'It's a very different story, but it is a spiritual successor' to 'Cloverfield'

The months after the premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens have brought the return of a J.J. Abrams that we haven’t seen in a while — the producer of twisty genre tales — with the out-of-nowhere drop of 10 Cloverfield Lane’s trailer.

During a recent press day, during which 20 minutes of the secret film were screened, Entertainment Weekly sat down with Abrams to discuss the mystery behind his latest project and what we can expect from him after reestablishing the Star Wars franchise.

10 Cloverfield Lane, directed by newcomer Dan Trachtenberg and starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, and John Gallagher Jr., opens in theaters on March 11.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How does an original script you acquired get to be a movie under the Cloverfield banner?

J.J. ABRAMS: What happened was that we made Cloverfield in 2008. We had this fun experience surprising people with that movie. I’ve been hearing now for nearly eight years, “When is the sequel coming out? When are you going to do a sequel?” I was always surprised at how frequently people would talk about Cloverfield. But we’re in a post-Godzilla, post-Pacific Rim time. Doing a giant kaiju monster movie needs to have a really great reason to exist, otherwise it becomes just another version of the thing we’ve all seen. We talked about it quite a bit, but nothing presented itself that demands it get made.

This script came in and had an incredibly strong central conceit. It was a very powerful Twilight Zone idea. We began developing the story, and we came upon some things where it became clear to us, that we were in a very interesting place, because the story was wholly original, a very different situation, different characters from anything we’ve done. 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. It just became clear that as we were working on the movie, this could be something that is not the sequel that anyone might expect. It’s not the continuation of the story that people might think of, but it was so clearly associated. There was such a clear Venn diagram of these two things, it felt like if we were literal about connections to the first movie but in no way that people might expect us to be, it could be it’s own thing. We very intentionally didn’t call this movie Cloverfield 2, but we realized that there was enough of a connection, and the movie was good enough that it warranted this association in a way that we think is justified and exciting.

So you chose to interpret “We want another Cloverfield” as “We want another movie like Cloverfield“?

What I interpreted was people wanted to see another point of view. People want to see what happens afterward. People want to see that the monster survived the attack. People want to see if there are more monsters. All of those things were clear. I got what people were asking about, but I also know that the desire to see a sequel doesn’t necessarily justify making one. You have to have an idea that’s better than what people think they want to see to make a movie. This felt like an opportunity to do something we wanted to do anyway, but it felt like its connection to that place was too similar to us to ignore. We thought, “Let’s be overt about it. Let’s make the connection, but not make it the kind of sequel that people might expect.”

Does the trailer drop tie into that?

We obviously didn’t reveal anything about this movie a year or six months beforehand. We kept it quiet because we knew we wanted to try something unusual. Something unusual doesn’t always work, but at least, it’s unusual. Everything [typically] seems to follow a template of: announcement a year before, trailers six month before, all the press, the long lead, then the junket. Everything takes a certain path. We thought, “We know we have to do some of these things because we have to find a way to get the word out.” The obvious stuff. We thought, “When was the last time a movie drops a trailer for a title that no one had heard of two months before the movie is to be release?” Not often.

We thought that was fun. “Why don’t we try the short game, see what happens. If we release this thing just before the movie comes out, will it work?” Maybe not, but it was a way of following in a kind of similar pattern to what we did with the first Cloverfield, where no one had ever heard of this movie. Then all of the sudden, in front of Transformers, there was this trailer for a movie that looked like this crazy, weird giant monster movie, and “How in the world could that have been made without us knowing about it?” Literally, my pitch to Brad Grey on that was to start by shooting the trailer first, which we did.

This movie felt like we had an opportunity to do something that was similar, surprise the hell out of people. The movie is so creepy. It’s so well told. [Director] Dan [Trachtenberg] did an amazing job on this. The actors are great. This movie, I think, deserves this association. I think that it’s a special movie.

Do you feel that you’re running a risk by putting that word in the title?

There is a monster in this movie. It’s not the monster you expect, but there is a monster. The thing that I will say about anyone who is going to it expecting to see literally Cloverfield 2, those characters and that monster are not in this movie, but there are other characters and other monsters. It’s a very different story, but it is a spiritual successor to that movie. What I hope is that they will be satisfied by wanting to see something that is not of this natural Earth and not necessarily something that you would expect, and I hope that what they find gives them that fix, that thrill that I think they might be looking for in a literal Cloverfield 2 movie.

Aren’t you always toying with expectations when you release a trailer that’s light on information?

You have to know something to want to know more. You have to present a movie in a way that doesn’t give people the impression that they’ve seen it by watching the trailer. Some movies say way too much, and they basically give you this encapsulated version of the story in two minutes. You could probably recite 80-some percent of what happens in the movie based on the trailer. That to me is a failed trailer because I don’t need to see a Cliff’s Notes version. I need to see something that makes me want to see the entire version.

I think this kind of release and the movie is a complete thrill ride, very smartly told. It is really scary. It is incredibly weird. It’s funny. It has a huge heart. There’s an incredible main character that Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays. She’s terrific in the movie. It’s beautifully directed. I think there are some incredibly cool special effects. It ends up doing all of these things that I love in a movie. It’s got all of the things that Cloverfield had, without making you throw up because it’s not a found footage movie.

The phrase “Mystery Box” sprung out of your TED Talk and has become a main attack point for your critics. Has the Mystery Box been over-emphasized?

Oh, of course. When I did that TED talk, I was mentioning one aspect of what I find stories do well when they work, which is they make me want to know more. It’s a pretty simple conceit that everyone would agree on, that story makes you lean in and ask questions. It is by no means a principle that I apply to stories. I don’t start working on ideas and say, “Wait a minute! How does the Mystery Box fit into this?” I was literally referencing that I had [a Mystery Box from my childhood] in my office that Bryan Burk said, “Why don’t you talk about that?” So I did.

I do think it’s been overused, and I don’t think anyone even cares about it. What I think is true about this movie is that the main character increasingly is in situations where she is trying to understand how to survive and what it means to be where she is and who to believe and what to do when faced with the truth again and again. That, to me, is all you can wish for in a great story: have a main character who is going through things that you yourself the audience will feel like, “Holy crap. What the f–k would I do if this were me?”

To do that well requires not just a plot that has twists and turns you don’t expect, but has to be performed by actors that make you care and make you believe, directed by someone who can do it in a way that feels authentic, especially in the case of genre — simultaneously authentic and believable and also insane and larger than life. Some of my favorite movies of all time are movies that do exactly that, whether they’re comedies like Back to the Future or Tootsie or something as scary as The Exorcist, you have scenes where the most insane sh– of all time is happening, but the actors have made you believe that you are in that room with them and they are real. That, to me, was something that I think this cast and Dan did extraordinarily well.

Do the idea of the Cloverfield films also tie in to whom you are working with?

The spirit with which we made Cloverfield was: take a director who is an incredibly thoughtful and talented and character-centric director — that’s what Matt [Reeves] has always been — and tell a story in a genre that you might not expect that person to tell that story. Dan definitely follows in that tradition. You can see that the DNA comes from the same place.

Even if 10 Cloverfield Lane has no connection to the original film, you’ve essentially made a franchise without making a franchise. Is this your Twilight Zone, an umbrella under which to tell these stories?

I think that would be presumptuous because we’re talking about this movie and comparing it to Cloverfield, but I would be lying if I didn’t say there was something else that, if we’re lucky enough to do it, could be really cool that connects some stories.

At the very least, you’ve figured out a way to make people see an original film and watch it closely.

That was definitely among the things we talked about being a byproduct of this idea. There’s a larger conceit that we’re playing with. This is just this movie, and it’s only two films that we’re talking about right now. There is something else that we’d like to do, and hopefully we’ll get a shot.

Coming off of The Force Awakens, where do you feel yourself drawn creatively right now, in terms of the kinds of stories that interest you or the scale of the stories?

I have a lot of things that I’m thinking about right now, but the beauty of not having my next project is that I get to be a human being and be with my family every night. I’m loving this moment. It’s the first time in quite a while when I haven’t known the next thing I was going to do. I feel like there’s this great opportunity to look around.

I have some ideas that I’m playing around with. I couldn’t be happier not knowing what is next. It feels like this kind of — not quite vacation — but I feel like there’s a sense of looking around at possibilities and being present in a way that knowing that I had to prep or cast or write or rewrite didn’t quite allow for before. I could not feel less pressure to find the thing, which is a nice luxury I’m willing to enjoy.

For the full story of how Abrams and his production company, Bad Robot, pulled off their big trick, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands Friday, or buy it here.

10 Cloverfield Lane
  • Movie
  • 113 minutes