Amid all of the festival buzz surrounding Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, one chorus emerged again and again: The film is one of the most realistic depictions of the punk/hardcore subculture ever put on screen. That’s because it’s based on director Jeremy Saulnier’s own experiences in the Washington, D.C., punk scene in his youth; as a former punk himself, Saulnier knows that it’s not typical—not since the late ’70s, at least—for punk kids to have sky-high mohawks and live in graffiti-covered warehouses. These days, you’re more likely to encounter punk rockers who live in typical shabby apartments, albeit with more gig posters on the walls.
The thing is, Academy voters don’t particularly care for real life—at least, not the contemporary version. Every single Academy Award for production design awarded in the past 30 years has gone to either a detailed period piece or an imaginative fantasy world. You have to go even further back than that, to 1978’s Heaven Can Wait, to find a film with scenes set in modern America, and that one takes place partially in the afterlife. And the retired executives voting on the Oscars have probably never played a set in the middle of a Mexican restaurant at lunch time, although, to be fair, some of the actors and tradespeople probably have.
Green Room is Saulnier’s first “Hollywood” movie, or at least his first film with a budget beyond what can be accomplished on Kickstarter. For the film, he called upon production designer Ryan Warren Smith, who had previously worked on a handful of indie movies, including with director Kelly Reichardt on her films Wendy And Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff. After creating the realistic world that opens Green Room—a task that included acquiring two acres of corn for the opening scene—Smith was put in charge of retrofitting a soundstage into the venue where most of the film’s action takes place, a neo-Nazi clubhouse that also serves as headquarters for the drug operation operated by Patrick Stewart’s Darcy.
The place, to put it frankly, looks like a dump. You can almost feel the sticky floors under your feet and smell the stale beer and cigarette smoke in the air. The beat-up PA looks like it’s been stolen from a nicer club, and the thin light coming through the dirty windows belies the damp, mildew-laden air outside. But, as anyone who’s ever been to a DIY punk venue just about anywhere, let alone out in the middle of nowhere, can tell you, that’s what it actually looks like. And building a grimy sense memory out of a sterile soundstage isn’t easy.
The script lays out a very specific geography for the film—for example, after getting stuck in the eponymous room, singer Tiger (Callum Turner) finds a way out by kicking a hole in the floor—meaning that, if Smith wasn’t able to lay out a blueprint matching Saulnier’s vision, as Saulnier put it in a Q&A recorded in Filmmaker, “we’d have to rewrite the entire script, plus a new location.” But Smith was able to build the venue—including a main room, a bar, hidden passages, and the upstairs level with the green room and hallway bouncer Big Justin (Eric Edelstein) protects so diligently—from scratch, allowing the cast and crew to film Green Room’s action sequences in order. That technique lends the film an intensity that wouldn’t have been possible without the right location.
And while Saulnier acknowledges that Nazi skinheads are an easy target in terms of villains, no one in Green Room ever explicitly delivers a monologue laying out the political philosophy that drives Darcy and his gang. Some of this burden is carried in the costuming, but it’s mostly the production design that serves to enhance the film’s menace in the form of subtle background cues. It’s not clear from interviews about the film whether the art department of Green Room recreated neo-Nazi paraphernalia from scratch or if they ordered the real deal online, but either way they placed them in ways that remind the characters—and the audience—exactly where they are and who they’re dealing with.
This is most obvious in the Confederate flag that hangs prominently in the green room, but there are also white power symbols on stickers, flyers, graffiti, and flags throughout the film, mixed in with more innocuous symbols of the punk subculture. These symbols are hate speech, and the film does not contradict that viewpoint in any way. Instead, it channels their power into constant, jarringly visceral reminders of the evil faced by our protagonists, incorporated into the seductively normal background of their environment and reminding us of the violence that threatens to tear that environment apart. In this way, the venue goes beyond a punk-rock haunted house and becomes a secondary villain in the film, an achievement in world-building that deserves to be recognized.