Q&A: Director/Co-Writer Drew Goddard On Building THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

An archive interview from The Gingold Files.

By Michael Gingold · September 21, 2019, 12:55 AM EDT
Cabin in the Woods Goddard

Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on September 20, 2012, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

After a three-year delay during which its producing studio MGM went bankrupt and Lionsgate stepped in to acquire it, The Cabin in the Woods finally hit theaters earlier this year and proved to be well worth the wait. With the movie now out on DVD and Blu-ray, Fango spoke to director/co-scripter Drew Goddard about constructing a horror homage that also stands spectacularly on its own.

Cabin (reviewed here) upends its titular scenario by positing its four youthful protagonists, beset by what plays like a typical ghoul attack, as the pawns in a much larger conspiracy. Bringing new twists, a sly sense of humor and a strong sense of character to traditional genre concepts is nothing new for Goddard, who previously collaborated with Cabin producer/co-scripter Joss Whedon on TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and with J.J. Abrams on the found-footage monster epic Cloverfield (which he scripted) and the tube’s Alias and Lost.

The first and most obvious question: Is there a sense of closure now that Cabin in the Woods has finally come out and won an audience?

Yeah, it’s definitely nice. It feels like it all worked out for the best in the end.

Over the three years the film was languishing, was it difficult to keep all the film’s secrets from leaking out?

Yeah. That’s always difficult in this day and age, whether it’s for six months like it normally is, or three years. But we always felt that Cabin didn’t hinge on any one secret; it’s much more about the escalation than it is about the prize, so we felt, “If people want to try to figure it out and find out about it, fine.” I think we definitely managed to keep the majority of the audience on the edge of their seats.

During that time, did you do any reshooting or tweaking on the film?

No. Once we locked it, we were like, “OK, it’s done. That’s what we want.” You have to be careful about going back and messing with things. You always sort of want to, but at a certain point, your gut tells you, “This is it. This is the right cut. Let’s walk away.” And that was definitely what we did with Cabin.

One of the impressive things about the film is that even though you’re satirizing the genre and having fun with the conventions, you still create sympathy for the kids in the cabin. They’re not the typical ciphers who get killed off in the service of the story; you brought a true sense of character to them.

I’m glad you mentioned that, because when I first met with the studio, I said that that was the single most important thing we could do, because if we didn’t—if they became caricatures—we were going to lose the audience and this movie would become a parody. It’s gratifying to hear you say that, for sure.

What went into the casting process for the young people? You lucked out and got Chris Hemsworth before he became really big.

Yeah, boy, did we ever! You know, it was just, roll up your sleeves and do the work. The thing about casting is that it’s easy to just see the usual 10 names and pick one of those, but we felt it was important to dig deep and look at hundreds and hundreds of actors, which is what we did. At a certain point, that becomes laborious, but you just have to push through. In the case of Anna Hutchison, who plays Jules, we didn’t find her until two nights before we started shooting. We never compromised, and we just kept searching, and that served us well.

Kristin Connolly is wonderful in the lead. How did you find her?

That was another case of looking at hundreds of actresses for that part. Her tape just blew us away, and we flew her out the next day to read with Fran [Kranz]. We sort of knew Fran, because Joss had worked with him on Dollhouse, so we put her and Fran together and had them read the last scene of the movie, and I just started crying, watching the two of them. Joss and I looked at each other and said, “OK, we found our girl.”

How about the corporate wonks played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford; what was the inspiration for those characters?

That’s a great question… It just felt like the theme of the movie is the line between youth and adulthood, and what it is that makes adults need to see kids butchered. It felt like we needed to see the adult side of it, and do it in a sympathetic way, so that it wasn’t what we see all the time in these movies, which is just crazy older people killing kids. That isn’t my experience with the world. My experience is that there’s older guys sending kids off to war, and they have good intentions. They may be doing terrible things, but they don’t think they are, and we wanted to represent that. It was important to me that both the kids and the adults were emotionally relatable so you could see where both sides were coming from.

You have a number of BUFFY and ANGEL veterans in the cast, but did you ever consider putting other recognizable genre people in the film?

Not really, because my gut was sort of telling me that if we put in too many people you’ve seen in other movies, it might pull you out of the story in a way that tipping our hats a little more subtly wouldn’t. Believe me, there’s part of me that would give anything to have Bruce Campbell in this movie, but at the same time, I felt like we needed to exist on our own, and not become a greatest hits of other people’s movies.

You have a hell of a creature menagerie in this film. How much time did it take to get them all designed and created?

Oh my God—years? It took a long time to figure that all out, but luckily, that’s one of those jobs that doesn’t really count as a job. Designing and thinking about monsters? That’s stuff I do anyway for free, so it didn’t feel like work. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner than David LeRoy Anderson and his team, who designed all the creatures. It was so much fun to trade ideas back and forth, because as I said to Dave, “Any monster you ever wanted to design, I can figure out how to put it in this movie, so go crazy.” Some of my favorite memories are walking over to Dave’s shop and seeing what ridiculous monsters they’d come up with that day.

How many of those creatures did you want to echo well-known characters from other films—like Fornicus, who’s clearly a Cenobite homage—and how many did you want to be original?

It wasn’t a math problem; it wasn’t like I sat down and went, “OK, 50 percent this, 50 percent that.” I just went with my gut. I wanted both; I wanted to tip our hat, but also come up with new things so, again, it didn’t feel like the greatest hits. It came down to, “What do we love?” And I just love the Cenobites. I think they’re among the greatest monsters in cinema history, so I felt like we had to include them here.

I also loved the minimovies you see on the corporate screens, like the one in Japan with the schoolgirls and the ghost. Was there anything like that you wanted to do, but didn’t make it into the final film?

We were lucky in that we got everything we wanted. Certainly, Joss and I talked about what was going on in the different worlds. We could do that all day. At a certain point, we realized if we put too much of that stuff in, it would become overload and we’d lose the story. So there are certainly other scenarios we would love to explore, but Japan felt right for this one.

Was Whedon involved in any of the on-set direction, or did he step back and let you do your thing?

As a good producer should, Joss was there when I needed him and protected me when I needed to be protected. He would hang out in the shadows when we didn’t need his presence felt, but he was certainly never far, and whenever I needed to light up the Joss-signal, he’d come swooping in.

Not to give too much away, but was there any discussion with either MGM or Lionsgate about the ending, and whether they might want something different?

Yeah, certainly. That’s a discussion I’ve gotten used to in my career. It’s hard to make a movie and not have some version of that discussion. But it just felt wrong to go any other way with Cabin. Luckily, because Joss and I knew the story we were trying to tell, we were able to hold that line, and to the studios’ credit, once we made our argument as to why the movie needed to end that way, they got on board and backed us up.

Were there any other changes when Lionsgate picked up the film?

No. God bless ’em, they did not ask for one change. They just said, “We love this movie, and we want to put it out exactly as it is.” And that never happens, as filmmakers will tell you. I will be eternally grateful to Lionsgate.

How about MPAA issues? The final sequence is incredibly gory, and it’s amazing you got away with an R rating.

It’s funny, because I was expecting to have to trim stuff and go back and forth [with the ratings board], and we didn’t at all. I believe the comedic element helped, and the over-the-topness of it; if it was quiet and intimate and that gory, it might have gotten us in trouble. But the truth is, I don’t really understand what gets an R and what doesn’t. I was just happy that we did.

On Buffy and Angel, you got to go pretty far with monsters and mayhem on TV, but was it fun on Cabin to really throw off all restrictions and say, “We’re going to be as splattery as possible,” since it was a feature film?

Yeah, without question. It’s funny, I was watching some of the DVD extras, and they’re like home movies from my youth. There’s a shot of me standing in the bloody lobby telling Dave Anderson, “I need a big bag of guts.” Dave says, “How big?” and I say, “Like a hippopotamus stomach filled with guts.” I was watching that going, “Look how happy I was!” [Laughs] This was really 12-year-old Drew’s greatest dream: to be standing in this bloody lobby, having his creature designer make him a bag of guts so he can drop it from the ceiling so that it can go “plop”! I was giddy.

What has been the best experience seeing Cabin in the Woods with an audience?

[Laughs] I never get tired of watching the third act with an audience. Once all hell breaks loose, it’s really fun to feel that energy as they think, “Are they actually going to do this? Are they going to do what I suspect they’re about to do?” Once it happens, you can just feel the cheers. It’s really fun to see. I have to thank the fans for all their support. It’s been unbelievable; it really has been a dream come true to see their reactions to this movie. It’s been beyond my wildest dreams, quite honestly, so it means more to me than they’ll ever know.

Cloverfield was another kind of genre homage; are you in love with horror and monsters in general, and are there more homages like that you would like to do?

Yeah, I’m certainly in love with monsters and horror in general, that’s for sure. But it’s funny—when I start out, I don’t think about “homage” in particular, I just think about what types of stories I like. So if you asked me, “Hey, what do you want to write today?”, that’s what comes up first. I think if you set out to do a homage, it gets a little boring. You need to start out writing what you love and hope for the best.

As a found-footage movie, how much of Cloverfield was scripted, and how much was up to the actors to improvise and fill in the blanks?

It was very scripted. The thing about low-budget movies, which both Cloverfield and Cabin were, is that it’s hard to account for too much improvising, because you just don’t have time. But certainly, and luckily, there’s improvised stuff in both that is some of my favorite moments. The actors in Cloverfield were very good at making it feel lived-in and not scripted, which was a real challenge, because in the first couple of drafts, my writing was a little more stylized. Then we would watch people in actual disaster videos, and what they said was more impulsive; if you watch, say, 9/11 videos, it’s just a lot of panic and fear. When you’re panicking, you don’t have time to think of quippy lines, so I definitely pulled back on a lot of that to make it feel more real.

Was one of the challenges the one that faces makers of all found-footage movies, which is justifying why the guy keeps taping?

Yeah, a little bit, though I feel like it wasn’t as hard as maybe in some other movies, because when you have a giant monster, you feel like people would be filming that. If that happened today, and there was a 40-story creature attacking, everybody would whip their phones out and start filming it.

It’s interesting that you refer to both Cloverfield and Cabin in the Woods as low-budget, as they both look spectacular. What’s the secret to taking modest budgets and making them look so good?

I think I learned from TV. That’s really the secret, and that’s why we’re seeing J.J. and Joss have such success right now, because TV is a great training ground for all those issues. I can’t tell you how many times on Lost or Alias we figured out how to dress the Disney commissary to look like, you know, Spain over the years. At a certain point, you get good at figuring out how to make things look expensive when you’re just using somebody’s backyard. That’s always my favorite part, because it gets back to that feeling when you were a kid and you didn’t have any resources, but you still wanted to make home movies, so you’d just go use your neighbor’s house.

Can we look forward to more collaborations between you and Whedon or Abrams?

I certainly hope so. I’m going to be bothering those two jerks for quite some time!