'Cabin in the Woods': 2012's most buzzed-about fright flick
“I still smell the blood in my sleep,” says Drew Goddard. The filmmaker is talking about the psychic aftershocks of shooting his debut movie, The Cabin in the Woods, a horror comedy he co-wrote with Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator and Avengers director Joss Whedon. That Goddard’s subconscious is still haunted is testament to the volume of fake red stuff in his movie, which stars Chris Hemsworth, Bradley Whitford, and Richard Jenkins. Why? Because Goddard shot Cabin in Vancouver way back in 2009, only to see its release delayed by more than two years due to the bankruptcy of the film’s original studio, MGM. That’s long enough for Hemsworth to have played the role of Thor twice, the second time in Whedon’s Avengers, which would arrive in cinemas just three weeks after Cabin. “We shot the film and had an amazing time,” says the Australian actor. “Then it disappeared for three years.” Here, in a piece originally published last April as the movie finally hit theaters, is one of the year’s best making-of stories.
For more stories behind this year’s top TV and movie moments, click here for EW.com’s Best of 2012: Behind the Scenes coverage.
That waiting game officially ended on March 9, when the gloriously grotesque Cabin was screened at South by Southwest (the music and film mega-festival held in Austin March 9-18). The film was received rapturously at the city’s Paramount Theatre — so much so that at the post-screening Q&A, Goddard admitted he was close to tears. “It did feel like a rock concert,” says Jenkins, who attended the event with Goddard, Whedon, and several other cast members. “People were so pumped.”
And with good reason. The film’s basic plot outline may sound far from revolutionary: Bad things happen to five college kids when they drive out to a you-know-what in the you-know-where. But that’s almost beside the point. During the course of the twist-packed movie, Whedon and Goddard shuffle the horror deck with a demented enthusiasm not seen since Scream. As Whitford says, “It was clear when you read the script that this was a fierce, idiosyncratic vision.” Indeed, the truly remarkable thing about Cabin is not that it took three years to arrive on screens but that its pair of creators thought anyone would let them make it in the first place.
Goddard and Whedon are longtime friends and collaborators, the former having scripted episodes of Buffy and its spin-off, Angel. The two habitually meet up to chat about movies over drinks, and in the spring of 2007 Whedon told Goddard that he had an idea for “a cabin movie,” the horror subgenre which includes both The Evil Dead and Friday the 13th. “We’re both big horror fans,” elaborates Whedon “and I basically had had an idea that would let us really write a move that was about horror movies while being a straight-up, good fun and scary horror movie. It was an idea that was very logical and very absurd. And if you’ve ever spent any time with Drew you’ll know that that’s the perfect match for him. He’s extremely great about structured storytelling and he’s extremely dedicated to his connection to the audience — but he’s also out of his mind. When I have my weirdest ideas, he’s the guy that I go to and say, ‘Shouldn’t we do this?’ and he’s like, ‘That’s totally awesome!'”
And Goddard did indeed think Whedon’s idea — which we will not be elaborating on in the course of this article — was totally awesome. “I lit up,” recalls the Cabin director who also wrote the J.J. Abrams-produced 2008 monster movie Cloverfield. While invoking — and playing with — classic horror tropes, the duo also envisioned the film as an alternative to “torture porn” movies like Hostel and Saw. Instead, they wanted to invoke the more “fun” likes of The Evil Dead, John Carpenter’s slasher classic Halloween,and Wes Craven’s phantasmagorical A Nightmare on Elm Street. “We’ve had a growing disconnect between watching people getting murdered and ‘horror,’ which is not actually about murder,” says Whedon. “It can contain murder, but it’s not limited to it. We wanted to go back to old-school thrilling scares.”
The pair developed plot and character concepts over the next few months and then checked into a suite at a hotel in Los Angeles, determined not to leave the premises until they had a finished script. In the end, it took them just three days. “When we were working on Buffy the Vampire Slayer we would write very quickly,” says Goddard. “There’s an energy that comes when you’re writing fast. There’s something about jumping off the cliff and seeing where you land. You end up taking more chances because you don’t have a choice to say, ‘Well, let’s put that away for a while and see what happens.’ Joss and I were talking a lot about how we missed that energy. So we said, ‘We are not allowed to leave this hotel until we have a finished script. It definitely inspired us. It was the most intense amount of writing in a period I’ve ever done in my life and it was also, amazingly, the most fun.”
Goddard says the pair’s expectations as to what might happen with the script were not so much low as nonexistent. “The spirit of Cabin was always like, ‘We didn’t care,'” he says. “We were absolutely at peace. It’s like the samurais: You believe that you’re dead before you go into battle so then nothing bad can happen to you. We didn’t care what happened with this movie, we just wanted to write what we wanted to write.”
The pair were aware studio executives might be tempted to tinker with their script’s unusual plot machinations, and traveled as far down the development path as they could before shopping the project around. “We did the budgets, figured out the schedule,” recalls Goddard. “We did all the legwork and said, ‘This is the package, take it or leave it.’ Because this is the type of movie that can easily get killed by committee. Luckily, people got it.”
Next: “It was like, ‘F—k, if I don’t get this part, it’s going to haunt me.'”
In July 2008, MGM announced it had acquired and greenlit the Cabin script. The project was further developed at MGM’s subsidiary United Artists, which was being partly overseen by Tom Cruise. As a result, Goddard and Whedon found themselves in the unusual position of receiving notes from Jerry Maguire. “That was definitely one of those surreal experiences,” says Goddard. “It was wonderful. I mean, Tom Cruise — at least in my experience with him — I’ve never met a more enthusiastic, creative, and supportive person. He has that energy and to feel that energy directed towards you about you, it’s like a drug. It’s wonderful. He was so excited about the script and so complimentary and really just pointed out scenes in the movie that he felt we should bring out more. And he was totally right.”
In traditional horror-movie style, Goddard cast up-and-comers to play the five archetypal hero-victims in the film whose budget the director describes as being in the “low-to-middle” range. Grey’s Anatomy star Jesse Williams won the role of the studious Holden; New Zealand actress Anna Hutchison secured the part of blond party girl Jules; Guiding Light graduate Kristen Connolly was hired to portray the virginal Dana; and Fran Kranz from the Whedon-created Dollhouse was cast as the conspiracy-obsessed stoner Marty.
Kranz says that the fact he was working closely with Whedon on Dollhouse at the time caused some stressful moments as the actor waited to hear if he had gotten the part in Cabin. “It was awkward,” he admits. “We had a good working relationship so I felt comfortable talking to him about mostly anything. But there was this big elephant in the room, at least for me. I would be on pins and needles whenever he walked by. At one point (Dollhouse star) Eliza Dushku asked him how Cabin in the Woods was coming and he said, ‘We’re just putting together a really second-rate cast.’ It was a joke but I was so insecure I was like, ‘Oh, s—, what’s happening?’ It totally freaked me out. Of course, he’s screwing around. But that’s how insecure actors can be.” Kranz knew that if he didn’t secure the role it would “be on my mind the rest of my life. When I read that script, being a fan of horror and just movies period, I was telling people, it’s like an action movie, it’s just epic, it’s insane. So it was like, ‘F—k, if I don’t get this part it’s going to haunt me.'”
Finally, Goddard cast the then relatively unknown Hemsworth to play the film’s jock, Curt. “We probably saw over 100 people for that role,” says the director. “I was looking for actors that can break your heart. These people need to be real, because we go to such unreal places. He just had that. As soon as he walked out of the room I said, ‘That guy’s got the job.'”
Hemsworth had previously appeared in the J.J. Abrams-directed Star Trek reboot — he played Kirk’s father — and the sadly underseen A Perfect Getaway. But when he auditioned for Goddard, the actor hadn’t worked for a worrying length of time. “I did Star Trek and a couple of other films and thought, ‘Okay, I’m off. This is it, I’m in the game,'” he says. “Then it was just nothing for eight, nine months. Just before that audition, I’d gotten to a place where I thought, ‘You know what? Let it go. Stop trying to control. Get rid of the desperation. Go in there and have fun and who cares?’ It was the first time I’d had an audition where I was a little more at ease with the process. It all sort of felt right. Occasionally it’s like trying on a pair of shoes, this game: ‘Oh yeah, for whatever reason, this one fits.'”
Hemsworth’s future-star status would be confirmed during the Vancouver shoot when he landed the Kenneth Branagh-directed Thor. How did it happen? “Drew and Joss said to me, ‘Why the hell aren’t you playing Thor?'” Hemsworth recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t know. I had an audition and it went nowhere.’ Joss [spoke to] Kenneth Branagh and said some great things, and that got me back in the game.’
Whedon confirms that he talked up the actor to Branagh. “I got a call from Kenneth Branagh asking about him and our experience with him,” says the Buffy creator. “I was like, ‘We love him, he’s a movie star.'” Whedon also recalls that when he got the Avengers directing gig a couple of years later he spoke with Branagh again to ask him about his experience working with Hemsworth on Thor. Was he checking to see if the actor had become an a–? “Oh, he already was,” jokes Whedon. “He’s insufferable.”
Next: “The whole studio was filled with blood.”
Early in 2009 Goddard and his cast relocated to Vancouver. In preparation for their respective characters’ onscreen adventures, Hemsworth brushed up on his motorbike-riding skills while Connolly and Williams were required to take scuba lessons. Kranz was left with the rather less thrilling mission of perfecting his joint-rolling technique. “When you do a movie, you want to be like, ‘Yeah, I’m learning to ride horses and archery’ or whatever,” says the actor. “I would just smoke different types of fake weed.”
Hemsworth admits it was only when the Cabin shoot had been progressing for a while that he fully understood what Goddard and Whedon were attempting with their collaboration. “Look, this was in the early stages [of my career] and I like to think I’ve grown since then,” laughs the actor. “But you make the mistake of just concentrating on your piece. I knew that Drew had done some great work and I obviously knew who Joss was. But I wasn’t by any means overly educated in everything they had done. When we were shooting I realized I hadn’t looked closely enough at the script. It was only when I started hearing about what else they’d shot and went back and read the script again I went, ‘Oh, okay, now I get it.’ But that naivety sometimes is an advantage. It was like when I was shooting Star Trek. I didn’t know much about Star Trek, really. If I had had any idea of what that was I would have probably screwed that up.”
By common consent, the shoot was a happy one with Goddard proving an infectiously enthusiastic leader. “The passion he had was so contagious,” says Kranz. “It was like kids making a movie in their backyard. I used to make horror movies when I was kid and would make my own blood and stuff. It really felt like that at certain points. The job was taken out of it so often.”
Whedon was also a presence on set, shooting second-unit footage. “I didn’t realize he was going to be doing that,” laughs Kranz. “He continues to worry me! As an actor, it definitely felt like it was Drew’s movie and I would go to Drew for my real questions. But Joss was there. In terms of all the chaos, that was him doing that, which must have been a lot of fun for him.”
Kristen Connolly agrees the shoot was fun but also recalls it being “really hard,” she said. “And it’s Vancouver, so it’s cold, and girls always have a little less on than guys do. It was running around in the woods and I’m soaking wet for half the movie. It’s a miracle I didn’t get sick.”
The shoot also benefited from the presence of an onscreen horror veteran in the form of A Nightmare on Elm Street star Heather Langenkamp. The actress does not appear in Cabin but, along with her makeup artist husband David Leroy Anderson, she owns the company that oversaw much of the film’s effects. “Heather was on set, in meetings,” says Goddard. “There were definitely days where we would look at each other and go, ‘Wait, did the star of Nightmare on Elm Street just solve all our problems?’ It was a very strange and yet incredibly appropriate sighting on the set of Cabin to see Heather walking around, cleaning up blood.”
There was plenty of it to clean up. “The whole studio in Vancouver was filled with blood,” says Richard Jenkins. “There was blood on everybody’s shoes. Joss would come over and he had blood all over his pants. I said, ‘This is new.'”
Bradley Whitford says the experience of filming Cabin could hardly have been more different from his experience on the West Wing — “I didn’t get to fire a lot of machine guns on The West Wing” — but argues Goddard and Whedon are not so different from Wing-teur Aaron Sorkin. “There’s two kinds of — unfortunately they use the word ‘product’ — that comes out of Hollywood,” says the actor. “There’s the stuff that has the unmistakable stench of people who don’t think a joke is personally funny, but tell it anyway — it’s a pretty heartless exercise. Then there’s the wonderful kind, which is when you can tell that David Chase is writing the Sopranos because he thinks the audience is as smart and as funny as he is. I had that experience with Aaron. And that’s what I felt like we had here, where two smart, imaginative guys were trying to entertain each other and do something hilarious, horrible and thoughtful. In my experience you need to let these freaks like Aaron Sorkin and Joss and Drew look in the mirror or look at each other and say, ‘What do I want to write?’ Because it just comes alive.”
The Cabin in the Woods wasn’t the only film being shot in and around Vancouver that spring. At the same time as Goddard was marshaling his gore-streaked troops, director Chris Weitz was making a little film called New Moon. “We were competing for wood space with Twilight, which was odd,” laughs Goddard.
So, to be clear, there aren’t enough trees in western Canada for more than one movie production? “Yeah, but there’s certain locations that are extraordinarily picturesque,” says the director. “We’d run into them on the same tech scouts and we would all try to act like we weren’t that enamored with this location because we didn’t want them to use it. There’s a bit of poker that goes on when you’re competing for locations. Luckily I think we all got what we wanted.”
Next: “My agents were like, ‘Cabin in the Woods might never come out.'”
Despite Goddard and Whedon’s best attempts to head off studio tinkering, MGM did have a couple of thoughts once the movie was edited together. Thoughts like “Hey, could this film be 3-D?” “We have seen the 3-D craze come and go over the course of this movie,” says Goddard. “You know, Avatar came out after we shot it. There was a period there where every studio wanted to make everything 3-D. Certainly they tried with us.”
MGM also had a problem with the film’s gore-free, pre-title sequence which resembles less the first scene of a horror movie than an outtake from Office Space. “Joss and I were like, ‘God, it would be great if people just thought they walked into the wrong movie,'” says Goddard. “Immediately we sit down with the studio execs and they’re like, ‘We’re concerned people are going to be afraid they walked in the wrong movie.’ We were like, ‘That’s exactly what we were going for!’ But, look, MGM showed tremendous faith in us. They gave us everything we wanted and showed us nothing but support. They were great to us. It was just too bad they went bankrupt.”
In November 2010, the debt-ridden MGM filed a Chapter 11 petition in bankruptcy court and Cabin was placed on the shelf. Goddard says it soon became clear that the movie was not the top priority in terms of being disentangled from the MGM mess. “It wasn’t just us,” says the director. “It was The Hobbit, it was James Bond. If they’re taking a while [to deal with those projects] we know, ‘Oh, it’s going to take us a while.’'”
The lengthy waiting period proved particularly wearing on Fran Kranz whose show Dollhouse had been canceled in November 2009. “It was brutal,” says the actor. “There were down moments. Dollhouse was canceled. I got fired from a pilot. Cabin had two release dates that both got pushed. It was this flicker of hope just constantly going out. Also the movie was so secret. My agents hadn’t read the script. So early they were like, ‘You’ve just got to forget about this.’ They were like, ‘Cabin in the Woods might never come out — maybe a DVD release.’ I was like, ‘You guys don’t understand how sweet this movie is!’ Even my mom, which is the worst, [was] like, ‘Maybe it just wasn’t any good.’ To me, it was far and away the best job I ever got and I really believed in the movie. So to have everyone encourage me to just get over it was really sad. But, even if it was in secret, I was always like, ‘I still got Cabin in the Woods!'”
Finally, in April of last year, Lionsgate announced it had picked up the movie’s distribution rights. Whedon says he is well aware of the irony that the company is home to both the Saw and the Hostel franchises. “It is actually perfect that it’s them,” he says. “Not despite the fact that they’ve released some of the movies this is a reaction to, but because they have. Cabin is an insane frolic in some ways, but it is a horror movie. Their passion for horror is a great match.”
There still remained doubts in many people’s minds as to whether the film would ever receive a proper theatrical release. When EW spoke to Heather Lankenkamp not long after the Lionsgate announcement, the Elm Street star sounded unsure about the film’s prospects. “I hope it comes out,” said Langenkamp. “My husband did some incredible work for that and the movie, from what I saw, is going to be magnificent. We’ve been waiting and waiting endlessly.” Around the same time the film and TV website Pajiba placed Cabin on its list of “Six Highly Anticipated Films You May Never Get To See” alongside director David O. Russell’s long-gestating Nailed and the Anna Paquin-starring Margaret, which finally arrived in theaters last fall.
Horror fans and Whedonites weren’t the only ones impatient to see the movie. Chris Hemsworth explains that even he had to wait until the end of 2011, two and a half years after he shot it. “I called my manager and said, ‘Look, I don’t know when the film’s coming out but [they’ve] got to show it to us,” says the Australian. “It’s obviously finished. It’s sitting on the shelf. So tell me which shelf and we’re gonna go watch it.”
Fran Kranz attended a screening of the film around the same time. “I saw it with Bradley Whitford,” says the actor. “The movie starts and I was so in my head about it, so insecure and just worried. But at one point Bradley turned to me and he was like, ‘We’re in the greatest movie ever made.’ I feel like, in terms of just fun, he’s not far off. It’s awesome.”
The film’s delayed release has improved the film’s box-office chances in one important respect. This once relatively star-free project now boasts the presence of a globally famous action hero in the form of Chris Hemsworth. “Honestly, Joss and I talk about this all the time,” says Goddard. ‘We realize the delays may have been the best thing that happened to us. We’re now at a studio that really gets the movie and Chris has become a star. Part of me wants to delay another year and let all the other actors become big stars, because they will. It’s been real kismet. I have to say.”
According to Goddard, it was Lionsgate’s idea to debut the film at SXSW more than a month before its release. “Lionsgate essentially said, ‘Let’s just start showing this movie to people and let that be our biggest marketing tool,'” says the director. “Because I deal with mystery a lot, that felt new to me. But they’ve been 100 percent right.”
The reviews that followed the SXSW screening were almost as ecstatic as the reception it got inside the Paramount Theatre (you know you’ve done something right if your film gets thumbs up from both Fangoria and NPR.org). Happily, critics seemed determined to heed Whedon’s prescreening plea that audience members “enjoy it, and then sorta keep it to yourself.” Kristen Connolly expresses amazement that “people aren’t giving away the spoilers. People are really protecting it in a way. Even in the interviews at South by Southwest, people were like, ‘We can’t really ask you about that and you can’t really answer it.'”
Then again, Goddard says he is not too concerned that word will spread about the film’s twists and turns. “It’s not a movie that is based on one twist. I’m much more interested in escalation,” he says. “I like people to put all their cards on the table… and start stabbing each other over them!”
Whitford is of a similar mindset. “All the President’s Men worked,” says the actor. “And I knew how that was going to end.”
You can watch the trailer for The Cabin in the Woods below.