Fantastic Fest Interview: Jeremy Saulnier and Macon Blair on Hold the Dark

Blood and snow in one of Netflix's rare theatrical releases

Riley Keough and Jeffrey Wright in Hold the Dark directed by Jeremy Saulnier and written by Austin's own Macon Blair (Courtesy of Netflix)

It may seem a long way from Austin to Alaska, but of course when Jeremy Saulnier made the long trip for his new film Hold the Dark, it was almost inevitable that his long-time creative partner and ATX transplant Macon Blair would be there with him.

The pair have collaborated before on scorching, violent, but meditative dramas like Green Room and Blue Ruin, but their latest may be their most bleak and violent yet. In Hold the Dark, directed by Saulnier and adapted by Blair from William Giraldi's novel of the same name, the line between civilization and predator is obliterated when a wolf expert (Jeffrey Wright) is called to rectify an impossible wrong – and finds out more about humanity's sharp claws than anyone should ever have to acknowledge.

Austin Chronicle: Why this book, and why the adaptation?

Macon Blair: It was a book that I read. I didn't know anything about it, read it very quickly, and was totally compelled by this very mysterious, very horrifying, and simultaneously strangely beautiful balancing act that it did. I loved it as a consumer, and we were also actively looking for something for Jeremy to direct. This one hit all at once, and it felt very appropriate for Jeremy, as far as the surprising and sometimes grisly nature, and the very emotional nature of the story. It seemed very in keeping with what he does, but also on a much larger scale than anything we have ever done before. So we pursued it ...

Jeremy Saulnier: Aggressively. For me too, Macon handed me the book, and atmospherically I just couldn't pass up on it. It was very visual, definitely a very literary work, as it is a novel, but written in this kind of sparse and efficient manner, that I thought was going to translate well to the screen. Because a lot of the descriptive nature of it is visual atmospheric. There are lots of layers beneath, and Biblical references, literary themes, but I was so excited that I could not predict what was happening. The characters were exciting to watch, and there's really cool set pieces to dig into.

I really trust Macon as far as his ability as a writer, so he really incorporated some disparate elements, made it a little more traditional in how the characters were approached, and their involvement in the through line. But other than that, it was very true to the narrative, and as we both agreed early on, our mission was to make the audience who watched this movie have their experience be analogous to ours as readers when we first read the novel

AC: And it fits into your long running theme that good people get broken by the world. That's a motif in your work – why do you think you both keep coming back to this? Because it's even there in I Don't Feel at Home in this World Anymore, which at least has an optimistic streak?

JS: There's something with me, especially with Macon. I like to see him suffer and get battered.

No, it's just that I gravitate to high stakes cinema and peril, and I like naturalism. I think it's just a symptom of me not wanting to normalize my films with easy answers, but there's definitely catharsis. I mean, Murder Party, Blue Ruin, and Green Room, to me have very inevitable solutions. The elation of surviving my movies is key, and for you to feel that elation at the end, you have to be put through the ringer – as are my protagonists.

Hold the Dark, there's a lot of similar themes, and I'm attracted to it, but it's not all my own design. I felt like t could easily fit within my filmography as a natural step forward. There's certainly a lot more depth to it, and layers you've got to peel back. You can watch the films, it can be brutal and oppressive, but I always find moments of humanity and uplift that guide me through that.

“Our mission was to make the audience who watched this movie have their experience be analogous to ours as readers when we first read the novel.”
Writing Green Room itself was really difficult. Watching people, writing their demise throughout the process was difficult, and this time was different because there's a more enigmatic approach to who these people are and what they're doing. It's more observational, and there's more about this amazing world that William and Macon built together. It's just a really interesting undercurrent that ties the whole film together, that you're not getting traditional set-up, payoff. When I get scripts sent to me, I know what's going to happen, because everything is for a specific reason. It's going to pay off two acts later. But this material, I had no idea where it's going to go, and I can observe, and be riveted, and just survive it. That's what I did a a filmmaker, to try to keep that experience solid.

AC: You also signed up for a wilderness film, which always sounds great until you get on set, and it's cold and remote and wet.

JS: It's true, but once you make that choice, the worst thing that can happen is that you go, 'I'm going to make this atmospheric, Alaskan-set survival film, in these harsh conditions, and we're going to hit 56 degree Fahrenheit, and we'll have slushy snow, and I won't see any vapor in the breath,' and you won't buy it. When you make that decision, you invite the worst weather possible, you want snow, you want negative 30, you want to see all the breath vapors coming out of the actors' mouths.

I was actually delighted that we got such terrible weather, and the frigid conditions were a great comfort to me. My worst fear was to really have to sell it with color correction or computer generated breath, or lots of fake snow patched into every scene. We had some continuity issues where we were able to maintain the snow that we captured, and pick up shots wherever it was. We were really lucky in that regard.

MB This is breaking protocol, but can I ask him a question?

AC: Yeah, of course.

MB: I meant to ask you this last night. There is a scene in the movie where Jeffrey (Wright) is crawling through snow, and the snow is pristine. Did you just do that in one? How did you reset that?

JS: There's a lot of subtle visual subtle effects to sell stuff, but that particular take was a very long single shot with one re-set.

Fake snow drives me nuts in movies, so we went through great pains that you cannot tell what's real and what's not in this movie. It's by and large, mostly real snow, but that was my great fear for this movie – because you're asking so much of the audience, it's so different and so steeped in atmosphere – if there's any artificiality or Hollywood veneer or lazy filmmaking, 'Oh, fuck it, the wolves aren't behaving. Let's create them in a 3D space and make them do whatever we want. That was my greatest fear, to not deliver on a grounded, earthy execution of the material.

AC: Speaking of the wolves, how did you handle them, and how many did you have?

JS: We had six wolves, we had one hybrid, which was half husky, half wolf, because one of them had to be able to take somewhat direction, here and there. Because the full wolves, they just really don't listen. They're animals, not domesticated. I had brought in a friend, a good buddy of mine JT Petty ...

AC: He directed S&Man.

JS: Yeah, yeah. He helped a lot with that sequence. He's really cool, calm, and collected, and we had basically one day with the wolves and Jeffrey. Jeffrey handled his side of things, and we connected the two, We had a lot of second unit wolf stuff, and there was a lot of re-imagining the sequence as it was written. It's still almost as written, but all the details had to change because the wolves didn't adhere to what we wanted them to do. That was fun, because we didn't get to all the little nuances, but what we got was a very real, emotional standoff that resonates through the whole rest of the movie. But it was a god lesson in filmmaking: If you want a grounded movie, and you want to veer away from any sort of contrivance of artificiality, you have to bend to the will of the animals and the elements. Whatever you thought might be obliterated, but you can build it back up.

AC: Basically, the wolves had notes.

MB: They were late, they were surly. One of them was drinking.

JS: They ate a lot of raw chicken.

Hold the Dark is in theaters and on Netflix now. For review and showtimes, see our listings page.

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Fantastic Fest, Fantastic Fest 2018, FF 2018, Hold the Dark, Jeremy Saulnier, Macon Blair, Netflix

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