Interview: Director and Co-Writer Drew Goddard of 'The Cabin in the Woods'
His advice before the show? 'Drink whatever your favorite libation is … because we want to bring the party.'
Five friends head into the woods. Something is watching. Something bad. And that, really, is all you need to know and all you should know about Drew Goddard's scary, funny "The Cabin in the Woods," co-written with Joss Whedon. We spoke with Goddard at SXSW in a spoiler-free interview about playing with the Horror genre, a misspent youth involving Dungeons and Dragons and how growing up in A-Bomb central consciously and unconsciously molds the kind of apocalypse you write …
MSN Movies: When you're researching something that so clearly works in archetype, like this, do you do a lot of conscious research or do you just go with "Whatever I know unconsciously is probably the strongest iteration of these classic story elements?"
Drew Goddard: Yeah, we did not do a lot of conscious research, mostly because that's just what Joss and I do, is watch all these movies in our spare time. We love these movies. Its not like we needed to do a lot of research. This is just the world we live in and what we love, so it makes it a lot easier.
Also going back to the archetypal storytelling stuff, you know you're deliberately setting yourself up to play with those things. How do you twist them?
It's not like we set out to do twists. One of the things I learned from working with Joss is he never cared about plot twists ever. In the "Buffy" room it was never about a plot twist ever. It was always about tell the story, tell the characters, complicate their lives, make thins get worse, but we never worked backwards from the plot, and it was always a great lesson. Certainly with "Cabin" we just started telling the story, and let the story takes us where it would.
There are two characters in the film, who I'm just going to call the technocrats, played by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins. They are some of the first people we meet that are obviously involved with the events. Where did that whole short sleeve, black tie, "Apollo 13"-meets-Bond-lair visual setting and all the story setting come from?
Well, I grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico, which is my hometown. In Los Alamos is, for people who don't know, a nuclear lab that built the atomic bomb. The only reason the town exists is to make nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction, and that's still happening there. I grew up there, and it was this weird world where it's a suburban middle class city, people in short sleeves and ties. Some of the smartest people you've ever met, that go into work everyday figuring out how to make weapons that kill people.
And kill the most amount of people.
Exactly, and these were all my friends and all my friends' dads and their families. That very much influenced the design of "The Downstairs," as we call it. I wanted to sort of capture that feeling of mundane office work with operatic intentions.
Did you play a lot of "Dungeons and Dragons" when you were a kid or, like, a whole lot?
Goddard: I played a whole lot of "Dungeons and Dragons."
In "Cabin," there's a lot of physical layout stuff. There's a series of cubes that felt very graph-paper-y. Did you do a bunch of that when you were a kid?
Absolutely. That was where I spent most of my times. Particularly when video games came out. It was a lot of "Dungeons and Dragons" all through my teens.
Do you find that game playing gives you a better sense of atmospherics or storytelling structure? Games are so very different from stories.
That's interesting. I think the thing I took most from game playing was just getting in the characters head. I took it really seriously. There's something about creating your character.
You were that Dark Elf archer with a broken heart and a tortured past and a great rack.
Exactly. The line between that and reality was very tenuous for me at that age. I often thought I was this Dark Elf assassin.
Did I pick Dark Elf right?
Yeah, you picked Dark Elf right.
Wow, that's awkward. I don't know who that says more about.
No, I think it says you are an astute observer of what my inner life actually would be.
There's all these things that I want to ask if they are intentional homages. Are the credits homage to "Funny Games?"
No, but I certainly see that parallel now that you mention it. It's funny we didn’t set out to just make a list of homages. It was more let all of these influences wash over them. Don't actively avoid them, but just sort of let them come out organically as we make the movie. There's times where its very clear, and then theirs times where because were just homaging the genre, people can spot what they like in a couple of other movies.
Also if you're making a film about watching and about the process of filmic story, you're going to bump into things like "Scream" and "Funny Games" and to a certain extent "All the Boys Love Mandy Lane." Have you ever seen that before?
I have, yeah.
I love that movie.
I know. It's fantastic.
It's a shames it's lost. Was "Evil Dead" an important film because it took the cabin in the Woods film, which before that point had usually been a slasher and involved some human agency, and literally gave it a touch of magic that it needed to make it less terrifying and more fun?
Absolutely. For me as a kid I was very scared. I was a very scared child. There's something about the "Friday the 13th" and the sort of just human slaughter that really terrified me. I couldn't watch them until I was about eighteen or nineteen. "Evil Dead," there was something about it that gave it a sense of fun.
Is there a disassociation from reality where a six foot four man with a knife killing character is not fun. But a flying witch attacking a character with talons while cackling, "I'll swallow your soul" is at least implausible enough to not be terrifying?
Certainly for a young kid. Certainly, for me at least, I see that. As I get older now weirdly the creatures get scarier. I don't find Jason as scary anymore.
Doing something like this where its all about these college age characters, in many cases played by not college age actors, are you more trying to get into actual youth or the media depiction of youth?
It's both, to be honest. It's hard to separate one form the other anymore, especially as I get older and I get less in touch with what it means to be young.
And who the hell are the kids, who are these kids listening to, and why are they dressing like that?
Exactly. Is what I believe about 20 year olds these days the truth or is that just what we as the older generation have packaged the youth to look like? I don't know anymore. I'm now past that. But I remember when I was twenty being nothing but angry at how people were trying to marginalize me and pack me into a box that I didn't feel I fit into and not seeing the world exactly the way I saw it.
In a just world there would be a Mount Rushmore of actors you could just stick a key in their back, turn it, and let them go, and Bradley Whitford would be on it. Is it you like to have that kind of energy or did you have to occasionally rein it in to bring it back to the reality continuum of even this crazy broad film?
I mean certainly there were times that I had to rein it in, but that was because I gave Bradley the freedom to do whatever he wanted. His instincts are so good, and he will take you to places that I found super surprising. There was nobody more fun on set to watch. By the way that's true about all my actors. We encourage people to take chances. This is a film that takes risks. It was my job to say where the risks didn't work and pull them back from the edge. I wanted to always give them the freedom to fail. Fear of failure is such the enemy of creativity. In order for us to do what we wanted to do, I had to let my cast run and occasionally corral them.
Was the whole corporate machinations behind the film being shot in 2009 and coming out now, it's got to be annoying because you couldn't get the film out to an audience any faster but is it also kind of nice, because it lets it cool off a little bit? It lengthens the fuse on the time bomb of the film's delights?
Yeah, that's a good way to look at it. I didn't shoot the film to be specifically in the moment of 2009 or whenever I shot it. It's strangely an anachronistic film. It's hard to say exactly where it takes place.
I don't think any of the characters even pick up a cell phone.
Yeah, they talk about it once, so you know it's actually post cell phone. Other than that it's the only sort of clue of when it could've taken place. As a result I think it fits as well now as it would've fit three years ago. We didn't want to tie ourselves to whatever sort of flavor of the month. I wanted it to feel --
There's no Kelly Clarkson jokes.
Exactly. It worked out fine and it's been nice. We've ended up at a studio that loves us and is really supportive of this movie. Some of our actors have just gone on to become superstars. It's been nice. The delay's been the best thing that could've happened to us.
Now, you're writing "Cloverfield 2" right now.
I'm not. I'm not actually in the process of writing it. It's in the discussions stage.
Can you stick with same device? Do you have to or now that everybody is eating your found footage lunch do you have to break out? Are you worried about breaking out of that or just staying in that groove?
The nice thing about "Cloverfield" is we didn't worry about any rules the first time around. We just did whatever we felt we wanted to do. I know that both J.J. and Matt and I feel that we need to feel the same way going into this one. We don't want to feel that we have to do anything. What do we want to do? What do we want to see? Let's see if we can come up with something that feels worth our time and then we'll do that. If not then we won't. We're not going to make a sequel just for the sake of a sequel. We're going to do it, because it excites us. We'll see what happens.
We can't really talk a lot about this film, but before people go to see "Cabin in the Woods," which I would recommend they do unreservedly, what are the four things they should watch, eat, read, drink? What's the best possible preparation?
I would say watch your favorite horror movies, whatever they are. Just watch them. Get in the horror mind set. I would say read Douglas Adams's "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." Drink whatever your favorite libation is … because this is a movie that is for fun and we want to bring the party.
("The Cabin in the Woods" opens April 13th.)