One of this year's best movies so far, The Cabin in the Woods (which hits DVD and Blu-ray today) is exactly the kind of movie that passionate genre enthusiasts start home video collections for in the first place.
Directed by Drew Goddard, who also co-wrote the screenplay with The Avengers writer-director Joss Whedon, The Cabin in the Woods is a meta-scare flick that both bests Scream in the wink-wink department and goes out of its way to give horror heads the most bang for their buck. For those who have yet to see the film, complete spoilers shall be avoided here, but let's put it this way: Within the film's final 15 minutes, damn near every single monster imaginable—including ghosts, witches, masked serial killers, a werewolf, a killer clown, and, yes, a pissed-off unicorn—all make memorable cameos. "Rewind" buttons are about to get some serious workouts.
At the center of it all is actress Kristen Connolly, who plays Dana, the film's brave punching bag of a heroine. Whether she's evading zombies or getting pounded into a wooden dock, Connolly's character withstands the punishment while establishing herself as one of horror's most strongest female protagonists in years. It's quite the change-up for Connolly, whose previous on-camera experience consisted solely of work on the soap operas As the World Turns and Guiding Light.
Thanks to her breakout role in Cabin, the rising starlet will soon be back with a couple of very interesting projects: director Barry Levinson's (Good Morning, Vietnam; Rain Man) found-footage horror flick The Bay, and the in-production Netflix original property House of Cards, a politically-minded drama series created and directed by David Fincher.
Before she officially becomes a household name, though, Connolly took some time out of filming House of Cards to chat with Complex about The Cabin in the Woods for its DVD/Blu-ray release.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
It must feel good to talk about The Cabin in the Woods and actually be able to, you know, talk about it.
I know! It's such a relief. When we doing all of the press before the movie came out, people would be like, "So tell us about the movie," and we'd all be like, "Well, it's really good! That's about all I can tell you." [Laughs.] So it's nice to finally be able to talk about it, though.
What's really interesting about that is that you had a couple years between when you finished shooting the movie and when it finally opened in theaters, so that was two years' worth of saying nothing at all about such an exciting project. Was that difficult to handle?
Yeah, especially because I was gone for three months. I live in New York, so I had a little going-away party with all of my friends, left to shoot it, and then I went back to New York. My friends kept saying, "Tell us about the movie," and all I could say was, "I can't, but it will be out next year." And then it was like, "It will be out a year from then." [Laughs.] And then, "I don't know when it will be out, but I still can't tell you anything!" It was kind of crazy.
Even crazier than that was your audition, in which Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard had you pretend that you were being chased by a pterodactyl, a scene that was never in the movie to begin with. Did that let you know The Cabin in the Woods was going to be very unique experience?
Well, I knew that it wasn't going to be your typical horror movie as soon as I saw that Joss and Drew were attached to it. But it's hard to know what something is until you read a script, and in this case, I didn't have anything to read except for these crazy scenes. Once we all got the job and compared what our scenes had been, they were all insane, and we all agreed that Joss and Drew wrote those scenes just to fuck with us. [Laughs.]
They were ridiculous; there was one with a hot tub attacking Anna [Hutchison], and my scene was with a pterodactyl. And then there was some kind of homoerotic locker room scene, I think, with Holden [Jesse's character] and Curt [Chris Hemsworth's character]. I don't know what they were looking for exactly with that. [Laughs.]
After that audition, did it take much longer to land the role?
No, it was like immediately after. I went on tape at my agent's office, and about a week later, I think, I got a call saying that Joss and Drew wanted to meet with me in LA and read with them in the room. I got there in the morning, read a couple of scenes by myself, and then Fran [Kranz] showed up and we read the final scene of the movie together. Joss handed it to me and said, "This is actually in the movie, so don't tell anyone about it." [Laughs.]
We read together and it was really fun, and that was the crazy thing about it. A lot of auditions are not fun; they're just a necessary evil, and, if you're lucky, you have a few moments that are fun. This was real extraordinary. I didn't want to leave the room; I was like, "Let's just stay here and play all day. Let's talk about it and work on it some more." When I left, I remember thinking, Even if I don't get this job, that was a really great experience, and it was really great to meet those guys and have such a positive audience experience. Then, I went and had lunch with one of my girlfriends and went to the airport, and on my way to the airport I got a phone call from my agent saying I got the job. So that was a good flight home. "Yes, I think I can have a glass of champagne on this flight." [Laughs.]
When you see the names Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard attached to a project, there's a certain amount of confidence that comes along with it. But, still, you weren't able to read a script before signing on to make the movie. Was there any part of you that thought, What if this script ends up being bad? Or, what if this too crazy for me?
I wasn't worried that it wasn't going to be any good, because I knew who Joss was and I knew who Joss was; I knew it wasn't going to be garbage, even just from reading the scene with the pterodactyl. The audition scenes are all crazy, yes, but they're also really well-written. So I wasn't worried about the script's quality at all. I was more excited than anything else. I kept saying to myself, "I can't wait to see what this thing actually is." If anything, I was like, "I hope I'm up for it. I hope it's something I can actually handle." But they seemed to think I could handle it, so that gave me confidence.
It was really hard, though. Cabin was certainly the hardest thing I've ever done. It was mostly the physical aspects of it, and staying in that place of fear for such long periods of times—I hadn't really thought about that side of it before we started shooting. I know Fran had a similar experience, where both of us were like, "Wow, this is a lot harder than I thought it was going to be." The physical stuff was really demanding; that dock site, for instance, we spent two days there. So for two days I was just getting pummeled and soaking wet. The other thing I didn't think about at all was, if you go in the water on, say, page 60 of a script, and it's all in real-time, basically, you're going to be soaking wet for half of the movie, which, in shooting terms, lasts about a month. [Laughs.] It's kind of a miracle that I never got sick because I was literally dripping wet day after day after day.
It's funny, I've gotten other jobs since where they'll say, "OK, so we'll be sitting around in a restaurant, talking," and I'll say, "Really? We just talk? That's it?"
In other words, no zombies throwing you around on a deck and beating you up.
Exactly. "Wait, so I'm not throwing up blood in this scene?" [Laughs.]
Yeah, there were definitely some scenes, like when we'll all hanging out in the van and driving, that were just a ball to shoot. We'd been through all of this really hard stuff, and then we'd be able to just hang out, while dry, and have some fun. Those days were a breeze. And everybody was wonderful, so there was a lot of laughter and joking around, but there were definitely times when you had to focus and put yourself in a certain head-space, where it's like, "OK, I actually have to go someplace emotionally here. Maybe I need to take a few minutes to myself and not be joking around with everybody."
One of the things I learned from working on this movie was that you have to be responsibility for your own work, to make sure that you're where you need to be, because nobody can do that for you, even if it means that you have to stop joking around for a few minutes.
There's one specific in the behind-the-scenes special feature where you're all shooting the scene in the basement, and you're trying to read from that doomsaying diary but aren't able to stop laughing at how ridiculous it all sounds.
Oh, is that in the DVD extras? That's so funny! I haven't seen the DVD extras yet, but that was, I can tell you, the absolute worst day for laughing. We ruined about a million takes. [Laughs.] Every time, somebody would lose it. When I was reading, and Chris shoves my arm, I would lose it. There were just so many points during that scene where we would have to stop and start again, because we couldn't get through it. We were laughing so hard.
I think it was because there was a dialect coach on set, who was working with Anna and Chris [who are both Australian] to help them with their American accents. And she gave me a note on how to read the Latin, and it sounded so ridiculous when I read it that way. Nobody could get through the scene. I was like, "Dana wouldn't know how to read Latin like a Latin professor does. This is ridiculous." [Laughs.] To top it all off, it was about a week of night shoots, so we were all exhausted, on top of being punch-drunk.
Especially in the over-the-top climax of the movie, there's so much insanity going on, and you have to play it all seriously; but, at the same time, you have a clown and a unicorn running around killing people. It must be tricky to maintain that sense of fear when there's a unicorn walking by you on set.
[Laughs.] Definitely. I don't know if any of this is on the DVD, but they did this sort of gag reel to show at our wrap party, and most of it is people laughing and breaking character. Fran and I had such a terrible time in that elevator, because the elevator itself wasn't shaking; we would sort of pretend that it was shaking, which, of course, was embarrassing to do in front of another person, and then we'd stop, look at each other, and have to appear to be terrified and out of breath, and almost every time we had to do that we'd just laugh. Drew was like, "You guys just have to find a way not to laugh here." [Laughs.]
Because it's so absurd, and there's a huge hallway totally covered in blood, and Drew is showing everybody how to properly eat guts as a zombie, everything was so ridiculous but also required some level of seriousness. They were worried about the zombie guts in the corner of the elevator to make sure that there weren't any continuity errors from the day before. It's so absurd but you kind of have to look around and say, "What's happening here?" It was insane, but we managed to get through it.
The footage in the behind-the-scenes featurette where we can see every single set-up from the film's climax, with all of the monsters and creatures getting their own big moments, it makes the set look like the coolest Halloween costume store imaginable.
Oh my god, yeah. There was one day where I got to set and somebody said, "Did you see the unicorn running around in the parking lot?" I was like, "No, I didn't, but I would like to have my picture taken with it." [Laughs.] The lunch line was ridiculous, too, because it was all of these people in crazy costumes getting catered food with everyone else.
Drew and Joss are huge horror fans, and The Cabin in the Woods is, amongst other things, a love letter to the entire genre and all of its classic tropes and elements. Being that your character is the film's version of the "Final Girl," that beloved female protagonist who makes it through to the end, did Joss and Drew have you watch any old horror films to take any pointers from classic final girls?
They didn't give me anything specifically as a final girl, but they did give Fran and I Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to watch for the last scene, which was kind of cool. When you watch that final scene and have Butch Cassidy in mind, it's pretty interesting. But they did also have us watch The Evil Dead and some other movies, and I think we were all hungry to do the proper research for this. We all knew that this movie was really special and that the script was really good.
So we all ended up watching a ton of horror movies. I watched The Descent by myself, which was a mistake. That movie is so scary. [Laughs.] Even in the hotel, where I knew I was safe, I was absolutely terrified. That movie has really great performances, and part of the reason why I think they wanted us to watch The Descent is that the performances are so real, and they feel so real, which is part of what makes the movie so scary.
Prior to The Cabin in the Woods, your acting experience came largely from soap operas, where the scripts don't seem to be closely adhered to or dialogue-driven as the stuff that Joss and Drew write. How was that transition for you?
It was wonderful. I went to Yale's drama school for theater, so we did tons of Shakespeare; then, I got out of school and said, "OK, it will be Shakespeare," and it was like, "Or, it will be commercials and soaps." [Laughs.] And I loved working on the soaps. It was wonderful, and I met such wonderful actors. But it was crazy, because the script would change everyday, and you learned that once you got to set, even if you didn't say the lines right, nobody would care.
Cabin was such a different thing. Every word was so carefully chosen, and it felt really great to have something to take home, work on, and really sink your teeth into. I hadn't been able to do that since I was in school. It was really exciting to get to do all that work again, and to know that, the more work you put into it, the script was so good that you would just keep finding new things the deeper you went.
Something that's really cool is that the script that we read when we all first got the job is really close to what you see on the screen. There were a few scenes that were cut out, but that wasn't because the writing didn't work.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)