Macon Blair’s directorial debut, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, won the Grand Jury Prize for the U.S. Dramatic competition at Sundance. We would have interviewed the producer and star of Blue Ruin and Green Room for his directorial debut anyway, but now we’ve also landed an interview with the big Sundance winner.
Melanie Lynskey stars as Ruth, a woman disillusioned with all the rudeness in the world. When she is robbed, she goes on a vigilante quest on the principle of correcting society’s ills. Teamed with her martial artist neighbor Tony (Elijah Wood), the duo bumble around the mystery of who robbed Ruth, which explodes into graphic violence while still being funny.
We met Blair at the top of the mountain in Park City to talk about I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, inside the warm cabin Netflix has rented for Sundance (and where they played Cheers in HD in their green room.) He’s already close to growing the full Blue Ruin beard back.
Netflix, who had several movies at Sundance (including Burning Sands and Deidra and Laney Rob a Train) also picked up some new films, including To the Bone and The Incredible Jessica James.
I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore will premiere on Netflix February 24.
cinemathread: Is this movie your statement on self-interest in society?
Macon Blair: Maybe that’s a good way to say it. I don’t think there’s anything groundbreaking to it or like I have a prescription. If it was going to be a crime movie, a thriller movie, I guess I wanted the idea behind it, as opposed to being “let’s get the money” or “let’s rise to power”—whatever the ideas might be in a crime movie—something appealed to me about having the idea be “let’s just be a little nicer to each other” and have that be the thing driving a crime story.
CT: You must have been writing this before 2016 where all of that reached its height.
MB: I was. It’s not new. I think certainly as I was writing it, there was something about the 24-hour cable news cycle. The campaign had not quite geared up yet because I think I probably wrote it in 2015. In my mind, just this feeling, and I’m sure I’m not the only one that has it, that feels like it can’t just be me but things are coming apart at the scenes. Then, of course, the last year that feeling got exacerbated. So that title was taken from a song I was listening to as I was writing it. We thought it might be too long and we thought about alternate titles. Ultimately we came back to that title and as it got closer and closer, I started to have this sinking feeling. Setting aside the fact that it’s a mouthful and way too long for a title of a movie, it almost feels too on the nose.
CT: Even before the election, I’m sure social media created that feeling where everyone was all about themselves.
MB: For sure. Self-interest and also just social obliviousness. One of my pet peeves is the phones in movie theaters. Even before phones existed, I just don’t remember talking in movies. On one hand, I’m like, “Are you just getting old? Are you turning into a ‘get off my lawn’ crotchety old man?” Totally possible, but I do feel like just standards of behavior in public are eroding. It doesn’t feel like it’s just me.
On one hand, I’m like, “Are you just getting old? Are you turning into a ‘get off my lawn’ crotchety old man?” Totally possible, but I do feel like just standards of behavior in public are eroding.
CT: I have a theory, it may not be true, but you give people these phones and you’re essentially telling them, “You’re so important. You need to know all the things these apps are telling you and we have to hear what you think.”
MB: That’s true. Without having that articulated to them, I think on a subliminal level, it is just kind of like, “This is all me.” Then it becomes about “I need to reply to this because people surely are interested.” Then the quagmire of message boards and people attacking on Twitter… It’s great for everybody to have a voice. Maybe it’s too much of a voice for some people. I don’t know, it’s beyond me, but definitely that feeling of things are falling apart certainly informed Ruth’s character.
CT: Was the casual spoiler another pet peeve of yours, when the guy in the bar tells her the end of her book?
MB: Kind of. As we were establishing Ruth’s world before we kick into the mystery, where it’s just her list of grievances, it was amusing to me that for her it ranged from this very small-scale meaningless stuff like somebody spoiling the end of her book, to something that’s a huge cancer on society like white supremacy. There’s this whole spectrum of problems, the least of which is somebody telling you the end of a novel.
CT: It is funny that people are so sensitive to things being spoiled for them, but once they see something, they have to tell everyone about it.
MB: “Have you seen this? Have you seen this?” It’s true. I’ve been guilty of that myself sometimes and I try to be mindful of it. It was all about establishing this world where it’s not any one thing. It’s just Ruth feeling like humanity is on the wrong path and she’s lost sight of her place in it.
That added level of “fuck you” was important to me.
CT: I have always thought upper deckers are hilarious since I first heard what it was. Have you?
MB: Me too. I was aware people might not understand what was going on there but I felt very validated because we had the screening and there was a couple sitting behind me, it was a guy and his girlfriend. I could hear her go, “What is he doing?” The guy was like, “It’s called an upper decker.” Ordinarily, talking in movies bums me out but he went on to explain. “Basically it’s going to be a mess for a couple weeks, maybe even as long as a month. It’s really difficult to clean out.” This whole awesome breaking down the mechanics of an upper decker. Jeremy [Saulnier] and his buddies lived in Brooklyn in the late ‘90s. Someone broke into their apartment, and this did not directly inform the script, but just this one detail that whoever broke into the house and stole their stuff also took the time to take a dump on the wall, not the floor, on the wall of their house. That added level of “f*** you” was important to me.
CT: Is your tone a little more absurd and irreverent than Saulnier?
MB: I think so. I think Jeremy is very focused and likes to keep things very grounded. He is a hilarious guy and his early movies were all these very absurd comedies, like way more absurd than any of this, totally gonzo type stuff. It just so happens that he is most well known for his last two movies which are very stark and very brutal. While they do have moments of really satisfying dark comedy in them, they’re primarily thought of as being pretty intense thrillers. People may say this is the funny one, but on the long timeline of all of his work, that would be an unfair comparison. I’m sure one day he will come back and blow everybody’s mind with a movie that’s much funnier than this one. In this case, it was not about consciously trying to do anything different than him. We have very similar styles because we’ve grown up together and we’ve grown and experienced stuff in the same sorts of ways, so we have similar tastes about what we like in movies. I just felt like this is my first time at it. I had watched Jeremy a lot and been on a lot of sets, but to be the one in charge of everything, I just wanted to be able to be dealing with stuff that was going to be making me laugh a lot. I knew it was going to be a lot of slog in the editing room and a lot of slog on the set and just a lot of times when if already the material was depressing, there would be plenty for me to be depressed about otherwise so I wanted at least the material to be something I could be laughing at. It worked out. On set, there was a lot of laughter in the editing room. There was a lot of laughter as we tweaked little jokes and tweaked gags. Some of them worked and some of them didn’t, but the process was very fun.
CT: Does all the crazy violence come organically out of the script, or do you have set pieces you want to build towards?
MB: It’s hard to track that back specifically. I think it’s a little bit of both. The throwing star came about accidentally because I started out wanting Tony to be really into martial arts. Basically, giving him this otherwise useless skill set that he’s not even really that good at but he suddenly thinks for the first time in his life, ‘Put me in the game, coach. This is my time to shine.’ He thinks he can use what he perceives to be his ninja abilities to help solve this crime and of course it doesn’t go that way. Somehow in that whole ninja thing, a throwing star came into it. I was big into ninjas when I was a kid like a lot of kids were, so throwing stars were always cool to me.
CT: But Tony would say it’s not ninja.
MB: Yeah, it’s sort of like he tries to mansplain her about nunchucks being from a specific region of Japan and ninjas being associated broadly with Japan. It’s just him getting bogged down with this semantic detail that Ruth is just like, “I don’t give a shit what you’re talking about.” It’s just him being too excited about his passionate little world.
CT: Did you ever toy with the level of violence, or is it funnier the more graphic it is?
MB: I didn’t want to linger on anything too much. I wanted it more to be about the sudden appearance of it. In other words, I don’t need to see the blood necessarily. I just want it to appear from somewhere totally unexpectedly. It’s less about wanting a lot of gushing fluids everywhere as it is “I didn’t think that was going to happen” or a shock effect. Sometimes for comedy, sometimes for horror but mainly just to keep people on their toes about you don’t know what’s going to happen next and none of these characters are safe necessarily.
CT: Since this was your directorial debut, now that you’ve done it is there anything you would have done differently?
MB: Yeah, man. I would’ve rethought the climactic sequence. I knew that we had a certain amount of time and a certain amount of resources to do that. I think it was just too ambitious. I think we got the best possible version that we could but it’s a lot of stunts, running, and jumping. If I had pared that down a little bit and been a little more conservative with what we were trying to capture, it might’ve been a little more effective.
CT: Which parts of the finale?
MB: I just wish we’d had more time to choreograph a more involved rock fight and a more involved chase sequence. It was a very specific location that was kind of difficult to move quickly and it’s hard to reset shots when it’s all this jungle terrain. I think my appetite for what we wanted to shoot was a little too big. It’s not disastrous. I just wish I could have finessed it a little bit more. We did what we could.
CT: So mainly the forest stuff, not the stuff in the house?
MB: No, I’m happy with the stuff in the house. The forest stuff though …