[FILM: Interview] Joss Whedon on The Cabin In The Woods
If you’re a Joss Whedon die-hard, you’ve already read ten of these articles, and each one has started with the same guarantee: you will find no spoilers here. To write about a movie when revealing its premise would give the game away is certainly a tricky feat – but speaking just before the world premiere of The Cabin In The Woods at this year’s South by Southwest festival, writer/producer Joss Whedon (Buffy, Dollhouse) and writer/first-time-director Drew Goddard (Buffy, Cloverfield) issued a plea to the packed-out cinema: “We hope you enjoy the film… And then keep it to yourself.”
Two days later, the pair and their cast are doing round-table interviews in a room filled with journalists, shooting tough looks at anyone who dares to ask for a spoiler quote, and censoring the answers as they like. “These are going to be like the Nixon tapes,” Whedon laughs into our dictaphones.
The (very) basic set-up of The Cabin In The Woods revolves around five fresh-faced college students – Anna Hutchison, Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Jesse Williams and Fran Kranz, playing the flirt, the virgin, the jock, the brain and the stoned side-kick respectively – who head to the woods on a weekend trip to get drunk and play truth or dare, but instead end up in every single horrific scenario that you could possibly imagine. Par for the course for a slasher film, right? …Well, not quite. The kicker comes courtesy of screen veterans Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) and Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under), whose sub-plot pulls the curtains back on the film and its genre until both are turned on their heads entirely.
Remarkably, the writing of the script took Goddard and Whedon just three days. “We bandied back and forth: ‘You know what’d be hilarious?’, ‘You know what’d be fun?’, ‘Oh, I wish we could!’,” Whedon says. “And this is an entire movie of ‘I wish we could’; it’s two raging ids just enjoying themselves for 90 minutes.”
The result is a fun, frightening and complex ride crammed with whip-smart Whedonic dialogue, nuanced performances, and tonnes of re-watch value; a love-letter to the slasher genre wrapped in a list of things it could do better. In their past work, both Whedon and Goddard have shown an inclination to embrace tropes so tightly that you’re forced to question them – and with Cabin, as one journalist in the room suggests, ‘There’s kind of a sense of this movie dropping the mic [on the genre] and walking away like, ‘There it is guys. Ball’s in your court.’ “Try not to be more articulate than us,” Whedon laughs in response. “We just wanted to make a horror movie that people would really, really enjoy. I don’t see this as a watershed movie… It’s not an answer. It’s a new question.”
Most important to both writers was that the characters remain human and real, even as they encounter some of the most over-the-top and gory scenarios conceivable. But while extreme, the violence seems justified, offering a commentary on an entertainment-fuelled society that fetishizes the demise of others for its own cheap thrills. “I don’t think that [the gore] is exploitative in this film,” Whitford says. “I’m totally fine with violence with consequences, and I’m totally fine with what I think [in this film] is a very interesting look at … ‘Why do we have to watch this?’” Anyway, he says, obscenity is in the eye of the beholder. “The definition of obscenity is the act of creation. What would be more pornographic than that image to us? I always joke that it’s like, God came down and said [weighs with one palm] ‘Act of creation, [weighs with the other] Definition of sin. Good luck with that.’”
None of the younger cast were shown the script before they were offered the parts, and the audition sides were fake – “I think Joss wrote them to fuck with us,” Williams laughs – but as Hutchinson points out, there were a couple of clues that Cabin would be more than what it said on the tin: “You kind of have a bit of a blind faith if there’s a project with Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard.”
It wasn’t until the film was fully cast that the actors found out exactly what they signed up for – and after that they were forced to keep it under wraps for A Very Long Time. Cabin was finished way back in 2009, but placed in purgatory after its financer, MGM, went bankrupt. In 2011, cult favourite Lion’s Gate picked the film up and scheduled the world premiere at SXSW – a perfect fit.
“Everything has worked out for the best here,” Drew Goddard says. “We have a studio that loves this movie and is behind us 100%, and our actors are turning out to be huge superstars, whether or not they were when we cast them…” He’s referring most of all to Chris Hemsworth, whose title role in Thor lead into a part in Whedon’s massive Avengers – the success of which was another high tide that Cabin got to ride in on. But for Whedon, there was a far more visceral advantage to the delay: “The pain of childbirth is somewhat forgotten, and all of this is just a big gift.”
ON HIS CHARACTERS
“Part of this movie was definitely about the idea that people are not expendable, and that as a culture, for our own entertainment, we tend to assume that they are. And although I absolutely love horror movies and always have, I love them the most when I really, really care about the people who are in dire trouble. With the exception of Alien … those guys would sell each other down the river in a heartbeat. They actually freaked me out more than the [H.R.] Giger stuff.”
ON THE STORY
“It’s so clearly the kind of thing that [Drew and I] love: true horror with one cold eye turned towards it – ‘What is that about?’ – at the same time as we’re in the thick of it.”
ON HIS VOICE
“It’s a blessing and a curse to have your style recognised … But ultimately, I don’t want people to hear my voice; I don’t want people to think about what we wrote. I want them to go, ‘Ohhh, what’s going to happen to Marty?’ [But] we are still us … every day I wake up and I look in the mirror and I’m like, ‘God damn, I’m still not the Coen Brothers!”
When: Opens June 14
Where: Chauvel Cinema – tickets and times