SCREENANARCHY talks with Drew Goddard about CABIN IN THE WOODS
As somebody pretty far removed from the cult of Joss (or JJ, with whom Goddard has also had an excellent working relationship), it was a real pleasure to meet a guy that's clearly loving being able to play in the geek sandbox that he finds himself playing in. A nice guy to speak with and extremely down to earth, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if you saw him along with fellow audience members standing in line at at a genre film festival near you.
First of all, thanks so much for not shooting CABIN using shaky/barfcam!
Yeah, I wanted the film to look good. It's why we hired Peter Deming [Evil Dead II, Mulholland Dr.] to shoot. I wanted it to look like Carrie.
How was the premiere at SXSW?
It rained the whole time, but that gave us a good mood for a horror movie. It certainly didn't dilute people from coming out, they were there, en masse.
But I bet you didn't get to Franklins [ed. Franklin's BBQ, the =BEST= damn BBQ on the planet!!!], which is disappointing
Robert Rodriguez hosted a filmmakers lunch, I got to go there and he brought in Franklin's. The whole time I was thinking, "Oh, I'm never going to get there", and luckily it paid off.
Can you summarize why it took so long to get into theatres?
Our studio that made the movie, MGM, went bankrupt, and got caught in the financial crisis that hit everyone. Their exposure was worse than other studios, so they went down. It didn't just delay us, it delayed The Hobbit, and James Bond. It was tough, but when you see Hobbit and Bond go down, you realize, oh, there's not a lot I can do about this [laughs]. This is bigger than us. We just knew it would all work out.
I learned when you're dealing with billion dollar bankruptcies these things take a little longer than you wish they would.
Were there any reshoots after the delay was set in place?
There was talk of having it play TIFF's Midnight Madness last September - was there any push on your end to have it in, not have it in, or was that totally out of your hands?
I would have loved it, it was just a matter of when our release date was. What we didn't want to do is come out so far away from your release date that any enthusiasm dissipates. So, if we were going to come out in October, it would have been the perfect place. The studio felt strongly they wanted to keep it close, which I agreed with. With a movie like this, you want to keep it quiet as long as you can, the longer out the more likely the surprises are going to get spoiled.
So, you left the film alone since 2009 - what was it like looking at it again with fresh eyes?
It was nice, actually, it's one of those things directors don't normally get to do, because you get a little distance from your film. Usually, when you watch your film, and you're in the middle of making it, all you can see are the problems, "Oh I wish I had more time here!", "Oh I can see the problem there!"
Having that year off, where I could just not have to think about it and then sit down and watch it again, I could see it for what it was, and I had forgotten all this pain that goes into making any movie.
What makes your collaboration with Joss Whedon work as well as it does?
I think our voices are very similar. I don't just mean as writers, just in terms of how we see the world, and how we talk to each other. We like the same things.
Part of it is that I came of age when Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the most innovative show on television. I started as a fan first, and just sort of weaseled my way into his camp. I felt that there wasn't anybody doing anything more innovating and interesting than Joss Whedon, and I just wanted to be a part of that.
So I think that sort of helped, because I knew early that this is the guy, I wanted to study at his hand.
Given your work with with Joss, with JJ Abrams, these "geek icons" for lack of a better term, is there ever a sense that your own voice is being subverted slightly?
I never feel my voice is being subverted. The great thing about both of those guys is that they are the types of creative personalities that always lift you up rather than push you down. I think that's why they have such success, that's why people want to work with them, they're very collaborative. They're very much about involving you in their process, which is why I always love working with them. You don't always find that in Hollywood.
How did you and Joss share the writing responsibilities on the film?
Cabin was Joss' original idea, he had the basic sort of construct of it. But then we just started working on it the way we'd work on Buffy episodes.
We'd sit down and say, OK, we've got the basic idea now, how do we flesh it out? How do we make the skeleton? Once we make the skeleton, we just start dividing it up and say, OK, you want this scene? I take that scene. You take that scene? OK, I get that scene then, and put it together. It's a very easy, organic process we've developed over the years.
Do you thing of the film as an homage to classic horror, or is it a parody?
Well, it certainly comes from a place of love. We love this genre, we love what's happening, we wanted to make the ultimate love letter to the genre. Certainly there are things that we are playing with and having fun with. In some cases there's things we wanted to call attention to.
It never came from a place of being angry about the genre itself, we just wanted to explore it as best we could.
How difficult is it to subvert the tropes of classic horror cinema?
We didn't really sit down with a list of tropes, we just let the story unfold. We have a sort of upstairs/down stairs of the movie, and that allows us to analyze things in the movie you usually don't get to analyze.
We just sorta told the story, knowing that structure would allow us to explore it a little more than you normally get to in any horror movie.
In terms of the remarkable cast, can you discuss the casting process, and as a director, how did you maintain the tone of the film from the cast's performance without winking at the audience too much?
It's a hard thing, what we do. We are very much threading that needle, where if we veer of five degrees that's where we become comedy, five degrees the other way we become exploitation. It's a very difficult balance. So, you need actors comfortable shifting gears, because we often shift within the same scene. We ask them to go from comedy, to drama, to pain, to silliness.
We've honed it over the years, but that's very much our aesthetic.
We've noticed that actors that get it, you want to grab them and hold them close. Even those we haven't worked with - you look at Bradley Whitford's work, in his career, he's done this.
On West Wing there was nobody better at the degree of difficulty, with an amazing amount of political exposition, mixed with some of the silliest, broadest comedy. So when you can find people that can do that, you go after them hard, because it's hard to do.
Certainly Richard [Jenkins] and Bradley were top of our list for those roles, and luckily they said yes. It was the easiest negotiation of all time. We sent it to Richard first, we sent it to him on a Friday, and Monday morning he called and said, "yeah, I'm in, I love this, I'll do this".
Then we sent it to Bradley, and he's all "yeah, I'm in, let's do this".
With casting those two guys it says immediately it sends the signal that this is not your average movie, this is not the same old thing just by having them in it.
It's interesting that you give the angle of the story away in the first few minutes
Yeah, normally that sort of thing would happen at the midpoint. We always felt we'd put all our cards on the table, then we'd need to come up with new cards.
It gave it a real energy, and took us to places we wouldn't normally go.
How tough is it to trust the audience to not give away the whole game?
I feel that the audiences that have seen it get it, in terms of, they understand, this is fun, and it's better not knowing too much. I hear that over and over, people being so happy they didn't know too much.
Because they had that experience, they don't want to ruin that experience for other people.
By and large, movie audiences look out for each other. It's a social game, we all go to things because we like seeing it with each other. It's been gratifying to take up that call, and look out for one another with this movie. It makes me very happy.
Speaking of not spoiling it, I was lucky enough to see it early at Butt-Numb-A-Thon
Yeah, I would have loved to have seen it there!
So, seeing it after the fact, the trailer does a pretty remarkable job of not telling you what the film's going to be, but might set up false expectations for those that might think it's a straight up horror film. What role did you play in the marketing of the picture, or is that strictly a studio decision?
We are involved in all of it.
Lion's Gate [the studio], to their credit, said they very much wanted our involvement. We saw that trailer, and we loved it, and signed off on it.
It's tricky, as a filmmaker, I wish we didn't have to do trailers at all, I wish we didn't have to do any of this. I wish you could just say "Go to the movie and see it!" As an audience member, I'm like, yeah, you guys better prove this is worth my time. I understand, I'm busy, I need to know that this movie is not your average everyday movie.
It's about finding the balance, and just saying, here it is, there's more to it than you might think, and trust us, there's even more than that.
Truthfully, we struggle with it every day, we really do. It's trying to set that tone. Luckily, I think it's working, I think Lion's Gate is doing everything right.
Can you talk about casting the victims?
It's almost like we're asking them to play two parts, because they're a character, and an archetype. At various times in the movie they're either they're either, it sorts of phases in and out as the movie goes along.
It was very hard to find actors that could do it, or at least understood that. Once you explained it, most actors can do it, but we were looking for people that instinctively got that.
We didn't give them the script, we didn't want it out there because once it goes to casting everyone knows about it. We wanted to look for actors that didn't just play the archetype, that's what people would normally do.
We saw hundreds and hundreds of people for these roles, the ones that just played the character first were the ones that got the roles.
There must have been pressure to cast actors that were more well known
Exactly, we didn't want to do that. We wanted them real first.
I always said, I can make you the archetype. I don't care who you are, I can make you into an archetype, that's my job. I need you to be the character, and then we'll slowly transform you.
How do you like being a director?
Oh, it's the best. [laughs]
The nice thing is, because of the guys I've worked for on their shows... TV's a little different than features, TV really empowers the writer. A lot of the stuff that feature directors do, TV writer/producers are doing on that side - we talk to cast, we do the cuts of the episodes.
I felt I was as ready as I could have been, without actually doing the job. There is something you can't learn until you're actually thrown into the deep end.
Biggest challenge with Directing your first feature?
The biggest challenge is just managing that 300 person crew. That's a little antithetical to the thing that makes one become a writer. Usually the thing that makes you become a writer is that you like to hide in your little hole and type away. Whereas now you're stuck in this leadership role, and everyone's looking at you. That takes a little getting used to, to motivate those forces.
Once you get a hang of it, it's really inspiring, it's fun to see your team come together.
Is there anything that you love that you snuck in?
Yeah, the whole movie! [laughs]
I grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where they built the atomic bomb. So much of the inspiration for the "adult" side of this came from watching my friends' suburban parents go to work and make weapons all day.
There's a very easter eggy, Los Alamos theme running through the whole movie that no one's going to get other than people who grew up there.
You should pair this with FALLING DOWN!
As a fanboy yourself, what movies would you stand in line for.
How about, anything Edgar Wright directs. Anything John Carpenter directs. And anything Kubrick directs. Those three, tell me when the midnight show is and I will be there.
Are there specific films that you saw that you were trying to not be like?
I don't really want to bag on it, even the bad ones I like. Even the ones that aren't successful, there's something in there I like. I never come out of a horror movie and thing I hated every frame of that.
There's always something to it, there's always something to it, I really like that about the genre.
Is there a film that everyone thinks is bad that you want to champion?
Ah, good question. In terms of the last ten years, I didn't see The Strangers [2008, directed by Bryan Bertino] get the love I thought it deserved. I loved The Strangers, I thought that was one of the best horror movies I'd seen in years. I don't know why there's not a sequel, I don't know why it's not a franchise, because I would watch ten of those.
Talk about the process of making your monsters
The nice thing about Cabin is that it really gave us this toybox to fulfil all of our horror movie fantasies. We had this opportunity to create everything we've ever wanted to do. The freedom of imagination that this world gave us was the most fun parts of this movie. So much of the fun is working with our creature designers, people that do this for a living, and saying, we finally have the chance to do whatever you've wanted to do. Let's just do it!
It definitely felt like we were all 12 years old, and we were just playing with our toys in this Toy Box, and our Toy Box just happened to be much bigger.