SPOILER ALERT! The twisty horror film The Cabin in the Woods opened Friday. Director and co-writer Drew Goddard discussed the film’s surprises in full with Maria Elena Fernandez.
“If nothing else, it’s not your same old movie.”
That’s Drew Goddard’s concise description of the first film he’s directed, The Cabin in the Woods. Billed as a horror movie—and it is scary—The Cabin in the Woods is also funny as hell.
Goddard co-wrote the film with Joss Whedon, his boss on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, who also produced it. The longtime friends were looking for a project to work on when Whedon shared an idea for an orchestrated horror story in which the scary cabin is part of a sealed environment controlled from an underground lab. Then he mentioned his idea for the title.
“As soon as he said he was calling it The Cabin in the Woods, I was in,” Goddard said. “We got to do a lot of horror on Buffy, and we both love it. The whole thing just became this labor of love, because we didn’t set it up or pitch it to any studio. It was just the two of us trying to write so that they can see the whole thing and see what we’re talking about.”
Indeed, The Cabin in the Woods simultaneously pays homage to horror classics, such as The Evil Dead and Suspiria, and obliterates the genre while also highlighting ugly societal truths.
“We sort of were thinking about it from the beginning, but that sounds a little more pretentious and planned out than it really was,” Goddard said. “The reality is we just love these kinds of movies, and we just wanted to make the ultimate version of it and the commentary came as we were doing it. Certainly, the state of horror movies and the state of the world are there—there’s as much commentary of where we are as a culture than there are other horror movies, I suppose. It was important to me that it just wasn’t a movie about other movies. That’s where we start, but by the end, we get into much bigger territory.”
Much. Bigger. Territory. In an interview, Goddard discussed the movie’s many surprises with The Daily Beast. If you haven’t seen the film, you really, really should stop reading now. The monsters are coming.
The opening: The movie begins with corporate techie types, Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford), talking in a break room. Their colleague Lin (Amy Acker) joins them as they walk back to their lab, and the conversation hints at weird, sinister world events.
Drew Goddard: When we first started it, Joss pitched that originally, “I want to start it with two guys in a break room, talking about fertility.” I was like, “Oh, I’m in,” because right away you’re telling the audience, this is not your average, everyday horror movie. It just felt right. Who wants to make the same old movie? One of the things I just love about Joss is he never wants to do the thing that everyone else wants to do. I learned that from him. He’s not one for playing cute with the audience or holding things back. It’s much more interesting to put your cards on the table first and then see where it takes you rather than drag it all out.
Most people would do that reveal in the middle of the movie, but we just start with it. That’s why when people complain that we are showing too much in the trailer, my answer is: “We don’t show anything in the trailer that we don’t give away in the first two minutes. Believe me, we save a lot.”
On the casting of Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, a fantastic comedic duo.
Goddard: I could watch them forever. We wrote it for them. The way I got a Buffy job, I wrote a Six Feet Under spec script, and it was all about Richard Jenkins, because I love Richard Jenkins so much. [On Six Feet Under, Jenkins played the family patriarch who dies in the pilot but returns often.] It’s hard what we ask of our actors because we shift gears so much. We go from high drama to high comedy, from horror to sadness to silliness. And often in the same scene. So you need actors who have that technical skill, and Bradley has it. The nice thing about an actor who survived the Sorkin school is that you know they can survive anything. But I’ve loved Bradley since Revenge of the Nerds II.
The five cabin-goers are Jules the whore (Anna Hutchison), Curt the athlete (Chris Hemsworth), Holden the scholar (Jesse Williams), Dana the virgin (Kristen Connolly), and Marty the fool (Fran Kranz). Why those archetypes?
Goddard: The initial scenes where you meet them, they’re the opposite of everything they become, with the notable exception of Marty. So much of this movie is the difference between youth and adulthood. As we become adults, we have this need to marginalize youth and make them into archetypes. So it’s the adults making them into archetypes, because my experience with youth is they’re never archetypes. They’re all complicated, multifaceted individuals, but we feel this need to categorize them and put them into cliques.
The creepy objects in the cellar set the course of death for the characters. By choosing the 1903 diary, they set their bloody fate—the murderous Buckner zombie redneck torture family—in motion.
Goddard: That’s a crossroad down there, and anything they picked would have sent them spiraling down to a different location. This is the sort of thing no one would ever notice unless they pause the DVD. But we wanted to make sure that everything in the third act lined up with what was in the cellar, so you could understand the internal logic—if they play with this, it would lead to that guy in the background. You see Curt (Hemsworth) almost bring forth our Lord of Bondage and Pain with his puzzle box. We spent an ungodly amount of time worrying about that for something that flashes by in a couple of seconds.
We chose the zombies because we didn’t want to go too crazy, too outside the box too early, because it doesn’t leave you anywhere to go. So certainly zombies and the redneck torture genre are things that are common in horror—from Texas Chain Saw Massacre or Evil Dead—and we wanted to combine it. It was either that or vampires, and that felt like it’s been done to death.
Sitterson (Jenkins) curses at Japanese schoolgirls who triumph over evil, making the U.S. the only country left with the ability to save the world.
Goddard: I probably shot 100 takes of it because he was so funny. I couldn’t stop. That will be a great DVD extra. He certainly made it his own, as all great actors do. I couldn’t stop. If it was up to me, I’d still be watching him do that. We’d still be shooting it because that was so much fun.
While the lab employees celebrate what they think is a successful operation, Dana is attacked by a Buckner zombie outside. Instead of filming both scenes and juxtaposing them in editing, Goddard chose to have the footage of the fight displaying on monitors while the actors filmed the party scene.
Goddard: We had to shoot and edit the whole fight so that it could play on the monitors behind them during the party in real time. Which is, logistically, incredibly challenging. We couldn’t put in anything after the fact, because that’s expensive to do. So we had to have 80 monitors playing all the time, which is an incredible logistical nightmare. You have to edit the fight scene first. If I’m having actors doing dialogue in the foreground, they have to have their timing with the stuff that’s happening on the 80 monitors—and we have a crowd doing all of this background stuff at the same. Technology is just hard to get to do what you want it to do. Our control room broke a lot.
Everyone told me I was crazy for doing it, and it was really just because I was naive, because I hadn’t done this before. I didn’t realize how hard it was going to be. I wanted to have it happen simultaneously, because that was interesting for you to see your main fight scene between your heroine and your villain taking place in the background. We wanted to feel the real-world implications of it all. It was important to me that this wasn’t an evil corporation. These are humans and real people. It took a few days to do, but it was worth it. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie.
The scariest elevator ride in history: meet ALL of the monsters.
Goddard: This is where we say to the audience we are not in Kansas anymore. For us, this whole movie was just write what you want to see. We weren’t even sure we’d get to do it. So I always approached this job from the standpoint that if they never let me do it again, I better make sure I get it all up there on the screen this time. And that’s how the elevators fell. We knew we wanted to go insane and swing for the fences and put it all out there, and it all just happened organically as we thought, What’s the ultimate third act for this movie? Shit is about to get real!
Awesome well-kept secret: Sigourney Weaver as the lab director, who explains the mystery close to the end.
Goddard: I’m not sure we were thinking of that part as female as first. But once we thought of making it a woman, that was the first name that popped in our heads, and we got very excited. It made it feel different. She was the greatest. She was so excited to come to work. The first thing she said was, “Oh, what time does the werewolf get here?” She went to lunch with the werewolf, and she asked, “Can someone please take my picture with the werewolf?” It was really endearing. Here you are, someone who’s acted opposite of some of the greatest creatures of all time, and she still gets excited over something as simple as a werewolf. When you cast someone like that, it does so much of your work for you. She shows up, and the audience just gasps every time.
The last scene: waiting for the world to end.
Goddard: I never get tired of it, quite honestly. That’s my favorite part of the movie. The two of them (Connolly as Dana and Kranz as Marty) on those steps, I feel, encompasses everything I have to say in my career. I didn’t even write that part. Joss wrote that part, and it’s beautiful. I think it’s some of the best writing he’s done. I just love it.
It’s all there. It’s funny but it’s sad. The two of them care about each other. Everything that drew me to Buffy in the first place, which is heightened reality, but within the heightened reality, characters looking after one another and the bonds that form between two people. That’s what I’ve always loved about working with Joss. No matter how insane we get, it still comes down to two people and the relationship they have to one another. That’s why the ending felt so appropriate to me. I don’t know that I could think of a better sentence than “I’m sorry that I let you get attacked by a werewolf and then ended the world.”
The cabin explodes, and an enormous hand emerges.
Goddard: We always knew what we wanted in the ending. It’s a classic horror image, the hand coming out of the earth, and we like it. It felt appropriate to our subject matter that that’s where it had to end. If you were telling it from our characters’ perspective, that’s the last thing you would see.
What to look for in repeat viewings.
Goddard: Certainly, the basement is a fun place to start looking around once you know where we’re going in the end. Also: the betting pool. You can look at the whiteboard and see all the other names you can bet on—the complications that arise from that. No one has to see this movie more than me, so I really tried to make it entertaining for repeat viewings.