Recently at one of our sister sites, LAist's Julie Wolfson spent an afternoon with Cloverfield director Matt Reeves. In the interview that follows he spills some juicy details about the film, including what the title really means, which will be in theaters this Friday.
Over the years you have been very selective in your choice of projects. What made you want to direct your first monster movie?
Well, I guess it had to do with the approach. At the time, there was a project I had written and will be directing called The Invisible Woman. I was putting together the cast and we had an actress cast for the lead and then she fell out twice and it just didn’t work scheduling-wise. During this time, J.J. Abrams had been putting together this deal for his new company. He’d been doing television stuff, but he was going to also be moving into producing features in addition to the stuff that he writes and directs. So he was really excited about doing this monster movie, and that was the thing he was telling me about all during my work on The Invisible Woman. It sounded really intriguing and fun, but I never thought that I would have anything to do with it.
One day when we were dealing with all this casting stuff, he and Bryan Burk, who I’ve known since we were kids and introduced me to J.J., asked me to consider doing the movie. They talked about the idea that the movie is obviously a monster movie and there’s that kind of outrageous aesthetic, but they wanted it to feel very naturalistic and real and that was very exciting to me.
I read the outline, which was written by Drew Goddard, who is a writer from LOST and also has a big following of people who knew him when he started on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I thought the outline was outrageous, so I met him, and I loved him. We just started talking about how we would sort of further take that character approach to the story. For me, the reason that it was interesting to do was that I’d be doing something that I’d never done before.
Cloverfield has generated massive buzz since the trailer was shown before Transformers last summer. People online are dissecting of every aspect of the name of the film, the trailer, and other details. What do you make of all the curiosity surrounding the film?
We thought it would be really fun to make a teaser trailer. We would make that in our pre-production then that would be released. Basically, we were learning how to make this hand-held visual effects movie by making a trailer for the movie. We thought it’d be really neat if we could do it so that there wasn’t any sense that it was a movie until you got to the end and saw the head of the Statue of Liberty and were like, “OK, what is that?!?” At one point at the beginning, we asked if we could not have the disclaimer at the beginning that says, “This preview has been approved for all audiences by the MPAA.” It turned out we couldn’t do that, but Rob Moore at Paramount came up with the idea of “What if we didn’t put the title on it?” It just really seemed a very unusual way to introduce a film. Kind of a throwback to when we were all kids and trailers came out for movies that you knew nothing about.
The thing we talked about a lot was the trailer for Close Encounters. There was a great teaser trailer that sort of looked like weird documentary footage and there was this really scary, almost frontline-esque narrator and he was talking about different close encounters. When it ended you were like “What was that?!?” The idea of having that experience where, as a moviegoer, you could discover something—before the age of Access Hollywood and Entertainment Tonight and all the websites.
When it comes to modern trailers, a lot of the way that they sell movies now is to give you the whole thing right up front. This was a throwback. We knew that it was going to be on Transformers if we make it in time. We thought that it would be really interesting. Here will be this completely under-the-radar movie being previewed in front of a movie that they were already anticipating there’d be a huge audience. I think that the real reason there was all of that crazy reaction was that the trailer was so widely seen and so completely mysterious. I think that people began to project themselves into the mystery to figure out what it was, and that created this whole sort of engagement with the viewers. Anytime you’re confronted with a mystery, you immediately need to have answers, and we were just really lucky. We did not expect there to be this level of reaction.
What is the most fun part of making a monster movie?
We shot in a very unusual style. We wanted everything to appear as if it was found footage, so anytime that the camera would edit, it meant that the camera had just been turned off, and the next time it came back on was some moment later in time. Those are the only edits. We never did a reverse shot. That style was very demanding. In terms of scenes with the actors—like we have a section of the film where you’re just being introduced to them—that stuff was really fun to shoot, but it was very challenging because we were trying to find the scenes and figure out who the characters were. We’d do 50-60 takes. The scenes that ended up being the most fun to shoot were the visual effects scenes.
The whole aesthetic was supposed to be that if this happened to anyone in the audience and they had been there with their video-phone or their camera, that they would never turn off their camera until there was a reason to turn off the camera. If something chaotic was going on, it meant that the shot, in my view, should keep going until that incident had come to an end.
Normally, in a movie, you would shoot that sequence with maybe twenty visual effects shots. You’d shoot the kind of wide shot that shows one scope, and the visual effects people would work on that, you’d shoot the closer shots, you’d shoot a bunch of different things and you’d design a sequence. We had designed basically in one continuous shot for what might have been in another movie twenty different shots.
A lot of times we’d do something and we'd get a visual effect back and they’d show us the first pass of what they were doing and they’d have the creature perfectly framed, or they’d have some incident filmed in a way as if the camera happened to capture just the right moment. At that point, I’d tell them that the character is standing there, he’s in the middle of it and he’s terrified, so that means that the camera comes over and he probably didn’t get the beginning of it. He probably comes in after that. They’d tell me that they thought you’d want to see that moment. In a normal movie you would, but here, what’s going to make it feel real is to miss that moment and come in on the next moment. All of that was new for everybody. It was just the whole aesthetic and that was the whole reason that Bryan and J.J. had talked to me in the first place. They wanted to keep the feeling real.
Was the monster in the film inspired by H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu?
It was not. Here’s the thing—there’s been a lot of speculation, but J.J. has already answered the question. What really happened was that during Mission Impossible 3, J.J. took his son to Japan for the premiere. While they were there, they visited a toy store in Tokyo. They saw shelf after shelf, row after row, of Godzilla toys. Just this huge toy store filled with toys. The image was really striking to J.J. He said, “Look at this. This is like a national monster.” He started thinking, “You know, we need our own national monster.” Obviously King Kong is kind of a national monster but not really in that way. That’s a great movie and he’s a legendary figure in film lore, but it’s not really the same thing. So the way that Godzilla was sort of a metaphor for the time, and for that place, the idea of creating a new monster for this time and place came about. It’s an original monster, and a monster that was inspired, really, by Godzilla.
Which films did you watch to prepare for directing Cloverfield?
I watched a lot of really weird and disparate things. I watched Children of Men because of the continuous shot aspect of it, and I thought it was really amazing, the tension that they were able to build in that. I was so impressed because the camera was very eerie and almost Kubrickian. The camera was in the middle of the space—handheld and right in the action—but it was also detached. I watched Alien, Jaws, The Shining, movies that I’ve always loved that are creepy and scary.
The thing that was most helpful, the stuff that I watched that really informed the aesthetic, was a lot of YouTube videos. Actually, a lot of the stuff that was in that first trailer, the teaser, was directly inspired by just looking at footage that people had of parties and events.
Then I looked at footage of terrifying events. I just wanted to see what happened when people were in the middle of these terrifying events and how they were filmed. There was some kind of gas pipe explosion that was online, really terrifying things. You would see the way people would keep documenting in these moments, what they would see, and how something would happen. They’d kind of miss it and then they would find it. There was also some footage I saw where they gave cameras to troops in Iraq. I was looking at the stuff from the Iraq documentary because it was like, these guys are in a crisis. Where does the camera go when you’re in a crisis? What happens?
There was this one clip in particular that I found absolutely terrifying where some troops were in a tent in Iraq and their camp was being mortar shelled [go to 2:32 on the YouTube video]. As the bombs were falling, they took the camera and put it on the ground. The shot itself was absolutely horrifying. There was a troop lying in front of the camera on the ground. There was a tent and the flap of the tent was open, but was so bright outside that with the exposure, you couldn’t even tell what was out there. You see a leg of a table that they’re hiding under and you see the other troop’s foot. You hear indiscriminate screaming and explosions getting closer and closer outside. It’s all obscured, but you could feel it. I thought we have to use that as a driving aesthetic to try and think about how to take these characters in these situations, and know that the camera is supposed to be there. We would be filming in a way that’s not from any safe perspective.
There were things in the movie where I wanted to make sure that if the character fell, the camera would fall. We had several different cameras that we used. Some of them were tiny because I wanted to give them to the actors. Some of them we used for visual effects. We had to use these very large cameras. We would put them inside of suitcases with all this padding and put all kinds of protective things over the lens and then just hurl the camera. Then there were times that were really fun because the actors did the shooting.
One actor in particular is charged with filming most of the evening. He’s the one who is documenting the going away party for one of the main characters. We introduce him early on and he does most of the filming in the movie, although the camera does switch hands at different points. He didn’t shoot with any of the heavy cameras until the last day. Things were moving really fast and we had a limited amount of time at this one location. We had great camera operators. Their job was to make it look like a 50-pound camera weighed 10 ounces. In this one scene, even though we had this large camera for the visual effects that were supposed to be going on in the background, the actor who was approaching him was supposed to be sort of emotional and I asked him if he would handle one of these big cameras. He was up for anything. And so he shot it and did a great job.
One day we were doing a scene running under a bridge and the director of photography said, “You know what? I want to shoot this scene.” And I said, “OK.” So he was shooting it and I’m watching this scene as the director of photography is running with a group of people. All of a sudden he falls down and I’m thinking, “Well, there is the end of the shoot! What are we going to do?” and before I could finish feeling completely terrified and worried about how he was doing, he got back up and just started running with the crowd. The adrenaline kept him going. Then we looked at the shot and I used it in the movie.
There were other scenes, like one where we were shooting with an actor named Michael Stahl David, and I guess you could say his character is sort of the hero of the movie. I wanted him to be an everyman hero. I don’t want someone who can leap tall buildings in a single bound. There’s a scene where he’s kicking down a door and I asked him to do it as hard as possible, and in most movies they’re able to do it in two or three kicks, but he’s going again and again and again and again. That was one of the fun things about working with Michael. He was really into the idea of being this un-heroic hero.
How much did the actors improvise during filming?
The actors improvised a lot. They didn’t know what they were auditioning for when they came in. They didn’t have the script. I remember talking to Lizzy Caplan after I cast her. She said that because J.J. and I created Felicity together, she thought that when she first came in, when we started with the relationship scenes, that the movie was going to be Felicity-esque and maybe a bit like a Cameron Crowe movie, but using an improvisational style. Then we started bringing in these scenes, like one where she had to take adrenaline—it’s not in the movie, it was just a scene to see how she’d play the moment—she had to play stabbing someone in the heart with an adrenaline hypodermic needle, and she was like, “Oh, well this seems different.” There was all this weird, crazy stuff and she thought, “What is this? This is going off in another direction altogether!”
It created a bond with all the actors. When we cast them, first of all, there were no scripts, so I had to pitch them the story, and suddenly they all realized they were in this incredible mystery together. It created these strong bonds between them and I asked them to spend as much time together as possible and they became really good friends. That comes across, I think, in the movie, that they could depend on each other as actors. I think that kind of thing helped the improvisations as well.
The film has had a very successful viral campaign. What do you think of Ethan Haas and the other people who took it upon themselves to capitalize on it?
All I knew was that we made this teaser trailer and had not given any information about it. People immediately started making connections, some of which connected to things that we were setting up, but others had nothing to do with us.
Some were amazing. The thing that was most funny was that when we were doing the trailer, we knew that it would have a realistic feel, and we wanted to let people know that it was a monster movie in some way without saying, “Hey look! It’s a giant monster movie!” As a result, we decided after we made it, and while we were doing the mix, to put in some dialogue to make reference to the fact that there was a creature of some sort. One of the things we put in there at the last minute—during the last 20 minutes of our mix when I was there along with J.J., Bryan Burk, and my girlfriend—and I said, “I’ll do one.”
I got up there and said into the mic, “I saw it! It’s alive! It’s huge!” That would be an indication that this thing was alive and huge. Apparently I speak very quickly, so people in the audience heard, “It’s a lion! It’s huge!” I remember coming home from shooting all day and I look online to see what the response has been to the trailer and I’m seeing that people have done a spectral analysis of the audio. They’ve got my voice and they’re playing it slowly. I read further and they’re convinced that I’m saying “It’s a lion!” and that it’s a voltron movie. I didn’t really know anything about voltrons before this, and they’re apparently giant robot lions [see the "leaked footage" parody on the YouTube video].
That kind of stuff started building. Then when there was all this weird Ethan Haas stuff, I remember Bryan and J.J. and I turning to each other and saying, “What is that? We don’t even know what that is.” That’s what happens when you confront people with a mystery. You can’t be surprised if they start making connections that have nothing to do with you. That’s exactly what happened.
When I look at the message boards to see what’s going on, and there will be somebody who has purported to have seen the movie and they’ll give details—very specific details—that have nothing to do with the film. I think, “People are amazing!” It’s fascinating and it’s just something I’ve never really been a part of prior to this. I mean, we had online fans during Felicity, but it was very different.
The drink Slusho appears in Alias and Heroes. With all of the speculation about whether there is a Slusho connection in Cloverfield, it seems that the fans are looking for any kind of clues. Many are looking forward to finding secret messages hidden in the film.
I feel like the movie is its own complete experience. Yet in another way, because of all the viral stuff and the meta parallel story we’ve had building all along, that that’s also part of a puzzle. So, in a way, at the center of the whole thing there’s this one puzzle piece, which, if you knew nothing about Slusho or Tagruato and all of those things, it would play completely by itself.
When we were making the movie, we have the Statue of Liberty moment in the teaser trailer. One of the things that I thought was that because, in a lot of the footage we looked at, there were people pulling out their video phones the moment something crazy started to happen and we started thinking that’s what should happen here. One of the things that we were all thinking about was the idea that if you could find all these other peoples’ video phones or video cameras, then you’d find another movie. All these viral things are like different prisms looking at the same story.
Is there really a Slusho shirt at the party?
Well, you’ll have to see the movie. Slusho does have a connection though.
You and J.J. Abrams have been friends for years. How did you originally meet?
We originally met because, when we were kids, we both made 8 mm films. In LA in the 70s, there was a cable system called the Theta cable system and the Z Channel was part of that, but they also had a public access channel, Channel 3.
That was an instance of true public access. Anybody could go and get an hour of time, and put on their own show. So one guy decided it would be really great if he put on a show where people could air their amateur films. The show was called “Word of Mouth” and the guy’s name was Gerard Ravel.
What he discovered was that the people who responded to his show most often were filmmakers who were about 13 years old, because a lot of kids were making movies. I was flipping through the channels one day and I saw these little 8 mm horror films and then an interview with some 13-year-old kid, and I was like, “What is this show and how can I get on it?” At the end of the show they had this ad that said, “Air your shorts,” and it was meant to be some play on words or something.
I called up and I said, “I’ve got these movies that I’ve been making for years and I’d love to put my movies on your show.” Ravel said, “Yeah, of course, that’s what the show’s about.” So he put it on, did the interview, the whole thing, and then afterward he said to me, “You know that guy whose films you saw? I should introduce you to him. You guys are the same age and you would totally hit it off.” He introduced me to J.J. and we became fast friends. We started making movies. I met Bryan Burk, the other producer on Cloverfield, because he made 8 mm films as a kid too. I introduced him to J.J. later and that’s how they became friends and started working together.
The Z Channel show sounds like the original You Tube.
It was like that. He had all these different movies and in fact Gerard Revel then put together a series of students films. We were all just kids. He put together a series of 8 mm shorts from young film-makers and it played at the Nuart Theatre. I remember that was the biggest moment in my movie career at that point. I am still friends with people who were part of that. One of my friends Mark Sanderson was in that and we’re still friends. I’ve known him since fifth grade. They did a calendar article. We were on the cover of the Calendar Section. There was a picture of us standing in front of the theatre. The title of the article was “Beardless wonders”. It was a photo of a bunch of 13 an14 year old kids. People came to our screening at the Nuart. It was pretty crazy.
All the directors back then had beards.
Yes. The reference at the time was that all of the filmmakers had beards. One of them, Spielberg, saw the article and he said I’ve got to see these movies. He ended up asking to see our films. Then he came back to J.J. and I because after he lived in Arizona growing up, somebody went into the basement of the house where he lived and they found a box. On the side of the box it said Stevie Spielberg. He opened the box and inside were 8 mm films. This amazing person returned it to Steven Spielberg. There were all of the movies that he had made when he was a kid. He made this movie called Firelight, which was the original Close Encounters. He did this movie that was kind of a war movie that was very Indiana Jones. It was really amazing. The films were in disrepair and because he had seen our films and read this article about us and knew that we knew a lot about 8mm film. That’s what kids did. He contacted us. I think the people to go to restore these films would be kids. He contacted J.J. and I and we ended up cleaning his films and re-splicing them. I remember watching in I had one of those wind up things where you could watch the monitor. I remember watching Firelight. There was this red fire light that was very clearly still in Close Encounters. At the end of the scene with the flying saucers there is a little red thing that comes whizzing through. That red thing was in that movie.
What were you favorite horror and thriller movies as a kid?
The Exorcist scarred me forever. To this day I still have a problem watching that movie because I am so scared. The Shining I thought was terrifying. I am huge fan of John Carpenter’s the Thing. I think it is an underappreciated movie. It’s really well done and very scary, very apocalyptic. I can see why it probably didn’t do well at the time. It got this very eerie open-ended apocalyptic ending. It’s very scary.
I love the first Alien. I think it’s fantastic. I liked those movies growing up. I wouldn’t say that I was a horror afficianado because I was sort of afraid of them. It’s funny because when I met with J.J. when we were kids I would go over to his house. He was a huge fan of all of that stuff. I remember he would want to watch some of those movies and I was like I don’t want to see those movies.
Growing up do you remember a movie that you waiting with anticipation for it to come out? Were you the kind of person who would wait in line on the first day?
I went to see Star Wars multiple times. I remember taking off of school to see Empire Strikes back. I remember waiting in line for ET. There was such a craze that you had to buy the tickets days in advance. I saw it at the Cinerama Dome, which is another theatre that I love. I remember waiting to see The King of Comedy and being really excited.
What actor would you love to do a project with?
There are so many that I would like to work with. First of all I would love to make a movie with Kerri Russell. I just love her. I am such a fan of actors. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is the greatest. I would love to make a movie with him. He is astonishing. My heroes growing up were Robert Deniro and Al Pacino.
What TV shows do you watch?
I watch Project Runway. I loved the Sopranos when it was on. I love the Daily Show with John Stewart.
What are you working on next?
The movie that I was working on when J.J. and Bryan came to me is the movie that I am hoping to do next. The writers’ strike has everything in a weird position. The film I am hoping to make is called The Invisible Woman. There is a company called Greenstreet, which is financing the film. I hope we will make it soon. It’s hard to say with the Writers Strike. I am reading a lot of things and there are things I’d like to write too.
Tell us the real story behind the title Cloverfield?
When we started the project there was going to be an announcement in the trades. In this case, they wanted to keep everything under wraps. So the movie was going to be made under this outside corporation that was basically a property of Paramount. That corporation had a name that I don’t know the name of. I think Clover was the first part of it. Maybe it was Cloverdale. When Drew [Goddard, LOST writer] was putting a name to the project, there was supposed to be a name for the project like there was for The Manhattan Project. So he said, "I am going to use that weird mysterious thing," and he misheard it. He didn’t even understand that it wasn’t Cloverfield, it was Cloverdale. Maybe that was because of the street by J.J.’s old office, but the truth is he just misunderstood it.
Special thanks to Michele Reverte for transcription and John Wayne Maioriello for research. On set photos by Sam Emerson. Photo of Matt Reeves by John Wayne Maioriello. Interview by LAist's Julie Wolfson.