Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on April 25, 2014, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.
Revenge films tend to focus on tough guys taking care of business, but Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin bucks that trend. Its protagonist is a man without much aptitude for violence who winds up at the center of it anyway, played with pure emotional authenticity by actor Macon Blair.
In Blue Ruin, Blair’s Dwight is down on his luck and living out of his car when he receives news that propels him to commit a gruesome, bloody deed. That action has consequences, putting him in the crosshairs of a brutal backwoods family and threatening his own loved ones. Consistently compelling, Blue Ruin marks a 180-degree turn from Saulnier’s previous black-humored gore romp Murder Party, also featuring Blair (who went on to another horror/comedy, J.T. Petty’s Hellbenders). In fact, Blair and Saulnier have been collaborating on movie projects since their youth in late-’80s Virginia. “There was always some component of people getting blown away, set on fire or ripped apart,” the actor says, “and we grew up together doing that. We reconverged after college and tried to make a go of making movies as a career, and it has taken a little longer than we expected or hoped, but here we are.”
Was Murder Party your and Saulnier’s first attempt at a feature?
It was, and the whole idea was that we figured horror fans and that community are so enthusiastic, and this would be a good way to showcase our talents. We wanted to do some makeup, we wanted to do some comedy, we wanted to do some character stuff and we thought horror would be a great genre to start in, and we were very happy with how it turned out. It was flawed and very low-budget, and we did the best we could with what was available, but we love it, though it didn’t exactly propel us into full-fledged careers. Also, about 80 percent of that cast are the people we grew up with making movies. Chris Sharp, the lead, has been my best friend since kindergarten, and Sandy Barnett was the villain. We ended up going back to day jobs and kind of reassessing, so Blue Ruin is kind of a second attempt, and we deliberately tried to do something different from Murder Party, that would still have thriller elements and some gore but go in a more serious and dramatic direction than Murder Party did.
Did Saulnier write the lead role in Blue Ruin specifically for you?
Yeah. We had been trying to get a feature off the ground with me in the lead for a couple of years, and we had a few different scripts that were a little bit too expensive and probably underrealized, and for a combination of those reasons, none of them ever took off. He’d had this beach bum character in his head for a while and knew he wanted me to play it, and it started out being more of a wacky comedy—he gets into shenanigans on the shore.
Then, at a certain point, it kind of evolved, and he decided he wanted to do more of a revenge movie with this character. That didn’t make a lot of sense to me, because I felt you need a tough guy for that type of movie, but Jeremy explained that his whole concept was going to be the opposite of that. Dwight was going to be a scared, ineffectual, weak kind of guy thrust into this very tough genre world, and that would hopefully be what was interesting about it: watching him flail about, like he doesn’t belong in this movie. I thought that was a fun way to approach a genre that’s been done in so many different ways before.
The movie asks you to identify with Dwight right away, even though you have no backstory on him when the movie starts, and even up to the point when he commits his first act of violence. Was that a particular challenge in terms of your performance?
Not really, because we knew exactly what was going on with him. We had spent the better part of the year leading up to production talking about everything going on in every page of the script. But the decision to deprive the audience of that information was very deliberate, because normally in these types of movies, there’s a horrible act at the beginning, and the audience goes, “Oh, I hope that guy gets his comeuppance!” and that’s what the whole movie’s about. Jeremy’s approach was the opposite of that: to get the comeuppance out of the way in the first 15 minutes, and not give any reason why this is happening.
So you’re with this guy and hopefully a little sympathetic to him, but you don’t know if he’s justified or why any of this is happening, and it asks the audience to fill in the blanks on their own and stay with him as the aftereffects, which make up the bulk of the movie, are explored. It’s like, “Wait a minute, why did this happen? Was he right and wrong?” That’s all debatable and deliberately murky, which is a fun way to do it, and respects the audience’s intelligence. Everybody’s seen this type of movie a million times, so it was about not talking down to them and making everything very bundled and neat and packaged and easily digestible, and it’s good that he’s on this revenge mission. We wanted to obscure all that and make it messy and awkward and weird.
Part of that involves Dwight having no real experience with firearms. How much experience did you have, and how much did you train with them when you took on the role?
Very little experience, and no real training. He was not supposed to feel comfortable around firearms or have any sort of aptitude for them, and I don’t; I’m uncomfortable around them. I’ve been to shooting ranges, I like action movies and all that, but in real life, they freak me out. Even on set, even though we obviously had safety personnel and rigorous procedures and all that sort of stuff, I was not entirely comfortable those days.
Did you separate yourself from the actors playing your antagonists while you were shooting?
Not at all. The guy I have the confrontation with in the bathroom is Sandy Barnett, one of my oldest friends, and he was cast because we have a long history of doing fight scenes together in Jeremy’s movies. One of the other bad guys is Brent Werzner, a good friend of mine and my wife, so these are all people I love. Stacy Rock was Lexi in Murder Party, so we were all like close friends and family, and when we weren’t actually shooting, there was a lot of hanging out and enjoying the fact that we were getting to run around Virginia with cameras, making this movie. On top of that, we got some outside professionals we were very lucky to get, like Eve Plumb.
From The Brady Bunch. That’s an odd bit of casting…
It is, but she came in and gave a great audition. Jeremy liked her, but he didn’t know who she was! I was like, “Eve Plumb!” and he said, “Yeah, she’s good.” I was like, “No, no, no, that’s Jan Brady!” and he looked a little closer and said, “Oh yeah, I guess so!” She was cast based on her audition, but then the fact that we got to have Jan Brady as this psycho, evil crazed villain was an added bonus. People may not get it at first, maybe until they see her name in the end credits, because she’s beautiful in real life and we made her look kind of rough. Also, her part goes by very quickly; it’s very powerful and impactful, but we don’t linger on her very long. Like a lot of people of my generation, I grew up kind of obsessed with The Brady Bunch, so getting to do that was a treat.
What about playing with all the fake blood? That must have become very sticky, especially in the bathroom scene and at the end.
Oh yeah, man, there was a lot of coming out of it and going to sleep and waking up the next day with my pillow all pink because I didn’t get it all out, even when I washed my hair for 15 minutes, and I loved that. That was kind of how Jeremy and I first bonded: figuring out how to do a cooler-looking squib instead of just slapping a baggie full of blood. He would come around with firecrackers and say, “If we use a condom and put an M-80 here and light it, you know, Tom Savini does this, and then in editing, we’ll cut out the fuse part and it’ll look like Die Hard.”
All the dramatic stuff and tension-building was kind of a new area we were exploring, but getting to do effects and things like that was a great deal of fun. Toby Sells from The Walking Dead, a great Atlanta-based makeup effects artist, came on board and did some dynamite stuff for us. It was head and shoulders above anything we had done before, just amazing, cringe-inducing work. A lot of people agreed to work for less money on this movie, just trying to get it off the ground as best we could given our resources, but when it came to effects, Jeremy was committed to paying top dollar, because he knew that for all the tension and dramatic buildup you put into place, if you then have some cheesy effect that doesn’t work in the third act, the audience is gonna be sucked right out of it. So it was important to us that the effects hold up to scrutiny, and I feel like they do.
Murder Party has a very urban vibe, in both the settings and the characters—these very downtown wannabe hipsters—and then you went deep into the white-trash zone for Blue Ruin. Did that require any kind of adjustment?
No; at the time we made Murder Party, we wanted to do something based in the area where we lived, and we kind of satirized ourselves in that movie; the whole thing was about making fun, to different degrees, of our generation. On Blue Ruin, Jeremy designed the script based on available resources we had. We knew that my cousins had some property in rural Virginia they were willing to let us use for the finale, and that we wanted to do stuff at the Delaware shore for the opening; we had friends there who would let the crew stay at their house. It was about lining up all these different resources we could get for free, or at least very cheap, and building the story around them. Maybe it would have worked just as well in an urban environment, but I don’t know; I like the remoteness and this guy being alone on those country roads and lonesome beach environments. It just fits the story better.
Where do you guys go from here?
Well, Jeremy has written a new script that might be his third movie and is in process as we speak. It’s another genre piece, and it’s amazing. It makes Blue Ruin look like a cakewalk, and if it does come together, it’s going to blow people away. We’re also juggling a bunch of other scripts and developing different projects to keep as many balls in the air as possible, because you never know what’s gonna fall through and what will suddenly happen at the last minute, so we try to keep as many options open to ourselves as we can.
Can you talk about working with J.T. Petty on Hellbenders?
Jeremy and Paul Goldblatt, who did the effects on Murder Party, had started a special makeup company called Lab of Madness, and they did the effects on J.T.’s first movie, Soft for Digging. That’s how we met, and I’ve been buddies with J.T. for several years, and he had written that Hellbenders part for me; the guy’s name is Macon. I was hoping I would get to play that role, but I also knew the reality was that they would probably try to get some more recognizable actor for it. I don’t know what happened behind the scenes, but at any rate, he offered it to me and I was really excited. Not only did I get to work with J.T., something I’d been wanting to do for a while, but also, it had Clancy Brown in it, and Clifton Collins Jr. and Andre Royo and all those people. It was a real treat to get even a couple of scenes with them.
And also Dan Fogler—a wide range of actors with very different disciplines. How was it dealing with all those distinct personalities coming together as a team?
It was crazy, but I don’t think I would use the term “dealing with it”; it was exciting and often hilarious, because they’re all really funny dudes. For me, it was a lot of fun to quietly sit back and kind of play the wallflower and watch everybody zing off each other. That’s what made it so much fun—having all these huge personalities swirling around, and the story was bizarre and everything was so superheated and over the top. Maybe J.T. had to do some juggling, but I never saw that. For me, it was just like, I would show up and they would put me in a full body cast, and I just got to sit on the couch and chuckle to myself because everything was so damn funny all the time.