The Cabin in the Woods has been out in theaters for a few days now, which has given audiences a bit of a chance to see it, scream, sit up in shock or recognition — whatever they need to do to digest this teen slasher movie that redefines the horror genre, from the minds of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard. The movie asks the viewer why we need to see horror in the first place — Why do we have these primal urges? Who is the audience? What is the benefit? — and serves up a startling scenario in which we realize we’ve all been manipulated. Whedon, who is a very busy man these days, took a moment to chat with Vulture about what lies in Cabin’s basement [spoilers included], The Avengers, and having a breakdown.
How are you doing?
All right. A little bit crazed. I regret to say, five movies at a time is my limit.
Has it been tough for you, talking about this movie without giving away too much?
It’s been tough. It’s been tough for Lionsgate, who have been very mindful of spoilers while promoting the movie. Their marketing campaign contains a great deal of thought, because there’s a fine line — you don’t want to talk about too much, but you don’t want to not sell the movie. Boy oh boy, it can be very dangerous. [Laughs.]
Do you think of it as a deconstruction of the genre? Or a satire? And why do you think we need horror in the first place, which is essentially what the movie is asking?
That is the eternal question: “What am I doing here? I’m terrified! I don’t like being terrified. Why do I like it here?” A nod is fine, but a wink is not. You never want to be cutesy about it, when you’re evoking classic horror, and you want it to feel classic, which is ultimately why it’s called The Cabin in the Woods: It’s really the first place in America that was ever terrifying, and remains so.
The teen slasher genre is often exploitative of women, which you address in the film, by having your own exploitation moment — when [SPOILER ALERT] the blonde bares her breasts and is then “punished,” i.e., killed. What was the discussion like about this scene, given your feminist impulse that led you to empower the blonde girl in Buffy?
Cabin isn’t overtly a feminist work necessarily, but it is built on the same question that built Buffy the Vampire Slayer: If you have a blonde who is perfectly nice and funny, why are you intent on her coming to a bad end? What is the purpose of the final girl, as she’s called? All these people, all the characters behave a certain way, and there is a progression of what they have to do, to allow themselves to be written off as sex fiends or druggies or bullies or complete idiots in the face of true danger, and you just don’t get in the way of that. It’s about being stereotypes versus fleshed-out people. There was never a question — the nudity had to happen, because the movie is about objectification and identification and that’s what horror is about. Drew and I were not unhappy if the hot blonde took off her shirt — hey, we thought it was a good decision! — but mixing titillation and mutilation started to become a very weird confluence. It’s not the same kind of pleasure for us. Those are two separate things. But that’s the foundation of what we knew was part of the film, and we were the most timid filmmakers ever about it.
A lot of actresses were not comfortable with it, either. If we were doing a film about French ennui, no problem! But doing it in a horror film? We had to go all the way to New Zealand to find someone who was completely at ease with it. Anna Hutchison [who plays the blonde character Jules] was like, “I’m fine, I’m all good” — and thank God, because we were very tentative about the whole thing, even though it’s a part of the movie. The thing is, once you call yourself a feminist, it can be damaging to only look through that prism. It can take away the full texture of what you’re trying to create, if you have an agenda that you’ve proclaimed. That’s not to say I don’t have an agenda, but it works best if it’s never mentioned. With Cabin, it’s a bit of a departure, but you can’t create fictions based on politics, otherwise you’re speech writers, not storytellers.
Did you think of the Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins characters as substitutes for you and Drew? Because essentially, they perform the same function as the writers, in terms of killing off characters …
I’m fine with that analogy. Here’s my secret: I kill teenagers. I am the stuff in the basement. And this movie, and all these movies teach you, Don’t go down in the basement. Because Drew and Joss are down there, having a meeting. We love horror. Clearly there’s something wrong with us, and we celebrate that.
You’ve cast a lot of actors over the years who start out as unknowns with you, and then go on to be bigger names. You almost had that with Chris Hemsworth, since he was cast in Cabin before Thor.
I had that a little bit with the actors on Buffy and Angel, more so with Firefly, because it was canceled. Christina Hendricks and Vincent Kartheiser obviously now have roles on Mad Men that define them more than what I gave them [as Saffron on Firefly and Connor on Angel]. But there are plenty of people that I can’t claim — I don’t claim Jeremy Renner, just because I cast him on Angel. In Chris’s case, it is a happy accident, same with Jesse Williams, who then went on to Grey’s Anatomy. Richard Jenkins might break through at some point. [Laughs.] It’s all been very useful in the marketing campaign: “Hey, Thor’s in it!” By the way, that’s a campaign that I pitched. That was me. [Laughs.]
Was it also your idea to have The Avengers at the Tribeca Film Festival? It is a New York movie, even though it shows the destruction of the city …
Oh, I’m for it. [Laughs.] I like that both Cabin and Avengers get to do the film festivals, even though one is a true gory horror movie, and the other is a big summer tentpole action movie. And Marvel gave me a lot of creative freedom. Of course, I had to live by their parameters — the Avengers will assemble. How, why, and what happens after that, that was up for grabs. And once they were satisfied, I made the exact movie that I set out to. And the guys [the Avengers] always made New York their home when they weren’t gallivanting around the universe. And yet I am a little nervous about showing it to New Yorkers, because the crux of the thing is that while you’re honoring firemen and policemen, you’re showing them the destruction of New York, going, “You like this, right?” I’m happy to say that the Chrysler Building undergoes slightly less damage than in other movies.
It took you so many years to get Cabin out, and now you’ve got everything hitting at once. What are you going to do when you’re done with all five?
I’m going to have a break, or a breakdown, is the takeaway here. [Laughs.] Give me a few more days. I’ve had to juggle premieres for Comic Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, Cabin, Avengers, and postproduction for Much Ado and In Your Eyes. I really need the summer to myself, to think a little bit, do a little dance to celebrate. Possibly a tap number. Or some old-school break-dancing moves. Watch out!
Is there anyone you haven’t worked with yet that you want to? And what would you want him or her to do?
Judy Greer. And I would want her to be awesome.