Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

Operation Condor

Jackie Chan meets Indiana Jones —Andrea Birgers (review...)

Chan borrows from Raiders

" The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as the Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient. And as the philosophy of the orient expresses it, life is not important. "
— General William Westmoreland, Hearts and Minds

MRQE Top Critic

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Drew Goddard and Amy Acker came to Boulder to show their new film Cabin in the Woods to an auditorium of C.U. students. Four of us — two reporters from D.U., one from C.U., and I — joined them at The Sink.

Drew, who directed the film and cowrote it with Joss Whedon, had gone to C.U. in the 1990s. (I graduated a few years earlier, the other interviewers were still in college). The Sink was (and still is) a favorite hangout with C.U. students. Low ceilings, graffiti-painted walls, and pints of beer set the scene.

Drew and Amy got carded.

Drew Goddard, 
Amy Acker, and a Boulder icon
Drew Goddard, Amy Acker, and a Boulder icon

“I’m so excited to be here. I can’t believe we’re at The Sink,” said Goddard.

City of Angels

Drew grew up in a small town in New Mexico, Amy in Texas. Boulder isn’t a huge metropolis either, so I asked if L.A. was a bit of culture shock.

Drew replied, “Los Angeles is great, particularly if you want to do what I wanted to do, which is work in the movie business. It’s nice to actually be in a place where they don’t look like at you like you’re crazy for wanting to do that. Growing up in New Mexico — and even here [in Boulder] — they look at you like ‘What? What are you talking about? That’s not a real job.’ It’s nice to be out there[...]. Not only is it a real job, it’s the economy of the city. So there’s real comfort in that for sure. “

Drew and Amy both worked with Joss Whedon when they got to L.A. Drew was hired to write for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Amy acted in Angel and Dollhouse. In fact, when Amy was asked what drew her to the role and to this movie, she spoke more highly of the people involved than the script or the character. Her exact words were:

“Mostly the writer and director.”

Drew: “That’s only because I’m sitting here, by the way. But I’ll take it.”

Amy: “I was on Dollhouse when they were writing [ Cabin in the Woods] and getting it developed. They started getting into production when we were finishing season one of Dollhouse. I had just heard Joss talk about how awesome it was. And every time that I’m around Joss we talk about how much we both love Drew.”

Drew: “Sounds like a great conversation!”

Amy: “I was not supposed to be part of it at that time and they were already shooting. I was just like ‘that sounds so fun... I’m so excited for you guys....’ and then I would cry [smiling]. ‘I wish I could be there.’”

School Days

But here we were at The Sink in Boulder. Drew was back at his alma mater. I had graduated from the same program half a decade earlier, and I wondered if he had any of the same teachers in common. He and I dropped all of the names we could think of and most of them were in common. Two of them merited longer digressions. Avant Garde pioneer Stan Brakhage taught at C.U. and was an unforgettable teacher. Here’s Drew:

Acker and Goddard hold court in The Sink
Acker and Goddard hold court in The Sink

“Because we’re here, I do want to say that Stan Brakhage had such a profound influence on me. [Not] just his work, but meeting him and feeling his enthusiasm. He was such a vibrant soul in so many ways — the fact that he was so excited about the craft of filmmaking. Every day I met him it felt like he was pushing himself to discover something new. He was always so enthusiastic about the world around him. It hit me at such a perfect time in my life, where I was ready to experience something new, and understand that filmmaking is not just popcorn movies. It’s about so much more than that.”

The class I really wanted to ask drew about was a horror film class taught by Bruce Kawin. I remember worrying that it might not be offered while I was still there, but luckily it turned up one semester and I got in. Amy hadn’t heard about it, so Drew explained it to her:

“Kawin was the scariest professor that I had at CU. One of his classes was horror movies. These weren’t his exact words but this was what he was saying: ‘I’m going to show you some some stuff that’s going to traumatize you.’ And he did. He showed us the movies where they used real cadavers. It’s, like, stuff Bruce had in his closet. There’s horror films where they use actual cadavers so it really looks real. And Bruce shows you that. And that counts as ‘college.’ When people ask, Drew what’s wrong with you?’ after they see Cabin I go ‘it’s Kawin’s fault.’”

Deconstructing Cabin in the Woods

What I remembered from Kawin’s class is how well some horror “deconstructed,” particularly George Romero’s zombie movies like Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. Drew seemed to know what I was saying:

“That’s what I love about horror movies. I can’t think of another genre that allows you to comment on society without seeming like you’re commenting on society. There’s a distinct lack of pretension when you have zombies eating people. That’s what I learned about Dawn of the Dead. It functions on the first level of ‘let’s just have fun.’ But then you watch it the second or third time and you realize ‘oh wait he’s saying something about our culture.’ But it never feels like ‘oh I gotta take my medicine.’ You don’t want it to feel like this is a homework assignment. You want to have a good time first, because I feel like that’s the most effective way to get your message across.”

My take on “Deconstructing” is that it’s an academic game played by students and professors. The idea is that you imagine how the era in which a movie was made is perfectly reflected in that movie. It’s very unscientific, but sometimes it yields uncanny insights. Even when a student would read something into a film that wasn’t intended, it was fodder for the deconstruction game: Maybe the filmmaker was so of-his-time that he was unconsciously driven by whatever the student’s thesis says.

Rather than go down that road, I took the opportunity to ask this horror filmmaker if he thought about how his film might “deconstruct.” He said that he and Joss did discuss the bigger picture when they were writing Cabin.

I told Drew that I thought his movie said the same thing in its subtext as The Hunger Games (only better). I noted that it was an odd coincidence that they were released within a month of each other, since Cabin in the Woods had been languishing in legal limbo for two years. Nevertheless, working backwards, it’s possible that Suzanne Collins (author of the Hunger Games books) was writing at about the same time as Drew and Joss.

Drew confirmed what I suspected.

“It’s impossible to deny the effect the times you are living on has on any artist. And we were living in a time of war. We were living in this time of sacrificing youth to appease the greater gods. That was very much what was influencing Cabin. I don’t know too much about what influenced Hunger Games but I wouldn’t be surprised. You can’t escape that there’s a war going on. And it’s a war that has become sanitized [...] it feels very corporate. That was certainly a profound influence on us in making Cabin.”

“I grew up in Los Alamos New Mexico. That weird military industrialization has always been in my mind. When we were dealing with the ‘downstairs’ [see the movie and you’ll know what he’s talking about — Ed.] I said. ‘Here’s what Los Alamos looks like, let’s just make Los Alamos.’ It felt accurate... men going to their jobs that are difficult, and they believe that they are making the world a better place but they are dealing with darkness.’”