It’s a classic setup: seven strangers, six guests and one glorified bellhop, spend the night in a faded luxury hotel, and each of them is carrying at least one dangerous secret. It’s the stuff noir dreams are made of, including those of writer-director Drew Goddard.
The eclectic filmmaker confessed as much when chatted about Bad Times at the El Royale, a project whose conceit has stayed in Goddard’s mind ever since he created and worked on the first season of Netflix’s Daredevil. Indeed, it was during pitches for those early episodes when one of the all-time film noir classics, John Huston’s Key Largo, came up as a point of reference. As Goddard tells us, he loved the idea of a “Key Largo episode with Daredevil,” but a funny thing occurred to him… he hadn’t seen that Bogie and Bacall picture that captured so many elements of post-World War II life. He of course rectified that, but only after he began writing his own noir film about strangers in a strange hotel as a storm rages outside.
In Bad Times at the El Royale, it is the winter of 1969 when a shabby priest called Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a lounge singer named Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), a Southern-fried vacuum cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm), and a fairly hardened flower child (Dakota Johnson), among others, check into the El Royale. Sitting on the literal state line of Nevada and California, this once old Hollywood haunt is now mostly haunted by the splendor its lost.
During our below interview with Goddard, whose other credits include penning The Martian’s screenplay and directing and co-writing The Cabin in the Woods, we speak a lot about the feeling of loss—specifically in the film’s setting of 1969, the tail-end of a decade of assassinations and social upheaval that was then ending with the ascendency of Richard Nixon and the summer of love’s bloody denouement. Those influences, as well as Goddard’s joy for simply writing something so relatively grounded after the out-of-this-world The Martian helped produce a most unusual thing for a modern Hollywood movie: a well-budgeted noir based on an original idea. It might also pave the way to what is hopefully Goddard’s next film, an adaptation of the X-Force comics, which we also spoke with the director about right here.
I think a good place is which character did you create first? Or which first sprang to your imagination?
Oh, that’s a good question. I have not been asked that, that’s good. I want to say, and it’s all sort of sloppy, but I have to believe it was Father Flynn, Jeff Bridge’s character. I sort of had this idea, very early, to play around with crime cinema, film noir, and I loved the crime fiction by Graham Greene, he is a very Catholic writer, and dealt with priests, and I just wanted to start with a priest as jumping off point, so I believe it was Jeff Bridges.
At that point did you always know it was going to be an ensemble, or did it just kind of naturally evolve from “I have a priest who isn’t really a priest?”
I knew it wanted to be an ensemble, I think I had been working on The Martian, or thinking about this one, and The Martian—even though there’s lots of characters, it’s kind of focused on one person—and I wanted to focus on a larger canvas for character and a smaller canvas for setting than I had with The Martian. So I sort of knew I wanted an ensemble, and it really started with, “Okay, who’s going to be checking in? Clearly we have a priest, now who’s next through the door? And okay, a lounge singer, and then a vacuum cleaner salesman, let’s see where that takes us. And it was sort of fun to let my imagination run wild.
So as you’re first writing it, you don’t necessarily know where you’re going? You’re just seeing kind of how they interact or how they react to each other?
Yeah, and certainly when I’m outlining, that’s the case. I did the work for years. And on the time on the outline, I figure out the story a bit, and then I try to write it as fast as I can once I get the outline. But when I’m figuring out the story, it’s very much about characters and letting the characters sort of dictate where the story wants to go. I knew that act one of this movie would be very much, everyone checks in, you know, and see what that entails. That we would just be meeting, and learning, and then learning those second levels of these characters in act one, and then we’re off to the races.
I just started there, and let the characters then dictate where the hell the story went.
How important are names to you in understanding these characters? Because I always love such specific names like Darlene Sweet and Emily Summerspring.
Yeah, I love naming characters. I think it’s one of the best parts of the job of being a writer, and I will obsess for years about what a character’s name should be. It’s very hard for me to commit to the script until I know the names, and I will pace around forever. And some of them jump to mind immediately, and some of them take a long time. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, but it’s definitely something that I love doing.
I love that this film is dripping with noir, and it made me think of a quote I remember hearing Dennis Hopper say, that noir is every director’s favorite genre. Does that hold true for you?
[Laughs] I think so. I’m trying to think of one I love more. I mean, obviously there’s many genres I love, but there’s something specific—I understand what he means, because it lends itself very well visually to thing director’s love doing, in my case, things I love, you have a very formal style that you can play with. You can be very graphic at times with your compositions and your lighting choices, and it fits the DNA, it doesn’t feel like you’re just being showy. It actually is part of the point of the story that you’re trying to tell, which is always a goal: to intertwine the look and meaning of the film, and noir just lends itself very well to that.
So yeah, it was a very fun film to shoot, I’ll tell you that much.
I wanted to know what were some of your favorite noirs growing up then? Because I got, specifically from this a very Key Largo vibe.
Yeah, it’s funny, Key Largo’s one of the early ones, but only because we were sitting, I think it was in the writers’ room for Daredevil at the time, and we were just pitching story ideas, and I think I pitched out, “Hey, we should do a Key Largo episode with Daredevil,” and everyone was like, “Oh, that’d be cool.” And then all of us realized that nobody in the room had seen Key Largo, including myself. But we realized we all just sort of knew—we heard about what Key Largo was.
As I writing this, I thought, “Oh I should probably go watch Key Largo,” and then I was blown away by it. In this movie, there’s a couple of moments in this movie that are very much tips of the hat to Key Largo. Obviously John Huston does film noir [beautifully]. Maltese [Falcon] is still one of the greats, although I think my favorite is still Out of the Past. And that was very much an influence on this film, certainly in the flashback structuring and how that story is told.
Pickup on South Street was one of the others that was sort of in the DNA of this movie, in the way characters interact by chance, but then become incredibly important to each other’s lives. And then there’s the sort of more modern crime cinema. I looked at Blow-Up, obviously. That’s like all directors love film noir, all directors want to make their version of Blow-Up, I think. Certainly that is the case for me. And then basically everything the Coen Brothers have ever done was deeply, deeply inspirational to me.
I definitely see Out of the Past and Blow-Up in there. I’ve never actually seen Pickup on South Street myself though.
It’s a sort of an unappreciated gem, but I think it’s Sam Fuller’s best film and it’s pretty great. I highly recommend it.
So much of this type of storytelling is associated with a time and place, specifically ‘40s or ‘50s Los Angeles. Was it a conscious choice to break away by going into the ‘60s, and at least literally having one foot in Nevada?
Yes. I can’t remember where in the process, but it was early that I moved the story to the ‘60s. I think I originally played with setting it in modern times, and very quickly got bored with that idea. I think as soon as I thought, “Well, what if it was set in ‘69?” the whole movie fell into place. Because it’s about the music, man.
I tend to start with music in the soundtrack of the film as I’m writing, and once I clicked in, specifically the soul music of the ‘60s, it really … the movie really clicked into place, and all of the decisions sprang from there.
What do the ‘60s mean to you? Specifically with pop iconic images, such as RFK, Vietnam, and Charles Manson?
I find myself, especially as we navigate through difficult, tumultuous political times, I find myself studying history and looking at other times where the country has faced tumult, and I can’t find a more chaotic political time than the ‘60s. I think in that five-year period, you watch JFK, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, all be assassinated, all publicly. This is within this century, this happened, in a five-year period, we watched the three sort of pinnacles of the left wing get assassinated publicly, and then Nixon takes over, and brought everything that he brought with him back to it.
I can’t imagine what that must have felt like on the ground, if you were 18 at the time when that happened, and I’ve always had such empathy for what that must have felt like and fascination with it. So, I picked ‘69 for a reason. I picked January ‘69 for a reason, because it is when Nixon is first taking over after all of that, and I wanted to juxtapose that, with the real, sort of renaissance, or a birth, frankly, of pop music, that happened. It’s almost simultaneously, that this beautiful art was being created at the time of great darkness, and those two polarities very much drove the soul of this movie.
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When it comes to casting the movie, did you get everybody you first wanted, and to continue, how do you approach someone like Jeff Bridges or Dakota Johnson about joining this project?
I’ve learned that the best way I can try cast is to just write the script and show them that. I’m not a person that wants to pitch and tap dance. I just hope to get the script to a place where it speaks for itself in that. In this case, I wrote the script and just sent it to Jeff, I just called his people, because I’ve learned you swing for the fences, the worst they can do is say no, so why not? And Jeff was the first person I sent it to and he said yes immediately, and just sort of invigorated the whole process.
And the same with Dakota, you know. I just sent her the script. I sent her the script and then we sat down to meet, and I think she was excited, because I said to her, “Listen, I want to do something different,” and this is true by the way of all of the actors in the film, I wanted them to do something different, and that they’d never done before. And with Dakota I said, “Listen, you have to think of this, you’re playing the part that Charles Bronson would have played had this movie been made 40 years ago. You’re playing the Steve McQueen part, actually.” And I think she sparked to that right away, and sort of understood what I was going for with the character.
So it just comes from, I think they can tell how much I love these characters, and this script, and they develop their own love as well, which is really satisfying to see.
Tying into that, actors like Jon Hamm and Cynthia Erivo have such different backgrounds as well, be it from television or theater. How important is it for you as a director to maybe contrast these styles in this kind of story, as much as have them complement each other?
The truth is I don’t really worry about someone’s background. What I worry about is when the camera’s rolling, can they break my heart? Right? That’s really it. Because it’s really hard, right? It’s really hard to actually break someone’s heart on screen, and these are all actors who make it look easy, but I assure you it is not. And so with Jon and then Cynthia, they just had that thing, that indescribable thing. They’re both such extraordinarily talented artists, but they also have this ability to put their emotions right on the surface in a way that doesn’t feel like they’re doing it. And in a way that is just born, this instant connection with their characters, and it’s because they both work so hard at their craft, that they do it. I tend to just follow that adage, if I can’t look away from an actor, that means they’re doing something extraordinary.
You can review why that really is extraordinary when Bad Times at the El Royale opens in theaters on Oct. 12.