The newest and boldest film from acclaimed director Jeremy Saulnier (“Green Room,” “Blue Ruin”), “Hold The Dark” is a taut examination of human nature and the mysteries of the wilderness. Retired naturalist and wolf expert Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) journeys to the edge of civilization in northern Alaska at the request of Medora Slone (Riley Keough), a young mother whose son was killed by a pack of starving wolves.
We sat down with star Jeffrey Wright to talk working with Director Jeremy, Alexander Skarsgård and Riley Keough.
The Knockturnal: Hold the Dark is an interesting film for you. How do you know a script is right for you?
Jeffrey Wright: If it’s well written and if the character allows me to paint, ya know? Well first, the script was almost poetic and descriptive in a way that’s rare. It was set in the wilds of Alaska, which created an expansiveness that allowed all of this stuff to happen — these elements of a murder mystery, an adventure film, a thriller, and a bit of horror thrown in there. From a cinematic perspective, but then also the mythology, the symbolism, all of the things that are born out of that ordinary man making his journey through this thing was resonant to me. I liked, too, the idea. I appreciated that Jeremy wanted me to do this. It’s not a setting that we ordinarily see a brown man making his way through. And so I always like the opportunity to kind of shatter cultural and cinematic biases that we are too often fed. I like the idea of shattering them completely, ya know? So there was a lot that drew me into this. And as well Jeremy as a filmmaker. But first and foremost it was just this beautiful, beautiful script that I read.
The Knockturnal: You had a lot of talented people surrounding you on this project from Jeremy to Alexander, to Riley What did you take away working with each of them?
Jeffrey Wright: I love the way that Jeremy uses the camera. I love the way he composes the frame. You watch some films and it’s a wide shot. You push in a little bit, they’re two opposing singles. They’re two characters in the scene, you pull back to another wide shot and you go onto next scene. And there are certain movies that you watch and the director will do that repeatedly. And you watch a film like Hold the Dark and you watch what the camera’s doing. The camera’s doing things that the human eye doesn’t ordinarily do. The camera’s just not just walking into the room and observing the space, the camera is inside the scene, inside the story. And looking around the room almost like a ghost observing things. There’s a great shot in this film which I love. It’s the shot in which we see Macon Blair’s character turn the volume down on the stereo and the shot is on the knob and the background is the door that Vernon walks through, Alex’s character, but just that shot … the finger on the knob. For me I love to go in cinema mode where the human eye might not ordinarily go. And there’s something about that shot that speaks to me about music, it speaks to me about this character and what’s meaningful to him and his music. And then the background. I just love that he’s an incredibly thoughtful composer of shots. And it’s beautifully done. We shot this big vista, maybe the biggest vista in the film where Core, my character, is walking across this frozen lake as the sun is setting behind him and the mountains in the background are huge and snowy. And we shot this and I was just in these snow shoes going back and forth across this lake ya know a few times. And we’re communicating by walkie talkie. And I came back.
The Knockturnal: Oh he’s directing you via walkie talkie?
Jeffrey Wright: Well not really directing, just giving you the okay we’re rolling. Start the thing, boom. Okay take it back. Got it? Cool. Go back, okay lets do it again. Boom. And then when I came back around, I had to hike back up to the top of this dam where we were and back over to Jeremy and he said “Oh man. That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever photographed”. And you look at it and you go, “Wow, that’s really gorgeous”. You can’t build that on a sound stage, ya know. And that’s another thing that really excited me about working with Jeremy is that he has an obvious and infectious deep love for film and for the process of making film.
The Knockturnal: You also have Riley and Alexander. How was working with them?
Jeffrey Wright: Oh man. Riley is such a unique actor. And she has such a wonderful, as required here, mysterious quiet presence. And she’s just there, she’s just there for it. She’s just giving you everything you need, which in this case was kind of blowing my mind. She’s pretty out there. And of the scenes we have together, maybe my favorite scene is the scene where we kind of work together in the cabin.
The Knockturnal: Yeah that was creepy.
Jeffrey Wright: It was like so wild. There wasn’t much that I had to do except what the audience is doing.
The Knockturnal: Right. I was like “Is she gonna kill you?”
Jeffrey Wright: Yeah, so Riley brings it. And Alex, too! He’s got a combination of things. He’s got physical presence and a strength that’s born out of that. But at the same time I think in a strange way even within this performance, he’s got a gentleness to him. It’s an odd combination. And for the purposes of this incredibly freaky and almost horrific [circumstances]… you see it in his relationship with his son that beneath the mask is a beating heart, ya know? Everyone in this … Badge, too It’s this wonderfully cast film. Badge has this earnestness, this integrity about him. It’s straight up, this is what ya get. Julian brings this really unsettling kind of outrage and sense of betrayal to this performance that I think is born of who he is. So what we have here is a group of actors who are able, I think, to bring of themselves what’s required for the story. And that’s what acting is. It’s having the facility to access all of those things within you that the story asks. And everyone in this thing brings it hard including the young guy, Jon Whitesell who plays the young cop, he’s wonderful. He’s that guy and there’s no kind of false heroism. It’s very honest. I really think I need to do this, I’m going to do it. Wow, why did I do this? Core is a little more skilled. A little wiser but he too is in a situation where he finds himself as an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances that asks heroism that he may not have left in the tank. It’s a great way to start a story. I felt that as we were working on this, this is great. It’s a great component to create dramatic tension and danger and strong cinema.
The Knockturnal: Do you have your own theories as to why they think she killed her child?
Jeffrey Wright: I think we explore that pretty well in the film. And I think that it’s pretty accurate, the description. And I think it’s unfortunately an all too common dynamic in our society where desperation, fear, deprivation, frustration and anger are combined to the detriment of personal choices and societal purposes. What we describe in this as savaging. We do it on a societal level, too. We savage some of our young.
The Knockturnal: Just in a different way.
Jeffrey Wright: In a different way, but on a larger scale.