Interview | Drew Goddard on ‘The Martian’ and ‘The Cabin in the Woods 2’
“Dot, dot, dot… and they never stood a chance.”
That’s how Drew Goddard says his former Lost co-writer Brian K. Vaughn describes his screenplays. Goddard has a knack for telling stories about hopeless hope, frequently punctuated at the end by a tragedy that, in a funny way, also feels like the best course of action in the long run. He’s a darkly humorous writer, famous for writing and directing the cult hit horror movie The Cabin in the Woods, writing the found footage kaiju thriller Cloverfield, and for his work on the hit TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Lost and Daredevil.
But this year he’s expanded his repertoire to include the blockbuster sci-fi drama The Martian, which stars Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on the fourth planet from the sun, desperately trying to science his way out of one impossible situation or another. It’s an unexpectedly humorous film from director Ridley Scott, and it makes sense to learn that Goddard’s screenplay for The Martian was originally intended for a very different filmmaker: Drew Goddard himself.
We ran into Drew Goddard after a 90-minute Q&A at the Writer’s Guild of America West, which was moderated by fellow screenwriter John August. That insightful conversation will be available for download soon on August’s Scriptnotes podcast, but for now, we pick up our conversation after the crowd has dispersed, as Goddard sits down to keep talking about The Martian, The Cabin in the Woods 2 and all the harsh lessons he learned in the Lost writers room.
Spoiler Alert: The following interview delves into the endings of The Martian, Cloverfield, The Cabin in the Woods and the mysteries of Lost.
Crave: That was a great Q&A…
Drew Goddard: Oh, thank you. It was fun being up there.
Had you done a Q&A at the WGA before?
Yes, we actually did one last week for The Martian at the WGA, and I think we did one for Daredevil a while ago. It’s always fun.
But is this your first highlight piece, where it’s like, “Look how amazing Drew Goddard is, everyone ask him questions?”
[Laughs.] I mean look, I’ve been lucky that I get to do these things from time to time whenever something comes out. This is more… you know, The Martian I think connects to a different audience than I’m used to connecting to, so that’s fun, to see new people. For sure.
You mentioned something tonight, an odd dynamic in the entertainment industry, where in order to get the art done you have to be kind of introverted…
…but in order to get anything else done you have to be extroverted.
So it occurs to me that a situation like this must be odd.
It’s hard. I work on it. [Laughs.] Because it is… like, look, here’s the truth: I became a writer because I like sitting by myself in quiet rooms. That’s what it is. I’m introverted, you know? So you try to just say… it’s not like, I don’t imply “work” like it’s “hard,” or that it’s not fun. I don’t mean it as a miserable thing, it’s just I have to work on it. My instinct is to just sit in a quiet room.
How do you psych yourself up? Are you Dirk Diggler? “I’m a big bright shining star?”
[Laughs.] No! No, because I don’t think that way. It’s more, for instance tonight, I knew John [August] was going to be here. I love John. I like talking to John. So part of it is like, this will be just having a fun conversation. Try to talk to people that care. It gets hard when people don’t care. [Laughs.] It feels like we’re all going through the motions. It’s easier when we can just talk.
I’ll tell you one thing that I care about. I love alternate reality film history, in which people make films they never got to make in real life.
Yes! I do too, for sure.
And I was thinking, as you were talking about the process by which you ended up leaving The Martian and Ridley Scott took over [as director]… how would The Martian have looked different? How would it have been different? It couldn’t have been exactly the same, right?
No, it certainly wouldn’t. I don’t know… let me think, that’s a good question… In specifics there were little things. Like Ridley – Ridley’s been very open about this – Ridley didn’t read the book. So when he read [about] The Hab, where Mark Watney is, he just thought “Here’s a location for me to let my production designing go crazy.” Because Ridley loves design. So it’s much bigger than I would have made it. The Rovers were much bigger. They have winches on them.
I was coming at from a place, in my head at least, from the book. Everything was much smaller because I was really thinking about how did they fly this this far? Like, these Rovers are tiny because we actually had to [fly them to Mars]. So I think that would have been part of it. It would have been a little more threadbare. But it’s all small.
And here’s the way it would have been much worse: he got those vistas. I don’t know if it would have occurred to me to fly to Jordan. He’s so fearless about, “Oh no, we’ll just drop into Jordan and we’ll get all of this stuff.” That wouldn’t have occurred to me. So the movie, look, there’s no question the movie would have been worse had I directed it. [Laughs.] There’s no question.
Another thing you talked about in the Q&A was the idea that a lot of your films end in a sort of a… hopeless hope? Is that a good way of putting it?
Yes, I think that’s right. Because I don’t know if I view – I’m sure I’m crazy – I don’t view Cabin in the Woods as a pessimistic ending, in a weird way. I don’t view Cloverfield as a pessimistic ending.
Everyone’s kind of dead at the end of that, right?
Are you looking at it from the monster’s perspective? Is it the hero?
No, I’m looking at it from the perspective of… I understand this. I understand why it feels pessimistic. But I’m looking at it from the perspective of, what’s this movie about? It’s about a man finally figuring out what’s important to him. We’re all going to die, but a man finally figures out that love is the most important thing and he has that moment, and the two of them say “I just want to be here with you.”
Frankly the same thing happens in Cabin, it’s like the world doesn’t matter. To me when I watch Cloverfield the monster isn’t what matters. What matters is they figure this out. I watch that movie and I see two people holding each other and to me, that’s positive. But I understand that’s not what anyone else sees.
That is positive, from that smaller perspective of those two people, and yet so many people have to die for them to have that moment that that becomes, literally, apocalyptic.
For sure. No, I definitely am attracted to those themes as well. The sort of apocalyptic themes.
Were you ever tempted to have more people die in The Martian? You mentioned that The Martian has that ending to you. To me, The Martian feels so happy.
It does. No, I don’t mean… you’re right, Cloverfield is sad. That is a sad ending and The Martian is happy but I don’t know that I view it as… maybe a better word is “nihilistic.” I don’t view Cloverfield as a nihilistic ending. There’s a point to it. Even Cabin, there’s a sort of operatic quality to the slaughter, which I love, but it’s not without purpose. It is not just for the sake of slaughter. At least in my head it makes sense, you know? For sure.
To me, again, I just watch that movie and think it’s two people holding hands. It’s two people saying, “I’m so sorry I almost shot you” and him saying, “I totally get it.” To me, like that’s The Martian. “You know what? I totally understand why you left me.” It’s two characters worrying. If you look at the dynamic of them, the fundamental core dynamic is Jessica Chastain and Matt Damon, and the idea that they’re constantly worrying about each other is very much Dana and Marty sitting on the steps at the end of Cabin. It’s very much that, you know?
Was there ever a temptation to have them end up together at the end?
No. I think the question was raised and we just said no. [Laughs.] To the studio’s credit it was more like, “Well, what if we did that?” and we made the case. We felt strongly that if you make it about that, the whole movie becomes about love. Maybe it’s because I’ve done that. Maybe I was just not interested because I’ve already done it. I felt like Cloverfield is that, you know?
And also, you probably didn’t notice at the time you were writing it but we were also about to have Interstellar and that basically was about space and love and math.
Yeah, I didn’t know. Gravity wasn’t out by the time we started writing it. Frankly it’s in the book and I just liked it. I’m always like, if you don’t have a good reason to change it, don’t change. I look at it now and go, “Oh, it’s so important. It’s so important.”
Do you have that moment where you’re working on an idea, like The Martian or whatever, and then something else comes out that’s way too similar and it freaks you out?
So one of the best pieces of advice I got… Michael McCullers, who is a wonderful screenwriter and wrote the Austin Powers movies among another things, he was on that floor that I was talking about [in the Q&A], the development floor when I was an assistant. We would walk to lunch and he would give me his advice from time to time, and this is the single best piece of advice I got as a screenwriter: Whatever you’re working on at any given moment, it is guaranteed you will read in the trades three other things, over the course of working on it, that sound exactly the same.
It happens every single time you’re working on something. And if you worry about it you’ll never write anything. You just have to concentrate on making yours unique and trust that that’s enough.
Has it ever actually gotten in the way? Like, “Yes, we already have something like this?”
Look, we were terrified on Gravity. We were terrified. I turned in this script [for The Martian] the day Gravity came out. I turned it in that day because I remember racing, I was like, I want to get this in because if this movie is exactly… we sort of knew [it was about an] “astronaut in space,” so it seemed like it had some overlap. I remember thinking, “If that’s going to kill our movie I want to get the script done. If I don’t then I’ll never get it done and I believe in this script, so at least the script will exist.”
So I turned it in that day, and then we went [to Gravity] and we felt like – and I love Gravity – but I felt like we were a very different movie. I think because of the tone, because we worked so hard to make the tone unique, we don’t care if there’s cosmetic similarities.
That’s something you brought up in the Q&A, the idea that tone is incredibly important, and also the idea that it almost comes from your gut.
That’s something that’s always sort of frustrating about these Q&A’s. A lot of it boils down to, “Oh, you just know.”
It’s hard to create teachable advice.
I mean, I think you can learn. I do think part of what comes about is you start to study what it is you like. You know, like you start to see overlaps. What are the movies I like? What are the shows I like? What keeps happening? What I was describing in there, what my friend Brian Vaughn [creator of Y: The Last Man], “and they never stood a chance.” That’s the movies I love. That’s Empire Strikes Back. That’s Blade Runner. That’s Miller’s Crossing. These movies are the same sort of characters following their own code, taking care of one another.
You don’t understand your own influences but I was rewatching Empire with my kids, because I have kids and it’s fun to [watch] Star Wars, and I was rewatching Empire with fresh eyes. I realized every single scene in Empire Strikes Back is about characters being told “give up on your friends,” and then refusing to give up on their friends. I was like, “This is The Martian.” Like, it’s not coincidence that this thing that influenced me when I was five is still influencing what I’m attracted to. It’s not coincidence.
I feel like there is this propensity in the critical community to assume that artists are influenced by what’s going on right now, but I feel like everyone’s only influenced by what they saw when they were a kid.
I think that’s part of it. Look, you can definitely be influenced. I think what happens… you sort of go through these early stages – or at least I did, I don’t want to generalize about everyone – where the first part of your career is the garage cover band. The part of your career where you’re just playing the covers of the songs that you like. You’re doing the types of things you like. That’s when you’re really devouring what’s going on around you. Like that’s when I was looking at X-Files, looking at Buffy. That’s my contemporary of what I was doing.
At a certain point you start doing it, and then you don’t care what’s going on around you. Like, you just stop because you’re now focused on yourself. You switch and go, “Now it’s about my voice.” And then, for me, it’s hard for me to watch. My wife’s a comedy writer. She works on half-hours and I worked on hours for the longest time. At a certain point we just stopped because every hour I would watch felt like work. Every half-hour she would watch felt like work.
So we just stopped. We just started watching documentaries and stuff like that, and that tended to be what influenced us. I think you evolve and so as a result you’re not watching stuff they way you watched it when you were twelve.
You’re saying that to a professional film critic. I haven’t stopped absorbing and now I feel unevolved.
I don’t feel insulted…
I don’t want to say that. You know what? It’s not true, you’re right. You know what? The way I felt about The Empire Strikes Back is the way I felt when I saw the Sopranos finale. One hundred percent. It still happens. It absolutely still happens.
I have not gotten over the Sopranos finale to this day. I love it so. I contend that that show is the single greatest piece of writing that I have seen in my lifetime. So it still happens. You’re right, I’m totally wrong, I still have those moments.
They can both be true!
I think that’s right. You do evolve as you get older. It’s different. But occasionally something will waylay you, man. Something will come at you and you just don’t care about all the other things you know as an adult, and you’re just devastated.
Do you run into people now who have had those sorts of inspirational moments, but from your work? Say on Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Lost?
I don’t know. I think so. I think they say it. I don’t know that I believe it even though I have to trust that. I would hope that that’s true, you know? But it sounds weird. It’s hard to understand that you’re passing that baton along.
I remember watching those shows, and after a little while, I would see your name in the credits and go, “Oh, this is going to be a good one.”
Oh that’s nice to hear.
And yet I wonder, and you were in the writer’s room so maybe you’d know… I feel like some time has elapsed… were there any of the mysteries on Lost where you guys had no idea?
I mean it’s tricky. It’s a tricky thing to talk about because, I understand. When people get frustrated… let’s take it out of Lost for a second, let’s just talk about… because the question you always get is, “Do you know everything ahead of time or are you making it up as you go along?”
I understand that what people are really asking when they ask that, or what they’re really saying is, “Don’t jerk us around.” What they’re really saying is, “Don’t hinge plot on things you don’t have answers to and pretend that that has meaning.” Like if we want to get really critical about that.
But there’s times where a character will do something and surprise you. That’s what you want as writers. So you have to notice the difference. The answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no and sometimes we made mistakes, you know? You try not to. You try not to and then occasionally… or occasionally something will happen that you did not expect. What if we made that character that we never intended to be important…?
What if he’s Benjamin Linus?
Yeah! “That actor was really good. Michael Emerson. Who is this Michael Emerson guy? He’s fantastic! Let’s write more for him.” You know what I mean?
Now that The Martian is pretty much an unmitigated success, it’s doing really well… The Martian 2?
[Laughs.] I had lunch with Andy Weir last week and we joked about it. How do you it? I tend to keep being attracted to these properties that are really hard to make sequels to! Really hard.
I heard that Lionsgate was considering Cabin in the Woods 2?
I think they asked us if we had any ideas because they would like to do it. It was all very positive. It was delivered in the idea of “We love working with you and Joss [Whedon], we’re very happy with the finances of the movie, do you guys want to do it again?”
That’s as far as it got. Because we sort of said, “We do but we don’t have a good idea.” That’s the hard part is that it all sounds good, I love Lionsgate, I love those characters, I love that world, I don’t quite know how to do it.
The real question is: based on the ending of that movie, and the choice that has to be made at the end of that movie, would making a sequel negate the original?
We didn’t want to do it if it did negate it [the original]. I think there are ways to do it without negating it. I think there are.
Here’s what I’m going to say. Because I was talking about Douglas Adams [writer of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy] and how much I loved Douglas Adams. I went and saw him when I was in college. He came to talk in Denver, I remember this so clearly, and he said… So he had his book, I believe it was Mostly Harmless, and at the end of Mostly Harmless he ends not just the world but all simultaneous multiverse universes, right?
He ends everything. So that had just come out and that’s when I see him. A woman stands up in there and says, because he had said “I’m working on the next book,” and she had said “How could you do the next book? You ended everything!” He said, “First of all, it’s fiction. Secondly, it’s science fiction. And third, it’s comedic science fiction.”
So when you have those three things you can come up with something. There are ways. Cabin may be a horror film but it also may be a comedic science fiction film. I see Douglas’s handprint there. There are options. The trick is you just can’t buy it back. You just have to say that [the ending] is real, and now what? How do we solve this problem?
Did you ever read the annotated radio scripts for Hitchhiker’s Guide?
I loved reading those because he was very open about having no idea he was going to get out of each cliffhanger. “It seemed completely improbable… oh wait, I’ve got an idea.”
See? This is what’s tricky when we talk about Lost. That’s the instinct that you want writers to follow. Because anyone that says, “Did you know what seven seasons of television [would be],” that’s an insane amount of things to know. The answer is “no.” The answer is no to everyone. No one wants to talk about that but a hundred percent, to every writer.
And if the answer is “yes” they’re not doing their jobs because they’re not actually listening to what the story is and adjusting course. The problem is, and I’m not saying this as a defense of some of the things we did because I know what we did wrong too, but you want people to adjust the story. You want writers to evolve over the course of seven years so that you’re not just repeating the same story.
To clarify: I feel like you might have mentioned it before, but just in case you’re referring to something different, what do you feel like you did wrong? Or what was a learning experience from Lost?
For me, I always try to avoid plot for the sake of plot, because that’s what gets you in trouble. Especially if you’re punting it down the road. Sometimes, look, I’ll give you a great example of when it worked. Sometimes it works great. J.J. [Abrams] sat in the first room on day one and said, “What if they found a hatch on the island?” And we said, “That’s great! What’s inside the hatch?” and he goes, “I don’t know but I would watch all season to find out what’s inside that hatch.” And from a creative excitement point of view he was right. So then we put that hatch in not knowing what’s going on there.
But that was emotionally resonant though, because Locke was obsessed with it.
Correct, but here’s the problem: had we not figured that out it would have just been a hatch, and we’d be mad. And you’d be mad.
Correct. So that happened. I’m sure you can point out the times it happened better than I could. You’re finding this balance and the problem with a show like Lost, the longer it goes on, the more hatches. The more the snowball starts to build. It’s just hard. It’s just really hard to keep that going and keep it exciting, because we all knew it.
I’ll say this, we all knew. You’d sit around in season two and be like, “Boy, in season five this is really going to get difficult.” Especially because at the time the network wouldn’t let us cut the order [number of episodes]. Damon [Lindelof] was saying it all along, like, “This show needs to be shorter. We need to have fewer episodes. We can’t stretch this show out.”
It’s hard. It’s just hard because again, the other thing that’s hard for people to understand: you’re having to make these decisions every eight days. Every eight days you’re coming up with an hour of storytelling, you know? It’s hard.
That’s another thing I admire about Daredevil. That is a show with a plot, but right at the beginning it’s almost entirely emotional.
It’s just about the Kingpin and Matt Murdock and how they’re destroying themselves to destroy each other.
A hundred percent. Look, here’s the truth. I don’t care about plot. I don’t. I think it’s helpful. I think it is helpful at times, but I never really cared. I think that’s why Joss and I get along so well because he doesn’t care. [Laughs.] And sometimes we’re our own worst enemies.
I think that’s part of what attracted me to The Martian, is that the plot’s really good. It’s a good plot in The Martian and so I thought, “Okay, I have the plot, now I can just focus on what I care about,” you know? Which is what are the characters going through? What are we trying to say? What are the silly jokes I’m trying to make? These are the things that matter to me.
It’s funny because Andy and I talk about this all the time. Those are not the things that matter to Andy Weir, the author. He cares about the story. He cares about the plot. He likes to keep saying, “I love that I just told a good popcorn story,” and I keep saying, “That’s not what I see when I read your book! I see something entirely different.” I think that argument between the two of us, where he cares about the science of the plot and I care about the emotion and the meaning, I think that has led to a good collaboration.
It’s a fascinating dichotomy because emotionally we need it, because otherwise we wouldn’t be invested, but we also need Andy Weir’s obsession for detail and scientific knowledge.
Otherwise the story doesn’t function. Otherwise it just becomes Robinson Crusoe on Mars and it’s ridiculous.
And it’s a lot of, as Joss would call it, “Phlebotinum.” Just made up nonsense.
“Applied phlebotinum,” that’s right.
Top Photo: Kevin Winter / Getty Images North America
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.