Interview: “The Cabin in the Woods” director Drew Goddard and star Kristen Connolly

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From the April 12, 2012 edition

“Cabin in the Woods” director Drew Goddard knows how to have fun with an audience. He got his start as a writer for “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and spent a few seasons writing for “Lost.”

We sat down with Goddard and “Cabin” star Kristen Connolly to talk about his wonderfully twisty horror-comedy. (No spoilers ahead: “Cabin” is way more fun without them.)

Drew, your past work was evident in this film. Can you take me back to how the idea was born?

Goddard: You know, I started my career working for Joss (Whedon) on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel.” And a couple of years after that, we were just talking to each other, and we just missed each other. We just wanted to write something again together.

So we were kicking ideas around, and he was like, “I got this idea. What if we did the cabin movie? We call it ‘Cabin in the Woods.” And he had sort of the basic, broad strokes of the movie in his head. And as soon as I heard the phrase “cabin in the woods,” I was like, yeah, I’m in. I love that genre of the horror film.

So it really just came from that. The two of us sitting down and saying, alright, if we could write anything we wanted to, what would we write and how would we pack as much as we love about horror films into one movie?

And some of the things you hate about them too?

Goddard: Yeah, I can see why people see that, but it all comes from a place of love. Even the stuff we’re poking and prodding at, I still love. I understand why things become cliché. You know, clichés become clichés because they work … once upon a time. So it’s all about execution. It is definitely done with love.

What was the screenwriting process like, collaborating with someone that you’re close with already versus just writing along?

Goddard: Because we’ve done it so much in “Buffy,” we had really honed it. We have a distinct way of looking at things, and we just spent months talking about the story and making it not feel like work. Just sitting around and trying to entertain each other, really.

And then once we feel like we have a good outline in place we try to write it as fast as we can. And in this case, we just locked ourselves in a hotel room, and said we’re not allowed to leave this hotel room until we write this script. And that’s what we did. We just cranked it out as fast as we could … Three days. And, you know, we rewrote it after that, but the first draft was three day.

So did you leave the room at all for three days?

Goddard: I would sometimes pace outside when I got stuck. But we wouldn’t leave the hotel itself. I’d pace in the hall. And sometimes we would send down to get room service.

Kristen, what was your first take on the script?

Connolly: Well, I didn’t read the script until actually after I’d already gotten the part … because all of the audition scenes that we had were fake. I had one scene where I was crying a lot, and then there was another scene with Kurt (Chris Hemsworth) where we were being chased by pterodactyls, and we’re screaming, “We have to get to the tunnels!” And I don’t know what the tunnels were, so I was doing my actor homework and I was like, “Yeah, these tunnels.” And then it was, like, wait a second, I don’t think this is a real scene in the movie. …

After we’d all been cast and were in Vancouver, we found out everybody had these crazy scenes. Like Jesse (Williams) had one with Kurt and a monster in a locker room, and Fran (Kranz) had a different monster, and Anna (Hutchinson) had the angry, molesting tree that pulled her out of a hot tub … Fran and I actually did a scene that’s in the actual movie for our audition, but I didn’t know where it fit in, because I hadn’t actually read the (full) script, so I didn’t really have the context for it.

But then I read it and I was just totally blown away. It’s amazing watching the movie, because I can sort of hear people having the same experience that I had reading it … except that it’s in front of you, and you can see it.

But I just couldn’t believe it. I was, like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! We’re going here?! I thought we were going that way. And now we’re somewhere else.”

What’s it like as a young actress reading a horror script? Do you turn every page wondering, “Am I going to be dismembered?”

Connolly: A lot of the time I feel like when I read scripts, there are things that you kind of “clock,” like, what’s this going to be like to shoot it? But I really got lost in the story reading this.

And I didn’t even do the thing of, you know, “bullshit … bullshit … my line,” you know? I read the other scenes even that I wasn’t in … which is kind of amazing. It sucked me in that much that I got lost in it, which is extraordinary.

What was the shooting like? Obviously you had two worlds that sort of came together in the film.

Goddard: There are two worlds to the film, so we shot Kristen’s world first entirely. It’s almost like we went and shot this other movie, which was fun, as a director. It keeps it exciting because it’s like I get to stretch and do different things.

Look, it’s an ambitious movie, certainly for a first-time director. I tried to pull off a lot of stuff, so it was challenging. But that’s what made it rewarding.

But we had a lot of long nights in the woods in the middle of the night where you’re, like, I was cursing the writer … I will never write night scenes again, now that I’ve directed! Nights are hard.

Two characters in a room talking from now on. (laughs)

You’ve got a lot of writing experience. What was the first time being behind the camera like?

Goddard: Luckily I started in TV writing and producing for Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams (“Lost”), because they’re very empowering to writers. So I had a lot of experience talking to actors and managing the set and editing — a lot of the stuff that the director does.

That being said, there’s really nothing like that first day when you say “Action!” and you realize, oh, everyone is looking at you. If something goes wrong, it’s my fault now. I can’t blame it on the director anymore.

It took a little while to get your sea legs under you, but then once you do you realize, oh, this is the most fun job in the world.

Kristen, pretend Drew isn’t here, how was this first-time director from an actor’s perspective?

Connolly: I would never think, “Oh, this is a first-time director.” I always felt like Drew knew exactly what he wanted but would let us play within that, which really is an amazing thing. You feel really secure that there’s a person at the head of the ship who knows where we’re going, but also that you could feel the freedom to do something differently on a certain take.

It was really fun and really playful. Fran and I would be doing a scene, and it would be really intense, and Drew would come out and we would think we were going to get a note that we were doing something wrong. And then he’d be like (whispers), “This is so much fun. Let’s just do it again. This is awesome.” And then walk away.

It was a ball. It was like the kind of job that nobody gets to have.

What was the period of limbo like when you have this really great film in the can … were you wondering if it would ever see the light of day?

Goddard: No, I knew it would, but I just didn’t know when, and so that was a little frustrating. But once you saw “The Hobbit” and “James Bond” also getting delayed you knew, this is not about us. When you’re dealing with billion-dollar bankruptcies, nothing moves quickly. It was just so above my pay-grade.

All I cared about was just protecting the film, because when there’s a change of management, there’s that worry that the new boss is gonna come in and make you change the movie. Once they started showing the movie, a couple of different studios started bidding on it. And Lionsgate outbid them all and said, “We love this film. Don’t change a frame.” Then I was just relieved.

One thing you do really well is the balance of horror and comedy — sometimes the laughs kind of play off the scares. Which do you think is harder: making people laugh or making people scared?

Goddard: The harder part is doing both, because they’re very different. And to short of shift tones that quickly … when people ask what the hardest part of directing this move was, it was definitely maintaining tone, because we do go so crazy.

The trick to both — making people laugh and making people scared — is just casting great actors. You look for actors that can shift gears for you, because I can’t do it. They have to do it for you.

Connolly: Something that Drew had us all on the same page about pretty early on which factors into that is we weren’t playing it for a laugh. I think we were all just trying to play it as truthfully as we could — about the friendship between the kids and this crazy situation they get thrown into.

Drew, what of what you’ve worked on do you think was most influential in “Cabin”?

Goddard: That’s a good question. I’ve been very lucky in that all the things I’ve worked on, I felt like I’ve been able to work my own voice into those things. So “Cabin” feels like the natural progression of “me,” I suppose.

The thing that I learned from all of the shows that I got to work on is all of them were fearless. All of them didn’t feel like they just had to do the same episode. It’s a credit to Joss and to J.J. and to Damon Lindelof. They never felt comfortable doing the same thing.

It was like, let’s take risks and be OK being different, and trust that the audience will come with us, even when we’re taking chances. And I feel like “Cabin” is very much the culmination of those lessons.