How 'Bad Times at the El Royale' Director Convinced Stars to Work for Less

Drew Goddard assembled a cast of A-listers with a simple mantra about studio filmmaking: "I have learned they will let you be bold if you keep your costs down."
Twentieth Century Fox/Photofest; Inset: Kimberley French
Chris Hemsworth in 'Bad Times at the El Royale' (Inset: Drew Goddard)

For Bad Times at the El Royale writer-director Drew Goddard, casting was key to telling the story of seven strangers whose lives intersect at a shady hotel on the California/Nevada border in 1969.

His ensemble cast includes a bankable Oscar winner (Jeff Bridges), an Avenger (Chris Hemsworth), the lead of one of the most celebrated TV dramas ever (Jon Hamm) and one-half of the Fifty Shades franchise (Dakota Johnson). It's the kind of talent that doesn't necessarily come cheap, so in order to keep costs down for the mid-budget film, Goddard and his stars took pay cuts, with the filmmaker telling them that as long as costs were low, studio 20th Century Fox would be comfortable with letting them take big creative bets.

It's those kinds of big bets that have made Goddard one of the most well-regarded minds in the genre space. After getting to know creator Joss Whedon as a writer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he penned the found-footage hit Cloverfield (2008), re-teamed with Whedon to co-write and direct the genre-bending Cabin in the Woods (2012), and earned an adapted screenplay Oscar nomination for Ridley Scott's The Martian (2015).

Goddard is also attached to write and direct X-Force, a Deadpool spinoff that would star Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin and Zazie Beetz. In February, sources told THR Fox hoped the film would begin shooting this month, but that hasn't been the case in light of the pending Fox/Disney merger. Though Goddard is not sure if or when X-Force will happen, he describes it as subverting the teamup movie: "What Deadpool is to the superhero movie, X-Force can be to the team superhero movie."

Read the full conversation with Goddard below, where he also touches on his unproduced work for Spider-Man spinoff Sinister Six and the day on the Cabin in the Woods set when Hemsworth found out he'd been cast as Thor for Marvel Studios. Bad Times, which also stars Tony winner Cynthia Erivo, Lewis Pullman and Cailee Spaeny, is in theaters Friday. 

There's an early scene in Bad Times that's quite long and has a lot of dialogue to introduce our characters. It's deceptively simple, but it must have been tough to shoot. Where did that fall in the shooting schedule? 

We shot almost in order. There were some flashbacks that were easy to compartmentalize and drop in where they went. But otherwise, we kind of had to shoot in order because the movie takes place over 12 hours and largely in one location, in the lobby. So, continuity is a nightmare. If somebody moves a glass, that glass has to stay where it is. You kind of had to shoot in order because if you tried to shoot the ending first, it's not going to work. We didn't know what the actors are going to do.

Jon Hamm had just two days to say yes to this script and had to be on set soon after. What would you have done if Jon hadn't worked out?

It's always scary. One of the benefits of coming from TV is in TV, you get used to dealing with an accelerated schedule and things falling apart. You really learn so much of filmmaking is about alchemy and you just have to trust that the right things will happen if you put the right energy out there. Jon was extraordinary and it was the right fit for the movie.

You cast Chris Hemsworth for Cabin in the Woods around 2008-09, before anyone knew who he was. What did you see in him back then?

I really like casting and I'm really tough on casting, because I've learned my stuff has a very distinct tone. There are a lot of wonderful actors that aren't necessarily the right fit with my tone. So I've learned to really make it hard. I write these sides that require shifting between comedy and drama and terror and silliness. All in the same scene. Cabin is very much playing with stereotypes. So with Chris' character, you were kind of playing with the jock stereotype, but you also needed to play the real human. Every actor came in and played the jock, and played it well. But they didn't get the humanity. Chris walked in and did the opposite. He didn't even worry about the jock side of it, and just played the humanity and was the Chris we know. He was very delightful and funny and heartbreaking. He turned up the intensity right away and it was one of those magical moments. I remember Chris walked out of the room and I looked at our casting director and said, "That's our guy." I knew it right away.

He was cast as Thor while you were shooting. What was your reaction? Did you think, "Wow, This is great for my movie"?

Not really. Marvel wasn't the Marvel that it is today. It was a big deal and I was very excited for Chris, but you didn't quite know this was going to lead to 20 years of your career. But you knew you are happy for your friend. Chris, from day one, is such an extraordinary worker, he's such an extraordinary talent and the crew all loved him. When he got it, it was like a big party. Everyone was so happy. It was very gratifying to see somebody do the right things and then be rewarded for it. There was a big celebration that day on the set. We shot in Vancouver, where we shot Bad Times. Probably 60 percent of our crew was our same crew from Cabin. It was a reunion for all of us.

One of the most arresting moments in the movie is a dance scene with Chris' character, Billy Lee. Did you script that moment, somehow?

I think I wrote something like "Billy Lee and Rose [Cailee Spaeny] do a little dance." It certainly wasn't meant to be what it is. And that morning on set, Chris showed up and said, "Let's just play around with this." We put the music on and that's the first thing he did. What's amazing about it is it's somehow both delightful and the scariest part of the movie. I felt both of those things. This is where we kicked it up a notch. For both of us, it was because we had such trust in each other and such willingness to try things and fail. He was like, "I'm not sure," and I said, "What are you talking about? Not only is that going in the movie, that's going in the trailer."

I imagine this cast ate up a fair amount of your budget. How much was budget a concern for you in terms of casting?

We did a budget before I sold it. The budget came with the script so that we can say to the studio, "We want to do this affordably." I have learned they will let you be bold if you keep your costs down, and I am OK with that deal. That's a fair deal. I work in all budgets. The reason we got to do Cabin the way we did Cabin was because it didn't cost a lot. I knew with this one, we also didn't want it to cost a lot. It was the sort of thing where we are all taking pay cuts. I could say to the actors, "This is what it is. I want it to be bold. I don't want to have to cut out all the things that are bananas in this movie." The tradeoff is we've got to keep the costs down. When we went to the actors, they sort of knew that going in. They knew we were all — and it's true of me too — we're all taking pay cuts to get to do something different.

One of the classic stories about The Martian is you had great test screenings. Then you tweaked a few things, the numbers plummeted, so you put it back the way it was. Was there anything like that on Bad Times?   

We cut 20 minutes [of The Martian]. The same thing happened on Bad Times. There is always a length that's too long. There's also a length that is too short, which I don’t know if people quite appreciate. Here's what gets cut, when you get the point where you start to make hard cuts. What always has to stay is plot. You have a certain amount of plot you need to explain things. Then you reach a point where you are cutting emotion and meaning. That's the stuff that hits the cutting room floor. That happened on The Martian and that happened on Bad Times. It's good because you want to find that edge. You want to find where you've pulled out too much and the movie doesn't resonate the way it does. It's always hard. You have to fail in order to get the right length; you have to come up with the wrong length for a while.

So with Bad Times, there was a test screening that was too short?

Yep. And our scores went way down. On a movie like Bad Times, you don't want to be held hostage to scores. The studio was great about it. But it was very clear the audience did not invest in the characters the same way. It's one of those deceptive things and there are a couple of big surprises in the movie and they are sort of preceded by long scenes where people talk. If you cut those scenes in half, suddenly the surprises didn't work, because the setup didn't work. There were little things like that were interesting to see. So you had to find the right rhythm of the movie.

The movie would not have worked without Cynthia Erivo, who sang her tracks live. Was that nerve-wracking, trusting you could find someone for the demanding role of Darlene?

It's scary. You have to commit. You have to start building sets early before you have your cast. You realize, "If we don't find her, I'm going to shut this thing down." Because the movie would not work, I really believe that. Had Cynthia not walked through the door, I'm not sure who else could have done it.

Tracing your career, can you pinpoint what has been capturing your interest the past few years, and what interests you now?

Something like The Martian, I was becoming a father. The notions of, "What do we owe to each other?" and, "How do we take care of each other?" Clearly, those things were on my mind. My dad is a doctor, my mom is a teacher. The movie is very much about teaching people and helping people, which is sort of my parents. But none of this was in my mind. I just knew "This one resonates with me, so let's follow that." I've learned to don't over think it. Similarly, if it doesn't resonate with you, just say no. No matter how big and flashy and good for your career, as people say it would be. I've driven my agent crazy.

Looking back at boarding season one of Daredevil, can you pinpoint what was fascinating to you there? To me, I'd never seen a 13-hour exploration of a hero and a villain like that.

That was part of it. The thing I always loved about the Daredevil comic and that character is it was never about saving the world. I was raised Catholic, and it was a Catholic superhero struggling with the notions of right and wrong. He was trying to keep his doorstep clean. All of those little things that are really hard in a movie to do. You certainly can. But I think there is an expectation, certainly right now for Marvel, to deliver real spectacle.

Right, not the neighborhood stuff.

And I understand that. So, when they said, "Let's do it as a TV show," I went, "Yes. That's the right approach." Then you can take time and deal with these smaller things, which to me are much more interesting on a character level. And getting to see Vincent [D'Onofrio] and Charlie [Cox] go toe-to-toe.

I'm so glad Vincent is back for season three.

I think we all are. I think Vincent's performance is one of the great villain performances. The secret, and it's certainly my approach, is don't write them as villains. They are just people. And they are all just flawed people, and sometimes their flaw involves trying to murder the hero. That was definitely Vincent's approach.  

You are attached to write and direct X-Force for Fox. It's unclear if (or when) that is happening. What do you find interesting about that property?

For me, it all starts with the source material. X-Men and Daredevil were the two. That's who was hanging on my walls as a teenager. I came of age in the late-'80s, '90s. So I was there when X-Force hit. This was the early '90s, when everything had multiple covers.

And you had to collect them all. They were going to be worth so much money!

Correct. I spent all my money. I still have them in a box in my garage. The thing that was exciting about X-Force, in particular, was the fringe element of what X-Force was to the X-Men. I still feel like there is real opportunity to explore that. What Deadpool is to the superhero movie, X-Force can be to the team superhero movie. Similarly, I just want to work with Ryan. I just want to work with Josh. I just want to work with Zazie. I just want to work with them. They are very exciting, wonderful artists and that's the other side of this that makes it fun.

It seems like Ryan Reynolds' version of Deadpool could be the character who could survive the X-Men's transition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He could be in his own universe or just make fun of the merger and suddenly be in the MCU.

What's great about Deadpool is you really have license to do anything, and you have this freedom to switch tones, which I really love. The thing I loved about that first Deadpool is it was incredibly heartfelt at times. That's the secret weapon of that first movie. The big, bombastic fun is very much there and it's what you sort of remember, but I don't think that movie works without the love story that's at its heart. The genuine pain that Ryan is in, in that movie really resonates. I love that you get to do both.

And the second one had a lot of sweetness too.

It did. It's deceptive because it's sort of punch-drunk sweetness. But there is a real sweetness at its core.

Have you given thought to how Bad Times is one of the handful of final films Fox will release as an independent studio? Given your relationship with Fox, is that a bit of an honor?

I'm definitely honored to go out with them. I don't know what the future holds for these big companies, but I do know that people will always want new films. They just will. People love films. Whenever my head starts to spin with these "What does this mean?" questions, I remember, "People will always want to go to the movies." I don't think it's all going to fall apart and we're all going to be watching movies on phones. Yes, there's part of that that will happen. But I do think there is something to the idea that we sit in a theater with strangers and laugh and cry. 

You developed a Sinister Six movie for Sony that didn't come to fruition. It seems like that property has a lot of Drew Goddard possibilities in it, particularly if the villains were relatable. 

It was really fun. I wouldn't have done it had I not thought there was a real opportunity to do something different and exciting and just flat-out bananas. It was very much me and — a much more commercial version of — the Cabin mentality. The punk rock mentality that led to Cabin is very much at the core of Sinister Six. That's a fun one. Who knows, it could see the light of day. It's funny, I've been through a lot of volatility at a lot of different studios. Between MGM and Sony and Fox. At a certain point, you start to realize, "Oh, this is just a volatile business" and you try to stay afloat as the boat rocks back and forth.

Since you are a one-film-at-a-time guy, when do you think you'll sit down and decide what you're going to do next?

I don't know. I want to give myself the freedom to be open to what the universe is telling me. You have to get away from the noise, I've learned. It will sort of happen organically here. We are opening the Rome Film Festival. I'm excited about Rome, and then it will be time to rest. Let the imagination run wild and see what happens.

Do you go back to your home state of New Mexico these days?

My parents live there, so I get to go back once a year. I had a great childhood and I liked where I grew up. Certainly, I was ready to see the world.

Wherever you are from, you are supposed to dislike as a teen.

As a teenager, you are supposed to hate your hometown. I didn't hate it, but I was ready to get out. Now I get to go back and just appreciate how gorgeous that place is, how unique. I've been around the world now. There's no place like New Mexico. It's a very singular place and it makes me happy to go back.

Do your parents have an appreciation for your work?

Yeah. What's funny is at times my work is R-rated and bold. I remember there were some Buffy episodes and my mom is a very proud mother. "I'm going to tell my friends to watch." I'm like, "Mom, don't tell your friends to watch this one. This one, maybe we should save it." It was nice to go back with The Martian finally. "Mom, this is one you can tell your friends about."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.