Take it from someone who lived there: when it comes to capturing the darkness of Alaska — both literal and metaphorical — Jeremy Saulnier and Macon Blair’s Hold the Dark is something of a marvel. Their new Netflix release follows a tracker as he makes his way through the Alaskan wilderness in search of the remains of a missing child; given that we are watching a Saulnier film, however, this first layer of the film peels back to reveal a violent and mythical undercurrent that sweeps its main character along through the story. I sat down with the director and writer this past week at Fantastic Fest to discuss the challenges of adaptation, the appeal of working with Netflix, and the cinematic draw of Alaska’s final frontier.
In hindsight, it seems almost surprising that more filmmakers haven’t made Alaska the location of their contemporary westerns. Alaska offers a blend of the familiar and the mythical, a location for storytellers to bridge the gap between mythical frontier stories and the concerns of the modern world. “You still get to have old-school-trade craft to everything, in that it’s not all cellphones and GPS,” Saulnier explains. “And it sort of breaks things down to an analog level.” For Blair, Hold the Dark presented him with the opportunity to write something conducive to the “haunting and beautiful” visuals he knew were Saulnier’s signature while still pushing his friend in a new direction. “That sort of imagery was very strong in the book and one of the things that seemed like Jeremy would be great for with his cinematic eye, but also, different than stuff he’d done before.”
With influences that include westerns, folk-horror, and even modern war movies, the singular tone of the film is one of its biggest accomplishments. To balance the various competing interests in their film, Saulnier and Blair needed to be very conscious of the tone they were striking throughout the film. Much of what they were looking for could be found on the page. “In the novel and in Macon’s script, all these disparate genres were very well intertwined,” Saulnier recalls. “So for me, I never just switched gears so much. I just had to sort of stay steady with the camera and develop a singular approach.” Trusting the material was key; the director’s faith in both his screenwriter and the original novel allowed him to follow the threads of the story without needing to get too much in his own way. “ I felt that deep, bone marrow-level connection to the material and let that guide me and didn’t overthink it intellectually.”
Hold the Dark also marked a first for its filmmaker. While Saulnier had featured Blair in each of his first three films — Murder Party, Blue Ruin, and Green Room — this was the first time the director had opted to work from someone else’s script, let alone an adaptation. “Macon did the heavy lifting as far as the adaptation,” Saulnier says. “I was involved in developing the material, but it was having, like, a suit tailored for me. I would just take a teeny bit off the hem here.” The director describes the experience as something he would want to repeat, especially knowing — as he does now — where to make cuts and consolidate characters that belong to someone else. This was an important element of the film for Saulnier: with both Giraldi’s book and Blair’s screenplay setting a high bar, he was focused on doing both versions of Hold the Dark justice. “I had two authors to answer to, and whose material I had to do justice for.”
There’s also the question of why Saulnier and Blair brought this project to Netflix. To hear him say it, the director was tired of listening to Blair talk about the stress-free experience of his own directorial debut, I Don’t Feel At Home in This World Anymore. “I was pissed off because Macon had fun on his movie,” Saulnier says bluntly. “It’s difficult to enter the industry and sort of as you’re trying to make art and sort of elevate what you do as a director, a craftsperson… [It’s] really tough to navigate. And I’m sitting here looking at Macon through his first movie and he having fun on set. And I’m like, ‘That’s not right, what’s going on here? I want a taste of that.’”
For him, the prospect of making a film without worrying about the financials — without having to keep one eye on the distribution numbers throughout the entire production — was something new, even as a veteran of the industry with three features under his belt. “They never need to sort of make a profit on a movie before they even begin production,” he continues. “They just want people to watch it and enjoy and then watch it again. And so their motivation is just, how do we make something that people will really enjoy? And that’s hard to adjust to almost for someone like myself who had to fight their way out the ranks.”
And while Hold the Dark may not have gotten the traditional theatrical role out that both Blair and Saulnier were used to, they did view Fantastic Fest as the perfect launching point for their latest film, which hit the streaming platform mere days after the festival concluded. “I’m going to reiterate something that Jeremy said before, which is true, which is that there is this genre love here but that’s connected to a real love for film history and deep cinematic knowledge,” Blair offers. “It comes across in the screening. It comes across in the lobby afterwards. And just that sort of just getting to hang out with people and speak with them directly about how they felt about watching the movie is really special, and I can’t really think of an example of that where that happens elsewhere in quite that same way.”
For his part, Saulnier is finally ready to admit that he and Blair have fans, people who will approach them at Fantastic Fest and treat the advice they offer as gospel. He finds this festival in particular – a festival that both of his previous films have played – to be a unique place where audiences can gather to ingest an amount of cinema that only seems normal to the other people in the room. “They’re here because they love to intake eight movies a day. They just love it. They love movies. And what they bring to you in a screening as an experience is really additive, and exciting, and energizing.”