The American independent film landscape is littered with failure. Today's Sundance star can, in an instant, become tomorrow's question mark, forever waiting for the funding or second wave of buzz to get their next project off the ground. Some filmmakers get overwhelmed by the pressures of a business engineered to be as difficult to succeed in as possible, and retreat into the void, never to be seen again. And some thrive on it, using the time away from the industry to dream and scheme.
Macon Blair is a proud member of the latter camp.
A decade ago, it seemed he and his creative collaborator, Jeremy Saulnier, hit the indie-film jackpot, scoring rave reviews and instant credibility with their feature debut, Murder Party, a bloody satire of disaffected Brooklynites. A future as the Duplass brothers of the horror world (Saulnier writes and directs, Blair performs and produces) seemed a fait accompli. And then it happened – "it" being nothing. At all. For six years.
But then Saulnier, who balanced making corporate films while working as a cinematographer, emptied his bank account and turned to Kickstarter to make Blue Ruin, a vicious revenge tale that held onto Murder Party's ultradark comedic edge, with Blair in the lead role. Blue Ruin hit Cannes in 2013 and won the illustrious International Federation of Film Critics prize. It was picked for distribution up by Radius-TWC. And then the real surprise: There would be no more waiting for the next lucky break.
Shortly after Blue Ruin, the pair made Green Room, a nasty little piece of work about punk rockers trapped in a neo-Nazi lair, which earned raves when it opened last year. Beginning in April, Saulnier will shoot Blair's script for Hold the Dark, an Alaska-set thriller. And now there is I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore, Blair's directorial debut that premieres on Netflix this weekend.
To the casual observer, it can all seem like a grande case of good fortune. To the hardened cynic, it might be illustrative of just how frustrating and cruel the business can be. But to Blair, it's the only reality he knows and he's grateful for it.
"Ten years ago, when we were totally broke and trying to get our scripts read and couldn't get movies off the ground, at that time, it was frustrating. But it always felt like we were working toward something," he says over the phone from the Sundance Film Festival last month, where his film won the Grand Jury Prize. "In retrospect, I'm grateful. All our 20s and the first half of our 30s was just having to struggle. That long period of being hungry was good for us."
And good for audiences, or at least those who've glommed onto Blair and Saulnier's particular brand of scuzzy Southern-fried crime films. But while I Don't … has echoes of Blair's previous work – namely, shocking flashes of brilliantly choreographed violence – it is a much more subtle and gentle project.
Part character study, part romance and part whacked-out caper, the film stars Melanie Lynskey (a favourite of the Duplass brothers) as Ruth, a single nurse who questions her life after her home is broken into by a band of drug addicts. After enlisting the help of her neighbour Tony (Elijah Wood), a religious martial-arts enthusiast, Ruth embarks on a quest to reclaim what's rightfully hers. As the narrative twists into unexpected corners, Blair, who also wrote the screenplay, toys with genre expectations, swerving from dark comedy to gory horror show.
"That was always the idea, of wanting to have my cake and eat it, too," Blair says. "I'm a fan of crime fiction and crime movies, but I also wanted to say something comedic here, and to also use the romance as a means of exploring the existential crisis this woman is going through. I wanted it to be funny and thrilling, but also ease people into those elements so they wouldn't feel too jarring when they came up against them."
Blair also thought it was critical to go it alone this time, with Saulnier mostly giving advice on production and logistics, rather than weighing in on the script itself. "The story sprang up more or less on my own. But he and I, we've grown up together and our sensibilities are so closely aligned," Blair says. "Inevitably, there will be some overlaps. But that's because we're joined at the brain."
It's a partnership that dates back to the pair's childhood, when they were both running around the suburbs of Alexandria, Va., making gory Super 8 films with titles such as Megacop. But that was a long time ago – and today almost seems as distant and foreign an era as the one they encountered in 2007, when they brought Murder Party to Slamdance. Back then, indie filmmakers lived or died according to the whims of a few brash studios and exposure was limited to a few select screens in New York and L.A., and whatever presence the video store afforded.
Now, it's an entirely new game thanks to a rash of streaming services with millions to spend and reputations to prove, a reality Blair encountered first-hand when he partnered with Netflix to make I Don't ….
"I did not hesitate for a second [to sign] with them," Blair says. "We had one meeting a year ago where they laid out their whole philosophy, which just entailed putting a great deal of trust in the filmmaker. I articulated what kind of movie I wanted to make, the actors I wanted to be in it, and they were super supportive from the get-go."
No matter how well the film does on the streaming service – and it is impossible to tell, given Netflix's cagey reputation for releasing data – Blair is mindful he could end up back on the outside looking in. In addition to prepping what he calls the "berserk" Hold the Dark, he's filmed a role in Steven Soderbergh's upcoming Logan Lucky, as well as a handful of indies.
"I'm realistic enough to know that to get another movie off the ground will take some time, so I don't like to be sitting on my hands," he says. "But I'm also realistic enough to know that I'm never going to get enough acting work to support my family. I've had a really fortune year, but I'm trying to keep everything in the air simultaneously. And whatever solidifies and gets real, well, I'll go with that."
I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore starts streaming Feb. 24 on Netflix