What's inside the Cabin? Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon re-team for a meta take on horror movies
Stop us if you've heard this story: Five attractive young people vacationing in an isolated cabin find their fun and games interrupted by a mess of monsters with blood in their eyes and evil intentions… Okay, you've heard this story. But trust us—you haven't heard this version, the brainchild of 37-year-old, New Mexico-born Drew Goddard and longtime collaborator Joss Whedon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel”). Their giddy little genre-bender, The Cabin in the Woods (opening on April 13), combines horror, comedy and a slew of sly allusions to movies ranging from the familiar to the for-serious-buff-only…you know who you are.
Let's be clear here: The Cabin in the Woods isn't a parody or a spoof like Scream If You Know What I Did Last Friday the 13th. Anyone can poke snotty fun at genre conventions (which is not the same thing as saying anyone can do it well), exhibit A being the Scary Movie franchise, a monument to smug, juvenile witlessness; trying to describe Cabin in terms of Scary Movie would be like trying to describe a wolf to someone whose only point of reference is a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.
Making a movie that toggles seamlessly between being genuinely funny and genuinely scary is hard, in part because there are twice as many ways to go wrong; that's why everyone remembers the handful of films that nail the mix, movies like An American Werewolf in London and Shaun of the Dead. So what made Goddard gamble his directing debut on the kind of project that trips up veteran filmmakers with frightening regularity?
"I wish I could say a lot of thought went into it," he says with a laugh, "but Joss and I just started from 'What do we want to watch?' We both love horror movies, so we started there. And we both love movies that shift gears and change tone and are hard to classify, like American Werewolf, which was a huge influence. Plus I like any movie where you have a bunch of characters trapped in a small space with something bad, movies like Alien and The Thing. Joss and I call them 'cabin movies'—even if it's a spaceship or a research station in Antarctica, it's still a cabin and the danger comes as much from the people trapped inside as from whatever's outside.
"We just wanted to tell a story we were interested in and everything started with characters: who they are, where they're coming from, how they react when things start happening."
And he's not just talking about the kids in the cabin: From the suit-and-tie types who are manipulating the gory events in the woods from a high-tech command center—and no, that's not a spoiler, as we're still in the first act when we find out what they're doing, if not why—casting was so much more important than it is in most horror movies, where aspiring victims need little more than good looks and better lungs, and all that's required of monsters-to-be is that they not be allergic to latex.
"For the kids, we wanted fresh faces. We saw hundreds of people for the kids, and a lot of them came in and just played the archetypes; obviously, Cabin is dealing in archetypes, but we were looking for people who'd play against them. I told them, I can make you into an archetype, just by the way you're dressed. But you have to be a person, and the people we cast all got that.
“Fran [Kranz] probably had the highest profile going in because he'd been on ‘Dollhouse,’ and Chris [Thor] Hemsworth has become a big star since then…which is what we want for all of them—that they move on to bigger and better things.
“With the adults, we kind of wrote the roles for the actors because we knew and loved their work. People like Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins could all do what we required, which is shift gears smoothly. They can go from comedy to drama and make it seem effortless, and that's a hard thing for some actors. So when you find people who can do it extraordinarily well, you just grab them and hold them tight."
Even the adolescent zombie in the dirt-caked gingham dress gets a little backstory. "We spent a lot of time talking about the zombies—the Buckner family," Goddard laughs, "and especially about Patience Buckner. There's something in Joss' DNA that makes him just love writing 12-year-old prairie-girl zombies—he could go on for hours about where Patience Buckner came from and how this happened to her… If they ever make an action figure of Patience, Joss and I will be first in line to get one."
Overall the writing was the easy part, Goddard says, in part because Whedon had created a rough three-act outline before they sat down to the work of turning a great idea into a viable screenplay ("with that skeleton we were free to sit and improvise"), in part because they'd already worked out the kinks that inevitably go with a collaborative relationship ("From writing so many episodes of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’ we already had a shorthand in place"), and in part because they'd decided not to start looking for financing until they had a finished script in hand. "If the studios buy into a project at the idea level," Goddard explains, "they feel it's their right to have input. By doing it this way, for a long time there were only two people in the room, Joss and me.
"And because I was going to direct, we knew the best thing we could do in terms of making Cabin in the Woods attractive to financiers was do as much of the work as possible in advance. So not only did we have the entire script, but we also did the budget and figured out our schedules; when we began looking for financers we could say, 'Here's the package: It's not going to cost very much, but we don't want to change anything.' And fortunately for us, there was a bidding war."
The winner was MGM which, if not exactly the first name in horror, has over the years produced and/or released Freaks, Poltergeist, Eye of the Devil, The Haunting, He Knows You're Alone, cult Boris Karloff favorites The Haunted Strangler and Corridors of Blood, Village of the Damned, Fiend Without a Face, and The Hunger. Not a bad line-up. When The Cabin in the Woods went into production in 2009, it looked as though there was nothing ahead but smooth sailing…until MGM filed for bankruptcy.
"Lionsgate got this picture for nothing," Goddard recalls, "and we were lucky they came in as a savior because they got what we were doing. They're one of the few studios left taking chances on genre movies—a lot of the movies that have influenced me in the last ten years have been made by Lionsgate.
"In the end it worked out fine for us, but it's sad to see a company go down like that, especially when it's a company like MGM. The people we were working with were people who believed in us and suddenly, through no fault of theirs, the company they work for has gone bankrupt. It was tough."
But even the genre insiders at Lionsgate had blind spots…like the scenes of Japanese grade-schoolers enduring their own ordeal by supernatural siege that we occasionally glimpse on flat-screen TVs in the command center. It's a plot point, if a minor one—seems the U.S. isn't the only country deliberately maneuvering unsuspecting young people into life-and-death face-offs against pure evil—but it's also a horror-buff shout-out to the game-changing legacy of post-Ringu A-horror.
"That was one of the things the studio wanted us to cut [after test screenings]," Goddard admits. "And we fought to keep it in. I understand that there are benefits to pre-release testing, but it can also be a real negative: When studios get notes like 'I'm confused about the Japanese schoolroom,’ they panic. My feeling is, some people find that a little confusing? That's okay—the movie doesn't hinge on it. But it's hard for studios to think that way.
"And what's really bad is that if you do your job and make a good movie, they look at it and think, 'I could make even more money if…’ The ‘if’ being 'if we make it into something more palatable [to a mainstream audience].' So you have to be really sure about what you're doing and hold firm on the things you think are important."
Everyone admires artistic integrity, but everyone also knows a cautionary tale or two about talented filmmakers whose careers fizzled because they were unwilling or unable to make their piece with the business part of show business. But Goddard and Whedon have learned to negotiate the line between selling out and staying in the game. "It's only a good thing for moviemakers to be able to talk to movie studios in business terms, to be able to say, 'I want you to make money and I believe we can deliver a sizeable return on your investment.'
"With Cabin, Joss and I went to MGM and said, 'We're not going to make money if this movie doesn't. We're not here to spend your money and run. This is a low-budget movie and that's how we're approaching it, including our own fees. You're our partners and we're going to treat you as partners.'
"If you can say something like that, it calms studios down quite a bit…and to MGM's credit, even when we were doing battle, we never lost one where we felt we had to dig our heels in and fight to the death. They were incredibly supportive when it came down to 'Okay, you guys think this is incredibly important.' Not all filmmakers are afforded that luxury and we were appreciative."
At the end of the (long) day, Goddard and Whedon made the movie they wanted to make, a smart, ballsy, unpredictable and very personal one. Not "personal" as in the dreaded "personal project" that's been simmering in a filmmaker’s head for so long that he or she has lost all perspective, but personal in the sense that it owes more to a pair of distinctive sensibilities than to current trends, demographic research or market testing. And that should make horror fans scream with delight.