The path from writer to director is an oft-trod one in Hollywood. Jokes about writers not getting any respect abound and nobody can deny there’s more cultural cachet in yelling ‘action’ than typing ‘EXT: Day’. From Joseph L Mankiewicz to Paul Haggis, it seems writers have always had one eye on the megaphone.
Buffy, Lost, Alias and Cloverfield writer Drew Goddard is the latest in a long line of craftspeople who decide only they can direct a movie that’s uniquely theirs. And when your producer is the white-hot-right-now Joss Whedon, it gives you a very powerful champion.
Goddard spoke to his namesake Drew Turney about budgets, horror and why Cabin in the Woods sat finished on a shelf for 3 years.
The Cabin in the Woods trailer doesn’t keep the conceit of the movie secret as a specialised agency populated with office workers shepherds a group of teenagers through an atypical horror story in a remote cabin. Is it a subtext about making movies?
For me it goes a little further than that because it’s about storytelling in general.
It’s also crammed with movie references. What’s your favourite one?
If I answer that I’ll take the fun out of it for other people. There’s a lot in there nobody’s noticed yet and I hope people have fun finding them.
At the time of Cloverfield the found footage genre was new. Cabin in the Woods again turns a very well-worn genre on its head. What attracts you to projects that are unexpected and a little subversive?
I don’t know that we ever set out to be subversive, it just sort of happens with everything I’ve worked on. It’s more that I don’t just want to tell the same old story. I want to try different genre stories and make them personal for me, the rest just happens organically.
How hard is it to do that in today’s industry where studios and cinemas want movies that are easy to sell? Have you had to really force the issue?
Yeah, it’s definitely a challenge. But the lesson I learned with Cloverfield is that studios are willing to take chances. The problem is so many movies are so expensive. When you’re dealing with a couple of hundred million dollars you have to play it safe.
Horror is a fairly inexpensive genre to work in. Is that the reason you become known for that sort of thing?
Maybe. I do like to branch out though, for sure. I guess it’s just how it’s happened so far. But I’ve had the chance to do different things with some of the shows I’ve worked on, and I hope I can continue to do that. That’s what keeps it interesting.
Directing’s new to you. Can you talk about the importance of directing your own script?
Yeah, boy it is. After the fact I discovered it’s the secret to directing, that if you make it personal you write what you believe in. That’s what makes directing a whole lot of fun.
Did being a writer first and foremost give you a better understanding about narrative elements like structure and pacing?
Yeah, that and also all the TV episodes I’ve worked on. I’ve written and produced over a hundred episodes of TV and it’s the perfect training ground for this job because as a TV producer you do a lot of the things that directors do in the film world. So I was very comfortable talking to actors, managing a set, looking at budgets. That’s your job in TV so directing felt very comfortable for me.
But there’s an element of directing you never really understand until you do it, which is having to communicate your vision to hundreds of people so that they can go and execute it. That’s challenging and it certainly took me a little while to get my sea legs.
How did you get your start working with Joss Whedon?
When I saw the first episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and it was like a bomb went off. I felt like somebody was doing something that was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. It was so fresh and exciting and new.
And I just knew I needed to go and track down whoever made it, so I really fought hard to get a job on that show because it felt like this was the most important thing that I’d seen come out and I still feel that way now. Joss is my favourite writer of all time. I still can’t believe that I got a chance to work with them.
Can you see a $200m blockbuster in your future?
Maybe. I’ve learned to never say never because I don’t know who I’m going to be in two years, I don’t know what’s going to be interesting to me in five years. So I just go from project to project and try and be aware of what I’m passionate about at that moment.
Now you’ve done so many things in film and TV from writing and producing to directing do you have a favourite you want to concentrate on?
No, the thing I love is getting to do all of it and switching it up because if I go away and write for a while, it’s good to get out on deck and start directing, and if I’m directing for too long I want just want to go hide in my room and go back to screenwriting. So anytime you flex one muscle, it makes the other muscle stronger. I’m very lucky that I get to do all of it.
Why was Cabin in the Woods on the shelf so long?
MGM got caught in the financial crisis in 2009. They got hit particularly hard and went bankrupt. And as with any bankruptcy, it takes a while to get all the red tape untangled. But I think it’s worked out for the best, we’ve ended. We’ve ended up in a studio that is nothing but supportive of our film.
It would have been terrible if the film had been dumped (The film made almost $60m off a $30m budget internationally. After announcing the film would be released direct to video in Australia, local distributor Roadshow decided on a limited theatrical release).
That was my fear. But [new studio] Lionsgate loved it and didn’t want to change a frame. I couldn’t have asked for better partners. So I’ve learned to be careful what you worry about. Sometimes going bankrupt is the best thing that could happen to you.
What horror films do you really like that you wanted to turn upside down with Cabin in the Woods?
The main thing is that every horror film I’ve ever seen influenced the movie in one way or another. So it really is about the genre. But as a child of the ’80s, you know, the films of John Carpenter and Sam Raimi were definitely foremost in my mind when I made this movie.