Credit: Michele K. Short

J.J. Abrams and his team at Bad Robot outdid themselves when they dropped the 10 Cloverfield Lane trailer on an unsuspecting public in January. This wasn’t just a repeat of what they did in 2007, when they made a preview for Cloverfield before even shooting the actual film. This was a finished movie.

So how did they do that?

In conjunction with a longer story on the making of 10 Cloverfield Lane appearing in this week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly, here’s a quick breakdown on how Bad Robot pulled off the biggest surprise of the year.

1. Find the script

Lane began its life as The Cellar, an original screenplay by Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken that Abrams described as having a “very powerful Twilight Zone vibe.”

“The story was wholly original, a very different situation, different characters from anything we’ve done,” he says. “But the spirit of it, the genre of it, the heart of it, the fear factor, the comedy factor, the weirdness factor, there were so many elements that felt like the DNA of this story were of the same place that Cloverfield was born out of.”

2. Rewrite and create a code name

The project — now called Valencia — still required some developing to make it fit the specifications of the Clover-verse (whatever that is). That was achieved with some rewrites, the only credited one coming from Whiplash writer-director Damien Chazelle.

3. Hire an up-and-coming director

Dan Trachtenberg burst onto the scene with Portal: No Escape, a fan film based on the popular video game series. That short got Trachtenberg into a lot of rooms, including one at Bad Robot.

No Escape led to a number of projects for Trachtenberg, but none got more attention than an adaptation of Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man, a mammoth task for any filmmaker, nevertheless one making his feature debut. But when that project stalled out, Trachtenberg found Valencia. “Having made this, I’m so glad I made this first,” he says, “because you’re so much more in control of all the moving parts when it’s something of a certain size.”

4. Cast discreetly

Even though the scale of 10 Cloverfield Lane kept the cast small, producers were still cautious about who got to know what. When John Gallagher, Jr., auditioned and Skyped with Trachtenberg, he only received a partial script and didn’t find out about the Clover-verse plans until partway through filming. “Maybe this was the idea from the beginning and I was late to the equation,” Gallagher says.

5. Shoot discreetly

During the 36-day shoot in New Orleans, Valencia got the full Bad Robot treatment. Physical scripts were printed on red paper — just like those for Star Wars: The Force Awakens — and any digital links were sent with a limitied viewing window, after which they’d deactivate. “You don’t want this getting out,” Mary Elizabeth Winstead says. “That was very clear to me from the get-go.”

6. Keep details hidden until last moment

It wouldn’t be enough to keep 10 Cloverfield Lane a secret. In a time when studio films typically follow a rigidly structured marketing plan, releasing a film less than two months after the world learns of its existence is downright revolutionary.

But even on the day of the trailer’s release, the film’s true identity still wasn’t entirely clear to some of those most intimately involved. Winstead learned the final title of the film hours before the trailer drop only after a call from Trachtenberg.

“We kept it quiet because we knew we wanted to try something unusual,” Abrams says. “Something unusual doesn’t always work, but at least it’s unusual.”

To continue reading more on 10 Cloverfield Lane, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands Friday, or buy it here.

10 Cloverfield Lane
  • Movie
  • 113 minutes