Anyone who loves horror movies and has grown tired of remakes, rehashes, and trash has reason to rejoice this week. There’s a really clever new horror flick hitting screens that won’t dull your senses with clichés. Granted, the title might sound as generic as it gets, but Cabin in the Woods is a hilarious and intelligent twist on the horror genre that should have blood-craving fans giggling with delight and/or foaming at the mouth. It’s a movie that has already developed a somewhat mythic status within the horror community after sitting on a shelf for years despite being co-written and produced by Joss Whedon and his longtime collaborator Drew Goddard.
Thankfully, the long-delayed release had nothing to do with quality; it was just a result of boring studio problems, namely the fact that MGM went bankrupt. That whole “no money” thing made it a wee bit difficult for MGM to release any movie, especially one that required the delicate marketing approach of Cabin in the Woods. You see, no matter what you think you’ve figured out, you actually know very little about the film and that’s just how Whedon and Goddard like it. This is one of those rare contemporary studio movies to slip onto screens filled with genuine surprises that haven’t been ruined by a trailer. We recently got a chance to speak to Goddard about his impressive debut and did our best to keep things relatively spoiler-free. If you want to go into the flick clean, then maybe come back for this interview after a screening. However, if you don’t mind learning a few tidbits that will get you even more excited for Goddard’s wacko horror deconstruction, then read on brave solider and enjoy the tasty info nuggets.
Obviously this is a movie with many clear horror references, but what was the biggest influence for you overall?
I feel like the biggest influence is the genre itself and we built from there. It’s not disingenuous to say every horror movie I’ve ever watched influenced this film in one way or another, because so much of it is about the horror movie as an experience.
We didn’t want it to become a mash-up of other people’s stuff. We wanted to create our own thing, while still tipping the hat to those who came before us. But it was very important to us that this felt like it was its own thing.
Was the film always this self conscious from the outset?
I think it sort of came out in the writing. The idea is sort of a commentary on horror, so it’s inherent in the DNA a little bit. But it’s not like we set out to do any of that. We just set out to make the best horror movie we knew how to make and go from there.
How was the experience of working under Joss Whedon as a director this time?
It was fun. I’ve worked with him for years now, so we have a very easy relationship. This was very much an extension of what we do. We developed that rapport with each other through Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, so it felt very natural.
When did the two of you start throwing this idea around?
It was after Buffy. I think I first heard about it around 2007. It was when I was doing Cloverfield. When I was writing that Joss told me he had this idea about a cabin in the woods and I was like, “Ok, I’m in.” Didn’t take much.
Was the starting point as simple as the title?
Kind of. He had a bit more of it fleshed out in terms of the upstairs/downstairs dynamic. But we started fleshing it out from there.
Do you worry at all that general audiences won’t get the concept quite as easily as film critics and horror fans?
Um, we’ll see. The thing we keep hearing over and over, which is nice, is that people coming up and saying, “You know, I don’t even like horror movies, but I loved this.” I feel like that’s the sort of response we’re setting our sights on. If you love horror movies, I’m confident that we’ve got something that you will enjoy in this movie. But we’re hoping that it will also expand to people who normally don’t consider it their cup of tea. We’ll see. I can’t worry about it too much. We just have to make the best movie we know how to make and hope that audiences follow along. I find that if you pander to audiences, you’ll make bad movies and that’s just not what we’re interested in doing.
Did that approach make it tough to pitch the movie to Hollywood studios?
We actually didn’t pitch it around for that reason. I don’t think we could have sold it that way. Or if we did, it would have been homogenized by the end. We wrote the whole thing for ourselves. We did budgets, we did all this work and then put a package together and said, “this is what it is, take it or leave it.” Because we knew, it’s a very easy movie to start pulling threads from and changing. That’s what studios do and we wanted to prevent that as much as we could.
Was it difficult to have to wait so long for the movie to be released?
Yeah, a bit. There were certainly frustrating days. What happened was our studio went bankrupt and got caught in the financial crisis that the whole world got caught in. Certainly we weren’t the only people suffering when we saw The Hobbit get delayed or James Bond get delayed and heavyweights like that going down, we realized there wasn’t a lot we could do. There were bigger problems. That made it easier, knowing there was nothing that we could really do. My biggest concern was just protecting the movie, because whenever there’s a change in management, you never know what you’re going to get. You never know if you’re going to get someone who is as supportive as the previous regime. Luckily Lionsgate saw it and said, “We don’t want you to change a frame, we love it.” Once that happened, I was very comfortable.
Was there any point when you worried the movie might never actually get released or end up going straight to VOD or DVD?
We were always pretty confident. We were proud of it and certainly the audience reactions were great just in terms of friends and family and people who we knew would keep quiet. So when you’ve got those things going on, it helps. The problem was never the movie; it was always the other stuff. We knew it would find its audience and tried not to worry about it. And again, it was nice to see The Hobbit go down because no one thought The Hobbit would go straight to video.
I know directors don’t tend to have much of an input in terms of the marketing. But as a storyteller, how much of this do you want to be kept a secret? Have any trailers or anything gone too far? I know there have been some complaints about the shot with the bird…
It’s tricky. Part of our deal was that we’re very involved with marketing because we got to set our terms. And Lionsgate to their credit wants us very involved. Nothing has happened without our approval. So we definitely approved that trailer. We want to say, “Yes we’re a horror movie, but we’re a little something more.” And that’s about as far as we want to go. I don’t want to give too much away. But I respect the audience enough to know that in this day and age you have to prove it a little bit and say, “You know what, there’s a little more to this than your average horror movie.”
Have you found people have been respectful about not spoiling the movie on Twitter and that sort of thing?
Yeah, one of the things that’s been really nice is that we’ve found people who watch the movie get that it’s more fun to not know anything. We hear that over and over and they don’t want to ruin that experience for someone else. So, it’s nice because these days, clearly they could write whatever they wanted to write online. I don’t think most people want to have movies spoiled, but it’s hard these days, so it’s nice that people have been respectful so far.
Were there any ratings concerns at any point?
I was concerned simply because all studios want you to change your movie to PG-13. Even if they say it’s going to be an R, at some point in the process someone is going to mention, “Yeah, but we’ll make so much more money if we make it PG-13.” I just didn’t know how to make a PG-13 version of this movie, it’s too important for the concept. So we put it right into the contract that it had to be an R-rated movie. Luckily the ratings board were fine. We definitely get violent, but it’s always a fairly fun style of violence, which I think helped us a lot.
It’s very difficult to find an original horror story in the horror genre because every idea tends to get hammered into the ground—
Right, and that’s not limited entirely to the horror genre. It’s hard to find a unique story in general and whenever somebody does, Hollywood copies it and destroys it. That’s just sort of the nature of the beast. I always feel that if you come from a place of love as a writer or director, you’re going to do much better than if you were just trying to guess about what someone else likes. You can feel that on screen. So, I don’t even think that it’s necessary that you have to be innovative, there just has to be love in it. It has to feel like someone actually cares about the movie they’re making. I’ve seen plenty of good recent horror movies and it’s not like they’re breaking boundaries and changing the game. But you can tell that people loved making this movie and they made a good horror movie. That’s all I ever want as an audience. Just care as much as the audience wants you to.
Do you plan on sticking to the horror genre or do you want to branch out?
We’ll see. I’d love to be back here eventually, I don’t know what will be next. My career has been served very well by just being open to everything and going with whatever sounded cool at the time. So we’ll see what sounds cool next.
Since you’ve been involved with so many of the great nerdy projects of the last ten years like Buffy and Alias and Cloverfield and this, do you ever worry about being constrained or typecast within that realm?
Well, the reason I’ve done this stuff is because I love it. But certainly I love adult drama too. My favourite movie of last year was Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It was like, “Oh, thank god. The grown ups are here.” So I have those instincts as well and the nice thing is that I haven’t gotten comfortable just doing the same old thing. I’ve moved around if only to keep things interesting to me. I’m sure there will be genre elements in most things that I do, but I’d like to someday push myself out of it as well just to see what it’s like.
What did you learn as a filmmaker that you didn’t know before this first directorial project?
It’s hard. The main thing that you learn is that there aren’t any rules. So you go in thinking, “ok here’s how you talk to actors and here’s what’s important about cinematography and so on.” Then you actually get on a set and realize none of that is right. Filmmaking is actually about adapting. It’s about getting everyone onboard and then being able to roll with changes. It is really hard to have everything go perfectly, so it’s about finding the right moments and capturing them instead of what you’d planned. That’s hard for a writer because a writer has a very clear view of what the movie should be. But I understand it now a whole lot better.
Do you think that experience will change how you write scripts as well?
Absolutely. I’m never writing “night” again. Oh my god. Night is so hard on everyone. And I also know now that “Ext: rain” is just brutal. Mostly, you just realize how little you need in terms of dialogue. As a writer you always tend to put in so much dialogue, but once you get there on set, you realize it can all be said with three words. And good actors, they make your job so much easier. Sometimes that’s hard to get your head around as a writer, but it’s really easy to understand as a director.
Since you have been friends and collaborators with Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams from the beginning of their careers, what’s it been like to seem them develop into what they’ve become?
It’s nice. When I met them they were working on these fringe TV shows where it felt like we knew they were good, but the general public didn’t. I never saw either of them change. They just doing what they were doing and the public came to them. They were never like, “let’s do this because it’s popular.” If anything they’d go the opposite direction and Joss would be like, “I’m going to make an internet musical.” It just worked and people came to them. I think that’s the lesson. They don’t have to do anything. They’re at the level now where whatever they want to do, they can do. So the secret there is that once you reach that level, just keep doing what you were doing in the first place, which is things that make you happy.
Do you have any interest in trying to run your own TV series or are you committed to film now?
I miss TV, for sure. There’s nothing like the lengthy process of features to make you miss the, “every 8 days, we need a new episode” schedule of television. There’s something fun about not having choice and trying to create something quickly. So I hope to go back there some day, for sure.
Wasn’t the movie supposed to be in 3D at one point?
Yeah, it was never our choice. The studio talked about it when the bankruptcy happened. We just hit at that time when every studio wanted their movies to be in 3D because Avatar had just hit. We were in the middle of that, so we had to test it out for ourselves. At the time, all of the 3D conversion houses were saying, “oh, it’s so easy to turn anything into 3D.” But no one really knew, so we had to go through it for MGM. We did some tests and just felt that it wasn’t right. I didn’t shoot it for 3D, so it wasn’t good. It just felt arbitrary and weird. Thankfully Lionsgate understood that. I don’t have anything against 3D. I’m not a 3D hater, but you’ve got plan for it. You’ve got to design your movie to be 3D and I didn’t, nor did I want it to be in 3D. So once we did our homework on 3D conversion and explored it, we could say, “look, it’s bad.” And they heard us out and didn’t make us do it.
Have you considered a sequel?
You know, we certainly set out with this movie not to worry about the franchise or the other stories. We just wanted to make one good movie and worry about anything else later. But, that being said, never say never. You never know.
I’m not sure if you can even talk much about this, but are you still working on the Cloverfield sequels?
You know, we never really got to a place where we started a script or anything. We just had preliminary discussions. Then I was doing Cabin, Matt went off to make Let Me In and JJ was doing Star Trek. The three of us are all so important that none of us wants to do it without the other two. So we’re just trying to schedule it so that all of us can get into the same room together, which is more difficult than it should be.
Do you even have a concept for the sequel yet?
No, all three of us have different ideas and that’s part of what makes it fun.
You’re attached to Robopocalypse too, could you speak a little bit about that?
I can’t talk about that too much other than say, it’s based on a great book by Daniel H. Wilson. It’s a very “hard science” look at where we’re going and what would happen should the robots take over the world.
It would probably be bad.
Yeah, it’s bad. Spoiler: it’s bad.