directors, horror, Interviews, Movies

If you go down to the woods today… an interview with Drew Goddard

Back in 2012 when I interviewed writer/director Drew Goddard for the Frightfest e-zine, his was not a name that was overly familiar even among genre fans. Despite being director and co-writer of The Cabin in the Woods, his debut feature, the focus of attention was on the film’s co-writer and producer, one Joss Whedon. Even today, some years later, Goddard is yet to ascend to the ranks of brandname writer/directors despite racking up further screenwriting credits on the likes of World War Z and Ridley Scott’s upcoming science fiction film The Martian. This may be about to change as Goddard has taken a creative role in Netflix’s upcoming Daredevil series, and is rumored to be in line to take over the re-rebooting of Spider-man.

When I met with Goddard to discuss Cabin, I was impressed by his energy, wit, and the enthusiasm with which he took to promoting a film that he had finished shooting three years earlier. Normally such chats are a splurge of details about the film in question, but Cabin was a bit different. One of those films that works both within a genre and also at a distance to it as a commentary upon that genre. Like Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson’s Scream (1996), Cabin uses the audiences’ over familiarity with the horror genre and its tropes and conventions to subvert expectations and surprise. Now some years from its release, the film’s hyperactive jack-in-the-box surprise factor is largely gone, but at the time of this interview great efforts were being taken both by the director and myself to avoid exposing its plot twists. So this interview dances around the meat of the film in a way I wouldn’t today.

The Cabin in the Woods had a torturous journey to release, filming was completed in 2009 for an intended February 2010 release. This was bumped back almost year to January 2011 when studio MGM decided the wanted to capitalize on the 3D craze (then at its height) by post converting it. When MGM filed for bankruptcy in November of 2010, Cabin became caught up in the fallout, becoming another asset to be fought over.

This must have been a frustrating time for the debut director, did Goddard ever lose faith?

‘No, not at all. We weren’t the only people affected by this. The Hobbit got delayed, James Bond got delayed. There’s a reason those movies aren’t in theatres yet, they should have been out years ago. When you see heavyweights like The Hobbit and Bond going down, you realise it is not about you. This was about bigger problems… I was more worried about protecting the film, we knew because the studio went bankrupt that there was going to be new ownership.

Cabin is different, it’s not your average everyday movie, and you need to make sure that someone who is in charge understands it… Lionsgate won it and they were great. That just calmed everything down. Once I knew they didn’t want to change anything, they liked the film for what it was and were behind it. As soon as I knew that it calmed me down immensely.’

Thankfully the 3D plan (which neither Goddard or Whedon were in favour of) was sensibly dropped along the way.

I put it to Goddard, that it is a little bit of a hard sell creating a film that by its nature is best experienced cold. One can easily recommend it to fans of Joss Whedon, and also say that horror fans will find something to interest them. Nonetheless, how would he sell it to someone who was neither?

‘…we set out to make the most fun horror movie that we knew how to make. That was our goal, we wanted to give audiences the experience of a good horror film where you are laughing as much as you are screaming… one of the most gratifying things about making this movie, we hear time and time again “y’know I don’t even like horror films, but I love this film”’.

Whedon has described the film as “a loving hate letter” to the horror genre. Goddard smiles when he hears this, it’s clearly been coming up a lot. ‘The key word in there is ‘love’, because we love the genre and we always have.’ So where does the ‘hate’ part come from? ‘… there [are] things that have become a little stale. We noticed the sort of ultra-violence, fetishisation of the kill, dumbing down of [horror] films starting to happen. This movie was very much a reaction to that in some ways.’

Cabin has been read as a condemnation of the ‘torture porn’ sub genre. Goddard is anxious to dispel this notion. ‘There are certainly films that meet that criteria that I love. So I always feel weird bashing an entire genre. The truth is that there are good movies and there are bad movies. There are good movies that have torture in them, that I have responded to, and there are bad ones… The truth is we just love horror movies and we just set out to make the best one we knew how to make.

‘It’s nice when people are saying nice things, but it’s not like we set out to try and deconstruct anything, or change a game.’ The director laughs at the notion ‘We just wanted to tell the best story we knew how to tell… I leave it to everyone else to decide how it should be viewed.’

There is no qmoving away from the fact that The Cabin in the Woods is a film that takes an active approach to genre. So what films influenced Drew’s love of horror? ‘I grew up in the eighties, nobody was more influential on me than John Carpenter and Sam Raimi. Those two, they sort of shaped me in a very profound way. They were my gateway drug and it just sort of expanded outward from there I suppose.’

In another interview you said that when you were young you were most scared by the psychos, but that now you find the monsters more appealing. What might have caused that shift?

‘…it all comes down to execution, a man in a mask can still be incredibly scary. There’s a movie called The Strangers that came out not too long ago that scared the hell out of me. And that is just people in masks… there’s scary monsters and there are scary men, if it’s well done it will get me.’

There is a level on which The Cabin in the Woods seems to be grappling with the fundamental question of why we watch horror films at all. Why does Goddard think he is drawn to them?

‘There is certainly something about the release that I enjoy. In particular watching [horror] with an audience and feeling that energy. There is almost a ritual aspect to watching horror films… we all get in touch with the darker spirit and in a weird way celebrate it. There’s nothing like it, no other genre has that palpable energy that courses through the room when we are all screaming at the same time. I must get us in touch with some primal instincts. Otherwise I don’t know why we would do it.’

Stephen King has said that horror and comedy are bedfellows, that you can stand outside a movie theatre without knowing what is playing, but if you can hear the audience you know it is either laughter or screams. So it’s either a comedy, or a horror film.

‘Absolutely, I think they are different sides of the same coin. There is something about getting in touch with that horrific side of you that needs a release, that needs the comedy to help. I remember the first time I saw Alien… seeing the alien burst through the chest… the audience was stunned and then broke out into laughter. Even though there was nothing… it wasn’t a joke. I feel that people needed that response, they needed to release because what they had seen was so horrific.’

With Cabin though, the audience will be laughing because the dialogue and the characters are actually funny. Franz Kranz’s stoner character for instance gets all the best lines, “roads paved with actual road”. The stoner character is a stock role, but Goddard and Whedon do something interesting with it. I ask Goddard if he has as much of an inclination towards comedy as horror, would he make a straight comedy?

‘Well certainly, I get bored doing the same thing so I’m always trying to push myself, trying to do something different. Comedy is a lot of fun, I’m sure whatever I work on will have some sort of comedic element to it.’

Goddard previously worked with Whedon on both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and also on JJ Abrams’ series Alias. I wonder if this experience helped him make a film with such scale and ambition as Cabin on a relatively small budget?

‘Absolutely, you learn… especially with horror, you actually kinda want to be low budget. You like feeling the handmade edges in horror films. If the budget gets too high, it gets too slick. Y’know?

‘I learned some lessons on Cloverfield,’ – Goddard was the writer – ‘because we made Cloverfield for under $25 million and because of that the studio let us get away with more. As your budget goes up, then your constraints go up. Certainly with Cabin, we said lets keep this budget low, so we can be different, we can be a little bolder. Then everyone feels comfortable that we’re not going to lose people money. You can say to the studio, we’re here, we’re responsible, but trust us. It certainly helps if you’ve got a low budget.’

Goddard grew up in the New Mexico town of Los Alamos, which is where the atomic bomb was created. In Cabin there are two key characters played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford that seem to have come from the director’s well of childhood experience.

‘This film was very much influenced by where I grew up… the only reason [Los Alamos] exists is to make weapons. So certainly, that was a profound influence on me, and it will always be. It’s a protected suburban environment whose sole purpose is to design weapons of mass destruction. So the problems inherent there were things we wanted to explore with Cabin in the Woods.’

Some viewers may find echoes with the section of Bowling For Columbine where Michael Moore tries to draw parallels with the tragic school shooting and the fact that many of the parents of Columbine worked in a plant that constructed missiles. There is something about the industrialisation of instruments of destruction, and how the process removes the connection between the product of workers’ labour, and the products’ intended purpose. Which is? As the sentient bomb says in John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon’s Dark Star ‘to explode of course’.

Whedon has said of Goddard that he is the type of guy who will spend hours picking out the right type of blood spatter, so which is better: Hammer poster paint, Fulci orange or Argento pink? The director laughs.. ‘that’s a great question… In terms of finding the right balance, I look at The Descent a lot… I like my blood to read sometimes black. I feel that if it goes too florescent it takes me out of it, it doesn’t look like real blood. I like to feel that the blood is oxidising as its happening. You want to see that striation, where starts brighter and then slowly gets darker as real blood does. In recent times High Tension (the US title of Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension, aka Switchblade Romance) did it really well.’

With such a long delay between shooting and release, you might worry that Cabin will look outdated. However, like current genre hit It Follows the film has a rather hazy sense of period that makes it hard to date when it is set. Was this intentional, or just luck?

‘No I was definitely aiming for the haziness, because I didn’t want it to be about any particular point in time. Because of the nature of what we are doing there is a tendency for people to look at it and say that this must be a critique of what is happening right now which I did not want. I wanted it to be a more global critique, I wanted it to be about the bigger questions not what is happening today.

‘It was very much intentional that I didn’t make specific pop culture references that would tie is into a time period… Thank god I did, because when we got delayed I was very happy that we didn’t tie ourselves in to a specific period.’

In some ways the three year delay in the film’s release worked in Cabin’s favour. For one thing Chris Hemsworth become a star in those years. Goddard agrees ‘It’s fantastic. We joke about it, but it’s true, this is the best thing that could have happened to us. Things have worked out great, our actor has become the god of thunder and we are at a studio that loves and supports us. Joss and I joke all the time, be careful what you worry about, it might just be the best thing for you.’

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