When we’re introduced to Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford‘s white-collar characters in the opening scene of The Cabin in the Woods, it becomes wildly apparent Drew Goddard‘s film is not your typical horror picture.
They’re tasked with delivering an exceptional amount of exposition, which Goddard and Joss Whedon let them deliver with a pure sense of glee. Unlike Jenkins’s previous horror film performance, The Father in Let Me In, this is a character who is about as Average Joe as they come, and he just happens to have a not-so-Average-Joe occupation.
Here’s what Jenkins had to say about comedic exposition, the brilliance of unexpected filmmaking, and why his character Ted in Burn After Reading deserved getting axed to death:
To start, the opening scene of you and Bradley would usually be a third act twist. When you see a spin like that in a script, do you know it’s something different?
Yeah, you do. You never know how it’s going to turn out. I mean never. Never ever. I read it and the next day said I wanted to do it. I had never read anything like this. It’s not something…when somebody told me it was a horror film, well, that’s not really my world. But I read it and just loved it.
I see the movie as a comedy first.
Yeah, it is. It’s very funny. That’s the way Joss and Drew write dialogue. It’s beautifully written, exposition and all that stuff. It’s just hard to do. It’s really hard to do. I am really glad that it’s getting released for Drew. It’s really going to be great for him, I think. It’ll be interesting. I mean I don’t know how many people….I have no idea. It’s all new to me, this world.
I actually do, too. I mean we brought four friends to the South By Southwest festival and they just absolutely loved it. But it’s just…you know, how will you compel people to go see it in the first place? I don’t’ know. I think it’s one of those movies that word of mouth is going to help.
Yeah, exactly. As you said, you and Bradley deliver a fair amount of exposition. Did Drew discuss the importance of their sense of humor in making that exposition more naturalistic?
Well, we kept in mind that these guys do this, this is their job. It’s not an extraordinary day. It happens every year. You know, this is what they do. We wanted to keep it as, [Laughs] you know, a day at the office. The beginning of it, for example, when we are talking to each other about…I mean Bradley is talking about how they childproofed all the drawers in his house. And, you know, these two guys have worked together for a long time. They are friends, they have families, and that’s really all you need to know about them. You really don’t need to know anything else.
But the way it’s done, it’s so fantastic, so cool. It’s like they take exposition and they don’t waste it on exposition. They make it really an interesting part of the film, not just something you have to say so the audience will understand A, B, or C. It’s such skill to do that; great skills to do that. I think what I love and really the office pool is just ingenious. I mean it’s just ingenious. And the young girl asking me, “Well, how come I didn’t win it?” I mean it’s just so beautiful.
There’s really a firm handle of tone, where the film pokes fun at certain conventions but isn’t exactly meta. Do you not see the movie as a satire of the horror genre?
I knew what they were doing. But it’s like you really have to play it and just do it. You can’t wink and nod. I knew what they wanted, I just didn’t know how to put it all together. You know, Joss was over in one stage doing all the creatures, and Drew was…they had already filmed most of the kid stuff when Brad and I came in. So I just didn’t know how he was going to put it all together. And I just thought it was seamless.
You mentioned how Goddard and Whedon handle dialogue. Is this one of those scripts where when you read a certain line you think, “I have to say this.”
No. You’re always thinking, “I hope I say this well.” I think fear kinda engulfs most of the actors. But it was exciting to do it, and it was…Because I worked with Matt Reeves in Let Me In. And it’s another thing I had never done…I just hadn’t. And then working with Drew, it’s like these guys are so talented; unbelievably talented. So, again, I say it again, it’s great for the movie that it’s going to be released, but I think it’s just really great for Drew.
I actually re-watched Let Me In a few days before seeing Darling Companion, and that character in Reeves’ film couldn’t be more introverted, and I don’t think Martin is about as extroverted as you can get [Laughs].
[Laughs] He is another one of those characters you read and you go, “I’ve gotta do this. I’ve gotta do this.” I had worked with Larry Kasdan in Silverado, and I think I had three lines in it or something. I told him when we were doing Darling Companion, I said the only movie that I ever sat there and went, ‘God I wish I was in this movie’ was The Big Chill. Because I had gone to school with Kevin [Kline]. I didn’t know him real well. But JoBeth Williams and I were friends. We were apprentices together in a theater in Providence. And all these actors my age were up there being amazing. And I just thought, “Oh my gosh.” So then I got a chance to work with him and I jumped at it. I always wanted to work with Kevin. I know him, but I never worked with him.
Yeah, he’s great with group dynamics. He gives everyone their moment.
He’s fantastic. This movie is kind of where he is in his life now. It’s not an edgy movie. It’s kind of free of angst. But it’s a throwback film. I just love the dialogue. I love the way he writes. I love the way that every character in the movie is a person. Dianne Wiest, God, she’s just so fantastic. These are great, great actors he’s got himself. And the young guy, Mark Duplass, who I had not worked with before, and Mark…I just love those two guys. You know, you do things, first it’s script, but it’s also directing and who’s in it. And this one was great fun.
It is one of those movies you get the impression everyone is having fun.
Yeah. You know, most of the characters are in their 60’s. You don’t see movies like that anymore, anyway…or, let me go back and say that again. You don’t see movies like that. So I always wonder how younger people are going to respond to it, but I think it’s really a cool film. It was fun to make. If you can’t have fun making movies, you should do something else. [Laughs] They should be really fun to make. Most of the time they are.
Say when you are in that circumstance, where making a movie isn’t exactly fun, how do you get through that experience?
Well, everything you do, you convince yourself that it has a chance of being great. I think everybody involved does that. If you didn’t do that, you couldn’t get through the day sometimes. But you don’t do something unless you are committed to it…Well, that’s not true. Sometimes you do it because you need the money. But most of the time, almost all the time, you think this movie is going to be good. I think everybody on every film I’ve ever done was hopeful.
Right. No one sets out to make a bad movie.
No. Absolutely not. And if it was easy to make a good one…People say, “Didn’t you know that wasn’t going to be any good?” “Well, no. I didn’t.” If you knew how to make a good one every time out, it would be boring. There would be no need for the word brilliant, I guess. Yeah, it’s hard to make a good movie. It’s really hard.
There’s some filmmakers you’ve worked with that I’d say are pretty reliable, like Coen Brothers and David O. Russell. Obviously, working with them more than once, what makes those relationships work?
Well, David…I haven’t seen David in a while. David was just a…That was an amazing time. That was incredible, to see this young guy I really didn’t know. You know, he had done Spanking the Monkey. You just felt like big things are going to happen for this guy. He just was really talented. And his next film I felt was brilliant, the George Clooney movie, Three Kings. I thought it was just extraordinary. Totally different.
And working with Joe and Ethan is a trip. They are just the sweetest guys. They just let you do your work. The write brilliant scripts and cast fabulous actors, and have the movie in their head. They know what they want. At the same time, they let you do your work. They want to see what you can bring to it.
I find it funny how you mention they are the sweetest guys, when you keep in mind how mean-spirited Burn After Reading is.
Oh, my God. There’s not a redeeming person in the whole…
Ted is, but he gets the most brutal death.
Please. He’s asking for it.
[Laughs] He’s asking for an axe to the face?
[Laughs] If you can’t tell, she’s not going… First of all, he wants it to be with her. That’s the problem in the first place. Yeah, no, there isn’t anybody. That’s what I love about it. It’s like, “Well maybe this…No, not that person either. Well how about this…No, not him.” [Laughs]
You know from frame one that things aren’t going to end well for Ted.
[Laughs] Yeah, I know. As soon as I showed the pre-Scottsdale, I knew it was not going to go well, no. [Laughs] I think that’s the only movie that they’ve written, until then, I don’t know about since then, that they wrote for specific actors. And they got everybody they wrote the parts for, because two or three parts… [Laughs] Brad was amazing in it.
[Laughs] I heard Brad Pitt describe that character as someone who lives in his own bubble. I feel like that’s how all of the Cohen Brothers characters are [Laughs].
[Laughs] Francis McDormand, I mean she was just like, “Really?” That was my character, listening to her and taking her seriously.
[Laughs] You also worked with someone, from what I hear, is very detail-oriented, Andrew Dominik. How was that collaboration?
I love Andrew. Andrew is fantastic. Andrew is really…he’s great. I loved doing it. I spent two weeks in a car with Brad [Pitt]. I have a good feeling about that movie. I don’t know, but I have a good feeling about it. I thought it was beautifully written. The dialogue was great. Andrew was really terrific. A terrific collaborator and yet an artist who knows what he likes and what he wants.
Does that happen often where you leave a set where you feel pretty confident in a movie?
You know, no. I may say I’m confident. I’m not. You just feel like the work, on the whole scope of the film that you were there…and I wasn’t there for the whole film, just my stuff. I’m just talking about the cinematography, the director. I mean just really good stuff. I liked the way he shot it. I just think he’s talented. I loved his first movie…
No, not Chopper. The second movie he did.
The Assassination of Jesse James?
Yeah. I didn’t see Chopper.
It’s a very good movie.
I hear it is. I liked Jesse James. I like his fearlessness to do a movie of that taste. I just thought it was wonderful. I thought Brad was incredible in Jesse James.
Yeah, he was. It’s one of those movies filled with these beautiful, quiet character details. On set, does he give you freedom to find those type of moments?
It’s kind of just you play the scene and he lets you…You feel like you are allowed to do that with him. You are allowed to play the scene, to live the scene out, that he’s not in a hurry. And then however he edits a scene. He leaves in what’s interesting and takes out what isn’t interesting, I suppose. That’s all you can ask from a director. And he watches everything you do. All these guys, all these really good directors—Drew, Larry, the Cohen Brothers, David—I mean these really good directors truly watch what actors are doing. They don’t just look for something specific. They watch and see what you are bringing to it.
Is there usually a big difference working with a writer/director like that? For example, how about Christopher McQuarrie?
Well, I think the most intimate I ever was with a writer/director was Tom McCarthy. That was, for me, a great experience. It was just amazing to do that, because we became really close. I think it depends on how the writer deals with what they’ve written. You know, not precious with it. Tom isn’t. Tom will change it in a heartbeat if he feels it isn’t working, as will Chris…You know, most of these guys just want it to be good. I had a great time with Chris McQuarrie. Geez, I sound like Mr. Pollyanna here! Everything is positive. Every time you talk to me. I know nasty stories…I got some nasty stories but you ain’t gonna hear them.
[Laughs] Maybe one day I’ll convince you.
[Laughs] I have some nasty ones, but no, you are not going to hear them.
[Laughs] That’s like the one good thing about bad experiences—you have really great stories to tell from them.
[Laughs] You have to be careful who you tell them to.
[Laughs] Well, hopefully one day. It’s pretty exciting that Mr. McQuarrie is back behind the camera. I think The Way of the Gun is fantastic.
Yeah. He knows what he’s doing. He really knows what he’s doing. He and Tom worked really well together. We’ll see. I don’t know.
I have to ask, do you have any scenes with Werner Herzog?
I just heard him in reading. He was just fantastic in the reading. I think he’s going to be really cool.
The Cabin in the Woods is now in theaters.