Interview Cloverfield director

Jane is the mother of three grown kids, owns a thriving Santa Barbara bakery/restaurant and has — after a decade of divorce — an amicable relationship with her ex-husband, attorney Jake. But when Jane and Jake find themselves out of town for their son’s college graduation, things start to get complicated. An innocent meal together turns into the unimaginable — an affair. With Jake remarried to the much younger Agness, Jane is now, of all things, the other woman.

Q. Your relationship with producer JJ Abrams extends a long way back…
A: We met when we were 13 because we both made 8mm movies. There was a Public Access TV station near where I grew up and one day they were showing movies by this kid one day. It was JJ. And I got my own movies on the show and the guy there put us in touch. Through that I met JJ, and we became friends, then we started making movies together.

Q. So how did they pitch ‘Cloverfield’ to you?
A: Well JJ was talking about how after ‘MI:3’ he would be taking his TV company, Bad Robot, and moving it into features. He was really excited because he was making this deal with Paramount, not only to write and direct movies, but also to produce. And the movie he really wanted to produce was this giant monster movie. I thought it sounded hysterically fun and I never thought I’d have anything to do with it. I’d never done a movie like that; I’d never done visual effects. But when they got the green light, they asked me to read it, and to me is seemed like a Roland Emmerich movie in size. It read to me in scope like ‘Independence Day’. I was like, “Guys, this is clearly wall-to-wall visual effects, so why are you thinking of me?” Everything JJ and I had done was very character-based; that’s what I do.

Q. But they wanted you to do your version of this movie…
A: That’s exactly it. They thought I’d be suited to the handycam style and the fact that it was meant to be very realistic. And when I met Drew I came to realise that he had as much interest in character as I do, coming from a genre perspective, and we really hit it off. I liked the idea of doing something so outlandish in a very realistic style; a giant monster is absurd but the idea of trying to do it in a way that felt utterly realistic was a real challenge. I also liked the idea that it was an epic scale movie done in a really intimate manner, and that you could be connected to the characters, because the people holding that camera are the ones going through this experience. That’s what drew me in.

Q. Your own work is very character-based, but I presume you liked monster movies when you were growing up? And if so, did any influence ‘Cloverfield’?
A: Oh yeah! I loved ‘Jaws’, that’s a monster movie of sorts, and definitely one that I thought of when making this movie because it dealt with suspense in such an effective way, holding that monster off, teasing us with the shark, and then revealing it right at the end when the battle escalates. The tension and terror created by that anticipation is enormous. And Alien really affected me; it is one of the most suspenseful movies ever made and I think the creature is one of the most memorable ever made. It was terrifying in its design. And one thing that I took from that was that there was a real sense of realism in that movie. These people were going through this experience in space, but they were everyday, real people, having great mundane conversations. I love the scene when they’re just sitting around eating — it’s totally workaday, and they have no idea what’s going to happen to them. I also loved The Thing, especially John Carpenter’s film; I mean that creature is unnameable, terrifying, and there’s something very apocalyptic in tone. The ending is completely haunting, and it really sticks with you. You’re left in a place where there are no answers, and you’re just as chilled at the end of that film as you had been throughout. And I loved the original King Kong, which is a masterpiece.

Q. Did the fact that Cloverfield was shot in this particular way make you at all nervous?
A: That’s one of the things that excited me most of all. I knew it would be difficult, and I didn’t want the handycam work to feel like a gimmick. I wanted it to feel as real as possible. Years ago, when I first got out of film school, there was a film that I was going to do which was all going to be found footage, which was going to be like The Guyana Tragedy: The Jim Jones Story. It was going to be about these people who were profiling this religious leader and the terror that built into this footage, and I had talked about it to JJ and Bryan. We never did it, and then Blair Witch came out! It was such a cool idea. I loved the idea of found footage – it was cool and haunting.

Q. But you couldn’t rely on filmmaking techniques to get the best shots…
A: You’re right, it did remove a lot of the tools I had. One of the things I like to do with actors is to explore, by doing multiple takes, because you might have something great in take one, something really good in take six and then something amazing in take 10. There might be jump cuts and in-camera editing, but not in scenes that are meant to play out in dramatic fashion. So it meant that I had to embrace the idea of doing continuous masters, no editing, and that was scary, because I wanted the actors to improvise, them to shoot the film, and to shoot some bits myself. So that was like making the 8mm films we were making when we were kids, because we were making the movies on tiny handycams; it was crazy that we were making this massive studio film in such an indie style. It was exciting.

Q. The marketing of this movie, with the viral campaigns on the Internet, has been very intriguing. Is that something you and JJ worked on together?
A: Yeah, when I came onboard, the idea for the teaser trailer was already in place. But I directed the trailer because it was footage that was going to be used in the movie. We planned the trailer together, had a 12-week prep, and spent eight of those weeks working on the teaser trailer, which left four weeks left after that. I loved the idea of the teaser playing with Transformers; it was sneaking in under the radar with the no-name actors, getting people introduced to our project, and having a real sense of discovery. When we were kids, we saw trailers of films we knew nothing about, with people in them that we didn’t know, and they didn’t used to give away all of the plot. That was so exciting, and that was what we planned with this film. When the teaser trailer came out, it was a huge mystery and people started going crazy. We thought, “Wow it’s July 4, and the film’s not due out until January, so it’s very early to have this level of reaction.” While it was exciting, we were terrified, because people might get sick of us. So then we decided to shut up, but the silence stoked the fires even more, because the less information people had, the crazier they went.