The Cabin in the Woods, which is in theaters today, is a ridiculous amount of fun. While I still refuse to give away any details about the story or various plot points, I will tell you that it takes an impressive number of completely unexpected twists and turns and it’s just a joy. And that’s what moviemaking is all about – taking us on a wild ride filled with imagination. But it isn’t just the audience that’s experiencing the fun of the film – co-writer/director Drew Goddard felt plenty of it while making he was making Cabin as well.
A few weeks ago, the day prior to the film’s world premiere at SXSW, I was lucky enough to sit down with the filmmaker to talk about his great new movie. The interview was long enough that I had to split it into two parts, but know that what you will read below is totally spoiler free (however, the second half, featured on the next page, will not be). Check out my interview with Drew Goddard below in which he talks about finally seeing his movie released after three years of delays, playing with the film’s tone, and keeping the original simple structure.
How does it feel to finally have people seeing this movie three years after production?
It’s weird. To be honest, we still haven’t watched it with an audience. SXSW will be the first time that we actually see it with a public audience. We’ve been screening it for critics and the like of that, the response has been overwhelming, but it will be fun to just see people who don’t quite know what to expect and sit in the theater and watch it. To be honest, I don’t really know how they are going to take it, but I look forward to finding out.
Obviously the big thing that was getting in the way of this film was the MGM bankruptcy. Was that something you paid a lot of attention to knowing how much of an impact it had on your film?
You follow it pretty closely and then you realize when you’re dealing with billion dollar bankruptcies…I just don’t understand [laughs]. It is above my pay grade. And when you see stuff like The Hobbit and James Bond going down, getting delayed, you realize, “Oh, there’s nothing we can do.” If The Hobbit can’t get a greenlight that means there are bigger problems. Weirdly, that made it easier because it’s so big, it’s so out of my control that you just can’t worry about it. My biggest concern, we knew that we would end up at another studio, my biggest concern was protecting the movie because you never know where you’re going to end up. Luckily when they started screening the movie studios started bidding for it, you got very excited, and Lionsgate really wanted it. They said, “No, we love the movie. We don’t want to change a frame. This is one of our favorite movies of the last 10 years!” and we were like, “Oh, okay. Good!” Once we knew we were going to end up in a good home, even though the documents were going to take a long time because of the bankruptcy, that was very comforting and it was helpful to know that.
I mean, there’s always concern because studios do that [laughs]. Studios change movies, it happens all the time. Certainly for Cabin, it’s different. So whenever you’re different some people are going to want to change that to make you more like other things, you know? And so we knew that and it was a concern, but luckily my concern turned out to be silly because it wasn’t the case, but I was certainly worried.
To talk about the film itself, it does seem to have a statement to make about the horror genre, and I’m curious about what you think about the state of modern horror.
It’s interesting. I love horror and I never set out to make a movie that’s about other movies. Certainly other movies are important to this movie, certainly the horror genre is important to the movie, but to me it’s not about that. To me it’s about a lot of other questions like why we need horror. It was never intended to be a commentary on what’s happening right now, and I think it starts that way, but as the movie goes on you start to realize this is about something that’s much older and much more about who we are as a people and not any one thing. Luckily, I feel like that worked out well because if we were trying to be too current, the movie got delayed for a few years [laughs]. It’s this weird sort of anachronistic movie where you’re not even sure when it’s set, like there’s something about it, and that was very important to me because I wanted it to be about the world that we live in and who we are as a people and not just sort of a mash-up of other horror movies.
You’ve worked with Joss Whedon before, but, unless I’m mistaken, this is the first feature that you’ve worked on together.
Yeah, it’s the first feature.
Did the writing process change on this film versus your previous experiences working together?
No, actually, part of the reason we wanted to do this movie is because we missed our writing process so much. Buffy and Angel, we were always so behind and we always had to write. There were so many times where I was writing an episode the night before we started shooting it. And at the time it’s very stressful, but once you get out of that world and you start doing other stuff and the feature world moves so slow, you start to realize that there’s a real energy and creativity that can happen when you write something fast and you have that sort of pressure on you. So Joss and I were always saying we need to get back to that, because I think he had been writing on maybe Wonder Woman or something like that, I had been doing feature work, and that train moves so slow. We wanted to just say, “Let’s just write something, fuck it, like we used to do when we would start with an idea and see where it takes us and write it as fast as we can.” That was sort of something that excited us and that’s kind of what we did with Cabin. We just sort of locked ourselves in a hotel and said we’re not allowed to leave this hotel until we come up with a movie [laughs].
It was pretty quick. Joss and I write pretty fast if we’ve done our homework ahead of time. It took four days, I think it took us. Writing from 6am to 1am. It was crazy, but there’s something that’s very fun about that. We both had this upstairs and downstairs, and it was fun to just pass pages and, again, because we didn’t develop it for a studio there was no pressure. We were just trying to entertain each other.
You said passing pages, did you work separately?
No, we had a hotel room that had an upstairs and downstairs, and at the beginning of each day we would look at – because the movie the movie divides up nicely into three acts – we’d take an act and say, “Okay, I want to do this scene, do you want to do that scene? Alright, if you do that scene I’ll trade you this scene.” They got sort of horse traded. And then we’d just take our work for the day and then, when you finish, toss it down to the other guy to see what they think.
This film is most definitely a horror film, but it also has the added bonus of being really funny without ever feeling like a parody. Is that a difficult line that you had to play with?
Somebody asked me this earlier, they asked me what was the hardest part of the job, and that’s it, that’s the hardest part is toeing that line. It’s tone. It’s so important to a movie like this, and it’s so hard because three degrees left or right and you have an entirely different movie. And yet my favorite films are the ones that shift gears and hard to classify and are unafraid of being inconsistent, you know? That’s just what I like. And so it was a challenge that I relished, but it’s hard. The thing that I found that’s the hardest is that everyone wants to be funny. Especially on a movie set, they see the comedy and they want more of it. You have to say like, “No, you have to trust us. This is not a comedy!” [laughs] This is a movie that has comedy in it, but if we swing too far with this movie…I like to say it’s a very serious movie about being silly [laughs]. Or a very silly movie about being serious, I don’t know which is which, but it’s important that it’s both.
This is your feature directorial debut and I’m curious if anything took you by surprise about the process.
It’s funny because as a writer, being a writer in the feature world – not so much on TV because TV’s different. TV is nice because you’re in charge. But as a writer in the feature world, your life is kind of about disappointment [laughs]. Because I just sort of assumed that’s what directing would be like: you’re just trying to get your vision out there and people aren’t quite getting it and you do your best. I found it was the opposite if you hire the right people. It’s really inspiring to see what they come up with, and that gives you energy and makes it so much more fun. The best example of that is our creature guy, Dave Anderson. This movie is a creature guy’s wet dream, and it was fun to see…he would show me different stuff and that would get me so excited and I didn’t really expect that. I should have, because I’ve done this for so long, but you get a little jaded so it was fun to, as a director, sort of re-experience that sort of 12-year-old enthusiasm.
Certainly. You realize just how little…and I think this is the path of most screenwriters. I think if you look at most screenwriters they’ll tell you that at the beginning they overwrote everything and as you do this more and more you realize how much can be told with an actor’s look or in a camera shot. And the more you do it I just find myself pulling away. It’s about subtraction now rather than adding so much.
On that note, how much did Cabin in the Woods change from its first draft to the final cut?
Shockingly very little. I mean, it’s funny because the movie is so different that I was worried from time to time like, “Oh, is this going to work or are we going to have to change everything?” What I realized is, this is a credit to Joss because this was his originally, it’s a very simple, strong structure, like you have...how do I say this without spoilers. You have Act I: Kids in Cabin Encounter Bad Thing; Act II: Bad Thing Gets Worse; Act III: We Flip It. And when you have something that simple, it actually informs all your guidelines and weirdly it made – and as crazy as this movie goes, it’s a very simple structure. And I think those two things need one another to balance. So I trusted it. Because it’s rare, by the way, just as a screenwriter, it’s rare that you find a good third act. Third acts are really hard. They’re just really hard in general. And Cabin I knew we had a great third act. That was nice. If nothing else works, we had the third act that was going to be pleasing. So there was a lot of comfort in that.
You mention the spoiler thing, and it’s funny because earlier today there was a new trailer released and I’m curious about your opinion about the marketing. This is a movie where you really do want to know as little as possible going in, but you do have to get the word out there and show people that this isn’t just your standard horror movie. From your perspective, how do you deal with that?
It’s hard. The purist in me was like, “I don’t want to tell anybody anything! I wish we didn’t have to do trailers!” But you realize that’s not the world we live in. The trick is I’m not a marketing guy, that isn’t what I got into this business to do. Luckily, Lionsgate, there’s no one better for this kind of movie than Lionsgate. And they got it. They understood the movie. They said, “Look, I know we’re going to go round and round on this trailer, but we just cut a first version just to see what you guys think.” And we watched it and we were like, “Yeah, we don’t have any notes. That’s it.” Because we knew we had to give a little away, and I’m okay with that because I do feel like Cabin isn’t really about twists, it’s about escalation. And so I could tell you some of the things that happen, but it’s not going to ruin it because it’s not about any one thing, it’s about, “Oh my god, I can’t believe they went to where they went to.” And I’ve worked on other movies where secrecy is more important. I don’t worry about that that much. I didn’t want to make a movie that was only good the first time you see it. I wanted to make a movie that gets better each time you see it. And I feel like that was the goal with Cabin and when that’s your goal you don’t worry as much about twists, but you do want to protect the audiences’ experience. That was the challenge.
Exactly! And the truth is that we start the movie with two guys in a coffee room. We’re not holding things back. The movie says right away in the first five minutes, “This is not your average movie. There’s something else going on.” To tell that to the world didn’t seem like a big deal, particularly because we know there’s so much we didn’t show. There’s so much of the movie that we didn’t put into the trailers. If you like this we’ve got something even better [laughs].
To talk the horror aspect of the film, you have to make sure when you’re writing that the scenes you are creating are scary, but when you’re directing you’re making sure that the actors are actually in the moment and treating it like reality. How do you approach that?
It sounds cliché but it’s true: just cast good actors. That really makes your job so much easier and it did. It was great. And part of it is the conditions we were under for Cabin were very hard. This was a hard movie for actors and for the crew. It was a challenge. We were in the woods in the middle of the night in the rainstorms and shooting all night and the cabin is covered in blood. It wasn’t that hard to get them into that place when you have good actors, because the elements and the experience of it just sort of naturally lends itself to that. So I found it was much more important to me that they felt protected and nurtured because I took them to such horrifying places. I’d have to go up to Kristen [Connolly], who plays Dana, because I really put her through hell. “Are you okay? What can I do for you to make sure you’re okay?” because she went to the horrible place so well that I wanted to make sure I wasn’t damaging her psyche [laughs].
I was also hoping you could talk a bit about the casting, because on one side you have Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, who are two of the best characters actors we have; and while Chris Hemsworth is now Thor, he wasn’t at the time and the kids in the cabin are largely young lesser-known actors. Was that intentional?
Absolutely. I mean, part of that is just the reality. When you’re casting a role in the 40s and 50s it’s easier to find actors. If you’re casting a role in your 20s that window is so short by the time you’ve written the movie everyone that was 20 is now older. So there’s a reality to it that makes it difficult, but we also wanted unknowns, which is ironic now that Chris is…[laughs]. But the goal was let’s just find kids that feel real and feel lived-in. And that will play in contrast to the sort of seasoned professionals that we put on the other side. It was very important to have these two very different worlds. In a weird way it felt like we were making two different movies. They’re very different and so the approach was different and that was the goal.
One thing that I felt walking out of the movie was – and I want everyone in the world to see this movie – but I felt it also had this incredible cult-style appeal. I was wondering if you see it in that way also.
Yeah, absolutely. That was the goal. That’s the thing – you can’t worry too much about the reaction. You have to just make movies that you want to see. That’s really the secret and it’s taken me a long time to get my head around, but it’s true. And those are the movies I love. I love cult movies. I probably have watched Big Trouble In Little China more than anyone on the planet. But these are the movies I love, so you just realize that that’s all I want! For this to find the people it was meant for and for those people to enjoy it. That’s what you’re looking for so that’s the goal.
BEWARE! THERE ARE SPOILERS HERE!
Earlier you mentioned the creature effects designer and one thing I love about this film is the way it prefers practical effects over CGI. Can you talk a bit about that choice?
Yeah, to some extent this was my first time so I was just naïve and dumb, but I said, “The rule is, if we can make it, we’re going to. That’s the rule” And to some extent that was the rule because our budget was so low we didn’t have a choice, but that was what I wanted. You want those constraints because you just can’t beat a tactile monster. That’s what you want, you want something you can touch. But part of that is my own naivety; I didn’t know how hard that would make it. But, weirdly, my naivety helped us because if I were a more seasoned pro I think the crew would have been able to say to me, “Don’t you realize that’s going to make our day four times longer?” and I would have been like, “Yes.” But this way I could just play dumb. Say, “I don’t know. Make the suit!” [laughs]. I don’t just do it because that’s what I want. And I’m really happy about that because you just watch it and you can’t beat a monster that’s just right there in front of you. There’s something about it, which isn’t a sly towards visual effects, I think visual effects are wonderful…
And they’ve really come far. But…
For a movie like this, in particular, where – and I feel this way about horror in general – you want to feel the rough edges. If a movie becomes too slick it becomes less scary. In a weird way the best movies you can feel the handmade quality to it and that was very important to me with this one.
Did you have a big hand in the design process?
It was the most fun part. That was part of why I wanted to make this movie so much because it is like this license to make your own toy box with some of the most talented people in the world. Someday I will publish a book on the amount of emails that go into, say, the way a merman’s teeth look [laughs]. The amount of work we did, it’s a credit to my team because the hardest thing to combat when you’re a director is a lack of enthusiasm. You want people that get what you’re doing and are enthusiastic and luckily my team was so good. You could just feel the energy of these creature designers. We’re finally getting to make that movie that we always wanted to make. A movie where we have the freedom to put anything on screen.
Everything [laughs]. Not anything, everything.
[Laughs] Right, everything. And the most fun parts of the job for me were when we didn’t have any monsters in the frame and then you’re looking at the frame and saying, “We don’t have any monsters.” And they’re like, “We’ve used up all our suits. How do we create something else?” And it’s like that scene in Apollo 13 when they just dump all the stuff that they have on board and say, “Here’s an air compressor, how do we make this work?” We would do that. This is the best: one day, a guy said, “We need more intestines, how do we make intestines?” And one of my creature guys just stood up and he goes, “Give me some bubble wrap, some duct tape, and”…what was the third thing? Oh, it was crazy. It was plastic. And he whipped up some intestines. It was like magic. Just to see people making these things, it felt like you’re 12 again and making movies with your friends in the backyard. That was sort of the vibe that it had. It was really inspiring.
When those elevator doors open…did you have a list of all the creatures that you wanted to pour out or was that something that just came with the effects team?
No, we had a list [laughs]. That shot, I spent a year working on before we even got to that level. There’s some incredibly complicated shots in there. But that was what was fun. And so you start with the basics: what do we need to tell the story? And then once that you’ve done that: what have I always wanted to see and how do I work that into this movie? That was not just that shot but the entire movie. On every level, how can we amplify and escalate as well.
Did you have a favorite design?
Yeah. It’s hard, they’re like my children. I love all of them. The truth is that there’s not one, anyone I didn’t like I would have nixed. I love all of them. I learned, though, just in terms of being terrifying, the simpler the better. When we were just seeing whose the scariest, it’s impossible to beat a guy with a bag on his head. That’s just hard to beat.
And the guys with the white baby masks.
You realize while Michael Myers has lasted for so long. There’s just something about a guy with a mask on that works and is just scary. And there’s a guy with just plastic on his head and he’s suffocating and it’s terrifying. He would show up on set and I would be like, “I can’t even look at you. That’s just too off-putting.”
I don’t know much about directing the creature effects actors versus the non-creature actors. Is there a different approach?
It’s hard because you realize what those poor people go through and I’m the one doing it to them. Which is hard.
Well, play dumb, right?
Kind of. It’s true. Because if you knew you wouldn’t make them do it because it’s really hard. You realize that there’s a reason you use the same guys because performing as a creature is as much of an art as being a movie star. Not anyone can do it. It takes a special skill because it’s really punishing to be in make-up that heavy, especially because we have some heavy latex designs, it’s so punishing and hot and miserable. You feel for it, like you’re watching the old Star Wars things where they’re blow drying Greedo. Now I understand why this happens, because these people are just going through it and yet I still need my shot [laughs]. So I had a lot more empathy for those people.
Did you have to move the schedule around in order to accommodate them?
Oh yeah. Cabin, it’s a credit to our ADs, but the schedule was crazy. Like, for instance, we couldn’t afford to… the way that a lot of movies work these days on the screens in the control room they would just put those in after the fact with computers. But we couldn’t afford that. We had to do everything live. So we had to shoot all of the A side first, edit it all, and then have it running back on the B side because we just couldn’t afford it another way, which required a tremendous amount of scheduling. I still don’t know how we pulled it off, to be honest.
We’re your dealing with the normal actors, how many takes do you typically prefer to do? Or with the budget were you not even really able to stretch it?
The truth is that every actor is different, every scene is different. Some scenes you want to give a lot of takes to let everyone get comfortable and some scenes they get it right on the first try or because of explosions or whatever you only have one shot at it, so let’s get it right. That’s one of the things I had to learn as a director is that there are no rules. Every situation is different, you have to sort of know your people and know what they need. It’s not about what I think is the right way to do it. It’s more about how do I take these different elements. And so certain scenes we probably did 50 takes on, certain scenes it’s the first take. It’s just different. It’s alchemy. Every scene is alchemy.
This is a silly question, but I do feel I have to ask: is the thermos bong real? Props department?
[laughs] Props department made it. And it works!
Yeah! I keep saying, “Can we get products out here? Let’s make this thing!”