The Great Dark North: Jeremy Saulnier talks about Hold the Dark

by Andrew Parker

Director Jeremy Saulnier is no stranger to sinister material, and his latest feature, Hold the Dark (arriving on Netflix this Friday and opening theatrically in Toronto the same day), might be his bleakest, most challenging, and most ambitious work yet. The filmmaker behind critically acclaimed and audience beloved thrillers Blue Ruin and Green Room travels to the furthest reaches of North America for his new project alongside screenwriter and frequent collaborator Macon Blair (here adapting a novel by William Giraldi), and into a heart of spiritual darkness.

Hold the Dark casts Jeffery Wright as Russell Core, a novelist and survivalist famed for spending several years among the wolves of Western Alaska. Although retired, Core returns to Alaska and the territory of the Yup’ik at the request of Medora Sloane (Riley Keough), a distraught young mother who watched her child get taken away by a pack of wolves. With her husband, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård) stationed overseas in the military, Medora asks Russell to help find the body of her child. The former tracker agrees to help, but things aren’t quite what they appear to be, and Vernon’s return from the war will set off a course of violent events that a local sheriff (James Badge Dale) will have his hands full trying to control.

Hold the Dark is just as viscerally terrifying as any of Jeremy Saulnier’s previous work, but here the material is deeply rooted in indigenous tradition, surreal visual flourishes, long festering familial secrets, and more existential themes about growing older. Blue Ruin and Green Room were bold in their own ways, but Hold the Dark represents a pronounced shift towards more artful and daring fare for Saulnier, one that the still relatively young director is enthusiastic to talk about.

We caught up with Jeremy Saulnier over lunch earlier this month on the day before Hold the Dark would make its world premiere at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival to talk about how his latest can be seen as a departure from his previous works, how difficult it is to get such a story produced, substituting Alberta for Alaska, how he prefers to depict violent acts on screen, and his detail oriented style of filmmaking.

This might be the strangest, smartest, and most ambitious project that you’ve attempted to date, and I can imagine that even though you’re working on somewhat of a larger budget than you’re accustomed to, this couldn’t have been an easy film to sell people on. It’s difficult, violent material that has a decidedly spiritual undercurrent and is set in the middle of Alaska. What’s the biggest obstacle to getting something like this made?

TORONTO, ON – SEPTEMBER 12: Jeremy Saulnier attends the “Hold The Dark” premiere during 2018 Toronto International Film Festival at Princess of Wales Theatre on September 12, 2018 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by GP Images/Getty Images)

Jeremy Saulnier: It certainly wasn’t easy. One of the things that was most important for us was to stay true to the intentions of the material’s original novelist, which was a very culturally and geographically significant perspective. There was so much that went into trying to get this off the ground, both from the perspective of finding actors who wanted to do it and to find an appropriate setting.

There was a version of this story that was going to take place in New Zealand, in the Southern Hemisphere, in the month of July. That was a real gut-check moment where we were actually green lit, and I said, “No, we’re not doing it,” which is very odd. (laughs) My agent called me frantic and said, “Are you actually going to cancel a green lit movie, Jeremy?!?” And I said, “We just have to.”

The reason was because there are certain things that necessitated this being set in North America. It had a lot to do with the indigenous environment that’s prevalent in the novel and in the script: the people, the places, the flora, the fauna, and the tradition all had to look real.

We, of course, couldn’t explore Alaska as much as we wanted to during filming or pre-production due to infrastructure and tax incentives, and as a filmmaker of my standing who almost already walked away from doing this once, I’m not fighting that battle right now. (laughs) You have to work within the system, and realize that there are some other options out there. Ultimately, we shot primarily in Calgary, and that offered us everything we needed and more.

Alberta was kind of like a crew base. There are a lot of great filmmakers there and like minded folks who want to make movies. People shoot there a lot for great reasons. The environment there is stunning, and the crews are made up of passionate, outstanding people. The more I researched Alberta, the more I noticed that it really lined up with my vision for Alaska. We had the ability to build our own village on this amazing property that we stumbled across. If it weren’t for Alberta, this film might not have happened. It ended up being really easy once we decided on Alberta, and it really gave us the authenticity we were craving and striving for. Once we scoured the earth for it, it seemed to be the only choice, and everything really fell into place after that, and I felt like the film was ready to be made.

This film has a decided spiritual angle to it, which is a departure from your previous work where the quests and goals of the protagonists are a lot more personal in nature. This is a lot more etherial. Is that approach somewhat daunting after the last two films that you directed?

Jeremy Saulnier: From the start, I had a real connection to this story, but you’re right that it’s very different and it’s absolutely daunting. I was really struck by that aspect of the novel, and it was one of the things that I loved about it. As a filmmaker, the way I approached it was that I would never want to touch any sort of supernatural elements in a story like this, but I will completely embrace the mysticism of it and the history behind it. The belief systems of the people in this story are such that they can believe in supernatural elements, and to them it can be real as anything else in this world, but I liked the idea of approaching this as a filmmaker who could showcase that kind of feeling without always showing it. There are a lot of beliefs, prophecies, and perceived cursed bloodlines that were intriguing to me, but I knew I was approaching a lot of these elements as an outsider. I wanted to remain grounded in my approach, but to pay respect to the ideas in play.

You have great leads who are willing to go to great physical extremes for their roles, especially given what the film requires of them and the chilly rural setting. Is it hard to find actors willing to go along with such a demanding project, both on narrative and physical levels?

Jeremy Saulnier: I don’t think it actually dampened actor enthusiasm at all for the same reasons that I as a filmmaker became attracted to this project. The actors we were able to find all bought into it, as well. This was a film made up of people with whom we could do one-on-one chamber pieces; dialogue scenes of over ten minutes or more where it’s just them talking with the fire crackling and wind howling in the background while they’re inside a cabin. From a craft point of view, it’s relatively simple because you really just let the actors do their thing. But to offset that once those story elements were out of their system, they were all really excited to move on to the more physically challenging aspects of the story.

Jeffery, especially, was looking forward to that, and he was really up for an adventure. He’d never done something like this before. And he’s really quite a physical guy, to a point where I’d have to bring him down a bit in terms of his performance. Jeffery in real life is a really in-shape surfing enthusiast, which a lot of people probably don’t know about him, and sometimes his movement was bordering on top tier action movie hero stuff, which is great, but it wasn’t the character. There were times where I had to remind him he was a retiree and that we were actually aging him up. (laughs) But he totally got playing this broken everyman, and we found a great balance. This character is a naturalist who has been among the wolves and among these people, but he’s still just, at the end of the day, an outside observer and a novelist.

It was also really fun to place Alex in these almost Kubrickian war sequences in the desert. That was a lot of fun for us to do, and another example of an actor who was really committing fully to the part. I think that based on my other films, actors know that I lean heavily on performance. I have a visual sensibility, but that’s all for naught if you don’t have believable, grounded performances. Everyone was really attentive to how I would cover scenes and how we could all work together. They put a lot of faith in me to give me the work they ultimately do, and they believed that I would properly capture the immense amount of work that they were putting in. Again, like you were saying, this was so different and unique that it was too good for any of us to pass up.

This film also fits in with your previous work in the sense that there are violent, shocking acts that arise suddenly and without warning. Is your ability to capture such moments and keep them surprising something that you’ve honed over time?

Jeremy Saulnier: I definitely have an affinity for that. (laughs) I’ve just always been drawn to that sort of tonal shift, and I think I have a knack for designing things in a way that’s not overtly or subversively trying to circumvent how a Hollywood production might handle those kinds of moments, but to do them in ways that feel real, awkward, and appropriately ill timed. That makes violence seem all the more realistic and shocking, I think. There’s never really a good time for violence, so when it happens, it should feel like it’s coming at the worst possible moment.

Characters in any story are written to move at a very certain and specific pace, and anything you do with them has to feel real to an audience member. Keep in mind, though, that before Macon even started making this script that these characters started in the mind of William Giraldi. When Macon translated that into a screenplay, he did some great work making sure that our main character of Russell Core was involved in some of the most important moments of the film. The big shootout that happens in the film was in the novel, but in the book Russell isn’t involved in it at all, so Macon was able to find a way to have the character become a part of the scene without making it feel like his presence has been tacked on.

Macon has a great ability to streamline things that plays well with how I like to direct and tell stories. He’s able to find ways of staying true to the characters and giving me some leeway to almost experiment in a lot of ways. That gunfight that I just spoke about was something that was very true to how the characters were written, but it’s described mainly in Macon’s script as “a waterfall of bullets,” which was up to me to interpret. (laughs) My guide for that sequence, and for the entire project, was to always ask if it approximates the feeling and reaction that I had to reading the book and getting to know these characters. In the book, that sequence is almost its own self contained section, but just reading it unfold left me tense and breathless and brutalized. There’s excitement that comes from peril and uncertainty. Anything could happen in moments like that, and those are the moments that I love to work with as a filmmaker.

Something else that this film has in common with your previous works, albeit on a much more ambitious scale here is a unique sense of costuming. The characters in Blue Ruin all looked and moved a certain way that fit their motives, and the punks and neo-nazis of Green Room all had very specific sorts of attire, but Hold the Dark features people who have to wear clothing that functions almost like armour from both the cold and from the harshness of the world around them. There’s also a motif in the film revolving around traditional indigenous masks, that’s simultaneously literal, metaphorical, and spiritual. What was it like exploring that aspect of these characters?

Jeremy Saulnier: Thank you! Antoniette [Messam], our costume designer, and our prop department were absolutely amazing to work with on this. There’s so much iconography in the novel that was vital to telling the story on screen that they’re absolute heroes on a film like this. Every visual element in this film is so important, and I couldn’t be happier with the work of the craftspeople who worked on this.

The costuming was incredibly difficult, but by necessity. They had to make these outfits that had to be film ready for people to move around in, and yet they had to be weathered enough to look authentic. Jeffery’s suit was hand stitched together from caribou hides to look authentic, but when you first get material like that it’s really fuzzy looking on camera. The amount of work they had to put into that one suit for Jeremy was unreal. They had to oil it, shave it down, and essentially wear it out so that it seemed in place in this world.

The details were certainly paramount for us to nail. We knew that this story needed to be told with a great deal of delicacy, and any false note would rip the audience out of the story. Everything down to the smallest piece of set dressing was discussed in great detail. There were even discussions about a piece of a chocolate bar that you see in the film. It seems like a throwaway moment in the grand scheme of things, but those details really matter to a story like this and how we present it. It all helps to build and maintain the atmosphere we needed.

Hold the Dark opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Friday, September 28, 2018. It’s available everywhere on Netflix the same day.

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