Drew Goddard, debutant director of The Cabin in the Woods, has a difficult task: to talk about and promote a movie that is best experienced without knowing anything specific about it. A loving celebration of the fright genre, and already one of the best horror-comedies of all time, Goddard's flick, which he developed and co-wrote with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel collaborator Joss Whedon, features an awesome central twist (again, one of the best ever) that nobody should spoil without subsequently getting a knuckle sandwich to snack on.
The basic premise is this: Five attractive archetypal teenagers (Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Jesse Williams, Anna Hutchison, and Fran Kranz) go to a cabin in the woods. Then a bunch of bonkers, unexpected shit happens.
Complex recently spoke to Goddard about how to successfully keep movie secrets, Cabin's ridiculous casting process, and what separates good horror movies from bad ones.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)
First you write Cloverfield, the top secret monster attacks flick, now you co-write and direct The Cabin in the Woods. What is it with you and movies that you’re not supposed to talk about?
[Laughs.] I don’t know. It’s weird. It’s not that I don’t want to talk about them, it’s just that I don’t want to spoil the surprise in these movies. Isn’t that true of all movies? As a viewer, I never want any movie ruined for me, no matter what the genre is. It’s tricky to deal with.
It’s not easy to keep twists in movies secret these days. Forget about the Internet, oftentimes marketing teams sabotage the moviegoing experience because they don't know how else to sell a project. Simon Pegg, for instance, expressed frustration with his movie Paul because he and Nick Frost had intended it to look like a simple buddy road trip comedy, and for Seth Rogen's alien character to come out of nowhere, but the suits sold it entirely on the strength of the wisecracking extraterrestrial. You have been surprisingly successful at keeping things quiet with Cabin. What is your secret?
The truth: Work with a great marketing department. That’s really the secret, and Lionsgate understands what we are trying to do and I think they are really respectful of it. It’s hard because I sympathize with the problem. You want to protect the film as best you can but you also want to tell the audience that it is worth their time and that it’s not the same old horror movie. So it’s just trying to find that balance I suppose.
To that end, how closely did you work with Lionsgate on the trailers and what they would reveal?
We have a really healthy relationship where we watch everything and we give our comments and they are respectful of our thoughts and we are respectful of their position. So it’s a very easy process. It’s a very easy collaboration.
One of the ways that you kept things secret was by having your young cast audition using ridiculous scenes that were never going to be in the film. What was the genesis of that?
Joss and I just wanted to keep this as quiet as we could for as long as we could, so we wrote some scenes that had nothing to do with the movie that would show an actor’s range, give them as much to play with as we could in an audition. There were absurd scenes but they were fun, and it made it easier to see who would get it and who would not.
There was a molesting hot tub. People were in a hot tub and then something was in there getting a little fresh with them...
I know Kristin Connolly did a scene where a pterodactyl was chasing her, and Jesse Williams talked about doing some kind of homoerotic locker room scene.
[Laughs.] Yeah, that sounds right.
Were there any other funny ones?
There was a molesting hot tub. People were in a hot tub and then something was in there getting a little fresh with them…
The hot tub was molesting them?
[Laughs.] Yeah. That was the most absurd one. Some of them were pretty straightforward, scenes where just two people talking, but the pterodactyl and the hot tub definitely stand out.
What were the best reactions that you got from actors?
When you are dealing with something that’s crazy you still want actors to play characters and find the reality of the situation no matter how absurd the situation is. You want to find something relatable within the scene, and with the five actors that we found for these roles they all found the humanity within the absurd.
MGM's bankruptcy held up the film's release for two years before Lionsgate got ahold of it. That delay has become a blessing in disguise, as your previously unknown actors, like Thor's Chris Hemsworth and Grey's Anatomy's Jesse Williams, have become bigger stars, but what was most difficult about the time when you didn’t know what would become of this film?
Well, I just wanted to protect the film. You are never sure the new boss is gonna understand what you are trying to do and so I just wanted to make sure we didn’t have to compromise the movie itself. Luckily, as soon as Lionsgate saw the movie they got what we were trying to do and they were on board 100% and I breathed a sigh of relief.
MGM’s bankruptcy didn’t just slow us down, it slowed down a lot of films. It slowed down James Bond and The Hobbit, and when you see heavyweights like them getting delayed you realize, oh, this isn’t about any one movie. There’s not a lot you can do about it. You just have to weather the storm.
I'm confident that the majority of horror fans will love the film, but the interesting thing is that a lot of non-genre fans seem to be enjoying it just as much.
That was crucial to me. I didn’t want this to just be for horror fans, I wanted this to expand outward, and so much of it was telling our story as best we could and not making it too insular, not making it so that you had to know the films we were referencing to understand the movie. It was very much just tell our own story.
Part of casting guys like Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford is that it immediately tells the audience, “Look, this isn’t your average everyday horror movie.” The fact that these guys are in it should tell you right off the bat that we aren’t playing it safe and it’s something new.
You’ve said that you didn't intend for Cabin to be a deconstruction of horror movies. The fact that you poke fun at some of the genre's more ridiculous tropes may be appealing to outsiders.
Certainly. Part of the DNA of this movie is the tropes and things we play with and poke at so it’s not like we weren’t conscious of it, it’s just we didn’t want to destroy a genre, we wanted to celebrate the genre.
In order to celebrate a genre you have to honor what has come beforehand, and so it was crucial to maintain the myth while at the same time deconstructing the myth.
It's become almost legend how you and Joss wrote the script in three days, but you spent a long time beforehand developing the structure. What were the biggest issues or stumbling blocks before the awesomeness unfolded in your hotel writing suite?
[Laughs.] This movie was such a labor of love that I don’t know there were a lot of stumbling blocks. I don’t know that we were too conscious of anything other than the fact that we just wanted to write what we wanted to watch, and so we just kept having fun and trying to entertain each other, and I think that’s been true of my whole career. Whenever you are just trying to entertain each other and talk about what you love rather than worry about what’s popular or what studios are going to like you end up doing your best work.
One of the reasons you’ve both given for writing Cabin is that you grew tired of horror’s torture porn subgenre, where underdeveloped teenager characters are just set up to be killed in gruesome ways. Have there been any developments in the horror genre that are exciting you in the past years?
I never really think in terms of development or the bigger picture, I just think in terms of movies I like, and certainly there have been some wonderful horror films in the last 10 years. There’s a movie called The Descent that I adored. There was a movie called The Strangers that I loved. I don’t know if Audition was in the last 10 years but I loved that.
Those are all tremendous horror films. What appealed to you about those three in particular?
I guess it’s different for everyone but the thing that all three have in common, you could feel the filmmakers’ love for their genre and for their characters. I can always tell when a filmmaker doesn’t care about his or her characters, they just care about setting them up to kill them off. Even though a few characters are getting killed off within these movies you can tell when a filmmaker cares about them. You can feel the love from the genre coming through the screen.
Although you eschew the values of torture porn movies, there are still young people getting naked and dying gruesome deaths in Cabin—there's just a clever explanation for why these otherwise smart people do moronic things that put themselves at risk. Do the moments of nudity and stupidity feel justified to you?
They do. I mean, yeah, we wanted to honor what’s come before it. In order to celebrate a genre you have to honor what has come beforehand, and so it was crucial to maintain the myth while at the same time deconstructing the myth. It’s crucial to do both of those things at the same time for this movie, so I was always conscious of doing both.
You have some characters that address the idea of voyeuristic sadism in torture porn. Did you ever think about breaking the fourth wall like Michael Haneke did in Funny Games to directly hold the audience accountable for what it is taking pleasure in watching?
I love Funny Games. I thought it was a spectacular film, but I didn’t want that to be this film. I felt like this film…I didn’t want to ever want to break that fourth wall though. It was crucial that we had our own internal logic where we were telling our own story and we were never winking at the camera. That was one of the mission statements of this film, to make sure that no matter how absurd we got there was a reality to what these people were going through.
SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!
You shot Cabin three years ago. There are a couple elements of your ode to horror movies—a rivalry between the U.S. and Japan, and the presence of zombies—that speak to the time when you and Joss were developing the idea. If you were making the movie in 2012 would you make the same decisions?
Yeah, I think so. We were never worried about commenting on this specific time period we were in, be it 2010 or 2012. It was very important to me that this movie was about this genre and as it pertains to time as a whole rather than being fresh in 2010. I didn’t want to be commenting on the time I wanted to be telling the best story that we knew how to tell, so yeah, I don’t think we would have done anything differently.
What spoke to you about Japanese horror and zombies?
Because this movie goes so insane, we knew that we wanted to step it out—you don’t want to go too insane too quickly. We wanted something that felt familiar so that the audience sort of understands where we are as we continue on this path. And if we started too insane too quickly I think it would have been a disservice, so it was either zombies or vampires, and I think people are tired of vampires! [Laughs.]
Japan—I don’t know, we just love Japan. When you’re talking about who is doing the most exciting and interesting horror films of the last 20 years, it’s Japan. I mean, they are making amazing films.
Are there other countries that you feel are making some progress on that front?
Unquestionably. I mean Korea, there’s wonderful stuff. Certainly there are a lot of European films that I adore. We wanted to feel worldly. It wasn’t just Japan, it was the whole world.
You’ve spoken about your preference for creating monsters with suits and make-up instead of CGI. Of all the monsters that feature in Cabin, what do you consider your crowning achievement?
That’s a great question. I don’t want to spoil that ahead of time, but the truth is, all of them. In terms of the success, I really love them all. That’s one of the fun parts about being a director, is that any ones you don’t love you just don’t put in there. They’re all my children. [Laughs.] I love them all, and yeah, even the digital stuff, because we only use the digital stuff for stuff we couldn’t actually figure out how to do. I thought my digital artist did an amazing job with those as well, so luckily I didn’t have to compromise that goal. We only made the stuff digital that we had to and there was something exciting about that.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)