Few fledgling directors can say they knocked it out of the park with their first feature-length horror film, but Drew Goddard can carry those bragging rights.
I don’t think it’s embedded in his personality to say that exactly, so I’ll do it for him: With The Cabin in the Woods, he kills it, crafting a movie that is confident, weird, scary, funny and, above all, smart. This film puts the dunce cap on a lot of self-described hip and witty horror films and kicks them to the corner of the classroom.
However, is Goddard’s achievement really a surprise? He’s worked on some terrific television over the last ten years, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lost. Goddard also penned Cloverfield, which he described to us as a love letter to his wife. As they say, the guy’s got chops. And like Cloverfield, in which he re-teamed with Lost producer J.J. Abrams, Cabin finds Goddard working with another prominent television icon from his past: Joss Whedon. The two collaborated on Cabin‘s script and Whedon produced the film, which has seen its fair share of release troubles.
When the film – starring a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth, Kristen Connelly, Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford – rolled cameras, MGM was the distributor. Then the studio went bankrupt and Cabin was shelved until Lionsgate acquired the title. But don’t let that history be a telling sign of a “troubled” film. Cabin is anything but that. It transcends all of that nonsense in more ways than one.
A few days out from The Cabin in the Woods‘ big SXSW film festival premiere, Shock Till You Drop met Goddard to discuss its origins, the production process, 3D, the cast and the horror genre.
Shock Till You Drop: For our readers, explain where your this creative union with Joss Whedon first took place…
Drew Goddard: Well, I started as a writer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so we just got on famously. I was very intimidated and there was no one I wanted to work more for. I loved Buffy so much and loved Joss’ aesthetic. Here is someone who is doing what I wished people did. He had been on the fringe for so long, same thing with J.J. [Abrams]. “Fringe” came to them as opposed to the other way around. People hadn’t figured it out but that was where the interesting stuff was being made. I felt that, as a fan of Joss and Buffy. When I got the job, it was a dream come true.
Shock: With both of you being horror fans, was there a single specific thing that had occurred in the genre or a particular movement that was the inciting factor for Cabin in the Woods’ creation?
Goddard: Not one specific thing, it came from a place of we love horror movies. And we were looking for something to do together. We knew our style…we wanted to do something different. The horror genre lent itself to that. And studios knew if you make a horror film, make it for cheap, they’re comfortable about their returns. We wanted to “Trojan Horse” something different through the system. [laughs] This was a good way to do it. We wrote the script, we did the budgets…we didn’t want to do any hand-holding in development. It was my first job as a director and in order to do that, you have to be bold. Here’s the package – we did some art, did the budget, it’s not going to cost that much. Take it or leave it. We didn’t want to rewrite it, we didn’t want this long development process because this is a movie that could have been rewritten to death. Enough studios were interested that there was a bidding war. To MGM’s credit, they just got it and believed in it.
Shock: Did Cloverfield help solidify your place a new director attached to this film?
Goddard: I think so, it was a very similar model. We were able to look at Cloverfield and say this is going to cost $25 million, let us be bold. We might do some things you won’t understand, but if it’s this cheap, you’re going to make your money back, so don’t panic when we do weird things. Then what happens is you’re a partner with the studio and they allow you to do different stuff. That was the case with Cabin – make us your partners, we’ll be responsible but trust us, too, because this movie is going to require some faith
Shock: From our perspective, we heard you were going into pre-production, then this black hole of information happened while you were shooting, then we heard you were done. So, how did the principal photography process go as a first-timer in the director’s chair?
Goddard: In some ways, it was very familiar because I’ve been producing TV for a while now and there are some similar elements, but there is that element of not knowing until you’re just in that chair. I knew that there was all you could learn until you get dumped into the deep end. What you realize is it’s a difficult job. Taxing. I don’t know how these old guys do it because it’s exhausting. You’re doing 18 hours in the woods with zombies. But it’s fun. Cabin, in particular, is a director’s dream because I got to do so much different stuff.
Shock: I love the design process, so I can only imagine what a blast this film was to design…
Goddard: Yeah, it’s sort of why we did it. We could do whatever we wanted. Let’s just write a movie and pack it with as much as we want to see and maybe they’ll let us do this. That really informed every step of the production along the way.
Shock: Well, it was great to see all of the practical effects you pulled off. I’d run into effects guys out here who worked on your show and I would bring up Cabin and all they would do is grin from ear to ear.
Goddard: It was definitely the rule in filmmaking: If we could do it practically, we would do it practically. The magician in me got excited by the movie. But in some respects, I’m naïve because CG effects make your life a lot easier. I didn’t know that. You could see the look on some peoples faces when I’d say, Oh no, we’re doing this for real. We’re really going to jump that motorcycle there. But anything we could do real, we would and the movie benefits from that.
Shock: I’m curious, at the script level, is there anything that you couldn’t cram in there? Because this certainly packs a lot in.
Goddard: [laughs] No, Joss and I joke about it now, there are some things in this movie we didn’t think were going to make the final cut. There’s nothing we didn’t get a chance to do because we got it all in there, for better or worse.
Shock: How close was this film to really becoming a post-converted 3D release?
Goddard: I think MGM really wanted to explore, I think part of that was their bankruptcy. At the time, 3D was this flavor of the month. I think people are now realizing that you have to use 3D as a tool and you have to plan for it and do it correctly. No one was realizing that at the time and just saw dollar signs. Who cares about the quality? Just slap 3D on it. Now, it’s a different mindset. We looked at some scenes that were converted and they didn’t look good. They didn’t work and Joss and I realized that it should not be 3D and we were against it. But, MGM didn’t realize that, they just went bankrupt. Lionsgate, when we first met with them, told us it shouldn’t be 3D. And they’ve been wonderful.
Shock: What are your thoughts on the genre now? It’s a testament to Cabin’s strength that it can come out during any “wave” and still be relevant.
Goddard: That was the goal. The goal was never to comment on current times. It was very important for me at the end of the day to not make a movie about other movies. It was more: Let’s comment on who we are as a people and why we need these things and the role they play in us. What role this fascination with the idolization and the destruction of youth is at the heart of horror films and the heart of where we are as people – looking back, this is nothing new, we’ve been doing this all along. It was about those questions than: What’s popular right now? It just takes you to a more interesting place. When we got delayed, I was never too worried. Cabin is this weird anachronistic movie anyway. You can’t quite tell when it was made or what period it’s set in. It’s its own thing. We didn’t want to be tied to anything. We just wanted to be ourselves.
Shock: As the marketing materials come out, we’re beginning to see some of the threats that are posed in the film. Do you have a particular favorite?
Goddard: I don’t know if I can say. [laughs] As a director, I will say they’re all my children, so I can’t pick one. If I didn’t like one, I’d nix it. What I learned in creating “nightmares,” the simplest ones are the scariest. It’s hard to beat the guy in the yard with the bag on his head. That tends to be the scariest thing for me. The simpler the monster is, the more effective it is. But it’s not always fun, so the fun ones are a bit more complicated. [laughs] And those are in the movie, too.
Shock: Do you think it’s beneficial keeping so many secrets about a film?
Goddard: It’s tough. You want to protect the audience, but also you just have to come to terms with the fact that if someone wants to find out something, they’re going to. It’s alright. It’s a weird balancing act. With Cabin, it’s not about one secret, there’s not one thing that I could tell you that would change the movie. It’s not about twists, it’s about escalation and taking it further than you thought it would go. It’s undeniably better to not knowing anything, but one thing isn’t going to spoil the whole movie. I know people read the script and I tell them, see the movie. Because as the guy who was involved in writing it, I know we half-assed some scenes knowing that we’d direct them to be bigger. The third act is eight pages long, but on screen… [laughs] I dare you to try and spoil the movie because we have something bigger and better than you expect.
Shock: Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford own their scenes, I just want to say.
Goddard: I was intimidated by them because I hold them with such reverence. I wasn’t sure if they were going to get on board. But I had the script sent to Richard on a Friday night, Monday morning I got a phone call and he was in. Bradley was the same way. These guys are pros and working with them is a joy. Those were some of my favorite days – seeing them do such silly things.
Shock: You watch these two on screen and you buy it. You buy their history and you buy into their belief for what they do.
Goddard: That’s the alchemy you cannot predict. You have to hope that it works out and it did.
Shock: What’s getting you excited about the genre now?
Goddard: I loved The Descent. I thought that was wonderful, just an expert piece of filmmaking. One that doesn’t get enough credit is The Strangers. I don’t understand why there are not more Strangers movies. If ever there was a franchise…I would just keep coming back. One of the ways to judge a horror movie is – do you want to dress up like that for Halloween? And The Strangers was it.
Shock: Are you using the advance buzz on this film to maybe get the momentum going on other personal projects?
Goddard: Not really. For better or for worse, I don’t really think about my career too far ahead, I just go with what sounds fun. You just know in this town sometimes you’re going to be hot or you’re going to be cold. Don’t worry about it. Just worry about the stories you want to tell. I’m lucky, in my career, that I can just sit down and write whatever the f**k I want. I’m just trying to enjoy that.
Many thanks to Drew for speaking with us. The Cabin in the Woods openings on April 13th. Follow this link for photos, videos and more!