In accepting the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance for his directorial debut “I don’t feel at home in this world anymore,” Macon Blair’s thoughts drifted towards the things that gave him hope, namely his parents in Virginia, who had attended the Women’s March in Washington D.C. the week before to protest the planned policies of the incoming administration. To those who perhaps heard on Main Street in Park City of his first feature by way of its most crowd pleasing elements such as ninja stars and a scene of gratuitous vomiting that may have used up the entire oatmeal supply of Oregon, some may have been surprised by the writer/director’s sincerity. But in fact, part of what makes Blair’s first feature so special is the desire to see the goodness in others amidst its gleefully gruesome twists and turns, even as all else suggests that personal fear and anxiety has been prioritized over general kindness and selflessness.
With “I don’t feel at home in this world anymore,” Blair has unexpectedly made a movie for the moment – and perhaps the ages -with his tale of vengeance that doubles as a plea for decency to one another. True to his previous collaborations with Jeremy Saulnier (“Murder Party,” “Blue Ruin,” and “Green Room”), he takes great pleasure in seeing how a relatively average person would react if placed into the plot of an action movie they caught late one night on cable, setting his sights on Ruth (Melanie Lynskey), a nurse at a post-op clinic who has had her house broken into, with a computer, some meds and her grandmother’s silverware stolen. After a number of indignities have laid her low, she is upset more by “the violation” than by the crime, as well as the tepid response from the police tasked with investigating it, and attempts to track down the thieves herself and recover her property, finding an ally in her flail-wielding, Big Red-drinking neighbor Tony (Elijah Wood).
A spirit of generosity doesn’t only emerge as a theme of the film, but coursing throughout it as a part of Blair’s direction as Ruth’s dogged investigation leads her out of the cocoon of her own experience and into all the different worlds of those who live around her, with every character she comes into contact with, even for but a moment, clearly leading interesting lives outside of their service to the story. Lynskey, whose deep brown eyes have long reflected a seemingly bottomless reservoir of empathy, is especially effective in demonstrating how Ruth’s well comes perilously close to running dry, finding replacement fuel in anger that at a time of resistance and real-life political upheaval feels especially poignant and it is particularly endearing to see Wood as the eager yet eccentric Tony find his footing in indifferent times as her crime-fighting partner.
Beyond the rare celebration of common decency in the cinema, however, Blair has done his part to make the world a better place just by delivering a devilishly good time, packing each scene with more uncomfortable laughs than the last as characters stumble into new and creative ways of dying, if not always physically, soulfully as they interact with others who have a different (and usually deviant) understanding of the social contract. On the eve of the film’s premiere on Netflix, Blair spoke about getting comfortable in the director’s chair after a decorated career as a writer and actor, even if getting his dream car into the shoot turned into a total nightmare.
Just the idea of what Ruth’s character was going through probably existed first. I was thinking about her before I had any story to place her in, and her feelings about her place in the world and what she perceives as what’s going on in the world. Then as I was writing the screenplay, you’re always surrounded by news. You’ve got your phone on all the time and I’m sure I’m not the only person who has that feeling from time to time that things are falling apart. Whether they are or aren’t, they can certainly feel that way, so that certainly did feed into the detective story we were trying to tell.
Had you been wanting to direct something for a while?
It had always been a long-term goal, like something I was going to work up to. It was about 2014 [when] I started to plan it a little more seriously. I was working on a movie called “Green Room,” with Jeremy Saulnier and I mentioned to the producers on that, who I’ve known for a while, that I was writing something with the idea that I would direct it. They were very encouraging and said when the script was ready to show to people, bring it to them first. That’s what I did and they took it under their wing and really used their reputation to vouch for me because nobody really knew who I was, at least not as a director. It took about a year or so to get the financing together, but eventually we were able to do that with Netflix, so it seemed like it came out of nowhere, but it had been in the world for quite a while.
How did you get interested in Melanie Lynskey for Ruth?
She was the idea from the get go. I couldn’t tell you exactly when it occurred to me, but early on when I was writing, I had her in mind to play that part. I had no expectation that we would actually be able to get her because at the time I didn’t know if we were going to have money or how much, but I had been a fan of hers since “Heavenly Creatures.” When we were finally able to get a deal in place with Netflix, one of the first things they asked was, “Who do you want to play this part?” And I said Melanie, and they were very supportive of that. I sent her the script a couple of months before that and she wanted to do it if we could make it work, so it took a little bit of going through some hoops while we were developing and going back and forth on some casting combinations, but ultimately, we were able to go with first choice. Along the same lines, Elijah [Wood] was who I had in mind to play Tony as well, so it felt very fortunate to get to wind up with the people you always imagined playing those parts in the first place.
Given your acting background, was it exciting to give people roles that are really unexpected but obviously scratch some itch? Not just the leads, but it took me a while to even figure out that was Jane Levy as one of the film’s hooligans.
Yeah, absolutely. I’ve loved Melanie’s work for a long time, but she does seem to play more introspective characters. I don’t think I’d seen her in a thriller/caper kind of story, at least not that I could think of off the top of my head recently, so that just seemed like a lot of fun and I thought it would be unusual and exciting to see her running around in the woods, squaring off against these criminal bad guys. And by the same token, Elijah is very charismatic and likable and it was just amusing to me to set him up as this strange, a little bit irritating character at the beginning, and I suspect it was fun for him to do something a little different. But it’s always fun to put people up in a different light than what you’ve seen them do before. Jane just had a great audition. I had seen her in a bunch of other things and she just had a really fun, really creepy audition, so we built her look up after the fact with the wig and the tattoos and deliberately make her a little unrecognizable in that part, which was fun to do.
It seems like you didn’t just do that with the actors, but the locations as well – that enormous consignment store where Ruth’s stuff is, did that require a lot of set dressing?
That place was crazy. There was some dressing, but it was largely what you saw. It was an actual salvage place [with] a lot of reclaimed wood outdoors, so it was like a lumber yard, but then the whole internal structure of this big barn full of all this old antique stuff. We rearranged and moved around some of it, but it really was those deep, endless caverns full of stuff. [The location in the script] was kind of written like that, but I just assumed that it would be something that we’d have to build or fabricate somehow, so it was really astonishing to show up at this place and find it about 80 percent of the way ready to go.
It was a really fun challenge – I’m trying to think of a better word. We spent a lot of time thinking about it and playing around in and trying different combinations. There was a great production designer working on it named Tyler Robinson and one of the things we bonded over well before we started shooting was just the idea of creating these environments to help shape the character. A lot of time was spent on it, but it was not a challenge in the sense of being a problem that we had to overcome. [Tyler] was great at it and it was a really fun to talk about and come up with the types of things colors that you’re going to see in Ruth’s house, for instance, and these are the type of textures and they’re different from the colors and the textures and the props that you’ll find in Tony’s house.
And some of [the locations] were in the same neighborhood and others were very far flung. The mansion where we shot was probably an hour drive outside of town, but part of the trick was to make it feel like we were all in the same town but still give each place its own unique identity. That was one of my favorite parts of the preproduction was coming up with each space that the characters inhabit was going to look like.
Is there a story behind Ruth’s Chevy?
Well, we had a 1976 Pontiac Ventura [initially], which I wrote into the script because that was my first car that I got when I was in high school. My cousin gave to me and I just loved that car and for some reason, I just wanted Ruth to drive that, so we got the perfect one. I had it painted the same color – pine green – as my old car had been 30 years ago. But on the very first day as we were driving it to set, it died – the electrical system just fried. I didn’t really have a lot of time to dwell on that, so I was able to panic for about one or two minutes and luckily, we had this Firebird on hold as a backup car. At the last minute, that one was swept in and now in retrospect, I can’t imagine it any other way, but it was actually the result of an accident.
You’ve said the title came to you while writing the script since you actually wrote the song of the same title in. Did you have a lot of those needle drops in mind as you were writing the script?
All of them were written into the script. Part of that was for me to get a handle on the tone before started shooting and know how it was going to feel. Part of that was also so that when people were reading it, they would have an idea of how it was going to feel and they could look the songs up and get an idea of what a sequence was going to sound like. We weren’t able to get necessarily a hundred percent of them – the rights issues were too complicated or too expensive. The title was actually [inspired] from a very old recording of that tune, but the rights to that actual version, which I think were from the 1930s, were so convoluted and the recording quality was so corroded, we didn’t use that one. We used a version that Vern Young recorded in the ‘50s. We had a music supervisor named Lauren Mikus, who was able to come up with some really great replacements that captured the same vibe or had the same instrumentation. In some cases, these alternates were much better than the original, so it all worked out.
Was directing a feature different than you thought it would be or about the same?
It was a little bit of both. I had a good idea of what to expect because I worked closely with Jeremy and watched the way that he would run his sets and try to emulate that, but also what I was surprised about was how much fun it ended up being. I was very preoccupied and anxiety-ridden during preproduction, just because I felt like so many people had signed onto this and put so much trust in this project, not to mention money and you don’t want to let any of them down. Once we started shooting it, the vibe was really positive and everyone was having such a good time. I somehow tricked myself to manage to forget to be nervous. There were a couple exceptions here or there, but for the most part, it was just being aware of what a treat it was to get to do this.
“I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.” is available to stream on Netflix.