Interview: Drew Goddard on ‘Cabin’ and Spielberg’s ‘Robopocalypse’

Part of me just wants to run this as a straight transcript and only identify both interviewer and subject by first name, because it would be completely confusing and awesome.  That’s just me being glad to meet another Drew, though, because there aren’t that many of us.

My first chat with Drew Goddard, director of this week’s “Cabin In The Woods,” took place in Austin when we did the live-cast chat with him and Joss Whedon together.  Then at the start of this week, he called for a follow-up conversation.  The last few days, reviews have really started rolling in, and while you’ve got some people taking pretty hardline positions against the film (Rex Reed’s review is almost comically inaccurate, suggesting Rex dozed his way through, inventing connective tissue that says a lot about the Freudian dreamscape between his ears), for the most part, people seem to be engaged by the crazy puzzle-box deathtrap that Goddard built.  I’m certainly a fan.  I asked how he’s feeling about the response so far.

“The only sad part is that I realize it’s never going to be this good again in my career,” he laughed. “I couldn’t have asked for better reactions.  It’s beyond my wildest dreams.”

One of the things that is most difficult about selling this film is the way the film is built, it feels like anything you tell people robs them of some of the pleasure of discovery, and when cutting trailers, that means they’ve had to be very careful.  More so than with typical films.  They’re using word of mouth screenings and promo items like a custom “Cabin In The Woods” bong to get people talking.  I asked how he feels about Lionsgate and the work they’ve done selling the film.

“They are the greatest.  I can’t believe [the bongs are] happening, either.  That’s the thing about Lionsgate.  They are fearless.  No other studio would have made ‘Hunger Games’ the way they did.  They’re being fearless in the way they make decisions and it’s paying off for them.”

He said it was a carefully orchestrated effort, revealing a little bit at a time, more as they got closer to release.  “It’s a fine line.  It’s kind of of a moving target that we’re still trying to find.  As a filmmaker, I don’t want to give anything away, but I sympathize.  You have to tell the audience this is worth their time.  I’m glad I’m not the head of marketing right now.”

In a film like this, where much of it depends on a deeply-seeded knowledge of genre convention, the tendency is to wink or play so post-modern that it’s not effective as an actual horror film.  I asked him about how he worked to define that line. “The secret is to always be telling our story first, and never worry about the second part, the sort of film geek stuff, because that will take care of itself organically.  The rest of it, we just filled in as we needed.”

We talked about how the structure of this film almost meant that he had to shoot two different movies, something he said ultimately worked for the film.  “There was something very energizing about that as a director.  Movies are hard and movies are long.  Because it felt like we wrapped a movie and then started a new movie that was a whole new genre, it energized the crew.  We had to shoot all the kid stuff first because we couldn’t fake the greenscreen material on the screens.”

There are other incidents around the world that we glimpse in the film, and in particular, there is a sort of running subplot set in a world that looks like a riff on “The Ring,” all of which was evidently directed by Whedon.  Goddard laughed when I brought it up.  “I was so mad.  We had it all storyboarded, and I knew what I wanted to do, and then on our first day it snowed, and we got behind.  So I had to move that to second unit, which meant he shot that, and I was so mad.  I’m still mad.”

Even as he said that, though, he was laughing, and I got the feeling that much of this movie came from that same place, that incredulous “They’re not going to let us get away with this, are they?”  He confirmed that, saying he and Whedon had ridiculous fun making it.  “We were behind the monitor giggling pretty much the whole entire movie.”

One of the few benefits to having your film delayed almost three years is that when they shot the film, Chris Hemsworth was an interesting young actor, and now he’s “Thor.”  It’s even strange that Whedon ended up directing Hemsworth afterwards.  I asked him what it was that made Hemsworth stand out in the first place.  “You could tell when he walked in the room… there was just this emotion that he had, a melancholy and a relatability.  You don’t normally see that in guys that good looking.  There was a depth and a soul to him that came across right away.”

One of Hemsworth’s biggest moments in the film is one of my favorite beats, and it works precisely because of how well he sells it.  Goddard said that was key to the entire thing working.  “The most important part of the job was to never wink and never lose sight of the idea that this is really happening to these characters.  We looked so hard for these actors.  I saw hundreds of actors for these five roles.  We needed people who weren’t just playing archetypes, who could stay in the moment and make it real, no matter what’s happening.”

I was surprised by how far they take certain ideas in the film, and there’s one shot in the film in particular that is sort of amazing in the layers of complexity.  I asked him about the execution of that shot. “We didn’t have a lot of money for this, and we were trying to do so much of it practical. A shot like that, with mostly practical effects, that’s really hard. It took preparation. You keep your cost down with preparation. It took us over a year to pull off that shot. No one has to watch this movie more times than me, so I’m obviously looking to make it something that will reward more than one viewing.”

I told him I haven’t seen it a second time yet, but that I’m sure it will play differently for me since I’ll be looking at different things.  “My favorite movies are the ones that are different the second time, or where you’re constantly discovering new things.  It’s not just genre movies, either, and it’s not just about twists.  I saw ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ four times in the theater before I realized it’s a love story.  I love that.”

I mentioned the column we just recently introduced here at the site, and how I wrote the first one on “Robopocalypse.”  I asked how different it is working on bringing a book to the screen with the director giving you notes versus writing an original piece that he was planning to direct himself.  “Every project is different.  Adapting ‘Robopocalypse’ would be totally different than adapting, say, ‘Hunger Games.’  Each project has its own life, and it’s own identity.  You get into trouble when you think there’s one single way to approach everything.  Each project, there’s a different way to attack it.  With ‘Robo,’ I’ve got Steven Spielberg right there to turn to when I have a question about anything.  It makes life much easier.”

I laughed and suggested that Speilberg’s got to be a pretty good sounding board to be able to use. “Yes, having the greatest filmmaker of all time available to give an opinion on something, and I can just follow his lead… that’s what it should be.”

I asked if it’s different when he’s working with Whedon because of their history. “My life is so much easier because I love these people I work with so much, both as people and for their talents.  Joss was my favorite writer of all time when I was in college and I first saw ‘Buffy.’  It felt like the world had changed, like someone was out there doing what I wanted to do.  Boy, that makes your life easier.  You can just trust these guys to know what they’re doing.  Collaboration is all about trust, and I have nothing but trust and faith in him.  Always.”

This movie is such a deep exploration of genre that it feels like he almost has to mix it up and do something totally outside the genre for his next film, so I asked him how he makes that sort of decision. “One of the things that’s been nice about my career is that I’ve been able to do so many different things, and variety keeps your creative soul fulfilled. I’m constantly looking to find new things to do. It’s just project to project for me. You never know where the next thing’s going to come from.”

This is a movie that explains why we need red meat in our diet, and it does so by example. I love that the subtext treats the genre seriously, and I asked him if he’s always felt that horror can be about something more than just the text itself. “For me, first it was just that I loved what I loved.  You don’t really think about if it’s important or what it’s saying.  You just get excited about it.  As you get older, you think about what it means or why it resonates with you and what it says that you need to keep exploring.  Why do you watch ‘The Thing’ 800 times?  At first, though, it’s just love.  I just like watching these movies.”

That comes through loud and clear in the finished film, and I am excited to see what you guys think of it when “Cabin In The Woods” opens Friday.

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