Early on in Jeremy Saulnier’s brutal siege thriller, Green Room, a band called the Ain’t Rights thrash through the final song of a raucous set in front of a crowd of Nazi skinheads. The footage slows to a crawl, the music drops out, and ambient waves of sound wash over the room. In a movie of unrelenting tension, it’s an unexpected respite.
“There’s just a transcendent period where, in an abstract way, we see the beauty of the energy and the motion,” Saulnier tells the Voice during an interview at the Manhattan office of the film’s distributor, A24, explaining that he wanted to recapture his experiences in mosh pits at early ’90s hardcore punk shows. “It was important for me to show one moment in the movie of synchronicity and purity.”
Aside from this scene, though, Green Room is a propulsive gorefest. The story follows a hardcore band (the aforementioned Ain’t Rights, led by Anton Yelchin) and a reluctant skinhead (Imogen Poots) forced to fight their way out of the green room of a neo-Nazi concert hall in rural Oregon after stumbling upon a murder; Patrick Stewart co-stars as the neo-Nazi cell’s grizzled leader. The film is Saulnier’s follow-up to 2013’s Blue Ruin, an equally grisly flick that earned the young filmmaker indie-darling status. Within a month of its domestic release, he was suddenly being passed studio scripts, but before wading into those waters, he wanted to take on a project that had been bouncing around his head for the better part of a decade: paying tribute, on film, to his days in the Washington, D.C., hardcore scene.
“It was definitely a way to archive a very influential part of my life,” he says. “The punk hardcore scene [predated] the Internet, so I had nothing to show for it. I wanted to steep this film in an aesthetic and an atmosphere and really mine all the cool shit out of the scene.”
Saulnier got hooked on punk at age nine when he heard the Dead Kennedys’ 1980 debut, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, on a 1985 road trip with his family. (The Ain’t Rights open their set with the band’s “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” in an attempt to show the Nazi skinheads they’re not afraid of them.) Suddenly, he was desperately trying to crib everything he could from the older kids with whom he skateboarded. He didn’t even know what bands he liked yet, but he was dedicated to finding out. “I would have to remember the logos on the older kids’ T-shirts, get my mom to drive me to the record store, buy cassettes, bring them home, and listen to them and find out if I liked them.”
Eventually Saulnier and his friends started driving into the US capital for shows, encountering Hare Krishnas, vegans, punks, and Nazi skinheads. His adventures as a D.C. punk informed many of Green Room’s details: The Ain’t Rights are named after a band he was friends with, and a song they play early in the film was written by his childhood next-door neighbor. He also notes the beginning of the film, when a paying Ain’t Rights gig falls through and the band has no choice but to play a zero-audience lunchtime set at a Mexican restaurant.
“I played that show!” he recounts. “I sung in a hardcore band in a Mexican restaurant and it was pathetic. Yet, you put on your best show, and that’s what’s so lovely about the scene. It’s not about accolades, about cashing checks, it’s about getting on the road and sharing whatever shitty music you’re playing with other people who are into it.”
Green Room opens in limited release tomorrow and in wide release on April 29.