When I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year, the accolade made a lot of sense. While the film was the directorial debut for actor Macon Blair, he’d had success in Park City before, having played the lead role in Jeremy Saulnier’s 2014 standout Blue Ruin. And it had premiered to a rapturous reception on the festival’s opening night, quickly becoming one of the most talked-about movies at Sundance — not only for its quality, but also because it seemed to engage with a feeling that many people were tangling with during the presidential inauguration that same weekend. (A common joke: that its title was oddly prescient.)
But in one major way, the movie’s win was historic: The movie had been funded by Netflix, making it the first Sundance Grand Jury winner to belong to a streaming service. Now, the company is releasing the film to its 94 million worldwide subscribers Friday, allowing I Don’t Feel at Home to take full advantage of the buzz from its Sundance success. And the movie is a true Sundance success story, with the festival playing a major part in both its creation and reception.
Blair’s life as a filmmaker dates back to Megacop, a Super 8 movie he made in the sixth grade with Saulnier in their hometown of Richmond, Virginia. When Blair began trying to make a career as an actor after graduating from college, he always had an idea that he’d end up back behind the camera.
“I was always trying to make sure that I had parallel tracks going,” Blair says. “I was going on auditions, trying to get acting work, and at the same time I was writing scripts, trying to get writing work, and part of that was thinking about how in the future, I also wanted to figure out how to direct something.”
While working on Saulnier’s Green Room, in which he plays a ladder-climbing skinhead named Gabe, Blair was approached by producers Anish Savjani and Neil Kopp, who, through their company filmscience, have produced films for a number of major indie filmmakers, including Saulnier, Kelly Reichardt, and Joe Swanberg. Savjani and Kopp asked if Blair had any scripts he’d written, and when he said he had one that he wanted to hopefully direct, they told him to bring them the project first as soon as it was ready.
I Don’t Feel at Home started for Blair with a tone in mind, rather than a literal narrative. “I knew I wanted to do something that was more or less a crime story,” he says. “Something that was pulpy and fun, a friendship story and a love story of some kind.”
He began to assemble the framework of a story that would support those elements, and arrived at the idea of a nurse whose home is robbed (which actually happened to Blair in real life) and decides she’s going to find the criminals herself (which Blair did not). As guiding lights, he mentions Alex Cox’s cult hit Repo Man and Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, “fun, rock-and-roll movies that are pleasing to watch,” as well as Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude and Hal Hartley’s Trust (for the relationships); and Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick, Arthur Penn’s Night Movies, and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (for the sleaze). Music also played a major role in defining the film’s feel and aesthetic; Blair even took the unusual step of writing specific songs into the script, a tactic that’s usually discouraged for beginner screenwriters because of the uncertainty over rights.
At Sundance, I Don’t Feel at Home felt charmed: While most filmmakers were having panic attacks over whether their movies would sell to a distributor, Blair had sold his to Netflix before filming even began; he arrived in Park City already knowing the day it would be released. But in reality, the process was far from smooth.
“The shorthand version of it does sound like I just tap-danced into this room and was like, ‘Hey fellas, give me some money!’” Blair jokes. “And there was an aspect in which things happened in a very lubricated kind of way. But the larger picture is it had been a year before that of pitching it all over the place and having a difficult time.”
Even with filmscience onboard, financiers were concerned over Blair’s status as a first-time director, and they were nearing an impasse: The window for production was fast approaching, but they still hadn’t secured the necessary money or cast to move forward. Just then, another producer, Mette-Marie Kongsved of XYZ Films reached out to ask Blair if he had any scripts she could read. When he sent her I Don’t Feel at Home, she took it to Netflix, and they pitched the film to the streaming service at Sundance 2016.
“They just very simply asked me, ‘Who do you want to play the leads?’” Blair says. “That had been a hurdle for us, because I wanted Melanie [Lynskey] and Elijah [Wood], and they were not on the list of folks that were going to get the financing from some of these other places. And they just said, ‘Great! Let’s go with that.’ So believe me, after a year of having that same conversation, to have them react like that, it absolutely felt charmed.”
After a year of hearing no, they were in preproduction literally weeks later, with Lynskey starring, Wood playing her oddball neighbor turned sidekick, on-the-verge actress Jane Levy as one of the villains, and David Yow — the lead singer of legendary rock band the Jesus Lizard — as the main antagonist. According to Ian Bricke, Netflix’s director of Global Content Acquisition, he’d had his eye on Blair since 2004, when the actor appeared in a short film of Saulnier’s that played a film festival where he sat on the jury. Bricke kept track of Blair’s career, and says he enjoyed his subsequent scripts; producing the movie was an easy decision.
“For us, we’re always looking to find those films that punch above their weight for smaller, underserved audiences. You hope that for at least some of the folks that will see a movie like this on Netflix, it will be their new favorite movie,” Bricke said in an email to Vulture. “It’s something totally new with some of the DNA of things that we know people are looking for — mischief, mayhem, a badass but very real female lead. In combination with the filmscience guys who have a great history of making really good films in a certain budget range, it was an easy decision to jump in on this one even though Macon was a first-time director. Also, the fact that we were able to cast it right away — Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood signed on because of Macon and his track record — was a huge plus.”
Production was a smooth ride; Blair relied on a veteran assistant director to help compensate for his inexperience. He compares the experience to a summer camp, not least because he made sure to follow a priceless piece of advice: “Make sure that the crew is fed well.” The finished film successfully achieves Blair’s intentions: It’s a tonal roller coaster that shifts from low-key drama to broad comedy to gritty crime to borderline horror, all handled with equal comfort.
“I enjoy having something be carrying along at a certain temperature and then suddenly shift into something totally different,” Blair says. “If I make a mixtape for somebody, I will tend to put some, like, really evil black metal next to something like the Carpenters. To me, it feels totally fine.”
The alienation that’s at the heart of Lynskey’s character gives the story a central core, and made it feel especially timely. At the festival, Blair, Lynskey, and Wood weighed in on why they thought that was the case. “I think Ruth’s mantra in the movie was that she wants people to stop being assholes, and I’ve felt like that recently,” Lynskey told Vulture.
“In writing it, anytime I would take a break and look at the news, it would seem like a steady cascade of disastrous things, and I think that informed Ruth’s worldview,” Blair explained. “Perhaps it’s not totally correct, but I think a lot of people do probably feel, I know I do, that things are coming apart at the seams, and I think that’s what I was trying to have her feeling, at least at the start of the movie.”
“And cynicism, which seems to be rampant, and which I’m really disheartened by,” added Wood.
If you felt that way on the weekend of the inauguration, those feelings probably haven’t gone away just yet, which means that I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore is likely to feel just as relevant to Netflix subscribers who see it pop up on their home screens as it did to the shivering hordes at Sundance. That, of course, is the selling point of working with Netflix, aside from the fact that their pockets are deeper than just about anyone else’s: What you sacrifice in the initial burst of a theatrical release, you make up for in potential omnipresence.
“Of course, a theatrical release is awesome, and I grew up falling in love with movies well before streaming and all that stuff came about, but when I really look at the advantages — going to see a movie in a theater, on a big screen, that’s kind of irreplaceable,” Blair says. “On the other hand, if this movie were to come out on an opening weekend, being what it is, and it’s supposed to live and die by how many people are going to get out of the house and go see it between Friday and Sunday, then it’s just going to vanish. No one’s going to go see that movie, and it’s just going to disappear and never be known about. The way it’s going to happen now is it’s going to be all over the fucking world, and it’s going to be there forever, or until China shuts down the internet.”
Blair’s relationship with Netflix is already set to continue. The company snatched up Hold the Dark, which he wrote and Saulnier will direct, last month, and they’ll also distribute the upcoming Small Crimes, which he co-wrote with director Evan Katz. And he hasn’t left acting behind, either: Blair has a part in Logan Lucky, Steven Soderbergh’s return to filmmaking as well as some other roles lined up. You can’t put all your eggs in one basket, after all. When China does shut down the internet, movie theaters will be all we’ll have.