Feedback In The Green Room: How The Blair Brothers Helped Make A New Punk Thriller Terrifying
Punk rock is what starts the plot of Green Room, the new film from writer and director Jeremy Saulnier, but the score by the Blair Brothers helps keep its edge as sharp as a box-cutter blade. The thriller tells the story of the Ain’t Rights, a hardcore band from outside of Washington, D.C., who find themselves playing a skinhead-controlled venue in rural Oregon they probably shouldn’t be in and then stumbling onto something they definitely shouldn’t see. As their situation becomes more perilous, the unsettling and ominous synthesizer score underlines the dark forces amassing outside the door.
Brooke and Will Blair grew up with Saulnier in the D.C. suburb of Alexandria, Virginia. The brothers scored the director’s early short films and experiments, then went on to work on all three of his features, including his 2007 debut, Murder Party, and 2013’s critically lauded breakout, Blue Ruin. Their older brother Macon starred in the latter and has a supporting role in Green Room, acting alongside the more established names Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, and Patrick Stewart.
Just a year apart in age (Brooke is the elder sibling), the Blair Brothers were in separate rock bands as teens. As students at Virginia Commonwealth University they started playing together, with Brooke on guitar and Will on drums, in the live-instrumentation hip-hop group Infectious Organisms, which they describe as having “the worst band name in history.” The group was popular on the East Coast college touring circuit, but after moving to Philadelphia, the band soon broke up. The siblings then formed the indie act East Hundred, which kicked around from 2005 to 2012. After Blue Ruin was released, the Blair Brothers began concentrating on composing for films, including the Taser documentary Killing Them Safely and the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival entry Live Cargo.
We spoke with the Blair Brothers by phone last week, where they discussed what collaborating with Saulnier is like and the part they played in making Green Room, which opened in selected theatres Friday, so terrifying.
Growing up, did you two always play music together?
Will Blair: We discovered music together, as most kids do. We’re primarily self-taught. Growing up, we played independently in different bands, but right around college, we finally started working together and thought we were stronger working as a pair. We ended up playing in a lot of bands, learning how to produce and record ourselves, and doing a good bit of touring. We’ve definitely had some independent projects, but the majority of what we have done has been as a pair.
Were you ever in bands with Jeremy Saulnier?
Brooke Blair: Jeremy was more in the punk and hardcore scene. He was a singer—well, more of a screamer, I guess. As little kids we’d go see some of his shows. He was a couple years ahead of us in school. He was really good friends with our older brother Macon. They grew up together. The two were always sort of around.
If he knew musicians and other people he played in bands with, why did he think you guys would be good to make music for his films?
Will: For some of those early projects of his—which were short films with little to no budget, or self-produced for fun—we were nearby, we were available, and we were interested. We had a small collection of home recording equipment, instruments, and things like that at the time, and a willingness to explore. This was when the stakes were lower, or expectations were lower. It was more learning how to do it together. After a few of those projects, he approached us for his first feature film. There’s a level of trust and familiarity that needs to be developed between a director and a composer, and we just did that organically from having known each other and being fans of each other’s early work.
Was film scoring even something you had been thinking about getting into, or was it just something that presented itself?
Brooke: It was always something that was fun to do in between playing in bands. If the band was taking a break, inevitably there would be a short film of Jeremy’s. Or being in college, there would be student projects of other young filmmakers that just needed music. It was something that we did on the side that was kind of fun and a different sort of collaboration than playing in a band. After Murder Party, our band [East Hundred] was starting to get going, then a couple years later, like literally around the time that that band was breaking up, we got the opportunity to work on Blue Ruin. Just the way that film was received, it was a catalyst to look at [composing] a little more seriously. It presented itself as an option to maybe start doing it full time. Then we started getting hired to do other films based on the work on Blue Ruin.
Will: There was one point in the past few years as things were moving along where we stopped and said, “What if we actively pursued this film world a long time ago?” Not that we regretted the years we spend being in a band, but where would we be if we had done this much earlier? And we agreed, as Brooke said, that it presented itself at the right time. There needed to be a certain amount of, I don’t want to say maturity, but just a certain amount of experience or confidence with recording yourself and producing yourself, and stepping outside the world of being in a band, which is so internally focused on you and your collaborators. [Film scoring] requires a bit more letting go of your own precious ideas and your expectations, and learning to work with a much, much bigger network of artists. Back in the day with some of our bands, we wouldn’t have been creatively ready for it.
At what stage does Saulnier bring you in to start working on a film?
Brooke: One thing we’re lucky enough to have with our relationship with Jeremy is that we get a copy of the script pretty early on. It’s not like, “Get to work,” it’s just an opportunity to get a feel for it and start on rough demos—nothing to picture at that point, just sketches and ideas and instrumentation that might work. We give those to Jeremy during preproduction and even during shooting, so he’s got some of our ideas in his back pocket. He’s got a good folder of our demos to work with when he starts cutting his movies together. In Blue Ruin and Green Room, some early demos he fell in love with ended up staying in the films, but the bulk of the work happens after we get a rough cut.
In Green Room, specifically, what was the idea you wanted to bring to your score?
Will: We knew that there was a lot of onscreen punk rock from the band performing, and punk and metal coming through speakers in the background. That was a prominent part of the sound in the movie. We knew we needed to complement that aesthetic, but also weave it together and stay out of the way. We knew from Jeremy’s approach that our primary role was going to be to support tension and suspense.
We were looking at possible instrumentation, and again knowing Jeremy’s general tastes and likes and dislikes, we cooked up this idea about feedback. There’s so much feedback in the movie—the screeching noise when you plug in a guitar, or from a microphone—it’s this unexpected and uncomfortable squeal. We kind of embraced that and spent a day recording feedback noises from guitars and microphones and drums and anything we could get to feedback. We took those raw samples, so to speak, and created synth pieces that could be played in a more melodic way, but they maintain this slightly distorted and gritty origins of the sound that fits into the world of punk rock and unexpected dissonance and uncomfortable tones. There’s a lot of percussion and deep bass to keep things moving along, but a good 80 percent of the foundation of the score is rooted in these feedback sounds.
Certain film composers are associated with certain emotions. What do you guys think you do best?
Will: Jeremy’s most recent two movies in particular, a big part of our role was just tension and working to maintain a level of discomfort and unpredictability. That’s not how we grew up making music with each other. We veered more toward the melodic side of things, but Jeremy was a great teacher, for lack of a better word, in how to approach music from a strictly emotional standpoint of tension. We have to give him a lot of credit for pushing us in that direction and feeling comfortable stepping away from anything too melodic or memorable or catchy, and really trying to freak you out.
That’s not the end-all be-all. We’re getting to branch out. On projects that we’ve worked on since then with other directors, of course they have their own likes and dislikes and goals for the score, so we’ve been able explore other things that are less tense, because the stories don’t go to that as much. We were able to work with a small choir on a recent project, and some more piano-based stuff, and strings and guitars. Scores that we like are understated and almost subliminal and minimal, and really just help maintain cohesion with what you’re seeing, rather than looking for an opportunity to shine, musically. We got to do that onstage when we were young, and now we like the idea that it’s a supportive role, and less is often more.
The Green Room rocks Canadian theatres April 29.