In a film landscape that all too often gives away all its secrets from day one, “10 Cloverfield Lane” is a much different beast. Then again, it’s from producer J.J. Abrams and his Bad Robot production shingle that wears its mystery-box surprises and secrets like a badge of honor. Helmed by first-time feature director Dan Trachtenberg, “10 Cloverfield Lane” had an additional element of surprise by seemingly coming out of nowhere. Made under the under-the-radar code name “Valencia,” the entire film industry wasn’t aware there was a “Cloverfield” spin-off or sequel even in the works: “10 Cloverfield Lane” dropped its trailer just two months before opening, grabbing the immediate attention of unsuspecting audiences.
The core contained story traps a woman played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead in a bunker with a survivalist (played by John Goodman) whose paranoid instincts may be correct for once. Trouble is, he may also just be nuts and is claiming the outside world is affected by a widespread chemical attack.
Of course, there’s more to the Hitchcockian sci-fi thriller, which fully revealed its twists this past weekend and opened to a robust $25 million. But even transparent details of the entire movie, however, left some audiences curious about just how this film relates to the 2008 “Cloverfield,” from producer Abrams and director Matt Reeves. We spoke to Trachtenberg about the relationship between his movie and the 2008 film it borrows its namesake from, the gestation of the title, the anthology concept that unites the movies, and the inspiration he drew from Alfred Hitchcock and video games.
Note: This interview contains some spoilers for 10 Cloverfield Lane, which have been marked for your convenience.
You commented at one point that your film and the original “Cloverfield” definitely take place in different timelines.
This is its own story. This was not meant to be a direct thing where, following the events of “Cloverfield,” this story begins. This was meant to be its own tale.
Can you talk about the lineage of the film’s development, from the initial spec script for “The Cellar” to “Valencia” to the final version? Was “Valencia” ever going to be the title for the finished film?
No, [‘Valencia’] was always a code name, and I was desperate for us to find a much better title. I really didn’t like that title. I do wish we’d done a better code name! And we had talked about so many iterations involving or invoking “Cloverfield.” When J.J. uttered “10 Cloverfield Lane,” it was like “Yeah!” Because it sounds like a “Twilight Zone” episode, it sounds like [“Twilight Zone” episode] “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” or something. It sounds like what you would call that episode. And I think this movie feels like it is one big “Twilight Zone” episode.
I’d also seen you talking about the movie as a mix of influences, from Hitchcock to video games.
Yeah. It’s impossible to not think about Hitchcock when doing this. I love “Notorious” specifically. There are moments of visceral, physical suspense, but there’s also the emotional suspense, the stuff in the relationship, the good guy and the bad guy, and that bad guy is uniquely terrifying. So I wanted those iterations of suspense in this movie. Not to mention there’s a great sequence set around a set of keys in “Notorious,” and we had one that I really wanted to be hopefully as cool.
What about the video games influence?
In particular, all the great modern third-person action adventure games are key. And also things like “Journey,” or this great game “Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons” —that’s one of my favorite games ever. I’m so stunned by the design of those games, which can be very moving experiences that interact with your agency, where you’re really feeling everything. You’d think in first-person games that there’d be a more direct relationship, because you are the character. But I was so inspired to study how it is that when I’m looking at the character models, I’m still able to feel like I’m in their shoes so much more than when I am the character [in a first-person game].
I think that speaks to things about the uncanny valley and to narrative. You want to know about a character, to assign how you feel about them and then relate to them, as opposed to them just being a blank canvas to project yourself on. That’s something I really wanted to impart in this movie, by making it feel less like something you watch and more something you experience. Even in an objective medium, I wanted it to feel as subjective as possible. There’s also the whole “the audience is putting together a puzzle along with the main character” aspect, which I think is a uniquely satisfying way to experience a movie. Even something like “The Bourne Identity,” beyond the action sequences there’s something deeply satisfying about being a fish out of water alongside the protagonist. There’s a 1:1 relationship between audience and character.
The script goes really light on dialogue, especially in the first half of the movie. It seems like those influences would help out with that storytelling.
Getting a great actress like Mary Elizabeth Winstead to play Michelle was so clutch, because it is largely such a nonverbal role. Yet I think we still feel what she’s feeling and know what she’s thinking. I love being able to tell a story visually. It’s something I love about making commercials, where you put a magnifying glass over the mundane and make it feel extraordinary. You have to do it so concisely, every image matters. You get to get your hands dirty, and especially in this movie, dig into the craft of it all, and really think about how things really do make people feel a certain way.
I envy people like J.J., who has such an engineer’s mind. He really loves to learn how things work. I do not have that mind. I still don’t know how to jumpstart a car, even though it’s been told to me a million times. But I do love thinking about how creativity works. If I like a movie, I love trying to figure out why I feel a certain way in a scene. I love trying to figure out why any creative process does what it does from a technical perspective.
With respect to the strategic use of going to certain types of shots, you must have been somewhat constrained by being confined to a very small, specific set.
On one hand, I didn’t want to shoot the whole movie with wide-angle lenses. As much as “Rosemary’s Baby” was an inspiration for me, I don’t love that kind of photography in general. I love long lenses. So we built the set with a lot of moveable walls so we could get the camera as far back as we needed to. But at the same time, I never wanted to do the thing that “Panic Room” does, where the camera is swooping through walls. I never wanted to break walls —I wanted to feel as if we were trapped in there.
What was tricky was not being confined by the actual space, but still letting the camera tell the story of confinement. I found a lot of the overhead shots really helped make us feel like they were a can of sardines, and it was about finding the right distance to be far enough away from our characters so we could get these graphic, composed wide shots that look like little dioramas, with our people stuck inside, that never felt like we were breaking a wall.
You mentioned the idea of taking an audience on a journey, and I wonder if the title gives too much away, in that we do know that on some level John Goodman’s character is “right” from the beginning.
[Light spoilers follow]
That was a concern, but I think that even the first teaser suggests that at some point in this movie they are going to be getting out of the bunker, and I was 100% freaked out by that. But J.J. insisted, and I think he was right, that when the movie works, it sucks you in regardless. And because the movie was so mysterious from the beginning, there are still a lot of questions. There are people who wondered to the very last frame, “Was it all a ruse? Was the acid he had the same stuff as the mist outside?” Your brain will tell you anything, because you’re so used to things being twisty and not what you expect that you almost give us more credit than we might deserve.
And I think that, certainly had we not had “Cloverfield” in the title, you would be more surprised by the final act of the movie. But it’s a flip of the coin either way. Some people think, “How awesome is it that the movie goes there?” And some think, “How lame is it….” I think the title is helpful to suggest to some people that it’s not so out of left field and that it is baked into the experience. You could rationalize it either way.
Did the title help bring people to the film?
For sure. I think that’s science, and there’s a built-in awareness to it. Not only that, but it has people wondering and talking. What does that word “Cloverfield” mean now? I think that’s become a little bit clearer. We always intended that word to be a signal to the audience, that they’re in store for something really surprising.
TV has gone into the anthology structure, with shows like “Black Mirror,” “American Horror Story” and “True Detective,” and people have embraced it. Does this seem like a harbinger of things that could come in movies, where an existing brand is meshed together with an original story to create a new anthology structure?
I think so. It’s very separate from the concept of this movie. Even the “Portal” short film I did was not a literal adaptation of the game. It was about taking that core conceit and thinking of it differently and using it in a different way. That would be a cool way to do a video game adaptation, especially because games are so great now. With Nintendo games, a movie version could be a better, more realized experience. But now games are so great that the movie experience is going to be a “less than” experience.
So rather than making a literal adaptation, it’s so much more exciting to use the concepts or the world. If you think about it, that’s what [the TV series] “Fargo” did so ingeniously. It’s inspired by the idea, the tone and the characters —especially season two. It’s inspired by many Coen Brothers films but doing something different. I think that is the real way to go —that’s super-exciting.
How late in the process did the anthology or “Cloverfield” approach come into play with your film?
The idea was around in production. Even when I first got the script, I was like “So is this going to be a ‘Cloverfield’ kind of thing?” It was always around. We just didn’t have the actual title. It wasn’t something we could speak so openly about, because the first concept was about letting it be a surprise for people. The idea always evolved about when we would let people know, and how cool that would be, the longer it goes with people not knowing. It was there when I read it, certainly in concept, but the actual title came later.
Were there any reshoots late in the game to bring the film more in line with “Cloverfield” as a brand?
No. There were definitely reshoots, a lot of inserts, character stuff, a lot of Michelle. But that ending was the ending I read. The beats were different, and of course I wanted to make them my own, so that evolved, but there was always a big, insane-o ending in that very first version of the script that I read. Which was different from the spec, admittedly. But that’s why I was so excited to do it.
I loved the idea that we were going to do a thing that no other movie has done. It was so challenging to figure out the way to make it happen, to try to find a reference point. You go to “From Dusk Till Dawn,” but that movie breaks sixty minutes in —it’s halfway through that it does this other thing. I was thinking about other movies, like “To Live and Die in LA.” There’s a character moment that’s crazy. But nothing quite like this. For so many people, it seems now to go on that thrill ride is big. For me, it’s like the “Jurassic Park” ride at Universal, where it starts off like a dark ride, you’re shown all these scary things, and all of a sudden you hear the click-click-click as you’re pulled up and it’s like, “Oh my god, there’s a roller coaster that’s part of this?”
Why do you think audiences might respond differently to anthology concepts on TV versus films?
I think the trick of the anthology thing in general is when you bond with something you like, you want to see more of it. So with a new story, it’s like, “Oh, it’s like that other thing I enjoyed.” There’s the blessing and the curse of the success of any creative act. But I think the benefit to it being a full movie that’s an episode of an anthology like “Cloverfield” and like this one, or like “True Detective” or “Fargo” where it’s an entire season, you get rid of the thing I don’t love in TV, which is things being drawn out, the fluff episodes. You get all the bang for your buck. You get a new one, and if you don’t like that season or that story, you don’t have to watch that one. You don’t have to live through the bad season —with any show, there’s a bad season you just have to get through. With an anthology series, you don’t have to deal with that.
“10 Cloverfield Lane” is in theaters now.