Drew Goddard Showcases His Eccentric Directorial Flair in ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’

Goddard is honing a distinctive style that we hope will carry through to all his future endeavors behind the camera.

Throughout his early career, Drew Goddard demonstrated a masterful knack for penning some quintessential geeky millennial works. Goddard’s expert collaborations with Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel) and key contributions to J. J. Abrams shows (Alias and Lost) solidified his place as an invaluable genre writer.

At its best, his work highlights the dualities of conflicted characters and questions the concept of a(n anti-)hero; Goddard is very good at going dark in his stories without over-indulging in hopelessness. He then carried this distinguishing trait with him away from the small screen as he proceeded to pen feature film screenplays, beginning with the Abrams-produced Cloverfield. Goddard chucks the film’s unlikeable characters into intense action that you can’t look away from, proving that he is just so damn good at writing people we grudgingly root for and can never truly discard.

As his words are usually at the mercy of other directors, Goddard’s writerly pursuits have taken on varied identities over the years. His scripts have understandably been molded into different guises depending on which prolific director translates them to the screen. For example, his fantastic adaptation of The Martian — searing humor and all — is made even more exceptional due to Ridley Scott’s attention to detail and the crispness of his images. There has always been something chameleonic about Goddard’s writing that is so transposable by an array of directors without his style is completely muted.

When given free reign to direct whatever the hell he wants, though, Goddard apparently goes for a more idiosyncratic approach. Fans of his directorial debut — The Cabin in the Woods — would have already caught wind of such tendencies. However, with only one film under his belt at the time, it was a little hard to discern.

Now, to say Cabin isn’t also Joss Whedon-y would be incorrect; after all, Whedon co-wrote the screenplay. However, Goddard is gleeful and unabashed in his quest to break down horror genre conventions, taking Cabin‘s stereotypical characters — which includes a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth — through a wild ride. If Cabin had premiered before Thor as was initially planned, would goofy Hemsworth (which only really became a thing post-Ghostbusters) have had his heyday a lot sooner? Due to the strength of his performance in Goddard’s debut, perhaps.

Goddard delights in pushing the envelope, and it’s fantastic to see that streak continuing in the first footage of Bad Times at the El Royale. Featuring a hefty ensemble including Chris Hemsworth, Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson and Jon Hamm, El Royale is a stylish visual feast of beautiful people doing ugly things that pack a serious punch. Watch it below:

Unlike Cabin, El Royale is partially informed by elements of real life; possibly an exaggerated portrait of the turmoil of the late 60s. According to Goddard per Entertainment Weekly, he started making El Royale with a simple initial premise: “A bunch of characters check into a hotel on one night in 1969, and nobody is who they appear.”

Goddard questions each character’s morality in El Royale, and has a plethora to choose from: a charismatic cult leader played by Hemsworth, a “priest” played by Bridges, and a… vacuum cleaner salesman played by Hamm? That’s just a small selection of the people involved in this kooky story. Goddard’s EW interview also hints that real-life figures can be expected to appear as well. Overall, the film serves as a platform for his favorite actors to “explode outward” from the word go; a character piece that pits these performers against each other, first and foremost.

The self-referential nature of Cabin makes the El Royale premise work because Goddard has the ability to make sharp commentary about the archetypes he employs. The narrative similarities between both films are noticeable too: a group of seemingly very different individuals is locked away in an almost timeless or iconic location, and within it, a minuscule ecosystem of terror builds up as the characters have to decide who to trust. The El Royale trailer comprises scenes that only present a plethora of questions, effectively amping up our uneasiness.

Furthermore, the trailer stands out the most due to how deceptively lighthearted it seems. In fact, all of Goddard’s directorial efforts are infused with a similar anomalous tone that one can’t help but enjoy. This includes his work on a relatively “pure,” violence-free show like The Good Place, for which he has directed two episodes.

Truly, if there is one show on the air that one would call “peculiar,” The Good Place would for sure be it. Coming from the brilliant, observant mind of Michael Schur, it is one of the most human shows, deceptively simple but simultaneously profound. Real world logic certainly doesn’t apply to the realms of the good and bad place. However, the show is ultimately fueled by lessons learned from accountability — ones that lead us to some sense of understanding. On the surface, The Good Place is adorable and hilarious with characters and ships to die for. But it turns out to be rather confrontational, upending any expectation of feel-good television in the most fulfilling way. Goddard’s initial contribution to The Good Place set the tone of the entire show into motion; he directed the Pilot before returning to helm the second episode of season 2.

In Cabin, Goddard provided a broad commentary about horror movies by engaging in genre conventions and rendering them absurd and obsolete. In lending his talents to The Good Place, Goddard finds a great medium to exercise his stylistic idiosyncracies in a less violent but similarly outlandish fashion. He definitely seems to have maintained his directorial flair to El Royale. There may not be any overarching thesis statement in the movie. However, given his track record, I’m certain that Goddard will incorporate some moral amidst the chaos of his newest. Now I really can’t wait for his X-Force movie.

Bad Times at the El Royale opens in cinemas on October 5, 2018.

Sheryl Oh: @sherhorowitz Often chugging tea and thinking about horror movies. Particularly loves writing stuff and things with a feminist bent here at Film School Rejects.