By Drew Taylor | The Playlist March 9, 2012 at 11:01AM
Tonight "Cabin in the Woods" will open this year's SXSW Film Festival, and those lucky enough to attend will experience something very special. Ostensibly a gleeful send-up and acidic takedown of modern horror films (and their nearly mythical place in our culture), it's as smart as it is scary, and truly unique. It's not hard to imagine a heavily lubricated SXSW losing their collective shit. We got to talk to co-writer/director Drew Goddard, who created the film with his former "Buffy The Vampire Slayer"/"Angel" boss Joss Whedon, about the inception of the film, what it was like to have your debut feature indefinitely delayed by original studio MGM's crumbling empire, and how much fun it is to be writing a robot movie for Steven Spielberg. (It should be said, right off the bat, that the less you know about "Cabin in the Woods" so you might want to read this after you see the movie, either at SXSW or when it opens theatrically on April 13th.)
"Buffy The Vampire Slayer" fanatics like us remember it well: November 12, 2002. It was the second time that Drew Goddard, a new hire based on a superlative spec script he had written for "Six Feet Under," has gotten a screenwriting credit (alongside Jane Espenson). But the episode, "Conversations With Dead People," was nothing short of a masterpiece – deeply disturbing, utterly hilarious, and achingly heartfelt. It was the coming out party for a bold new creative voice. Over the next year Goddard would pen some of the most beloved episodes of the series' final season before jumping over to sister show "Angel" (for its last season). It was in this time that he first worked with Joss Whedon, his future "Cabin In The Woods" collaborator. While the two obviously got along quite well, Goddard told us that the inspiration for "Cabin in the Woods" was really simple.
"It came from a very pure place, a very simple place of 'Oh we love horror movies and we want to make one,'" Goddard explained. "Joss had the initial idea. We had been talking about doing something together and he said, 'I've got this idea about a cabin movie.' And as soon as I heard that – cabin movie – I said I was in, because I love cabin movies." What Whedon brought was the core of the film but it was the duo that brought it to life. "He sort of had the basic concept, this sort of upstairs/downstairs of it figured out, what he wanted to do with those two worlds," Goddard said. "And from there we started outlining the story and fleshing it out and then locked ourselves in a hotel and wrote it as fast as we possibly could."
The double-edged nature of the film – how it can be both a celebration of horror movies and a cutting satire on the same films, was always there, too. Whedon has even called it a "loving hate letter" to the genre. "Certainly the germ came from horror movies but we also don't like it when they're bad," Goddard said. "Those conversations formed the germ and it went out from there. For me it was very important that it wasn't just a movie about other movies. That's not particularly interesting to me." Instead, Goddard wanted to take it to a bigger, more mythic place. "What was interesting was the notion of why is there this horrific part of our society? Why do these movies exist? Why do we feel the need to objectify and destroy youth? These are questions that expand outward from the central thesis and that informs where we wanted to take this movie."
But we wondered if the filmmaker ever feared that the movie was too intellectual (a critic friend who wasn't as enamored with the movie called it "too thesis-y"). Goddard countered, "If you worry too much about anything you end up making bad movies." The emphasis was more on storytelling, than anything else. "Sitting around and talking about our intellectual spin on things would get kind of boring," Goddard said. "But sitting around talking about 'What if these was a basement full of different objects and depending on what object they pick, that will decide their fate' is cool. And then the subtext doesn't come about until later."
The development process for "Cabin In The Woods" was unique in that it wasn't sent through the studio idea mill for construction. Whedon and Goddard sketched out the entire movie and took it to studios as a package, in a move to lessen unnecessary meddling and keep the project as pure as possible. "We knew that if we went to a studio they would kill it, because that's what happens in Hollywood," Goddard said. "So we did everything ahead of time – we wrote it, we got our budgets, and put the package together. We just said, 'This is what it is, this is what it's going to cost – if you want it great, if you don’t, no hard feelings' and sent it to the studios. And luckily the studios got it, that approach worked for us. A few studios started bidding on it and MGM won."
Yes, MGM did win (more on that in a minute), but another key step in bringing the movie to the screen as undiluted as possible was keeping costs low, a maneuver he learned from his "Cloverfield" collaborator Matt Reeves. "At the end of the day it comes down to a math game and we were able to say, 'Look, you're probably going to make your money back even if it doesn't do great,'" Goddard says, matter-of-factly. He added: "If you can give the studios a scenario like that they're much more trusting."
While MGM did end up making the movie, it would sit on a shelf for a couple of years as the studio desperately tried to restructure itself. For a young, first time filmmaker, Goddard found himself in a unique position that wasn't entirely comfortable. "My biggest concern -- because we didn't know where we'd end up because someone was coming in and buying up MGM's assets -- was that wherever we ended up wouldn't understand the movie and try and change it," Goddard said. Thankfully, the film found a great home in Lionsgate, the genre-friendly studio responsible for the "Hostel" and "Saw" franchises. "Once Lionsgate said, 'We love this movie, we don't want to change a frame, all we want to do is protect it and get it out there.' That made everything easy."
One of the things that happened in the in-between years was extensive discussions about converting the film to 3D, a move that, thankfully didn't end up happening. We wondered how far those talks actually got. As it turns out: not very far. "When MGM was going bankrupt there were a lot of discussions. At the time it was when 3D was very much the flavor of the month and there was a lot of talk of 'Oh we can make any movie 3D if we want,'" Goddard explained. "Joss and I were very against it but it had to play itself out. The studio really wanted to do it." Thankfully, things changed once they were bought by Lionsgate. "When Lionsgate came along they said, 'Well what do you want to do?' And we said, 'We don't want it to be 3D. It was never intended to be 3D.'"
Given the nature of Goddard's past collaborators (after he left Whedon's employ, Goddard would write for J.J. Abrams for a number of years, first on the final season of "Alias" and then on the wonderfully bizarre fourth season of "Lost"), we wondered what he had learned from them. "The important lesson I always learned from Joss is to respect the characters and the most important lesson I learned from JJ.. is respect the audience," Goddard said. "I learned both of those from them. They're both so simple but it's very easy to lose sight of those things. I wrote both those lessons down and they're tacked up by my computer."
What's interesting is that Goddard knew these guys before they were the multi-hyphenate titans they are today. The initial freedom they were afforded was more because they were so different. "When I started working with both of those guys they were fringe producers, they were TV producers who hadn't become what they are," Goddard said. "Joss and J.J. were making weird stuff that no one understood. So the studios left them alone because they were these small fiefdoms. They were both able to create the ideal environments because no one was looking their way. And then they didn't go mainstream, the mainstream went to them. But the lessons they learned while they were living on the fringe helped them create this world they're living in now."
The freedom their company (and companies – Whedon's Mutant Enemy and Abrams' Bad Robot) affords filmmakers like Goddard is important, but not as important to him as the men themselves. "I don't stick by them because of the freedom, I stick by them because I love working with them," Goddard said. He then added: "It's my dream that I'll be working with them for the rest of my life."
Goddard's next collaborator is an even bigger banana: he's writing the epic sci-fi "Robopocalypse" (based on Daniel Wilson's novel from last summer) for none other than Steven Spielberg. "So much of my career is what sounds fun. And when Steven Spielberg comes to you and says, 'Hey do you want to write a movie about robots?' You just say yes," Goddard said. Working with Spielberg has been nothing short of a blast, according to Goddard. "There's this thing in Hollywood where you meet your idols and they disappoint you and in Steven's case it's even better than I imagined. And it's so invigorating when that happens – this guy who I grew up revering is just as amazing in person and so much fun to work with. He's so creative and supportive and imaginative in ways I've never seen."
As for what's next for Goddard, he's reluctant to talk about it, although he says he would love to return to serialized television one day and hopes to write another "Cloverfield" for Abrams. Of the sequel to the hit monster mash (it was a graveyard smash, after all): "I'm ready to do it. Someone just call J.J. and say, 'Let's get this done.'" He added: "I'm onboard. I think he's just very busy. That's the hard thing about being the king of the universe; it's hard to get his attention."
Another collaborator he'd love to work with again is Brian K. Vaughn, the certifiable genius comic book writer ("Y: The Last Man," "Ex Machina") who worked with Goddard on "Lost." "I would love to find some way for us to work together because he is one of my favorite people on earth," Goddard said. When we suggested that maybe Goddard could write an episode of Vaughn's upcoming Showtime series based on Stephen King's magnificent "Under the Dome" (produced, not-so-coincidentally, by Steven Spielberg), Goddard said, coyly, "I should be so lucky."
We also had to ask, with his buddy Whedon's place in the Marvel movie hierarchy (he did rewrites on both "Thor" and "Captain America: The First Avenger" and wrote and directed this summer's epic "The Avengers"), if he could sway Goddard to write a superhero movie for the studio. "That's one of those things where I owe the 12-year-old version of myself that had Daredevil hand-painted on his wall," Goddard said. Of course, he'd have to bring a different approach. "The trick is – there's a lot of these movies out there. How do you make it different and fresh?" After telling us how he got to visit the set of "The Avengers" in his home state of New Mexico ("Holding Hawkeye's bow was a pretty big deal"), he gave us a much simpler answer: "The answer is yes, I would love to."
Whatever he chooses to do next, Goddard says it'll be a tough act to follow. "The hard part is that 'Cabin' spoiled me – I got to do so many different things in one movie," he says. "It's hard to find the next project that allows you to do that and have that same sort of fun." Trust us, it's the kind of sentiment you feel after watching "Cabin in the Woods" too – after a movie this quick, fun, and compelling, most other things seem hopelessly drab in comparison.
"Cabin In The Woods" premieres at SXSW tonight and opens on April 13th.