TORONTO — For most filmmakers, the Toronto International Film Festival represents a crucial launching pad for their work, a place where they can make their North American debuts with splash and flash.
For Jeremy Saulnier, Toronto is just one stop of many on a circuit that began in Cannes in May. That’s when Saulnier’s “Blue Ruin” – his sophomore film – won the prestigious FIPRESCI Prize in the Director’s Fortnight section. The film, an entrancing mix of genre gore and visual poetics, stars Saulnier’s childhood friend Macon Blair as a man who embarks on a strange and largely silent quest for revenge, for reasons that are revealed gradually through a story that’s as enigmatic as it is strangely compelling.
Saulnier, 37, wrote “Blue Ruin” expressly for Blair, who delivers a quietly mesmerizing performance of a man driven to desperate acts. The two began making movies together as junior high and high school students in Alexandria, Va., where they were members of a loose collective of movie-obsessed kids running amok in suburban streets filming gun fights and improvised head explosions.
“I always gravitated towards Godzilla movies,” Saulnier said over a cup of coffee on Monday, just hours before “Blue Ruin” had its first public screening at TIFF. Saulnier also recalled developing his taste while watching Washington’s local “Creature Feature” show “every Sunday after gymnastics class or whatever it was. It was always about blood and gore and guns.”
Those preoccupations don’t seem to fit Saulnier, a polite, clean-cut graduate of New York University’s film school and the father of three daughters (he’s married to his sixth-grade sweetheart, Skei). In fact, although his debut film “Murder Party” enjoyed a respectable run on the festival circuit in 2007, lately he’s been best known as a cinematographer, collaborating frequently with Baltimore’s Matthew Porterfield (“Hamilton,” “Putty Hill”) and Mike Tully (“Septien”).
He’s also been making a good living shooting and directing commercials, a career that has so many material compensations that he feared it would keep him from making his own work. Last year, when he learned he had a third child on the way, Saulnier vowed that he’d make his next film and sat down to write “Blue Ruin.” By the summer, he was shooting in Dewey, near Charlottesville and in Alexandria – locations that give the film production value, regional flair and sheer visual beauty that make “Blue Ruin” far from just another empty genre exercise. Two hours after the film made its world premiere in Cannes, it had been picked up by the Weinstein Company-Radius; and after that news made the trades, international distributors came calling. The rest is a whirlwind of festivals throughout the world that have left Saulnier with a permanent case of jet lag.
“This is our North American premiere tonight and I’m already burnt out,” he said with a smile, adding that the overnight success of “Blue Ruin” is “almost embarrassing. Looking forward, I’m nervous about me not fulfilling expectations, but as far as ‘Blue Ruin,’ across the board, I couldn’t be happier. The dream has come true, I’m living the fairy tale, all that.” Look for “Blue Ruin” in theaters and on-demand next spring.