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Cloverfield wasn’t Matt Reeves’ feature directorial debut, but it’s the film that put him on the trajectory towards two Planet of the Apes movies and 2022’s The Batman. Now, one would think that a found-footage monster film would be a walk in the park for a filmmaker who’s been making blockbusters look easy for the last decade, but having joined the enterprise late in the game alongside producer J.J. Abrams and screenwriter Drew Goddard, Reeves had his work cut out for him with production beginning just three months later.
With the film mostly taking place at night, Reeves himself shot a lot of the film handheld in order to achieve the cinéma vérité style, but the late nights and rushed schedule quickly took their toll.
“This doctor came and he was like, ‘I see you keep getting sick. I can give you … a drug called Provigil. This is what we give to fighter pilots on all-night bombing raids in Iraq,’” Reeves tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And then I read the warning that said, ‘May create a false sense of well-being.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my God, a director cannot have a false sense of well-being. I’ll just keep saying, “Looks good to me!”’ So I was like, ‘I can’t take this.’”
Cloverfield has since had two loosely connected sequels in the form of Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) and Julius Onah’s The Cloverfield Paradox (2018), but it’s yet to have a proper direct sequel. While one remains in development, Reeves is keeping those cards close to his vest.
“I can’t ever say … what we’re doing because it’s Cloverfield and Cloverfield rules are that you don’t talk about Cloverfield,” Reeves says. “The thing about Cloverfield from the beginning was it was always so surprising the way it came together, and I hope that it continues to be surprising.”
During a recent conversation with THR to support the film’s new limited-edition 4K steelbook, Reeves also laments the fact that the mystery surrounding Cloverfield’s 2008 release would’ve been spoiled by today’s scoopers and social media.
Happy 15th, Matt.
Thank you so much. It’s weird. It’s hard for me to believe it’s been 15 years. I don’t know what happened.
So, from time to time, I like to dabble in fan theories such as [The Batman’s] Edward Nashton (Paul Dano) being the son of Edward Elliot …
But I can trace that behavior back to Cloverfield and Lost. So how much forethought or calculus went into creating that type of engagement?
Well, what drew me to the movie — and what the movie was always meant to be — was an experience that referred to something that you didn’t have the answers for. This was a document of people who’d been through an experience that they didn’t fully understand, even by the end of the whole thing. They’d seen something, but they had no idea where it came from. But we’d give little clues. There’s the moment on the Ferris wheel at the end where you realize there’s something in the sky, and that was actually something we came to very late. We were in post and we were like, “Well, what if we did something here in this shot? What if you actually see the meteor come and hit the water?”
And so the whole movie was, to be honest, a seat-of-your-pants experience. When I first came in, I said to J.J. [Abrams], “Well, before I determine whether or not I’m going to do it, why don’t I wait until Drew Goddard is done with the script?” And he said, “You can’t do that.” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “Because we’re shooting in 12 weeks.” And I was like, “What!?” So Drew and I started meeting and talking, and then J.J. came in to talk. And so we started planning this whole thing out, and it all happened so fast. We knew we wanted to essentially be a Godzilla movie from the point of view of the people on the ground, and we knew that we were going to create things that would allow for people to grasp at what it was. But, for me, the idea was never to give you the answers.
So when the movie came out, some people were frustrated because the marketing was so much about the answers coming, but actually, the movie was always meant to be the experience, which is what really drew me to it. I would give you a kind of visceral ride where you felt like, “Wow, I was at the center of something and I never quite got the answer, but I got the feeling of what it could be.” And so the answer was to never answer the question, necessarily.
A direct sequel is supposedly in some stage of development, but I remain shocked that we haven’t seen Rob (Michael Stahl-David) and Beth’s (Odette Annable) tape again in some capacity. Why has a proper sequel been so tough to crack?
Well, to be honest with you, when we finished, we [Reeves, Abrams, Goddard] all had ideas for what the sequel could be, and it was just one of those things where our schedules got pulled off into different directions. So we never ended up doing it in that way, and when 10 Cloverfield Lane came to be, it was like, “Oh, this is a really exciting way to continue to explore the tone of this world.” But doing a direct sequel was something that we initially … I did something in the movie when Hud is on the bridge before the tail comes and smashes the Brooklyn Bridge in half. There’s a moment where you actually see someone filming him and you realize, “Oh, there’s another perspective on this evening.” So that was one of my thoughts for what could be the beginning of another story. The different perspective would be a different story.
It’d be another story of people surviving this night, and so we talked about all those things. There was an idea that I had for something that was … We all had ideas, and we just didn’t line up again. I can’t ever say that we wouldn’t or what we’re doing because it’s Cloverfield and Cloverfield rules are that you don’t talk about Cloverfield. So it is interesting that it didn’t really go directly into something else, but it ended up taking a really interesting turn. I mean, Dan’s [Trachtenberg] film is a really cool film. The thing about Cloverfield from the beginning was it was always so surprising the way it came together, and I hope that it continues to be surprising.
Weirdly, that’s actually one of the hallmarks of it as well. It’s the surprise of something coming out of left field, which is harder and harder now. It’s probably impossible to do today, but at the time, it was a unique idea that this movie that no one had ever heard of and had no title would suddenly have a trailer on Transformers on 4th of July weekend. I just don’t know that it could be done anymore.
Between social media and no shortage of online scoopers now, does it bum you out that you probably couldn’t pull off a similar release today with secrets intact?
It does. When I was a kid, I remember a very early teaser trailer for Close Encounters of the Third Kind that described the different kinds of contact, and I had no idea what that movie was. So, in a certain way, the mystique of movies has gone away just in terms of something coming out of left field and you going, “What is this?” For something to take over the cultural moment and allow there to be a level of discovery and surprise, I think that’s gone away. I mean, the way that you can do it now is to take something that people know you’re doing and find a way within it to do it in a way that surprises people. I always try to do that, but the idea of actually coming literally out of nowhere, it’s kind of impossible today. So I miss that. The discoveries were one of the things I always loved about going to the movies.
You’re a very different director now than you were then.
I’m older by 15 years! (Laughs.)
How would the 2023 version of Matt Reeves direct this movie?
Gosh, I don’t know. I think I would be very tired. I was tired then and I was 15 years younger. That movie was a sprint because every dime went to the VFX and all the post stuff. So I had to get the movie in the can, and the experience of shooting it was just a rush. In fact, there was a moment where I was on the set and I got sick multiple times because I kept pushing myself during night shoots. It was crazy.
And so this doctor came and he was like, “I see you keep getting sick. I can give you this. Take it if you want.” And I was like, “Well, what is it?” And he said, “It’s a drug called Provigil.” And I was like, “Well, what is Provigil?” And he goes, “Well, this is what we give to fighter pilots on all-night bombing raids in Iraq.” And I was like, “What?” And he goes, “Yeah, so it will keep you going.” And I was like, “I don’t know if I’m going to take that.” And then I read the warning that said, “May create a false sense of well-being.” And I was like, “Oh my God, a director cannot have a false sense of well-being. I’ll just keep saying, ‘Looks good to me!’ And everybody else will be like, ‘You didn’t shoot anything yet.’” So I was like, “I can’t take this.”
But I will say that making The Batman and those Planet of the Apes movies, they are an enormous and exhausting undertaking, but it’s a different kind of thing. In Cloverfield, I was holding the camera a huge part of the time, and it was a very run-and-gun kind of thing. Even though it’s an effects movie and genre movie, it’s also a little indie movie. We made it for Paramount, but it was like we made a tiny little Handycam by-the-seat-of-your-pants indie, and so it would be hard for me to make it today, physically.
Well, Matt, congratulations again on the 15th anniversary of Cloverfield, and it’s been a pleasure feeling old with you today.
(Laughs.) Yes, it’s wonderful!
A limited-edition 4K SteelBook of Cloverfield is now available. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival