Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Conversation with The Cabin in the Woods' Drew Goddard and Kristen Connolly

In THE CABIN IN THE WOODS a group of college friends set out for some fun in the wilderness but discover that someone or something is out to get them at their remote location.  To say much more about the clever horror-comedy from director and co-writer Drew Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon would be to spoil the surprises in a film that amusingly deconstructs scary movies while still aiming to terrify the audience.

In late March Goddard and lead actress Kristen Connolly, who plays the archetypal horror movie heroine, visited Otterbein University and WOCC TV3 to speak with me about THE CABIN IN THE WOODS.  Ideally this film is best seen without a lot of foreknowledge as to its particulars, so I focused the conversation on the genre.  The interview is mostly spoiler-free, but those who don't want anything ruined in advance should proceed with caution or watch a condensed version of my interview
Mark Pfeiffer: THE CABIN IN THE WOODS plays as if it is a dialogue with horror films that preceded it. In a sense it’s a direct form of film criticism. What prompted you to tell the story in this way?

Drew Goddard:  It really just came from a place of love.  We just love horror movies.  I wrote this movie with my partner-in-crime Joss Whedon, and we just started from a place of us talking about our favorite horror movies and what made us scared and what made us cheer and what made us laugh and trying to figure out how to make the ultimate horror movie as it were.  From those discussions we just sat down and tried to write the best version of it we possibly could.

MP:  Was it in response to anything in particular, not necessarily a film but maybe a trend?

DG:  Not really.  Certainly there’s stuff that we’ve seen in horror films that we don’t care for, but the movie wasn’t really directly commenting on that.  It was more about celebrating the genre as best as we possibly could.

MP:  The genre can be looked upon as being disreputable, but the film argues that horror movies fulfill a necessary purpose.  I’m curious what you think horror can do that other films maybe aren’t able to do as well.

DG:  I think first and foremost the experience of watching a good horror film with an audience, there’s nothing like it.  It must be that it gets us in touch with something primal inside of us that needs to be released in the relative safety of the theater.  I’m not sure, but I know when you feel that energy, that electricity when you’re in a good horror movie and the audience is all screaming together as one and laughing together and feeling that release, there’s nothing like it.  I think we must have this primal need to look at our own darkness and then be relieved that that’s not actually happening to us at the end of the day.
MP:  Kristen, as a performer, how do you respond to that?  Is it different?

Kristen Connolly:  You mean performing in a horror movie as opposed to a different (genre film)?

MP:  Right.

KC:  Yeah, sure.  I shot a little tiny independent movie after this, and it was a romantic comedy.  It was a lot of night shoots, and I was sitting around on the couch.   I was like, “What the hell are we doing?  Let’s get moving.  I’m going to fall asleep if we don’t something.”

DG:  Aren’t I supposed to be screaming?

KC:  Yeah, shouldn’t I be running and yelling and crying and covered in something?  I hadn’t really thought about it before.  I was talking about this with Fran (Kranz, co-star in THE CABIN IN THE WOODS).  It’s such a different experience working on a horror movie and one that I think people don’t appreciate how hard it is.  It’s just physically demanding. It’s emotionally demanding. And to be in that state of terror is very draining, but it’s really exciting also.  There’s nothing like it.

MP:  Does that create a different bond between the actors than it would on another type of film?

KC:  Yeah, I think so.  Our group got really close really quickly.  I’m sure part of that was running around in the woods together at 5 o’clock in the morning.  We all really bonded, and we all really took care of each other, I think.

MP:  The film gives the impression that this is way out in the middle of nowhere.  Was it actually as remote as it seems?

DG:  Pretty much.  We were really in the middle of nowhere in the Vancouver woods, and so we felt cut off.  Certainly on those night shoots you had trouble discerning the movie from reality.  I certainly started to get freaked out about 3 a.m.  I don’t know about you.

KC:  Yeah.  Oh, definitely.  And we had bears on set one day too.  That was pretty exciting.  I think they put out trays of Chinese food, and then all of a sudden there were six bears wandering around the set.

DG:  Bears love Chinese food.  A lot of people didn’t know that.  That’s what we learned from THE CABIN IN THE WOODS. 
MP:  While the film certainly upholds horror movies, it also feels free to criticize them.  What frustrates you about what you see in contemporary horror pictures?

DG:  I feel like I can always tell when the director doesn’t love horror movies or doesn’t love his characters, more importantly.  There’s a feeling of we’re just setting these people up to get knocked off.  And then taking that a step further, I can always tell when the characters within a horror movie don’t care about each other.  That was really important for the five of them, and they all got that immediately that they need to look out for one another.  I think you can feel that energy.  You can always feel in a bad horror movie when a friend of theirs gets killed, they’re all immediately, “Well, we gotta keep running.  Forget that person!  We don’t care!”  We made a real effort to find that bond, not just between director and characters but between characters themselves.

MP:  Kristen, what was the challenge for you playing a character whose most important characteristic is that in a sense she is an archetype for horror films?

KC:  To be honest I didn’t really think about that much while we were shooting.  I know we talked about it early on.  I think there are a lot of outside elements that do the work of that for you.  My focus was really on the relationships between the characters and the friendship between Dana and Marty and between all of them as a group.  I think that the costume does some of the work, that the writing does a lot of the work, and I think the audience’s perceptions of what that role is do a lot of the work as well.  So as far as playing an archetype, I didn’t feel like I was doing that.

DG:  Yeah, I always said, “Don’t worry about the archetype.  You play the character.  I will worry about the archetype.  That’s my job.”  Because it’s a strange thing we ask of our cast.  In this movie there are sort of two roles.  They’re playing their character, and then there’s an archetype, and they sort of switch in and out depending on where we are in the movie.  That can be very tricky.  It was always about making sure we’re just emotionally relating to the person and not the idea.

MP:  With that then, keeping the audience in concert with what you’re trying to do, what was most important to you in how you kept everybody in line?  The movie does bounce back and forth quite a bit, more so than I would have expected.  So that everyone is, “OK, I get what you’re going for, but I’m still invested in the main story,” as it were.

DG:  First and foremost, tell the story.  That’s the rule.  If we’re getting too off point, then it had to go and don’t worry too much about the second layer and the third layer and the fourth layer, just know that that will organically come to the story.  Our first responsibility is telling an entertaining story for the audience. 
MP:  I hadn’t read much about the film before seeing it on purpose, especially with South by Southwest and starting to hear reactions.  What was interesting to me upfront is that there’s this really jarring scene that if your expectations are essentially that it’s teenagers in the woods.  What were you hoping to accomplish with that?  What do you think that does to an audience that is coming in like I was?

DG:  I think we wanted to say first and foremost, “This is not your average, everyday horror movie.”  We wanted to tell the audience right away we’re not playing cute.  This is a different movie.  This is something that you have not seen before, and we’re going to take it to new and exciting places.  It was one of the first scenes that we came up with because that’s the sort of scene in a traditional movie that would go right in the middle.  Oh, here’s the big reveal and then move on.  And that’s what a lot of people who’ve seen the trailer are worried about.  Oh, we’re giving this away.  I’m like, no, that’s actually the first two minutes of the film.  We’re actually not giving anything away.  Just trust us.  We’re saving a lot for you.

MP:  Kristen, this is your first lead role?

KC:  Uh huh.

MP:  How was the whole experience for you?

KC:  It was amazing.  I felt just so lucky to be a part of it and that Joss and Drew gave me this amazing opportunity and as much responsibility.  I was like, “Really, are you guys sure you want me?”  And I got to do so much stuff in this.  I know that you warned me early on this is going to be really hard, it’s going to be really, really hard.  And I was like, “No, I go to the gym.  I’ll be fine.”  But there’s nothing that can really prepare you for it.  It was an amazing learning experience for me and an amazing amount of fun and then to go to the theater and see it has just been--I’m going to get emotional--it’s been just really a wonderful experience.

MP:  Is that perhaps greater because the film has had to take a longer period of time to get in front of audiences?

KC:  Maybe.  I don’t know.  It could be.  It was a long time, and I think we all loved the movie so much that we really wanted to show it to people and knew that it was awesome.  We just didn’t know exactly what route it was going to take getting into movie theaters. To have it premiere at South by Southwest, to have it be with Lionsgate, it seems like everything has just worked out so perfectly, and it’s just been really extraordinary.

MP:  The movie does tap into what fuels nightmares and even some of the cultural differences that we have--you have the stuff with the Japanese horror films, which are clearly of a different model than what we get typically in America--and even the things that seem to bubble up and be of the moment of what seems to scare people.  For instance, you end up choosing the redneck zombie torture family, which is certainly something we’ve seen plenty of times, but at the same point, people don’t have that experience.  That’s not a natural fear that you have that you’re going to encounter these sorts of folks.  I’m just curious why you think that sort of monster or even the ones that do recur, why that resonates with audiences or even with yourself.

DG:  It’s hard because we deal with so many nightmares in THE CABIN IN THE WOODS.  I don’t want to spoil too much.  Just the concept of monsters in general is something that’s interesting to me.  I don’t know why any individual monster is more scary or less scary to some people.  It’s just some things resonate with people, some things don’t, and that changes over time.  It changes who we are.  We dealt with this a lot in CLOVERFIELD when this post 9/11 world where monsters suddenly became much scarier if they didn’t have a purpose behind them and it was just something rampaging.  I think that reflected what we were feeling as a culture.  And now we’re in this different time and the menace has a little bit more motivation behind it.  But again, that’s just reflective of the time.  It just evolves with time as society evolves.

MP:  Youth and beauty are always despoiled in these kinds of pictures.  That has been consistent whether you want to go back 30, 40, 50 years or today.

DG:  Even further.

MP:  Is that ultimately what’s underlying the fear in these films?

DG:  Certainly the question that interested me the most in making this film is--and it’s not just horror films--society has this need to idealize and marginalize youth and then destroy it.  And that’s not just in movies, that’s in society.  And that’s not just in current society, that’s been happening since the dawn of man.  We have put kids up on a pedestal only to sacrifice them, throw them into a volcano, destroy them publicly.   We keep doing it.  We have this weird worship of the youthful energy.  You see it now.  We idealize youth and then we send them off to war just to be slaughtered on the front lines.  As we get older we’re not fighting the wars, we’re letting these kids do it.  The question of why we need to do that, it serves some social purpose, but I don’t know what it is.  But the question of why is very much at the heart of this movie.

MP:  I may be reaching on this one, but looking at the stuff that you’ve written for television in particular that even applies to this film, there’s a view of reality of what we know and then there’s this invisible force designing it all behind the scenes.  Is that coincidence or is there something that draws you to this idea that you keep returning to it?

DG:  Yeah, I suppose so.  It is that age old question of free will or predestination.  I don’t know that I know the answer but I am fascinated by it.  I am fascinated by “am I free to make my choices or am I forced to make my choices because of the world around me”.  I do keep coming back to that, I suppose, but it’s never conscious.  I just notice it later after I’ve read my own script. 
MP:  I guess if you want to get into auteur theory it naturally goes right into that.  Well, we haven’t really talked about Joss Whedon and his involvement with the project.  Maybe both of you could speak to what collaborating with him was like.

DG:  I’ve been working with him for awhile.  My first job was as a staff writer on BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER for Joss, and I got that job because I was the world’s biggest Joss Whedon fan.  When I first saw BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER I was in college, and it was like a bomb went off.  It was like, oh, somebody’s actually doing the most interesting, edgy filmmaking in the world and it’s on television on the WB.  I couldn’t believe that that was happening.  I love his writing.  He’s my favorite writer of all-time.  To get to work for him on BUFFY was a dream come true.  We’ve just kept that relationship going.  I’m always trying to find ways to work with him because I feel like he is one of those crazed geniuses you see once in a generation.  He’s just a joy.

KC:  Fran said something yesterday that I think is really true that Joss, without really doing anything, he just inspires you to want to do your best work.  And I think it’s because he’s always so supportive of people and he’s such a kind, nice person, but he’s also just so smart and it makes you really want to step it up.  I’m really glad actually that I didn’t know much of his stuff when I came out to meet you guys and that I didn’t know much of LOST either because I would have been a nervous wreck in that audition, so I think it’s probably good that I didn’t watch all of it until after.  I was like, “Oh my God, these guys are so smart.”

MP:  You’ve come more from a theater background.

KC:  I do, yeah.

MP:  How’s that transition been for you to do especially something like this, which has got to be vastly different from KING LEAR or some of the other things you’ve done?

KC: Although we were saying yesterday that Fran, his character isn’t that unlike the fool in KING LEAR.  I think that the approach to the work is the same.  It’s the same character work you do no matter what medium it is.  You’re not rehearsing really, so with this the shooting is the rehearsal, and you just try things and do it as many times as you can and as many different ways as you can whereas in rehearsal you sort of try those things out and then piece together what you like.  You’re an editor, I guess.  It’s funny, since I’ve finished school most of what I’ve done have been horror movies and Shakespeare.  I don’t know what the connection is.

DG:  There’s a lot of blood in both.

KC:  Yeah, exactly, a lot of blood.

MP:  What’s next for each of you after this?

DG:  I’m just having so much fun with this movie that I want to watch it with as many audiences as possible.  It’s really a fun movie to watch with an audience, so I’m on the CABIN world tour for the next month or so just checking this thing out.

KC:  I’m kind of doing the same for the next few weeks just going around watching the movie and talking about the movie.  Then I start a new series in April, HOUSE OF CARDS.  David Fincher is directing it, and it’s for Netflix.  It’s kind of a new thing, so hopefully it’ll be a lot of fun.

MP:  Clearly this is the sort of movie where seeing it with an audience is going to be a different experience than watching it at a press screening or even watching it at home.  What have been your observations as you’ve been at these various events seeing people reacting to it, hopefully in ways you anticipated and, I think maybe even hopefully, in ways you didn’t?

DG:  The thing that’s nice is, we knew if you’re a horror fan, you’re going to like this movie because we’ve got something for you in this movie. But the thing that’s been really satisfying for me is to hear the reaction afterwards.  A lot of people say, “I don’t even like horror movies, and I loved this film.”  That’s kind of surprising. That’s nice because it feels like I’m helping people see what I love about horror films and help expand that.  That’s been really nice.

KC:  There are moments in the movie--I can’t really say what they are--but I love hearing the audience respond every night.  There are a few that get the same reaction every time, and then there are different places where people laugh at something that maybe they didn’t laugh at the last time.  So that’s been really fun, to hear people enjoying the movie as much as I think we all enjoyed making the movie.

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