Video/Q&A: 'The Cabin in the Woods' director/co-writer Drew Goddard

Stop what you’re doing, horror movie directors, “The Cabin in the Woods” director/co-writer Drew Goddard isn’t buying.

“I can tell when a group of characters are supposed to be friends but don’t care about each other. That’s probably the thing that bothers me the most,” says Goddard, who also wrote “Cloverfield” and worked with “Cabin” co-writer Joss Whedon on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel.” “When you feel like they don’t care about one another [and] they just want to protect themselves, which is not my experience with people.”

Goddard avoids that convention and many more with “Cabin,” which seems like an ordinary story of five good-looking 20-somethings (including Kristen Connolly and pre-”Thor” Chris Hemsworth) that, without giving anything away, turns into a shockingly awesome commentary on horror genre formula.

At the Peninsula Hotel, Goddard, 37, talked about being terrified of horror movies as a kid, die-hard fans and how much better all movies could be with the addition of zombies.

When you look at the types in “Cabin:” the “whore,” the “virgin,” the “athlete,” it reminded me of “The Breakfast Club.” How much should we see that as a horror movie?
It’s funny ’cause I think one of the things at the core of “Cabin”—as “Cabin” goes it expands so it’s not just about horror movies anymore. It’s about mythology and it’s about archetypes that we’ve had since the beginning of time. Once you start recognizing the archetypes you can spot them in most genres. It’s not just in the horror genre. You can spot them in the comedy genre. You spot them in romantic comedy. You spot them in things like “The Breakfast Club.” Archetypes are archetypes for a reason; they tell us something about ourselves. That was the question of why; why do we create [these] mythologies, is a question that was very much at the heart of this movie.
 
I would definitely like “The Breakfast Club” better if zombies came out of the gym and attacked everybody.
[Laughs.] Very few movies would not be made better if zombies were suddenly added in the middle of them.
 
What are the exceptions?
I was going to say “Terms of Endearment,” but “Terms of Endearment” I think would actually be better if some zombies showed up. So none, the answer is none: They’d all be better.
 
You wanted to make a conscious effort not to seem like you were condescending to other movies. How much frustration do you have as a horror fan when seeing what feels like the same movie over and over?
Tremendous. The thing that bothers me the most is you can really tell when the director or filmmakers in general just don’t care about their subjects. About either their genre or their characters. And if a filmmaker doesn’t care about his characters it just pollutes the whole movie. When that happens that’s when clichéd stuff starts to happen because now characters aren’t even acting like characters; they start acting like your puppets. They start acting like the director’s puppets to just do puppety things and then be done with it.
 
How can you tell it’s happening?
It’s instinct I guess. It’s not like there’s a clue. You can just tell they don’t care. The deaths become arbitrary. The deaths become fetishized. It’s like, “Oh, that guy’s dead. Move on.” There’s not a sense that these people are real people.
 
What would it be like if someone took a “Cabin in the Woods”-style approach to another genre?
Joss and I talk about that all the time. [Laughs.] We would love to do “Cabin in the Woods” with a romantic comedy. You can sort of see the same sort of manipulation. ’Cause that’s a genre that I think, the romantic comedy has become a little stale in the last 10 years. It’s a genre I love and I would love to see somebody do it right again. It would be fun to put them through our ringer.
 
What do you make of mash-ups like “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”?
It always comes down to execution. Some of your favorite movies, if you heard them in one-line form, before [the movie] came out, you would go, “That movie sounds terrible.” But then it’s done well and you’re like, “Oh, this movie is great.” If they do it well, there’s no bad ideas. And if it’s terrible [execution], no amount of the idea can save it.
 
Everything you and Joss Whedon do has this intensely rabid audience. Why do you think what is commonly referred to as “geek culture” has such passionate fans?
I guess I can speak to why we’re passionate about Joss because I started as a fan of Joss. I came to “Buffy” late. When I was in college, I saw the first episodes of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and it felt like a bomb went off. It felt like, “Oh, somebody is actually doing it better. Somebody has figured out a new form of storytelling and they’re mixing the things I love together in a new way.” And it was like nothing I had ever seen; it made me rethink what I wanted to do with my life. Between that and “The X-Files,” it felt like all the best stuff was being done in television. It felt like far more interesting genre stuff was happening in television at that time. I just studied him. I think the secret to his success is he cares about his characters more than anyone I’ve ever seen. He loves his characters and he works so hard to make sure you empathize with them and you can emotionally relate to them. And when that happens you can tell any kind of story you want. If your characters work and you love them and you relate to them you can go to the farthest ends of the world. You can do the most ridiculous things. On “Buffy” and “Angel” we did some ridiculous storytelling we should not have been able to do, but because it was always grounded in what these characters were going through, always relatable, it always worked. And I think people respond to that. I think that’s why they become members of your family and that’s why people get so passionate.
 
What’s the most intense fan response you’ve seen that reinforces that?
It still happens. The fact that Browncoats [from “Firefly” and “Serenity”] show up to my “Cabin in the Woods” screening. They just want to talk about Wash dying. It’s like, “I get it.” I’m like, “I know! I’m sad too! I want to talk about these things!” The fact that this is carrying on, it just continues. It’s more about the endurance, the most sort of surprising thing to me. Because we live in a culture where things get chewed up and we’re done with very quickly. And to see these things endure and to see people still care after all these years, it’s really satisfying.
 
There’s a lot that we can’t talk about with “Cabin in the Woods.” As you were developing the movie and then shot the last 20 minutes in particular, was there a voice in your head that said, “Our fanbase will absolutely devour this.”?
It was more, “We are going to devour this.” Both Joss and I were like, “This is it. This is our ticket to finally do something we’ve always wanted to do and put something on the screen that has never been put on the screen before.” That’s exciting. When you know you stumbled onto something new it’s always invigorating.
 
When you were growing up, what scared you?
Scary movies. It was very hard for me to watch horror movies. I was a kid that—I still sort of am that kid where I can’t quite differentiate between my imagination and what’s real—and it was much stronger as a kid. And so I really believed that Jason was out there hacking people up with machetes. I really believed it. I really believed that there was an alien that could impregnate me and cause something to burst out of my chest. So I would watch these things and then just be emotionally scarred. It wasn’t until I was 18 or 19 that I was able to start knowing the difference. I still get scared. I watched “The Descent” and almost had to leave the theater because I was so scared. [Laughs.] It still happens to me.
 
What memories do you have of being young and watching those characters? What actually happened to you?
There was a lot of sleepovers. And I remember one night a kid was like, “Let’s watch all the ‘Friday the 13th’ movies so we all have nightmares.” And I remember thinking, “That’s a terrible idea. Who wants to have nightmares? That sounds awful; I hate nightmares!” But everyone of course was like, “Yeah, let’s watch that!” I spent like six hours with just my sleeping bag over my head because I didn’t want to watch it I was so scared. [Laughs.] So six hours in a sleeping bag listening to just horrible murder happening is a long time.
 
Did you have nightmares that night?
No, because I didn’t watch. I managed to protect myself.
 
What has been the most common element represented in your nightmares?
These days it’s always a version of not getting enough done. I’m late for my test, I didn’t study for my test. Oh, this all fell apart. Those are classic nightmare—
 
No demonic beings?
No, I feel like I get all my demonic beings out in my work and so they don’t haunt my subconscious.
 
If you could be killed by any monster, which would you choose?
One of mine or just any?
 
Anything.
You’d want it to be somebody fast. Someone who isn’t about torturing. Who’s quick and to the point? Maybe Michael Myers. He doesn’t seem to torture too much. He’s just down for the kill. You want it to be fast and to the point.
 
So you respect the humanity of a quick killer.
I don’t even know if it’s coming from a humanity place. I just appreciate it that I’m not being—like Freddy Krueger would be a terrible way to die because you’re having to experience a lengthy nightmare before you get killed and tortured.
 
Plus:
If he had unlimited time in Chicago: “I’d have to go to a Bulls game. I’d have to get the pizza. Get the hot dog. Get the cuisine. [All in one meal?] [Laughs.] If that was possible, I would do that. For sure.”
On the “Cloverfield” sequel: “There’s no real news. It’s something we all want to do. But it’s a matter of finding the right time. We all have said we don’t want to do it just for the sake of doing it. And luckily the studio’s been very supportive about not saying, ‘You guys have to do a sequel’ because that’s what they normally do. So we’re just talking about it, trying to find a way to make it as interesting as the first one was to us.”
A guilty pleasure movie: “I like all Michael Mann films. And I have watched ‘Miami Vice’ probably more than any human being has watched that film. Including Michael Mann. I really like that film but I understand that it’s a guilty pleasure because clearly not everyone agrees with me. I just like Michael Mann. I just like watching tough guys being conflicted in Miami. It’s a gorgeous film and it’s weird and it’s really long and beautiful. I keep watching it over and over.”

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 7:30 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com. @mattpais

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