No one outside of J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot production company knew what 10 Cloverfield Lane was two months ago, but after this weekend many moviegoers have experienced this suspenseful, atmospheric and genre-jumping thriller first-hand. As a result of that, the name of first-time director Dan Trachtenberg will also be popping up on a lot of people’s radars. In guiding the claustrophobic story of two young people (Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher Jr.) held captive/rescued by the possibly dangerous John Goodman — while a global catastrophe of some kind may or may not be happening outside his survivalist bunker — Trachtenberg has demonstrated a terrific sense of atmosphere, pacing and tension in his feature debut.
Trachtenberg has worked extensively online before this, directing short films and commercials while producing and/or hosting podcasts and web series. His first almost-break came when he was named in 2013 as the director of the film version of Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s comic book Y: The Last Man, a project which was sadly later shelved (a TV series is now in development). But now Trachtenberg has made one hell of an impression with 10 Cloverfield Lane, which we spoke about at length when we got Trachtenberg on the phone last week.
Den of Geek: Let’s talk about your involvement with this project and sort of the timeline of how and when you got on board.
Dan Trachtenberg: This started out as a spec script called The Cellar that Bad Robot acquired a couple of years ago. JJ and his producers and Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) actually developed that into this thing that could fit into the Cloververse. That was the script that I had read, that was initially sent to me. I went in and pitched my take.
The script was always very intense. I spoke about really embracing that but still making it really fun and funny as well. I thought if there’s some levity in it, it could really make the intense moments that much more intense and scary because you’d be really bonded to the characters. When you laugh with them, you form such a strong connection with them. So I pitched my take and we were off to the races.
You read The Cellar or you read the later version that Damien worked on?
I read the later version.
So did you ever go back and look at The Cellar?
I actually haven’t. I’ve never read that original. Now I probably will. As we were working on it, I didn’t want it to permeate into…It was very different, from what I know.
When you say they wanted to bring this into the Cloververse, that’s obviously the thing that first caught people’s attention when the trailer came out and the poster came out. How was that decision reached?
I could feel it on the page, but the decision to get it there was before my time. But certainly I was excited about making something that was of that tone and that genre and doing something that was scary and thrilling, but also fun and funny the way that Cloverfield was. The title we didn’t have right away, and I was so excited when we landed on it because even just that title is evocative of Twilight Zone. I think it sounds like a Twilight Zone episode. And this movie really is one giant Twilight Zone episode.
Do you see these as this giant anthology series, with each film having a different story but with that kind of same tone?
I mean nobody wants to be presumptuous, but I think that would be really freaking cool. I think the idea that Cloverfield can now become this platform to tell really original stories that all feel, they all have something in the DNA that brings people back, that speaks to the kind of movie that it is, but they are all really original, fresh stories is really exciting, especially in an age where we are getting so many sequels and reboots of things. It’s cool to have this new platform for cool new stories.
Any particular era or style of films that were a major influence on you?
Yeah, absolutely. I’m hugely influenced by Alfred Hitchcock. Notorious is one of my favorite Hitchcock movies. That movie has a great sequence set around a set of keys. We have our own little moment with a set of keys that’s quite fun.
I looked a lot at Rosemary’s Baby because that’s a movie that is told through one character’s POV and this movie also is told through…you know, we only see and experience what our main character is experiencing.
I looked a lot at submarine movies like Hunt for Red October and Crimson Tide because those are also very contained movies but they feel really big. I wanted to give this movie that same quality.
And Die Hard, of course. Even Fincher and Spielberg. I’m a real cinephile. So we really looked to all my heroes to learn from.
You shot this in Louisiana. I believe the shelter was all one set, correct?
Yes, yes. It was so cool to be able to…especially when we were rehearsing, because the bunker had almost been entirely built by then.
We were able to actually walk into the rooms and put the scenes on their feet in the spaces and figure out the blocking and the camera moves on the stage. And it also allowed us to shoot the movie chronologically. It was all one connected piece. It wasn’t like different rooms on different stages. In a movie where we’re always shifting what we think of different characters, it was so helpful to be able to move through it chronologically and always know where we were emotionally.
This was obviously done in secret. Were there any special measures put in place to kind of keep everything such a secret?
We did the normal stuff. Our scripts were either hand-delivered on red paper with your name print all over it. Or I know some of our actors got exploding scripts where the link is sent to you and then once you read it, you can’t open it again. We were not allowed to take pictures on the set and things like that. Beyond that, I just didn’t talk about it. We just really kinda kept our mouth shut.
That was particularly hard for me because I am a real film fan and love talking about movies with my friends, and here I am making my first movie and I can’t say a word. It was excruciating. But now it just will be so much more rewarding for people to really be surprised by the movie because we kept it a secret.
You’ve done a lot of work before this with shorts, commercials, videos, etc. Is there a real difference knowledge wise when you make that jump to shooting a first feature?
You know, it was certainly larger in scale. But relatively, I had much more support. The thing that I noticed early on was while on the one hand it felt like nothing I’d ever done before, at the same time it felt like just everything I had done before, including making movies in my backyard. One of the greatest moments for me was sitting around when we were prepping. We were looking at like blueprint designs of the bunker and going over very technical things and talking about what why this was needed for the story and so on, and sitting around this room were all these grown men and women taking very seriously the idea of make believe.
That was so emotional for me. I was like, “This is a pure joy. This is what it felt like. It doesn’t feel any different when we were kids doing it.” It didn’t feel any different when I was doing a commercial or my own little short film. It’s the same feeling. You do the same thing. It’s just on a different scale.
You’ve done a lot of work online and we all know how things are changing so fast with the way people are consuming content and where they see things. Do you still see theatrical feature films as sort of the gold standard?
I think so. Of course things change. But I think the reason why you would even word it that way is because it’s less accessible. And I think there just needs to be stronger reasons to go for when you do go somewhere and you are having that communal experience. Not that stuff online can’t be communal in its own way, but especially a movie like this, where we were so excited to make moments happen.
I remember being in one of our screenings and there was a particularly close moment that happened in a close-up and everyone started laughing. And it was amazing because it was nervous laughter. It was communal nervous laughter. I don’t think people laugh that way when they are watching something alone on the couch. There’s something about being in a room with people and they are kind of saying, “Um, are you guys seeing what I’m seeing right now? Are you feeling what I’m feeling right now?”
That is such a joy to go through and ride like that. It’s like when you are in an amusement park. It’s its own joy to be on a roller coaster by yourself, to feel like you have that privilege. But when you are riding that and you are hearing everyone scream as you go through the loop-dee-loop and all that, that’s a special kind of joy. And this movie is a real thrill ride. It’s a real experience. And there will be screams and there will be laughs, and there will probably be a lot of conversation afterwards. And you really want to be a part of that, I think.
Would you be interested in doing another standalone movie under this Cloverfield banner if, again, the opportunity came up and if these things really start to happen on a regular basis?
Totally. I mean I had so much fun making this and working with the people that I worked with. It would be a joy to continue to make them.
Are you familiar with the God Particle movie that Bad Robot is doing too? Is that part of this series?
I sort of know of that movie, but I have no idea about the details of it and what they have planned for it.
You were attached for a long time to Y: The Last Man. You did a lot of work on that. What’s your view on getting that adapted?
I think they are making a TV series out of it. I think now Brian is trying to get a series made out of it. I really loved developing that. When I first read it I loved the idea of it being a TV series, but I also was so excited about bringing the kind of story that that is that’s so character focused and so serial, the way that Raiders of the Lost Ark was like a serial episode brought to the big screen, and make that really feel huge and intimate at the same time. I loved what we had done. We had some really fun character moments and really tried to capture Brian’s voice for it — he’s very funny but also very meaningful. I love movies like that. And there were some great set pieces, too.
Hopefully there will be a way to recreate that in some fashion. But it was a great time working on it for sure.
You are also working on Crime of the Century, an original script that you developed.
It’s a science fiction heist movie. That’s something that I was developing even before this movie. But it’s one of my favorite things. And I am chomping at the bit to tell that story. It’s going to be a really awesome, once again, very unique, fresh, exciting movie. I hope we get the chance to make it.
10 Cloverfield Lane is out in theaters now.