Jeremy Saulnier's career has been a lot like one of his movies: The dial starts at 11 and just keeps steadily ramping up from there. Following his directorial debut with the indie horror comedy Murder Party, Saulnier's embarked on a three-movie run of tense, violent thrillers; first, with 2013's revenge drama Blue Ruin, then 2015's Green Room, a punk band vs. neo-Nazi battle royale (a film that's only gotten more timely in the years since). And now Hold the Dark, starring Westworld's Jeffrey Wright as a retired wildlife expert who travels to a remote Alaskan outpost in hopes of finding a young boy who's been taken by wolves.
Based off a novel by William Giraldi and a script adapted by Saulnier's regular collaborator Macon Blair, Hold the Dark is the director's biggest film (and biggest budget) to date, swapping the close-quarters brutality of Green Room for the epic vistas of the Alaskan wilderness, while maintaining the same white-knuckle, high-stakes battle of wills
"Green Room was an exercise in tension-building; how can I keep building these stakes?" Saulnier told SYFY WIRE when we spoke at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month. "And that sort of translates to Hold the Dark. I just wanted to explore this world, visually and atmospherically. It had a tone that just hit me at the bone marrow level. It's a very serious book. It's not as lighthearted or infused with dark comedy."
That shift in tone is something of a departure for the director, though he's always been interested in serious explorations of violence and its repercussions in a way that differentiates him from other modern action movie directors. His films are bloody, sure, punctuated by bursts of graphic, often shocking, violence, but unlike the current trend in hard-R genre movies, they're never cartoonish or over-the-top. ("Starting with Blue Ruin," he qualified. "Because my first movie, Murder Party, is a gonzo horror comedy, with lots of corny violence and fun and Halloween mayhem.")
But then, something changed. "I'm getting older. I'm either evolving or devolving," he says with a laugh, talking about his preference for portraying more realistic violence — and, just as importantly, its very real consequences — in a genre that can sometimes glamorize bloodshed. "It sounds lame, but being a father and just being a United States citizen and seeing the headlines every day, it's hard to feel that I can be comfortable with just... a level of enjoyment in violence.
"I'm attracted to peril in cinema. Meaning, I like high stakes. Because I have a very fulfilling life at home, I'm very happy. Our house is full of love. And when I sit down and watch a movie, I don't need that or want that. I want to see something exciting. I want my heart to race." For Saulnier, the recipe for a good thriller is simple: "Couple the potential for harm with grounded characters, with great actors and performances, so that the harm and the peril and the violence and potential lose of life becomes harrowing. At a visceral level, an emotional level."
It's an approach that's invited comparisons to another director famous for his subversive approach to on-screen violence: Sam Peckinpah. If Green Room was at least partially inspired by Straw Dogs, then Hold the Dark is the director's ode to The Wild Bunch, complete with a bloody shootout that proved to be one of Saulnier's most technically-complex scenes to date — with a total body count that's probably higher than the rest of his movies combined (and if you've seen them, then yeah, that's saying something).
"It's 100 percent Western at that point," Saulnier says. "That was one of the things that attracted me to the material in the first place. It's a way to do that old-fashioned Western, but sort of re-envision it in one of the last places that you could, which is the Alaskan frontier, where there is not much access to modern technology. And SWAT teams or support. It's just an old-school standoff, and no one's coming to help.
"Even the whole setup, where Russell Core, this wolf expert, naturalist, retired novelist, is summoned to a small town to see about a missing boy by a young mother," has a Western feel to it, he says. Jeffrey Wright's not exactly The Man With No Name, just swap the poncho and cowboy boots for snow boots and an oversized caribou coat, but he is very much of that classic Western mold.
"The character of Russell Core had to have a certain gravity to him," Saulnier says. "He had to have enough physicality to embark on this odyssey and to survive the elements and to survive the onslaught. But he also had to have an intellectual quality to him. And Jeffrey satisfied both those needs." So much so that the Westworld star was his first — and only —choice.
When it comes to casting, Saulnier focuses not just on whether an actor looks the part, but whether they sound it. "It's a big part of my process," he says. "Like with Anton Yelchin [in Green Room], a lot of it was his voice, knowing I'd hear it through doors. And with Jeffrey Wright, it was also his voice. I wanted to hear that voice in these quiet cabin interiors, with the fire crackling and the wind howling outside."
In many ways, that ever-present, numbing cold acts almost like another character in Hold the Dark, which provided its own unique set of challenges, shooting in the Canadian Rockies in Alberta in late winter. "I'd take my hands out of my pockets without gloves, and within a minute, they were completely useless," Saulnier recalls.
"It's very difficult logistically. The crew, of course, they're used to it there. Some of the guys were wearing shorts, in negative 30 [degrees] Celsius. There's always a grip that wears shorts no matter what," he says, laughing. And truthfully, the subzero temperatures proved to be the least of Saulnier's concerns when it came to working on his largest-scale project yet — "trying to punch above your weight class," as he put it. "Making a movie that should be 'x' amount of dollars and you have 'x' amount of dollars, minus $5 million."
"I'd never done a choreographed aerial sequence. I've never done a war scene. I've never done so much animal work. We were filming on a frozen lake, and we had to leave because the ice was cracking," he says. "We were just getting the tail end of winter, so there was this terrifying week-and-a-half where we chasing down snow and trying to find the last remnants so we could finish what we started. You're at the mercy of the elements.
"Those sort of things were inconvenient, but I've got to say, I knew that was coming. I needed to capture the cold and the snow. The cold was just part of the bargain," he said. "Whenever I'd be in my hotel room and see snow that morning, I would just jump for joy."
That doesn't mean he's in a rush to film another cold-weather movie any time soon though. After wrapping the first two episodes of the new season of True Detective, Saulnier's trying to decide on his next project now. "My wife is begging me to do something somewhere warm, when the kids are out of school, so that's the mission," he laughed. "We'll see." Just don't expect a sunny rom-com.
Hold the Dark premieres on Netflix on September 28.