With ‘10 Cloverfield Lane,’ producer J.J. Abrams catches audiences by surprise

Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Michelle in ‘10 Cloverfield Lane.’
Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Michelle in ‘10 Cloverfield Lane.’ PARAMOUNT PICTURES

He’s a sly one, that J.J. Abrams. A year ago, the prolific producer-director of everything from TV’s Lost and Fringe to the Spielberg-homage Super 8 and the big-screen reboot of Star Trek was the subject of immense fan scrutiny as he directed Star Wars: The Force Awakens, one of the most anticipated movies ever made.

At the same time, Abrams was working on another film that wasn’t on anyone’s radar, because few people knew it existed. When the trailer for 10 Cloverfield Lane snuck into theaters on Jan. 15, shown in front of Michael Bay’s war drama 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, audiences were stunned. In an era in which advance posters and teaser trailers are analyzed and dissected long before the actual film is released, how did a follow-up to 2008’s giant-monster movie Cloverfield, which grossed $170 million world-wide, get made without anyone knowing?

“It was easy, and it was tough,” says Dan Trachtenberg, the former co-host of the popular video podcast The Totally Rad Show, who was hand-picked by Abrams to make his directorial debut on 10 Cloverfield Lane. “It was easy in that all I had to do was not say anything. But it was tough because I love talking about movies, and my job used to consist of talking about movies, and here I was making my first movie and I couldn’t say a word to anyone. It was excruciating.”

Made for a low budget (reportedly $5 million) under the confines of Abrams’ production company Bad Robot, 10 Cloverfield Lane is primarily a thriller. The movie centers on a woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who wakes up after a car accident inside an underground bomb shelter where two men (John Goodman and John Gallagher Jr.) tell her there has been some sort of nuclear or chemical attack, and they must stay inside their cramped quarters for a year or two until it’s safe to go outside again.

That’s the simple scenario the 104-second 10 Cloverfield Lane trailer laid out. But the appearance of the word “Cloverfield” at the end of the trailer worked up people who had been asking Abrams about a sequel to Cloverfield for years.

Even better, the trailer revealed the movie would be released in just two months (it opened this Friday), so the usual long period of anticipation and speculation that surrounds most genre films produced by Hollywood studios wouldn’t be a factor.

“The extraordinary thing about this movie is not only that we got to tell a story that is so weird and scary and have it released by a major studio, but the most remarkable thing was that we were able to break the template of how movies get made,” Abrams says. “We were able to get [distributor] Paramount Pictures to agree to not announce the movie a year in advance, to wait two months before it came out and surprise moviegoers with something they wouldn’t have to wait around for a year before they could see.

It may turn out to be a miscalculation or it may turn out to be a stroke of genius. I don’t know yet.

Producer J.J. Abrams

“It may turn out to be a miscalculation or it may turn out to be a stroke of genius,” Abrams says. “I don’t know yet. But I do know that as a moviegoer, I like being compelled to see a movie and be curious about it, but I don’t want to have seen the film spelled out for me in a trailer before I’ve seen it. I want to be surprised. It’s that spirit with which we announced and promoted this film. We got to tell people this thing is coming before you know it. There’s nothing more fun than going to the theater and seeing something where you don’t know what to expect.”

Except that the title of 10 Cloverfield Lane immediately raises the expectations of fans who have been waiting to find out what happened to the Godzilla-sized extra-terrestrial creature that flattened New York City in Cloverfield. That movie, which was shot entirely on hand-held cameras using found-footage style made popular by The Blair Witch Project, ended on an enigmatic note, with almost all of the film’s protagonists dead but the fate of the monster unclear.

Abrams is familiar with having to live up to impossible expectations (see Star Wars: The Force Awakens). Ever since the trailer was unveiled, he’s been saying in interviews that 10 Cloverfield Lane is not a sequel to the first film, but more of a spiritual cousin. Unlike the original, the movie is set almost entirely indoors, with only three protagonists — the mirror-opposite of Cloverfield’s enormous scale and large cast.

“Hopefully people aren’t just expecting a movie with a monster in it or some kind of scary thing,” he says. “I think of Cloverfield as a big amusement park, and this is just one of the rides inside the park. The audience is smart enough to see it’s not called Cloverfield 2. It’s obviously a very different movie. This is not a direct sequel. It is is an incredibly well-directed, scary, dramatic movie that is a step after Cloverfield and begins to paint a larger picture. On the one hand, you can treat it as a new installment in an anthology of movies. On the other hand, it’s part of something bigger that we’ll hopefully get a shot to realize.”

The inception of the story

10 Cloverfield Lane was originally conceived as a different movie, titled The Cellar and written by Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken. Abrams, who produced Cloverfield, says that when he read the script for The Cellar, he realized the central premise could be reworked to fold into the “Cloververse” — the name the filmmakers use to refer to the universe which they hope to continue to explore in subsequent movies.

“Very early on, it dawned on us that there was a DNA connection between [The Cellar] and Cloverfield,” Abrams says. “We had already been thinking of ideas for a follow-up, and this script gave me the idea to make a movie where the connection was not kept secret but made explicit right in the title. We’d be able to make a major studio movie that was wholly original — new characters, new story — that could also be connected to Cloverfield. We’ve been very clear that this is not a direct sequel. People might be disappointed that the Cloverfield monster is not in the movie, but they’re going to get something else that is terrifying and funny and surprising.”

Abrams tapped Damien Chazelle, who later wrote and directed Whiplash, to take a pass at the script of The Cellar and retool it into what eventually became 10 Cloverfield Lane. The revisions included a new ending that takes the story in an unexpected direction and ties it to the previous film (in a way).

“The first one did not have that ending,” Abrams says. “As we developed the script, we settled on the idea that the whole movie was sort of a bow and arrow. You’re pulling the bow and pulling the bow for the first two-thirds, and then finally you let the arrow fly, and you do something really crazy in the third act — the weirdest, most unnatural, most unlikely scenario ended up being the truth. This movie has always been a concoction of several different elements: Drama, horror, comedy. The idea of throwing sci-fi into it made it feel like there was something larger at play.”

Once the screenplay was finished, Abrams and fellow Bad Robot producer Lindsey Weber began looking for a director. Enter the untested Trachtenberg, who had previously directed a short film, Portal: No Escape, that went viral in 2011 and had come close to directing two other studio projects — the sci-fi heist film Crime of the Century, which he had written, and an adaptation of the comic-book series Y: The Last Man — but both projects stalled.

Abrams says he decided to hire Trachtenberg after hearing his pitch and ideas for the project.

”He showed up with an incredible clarity of vision for what the movie could be,” Abrams says. “He did not feel at all like someone who had not done this before. Every collaboration is a leap of faith, but this one felt like we were on the same page. I was always clear that he was the director of the movie, and I always deferred to his sensibilities. It was so much fun to be involved with developing the screenplay, to watch the dailies, to be in the editing room with Dan, to work on the special effects and doing whatever I could to help him realize the vision he had for this movie.”

Trachtenberg, who had also previously directed several TV commercials and already was a member of the Directors Guild of America, says even though Abrams was busy shooting The Force Awakens, he always made himself available during the making of 10 Cloverfield Lane.

“I would wake up to emails from him every morning where he commented on the footage we had shot the previous day,” Trachtenberg says. “He kept putting wind in our sails. He managed to give me notes in a way that still allow me to take ownership of the movie that I was making. I really benefit from being able to take credit for so many of his great ideas.”

To make 10 Cloverfield Lane, Trachtenberg says he drew inspiration from John McTiernan movies (specifically Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October), Rosemary’s Baby and third-person video games such as Uncharted and The Last of Us.

“I’m a hardcore gamer, and there is so much moving, beautiful work being done in video games today,” he says. “Cloverfield was told from a first-person perspective. I wanted this movie to feel as experiential as that one but telling it from a third-person, more traditional perspective. I drew on the camera vocabulary that was used by Hitchcock, so the characters are pressed inside the frame and pushed together within a shot, which helps you feel their claustrophobia. Then the camerawork gets more visceral and exciting as the story goes along.

“There are wonderful slow-burn movies that are very calculated in their pacing, and then are really exciting, visceral movies that are incredibly fast-paced,” he says. “But I don’t think a movie has to be just one of those things. I love there are moments in this movie that really take their time, and then there are bursts of freneticism and violence, and your heart is pounding and you’re thrilled. I’ve always loved visual rhythm. It’s like a piece of music: It speeds up and then it slows down again.”

Trachtenberg’s direction in 10 Cloverfield Lane is impressive: His widescreen compositions and careful use of close-ups don’t seem at all the work of a first-time director. And even though he says he was disappointed when his previous two projects didn’t come together, he says he’s glad he ended up making his debut with this film.

“There was so much in the script that spoke to me and felt like the kind of movie I wanted to make,” he says. “I grew up loving movies that made my heart pound and my palms sweat. The opportunity to do that to an audience — to physically affect them — was so exciting. I loved the idea of trying to pull off this magic trick of making this thing that is so small feel so big. I hope people feel we accomplished that.”

Rene Rodriguez: 305-376-3611, @ReneMiamiHerald