Drew Goddard has moved between the orbits of two cult-favorite TV creators, working first with Joss Whedon as a writer for Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel, then with J.J. Abrams as a writer and co-producer for Alias and Lost. In collaboration with Abrams, who produced, and director Matt Reeves, Goddard made his big-screen writing debut with Cloverfield, an ingenious found-footage horror film that imagined a Godzilla-like attack on New York from the perspective of some hapless civilians. Simultaneously creepy and strangely moving, thanks to its echoes of 9/11, it became a considerable hit following a marketing campaign that kept its details shrouded in mystery. Goddard’s directorial debut, The Cabin In The Woods, similarly arrives in a cloud of question marks, and with good reason. The horror film, which Goddard co-wrote with Whedon, features some twists and turns that would be spoiled with prior knowledge. So when Goddard stopped in Chicago, The A.V. Club talked around the movie as much as about it in a conversation that touches on Goddard’s lifelong love of horror, the current state of the genre, and the likelihood of a Cloverfield sequel.
The A.V. Club: I want to talk about Cabin In The Woods, but I don’t want to spoil the movie.
Drew Goddard: It’s hard, I know. It makes it hard.
AVC: Between this and Cloverfield, you have a history of films that people are probably better off not knowing much about going in. So for the benefit of those people, how would you describe this film?
DG: This movie came from a place of love. We love horror movies, first and foremost. Joss Whedon—who I wrote this movie with, my partner in crime—we just love horror movies, so we sort of set out to write the ultimate horror movie. At least, the best one we knew how to do. And so it’s really just kind of taking our love of the genre and giving the audience the most fun time we can possibly give them in a horror movie. That’s our goal.
AVC: What is your experience with the genre? Where did it start?
DG: It certainly started early. I had one of those families that let me watch things they should not have let me watch. When I was a kid, I remember I watched Alien at, like, 6. It was traumatizing. [Laughs.] Incredibly traumatizing. My brother was fine, and my brother is younger than I am. But he was like, “Yeah, that’s funny. It’s just make-believe. I like that.” I’m like, “I need to sleep in my parents’ room from now ’til I’m 19.” That’s how I felt at the time. I was so traumatized. I guess I just had that overactive imagination. But I loved it. You know, there’s something about being scared and confronting those fears and living in them that was exhilarating. But it wasn’t until probably my late teens that I really started to seek it out, as opposed to just watching it because it was on. Because I was so traumatized. Then I started to look to be traumatized, which is how I knew I was growing up, I suppose.
AVC: Was there a film that made you aware of how horror movies worked, since Cabin In The Woods is in some ways about that?
DG: Yeah. I guess it was probably John Carpenter’s The Thing, because that was the first time when I realized, “Oh, this isn’t just about something scary happening. This is about something else. This about our culture and who we are.” That was the first time I started to understand that. It’s so inherent in the DNA of that film that even at a young age, I sort of got that, “Oh, this is not just a monster movie!” I think that was crucial for me to figure out.
AVC: How do you feel Cabin fits into the current horror-movie landscape? Or does it?
DG: I don’t know. I guess I leave that for other people to decide. We certainly didn’t try to fit in in one way or another. We just wanted to make something different, make something that wasn’t your same old movie.
AVC: Do you feel like the horror genre is in a healthy place right now?
DG: I do. I think it’s like any other genre. There are good movies, and there are bad ones out there. Sometimes the bad ones end up getting more press, but I mean, in the last 10 years, I’ve seen some phenomenal horror movies that I love. So I don’t know that the genre’s in a bad place, but I think sometimes the stuff that has financial success ends up being a little lowest-common-denominator.
AVC: So you co-wrote this over three days, the first draft at least?
DG: Yeah, that’s a little misleading, because we spent months working on the outline and getting it ready, which was very much our process at Buffy and Angel. Joss is really hard on story. We will work the story over and over and over until we get a structure that’s right. We found writing TV, we’d spend months on an episode, but then you’d only get two days to write it. But you didn’t need it. If the story was right, it wrote very quickly. And that was the case with Cabin. We worked on it really hard, and we just had this goal to lock ourselves in the hotel room and say, “We’re not allowed out of this hotel room until we have a finished movie,” and that’s what happened.
AVC: What’s the division of labor between you two?
DG: For as crazy as this movie goes, it actually has a very simple structure, and it divides very cleanly into three acts. Each morning, we would sit down and say, “All right, first day is Act One. Let’s talk about Act One, make sure we know what we’re doing,” and it was almost like having a draft. We’d say, “Okay, you want that scene? I’ll take this scene.” And this movie, without spoiling anything, has sort of two worlds. There’s an upstairs and a downstairs to this movie, and you would just make sure each guy had an equal amount of both, because they’re both fun. You want a chance to do both. And then take our work, and as we’re writing, yell things to each other. Like, “Is this going to make sense if I do this?” and he would say the same, and we’d do it. It was a very organic division of labor where it didn’t feel all that cut and dried. It was just, who wants to write what scene.
AVC: Why choose this as your directorial debut?
DG: A couple of reasons. I just don’t want to make the same old movies. I’m not interested in it. Directing’s hard. It takes up a lot of your life, and I’m not that interested in making the same old film. It was just a chance to do something different, a chance to stretch myself and push myself to try something that hadn’t been tried before, at least from my perspective. And this movie plays with genre so much, it felt like I got to direct four different movies for the price of one. We really switch gears a lot, and that keeps it exciting as a director.
AVC: It feels like Woods does at least two things at once, which is make something that works as a horror film, and also something that works as a commentary on a horror film. Did you have any moments where you found it difficult to balance those two goals?
DG: I’m sure there were. The truth is, this movie does comment on a horror movie, but that wasn’t our goal. We wanted to comment more on who we are and what part horror plays in us as a people. If you keep that in your sights the whole time, it’s easier to find the balance, because then your movie is just becoming about commenting on the human condition and not worrying too much about, “What is this saying about the genre or the films?” It’s much more just, “What are we saying in general?” That’s the sort of thing you have to hold firm to.
AVC: H.P. Lovecraft’s influence is pretty apparent in this film, and on American horror tradition in general. Was that in your mind while you were making this?
DG: Absolutely. His work has a very existential quality without seeming like it does, if that makes sense.
AVC: The events in Lovecraft stories usually open in familiar circumstances.
DG: Right. But he’s not afraid to go operatic, which I also admire. But you can feel that he’s always writing about, always trying to determine who we are and what this means, and I like that. I like that search. You see that in the best horror movies. That’s why The Thing resonated so much with me. It’s more about who we are as people than “Oh, here’s a scary monster”—or at the very least, it’s both. I see that in Lovecraft all the time.
AVC: This film was caught up in studio finance issues for a while. Do you find you have to fight against the impression that it was a troubled film?
DG: I didn’t really worry about it, because so much of this was out of my hands. When you’re dealing with billion-dollar bankruptcies, that’s way above my pay grade. Worrying about it’s not going to change anything. When you see things like The Hobbit and James Bond get delayed also, you’re like, “Okay, this is not about my film. This is about bigger problems.” So I just had faith. Look, we’re just really proud of the film, and we knew once we started showing it, it would find an audience, which it seems to have. At least, that was our belief. And you’ve got to have faith that it’s going to work itself out.
AVC: Why a cabin as your setting? You’re working on horror-movie archetypes here, and you can choose from many familiar settings. Why this one?
DG: I think we just love cabin movies. I think it boils down to that. There’s something great about the isolation of the cabin, which is very important to this movie. Feeling like you’re alone, and you can’t get out, you’re trapped. You can do that certainly with other places, but a cabin, it’s inherent to what it is. You’re actually getting away from society, and I think that’s crucial. But it’s a longwinded answer when the real truth is, I just like cabins. [Laughs.] I just like cabin movies.
AVC: You have a few Whedon mainstays in the cast, in addition to Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. But most of the actors weren’t well-known when you were casting, even though one of them is Thor now. What was the casting process like?
DG: We just knew we had the kids and the adults, as I like to call them. With the adults, we wrote the parts for them. We got our first choices. Those are the people we wanted. But the kids, we wanted to find fresh, new faces. It gives the film a different kind of energy. Obviously that’s ironic now that some of them have gone on to be big stars, but again, these are good problems to have. Weirdly, I think the movie benefits from the things these people bring in terms of the audience perception, without getting too spoiler-y. I probably saw hundreds of people for each of these roles. We looked high and low, and some of them—in the case of Anna Hutchison, who plays Jules, we didn’t find her until the night before shooting. We found her in Australia. We looked all around the world.
It’s hard, what we try to do, and this goes to our tone. Because we shift gears so dramatically, and we go from high drama to high comedy, and we go from horror to silliness, and it’s often in the same scene. It’s hard. You want to make sure you find actors that can roll with it and sort of get that. We really put them through their paces to make sure we can throw anything at them, and they would be ready for it. It’s crucial for this kind of movie. It felt good to finally get that alchemy right and find the five we found.
AVC: Regarding Cloverfield: I saw it with an audience that seemed completely wrapped up in it, then frustrated with the ending. Was that common to your experience?
DG: It just depends on the audience. It’s not like we end Cloverfield on a happy note. It is a melancholy, at best, film. Which is what we were going for, but when that happens, you know, people aren’t cheering “Hooray!” We wanted it to be sad. In that case, that was a movie that felt appropriate to be melancholy at the end. It didn’t feel appropriate to say, “And now everything’s okay.” It felt like it would have been a disservice to what we were trying to do over the course of that movie. That’s just a choice we made, but by and large, I was shocked at how—because the truth is, if we wanted to, we could have just slapped a happy ending on there. But I was shocked at how many people did come along with us on that journey, and actually appreciated that we didn’t just do a standard Hollywood ending.
AVC: You could have gotten away with not having flashbacks, adding that human touch to it.
DG: It felt like we needed it, though. It made the story more important. That was Matt Reeves’ idea. We had a flashback, but I was playing it much more in the first draft for comedy. Then Matt was the one that said, “No, let’s show this relationship, so we can get a sense of the discrepancy between the two times.” When I heard that, the hair went up on my arms. I think that was one of the first calls I had with him, and I was like, “Oh thank God, he’s the perfect man to direct this movie.”
AVC: There’s been talk of a sequel. Any progress on that?
DG: No real news. We’re fortunate that, because of J.J. [Abrams]’ standing with that studio, they’re not making us do anything. Usually if something has the success of Cloverfield, they’ll say, “We’re making a sequel whether you guys like it or not. We’re the studio. That’s what we do.” It’s a credit to J.J. that he can say, “You know what? We don’t want to make it just for the sake of making it. Let us see if we can find something that excites us as much as the first movie did.” So that was the goal, and in the meantime, we’ve just all been pretty busy.
AVC: What have you been working on?
DG: I’ve been working on Cabin. [Laughs.] Between Cabin, and adapting this book called Robopocalypse for Mr. [Steven] Spielberg, it keeps me busy, and obviously J.J.’s pretty busy these days. Matt’s pretty busy. It’s about getting the three of us together. The first movie was very much a conversation between the three of us, the three of us pulling and pushing at one movie, and we would want that to be the same if we did it again.
AVC: It’ll be a 20-years-later thing.
DG: Could be, yeah. Like Before Sunrise, just keep revisiting it every generation.