Last weekend Flickering Myth was given the opportunity to view a press screening of 10 Cloverfield Lane and interview stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman and director Dan Trachtenberg in a roundtable discussion with other journalists. His first time directing a full length feature film, Dan Trachtenberg nevertheless brings a great amount of knowledge and skill from his experiences shooting short films such as Portal: No Escape and Kickin’ to 10 Cloverfield Lane. We spoke about how he chose his cast, the film’s amazing sound design and his partnership with J.J. Abrams. You can read our review of the film here and our interviews with Mary Elizabeth Winstead here and John Goodman here.
Mild spoilers follow for 10 Cloverfield Lane so if you want to avoid any other information (which I strongly recommend) check back after you’ve seen the movie.
Q: You said last night that you finished the movie the night before? What were you doing these last few hours and weeks?
Dan Trachtenberg: Sound, mostly sound. Some other visual effects things, but with today’s technology you can really work up to the last-minute and there’s no reason not to. We really wanted to make it as perfect as we possibly could.
Q: Can I jump on the sound thing? Because that soundtrack, I’m still kind of tense over listening to that soundtrack for 90 minutes!
Q: But also the sound design. You’ve got the scariest sounding door in cinematic history, probably. What kind of conversations did you guys have over the sound design and the soundtrack?
DT: Well, lots of them, and we knew the sound design was going to be essential for this movie. I was really excited about us getting really creative with it and I even sort of brought up the Evil Dead movies incredibly creative sound designs. It’s not totally literal and I thought that would be really cool for us to have too because we are such a contained movie. It’s funny you bring up the door, though, because that door was one of the scariest sounding things on set! Every time it would close it would jolt us into surprise and what’s funny is I think a lot of that sound worked its way into the sound design. They actually used a lot of production sound and, in one mix, they actually changed the sound of the door and J.J. (Abrams) was like “What happened? The sound of the door sounds like a woman screaming sometimes! Guys, you got to put that sound back in!” He really was adamant about it. It’s so awesome that you comment on that, I’ll have to let him know.
But the sound design was essential and the score was really fun. I’m a big fan of movie scores in general and so is Bear (McCreary), our composer, he’s a huge fan of movie scores so it was so fun to geek out with him. Especially in doing a score like this that’s very evocative of Bernard Herman, who’s one of my favourite composers and his favourite composers, to elicit that and bring that sound back. I think it’s very timeless anyway. I still enjoy listening to that music, but I think it really evokes that kind of movie when you’re watching this that is really cool. It was really fun to work on the sound stuff.
Q: I have a 14-year-old son and when he found out I was interviewing the guy who did the Portal movie, he got really, really excited!
DT: Oh my gosh, no way!
Q: He showed me your short film video. Making that film which all the youngsters really, really love, does that give you a confidence since you’re a first time feature director because of that experience?
DT: Yeah, I think I felt excited and comfortable telling both a visual and non-verbal story, which that short very much is. They’re both… The way that short worked is very similar to how this movie worked, where it’s all about having you experience things the same time the protagonist experiences them. There’s something very fun I find about that, about letting us and them put the puzzle together. I think it’s what’s very exciting about even the Bourne movies, specifically the first Jason Bourne movie, where we’re entering this world the same way. Video games always start that way. It’s what I love about video games. We’re always experiencing things at the same time as the protagonist is. I think certainly that short spoke to that and it did give me a confidence in non-verbal stuff. This movie also has a lot of talking and I was so thrilled that they still thought of me to make this movie despite that. That was the most exciting thing about making this movie is, though I felt so comfortable with the set piece stuff because that’s the stuff I dream about all the time.
I was very challenged to really think about the blocking and working with the actors to make their performances all in sync and as intense and exciting as possible. Working with them was the most fun I had the entire time because the conversations you have with the actors are, I realized, the conversations you always want to have. Every time you talk to the actors you’re really talking about story stuff, you’re talking about the stuff that makes them tick and the reasons why you’re making the movie, the things that I think about in life, the things they think about that’s thematically tied to the movie and what the characters are going through and all those things. That was a treasure trove I didn’t realize was out there for me and how much fun I would have doing something so character oriented.
Q: You chose the actors without auditions?
DT: Yeah, John didn’t audition, Mary didn’t audition. John Gallagher did audition, but it was merely circumstantial. We loved him from the get go. In fact, we did audition all those roles, but we chose actors in the end that didn’t audition, but we were actually auditioning actors for Emmett using sides from Short Term 12, from a cut scene. We accidentally, when we auditioned John Gallagher, we sent him those sides and his agent was like “We’ve already booked this part so…” The goof was on us, but he was terrific.
Q: Why did you choose Mary?
DT: I’ve been a fan of hers for a long time. There was a scene in the movie Smashed, I remember thinking of her and wanting her to do the movie, but I wanted to see some of her more recent work and I remember hearing how awesome Smashed was. While I was waiting to rent it or someone to give me a copy of the movie, I went on YouTube and watched a clip from a scene where she’s in an AA meeting and she’s confessing stuff for the first time. She gives the most real performance I’ve ever seen! It didn’t feel like a performance, it felt like… I know when I’ve done that in life and I’ve behaved that way, she’s very nervous and tries to disguise her nervousness and starts laughing, but then starts crying. I’ve seen it when friends do it in real life, I just know that behavior. I never really reacted that way to a performance. Usually it’s like “Oh I’m so riveted by that,” but it’s never like “Oh that’s real, that’s real life.” She was very much real life and that’s also a moment that shows itself in our movie as well. I was so excited to have her in large part based on that.
I also really wanted someone that hadn’t yet done action stuff before and she’s had it sparingly in parts, but I really wanted someone like her to become a badass in this movie, for that to be a moment for someone. I think she really brought a wonderful physicality to it. Physicality is so important to me and action movies. Its something I look at all the time and its something Harrison Ford had in Indiana Jones and Bruce Willis as well. A lot of movies are less concerned with that these days. There’s no one that runs like Tom Cruise or jumps from a car, but even the way Ferris Bueller hops over a fence in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, there’s something about that swashbuckle that’s super cool and Mary had this awesome, gritty swashbuckle.
Ricky Church: Did Mary do a lot of her own stunts in the final act?
DT: She did throughout the whole movie. She jumped over that table, she swung across that door and a lot of her own stuff. We did have a stunt double that did some things, but there wasn’t really that much. Mary really did a lot of it and was running around like crazy. And she had a 102-degree fever, she had the flu when we were doing some of the most action oriented stuff in the whole movie and I felt so bad!
Q: She spoke about the vents earlier.
DT: The vents were awful! I mean, I never experienced them, but from what I hear they were really bad and we had to keep on shooting more. The whole set was one thing, but that was a separate piece so we had to keep going back into it and she was like “Okay”. I guess it was really cold and sharp, but anyway.
Q: How was it directing John Goodman? You have this icon and he’s just so…
DT: I know, I know!
Q: If I could add to that question as well, the character that we see onscreen, our relationship changes with it throughout the movie. How do you cast with that in mind as well?
DT: Well I think what was so great about him is that he can be very menacing, very intense, but he’s also funny. I thought it was so critical to have someone that you would really enjoy being terrified by. There are other antagonists in movies that are scary in very oppressive and intense scenes, but I don’t know how fun they are to watch. This, I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to also enjoy those moments of intensity. I was very scared to work with him, but he was so nice and it went away. He really loved getting direction despite my best efforts to not to say anything and let him do his thing. He really did crave it and it was a lot of fun.
You were specifically honing in on his character changing. Frankly I empathize a lot with him. In the original script we didn’t have that speech he gives about “crazy is building your ark after the flood has already come” and he has a point. That was something I really wanted to be in the movie because I thought he has a point. I don’t know why we don’t all have bunkers. It behooves us to have them. Especially when you have a family and loved ones you want to take care of, why are we not doing all we possibly can to take of them?
RC: Especially since it was such a norm in the 60s with the nuclear scare.
DT: Right, exactly! So I wanted that point to be made and I definitely empathize with that idea and the idea of wanting to keep those that you love around you. I love my parents, but they were very overprotective, they’re sweet, amazing and encouraging and nothing like John Goodman’s character. There also is something to the idea of smothering and coddling and that if you build a bubble around oneself, then you never really build up a callus to experience things or protect yourself from things.
Q: Have you ever seen John Goodman in a part like this before?
DT: You know, I didn’t realize it, I think on Justified he played a fairly intense guy. I love him. He’s in a movie called The Jack Bull that’s a Western. It’s one of my favourite Westerns. It’s very underrated, very few people have seen it, it’s with John Cusack. He comes in at the end and he’s this judge, the whole movie is about people doing unjust things and its all going to crap. He comes in at the end and tells it how it is and is so filled with conviction. It’s so cathartic in that movie. I’ve always loved him for that and thought he could bring a lot of sincerity to Howard despite all the other stuff that I knew would come, like the weird quirky stuff.
RC: I really liked the camerawork in the movie and how, a lot of the times, it adds to the claustrophobia of the bunker. John mentioned you could move the walls to get the cameras in, but how did you accomplish to get that feeling of intense claustrophobia as the movie went on?
DT: It was a combination of things. I think there were times when we really wanted you to feel locked in with these people and the frame is much more graphic and composed, almost Kubrickian if you will, and then there are times when we want to flee and the camera starts to unleash and be much more handheld with more movement. There’s even camerawork that’s more evocative of something that Hitchcock would do where we have this very specific pushing in on something. It’s a very suspense film vocabulary. Brian de Palma did it all the time too and he was cribbing on Hitchcock as well. It was really combining all of those things that always was playing with potential. Lots of long takes as well so that you’re really experiencing in real-time with the characters.
RC: Speaking of real-time actually, we’ve heard that the movie was shot a lot in chronological order, which is something that very few movies do. Why did you make a conscious effort to film in chronological order?
DT: On the one hand, we did it because we could do it. We had built this set as all one piece and we had all these moving walls and stuff. We were able to and the movie felt so much like a play and we were able to rehearse ahead of time. It felt like a no brainer and was extremely helpful because we’re constantly shifting how we feel about different characters. To had to have flopped back and forth between those emotional states would have been very taxing on the actors and myself and the crew to figure out “Where are we now? What do we want to feel?” To be able to go in order was really helpful and it was great to be able to even evolve the filmmaking, the camerawork, as we went because we were doing it all in real-time.
Q: And you rehearsed a lot?
DT: Yeah. I was going with the flow. I had never done this before. I think we got a week or two of rehearsal. The actors said that that was very rare, that they normally don’t get that much time. It was specifically cool because the set was mostly built as we were rehearsing so we were able to actually rehearse on the stage.
Q: Was there a lot of improvisation?
DT: A lot of. Especially with Emmett, with John Gallagher. I think there’s a lot of stuff in the dinner scene that worked its way in from those improvs and rehearsing, specifically the Wacko line. I think that was an improv of his. Even some of the jokes when he would sit down with the magazine with Mary when they first met, those were all improv.
Q: This is a low-budget movie. My question is was that by choice or did they just give you that budget to work with?
DT: I think it’s a bit of both. I mean the budget suited the story. It largely takes place in this large room and location, this one facility. It didn’t need to be made with more and forced us to be creative and come up with awesome solutions to things. I think it’s better for that for sure.
Q: And it was less pressure for you to work?
DT: Absolutely. I could shoot in order. I could see the stage. 100%, it was very helpful.
Q: What about Bradley Cooper voicing Ben?
DT: We really had almost every guy at the office record that role as we were going and none of them were quite up to snuff so J.J. called in a favour! Its funny, my parents were, at one point, in the movie as well. My dad was the voice on the radio at the beginning and his accent was too thick and didn’t cut it so we had to cut him out!
RC: (Laughs) Sorry dad, you’re fired!
DT: And then my mom was the voice of the stewardess in the ‘Cannibal Airlines’ video they were watching, but she got cut out also. But we just needed that voice and J.J. just emailed him because he was in Alias, which J.J. did.
RC: Can you talk about your relationship with J.J.? Mary said that he was actually quite involved, even when he was busy filming Star Wars, he would email stuff in and say “do this”. What was your relationship with him like? Did you just do a lot of talks over email or phone calls?
DT: Exactly that. He was shooting Star Wars when we were shooting this movie so he never made it to our set, but he still miraculously and inspirationally watched all of our dailies. I would wake up to emails from him like “Love the inserts you’re getting, so good to get great inserts!” Always really encouraging and thoughtful things, but when we were done shooting and in post, well after Star Wars premiered, largely, he was able to really come in and really in the last hurrah really help us editorially with pacing. He has a great sense of pacing, which is so important for this movie, and had a great ear for sound. We were struggling with some stuff and he was really helpful. But he was a part of the development process for the whole time and even while we were shooting we had whole sequences that he really suggested to us.
RC: When did you guys make the decision to change the title from Valencia or The Cellar to 10 Cloverfield Lane?
DT: Well Valencia was always just a codename for the movie. We knew that from the start, but we were bantering around ideas of how we could incorporate Cloverfield into the title and one day J.J. was like “What if we called it 10 Cloverfield Lane?” It was awesome because, for me, even that title just sounds like an episode of The Twilight Zone. It has that ring to it.
Q: Can you talk about this movie in the context of the monster movie genre or the Kaiju monster movie genre in general? Can you talk about how this would be considered an evolution of that genre?
DT: Well, I wouldn’t call this a Kaiju movie, but it is a monster movie of sorts. I think that, once again, its different in the way that Cloverfield is. Cloverfield is this unique way into a very familiar genre and the way in which we have our unique way into a familiar genre I think is very cool. It doesn’t have to be a drastic format change. It doesn’t have to be shot in found footage to be unique, there’s this other stuff that we can do. I think certainly the way we’re set up is a really fun way to experience genre in a movie and I think it will be a very special experience for audiences to have.
Thank you very much to Dan Trachtenberg for taking the time to answer Flickering Myth’s questions! We would also like to thank Paramount for giving us the opportunity to view the film and interview Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman as well. 10 Cloverfield Lane is out in theatres in North America now and will be released March 18th in the UK.