'I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore': Macon Blair on Trying Directing After Success in Screenwriting
"I had no expectation that I would get a chance to make a second movie."
Blair comes from a lifetime of watching and making movies with his childhood pal Jeremy Saulnier. He leveraged skills gleaned from his successful acting and screenwriting career for his debut, a "soft-boiled" crime drama into which he crammed every movie he wanted to make—in case he didn't get a chance to do it again.
"If anything doesn't work, there's no one to blame but yourself."
Blair sat down with No Film School to talk about working with well-known actors, not shooting coverage "willy-nilly," and successfully working a crime drama, comedy, and buddy-romance into one cohesive film.
No Film School: We’ve seen you in acting roles and you have had a successful career as a screenwriter. How was directing for the first time on I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore?
Macon Blair: In the past, I was trying to sell everything I wrote and get other people to direct [the movies]. In this case, it was different because I was writing the script knowing that I wanted to direct it. I didn't know if I was going to be able to, but that was the intention, at least.
When writing scripts to sell, you get used to being able to give things up. You know that whatever you are writing and feeling very attached to—if you are lucky enough to sell it—will totally be out of your hands. I've always been very grateful to get anything sold at all, and whatever the director wants to do after that point is great.
"If I have learned anything, it's that every [actor] has their own style of how they like to be directed."
In this case, it was exciting and freeing, in one sense, because I got to call the shots about the translation from the page to the screen. On the other hand, it's this added heap of pressure that if anything doesn't work, there's no one to blame but yourself. I was bouncing back and forth between, “This is great, I get to do whatever I want!” to “Oh shit, I get to do whatever I want....”
NFS: Can you elaborate on the process of writing the script knowing you were going to direct it? You've termed this a “soft-boiled” crime movie. Did you start with the plot, or did you have in mind how it would feel, tonally?
Blair: I had more of the tone and the feel of it in my mind before the actual plot of the story. I had little story threads, some different disconnected things, and I had a sketch of a character. All of those were unformed and disconnected, but I knew I wanted to do a crime story. At the same time, I didn't want to do a real hard-edged, badass, tough guy kind of crime movie. I wanted it to be funny. I wanted it to be kind of sweet and sad. I wanted the people to be somewhat likable. So when I was trying to think of a way to sum it up, I thought of soft-boiled crime. It’s basically a detective story, but everybody's sensitive and fairly easily frightened.
"We went through a pretty exhaustive two weeks of shot-listing every single scene."
Part of it was me about wanting to get all of these vibes into one movie. I had no expectation that I would get a chance to make a second movie. I figured, “Oh, shit, I better do everything that I would like to do in this one movie, and not think that I can do a comedy or a romantic movie down the line.” I didn't think I'd get another shot at it.
NFS: You had two talented actors, Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood, to work with. You obviously know how to act yourself. But how did you know how to direct the actors?
Blair: Honestly, I wasn't exactly sure the best way to approach it. If I have learned anything, it's that everybody kind of has their own style of how they like to be directed. I think some people want to do a ton of rehearsal, and really talk through every single beat in great detail. Other people just want to let it unfold in a more organic way. I did prepare some additional documents about their characters and where they came from and how they feel about things, but mainly I just had some conversations with Melanie and Elijah before we started shooting. I just asked them what they preferred.
My feeling was this: they've got 25-year careers under their belts, they know what they're doing. I'm not really going to be able to tell them a whole lot that they don't already know. So I just asked them what they needed from me, and then tried to stay out of their way. We'd make little adjustments as we went, but we had already had these exhaustive conversations before we started shooting. When we finally got on set, I tried not to give them too much, and just trust them to do their thing. That's basically what happened.
"I just asked [the actors] what they needed from me, and then tried to stay out of their way."
Sometimes I would get over-excited because I would be so delighted by the footage that we were shooting. I would want to talk about what we had already shot. And they would be like, “No, no, no, we are getting ready to shoot another scene.” I would want to tell them about why the one that we just shot looked so cool to me, and they kind of had to tell me, “We'll talk about that one later. Let's focus on the next scene!”
NFS: What was your relationship with your DP like? How did you communicate how you wanted the film to look and feel?
Blair: Larkin Seiple, the cinematographer, was a lifesaver. We had a lot of conversations. We don't live in the same town, but we talked a lot on the phone in the months leading up to production. I suggested a lot of movies I was thinking about in terms of, if not tone, then at least the look that we were going for. We went through a pretty exhaustive two weeks of shot-listing every single scene; that way, we could go into each day knowing exactly how many setups we would have.
"[My DP] could understand what I was talking about, in terms of tone and emotion, and translate that to lenses, lighting, color temperature."
I came into this from a background of performance and writing. My technical base is not as strong as someone like Jeremy Saulnier, for example, who came into [directing] from a cinematography background, and could really talk about things in terms of lenses, lighting setups, and stuff like that. I would talk to Larkin much more about tone and emotion, and just a vibe on what the eventual edit needed to be. We talked a lot about working cut points into the coverage, so that it was not just grabbing cool shots, willy-nilly—it was grabbing shots with an eye towards how they're eventually going to be cut together. Sometimes we would have to throw the plan out the window and just improvise as we went. But for the most part, we were able to stick to that plan.
I relied on Larkin in a huge way to help shape things. He could understand what I was talking about, in terms of tone and emotion, and translate that to lenses, lighting, color temperature, and things like that. So, he should probably get a co-director credit, if the world were fair!
NFS: What would be your best piece of advice to aspiring filmmakers?
Blair: Make sure that the crew is fed well! Whatever you're paying them or not paying them, make sure that they are kept warm and have good stuff to eat. Anything you can do to keep morale up is going to be good for the movie in the long run.