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In the Alaska-set thriller Hold the Dark (out Sept. 28), Jeffrey Wright plays a naturalist who volunteers to track down a wolf that has taken a young boy from a remote village. Riley Keough (The Girlfriend Experience) costars as the child’s mother, while Alexander Skarsgård portrays his father, a soldier who’s been serving overseas in the Iraq War. Unsurprisingly, director Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room) recalls that the scenes involving wolves were among the most trying to shoot. “They’re skittish,” says the filmmaker of the animals. “They only respond to the laws of chaos — and sometimes a raw chicken.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I’m guessing this was a tough shoot.
JEREMY SAULNIER: Oh, man, it was completely insane. It was great, we had just enough to get it done, but we were punching way above our weight class as far as the scope and scale of this film. I also was able to experiment with many new things, the challenges of many firsts. Not only did it have the most intense dialogue, and also the highest body count, it had a first war scene, it had an aerial sequence, and by far the most animals I’ve worked with. And the animals are amazing but, much like some of the characters and the themes of the fIlm, they are not governed by film schedules, or times, or convenience, or anything human. They are just doing their own thing, and part of the filmmaking process was to sometimes abandon the script, as far as every beat, and what the animals should be doing, and how they should form a semicircle, or sit there and growl, and show their teeth. It was just filming the wolves as real wolves, and bending to their will, and letting nature take its course, and observing and documenting, and then in the edit room putting together a sequence. Because I didn’t want to force my will upon the wolves in that CG world, and lose that naturalism, the grounded nature of the movie, which I thought was vital. It was a huge challenge, but I’m glad to take it on.
Where did you shoot the film?
We shot the film in Calgary, Canada, and we really lucked out. I wanted real snow, I didn’t want to do too much CG, anything artificial, and we were blessed with three of the snowiest weeks of the year while we were shooting, and so most of our scenes were able to take place in actual snow.
How cold did it get?
I think it got down to negative thirty Celsius. So, super cold. The funny thing is, with all the challenges, the cold was, for me at least, I didn’t even feel it. I became temporarily sort of impervious to it. Because I was so charged with what I had to do, what I had to create, what I had to bring home at the end of the day. The actors, though, you may want to ask them for a different story about the cold!
The screenplay is written by your regular collaborator, the actor Macon Blair, adapted from the novel by William Giraldi. How did the project come about?
I believe Macon got his hands on the book through CAA. He was intrigued by it, found it compelling, and immediately thought of me for the helmer. We’ve got this rapport, we’ve got this history, and the development process was very easy. Macon was faithful to the novel. The novel reads very cinematically. It has gravity, it has momentum. It was alluring in the fact that it was not traditional and there’s no formula to it. It was absolutely bats— crazy at times, and surprising, and really exciting for me to read as a novel.
Without giving too much away, this is not really the film you think it is going to be after the first fifteen minutes or so. Have you screened it to audiences? I’m fascinated by what people will think of it.
We’ve had a couple of test screenings, even in the editorial process, because there was so much material and so many ways to go. There [were] audible gasps in the theater. It’s fun because, of course, once you dig into the novel, and then script, and then the production phase, you know every inch of the movie, and the familiarity becomes sort of blinding. But to be in a theater with people, and then turn your head to watch them watch the movie, see it reflected in their eyes, you kind of get to experience that very first spark when I was reading the novel. You see it in their eyes and it’s pretty fun.
See an exclusive image from Hold the Dark, above.