like “who gives a shit to people getting killed”. Hold The Dark is this oppressive, awful, unrelenting experience that hopefully makes people see it through the eyes of the characters involved and feel that survival instinct kick in for real. That involuntary, physical, empathetic response. That’s that’s what we’re going for.
Hold The Dark celebrated it’s US Premiere at the 2018 Fantastic Film Festival, and is streaming on Netflix now. Have you had a chance to see the film? Let us know what you thought over on Twitter, Reddit, and in our Horror Movie Fiend Club group on Facebook. Check out all of Nightmare on Film Street’s Fantastic Fest coverage here!