Interview: The Cabin in the Woods director Drew Goddard makes the ‘ultimate date movie’ horror flick

Drew Goddard and Joss WhedonHorror movie fans are in for a huge treat on this April’s Friday the 13th, with the opening of The Cabin in the Woods, a pulse-pounding paradoxical film that is like nothing like you’ve ever seen before, while at the same time being completely familiar to fans of the horror genre.

Nerdvana was privileged to participate in a recent round-table interview with the Cabin in the Woods’ geekcentric director, Drew Goddard. For your safety I’ve meticulously edited out a slew of spoilers here, but still – please read carefully as you continue.

Writer/producer Drew Goddard is a longtime collaborator with genre director/writer Joss Whedon (The Avengers) and Cabin in the Woods is his first directorial effort. Mr. Goddard’s bibliography reads like a catalog of contemporary pop culture creations and includes Lost, Alias, Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Cloverfield and now Cabin, which he also co-wrote with Whedon.

When asked about his (and Whedon’s) rabid fan-base and their expectations for his projects, Goddard said, “[The fans] have been very good to me and Joss and you are always conscious of them, but you also realize that the thing they want from you is to just keep telling the best stories you know how to tell and you just try to do that and hopefully they will come along. Luckily they have and I hope that will continue.”

Mr. Goddard revealed that after the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series, he and Whedon were anxious to do something together again in the horror movie genre.  They wrote the type of movie that they would want to see but because of its unconventional story they felt it would be impossible to pitch it to the studio. So they planned out the movie’s success ahead of time by creating a script, budget and schedule in advance to make the studio execs comfortable with the package, thus giving Goddard the freedom to go crazy creatively, which I can attest he took full advantage of with this movie.

Cabin in the Woods“Because Cloverfield was [produced] so cheap they let us go crazy,’ Goddard said. “The deal was you have complete creative freedom as long as you keep [costs] in the low twenties, so when you can make the studio comfortable that they are going to make money they’ll let you do stuff. I think what happens is that most filmmakers abuse that right and go crazy with the budgets and stuff and then the studio starts clamping down. We worked very hard to say we’re your partners on this and we’re going to be responsible and we want you guys to do well.”

The film actually ended up in a bidding war which was won by MGM Studios, who went bankrupt shortly after the film was wrapped (nothing to do with Cabin’s meager budget). So the movie was shelved for a couple of years and one of its actors (Chris Hemsworth) has since found stardom as Thor in last year’s Marvel movie (and the upcoming Avengers film).  “Yeah we kind of joke about it,” said Goddard, “be careful what you worry about. This may have been the best possible thing that could have happened to us as we now have the God of Thunder in our movie.”

When asked about his transition from being a writer to a director, Goddard said, “They are very different skill sets.  The guys that I worked for on television, J.J. Abrams and Josh Whedon, are very empowering and good writers and we were always there on set. Television in general is a writer’s medium and you are generally in charge.  So a lot of the stuff I do as a director in features is what you would have to do as a writer/producer in television; talking with the actors, overseeing cuts and managing the schedule is stuff you do as a television producer, so it felt like a natural progression.”

The director was asked about how difficult it is to describe his film without revealing many of the multiple surprises it holds. “I talk more about the experience, in that we love horror movies and we set out to make the ultimate version that we knew how to make,” Goddard said.  “So the whole movie is like a love letter to the genre. It’s hard because this movie plays better the less you know about it, but you also want to tell the audience that it is worth their time.”

Cabin in the WoodsJohn Carpenter’s The Thing is Goddard’s favorite horror film and Cabin in the Woods is certainly a fun-style of horror movie as it has as many laughs as it does scares, but it is markedly different from the current crop of “torture porn” films. When asked if his movie was a response to the torture trend Mr. Goddard stated, “I love horror films and it’s not so much any particular genre that I don’t like, I just don’t like bad movies.  There are certainly ultra-violent movies in the horror genre that are great,” he continued, “but you can feel when directors don’t care about their characters, and I think that is what happens more in the torture-porn genre where they are just lining people up to get killed – and that’s it.  Then it just sort of becomes weirdly sadistic and I think that more than anything we wanted to do [that] differently with Cabin. If I had to name my ten favorite horror movies I’m sure almost half of them have been made in the last 10 years, so this wasn’t a screed against anything other than bad movies.”

“One of the things that has been nice as we have been screening Cabin all around the country is that I hear a lot [of people saying], ‘I don’t t really like horror films but I loved this movie,’ and that has been really nice,” Mr. Goddard said. “I knew if you loved horror films we got something for you, but it is nice to let people know that if you don’t like horror films you still might enjoy this because it’s different and if I give you the gateway drug to horror films, then I guess it’s a job well done.”

“I think [horror films] just get you in touch with the primal instincts that we all have, but in the relative safety of the theater,” said director Goddard. “There is an inherent introspection that occurs when you are faced with the horrors of humanity.  It just happens sort of naturally and I know that sounds really pretentious when it comes out of my mouth.”  he continued, “I feel like the experience of being in the theater is like no other, and there is nothing like a good rowdy horror movie.  I don’t know of any other experience like it and I just want people to  enjoy it and go out and have a good time. We want Cabin to be the ultimate date movie and my goal is to get you laid at the end because people are grabbing so hard to each other.”

Cabin in the Woods PosterCabin in the Woods cuts between two different narratives before the stories eventually merge. Goddard was asked how he was able to advance the story without giving away too much too soon. “One of the things I always loved about working with Joss is that he never likes to play coy.  He will put all of his cards on the table immediately and if you notice we start this movie and tell you almost all the stuff that we give away in the trailers.  People are always worried that we gave too much away, but don’t worry, we do that right away and it doesn’t start in the same way that most horror films start.” He continued, “A lot of the reveals in the first couple of minutes are in the middle of most other movies and that is one of things that I love about working with Joss, he says the audience is smarter than that, don’t play coy, just start putting stuff out there and it will force you as a storyteller to come up with new things and it will make you to go to crazier places, and that was certainly the case with Cabin.  If we had played coy the end would have been fairly standard, but because we amplified everything up, it took us to more insane places.”

On protecting the movies multitude of secrets, Goddard commented, “You certainly try to limit who reads the script and in this day and age the amount of energy you have to expend to keep something from leaking is tremendous and you’d rather spend that energy on making a good film. It’s much more about protecting the people that don’t want to know than blocking the people who do want to know, if that makes sense,” he said, “I feel that most people don’t want to know and don’t want it to be spoiled and I feel that is pretty much most moviegoers. And that’s not just for a genre movie, but any movie, I mean, who wants to know? They just want to know that it’s worth their time and then they’ll go experience it for themselves, and I’m much more concerned about protecting them than letting stuff get out there that immediately spoils it for people. It’s hard to stop people who want to know, especially now that we’ve been screening it, I mean you can find out, so I don’t worry about it too much.”

There are dozens of nods to classic horror films within Cabin in the Woods and I asked Mr. Goddard if he was aware of how many hat-tips his film actually contains. He artfully dodged the details of any actual tributes in the film, but answered, “It’s not like I sat down and said, ‘these are all the things we need to represent,’ because I think if you do that it makes it feel too much like a mash-up of greatest hits and I wanted it to be its own story that tipped its hat, where it was important, to those who have come before, but it wasn’t a math problem where I had to work in a bunch of stuff, it was just tell the story and see where we could work it in where it felt appropriate and felt fun.”

When asked about the shocking ending in the film and whether he was pressured to change it, Goddard said, “I think other people questioned it but we never did, we knew that was what we wanted and that it was the right ending for the movie and we worked backwards telling the story from there. I think some people at the studio raised an eyebrow but it was more about making them feel comfortable in terms of the tone and in terms of what we felt was important and right for the movie. [The studio was] wonderful and they supported us and they let us do it, that’s the bottom line, they let us get crazy and I’ll never be anything but thankful for that.”

Goddard uses a lot of practical special effects in Cabin in the Woods and said, “I just feel in general that practical effects are better than visual effects and part of that is just being naive, because visual computer effects make things faster and easier.” He continued, “I didn’t understand that they [CG effects] make things easier, so I was able to just say the rule is if we can do it practical we’ll do it practical, and once the crew saw that I was serious about that they all got very excited because the truth is practical effects are fun.” Goddard said, “They are more fun than a guy with a green screen and pretending, it’s more fun to have something actually there and have an actor do a stunt than to have it all happen in the computer.”

When asked about the archetypical roles that the college kids play in the movie, Goddard said, “We sort of asked the kids to do two different things, they’re playing both a character and an archetype and they’re sort of vacillating between the two things over the course of the movie, which is a hard thing for actors to understand, particularly if you are not giving them a script, which we didn’t when we were casting this. We wrote up a bunch of fake scenes because we wanted to keep [the script] secret. There were these ridiculous scenes that involved a hot tub that was molesting the people in it and pterodactyls and it was just very weird fun.” Goddard said, “We wanted to see who could roll with this and who couldn’t. So we saw hundreds of actors for all of these roles, most of Hollywood I think, just looking for that right fit. Casting is just alchemy anyway and all of our actors just sort of got it. I always said to the cast, you play the character and I’ll make you into the archetype, that’s my job to do that. The five [actors] that we found played against the standard type and found the humanity in all their characters.”

Cabin in the WoodsVeteran actors Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford play mid-level “agency operatives” in the film and Mr. Goddard wrote their parts with them in mind, “I actually said in the very first casting meeting we had, when we had to go to the studio and present our ideas, ‘Look if Bradley Whitford doesn’t want to do this movie then I don’t think I want to make it, because I don’t know who else could possibly do this part.’ We just had them so clearly in our mind to do this movie and thank God they said, ‘yes’ or I don’t know what we would have done.” On the actors working with the crazy material in the film, Goddard said, “Richard [Jenkins ] was the first person we sent the script to and that week was the same week he got nominated for an Academy Award for The Visitor, and the studio said, ‘There’s no way, he just got nominated for an Academy Award and you know how crazy this film is you may not want to do this.’  I said, ‘Well he’s my first choice can we just send it to him? The worst he can do is say, ‘no,’ it’s worth a shot.’  And we sent it to him and the next day the phone rings at like six in the morning and it’s Richard, ‘yeah I’m in, I love this.’ He just ‘got it’ and it made us all energized because he never questioned anything.”

Goddard continued gushing over his lead actors, “God bless both of them, they’re just game and in hindsight I shouldn’t have questioned it, because you can see it in their careers, I don’t know anyone else who can go from The Visitor to what Richard does in the Farrelly Brothers movies.  He’s just not afraid to do different things and try different things and that’s something we’re looking for is guys who are fearless.” He continued with praise about Mr. Whitford , “The same with Bradley, from the West Wing to Revenge of the Nerds 2, here’s a guy that’s not afraid to play these different genres and roles, which is crucial for us because we asked our actors to shift gears between genres so much within the movie, I mean they are going from high horror to high comedy often within the same scene, so you are looking for guys that can do that.”

Cabin in the Woods has many moving parts and director Goddard commented on the difficulty with keeping track of all the pieces, saying, “It was very much a complicated math problem, because it is like two different genres and it felt like I was shooting two different movies, and there was not a whole lot of overlap between the two, so it really felt like it was two different worlds. It was fun and it was really energizing.” Goddard described, “We shot all the kids first because we needed all of them for the [monitor] screens downstairs. It was a logistical nightmare and had I known any better we would have done it differently. We started calling the control room ‘Bruce’ after the shark in Jaws that never worked properly [laughs], because there were 80 screens in that control room and all of them had to be coordinated. I had very specific thoughts on what I wanted in the background on those monitors and with the stuff that was happening in the foreground it was a logistical nightmare. But I had a great team and we were able to sort it all out.”

The director was asked if he regretted writing some of the complex scenes in his film and he responded, “Oh my God, Yes! I’m never writing ‘night’ in a subject line again because night shooting is the worst, particularly night shooting in the Vancouver woods.” He continued, “We got there for the first day of shooting and found that Vancouver weather is very temperamental. Our movie is supposed to take place in the summer and then on the first day of shooting it’s snowing. So where they are at the gas station it was just blanketed in snow as we arrived there, and the Vancouver crew is used to this and they are like, ‘it’s no problem, we have giant hair dryers and we’ll dry the ground.’ I’m like, ‘Are you crazy? My girls are in shorts and halter tops and they are going to die out here!’  It definitely took a little getting used to for sure. Yeah, my next movie is just going to be two people in a room talking [laughs].”

Mr. Goddard has already been approached about doing a comic book series based on the Cabin movie, he says, “It’s something we’re open to, but I feel like in this day in age that studios want the film to feel like a franchise and that you are just looking at part one and the good stuff’s coming in part two or in the ancillary or in the comic book, and we didn’t want that to happen. We wanted everything to be in this movie and you don’t have to know anything else or do anything else to enjoy this movie.” He continued, “Our first goal was to focus on making a good movie with a complete beginning, middle and end. Then if there are ways to enjoy it later, we’ll worry about connections then.”

When asked what he learned from his first directorial experience on this very complex movie, Mr. Goddard said, “I love blood more than I realized [laughs]. Film making is incredibly introspective and it forces you to examine yourself in new ways.  I was surprised at how much I loved working with other people.  Directing is a unique endeavor where you are in charge of so many people, and as a writer you get to sit in a room by yourself all day and the reason you become a director is the exact opposite.   I wasn’t sure how I would be able to balance both of those things but it has been fun to learn that I can do both and wear both hats.”

Goddard continued regarding how much enjoyment he had making his movie, “I think I’m ruined because I can’t imagine another movie that is going to be this much fun.  We would look at the schedule every day and every scene would be like the most fun scene [they would have] on any other movie and this is just our average day, and it felt that way. I kept saying to the crew, ‘Look if we can’t have fun making this movie then we need to find other jobs because this is a once in a lifetime type of movie.’”

When asked about his upcoming projects, Mr. Goddard said, “There is nothing official on the directorial front. I adapted the Daniel Wilson book Robopocalypse for Steven Spielberg and it is a very hard science look at what would happen if our technology turned on us in the very near future and it is sort of the epic science fiction that nobody can do better than Steven Spielberg, so it has been very fun to work on.”  When asked if he prefers movies to television work, Goddard said, “I hope I can go between the two because there is good and bad in both. You know the thing that is grueling about television is also the thing that is great about television which is that every eight days you have to put out a new episode, so every eight days you’re creating sixty minutes of material, which is hard on just your normal life, but there is also something that is incredibly exciting about it because you don’t have time to second guess, you don’t have time to over think things, you get in touch with that creative spirit and you just go.”

“You know there were times on Buffy when it was Friday and we’d have to shoot an episode on Monday and we didn’t have any ideas for what that episode would be,” Goddard continued. “I remember it would be 8 o’clock at night and Joss would look around and go, what if we did a submarine episode and we’d call and ask, Hey can you find a submarine anywhere? And they’d say yeah we have one in Van Nuys, and we’d say alright let’s do a submarine episode, and sometimes it feels like you are just kids in the garage experimenting and having fun and a lot of times some of our best episodes would come out of that, just because you didn’t care and you had the freedom. Whereas with movies it could take years to do that, but it is also nice to take your time to craft something and get it right. So I hope I can go back and forth between the two.”

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