Drew Goddard on 'Cabin in the Woods', the Whedonverse and Internet Geekery (Q&A)
The writer-director spoke to THR about his long-delayed horror genre rule-breaker, the development of fandom and his childhood spent worshipping "Star Wars."
Considering his résumé, it would come with little shock if the three long years between the completion of Drew Goddard's horror film The Cabin in the Woods and its release Friday was a drawn-out viral web campaign meant to stir fanboys into a frenzy. After all, this is a man who -- with his involvement in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Lost -- has been at the epicenter of two of the biggest entertainment-related Internet geek-out movements in history.
Instead, it was the legal and fiscal muck of MGM's bankruptcy that kept Cabin from opening, and it is only now, through new distributor Lionsgate, that Goddard's directorial debut, which he co-wrote with producer Joss Whedon, is seeing the light of day. But it's hardly been forgotten; opening to rave reviews from festival audiences and critics nationwide, the film is set to cap a seemingly unlikely ride to success.
A high-concept film that mixes a sendup of horror tropes with true suspense and gore, it stars Chris Hemsworth (long before he was Thor, incidentally), Fran Kranz, Kristen Connolly, Anna Hutchison and Jesse Williams as college students who head off for a weekend at a remote cottage. Or so they think.
*LIGHT, EARLY FILM SPOILER ALERT*
In reality, they've been selected to participate in a ritual gore-fest that is entirely manipulated from a control room by scientists played by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins.
Goddard spoke with The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the film's release.
THR: Did you ever think release day would happen?
Goddard:[Laughs] Yeah, we always knew it would come, but it's definitely nice that it's here.
THR: What was the wait like? Were you getting lots of updates, following it closely?
Goddard: When you're dealing with billion-dollar bankruptcies, there couldn't be anything more boring. It's all about boardrooms and boards of directors and legal filings, and quickly I realized this was way above my pay grade and not something I'm particularly interested in, so I just left it to the lawyers.
THR: You've worked with Joss on TV shows before. How was this similar, and how was it different?
Goddard: It was very similar in the sense that we have a very comfortable relationship. I got my start because I wanted to work on Buffy more than any other show in the universe because I loved Joss' work so much. And so, we have a very similar aesthetic, which makes life easier. It was different in the sense that I was finally the director this time around, which brought a whole new set of challenges, but in our day-to-day relationship, it was very similar.
THR: What was Joss's involvement once you went to production?
Goddard: He was definitely there when I needed him. It's always nice having the 800-pound gorilla that is Joss Whedon in your corner. So he was never far away. When I would raise the Joss Signal, he would come swooping in.
THR: A semi-apt comparison given the movie he has coming out soon.
Goddard: [Laughing] Exactly.
THR: So how do you balance poking fun at horror movies while making one of your own that still uses a lot of the same tropes?
Goddard: We just set out to tell our story as best we could and didn't worry too much about the second part of it. We knew it would come organically, but if we just set out first and foremost to sort of critique the genre or deconstruct it or what have you, you'd end up making a math problem, not a movie. So we wanted to tell our story and let the rest follow from there.
THR: Since the movie was made three years ago, the genre has become even more low budget and shock-value-based, with all the Paranormal Activity and Human Centipede films. If you were making the film last year, how would you have changed it to address those things?
Goddard: The truth is, I don't think I would have changed a frame. It was very important to me at the time that I didn't want it to be about a specific time. It's something I'm thankful for; I'm glad I made that decision with the delay and all, because it would have been really stale if it felt like, 'Oh, look how crazy 2010 was.' I didn't want it to feel of a specific period. It's hard to tell even when the movie is supposed to take place, other than the mention of GPS. It's sort of a weird, anachronistic movie, which was intentional, because I knew that it would be sort of a commentary on the genre and I didn't want it to be about, 'Oh, this is where we're at right now.' I wanted it to be about the genre as a whole, and I don't think I would have changed it, because we wanted it to be its own thing.
THR: Your movie aside, how do you feel about the rise of the microbudget, shock-value horror movies?
Goddard: It just depends. It all comes down to execution, in the sense that there's good movies that are made on microbudgets and there's bad ones. Unfortunately, the bad ones sort of get all the notice and press. But it's like everything: There's no bad genre, there's no bad conventions; it's just how you use it.
THR: Even as the movie sat around, we read about it for years, and I think a lot has to do with fan love of the Whedonverse and people who love your work from Lost and Cloverfield. How often were you asked about it during the time?
Goddard: It's certainly nice. We have our fan base, and nothing means more to us, so it's definitely nice that people care. It was frustrating because there was nothing we could do about it. When we looked around and saw things like The Hobbit and James Bond getting delayed, we were like, 'Boy, we have no shot of speeding this process up if those guys are being slowed down.' It was frustrating because it was nice that our fans were so excited about it, but we knew it would come out, and we knew our fans would stick by us, so it wasn't that big a deal.
THR: You've worked in two universes with really rabid fan bases -- from the Whedonverse, with Buffy and Angel, to Lost. Which group is more rabid? Who comes up and talks to you the most about things?
Goddard: Boy, that's a good question. I guess it's equal; they're just different. The truth is, Buffy is still having conventions, and we've been off the air over 10 years now, so that's pretty good. But certainly the Lost fans are passionate and beautiful as well. So I don't know; ask me again in another 10 years, and we can continue to evaluate it. When I was at Buffy, it was the sort of thing where I was like, 'This is never going to happen again in my career,' and then luckily, lightning struck again with Lost. So it certainly feels like two experiences that I can't believe I was a part of.
THR: With those conventions, people are still deconstructing it, discussing the work, taking it to the next level with fan fiction and theories. What is it like to have that happen, have people analyze it maybe even more than you had intended.
Goddard: It's nice. it's wonderful. I suppose that's the goal, whenever you're telling stories, that the stories resonate with people, that they take on a life of their own and go on living without you. I suppose that's the goal, so when you see that happening, it's the best feeling in the world.
THR: Is there anything that fans come up with that surprises you, that you may not have thought about writing or doing?
Goddard: I'm constantly amazed at the amount of effort fans put in to making things. Every year at Comic-Con, when I see costumes or items, it blows me away.
THR: Had the Internet and conventions been major forces in fandom back when you were in the heyday of growing up, watching movies and being a fan, what would you have geeked-out over?
Goddard: Well, look, I was part of the Star Wars generation, unquestionably. I think about it all the time: How would the world have been if we had the Internet between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi? Because those were probably the three longest years of my life, just not knowing how the hell that was going to resolve, and not really having anyone to talk to. You had people in the schoolyard to talk to, but that was it; there was no conjecture or community to get into this. And in some ways, I think that was a real positive because it allowed our collective imaginations to run wild. We didn't have the sort of spoiler things. So I think I'm glad I was able to grow up in that time, because it was fun. But at the same time, it was a lonely existence.
THR: Every time a new trailer comes out, every screen cap gets taken from a two-minute spot, 100 images are taken and analyzed. What's that like for that to be done to your work?
Goddard: It's definitely nice because we put so much work into it. These are years and years of our lives that we put into it, and so it's nice when people respond to it and have fun with it, because that's always the goal: You make something, and then you let other people have it and then they have their fun with it.
THR: So if you think Star Wars would have been insane on the Internet, how do you think people would have reacted online once Jedi came out? Would it have been the biggest thing to ever hit the Internet?
Goddard: It's a good question. I'm sure. It's hard to really remember just how important those movies were to us as a society. It was like a cultural bomb went off, and because there was no Internet, that was sort of all we had. It weirdly made it more important because we couldn't communicate about it, so it ended up being this weird social movement that occurred. And I don't know what it would be like if we had the Internet, truthfully. It was of a time.
THR: Do you enjoy interacting with people online, following what's happening on Twitter, or do you keep yourself away from it?
Goddard: Well you know, you try to find a healthy balance, but bottom line is I really love this movie; I'm really proud of it. So I'm always happy to talk about it with people, because we really had a good time making it, and it's fun to relive it, as much as I can.
THR: The reception has been great, and I was curious to see how people would react, because it's a bit high concept; it's not a simple schlock horror film.
Goddard: Yeah, I've learned you can't worry too much about it, but it's certainly been wonderful. The reception that we've seen with Cabin has been beyond our wildest dreams. For a movie like this to get the reaction that it has is relatively unheard of, so we're definitely appreciative of it. I'm blown away by the reaction.
THR: I would never print any spoilers, because that'd be a horrible thing to do to someone going to see the movie this weekend. But I will say that you certainly didn't take any easy outs in the third act, which must be hard to do when you're hoping to get a movie made.
Goddard: Yeah, it's true. But you know what? The truth was that we knew early that we were going to go hard or not do this at all. We didn't want to pull any punches with Cabin. And so we were in a good position, because we didn't develop it, because we were able to just write what we wanted to see, it gave us the freedom to just make the movie we wanted to make and then hope for the best, quite frankly. And luckily, it did all work out, and we got to make the movie we wanted to make.
THR: There's also a big social criticism here; as I was watching, I was debating whether Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins were stand-ins for horror directors or society as a whole?
Goddard: Well, one of my things about the horror genre in particular is there is no better genre for social commentary without seeming too pretentious. There's something about having zombies in your movie that makes everything OK. It's what I always loved about [George] Romero's films; it's what I loved about [John] Carpenter's films -- you realize when you watch The Thing, this is not about a horror film, it's about who we are as a people.
THR: Great timing on the zombies -- it's a good time for that.
Goddard: [Laughs] You know what? It's always a great time for zombies. What I've learned about zombies, it's never a bad time for them.
THR: How is Robopocalypse going?
Goddard: Well I can't speak too much because Mr. [Steven] Spielberg likes to keep things pretty secret, as he should. It is based on a book by Daniel Wilson; it's a wonderful hard science look at what happens if our technology turns on us in the future, and it's the sort of epic science fiction that nobody does better than Steven Spielberg. So I couldn't be more excited about it.
THR: How closely is he working with you on it?
Goddard: With Steven, there's a reason he's the greatest director in the world: It's because he's able to be involved in all of these things, all the time. So nothing happens without his say or blessing.
THR: You've done disaster, horror, science fiction; do you have plans to do anything outside that realm?
Goddard: One of the things that's been nice is I've been able to switch gears so much between all of the shows and movies that I've been able to work on, and it's fun to keep pushing myself. I'd love to do a costume drama, something like that, next -- anything to keep feeling fresh and new.
THR: You played Thomas Jefferson very briefly in Dr. Horrible.
Goddard: Fake Thomas Jefferson!
THR: Do fans come up to talk to you about that fun little cameo?
Goddard: It is nice that Fake Thomas Jefferson has his fans out there. I keep pushing for him to have a more extended role in Dr. Horrible 2, so fans, please lobby Joss: more Fake Thomas Jefferson -- as much as you can.
E-mail: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin