Over thirty years ago, a new generation of talented filmmakers began paying homage to the horror films of their youth, and they did it in a way that respected the audience's intelligence without jettisoning the visceral (some might say "cheap") thrills that viewers had come to expect from the genre. For guys like John Landis, Joe Dante and John Carpenter, it wasn't a matter of classing up the horror film; it was primarily a devoted cinephile's need to keep the genre relevant and, most importantly, surprising.
While horror is still going strong commercially thanks in large part to their indelible efforts, the genre is once again in danger of falling into a rut due to an emphasis on thrift over invention. In the '80s, studios exhausted viewers with a spate of bargain-basement slasher films that rarely deviated from formula; today, it's ultra-affordable found-footage flicks that dawdle for an hour or so before climaxing in a spasm of deafening bumps and artless jump scares. And on the rare occasion a studio decides to shell out for a horror movie not shot with consumer-grade video cameras, it's usually for a remake of a film by one of the aforementioned genre pioneers.
While there's certainly room for by-the-numbers schlock, every now and then audiences need a movie that knocks them out of their passive-viewing stupor and reminds them just how invigorating a great, original horror movie can be. This is the service heroically provided by Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon with THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, a film that uses the young-adults-in-peril template as a jumping off point for something wholly unexpected. It's both genre deconstruction and reinvention. For those who want to mull what Goddard calls "the marginalization and destruction of youth," dig in; for those who simply want a fun night out at the movies, Goddard and Whedon deliver the gory goods right up until the stunning final shot.
The writing of THE CABIN IN THE WOODS might've been a team effort (nothing new for the duo, who've been working together since BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and ANGEL), but the direction is all Goddard - which is particularly impressive given that this is his debut feature. Working in widescreen like his hero John Carpenter, Goddard displays a clear knack for composition and a deft sense of tone; the film is many things (which is bracingly apparent from the unexpected opening scene), but it never feels cluttered or confused. And the performances are terrific across the board: the kids (Kristen Connolly, Anna Hutchison, Jesse Williams, Fran Kranz and a pre-superstardom Chris Hemsworth) are likable and believably vulnerable, while Bradley Whitford and Richard fucking Jenkins are Bradley Whitford and Richard fucking Jenkins.
Last month, I sat down with Goddard for a non-spoiler discussion covering everything from the film's development to its delayed release (the film sat on the shelf for two years due to its initial distributor, MGM, going bankrupt in 2010). Goddard and I speak in generalities about most of the plot points, but for those highly sensitive to spoilers, you might want to hold off reading the interview until you see the film this Friday. (Next Monday (4/16), Quint will be posting a spoiler-filled interview.)
Mr. Beaks: It's great to talk to you about this movie that's going to be difficult to talk about without spoiling everything. I'm trying to preserve as much mystery as possible...
Drew Goddard: I appreciate that.
Beaks: But this is the business we have chosen. And sometimes we end up knowing more about movies than we want to know - which is usually more than you'd like us to know.
Goddard: I know.
Beaks: Knowing the internet and the way things leak, was that something you were thinking about as you were writing the script?
Goddard: You do worry about it. You wish it wasn't the case. You wish this was not the world we live in. But we do. And I feel you can do yourself a disservice by worrying about it too much. Just tell the story. I always felt like, at least with CABIN, I'm not as interested with twists as I am with escalation. It's not about any one thing; it's not like there's any one all-encompassing secret that I could tell you about CABIN that would ruin the movie. CABIN is more about, "Oh, my god, I can't believe where we're going." This is a strange journey, so I don't worry about it too much. I wish it wasn't the case, but I'm much more interested in making movies that are more interesting the third time you see them. When you do that, you realize that the first time isn't that important. If people really want to find about it, that's okay. It's not about any one thing. And once you've seen it, you can stop worrying about the plot and focus more on what's happening. But certainly there are days where I wish we could silence everyone.
Beaks: But there's definitely something wonderful about that first screening. I'd stayed close to spoiler-free on CABIN, so the first act of this movie... I mean, I was downright giddy when I realized I had no idea where it was going. It reminded me of being a kid and going to see GREMLINS on opening day. At that point, all I'd seen was a poster with "Steven Spielberg Presents..." on it. That was one of the greatest moviegoing experiences of my life, so for the opening of CABIN to evoke that is pretty special.
Goddard: That's nice to hear. You want to protect it for people that don't want to be spoiled. That's the balance. People who are desperate to be spoiled are going to find out, and I can't spend my energy fighting a war I'm going to lose. But I think most people are like you. I think most people want to be surprised. They want to know enough to know that this is worth their time, and we want to give them enough to let them know that this will be worth their time. But then we want to protect the rest of the movie.
Beaks: How much surprise was there in the writing?
Goddard: (Laughs) It was fun. More than anything I've ever worked on, this lent itself to imagination and discovery. It's just the type of movie that embraces the anything-goes aesthetic of, "If you can imagine it, we can work it into the movie." That's true of everything I've worked on with Joss. That's part of just who he is. His aesthetic, certainly at BUFFY or ANGEL, we never felt like there was anything we couldn't do. "You want to do a 1940s World War II movie? We'll do that. You want to do a puppet episode? We'll do that, too." There was a real freedom to that, and that freedom extended to CABIN IN THE WOODS, which was nice.
Beaks: How nice was it to be unmoored from the mythology of those shows?
Goddard: (Laughs) It was nice. Mythology gets old. It's nice to just have the freedom to be like "This is the world." We're not actually breaking any rules because we define the rules ourselves.
Beaks: What was the inspiration for this screenplay? What was the kernel?
Goddard: It was Joss's kernel. He definitely had the first idea of, "Let's do a cabin movie." And he had the upstairs/downstairs idea that is sort of at the heart of CABIN. That was combined with the fact that we wanted to make a horror movie. And we were also looking for something to work together on because we hadn't written together in a while since ANGEL had gone off the air. But it's kind of that simple: we just wanted to make a horror movie. I wish it was more complicated than that. (Laughs)
Beaks: I think that's an impulse anyone who loves movies has. It's just what you choose to do with those conventions.
Goddard: Exactly. All bands start off playing cover songs in their garage, and to some extent we wanted to keep that mentality. "Let's just be a jam band. Let's just be in the garage doing something that we think is cool, and see where it takes us." We didn't set this up at a studio. It wasn't developed. We just wrote it on our own by ourselves, and I think the movie really benefits from that. The truth is a studio would've killed this movie. It would've gotten ironed out. It would've become something else - which might've been fine, but it wouldn't have been this movie. And I understand why. Studios have their own process, and I get it. But we felt that in order to do this the way we wanted to, we had to do as much of this work without a studio as we could.
Beaks: So knowing that you had to sell this screenplay as a horror film, opening the script as you do seems especially ballsy to me.
Goddard: That's the thing: we wanted to tell the audience early on that we're not holding back. We didn't tell you something in the trailer that we're going to hold until the middle of the movie to reveal. We want to tell you in the first five minutes that things are different. Just reveal it right away: put your cards on the table, and then see where it takes you. That's very much in Joss's style. We did that all the time at BUFFY, and it works well. He usually starts the story where most people end the story.
Beaks: How did you decide which conventions you wanted to play with? Did you throw everything up on a board and whittle away until you had your script?
Goddard: Not at all. That sort of came in the directing, I suppose. When it was time to start designing the basement, that's when we tried to work stuff in. But we just tried to tell the story, and we didn't worry too much about wedging stuff in. It started in this place that is very clear, that you have these kids and you have the people working against them, and the movie really just alternates between one scene and another scene. As crazy as this movie gets, it's really got a straightforward structure. As a result, it defined how we would tell the story. We'd do one scene, and then we'd have other people comment on it. And then we took it from there.
Beaks: Were you thinking of any films you'd seen before that toyed with convention or pulled the rug out from under the audience?
Goddard: It's more about fearlessness and tone. DR. STRANGELOVE is the sort of movie that was very influential to this in terms of "Don't be afraid to be multiple things. Don't be afraid to be comedic at times and serious at times and have something bigger to say." Sort of like how everything the Coens do you can't classify? That was more the goal. "Let's not worry about fitting nicely into one box. Let's just be ourselves and let the movie follow that."
Beaks: It's impossible to imagine anyone other than Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins in those roles.
Goddard: (Laughs) That's nice of you to say.
Beaks: Were you hearing those voices as you wrote?
Goddard: Yeah. I actually said the words early: "If Bradley Whitford doesn't say yes to this, I don't want to make the movie." I don't know who we would've cast if Bradley had said no. I don't know who else could've played that role. We're just such fans. Richard was the same way. Richard had just been nominated for an Academy Award for THE VISITOR, and there were people in the casting department who were like, "He's not going to say yes to this." And I was like, "Look, he's my dream actor. Let's just ask him." We sent him the script on a Friday, and on Monday morning he was like, "Yeah, I'm in. I don't have any notes or anything. I love this." He got it, and that's what you look for. God bless those guys. I want to work with them for the rest of my career.
Beaks: In casting the young actors - or the actors who were young back when you made this in 2009 - what were you looking for? These characters can't just be victims. They have to be smart to some degree, then behave stupidly as things change.
Goddard: It was tricky what we were asking them to do. We were asking them to essentially play two roles: you're playing your character, and you playing an archetype. And you're sort of playing both at the same time; you're vacillating from one to the other. So we looked at hundreds of people because we knew it was hard what we were asking them to do. We also knew we couldn't give the script out to all of them. The best way to distribute your script to the world is to give it to actors, to give it to casting people. (Laughs)
Beaks: Or give it to an agency.
Goddard: That's what burned us ultimately. That's how the script got out. But we were trying to protect it at the time. So it was hard. We would see a lot of people that would come in and play an archetype. Or people would play a character and not play the [archetype]. And the five that we ended up with got the duality of it; they understood that there is a heightened side and a real side, and that we're going to do both. The thing I kept saying was, "I can find people who can be funny, and I can find people who can be terrified, but we're looking for someone who can break your heart." Because that's sort of where this movie goes. Kristen's audition I remember in particular. I was just crying when I watched her do some of these scenes; she was just so good. The same was true of Hemsworth. When he walked out of the room, I looked at everyone and said, "That's our guy." He just found the sadness inherent to youth. I think that's the key to this movie: there's a sadness to youth that people don't normally embrace.
Beaks: And then at some point while you were directing him, you said, "He's going to be Thor!"
Goddard: (Laughs) Absolutely. I can tell you exactly when it happened. There's a scene... (Goddard takes a moment to figure out how to phrase the answer without giving anything away) there's a scene where things go very badly early, and Chris returns home to the cabin. That scene... I was sitting behind the viewfinder, and I sat up and went "Oh, my god." I called the studio, and said, "This guy's going to be a star. You have to take a look at him." He was just covered in blood, and was taking charge of the situation. That next day, they offered him RED DAWN. That was a Wednesday, I believe. Then Friday, he said, "A friend of mine is auditioning for Thor." And we said, "You should be auditioning for Thor because you look like Thor." So Joss said, "Let me call Kevin Feige over at Marvel," because Joss was friendly with Kevin. He said, "You need to look at this kid." So he put him on tape, they looked at him, and he got the part by Monday. So in the middle of CABIN, this guy becomes Thor - which, as a Marvel fan, was the most exciting thing ever. Some of my favorite memories of making the movie are going to the comic store [with Chris] and saying, "Here are some of the THOR comics you may want to look at."
Beaks: Did you show him the issues where Thor turns into a frog?
Goddard: (Laughs) You don't lead with those.
Beaks: So directing him after he got the role of Thor, were you then thinking, "I can't fuck this up?"
Goddard: Nah, because the thing about Chris is you just point the camera at him and he's awesome. He makes my job easy. It was nice to know that the thing we see in him, other people were going to see it in him soon.
Beaks: There's a Shaggy element to the character of Marty (Fran Kranz) that's pretty pronounced. Was that intentional?
Goddard: Certainly not. But he's playing an archetype, and certainly Shaggy fits that archetype. I could point out five other instances of "the fool" in these movies. I never talked to Fran about that; he just got what we were going for right away. The thing I like about what Fran does is that you sort of dismiss him right away; you're like, "Oh, I know what this guy is." And slowly, as the movie goes on, you find different levels of what he's doing. And then it changes.
Beaks: There's a moment in the movie that made me want to jump out of my seat and just applaud the sheer cognitive dissonance of it, and it has to do with REO Speedwagon's "Roll with the Changes". That was amazing.
Goddard: (Laughs) Thank you.
Beaks: I think it's a moment that's going to be imitated in films for years to come. And it's not just song choice. Everything that the movie is up to just kind of comes together in that moment.
Goddard: It means a lot to hear you say that because that whole sequence was a scene that, at varying times in the production, every single person on this movie tried to get me to cut. And I fought tooth and nail to protect that. At a certain point, I couldn't even explain why I wanted it; I just knew that, for me, it was the most important scene in the movie in terms of the juxtaposition of everything that's going on. I fought so hard with the studio. And it was just a very difficult sequence to pull off from a logistical point of view. So it makes me feel good to hear you say that. (Laughs)
Beaks: How did you pull it off? Did you green screen the various video feeds?
Goddard: We couldn't afford to green screen anything; all of that had to be actual video being projected. And there were eighty screens. So the logistical nightmare of creating a fight scene, blocking a fight scene, shooting a fight scene, then playing the fight scene in the background while you're trying to time dialogue... one of the reasons everyone tried to get me to cut it is they were like, "You, as a first-time director, don't understand how difficult this would be." And the truth is that if this was my third film, I wouldn't have done it. It was so difficult. It took days to figure out how to do all of this. But because I was naive, I just said, "Let's keep trying to figure it out because it's so important to me." I remember when it finally worked, and I watched it... they were playing REO Speedwagon and it was all coming together, I just started crying on set. I really did. Because the relief, that we managed to pull this together... it was so just so hard to make it all work.
Beaks: So why REO Speedwagon?
Goddard: I don't know. I remember the two things I said were, "I can't make this movie without Bradley Whitford," and "If I don't get REO Speedwagon, I'm not making this movie." (Laughs) I really did. That and the Nine Inch Nails song at the end were the only two that I felt I had to have. And we spent to get the Speedwagon. (Laughs) I don't remember where it first came from. I wanted the sort of thing that you play at the office party. And what gets played at the office party is never what's current; it's what the older people think is cool. And yet it's still cool! I love REO Speedwagon. But it was a gut thing. It just felt right. And once I had it, I was like a dog on a bone. I would not be dissuaded.
Beaks: Yet you said you wouldn't try a sequence like that had you been more experienced as a director.
Goddard: I just would've done it differently. I don't know. Or I might not have. It's funny... right before I started shooting, I read an interview with Danny Boyle. I'm paraphrasing, but he said something like, "You'll never have a chance like you have on your first film because being naive is actually a weapon that you get to use. You will push yourself to do things that you'll never do again." That just resonated with me. You worry about being naive as a first-time director, but sometimes these mistakes lead to much better things. And sometimes the mistakes lead to mistakes. (Laughs) But you have to just embrace the creative process, and that that's going to be okay.
Beaks: Career-wise, did the film's delayed release pose a problem for you in terms of getting other projects going, particularly as a director?
Goddard: Not really. I sort of have two jobs: I like writing and I like directing. And there's something fun about working with other filmmakers, so I still love being a screenwriter, too - because I feel like there's a lot about directing that I need to learn. That's part of why I wanted to work with Mr. Spielberg [on ROBOPOCALYPSE]. You learn a lot from being a screenwriter. Ideally, I'd like to do both, so really this has worked out fine for me. I was just like, "Okay, I'll go do this for a while, and then I'll go back to directing."
Beaks: Has Spielberg seen CABIN yet?
Goddard: I don't think so. No one has until recently. We'd sort of kept it under lock and key, and we're just now starting to show it to people.
Beaks: I was bummed that I had to miss Butt-Numb-a-Thon this year because I knew it was going to be there.
Goddard: I was bummed that I had to miss it because I've always wanted to go to Butt-Numb-a-Thon. That would be the greatest. I also just felt like, of all the movies I've worked on in my career, there's no better audience than Butt-Numb-a-Thon for CABIN.
Beaks: Speaking of audience, I've heard some people say, "I'm just not sure there's a very big audience for CABIN. Are people going to get it?" And I'm like, "Of course people are going to get it. They've watched tons of horror movies. They're totally savvy enough to enjoy this." This goes back a bit to the writing process, but were you thinking a lot about your potential audience, or were you just writing for yourself?
Goddard: It was for myself. I've learned that's kind of the only way you can do it. You want to be responsible, and the way to do that is with your budget. We knew CABIN was risky. And when you know something is risky, the secret is to keep your budget down. Then the studio's fine. And then we can say to them, "You've got to take a chance here. And we're going to do it for so cheap that even if it doesn't work, you're going to make your money back." That was the lesson we learned on CLOVERFIELD. We kept that thing under $25 million, and when that happens they don't fuck with you. They're just like, "Oh, this fits our design model." So we were responsible. I don't want it to sound like we were just writing this for ourselves, but I don't know how else to do it. If you try to pander or give an audience what you think they want, you'll be wrong and you'll make something bad. You just have to be bold and try to make things that excite you, and hope for the best. (Laughs)
Beaks: In terms of influence, did you have that moment when you were younger where you realized, "Wow, I can get away with this!" I remember very vividly watching HEATHERS for the first time, and having this epiphany that it was okay to blend these seemingly disparate genres. I guess I felt the same way when I watched NIGHT OF THE COMET as well. These films were unusually self-referential.
Goddard: Joss talks about NIGHT OF THE COMET all of the time as being a big influence on BUFFY.
Beaks: I'm not surprised. Was there a movie that did that for you?
Goddard: It's not exactly the same in terms of being self-referential, but BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA was just so mind-blowing to me, and I didn't even understand why it was. But when you realize there's a movie where your hero doesn't act like a hero... it doesn't follow conventional heroic logic. In fact, you can make the argument that Jack Burton doesn't do anything heroic for the entire movie - and when he is finally being heroic, he's undercut by wearing lipstick. Carpenter was so bold about all of these things. In all of his movies, there's this fearlessness of "Fuck it, I don't care. Let's just do something good." I've always admired that. And I've watched BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA more than I've watched anything. (Laughs)
Beaks: Speaking of Carpenter, would you like to continue to shoot your films widescreen?
Goddard: You learn that every movie is different, and every movie will bring its own aesthetic. I do like wide. (Laughs) I'd be surprised if I don't stay wide for the rest of my career. But I've learned to never say never. I don't like the yellow-toned shaky cam that has sort of pervaded horror movies lately, but ten years from now maybe I'll think it's the right thing to do for that movie.
Beaks: Shaky cam and found footage are the thing right now, and you did it somewhat early on with CLOVERFIELD. What do you think about the future of the found-footage subgenre?
Goddard: It's like anything else: it's just a tool. This is part of what inspired CLOVERFIELD at the time: it's part of our culture right now. Everyone has cameras; everyone is walking around with a camera. I don't think that's ever going to change; the surveillance is only going to get more, not less. And because it's who we are, it's just going to continue to evolve. When people say they don't like found footage, what they mean is they don't like bad found footage. There's no genre where I feel it's impossible to do something good in that.
Beaks: As long as you're being smart about perspective, it can be worthwhile. That's one of the things I felt was interesting with CLOVERFIELD: it's being told from the perspective of the dumbest guy in the movie. I thought that was an odd choice. Honestly, it bothered me at first, but I've come to appreciate it.
Goddard: But it's also just "tell an interesting story", you know? We can over-think these things. If you try to be weird, it's not going to work. Just try to tell something interesting and let it unfurl however it unfurls. That tends to work out better.
THE CABIN IN THE WOODS hits theaters this Friday, April 13th. It's one of the best movies of the year thus far. Go. Then go again.