Welcome back to Commentary Commentary, your weekly dish of directorial insight and/or, as indicated by last week’s column, shenanigans. This week we’re looking inside the mystery box with director Matt Reeves and uncovering what he has to say about our favorite recent monster movie, Cloverfield. Reeves did this commentary all by his lonesome, but something tells me J.J. Abrams was standing over him with a loaded gun lest Reeves divulge too much information. I’ll be listening intently for any Morse Code warnings or cries for help. Since this commentary track was laid down years ago, and since Matt Reeves has since directed Let Me In – more Morse Code messages. Hmmm – I have a feeling everything turned out okay.
So here, in all of its Slusho wonder, is what I learned on the Matt Reeves commentary for Cloverfield. I wonder if there are going to be any Lost secrets. I hope there are Lost secrets. Or Star Trek 2. Okay, wishful thinking is over. Shutting up now.
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- According to Reeves, J.J. Abrams got the idea for Cloverfield while in Japan for the Mission: Impossible III premiere. He went to a toy store with his son where they saw a huge Godzilla display. Thinking, rightfully so, that Godzilla was seen as the Japanese national monster, Abrams and his son discussed a potential national monster for the United States.
- The fun of the project for Reeves was in the idea of the handheld camera, the idea of bringing a realism to this fantastical concept. Reeves liked the handycam aesthetic. The opening sequences in Beth’s apartment were filmed using a $1500 prosumer handycam. At first they thought it would look horrible when they transferred footage to film, but it ended up looking too good.
- The filming on Cloverfield bounced between shooting in New York City and shooting on sound stages in Los Angeles. You can tell which is which by the grime on the streets. No, not really. But maybe.
- Just as filming in Cloverfield went between New York and L.A., it also bounced between the actors and actual cameramen on the crew. The scene in the loft was shot on a stage in L.A., and the entire scene was shot by the two actors handling the camera in the film, Mike Vogel and T.J. Miller.
- T.J. Miller, a stand-up comedian, was chosen for the role of Hud due in large part to his ability to improvise quickly. Reeves felt this allowed the film an added sense of naturalism, since they didn’t have to stick to a set script or dialogue. Originally, Lily’s “testimonial” to Rob was going to be a straight testimonial screenwriter Drew Goddard had written, but Reeves felt that, like the non-traditional movie that Cloverfield is, the scene shouldn’t begin and end as expected. He would have Miller throw random dialogue to engage the actors or catch them off guard.
- During rehearsal, Reeves told the actors the most important thing they could do is just hang out with each other, get to know each other, and become friends, so that when it came time to shoot the film, the connections between them would feel organic.
- Drew Goddard hadn’t completed the script by the time they began filming. No script was used during auditions, and people didn’t know what they were trying out for. A lot of people thought they were auditioning for Star Trek, as Abrams had just been announced as that film’s director. Some people auditioned using scenes from Alias. Others used scenes Goddard had written specifically to get a feeling for the characters in Cloverfield. Even at the point of casting, the actors didn’t know what film they were going to be in.
- Lizzy Caplan was a fan of Felicity, and knowing Abrams and Reeves had worked on that previously, she initially thought they would be filming a handheld, 20-something, relationship movie a la Cameron Crowe. Her confusion only grew when she was given scenes from Alias where a hypodermic syringe is plunged into Sidney’s heart. I don’t know about Caplan’s confusion, but I’m suddenly interested in a Cameron Crowe-directed Pulp Fiction remake. Any takers? No? Okay, moving on.
- The teaser that ran in front of Transformers was the first footage shot. It was actually shot during pre-production and served as part of the crew’s test to see how well they could do special effects using handheld cameras. Knowing they were on a tight budget, they tried using as much footage from the trailer as they could in the actual movie. However, Goddard’s script wasn’t finished at that point, either. The party scene was one of the scenes Goddard hadn’t fleshed out yet. Therefore, little bits of the trailer are used in the finished film, but most of the party scene was reshot.
- There’s a long pause where the commentary audio drops out. I just envision Abrams going over a point-by-point list of things Reeves can and cannot talk about here. Yes, gun still in hand. Still no dots or dashes heard. All is well. No, we don’t know the Man in Black’s name yet.
- The footage shot at Coney Island was actually shot on location, and was the last footage filmed for Cloverfield. The footage of Rob and Beth on the train was actually shot en route to Coney Island to shoot there. Several hours of footage with Rob and Beth on the train were filmed even though only a split second is used.
- As part of his preparation, Reeves watched several clips on YouTube. One clip in particular featured a party like the one seen in Cloverfield. Reeves lifted much of the spontaneity he saw in this clip for the film. Part of the difficulty and excitement for Reeves was in finding a way to mix this feeling of spontaneity and realism with a set story they had to tell. Instead of filming certain scenes from different angles, Reeves would have Miller shoot them several times from the same angle to allow the realism of the story to develop.
- One of cinematographer Mike Bonvillain‘s concerns was in using the auto-focus on the camera. He was worried that they would have no control of what was and wasn’t in focus at any given moment. Reeves felt this amateurish way of shooting would only add to the realism. The auto-focus wasn’t on throughout the entire film, but enough of it was included to get the feeling that it was on.
- From the moment the group exits the apartment building onto the street until the end of that sequence Reeves wanted it to be one, continuous take – “oners,” as they’re labeled in the business – as opposed to the stopping and starting of filming seen up to that point. He felt that if such an event were happening, Hud or whoever was filming wouldn’t turn off the camera. This posed some difficulties to the crew and especially the special effects team. There are cuts in this sequence, but they are hidden by fast sweeps or extreme closeups. Pre-viz was used to help Reeves and editor Kevin Stitt determine exactly when they would be able to use hidden cuts during this drawn out sequence.
- One of Abrams’s ideas in filming Cloverfield was for Reeves to take an extremely small crew to New York City and shoot guerrilla style on the streets. Abrams and Reeves felt that if enough was filmed there, the audience wouldn’t question the moments where green screen backgrounds are incorporated. They initially planned to shoot as much as they could on actual New York City streets over the course of two days, but the producers worked it out to give them a full week. Most of the key scenes, particularly those featuring New York landmarks, have some footage incorporated that was actually shot on location.
- Reeves found that one of the benefits in the non-traditional way Cloverfield was shot was that only one angle had to be used for any given sequence. They didn’t have to use multiple set-ups for one scene. Instead, the challenge was in the choreography of the scenes and figuring out the logistics of where to cut during oners. See? Now that I know what they word means, I can use it in a sentence. Oner. I like that word.
- Whenever a cameraman, crew member, or T.J. Miller as cameraman had an accident on set, they tried to incorporate it into the finished film to add to the realism. The shot where the crowd of people are running from the Brooklyn Bridge and Hud falls, that’s actually cinematographer Mike Bonvillain unintentionally falling while shooting. Some of the camera operators who had similar incidents on set were actually hurt. Reeves doesn’t give their names, though. We’ll never know their names. God rest their souls.
- While shooting on the streets of Los Angeles, the production designer, Martin Whist, got sponsoring from Sephora to dress one of the abandoned stores to make it look like one of theirs. People in the area were excited they’d be getting a Sephora on their street, but no one had the heart to tell them it wouldn’t be there the next day. The electronics store they film in is an actual electronics store in downtown L.A.
- The entire film was shot when Abrams stepped in with the idea that the group should run into a man who was going through a traumatic night, as well. Goddard came up with the idea that the man should be speaking Russian. The very brief scene with the Russian man in the alley was the last scene shot of the movie. This idea that there are thousands of other people going similar events and hundreds of them probably filming this night in New York City was also established early when the head of the Statue of Liberty lands in the street. You’ll notice several people in the crowd pull out cell phones to record it. I’m sure none of them are iPhones, though, because the 3G on this night would probably be a Nightmare of Elm Street proportions.
- Goddard and Reeves knew they had to drive the group underground somehow. Reeves then saw a clip online of troops in Iraq who were going through a night battle. The drama and intensity mixed with confusion that Reeves saw in this clip is what led to the idea of the street battle between soldiers and the monster that ultimately drives the group to go down to the subway tunnels. None of the street battle scene was shot in New York. All of it was filmed at four different sound stages and sets built in L.A.
- Douglas Murray, one of the sound designers on Cloverfield, had worked with David Lynch on Twin Peaks and Twin Peak: Fire Walk With Me. He used some of the droning sounds from those movies to create some of the creepy sounds the group hears in the subway tunnels.
- The track built to serve as the underground tunnel was not very long, so the cast had to walk for a bit while shooting then turn around and walk the other direction to create an illusion that they were walking down a long subway tunnel. Overhead lighting was moved around to add to the illusion.
- Reeves was told the rats used in the tunnel sequence were the “best rats in the business.” He was also told they were the Pirates of the Caribbean rats. Reeves, who had never worked with animals before, was worried about time constraints. To his surprise, the rats worked well. So the Academy Award for Best Rat goes too…not Mickey Mouse in 2008. Nyuk nyuk nyuk.
- For the sequence where the parasite creatures attack the group, Reeves had had puppets made to give a physical impression that something was there. However, the puppets didn’t work and were taken out. The creatures are fully CG, and the actors are reacting to absolutely nothing in these scenes.
- Neville Page was brought onto Cloverfield even before Matt Reeves was signed on as director. Reeves remembers going into Page’s office and seeing numerous drawings and sketches all over the walls, what Reeves refers to as Page’s “Wall of Terror.” Some of the drawings were just body parts, reference points Page had that he would interchange between different, overall designs.
- According to Reeves, Cloverfield is the epitome of what Mike Bonvillain calls “J.J.’s Ball of Yarn Theory,” which is a way of creating big, elaborate films on a minuscule budget by using sleight of hand techniques or distracting the audience’s attention away from ways they work around not having a large budget. Bonvillain would always try to figure out ways they could do a scene or even the whole film just by using a ball of yarn.
- In Goddard’s original outline, the department store sequence came much earlier than it does in the finished cut and was initially to just be a transitional scene. It was Abrams’s idea that Marlena, Lizzy Caplan’s character, should explode from the parasite bite, creating a terrifying moment that serves as so much more than just a transitional sequence.
- Reeves brings up the idea of some people comparing the events in Cloverfield to 9/11. “I think we were always aware that it did in that we felt like it was a way of dealing with the anxieties of our time.” Reeves goes on to mention Godzilla again and how these kinds of genre films deal with real-life anxieties people have and how effective that makes them, but, at the same time, these films are a comfortable way for audiences to deal with these anxieties. Yes, they make us think about real-life situations, but there’s also a comfort that they are just silly monster movies. You know, except Gremlins, because that shit’s real.
- The theory of whether or not Rob and Beth survive at the end comes up. Reeves feels that their fates are ancillary to the efforts Rob goes through just to get to her. Because they are together in that last moment of the film and that they say to each other, “I love you” is the whole point of the story. It doesn’t matter if they live or die in that moment. They are together.
- The roof to Beth’s apartment building and Beth’s sloped apartment were the two biggest sets the crew had planned. They initially had to scrap plans to shoot the roof scene because of budget issues. Producer Bryan Burk came up with the idea for Hud to turn the camera on himself to give his “If this is the last thing you see…” moment to serve as a bridge cut around the roof scene. However, they worked it out in the budget to build the roof set but kept Hud’s line in anyway.
- The canted hallway set made many on set nauseous. Reeves feels that most think they just tilted the camera to achieve the effect, but Martin Whist actually built the set slanted as shown. The same went for Beth’s apartment which is now sloped. Reeves regrets not being able to shoot the apartment in such a way to capture for the audience how uncomfortable the set made the cast.
- The return of the parasite creatures in the high-rise building was shot in post-production after the rest of the film had been completed, as a friend of Reeves who saw an early cut of the film felt the city would be crawling with the creatures.
- The “landing zone” scene near the end of the film was almost scrapped due to a pipe bomb incident in New York City. Much of the scene had been shot on a stage in L.A., but a few particular shots needed to be shot at the intersection of 40th and Park. However, on the last night of filming in New York City they were given the okay to take a skeleton crew and get their shots.
- Reeves was seriously concerned with how well they could pull off the helicopter crash sequence. However, his mind was put at ease after seeing United 93 and knowing Mike Ellis and Double Negative Visual Effects, who had worked on the Paul Greengrass film, were on board with Cloverfield. Reeves was so struck by how realistic United 93 was, especially the last shot of the movie.
- The moment where Hud is confronted by the monster in Central Park was nearly cut several times before filming. The visual effects team were even concerned at how hokey the sequence would come off. However, Goddard, who is a huge fan of monster movies, fought tooth and nail to keep the sequence in. He convinced Reeves to keep the scene in by explaining how crazy it would be to have this huge monster movie where, near the end, the monster actually eats the guy who has been filming the whole time. Previsualization was used to map out ways to show the monster fleetingly, but it was Abrams idea to have the sequence show the monster full-on at this moment.
- The footage of Rob and Beth underneath the bridge in Central Park was shot under Greyshot Arch. Greyshot was an idea the production team bounced around as a potential title for the movie.
- The idea of having air sirens blaring in the background at the end was Steven Spielberg‘s idea. He felt the sirens would serve effectively as a countdown to the massive blast that eventually comes.
- Initially there was no musical score written for Cloverfield whatsoever. When Kevin Stitt originally showed Reeves the finished version of the film, he had included the theme song from Godzilla over the end credits. Reeves liked this so much that he had Michael Giacchino, a fellow lover of monster movies, write basically what is the Cloverfield theme that would have been used in a huge budget version of this same story.
- When they were creating the trailer, Reeves and crew wanted to ensure that people knew Cloverfield was going to be a monster movie rather than a movie about a natural disaster or a terrorist act. They made sure to include dialogue in the trailer that revealed the characters in the movie were dealing with some kind of a creature. Members of the crew recorded a bunch of this dialogue themselves. It is Reeves’s voice that says, “I saw it. It’s alive. It’s huge.” He then came home one night during shooting to find a spectral analysis of what he had said released online. What Reeves said came out as, “It’s a lion. It’s huge.” This caused a massive rumor that it was going to be a Voltron movie.
Best in Commentary
“The thing that, when Drew and J.J. and I were talking, that was interesting to us story-wise was the way in which when experiences like this occur, when you go through this, it does immediately call into question the priorities in your life, and that kind of focused the whole story for us.” – Reeves
All in all, the Matt Reeves commentary on Cloverfield is insightful, interesting, and constant. It delves too much into technique at times. Reeves’s clinical way of dissecting how and where scenes were shot might have benefited with having Drew Goddard or J.J. Abrams on the track, as well, to discuss the story, especially the monster. There is very little about the monster divulged on the commentary track, and nothing specific is mentioned about where it comes from or any of the theories that have scattered around the Internet since Cloverfield‘s release. Of course, that could have been Abrams’s off-mic holding that gun against Reeves’s head. I can’t speak on what I don’t see or hear.
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*Note: For Morse Code translation: click.