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jon hamm in bad times at the el royale 20th Century Fox

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Unraveling the musical neo-noir Bad Times at El Royale with director Drew Goddard

The Cabin in the Woods writer-director’s latest is twisted and odd in the best ways

Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

My only regret after seeing the stylish, crackling crime thriller Bad Times at the El Royale is that I didn’t soak it up in a dine-in multiplex.

Crafted with the tension-building instincts of Alfred Hitchcock, Agatha Christie, Otto Preminger, and Quentin Tarantino, the new film from writer-director Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, The Martian) offers the immersive-but-removed pleasure of a murder mystery dinner theater in which no expense was spared. The occasion of watching Jeff Bridges, Broadway star Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm and Chris Hemsworth as a Charles Manson proxy get mixed up in violent plot of revenge and redemption, all set to some rousing tunes from the 1960s, would have paired nicely with rare steak and a pour of the sommelier’s choice. Oh well. Next time.

That we get to see Bad Times at the El Royale at all seems like a mini miracle, complementary steak dinner be damned. Goddard builds the twisty narrative from layers and layers of specific, artistic choices. The El Royale, a hotel sitting on the border between California and Nevada that serves as the noir’s central location, is a vibrant relic that seems to exist in the Twilight Zone. The players each come with fleshed out backstories, and between spurts of violence and terrifying revelations, Bad Times leaves breathing room to explore each one. And the flash-in-the-pan moment when these characters collide, the hyper-political cusp of the ‘60s, makes the bloodshed all the more haunting. Like last year’s Get Out or Lady Bird, Bad Times at the El Royale is a personal, palpable vision exploding in a genre we all know well.

Where did it come from? Polygon spoke to Goddard about how he funneled his inspirations, obsessions and quirks into the slow-burn, big screen experience of Bad Times at El Royale.

Polygon: How long did it take you to piece together this movie? It’s sprawling.

Drew Goddard: It took a long time to think about this movie. I sort of tend to pace around and think about movies for years. Usually while I’m working on other movies that becomes a fun diversion. I think I was working on The Martian while I was thinking about this because it’s the kind of the opposite of this movie in every way. The Martian is big sci-fi and bright and colorful. In 2016, I started writing it, in the fall around November, and it went very fast from that point on. We sort of rocketed through production honestly — we just finished it like [four] weeks ago. That was when we finished it. It was a very much a bullet train.

Did the story grow out of one specific image or a bigger idea you were wrestling with?

Goddard: It started with just the genre itself. I love crime fiction. I wanted to take my own stab at that. And I also knew, I think instinctively, but I needed a certain level of maturity to deal with it. The danger with crime is that you can become fetishistic about it and, and become the very thing that you’re trying to critique with these types of films. And so I think that he needed to reach that level. Then at some point it just sort of clicked. It really started with the characters and thinking, okay, well I want to this contained. I’d like it to take place over one night in a storm. The first kernel of it that fell into place was just doing it one night — a storm type movie. Then it really became, okay, well, who’s checking into this hotel? Who these characters? Which actors, frankly, do I want to work? Then just let the story go from there.

The way Cabin in the Woods was a finely tuned deconstruction of the horror genre, did you want El Royale to play as commentary on crime fiction?

Goddard: It’s funny because in both cases that was not conscious either way. I just sort of go with what feels right for the story. But now that I can step back and look at it, it’s definitely not, for lack of a better word, “post-modern” the way Cabin was. Cabin was very aggressive in its approach. Whereas, in this case ,there are things that I played with that are tropes of the genre, but it didn’t even know because I love the genre and it just sort of came out inherently. I didn’t want to make it about the genre.

Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges, and Cynthia Erivo in Bad Times at the El Royale
Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges, and Cynthia Erivo in Bad Times at the El Royale

Did you have a trope you absolutely wanted to work into the movie?

Goddard: When you look at the film noir period, it’s about the oppressive environments and how these things become morality tales. So I think it was sort of the idea of the oppressive environment and the idea of the border. You see borders come up time and time again inside noir. I can think of off the top of my head: Touch of Evil, The Getaway … just the idea of trying to get to a better life happens a lot in visualizing noir. I started very early with that. That’s where the idea of California and Nevada came about.

All of the rooms other than Jon Hamm’s room are in Nevada, but a lot of the key stuff happens in California, especially early on. The movie sort of starts in California and then migrates over into the Nevada as you go. I really wanted the geography to be important in this movie. My production designer, Martin Lewis, who is a true visionary, we drove everyone crazy with how seriously we took the geography of this movie.

And it’s one giant set?

Goddard: The whole thing is a set. We realized very early on we couldn’t find this place. I just had this idea of fundamentally it being symmetrical. That was the thing that killed us — we just couldn’t find something that’s this symmetrical. I also wanted to control the weather. The weather plays a key role in this story, so I needed to build it all on a stage. We found a massive stage up in Vancouver so we could build the whole thing front and back. So it’s all on one stage so it could just sort of exist.

I imagine it would also be difficult to find a hotel with tons of two-way mirrors in the rooms, unless you’re Gay Talese.

Goddard: The truth is there are a lot of the pervert hotels around when you start looking at them in fiction and nonfiction. I stole the best bits from all of it. Be very careful when you’re checking into hotels.

A shirtless Chris Hemsworth in Bad Times at the El Royale Image: 20th Century Fox

Each character in the film is deeply affected by what’s happening in the world in the early 60s. How did you land on that era? Why was it important for these characters?

Goddard: I’m not sure because it’s all messy, right? It’s never linear, but I believe it started with the music. I really love the music of the ’60s. It is one of my go-tos when I need to get into an emotional state. So much of my writing is about getting myself into an emotional place and seeing where it goes. There’s just no substitute for putting on The Isley Brothers and seeing where they take you. So it started there, then it mixed with the sort of political tumult of the times. That’s the other part of the ’60s that I find so intoxicating, this idea that the world saw incredible turmoil on the political front and at the same time this music was being created and I don’t think that’s an accident. I think that, that there’s a reason that the tumultuous times lead to such great art. I wanted to make the movie about that and the role of the artist during these times.

With the film being about the role of the artist …

Goddard: I think it’s about that for me. One of the things that’s fun about movie-making is, at a certain point, the film doesn’t belong to me. I finish it and it goes out into the world and then I get to look at it as a viewer. As a viewer, I see the singer, and I see that this movie keeps coming back to the idea that the act of creating art, the act of singing when nobody is watching, the act of trying to figure out your voice in the middle of the hurricane, is very much at the core of the film. It’s not accidental that the film ends on Darlene. It is very much what the soul of the film is.

So it’s not just that the music was going to be a fun soundtrack. The music was sort of the point. When I wrote the script, I wrote every song cue into the script because I wanted to say to the studio, don’t buy this [script], don’t buy this if you want to change the songs because the songs are as important as the characters are in this movie. Luckily, Fox just understood. I think we were coming off The Martian where, similarly, the music was really crucial to the film. They got their heads around it very quickly what I was trying to do

Since the movie deals with the politics of the ‘60s, do you think the movie is inherently political?

Goddard: There’s no question. I think you can’t deal with this period, specifically early 1959, without having politics sort of be everywhere. The environment of the time was, was intensely political. And so I wanted to have people come from different walks of that political spectrum and then let them all start firing guns at each other.