Everything about 10 Cloverfield Lane has been a complete surprise: its out-of-left-field announcement, its tightly-held plot secrets, and the fact that it’s the first time audiences have been able to see what director Dan Trachtenberg can do with a feature film. The filmmaker has made impressions before, appearing as one of the hosts of The Totally Rad Show and directing commercials for the likes of Nike and Lexus, before really getting attention in 2011 with Portal: No Escape, a short film set in the world of the popular video game series. But after developing several projects only to see none of them come to fruition (yet), it was Cloverfield that would prove the 34-year-old director was a polished and studied new voice in genre filmmaking.
A few days before 10 Cloverfield Lane opened, I spoke with Trachtenberg about how they kept things so secret, the film’s big Steven Spielberg influences, and the larger plans for a potential expanded universe of Cloverfield films.
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
I think the one question that I — and everyone else in the world — keeps asking is, how did you keep this thing secret?
Dan Trachtenberg: It’s a really easy answer: we just didn’t talk about it. That really is the truth. And for someone like me who loves movies, and loves talking about movies — here I was, making my first movie! — it was absolutely excruciating to not be able to talk about it with my friends. But at the same time, I think it’s going to be so much more rewarding for them and for everyone to see the movie and be surprised by it. And the movie is really filled with surprises. It was all carefully designed, and I’m excited that now people get to really see it as it was intended.
J.J. Abrams has said that this movie is a "blood relative" of the original Cloverfield. What does that actually mean?
Really, I think it’s taken on this meaning of being this signal to the audience that the movie is of a certain tone and certain genre, and really, that it’s a movie that is a play on genre. That first Cloverfield was a very unique take on a very familiar genre, and this movie is a different, but still unique, take on a familiar genre, and I think now the Cloverfield "thing" can really be this platform to tell really interesting and fun and original stories.
So thinking of Cloverfield almost like an umbrella brand, under which Bad Robot can reinvent certain kinds of genres?
I think so, yeah. It sort of plays on genre and things that are really scary, but still fun, and funny, and always character-oriented. And it’s in some ways part anthology, part something a little bit bigger, but only time will tell.
So much of this film seems to be about how expectations shape the way we perceive things around us — both for the characters and the audience. Michelle thinks Howard is crazy, then she finds out that things really are bad outside, and that changes everything. Then you flip things around again. With the surprise trailer and Cloverfield title, that same kind of expectation and subversion is happening with the marketing campaign, too. Was it all designed as part of a cohesive whole?
There’s been this really cool, conscious choice through all the marketing: there’s been no traditional trailer for the movie. All that we’ve been doling out are these really interesting teaser pieces. And I think not only does that preserve the surprises of the movie, but it also really celebrates anticipation, and I think it’s cool to see the marketing pieces evolve. At one point we only saw Mary see something outside that was scary, and then later we got a glimpse of what that thing might have been, and next we’re sort of hearing her describe a part of what she might be seeing outside. They’re all constantly evolving and shifting our expectations, just the way that the movie constantly shifts expectations.
The opening — a woman waking up alone in a concrete room — mirrors your short Portal: No Escape. Was that an intentional callback, and was that short part of how you got involved on this film?
They definitely saw that short, but since then I’d been developing other movies elsewhere, and been in and out of Bad Robot pitching them my own ideas, and talking about some other scripts that they had. Then when this one showed up, they thankfully thought of me for it, and I pitched them my take and they dug it. But I think that beyond the literal concept of "woman wakes up, doesn’t know who she is or how she got there" — which happens in both instances — I think there’s also this through-line in my Portal short and in this movie.
This movie is all told through [Michelle’s] POV. We never really see a scene that’s outside of her perspective, we only know what she knows, and it’s a unique experience in that the audience gets to put the pieces of the puzzle together at the same time the main character’s putting the pieces together, which really more firmly plants you in their shoes and makes the movie that much more experiential. And I think that’s a special kind of rewarding experience for an audience, one that that short showcased and one that this movie works on as well.
This film also feels like a throwback to some of the movies Steven Spielberg’s company Amblin produced back in the ‘80s. Some of J.J.’s films, like Super 8, definitely have that vibe, to the point where it almost seems like we’re in the middle of an Amblin renaissance. Were those movies an influence on you growing up?
I’m an Amblin kid through and through, and though this doesn’t quite qualify as an Amblin movie, Jaws is one of my favorite movies of all time. What I love about it, is that it’s all things. When it’s funny, it’s hilarious. When it’s scary, it’s terrifying. When there’s drama, it’s the most sincere stuff on screen. And when there’s adventure, it’s swashbuckle-y. And that’s something that Spielberg did so well — the family drama in Poltergeist and in Jaws, it was always so authentic. In Close Encounters, he had actors really speaking over each other and made those familial sequences so realistic in a way that movies didn’t always feel like then and certainly still don’t today. Combining that realism with the extraordinary was always so profound and awesome, and certainly something I wanted to maintain with this movie was having it feel authentic, and also super suspenseful and certainly extraordinary.
You can feel that, particularly in that extended dinner scene with Howard, Michelle, and Emmett. It feels like one of those Spielberg family scenes, undercut with a supremely messed up dynamic.
That is one of my favorite scenes in the movie, and even though it didn’t totally make its way in, we looked a lot at the dinner scene in Jaws, when they’re sharing a bottle of wine and it’s all told largely in one take. Which our scene certainly isn’t, but we looked at that, and some stuff in Empire of the Sun as well.
You mentioned Cloverfield being a larger platform, but the way this movie ends it could be The Terminator, with Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character heading off to fight whatever is out there. Is there a sequel idea in the back of your mind, or is this particular story more of a one-off?
I think both of those things are cool. I certainly geek out over what the next kind of movie she could be in would be like. But I also think it’s more bad-ass if that is all that you got, that is all that you saw, and there is something that feels complete about her story. Especially in an age where we have so many sequels and reboots, it’s kind of cool that it’s like "Nope, that’s just it." But at the same time it would be super rad to make more. I think yes, like Ripley [from Alien] and Sarah Connor, Mary’s character could go on to do some really cool things.
J.J. Abrams on what could be with a Cloverfield trilogy