10 CLOVERFIELD LANE Director Dan Trachtenberg Talks Fan Misconceptions, His Influences, and Much More
10 Cloverfield Lane is the directorial debut of Dan Trachtenberg, who you may remember directed a short film called Portal: No Escape that went viral a few years ago. Along with directing a few shorts and commercials, Dan was also one of the co-hosts of The Totally Rad Show, a popular video show that ran for years on Revision3. The Portal short got a lot of recognition and allowed him the edge he needed to make his feature directorial debut with J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot Productions, and he knocked it out of the park with this movie.
I spoke with the director on the phone earlier this week about fan misconceptions, his influences making this movie, the timeline of how this became a Cloverfield movie, and much more. I'm splitting the interview into two parts: this one is spoiler-free, and the second half (which will go live on Monday after everyone has had a chance to see the film in theaters this weekend) will dive a little deeper into some spoilery territory. Here's part one.
GeekTyrant: You spent years reviewing movies on the internet before this, so I feel like you’re uniquely qualified to answer this question: after directing this movie, what is the biggest misconception entertainment writers (and maybe even fans) have about directing a movie today?
Dan Trachtenberg: It's interesting...I should have a great answer for this. I was always directing — just not movies — when I was on that show, so it never felt as mysterious as to what the job is, what it entails. I'm sure I have a great answer. What is a conception that people might have? What do you think would be a conception?
(Laughs) I just feel like there's a lot of internet group-think, and maybe there's a lot of simplification, like "Oh, it's easy to go direct this," or "That director's doing this for this reason."
I will say that there are so many assumptions made. I've always found that frustrating, and now even moreso that I'm specifically on the other end of it, of "Oh, they clearly just did this" or "They clearly were thinking that." If you put that in print, there's something about reading something in Helvetica that makes it seem truthier, when it's really just an opinion. Someone's opining something and that takes on this degree of fact even though it couldn't be less so. People really love to assume the intentions of a filmmaker before even researching it on their own, and it was always incredibly frustrating to read that. Now being on the other end of it, it's even more transparent and annoying. I know that's a vague answer.
I thought you did a great job slowly revealing information that changed our sympathies for certain characters. Can you talk about that?
That was hugely important because it is a suspense movie, but it's all told from one character's POV. The thing we all know about building suspense is it's all about a hierarchy of knowledge. It's all about when the audience might know something that the main character doesn't, or the main character knows something that the audience doesn't and the push-pull of that which becomes specifically challenging when you can never cut to a scene that's outside the main character's perspective. A lot of that came through the ways information was doled out to her, and, via her, us.
I went to great lengths to really make the movie feel as subjective as possible. Something that was really cool about that original Cloverfield movie was that it had that first person perspective that really felt experiential. Even taking inspiration from video games, there are a lot of these really great third person action adventure games that still feel — even though you're looking at the character model — they still make you feel everything that the character is feeling in the same way that a first person shooter could more directly. Making this movie in a more classical traditional fashion, taking inspiration from how video games do it, I really wanted to make it feel as experiential. A lot of that comes through in several long takes throughout the movie so you get to experience things in real time. And then just in the different ways that the camera is sometimes still. Sometimes characters are pressed to the outer edges of frames and then get pressed together, and sometimes the camera starts to really move and either uses more old-school classic suspense film cinematography camerawork so it feels like it's of that vocabulary, and then sometimes it's just really visceral and hand-held. It really was just using all of the different techniques to create the tension and pressure.
If I had to crudely boil it down, I’d say this film reminded me a bit of Misery with a sci-fi twist. What movies influenced you directorially here? Were there any particular touchstones for you?
Certainly Misery and Dead Calm are, plot-wise, direct correlations. But there's also an element of this movie that was really hard to find a comparison with. I looked a lot at Rosemary's Baby, which is also a movie that's largely told through one character's POV and yet is still quite tense. We looked at some old David Fincher stuff. Se7en was one we looked at quite a bit because it's also so well crafted, but I always found the filmmaking to be invisibly clever and I wanted a similar thing for this movie. I looked at a lot of sub movies: The Hunt for Red October and Crimson Tide. Sub movies are very contained, but they always feel really big as well, and exciting. That's something we wanted, and we looked a lot at the camerawork in those movies as well as the production design. Die Hard certainly is an influence for me, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a huge influence, all of Spielberg's stuff — Empire of the Sun, Always — I love his filmmaking and blocking. So I really drew on everything. I'm a real nerd for movies, as you know, so it was fun to finally put it all out there.
If you can, I’d like you to briefly walk me through the timeline. When did this go from Valencia or The Cellar (the project's original working titles) to a Cloverfield movie?
Bad Robot acquired this spec script called The Cellar a few years ago. Then J.J., his producers, and Damien Chazelle developed that into this thing that could fit into the Cloververse, and that was the script that was sent to me. That script was very much the movie that we see here today. We didn't have the title quite yet, but all of its trappings were still there. When J.J. opined, "What if we call it 10 Cloverfield Lane?" it was so genius because even that name, it sounds like an episode of The Twilight Zone, and this movie is very much a giant Twilight Zone episode.
That's interesting. This is exactly what we were talking about earlier about reading something in Helvetica and having this sort of authoritative voice behind it, because I was under the impression that it was transformed into a Cloverfield movie sometime during production. But that's not the case? You knew it was going to be a Cloverfield movie before you even started shooting?
Its DNA was there the first time when I read the script. All of the main beats — more than that — really the movie, from the first act to the third act, what I read, was the same shape as what you saw.
How did you feel when you found out that this project was going to be part of a larger cinematic world, and all of the baggage and expectations that come with that? Take me through your headspace when you realized that.
It can certainly be overwhelming, but I knew that all I had control over is making this movie as good as it possibly could be, and everything else would be out of my grasp. I just tried my damndest to make this movie as awesome as possible. I definitely didn't realize [how big] the fervor of that Cloverfield fanbase was, but had renewed vigor once they started to put wind in the sails of the movie. I've been so excited about that, and I love going on the subreddit and all of those things are super cool. But all of the outside stuff surrounding the movie can get very overwhelming very quickly, so I really just tried to focus on making the movie rad.
10 Cloverfield Lane hits theaters this Friday, March 11. Be sure to head back here on Monday, March 14 for part two of this interview, which talks about Easter eggs, a possible sequel, and more.