Jeremy Saulnier knew he was running out of time. If he was going to make “Green Room,” the clock was ticking.
“I made this for my 19-year-old self,” says the writer-director, now 39, of the blood-soaked thriller, opening Friday. “I had to do it before I got too soft — ‘Green Room’ is possibly the most hard-core film I’ll ever make.”
Saulnier’s latest follows a punk-rock band (led by Anton Yelchin) that plays a gig at a secluded Oregon roadhouse crawling with neo-Nazis, and winds up stumbling upon a fatal stabbing backstage. The discovery ignites a battle royale between the band members, who ally themselves with a white-supremacist witness to the crime (Imogen Poots), and the venue’s skinhead staffers, who are hell-bent on tying up loose ends.
“When you’re trying to build tension, there’s no easier way than to corner somebody,” explains Saulnier, whose past films, “Murder Party” and “Blue Ruin,” have toyed with similar siege setups. “I love letting the audience inhabit the perspective of these trapped characters and be terrified.”
With shotgun blasts rearranging faces, attack dogs ripping out throats, and one particularly horrific scene involving a box-cutter, “Green Room” offers no shortage of on-screen slaughter to augment the suspense.
To conjure the most gruesome moments, Saulnier found inspiration in ’70s-era exploitation flicks and the grunge of the next decade’s punk music scene — as well as the news cycle.
“I remember seeing a prison documentary that featured a stabbing to the head, and I was shocked that was allowed to be on television,” he recalls. “It haunted me. It helps me when I purge these nightmares and transfer them to the audience.”
The director was cautious, however, to avoid gratuitous gore. “These are hyperviolent kills but every one of them is to serve a very practical need,” Saulnier says. “You might think this is torturous brutality and sadistic bloodlust at play, then you realize at a certain point that it’s the exact opposite. . . . It’s a pragmatic clean-up operation that involves a lot of carnage to cover up some tracks.”
In establishing the film’s merciless but matter-of-fact tone, Saulnier says it was crucial to make his characters feel real. He cast actors without action backgrounds, from “Arrested Development” alum Alia Shawkat to “Star Trek” comic relief Yelchin (he’s Pavel Chekov), who could realistically depict panic and confusion.
“To keep a heightened level of energy and tension was difficult,” he admits. “Every time you’d stop the camera, they’d take a break, but to get up for the following take, they’d have to start breathing and crying.”
Still, the performers jumped at the challenge. “It wasn’t something they normally get to do,” Saulnier says. “These are young actors, a lot of them coming off indie dramas, so to thrust them into the mayhem of a hyper-violent punk siege thriller was great. They were having a ball.”
Poots’s character, Amber, was especially fun to play with, the director recalls. “I wanted someone from the inside, from the skinhead culture, to emerge from the shadows.. . . Amber becomes a much more central player but out of necessity, and it was great to use that pressure-trigger scenario to force these characters to step up. I knew there had to be a very strong female component in that.”
For Poots, “Green Room” represented a chance to break from convention.
“I’m a 26-year-old blonde,” she says, laughing. “A lot of times, people in this industry don’t give opportunities where you get to disappear, but Jeremy was so cool, and he really just wanted actors for the roles he wrote. To be able to completely become someone else is such a draw.”
The actress calls the shoot a “turning point” in her career. “Once you get this kind of opportunity, you just fully grasp it. I found it exhilarating,” she says. “You sometimes get a magic, little feeling when you’re on something, and you know that it’s a piece of cinema you’ll ultimately respect and be a fan of.”
For his part, Saulnier is keen to see audiences react to a movie that’s meant to simultaneously entertain and unsettle. “It’s blunt force as far as your brain goes, and it’s so brutal,” he says, chuckling. “But it really serves as good, old-fashioned, escapist cinema, which I personally love. . . . We’ll see what audiences make of it.”
Isaac Feldberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.