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Exclusive: J.J. Abrams talks 10 Cloverfield Lane

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Hot off a small indie called Star Wars: The Force Awakens, you'd think J.J. Abrams would be looking to spend his downtime on a distant planet not too far from Jakku. But the director had spent his days watching over another project: a "blood relative" to 2008 sleeper hit, Cloverfield. Yes, the refreshingly secretive Bad Robot machine was at it again, morphing spec script The Cellar (from relative unknowns Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken, eventually code named Valencia) into a film that was seemingly dropped out of nowhere weeks before release.

We caught up with The Force Awakens and Super 8 director - serving solely as producer this time around - to talk potential monster and/or Clover appearances, earlier sequel plans, and how on earth 10 Cloverfield Lane remained a secret in this want-to-know-everything-right-now age.

10 Cloverfield Lane

How do you drop a ‘secret’ movie in 2016?

A lot of times when there’s something that surprises you in movie trailers, it’s a surprise maybe, but it’s a year out. The fun of this was to do something with a very short-term wait, an unexpected around-the-corner movie. I’m so grateful that it didn’t slip out. We were talking about releasing the title a little bit earlier and then we thought, ‘Well, that’s crazy’. I mean the whole idea is let’s have the most fun we can, and it’s incredibly fun any time you can to do the unexpected and ignore the template. Cloverfield did it with the first movie, releasing a trailer for a film no-one had heard of, and we thought if we can do that again on this one, it would be a fun way to get people interested. It’s a movie that’s worth the attention.

It’s a scarier movie than the first film, and it couldn’t be more different. It’s not called Cloverfield 2 for a reason.

Dan (Trachtenberg, director) did an amazing job, I can’t wait to see the whole thing. It’s a really beautifully told and very scary story. A lot of scary movies simply use gore as fear, this movie uses fear as fear. I feel like this is a scarier movie in a lot of ways. I feel like it couldn’t be more different. It’s not called Cloverfield 2 for a reason, and it’s very much a different film than what Matt Reeves directed, though he’s an executive producer on this with (Cloverfield screenwriter) Drew Goddard. But, you know, I’m a huge fan of what Matt did, I love what he did.

How did Valencia transform into 10 Cloverfield Lane?

We knew we wanted to do something like this. This script came to us as a spec script, but as we were developing it and changing a good number of things and making adjustments and doing rewrites it became clear what it could be. Dan [Trachtenberg] came onboard and we code named this like we code name most things and just focused on the story. This was an opportunity to do something that is more rare than it should be in Hollywood films, which is to tell an original story, [and] to do it in a way that is connected as a spiritual successor to Cloverfield. Yet the focus was not about trying to make a literal sequel. It was about telling the best story we could with characters that were the most believable and colourful, situations that were the most terrifying and unexpected, and so though it became something that was increasingly clear to [the actors], it felt like the best way to go was not to have them be thinking of this in any way as a continuation of anything else, as a parallel story to anything else, as another chapter in one novel. Just to tell the best version of the story. And so that was how we approached it.

Writers Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken don’t have many credits to their name. How far back does Damien Chazelle’s script involvement go?

Oh, they will (relating to Campbell and Stuecken). Well, actually [Damien] was originally coming on as a director as well, and he was working on the script to direct. And Whiplash, a short film he made, suddenly got funding to be turned into the incredible film it did and he went off to do that, which was his passion project of course. But he did incredible work with [aspects of] plot and character with his draft.

What I loved about the script is that the tension felt almost Hitchcockian. There’s some very cool action in this movie, but some of my favourite moments are the most still. We had to cut a whole other speech that John Goodman delivered during the dinner scene because it was really long, which involved Valencia, but that scene did feel very much like a theatrical moment, like a play. Some of these moments where you're really feeling yourself as an audience clenching your fists or your jaw or just watching with this kind of increasingly unbearable tension, it's amazing how much of that is happening with such stillness.

Dan’s Portal short film was really well-received. What was it like working with him on his first feature film?

It’s funny, (Bad Robot head of feature films) Lindsey Weber knew Dan and recommended him very strongly for this. I was a little unsure about having a first-time director, and while I enjoyed his Portal film it wasn’t clear he was right for this. But we had a conceptual meeting and his vision was remarkably clear. The way he talked about moments or the characters or the story, or what he wanted the audience to feel, it was all incredibly familiar to me.

10 Cloverfield Lane

There’s a sense of humour underneath everything in this, and despite how scary it is, this movie has a big heart. It’s easy to do a jump scare - not to say there aren’t some of those – but what’s hard is to make the audience believe they are in a situation [and] to find ways to subtly and authentically create these moments in the story that you don’t see coming. In all this, Dan was like an experienced director, not a first timer.

How important was it to secure John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher Jr. as your central trio?

First of all, I’ve loved John Goodman in so many different movies and so many different genres and TV shows. He’s sort of this staple, this mainstay actor who has gone from being a lead actor to a character actor in comedy to drama. But I’ve never seen him be this guy. I’ve never seen him be terrifying. I’ve never seen him be in a story and playing a character as weird as this, and that was really exciting because he is so great and he’s so wonderful to watch and he’s got such an amazing sense of humour. So to have him play someone that I’ve never seen him do - and he’s got this pantheon of characters - that was exciting.

I’ve never seen John Goodman playing a character as weird as this. He’s terrifying.

I was a huge Mary Elizabeth Winstead fan from Scott Pilgrim. She’s got such strength, I really believe her. She’s beautiful but she doesn’t look like someone that you’d never meet in life. The things that Michelle, her character, has to go through in this movie required an actress who could do everything. She needed to be as vulnerable as she is, she needed to be as terrified as she is, she needed to be really calculated, she needed to be spontaneous even through her terror, she needed to be resourceful, she needed to be strong, she needed to be defiant and believable in all these insane obstacles that are thrown at her. She was fantastic.

John Gallagher Jr., unbelievably funny and smart and wonderful. I was a fan of his from The Newsroom, he’s so sweet and likeable. And in this role he’s playing such a different thing, he’s a fairly simple character. I think you’ve got to really be smart to pull that off well, and he did.

Was it important to have a female lead who wasn't your average damsel in distress?

One of the things I’m happiest about in this film is that there is a lead character who happens to be female, who happens to be as smart and resourceful as she can. I will also say she’s up against insane things. So on the one hand it’s a little bit of a cautionary tale, but on the other hand it’s a wish fulfilment, and you really get to see someone do things in a way that you, I think, would like to think you would be able to. Though not everything she does works and not every hatched plan succeeds.

She feels a little bit like an evolution of a lead character in a movie like this, meaning that there doesn’t need to be some of the more hamfisted things you often see in set-ups. What we’re trying to do is let the audience understand things without being force fed, so I think if you actually stop the movie, even before she meets Howard (Goodman), and you were to say, ‘What do you know about her’, I think it would be amazing how many things you could list - and you literally haven’t heard her speak. What I like is that Dan and company have found a way to make her character feel like a slightly post-modern heroine and are not spoon-feeding the audience with things that often we feel like we’re being given because we won’t get her otherwise. I think we get her.

How involved were you able to be whilst in a galaxy far, far away?

I'd give notes on the script and we’d talk at length about how to make certain plot moves work better. We’ve been working in the edit, which is the place where, in some ways, you really make the movie. That’s been real fun. It’s been fun, having finished Star Wars, to get to be helpful with someone who’s finishing up their movie, so I’m constantly suggesting things and giving notes. Some of my ideas obviously don’t work and don’t help at all, but once in a while they do improve things. It’s been a lot of fun on this one.

Did any Cloverfield sequel ideas ever nearly make it to the big screen?

Well, we’ve talked about and still even last week I was talking about this with Drew Goddard about what that could be. But because we’re in a moment post-major studio Godzilla, post-Pacific Rim, we don’t want to do a sequel just because we can do another kaiju movie. We don’t want to just jump in and do it - we want to make sure we’re doing something that is worthy of people’s time. But this movie, while it’s not Cloverfield 2, it is a spiritual successor to that movie in a way and there’s a real kinship between the films.

It’s crazy how many people ask me about doing a Cloverfield sequel. I’ve been hearing it for nearly eight years and it got to a point where it felt like there was something to be done. But I didn’t want to do the thing that people might expect just for the sake of it, and I know I’m guilty as anyone of being involved in sequels and remakes and reboots and things. This felt like an opportunity to do something that was both wholly original and also connected to something bigger.

Do you find yourself getting sucked into fan theories?

Fan theories are so appreciated because it shows that people care enough to hypothesise, and whether it’s any one of us in college listening to a literature professor tell us what she believes this or that novelist was intending, or it’s us at a restaurant after a movie with friends hypothesising about what the back story might have been for a character in a movie we saw, interpretation is the beauty and the fun of entertainment, and so I feel like there are of course theories you hear sometimes that make you laugh, there are theories you hear that make you think, ‘Oh, that’s kind of amazing that someone made a connection’.

There is a new monster in this movie. It isn’t the Cloverfield monster that you know.

We’ve seen the big monster destroying the little people. Is this about the little people destroying the little people?

Well, what I’ll say is that there is a new monster in this movie. It isn’t the Cloverfield monster that you know, but this all plays into a sort of larger conceit that we have. As I said earlier, calling it Cloverfield 2 would have been overtly misleading. This is definitely its own thing.

'10 Cloverfield Lane' sounds like an episode of The Twilight Zone.

The title sounds like a title of an episode of The Twilight Zone? I love that. Yeah, it is a little bit The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street. That wasn't the intention, but now that you mention it… you know, [that] was my favourite show. Oh my God, I love that show…

Are you planning on unveiling anything else before release?

Well look, the good news is it comes out so soon. We have some really fun creative that’s going out. We have some stuff on the ARG online which is happening, the sort of online component, which is really super-cool, but the movie’s the thing. All these things, the release of a trailer, the release of a teaser, the release of a game, I love all these things. But none of this matters if the movie isn’t worth seeing and I think that this is one of those cool and rare situations where it is.

10 Cloverfield Lane is released in UK cinemas on March 18. It hits the US on March 11.
Read our interview with director Dan Trachtenberg here.
Read our interview with Mary Elizabeth Winstead here.
Read our interview with John Gallagher Jr. here.