When is a Joss Whedon movie not a Joss Whedon movie?
In the case of The Cabin in the Woods, the new horror movie send-up, you might say it’s a Whedon half-breed. The man behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Dollhouse and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, as well as the upcoming The Avengers, co-wrote and produced Cabin. But Whedon’s protégé, Drew Goddard, co-wrote the script with Whedon and makes his directorial debut with this homage to and/or parody of the kids-in-the-woods slasher genre, which stars Anna Hutchison, Chris Hemsworth (Cabin was shot before he was seen in Thor), Jesse Williams, Kristen Connolly, Fran Kranz, Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford.
So you might say The Cabin in the Woods, which opens Friday in theaters nationwide, has only half its foot in the Whedonverse. But fans, don’t be too worried. Goddard, a self-described “world’s biggest Joss Whedon fan,” has written for and produced shows such as Buffy, Dollhouse and Angel, not to mention Alias and Lost. He also wrote the screenplay for Cloverfield.
I asked Goddard some questions about The Cabin in the Woods, his friendship and working relationship with Whedon, and whether this monster movie was in any way inspired by Dungeons & Dragons. (By the way, Cabin is rated R and fairly gory, so it’s not a good one to bring the young-uns.)
Wired: How far back do you go with Joss? When and where did you meet?
Drew Goddard: [speaking by telephone from Minneapolis] I guess it goes back around 10 years now. My first job as a writer was that he hired me as staff writer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s really where my formative years in learning the craft and learning his business came from, under his tutelage. I started as the world’s biggest Joss Whedon fan. When I first saw Buffy the Vampire Slayer in college, it was like a bomb went off. It really felt like, “Oh, here’s someone doing the most interesting storytelling that I’ve ever seen in my life. And I have to be a part of it.” It was definitely a dream come true to work for him.
Wired: What was your working relationship like? How did you write the film?
Goddard: We just got along from the beginning. Our relationship evolved over the years. And really, Cabin was just the two of us trying to entertain each other. We were just two guys talking about how much they loved horror films and wanting to make one of their own. That’s really what Cabin was. We didn’t pitch it. We just sat and wrote the movie we wanted to watch. And it sort of just sprung from there.
Wired: Was it intimidating being a first-time director?
Goddard: I was very lucky in that a lot of the shows I got to work on for Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams, they were very writer-empowering. And certainly television just in general is a writer’s medium. I definitely had a lot of experience talking to actors, doing tons of episodes and managing a set. But there’s an element of directing you just can’t understand until you’re in the chair. When you have 300 people just look at you and you realize that, “Oh no, there’s no one else for me to turn to, I’m actually the guy in charge,” it’s a little stressful at first. You’re like, “Oh no. The buck actually stops right here with me.” But once you start getting your sea legs under you, you realize that’s what you’ve been looking forward to your whole career. That’s when the job is really fun.
Wired: How did you decide about tone. This movie is comic, there’s the parody of the horror genre, plus it must be suspenseful and satisfy gore fans.
Goddard: It’s actually the hardest part of the job, the tone, for me. Especially with this movie, because I’m so interested in multiple genres and not being any one thing. I always try to put a lot into these things, and with Cabin, it’s a very thin needle we are trying to thread there. And so the hard part about tone is, it really just comes down to my gut. I can’t really intellectualize it. I just have to say, “Yes it’s OK to be funny here. But it’s not OK to be funny here.” And just go with your gut. There’s no other way to do it. Because it’s not like they give you a manual on tone. It all just comes down to my personal taste.
Wired: This film is, at its core, about five college kids who head off to a remote cabin in the woods and are picked off, one by one, by creatures that go slash in the night. I read an interesting comment you made about your movie that speaks to this. “Why, as a people, do we feel the need to marginalize, objectify and destroy youth?” Can you elaborate?
Goddard: It’s something that I just noticed. Thinking about horror films, that’s something that just happens in horror films all the time. There was a war going on and I started to see my friends being sent off to war, used as fodder, and you start thinking about this once you get older. That’s what happens…. Or, let’s build up this young socialite and worship her and give her her own show and then absolutely destroy her. It could be as simple as that. I think it’s something that happens time and time again. And I feel it as I get older. I feel that need to dismiss youth. And I question where that comes from. Partly when you start looking at it in a historical sense and you realize, “Oh this has been happening since the beginning of time.” We have this unhealthy fascination with what it is to be young, and all our mythologies have stories of people throwing virgins into a volcano or sacrificing their own children to appease an angry god. There’s just something about who we are, and the question of why we are, that’s very much at the heart of this movie.
Wired: Without giving too much away (and there’s been lots of secrecy about the plot of your movie, so I’ll try to respect that), I think it’s safe to say that your film is about more than just five kids being murdered in the woods. The trailer reveals a few clues: A hand moves a lever, an eagle flies into a force field, and a video image of each of the five students flickers on a video screen. A control room voice says “system online,” “acquiring targets” and “lock ’em in.” So, how far away are you from “youth” and do you identify with the kids or the guys in the control room?
Goddard: I’m 37. I’m thinking in Cabin terms, I would probably be in the control room rather than in the cabin.
Wired: There’s lots of special effects in this movie. We’ve got zombies and undead, but also other creatures (again, I won’t reveal too much). Tell me about the decision-making process to use CG effects versus the “guy in the latex suit”?
Goddard: The rule was, if we could do it practically, do it practically, and only use CG for the stuff we just didn’t have a choice on. The thing about CG is it’s actually easier. It’s easer to do it, and I think part of it was just my own naiveté about the difference between practical and CG. That sort of helped us, because the truth is, if we had to do a scene over again I would understand the other side’s point of view of, “Drew, if we make that a computer effect it’ll save us two days.” But I didn’t want that. I don’t like it. You can’t beat the pat-down quality of something in front of you. Certainly for this movie, I wanted you to feel the hand-made quality. You want to feel the scenes as best you can. I thought it was crucial for this movie.
Wired: That reminds me of Peter Jackson, who is so enamored of his miniatures, and “bigatures,” and trying to use physical, “real” elements in his movies as much as he can.
Goddard: I watch him with my jaw on the floor. How he does half of the things he does.
Wired: Talk about your decision to get for your director of photography Peter Deming, who it seems was ideal for Cabin. He shot Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, two of the Austin Powers movies and most of the Scream series. What “look” does he bring to the film? What’s his signature style?
Goddard: If you had to sit down and design the perfect résumé for Cabin in the Woods, you with go with the guy who had on his résumé Evil Dead II, Mulholland Drive, Austin Powers and Scream. Our movie is sort of in the Venn diagram of those four films, right in the middle of that. First and foremost, it’s just his versatility because we shift gears so much. I needed someone who was comfortable doing so much, comfortable in multiple genres. The other thing I was looking for, I just wanted elegance. Certainly a trend not just in horror films, but in a lot of films, is definitely veering toward the very tight close up, shaky camera, down-and-dirty docu-style to a lot of the stuff. Which has its place. I don’t want to bad-mouth it. But it wasn’t what I wanted for this movie. What I wanted for this film was, I like the calm, slow elegance of the frame. And that’s something that Peter does exquisitely well. He was my dream choice for this movie and I couldn’t believe he said yes.
Wired: I felt like the final scene of Cabin played like something right out of the Monster Manual. [Note: Here I mention a specific monster, but Goddard asks me to keep it on the down-low.] Did you play D&D?
Goddard: God bless you, you’re the first person to mention the Monster Manual. Just keep that [name of specific monster] thing quiet. If you can try to keep from spoiling that, I’d appreciate it.
Wired: No problem. Best of luck with your movie. I hope it’s a success.
Goddard: Thanks for giving me the chance to talk about it.