Cloverfield with J.J. Abrams

Paramount's Cloverfield is directed by Matt Reeves, written by Drew Goddard, and produced by J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk.

The Story

On the eve of his departure for Japan, Rob (Michael Stahl-David) sees his going-away party as an opportunity to confess unresolved feelings and tie up loose ends. His agenda takes an unexpected turn when a jolt shakes the revelers. The crowd quiets down to watch news reports of an earthquake, then rushes to the roof to assess the damage. A fireball explodes on the distant horizon. A power failure follows. Confusion gives way to panic as the partygoers stumble through the blackout and into the streets. Amid the human screams and one inhuman roar, Rob and his friends must traverse a landscape that has changed, overtaken by something otherworldly, terrifying, monstrous

Making Cloverfield

The seed for Cloverfield was planted in June 2006 while producer, writer and director J.J. Abrams and his son were on a publicity tour in Japan for Paramounts Mission: Impossible III.

The creator of the hit TV series Felicity, Alias and Lost, who made his motion picture directorial debut with MI: III and will next direct a Star Trek feature, stopped by a local toy store with his son, Henry, and noticed a plethora of Godzilla-themed toys. It struck me that here was a monster that has endured, culturally, something which we dont have in the States, he says.

Shortly thereafter, Abrams conceived the idea of making a movie involving a new monster, though he realized it would require a substantially different approach from the original Godzilla and its numerous sequels and remakes. I began thinking, what if you were to see a monster the size of a skyscraper, but through the point of view of someone, relatively speaking, the size of a grain of sand To see it not from Gods eye or a directors or from an omnipotent point of view.

Giant Monster, Shot with Handheld Camera

Abrams contacted frequent collaborator Drew Goddard, the screenwriter with whom he had worked on both Alias and Lost. J.J. called me and said, Drew, Ive got to talk to you its about something huge, the writer recalls. At that point, all he had was the basic framework of a movie about a giant monster, but shot with a handheld camera. I immediately said, Im in.

Drew was the first person I thought of, because he knows how to combine spectacle, genre and monsters with comedy and humanity, says Abrams. Adds producer Bryan Burk, This was definitely going to be a genre piece, but we really wanted it to be about the people going through this experience, to make it an emotional movie. There was no one that we knew in our world who was more perfect for that than Drew.

Abrams and Goddard met a week later and hammered out the films first act in a five-page treatment, which Goddard expanded into a 58-page outline over the Christmas holiday break. The idea of, as Abrams puts it, a Cameron Crowe movie meets Godzilla meets Blair Witch Project was then pitched to Paramount senior executives Brad Weston and Brad Grey, who were immediately taken with the concept and gave it the green light. Everybody at the studio said, We get it. Really, can you do this and we said, Yes, recalls Burk. Adds Goddard, It was the exact opposite of everything you hear about Hollywood. Everyone was immediately onboard, and it was really this dream experience.

As Goddard proceeded to develop the script, the producers began thinking of a choice for director, eventually settling on Matt Reeves. Abrams and Reeves had been friends and fellow filmmakers – since childhood. They met at age 13 when both entered an 8mm film festival. The two eventually created the hit TV series Felicity in 1998, and have remained close collaborators ever since.

Though Reeves might at first have seemed an unusual candidate, since he had no experience in genre projects or with visual effects, Abrams knew he was the right man for the job. This movie is completely counter to everything Ive ever seen Matt do, Abrams says. But the reason I chose Matt is because I know he has always principally been concerned with character, and that he would apply a scrutiny to the heart of each character that many other commercial or video directors might not. So many horror movies we see today are sort of torture-porn, ultra-hyper-violent, but theres nothing about them you can relate to. I knew that Matt would make us feel for the characters.

Group of People Undergoing Crisis

The films focus is not so much on a giant monster wreaking havoc on New York City, but on a group of people undergoing an extreme crisis. Cloverfield centers on a group of friends who, at the start of the evening, have gathered at a bon voyage party for Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who is moving to Japan. Another friend, Hud (T.J. Miller), is assigned to document the event with a camcorder, a task for which he is uniquely unqualified.

What was intriguing to me about this project, says Reeves, is the idea of taking something that has such a huge scale, but filming it on an intimate level. The mood emerges from being with these characters. The challenge then became to figure out a way to take something extraordinary and almost absurd a monster attack and deal with it in a way that feels utterly real.

The solution lay in Abrams original concept of shooting a film from the point of view of Huds camcorder, through which Reeves and screenwriter Goddard interwove the complicated relationships between the characters and their reaction to the monsters attack.

The first portion of the film features a 20-minute party sequence, during which those relationships are firmly established. The idea was that if you started a movie that appeared to be all about character, the audience wouldnt know it was going to be about anything other than that, Reeves explains. Then, all of a sudden, after youve established this complex network of friends, how theyre related and whats important to them, we suddenly intrude on this situation with a crazy monster movie, which completely ups the stakes.

Adds Goddard, Once the head comes off the Statue of Liberty, youre not really going to get much of a chance to stop and check in with the characters. So it was important to set up everything we needed before the world fell out from under us.

Reeves also skillfully interweaves an important storyline throughout the film, that of Rob and Beths (Odette Yustman) earlier relationship. Hud is unknowingly taping over an earlier recording Rob had made with the camera of intimate, quiet time spent with his mate. You see their loving gaze. Its this small love story, says Reeves.

So I began thinking, Isnt there some way to make that kind of a parallel story The film actually begins with some of this footage much of it shot by Michael Stahl-David himself using a small video camera. But additional portions also appear interspersed throughout the movie, typically after some shocking event has caused Hud to briefly shut off the camera, allowing a brief portion of Robs original recording to play for the audience before Hud picks up the current action again.

Were seeing the aftermath of two people who have longed to be together, and somehow finally come together, crosscut with this other event, the director explains. By going back and forth between these two pieces, you end up heightening the drama. By looking back at this relationship and what it could have been, the audience starts to put the pieces together as to why Rob is so eager to rescue her.

One of the things we thought was incredibly important in a movie with so much kineticism, notes Reeves, was to have places where you could stop and reconnect with the characters. After going through these extreme experiences, we give them a chance to react to what theyve been through before moving them to the next level. Having these dramatic interludes was extremely important. Without them, youd just be watching a video game.

Impact of YouTube-ification

The result is an adrenaline-charged roller-coaster ride, with the audiences connection to the characters maintained through the eye of a single camera. The technique lends itself to keeping us in touch both with the characters and with whats going on around them, in what has become, in recent years, a most familiar style of image capture: the personal camcorder.

When I first had the idea for the film, I began thinking about the impact of the YouTube-ification of things, says Abrams. Today, if you look online for two minutes, you can find video whether its from Iraq, London, Spain or Manhattan of people hiding in a store or hiding under a car, and watching other peoples reactions.

Burk agrees. Theres no incident that isnt captured now. So if a giant monster attacked the city, wouldnt people be documenting it Watching such footage as seen in countless homemade catastrophe videos has an unusual effect on the viewer. In this YouTube era, watching this kind of video has a voyeuristic quality, even if youre just watching people do mundane things, notes Goddard. For some reason, when its real, you can watch it forever it's like youre intruding on peoples lives. And we knew that, for the movie to work, it had to feel real like youre watching somebodys party, peeping in on them so that when the chaos starts, you would automatically transfer that reality to the monster.

The challenge for the filmmakers was how to recreate this kind of footage for narrative cinematic purposes. We asked ourselves, What does it look like when people are videotaping a spontaneous, horrific event says Abrams. It was an incredible readjustment, says Reeves, because, in trying to create the illusion of only one camera, you were working without the usual cinematic tools. So theres no big wide shot, no reverse shot to show the other person watching and listening. Everything you see and know comes from Huds camera and his point of view.

A limitation on the types of shots available proved to be a key element in the films look of authenticity. It had to feel like something that was not made by experienced filmmakers, Reeves continues, but by people who just found themselves in the midst of this situation.

Adds Burk, We wanted the film to look like real life, as if a giant monster was attacking my city and I grabbed my camera and ran out into the street and this would be exactly the footage Id have.

Doing so required the development or, rather, replication of a visual grammar that gave the impression of a novice using a video camera and trying to capture the frantic chaos around him. It had to look amateurish, says director of photography Michael Bonvillain. It still had to sell the story points, but in this case, as captured by someone who isnt a trained operator.

An important quality of this technique one which adds incredible terror and tension to many scenes is having the camera operator just miss much of the action, including sightings of the monster. So much of whats conveyed in real amateur or documentary footage is what you hear but dont see the panic and reactions to whats happening off-camera and the sounds of things you dont see, explains Abrams.

Theres something very scary about what you cant see, adds Reeves. Youre in there with Hud, and theres no reverse angle showing you what hes not seeing. They dont have any more information than you do. Every moment becomes charged, because you know that, just off-frame, there might be something horrible happening. But you dont know what it is, because he hasnt turned the camera there yet. It becomes all about what your mind fills in.

Portraying intriguing action has a curious effect on the audience, says Sherryl Clark. Picking those moments, and showing just enough to get the audience frightened and excited, leaves them wanting more.

In Cloverfield, the camera often provides only snippets of what has just passed by i.e., the monster accompanied by a comment from one of the characters such as What was that or Can you see it What is it

The idea is that it all appears to be haphazard, so that you might catch a glimpse of something out of the corner of your eye and youre not quite sure what it is, explains visual effects supervisor Michael Ellis. Hud is very much led by the direction the other characters are giving him. They usually see something before he does, and he tries to find it; but by then, hes already too late. Hes just missed it. His friends are already running away.

One difficulty in creating these amateurish shots lay in the fact that there were seasoned professionals behind the camera like Chris Hayes. Chris is amazing, says Reeves. But sometimes hed operate almost too well. Id say, I need this to feel more accidental. Because, at the end of the day, we wanted it to feel like anybody with a camera could have made this movie.

A key solution turned out to be a fairly obvious one: have actor T.J. Miller, who plays Hud, operate the camera himself, which he did for a number of sequences. T.J. actually operated a lot, explains Bonvillain. He was always joking that he should have gotten his union card for all the work he did.

Having Miller operate the camera had several advantages. For one thing, he had good instincts of what to do, because he is Hud, Bonvillain continues. Also, having him operate helped us make sure we were providing the right eyeline for the other actors in the scene, so that it felt correct when people were talking to him.

“I wasn't just an actor,” Miller says. “In some ways, I was a cameraman, and in most ways, I was a voice-over artist.” The experience was, as one would expect, a bit daunting at times, he admits. “It was hard. You know, I'm thinking about camera movement, and 'Do I shoot over here,' and they'd come in and say 'Okay, we need you to tilt up and then pan left after her line.' And I'm thinking 'Okay, cool. And how about the acting Was that good' It was a lot to juggle.”

If one of the professional camera operators was shooting a scene, Miller would often stand behind him with his hands on the operators shoulders, again, to provide an appropriately realistic eyeline for his fellow cast members. And, in the instances during which the operator had to physically interact with one of the actors as if he were Hud, he would don Millers costume.

Orchestrating entire scenes all shot on one camera – some with extremely long takes – took great skill and planning. In a more typical movie, a scene would be made up of cuts photographed from a variety of angles, shot over several takes, each of which would have provided specific information for the scene. In Cloverfield, the frenetic camera movement had to be carefully planned out to capture any activity Reeves wanted the audience to see.

We had to take a lot of things that were really well-rehearsed and find a way to make them seem accidental, the director explains. Adds Abrams, Matt did a lot of things that are incredibly complicated making shots look as if they were continuous and staging things in a way that felt spontaneous, which they hardly were.

Many of the films shots were planned out ahead of time using previsualization animation provided by the Los Angeles-based Third Floor, says Michael Ellis. It helped give the actors and the cameraman some clue as to where they were supposed to be pointing and what exactly it was they were trying to run away from. If Miller was operating the camera, Reeves and Bonvillain would walk through the scene rehearsal with him. Sometimes they would shoot the rehearsals with a smaller video camera, then massage the scene until it was to their liking, before proceeding to shoot it for real.

Scenes in which the monster is spotted took careful strategizing again, to limit sightings to glimpses during sequences earlier in the film, gradually leading to full-on views as the movie progressed. For the most part, the monster is seen only from ground level, since thats where Hud is for the majority of the film. And that creates a very unique perspective, notes Reeves.

Eventually, though, says Goddard, We realized that you do owe the audience a shot of the monster. The aerial, Gods eye shots of the monster the audience would see in a traditional film are absent in Cloverfield save for one or two carefully-planned sequences, such as a helicopter shot that Reeves worked into the film. When theyre in an electronics store and people are watching news coverage on TV sets, you see a helicopter shot of the monster as his tail swings and takes a chunk out of the Brooklyn Bridge, explains the director.

A more intimate view of the monster occurs when our cameraman, Hud, is attacked by the monster, revealing the inside of the creatures mouth briefly to the camera before it is spit out and lands on the ground. Reeves notes, Drew said to me, To a monster movie fan, the idea of being eaten by a monster theres nothing cooler.