One year ago, writer-director Jeremy Saulnier was frantically putting the finishing touches on “Blue Ruin,” his sophomore feature that in two weeks’ time would have its world premiere in the prestigious Directors Fortnight sidebar of the Cannes Film Festival.
“Blue Ruin” was following a grand tradition of festival films that arrive “dripping wet,” in celluloid-era argot — in this case, some last-minute visual effects had been uploaded just days before the film’s big debut. When Saulnier and “Blue Ruin’s” star, Macon Blair, sat down to watch the film at the packed Theatre Croisette, it was the first time they’d seen their creation — a carefully paced, explosively violent vigilante thriller — in its entirety.
Soon enough, the filmmakers could relax. Not only did the “Blue Ruin” screening go off without any technical hitches, but it was enthusiastically received: Within two hours, the film was picked up by Radius-TWC in Cannes’ first high-profile acquisition. That led to a feeding frenzy of foreign buyers, who quickly lined up representing territories as far-flung as South Korea and Peru; a week later, Saulnier accepted a coveted prize from FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics.
Not bad for a couple of crazy kids from the D.C. ’burbs.
When “Blue Ruin” arrives in Washington on Friday, it will bring Saulnier and Blair virtually full circle on a journey that began 25 years ago, when as kids they were making an amateur action movie called “Mega-Cop” on the streets of Alexandria, with Saulnier devising his own special effects using Ziploc bags and fake blood.
Later on, when Saulnier was about to start high school at T.C. Williams, he happened to run into his old collaborator and some buddies who were making their own DIY production. Speaking of the encounter at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Saulnier recalled seizing the chance to audition for Blair’s gang of older, cooler guys. He reminded the group of his talents as “a technician and blood freak” and quickly scrambled back to his house to gather up some fireworks and homemade squibs. Returning to the makeshift set, he proceeded to show them how to do improvised special effects. “You tape lady fingers to someone’s chest — actually, to my chest — and then get shot on camera with an absolute barrage of gunpowder and blood,” Saulnier explained. “They were dazzled by it, and I was instantly accepted into the crew. We spent the next five years making movies. We owned the streets.”
One of the members of that guerilla crew was Blair, who went on to become Saulnier’s best friend, go-to leading man and, in the case of “Blue Ruin,” artistic muse. Not only does Blair remember that day with the lady fingers, he recently unearthed videotape of the stunt. “It’s hilarious,” he said in a telephone interview. “We’re just tiny and skinny and we all have high-pitched voices, trying to be ‘Miami Vice’ bad guys. . . . It’s kind of what we did with our days. There were probably seven or eight guys, and we’d just go around the neighborhood and set up these little scenes and everybody would trade off depending on who was in front of the camera. I do remember when Jeremy came up with a plan to make the special effects more queasy and realistic, and we were blown away.”
“Blue Ruin” evinces Saulnier’s lifelong fascination with extreme screen violence, a taste he developed when some cousins in Reston “would torture me by holding me captive in the basement and play and replay scenes from horrific movies like ‘Dawn of the Dead’ or ‘Friday the 13th Part III.’ I was old enough to experience that hybrid sensation of terror and thrill.” After attending film school at New York University, Saulnier made a well-regarded short film called “Crabwalk;” he made his first feature in 2007, a bloody horror comedy called “Murder Party.” Both films featured Blair in key roles. In the meantime, Saulnier pursued a day job in advertising and began to work as a cinematographer for up-and-coming directors, most notably Baltimore’s Matthew Porterfield.
Although “Murder Party” became a cult hit on the festival circuit, it didn’t lead to the kind of offers Saulnier was after; when he learned that he and his wife, Skei, would welcome a third child in early 2013, he vowed to get another film done before the big arrival. (“Murder Party” was made under a similar self-imposed deadline, in that case Saulnier’s 30th birthday.) Having become accustomed to the “iced coffees and cushy day rates” of the advertising world, the filmmaker, now 37, recalled in Toronto, “I was concerned about my career drifting, not only off course as far as my directorial aspirations, but out of the cinema space altogether.”
Blair and Saulnier together came up with Blair’s character, Dwight Evans, over the course of several months. As “Blue Ruin” opens, the bearded, sad-eyed Dwight is living out of his car on a Delaware beach; gradually, in a virtually wordless but deeply expressive physical performance, Blair reveals who Dwight is and what he’s after as he becomes embroiled in a revenge-fueled family drama with terrifyingly murderous stakes.
“He had always had the beach-bum character in his mind,” Blair recalled of Saulnier. “Originally, it was more like a dark comedy, where Dwight gets into shenanigans at the shore. Then at a certain point, it took a left turn and Jeremy decided to make it more of a stark, straight-ahead revenge story, more emotional and outside our usual comfort zone, which is comedy. In fact, I actually tried to talk him out of casting me, because I didn’t understand at first what he was going for. But . . . the whole concept of the movie is that this guy is miscast. It’s a movie about a guy who doesn’t belong in this pulpy story, and that’s hopefully what would be interesting about something we’ve otherwise seen a million times.”
Saulnier sat down to write “Blue Ruin” in January 2012; eight months later, he was shooting, using friends’ and family members’ homes in Delaware, Alexandria and outside Charlottesville as locations for Dwight’s mysterious but urgently propulsive journey. Saulnier and his wife maxed out credit cards, drained their savings and retirement accounts and accepted loans from parents to fund the production; the filmmaker raised $38,000 through a Kickstarter campaign to make the film’s four-week payroll.
It was during “Blue Ruin’s” first days of production, when a skeleton crew was filming in the same Dewey Beach, Del., house where Saulnier had spent summers visiting with his family, that the director knew it was going to work. “We kind of nailed it,” he recalled fondly. “Partially because the team came together and we executed like professionals. And partially because we just lucked out with the weather. We had these beautiful dusks and sunsets and sunrises. Everything was just making the story come alive visually.”
It’s just that sense of lyricism and visual storytelling that sets “Blue Ruin” apart from its generic brethren, elevating it above standard exploitation and suggesting that for all his devotion to the tawdry pleasures of genre, Saulnier has matured. Through his work with Porterfield, he has become well known in the independent film world as exceptionally sensitive behind the camera; that same finely honed aesthetic informs “Blue Ruin” even at its most brutal and morbidly amusing.
“I love horror,” Saulnier said. But having spent a good half-decade on the festival circuit, he noted, “I’ve seen a void in the marketplace for traditionally crafted, formal, quiet, visual movies that are also genre.” And there’s the philosophical element. Now the father of three daughters, he said, “I don’t feel right doing sensational violence or raw exploitation or brutality; it doesn’t sit right with me anymore.”
With “Blue Ruin” earning strong reviews and having caught Hollywood’s eye, both Saulnier and Blair are weighing future options, which include outside scripts and their own projects. (“It’s my first time getting a VIP access card,” Saulnier said. “I want to read everything possible.”) Fittingly enough, they still live in the same neighborhood — not in Alexandria but in Brooklyn, where Blair regularly walks two blocks to work in Saulnier’s townhouse, pretty much just like the old days.
“We’re kind of doing exactly the same thing as back then, but with better cameras and a more talented crew and a more talented cast,” Blair observed. “Speaking just for myself, filmmaking — whether it's writing or acting or collaborating — it’s all just figuring out how to continue what we were doing as kids, in a way that we can support our families doing it. I didn’t want to grow up, I just wanted to keep making movies with my friends.”
Opens in area theaters on Friday. Rated R for bloody violence and language. 92 minutes. Director Jeremy Saulnier and actor Macon Blair will lead Q&A sessions after the 7 p.m. screenings of “Blue Ruin” on Saturday and Sunday at the Angelika Mosaic in Fairfax.