The coronavirus pandemic has led to a demand for reassurance in fiction, but the urge for escapist stories has been balanced by a resurgence in interest in movies that speak to the disaster we’re experiencing. Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, a thriller about a global pandemic, has resurged in popularity. The 2016 film 10 Cloverfield Lane has become uncannily relevant again, too, as the film takes place almost entirely inside a bunker after an apocalyptic event that makes just breathing the outside air a risk.
According to director Dan Trachtenberg, it’s not just the depiction of an uncomfortable forced quarantine that makes the film newly relevant. From lockdown at his home, Trachtenberg spoke to Polygon about thinking about the film again in recent days, turning to survival video games for a sense of comfort, his work on the Uncharted movie, and 10 Cloverfield Lane’s controversial ending.
[Ed. note: Spoilers for 10 Cloverfield Lane follow.]
Looking through your Twitter feed, it seems as though a lot of people had the same idea while in lockdown: It’s time to revisit 10 Cloverfield Lane. Has the movie been on your mind recently?
The only thing that occurred to me immediately was, I reached out to the production designer — who was actually working on the Lord of the Rings TV show in New Zealand, so I didn’t hear back from him right away — but I was like, “What did we learn, again? What should I have, what foods lasted longest?” Because he did so much research that wasn’t really that much a part of the movie, but we had met with a lot of bunker people. I definitely was like, “I wish we had a bunker.”
I was in Toronto and was about to shoot a pilot, and then it got shut down and we had to travel back. Just the notion of, “It got shut down, we’re traveling, the borders might not let us through,” in that moment, it felt a little bit more scary than it is currently. We didn’t know if we were going to get back to Los Angeles and it was going to look like The Walking Dead. I didn’t know what it was going to feel like, so in that moment, I was like, “Oh, my God, do I need a gun? Do I need a bunker? Am I building the ark after the flood’s already come?” In that sense, the movie did pop up in my mind as well.
You actually interviewed people who had prep bunkers to get ready for 10 Cloverfield Lane?
There’s a place that builds them a few hours north of Los Angeles. We met with some of those people, and toured a lot of the facilities, none of them as sweet as Howard’s pad. We definitely took some artistic license. There are some spots that are even more amazing. There are underground hotels and really extravagant things. Someone had made some out of school buses. Some that are underneath schools and very structural, and then there are some that are really extravagant, the kinds of things you would see in Dubai. We mishmashed a lot of different concepts, some that are just what people build tiny houses out of, containers, storage containers. We did as much research as one would want to do.
That “building the ark after the flood’s already come” was not in the original script. That whole section was wanting [Howard] to have a point, wanting him to be right about it. I always felt like, I don’t understand why we wear seatbelts, why we wear helmets when we ride bikes. Theoretically, if we all walked around wearing helmets, just in daily life, we’d be safer. If we all wore masks anyway, like some cultures do when they’re sick, we’d be safer, but we don’t. Why don’t we? What is that based on? Not that the movie examines that necessarily, but it does occur to me. We could be in a complete cultural shift with masks. We could start to be a culture that wears masks when we’re sick just because, and it takes waking up and coming to the brink of something to make a shift like that.
That’s one of the things that’s really frightening in the movie, when you realize that Howard is right and something’s going on outside.
The movie was always the opposite of Misery or Dead Calm, in that things start normal, then progressively, “Wait, maybe this isn’t what I thought.” This one starts, “I think he’s crazy, this is crazy,” and then we go, “Wait, maybe he’s right.” And then of course, flip-flopping between them. There is a “what if.”
I don’t want to say wish-fulfillment, but there actually was a studio note [about life in the bunker]. Two of the best additions to the movie, I think, were, “Let’s have some fun.” When you’re stuck and you can’t do anything, what would you do for fun down there? The whole montage section was not in the original draft. That was added in from Mark Evans, who ran the studio, who pitched that there should be a whole montage of them having fun. So we figured out all the board-game stuff, and the puzzle. There was one other head of the studio that said, “At some point, they should be eating ice cream. I feel like if it was the end of the world, I would be eating all the ice cream.” We had enough in the fun-and-games section where they’re all comfortable with each other, finally, and the ice cream became used in a sinister way later. But still, it’s sort of embracing the idea of, when it’s the end of the world, you would have a lot of ice cream. You would embrace the fun of it.
I’m certainly not saying that we’re at the end of the world, but in this moment of scariness, we are all embracing watching movies and playing video games. I started playing The Division 2. I’d never played The Division 2. The Division is about a pandemic that wipes out the Earth and the people that are left. And Conan Exiles, and this game Albion Online, that are survival crafting games.
One of the mantras for making the movie was this Wes Craven quote. He said that horror movies don’t create fear, they release it, and that horror movies are boot camp for the soul. I thought that was so profound, because the world is unknown. The things that terrify us are the things we just have no control over. But when we see these movies, it’s a way to go through a set of experiences that do feel out of control. But you know at the end, there will be a resolution, and you will feel like you have a handle on it. That’s the whole thing in this movie — these people all deal with the fear of the unknown in different ways. Some of them run away from it, some of them try and bottle it, and one of them just says, “I just try not to think about it.”
I’m sure we’re all experiencing different moments where we might be like the three of them, but I think that’s why I’m playing this video game, and why people are watching this movie and watching Contagion, because they want to feel like, “Is there a resolution to this? Can I understand this in some way?” Because just the news feels like, “Oh my God, I don’t know if people know what the heck’s going on.”
So The Division 2 and Conan Exiles aren’t the kinds of games you’d be playing normally?
I’ve dabbled in those games from time to time, but I specifically was like, “I want to play The Division 2.” Part of it was that I got a new graphics card, and it’s a pretty game. But also, I just wanted the catharsis of, “I can take care of myself in the post-apocalypse.” I wanted to feel reassured of that somehow, I guess? I don’t know. But yeah, I think it’s specifically the mentality I found myself in, in this moment in time.
I’ve read that you had your PlayStation 4 with you while you were shooting 10 Cloverfield Lane. What were you playing at the time?
I was playing Destiny, which had just come out, and Warframe. Multiplayer games. I had some friends back home, and it was a way of staying in touch, because we were shooting in Louisiana. Those two games were nothing like the movie I was making, it was the opposite. It wasn’t research, it wasn’t that I would play games that would put me in that mindset, or anything like that.
I did see that you tweeted about Animal Crossing in relation to Dragon Quest Builders. Have you been playing Animal Crossing?
You guys freaking out over Animal Crossing...have played Dragon Quest Builders 2?— Dan Trachtenberg (@DannyTRS) April 9, 2020
No. I’ve started playing Dragon Quest Builders 2. It’s once again survival, crafting, starting from scratch — but a much prettier world than some of these other games, so it’s more comforting. I’ve not played Animal Crossing. Dragon Quest seems like it’s the same thing but has combat, which I feel that I need, and I can completely create things. I’m anxious to maybe re-create my own home, or make a Death Star. I’ll create a mission for myself to accomplish. With Animal Crossing, I feel like you’re limited. I don’t want to speak out of turn, I just feel like they’re aesthetically very similar. You do very similar things, except you can do more in Dragon Quest Builders, from my perspective. Tell me, am I wrong?
There definitely isn’t any combat in Animal Crossing, but you do get to terraform after a while.
Okay. I also finally cracked open Red Dead Redemption 2. That came out on PC while I was away. It’s survival. I immediately got into Red Dead Online. It was scratching that itch of, “Can I make it on my own, here, with just a horse and my gun?
How has that component been for you so far? Are you playing with strangers or with people you know?
Honestly, I just played the tutorial, which is kind of like playing a single-player game. I haven’t met any people yet. But the other games I’ve been playing have been … I played World of Warcraft forever, so I still maintain that, playing with randoms. In Conan, I had this amazing experience — Conan Exiles is like Ark, it’s one of those sandbox, survival, crafting games — I was building my whatever and then had to venture out to get resources, and I ran into two people who were like, “Hey, man, do you know where we could get wood? Where are the trees?” And I was like, “It’s over there. What are you guys looking for?” And they’re like, “We’re building our base!” And they’re showing me their stuff. “You have stables? Cool!” In push-to-talk! We were talking with each other. It was friendly, comforting, awesome, and makes me want to play so much more. “Oh, wow, cool. I can encounter good folks out in the wild here.” It helped that I was on a PvE server. I wasn’t on a PvP server, so there was no ability to be ganked, or I would have been if that was the case.
While we’re on the subject of games, what was your experience working on the Uncharted movie?
What drew me to the project was fulfilling the dream I had. I first saw the trailer, there was an E3 presentation of it that I had saved on my computer, and still have on my computer because I watched that trailer over and over again. It was just the teaser, it was just this dude in a baseball T-shirt and chucks, behaving like Indiana Jones or the character in Pitfall. I loved that, and had even at the time written a studio person I knew when I was just directing commercials like, “We should make this movie. It’s not out yet. PlayStation 3 had not come out yet, and when it does, this is gonna be like Mario for PlayStation.” I’m sure a lot of people felt that way.
But the chance to finally fulfill the feelings I had when I first saw the teaser was enticing. And part of my coming aboard was to also include Neil Druckmann, who’s sort of become the lead designer of the game series, on number four in particular, and obviously The Last of Us, too. We’ve become friends, and I wanted to include him in the process and get to really make something that very much embraced the creator’s vision of the game, that story, and that character, and also do all the things that I’ve been dying to do my whole life, cinematically.
And I think Tom Holland is a movie star and awesome, and his presence allowed for the movie to exist in a way that the games don’t, so it could be its own thing. We came up with some awesome setpieces, and a very cool MacGuffin, and cool things that I’m sad to not be a part of anymore. But what I wanted to do and what the studio really wanted were just misaligned. So that was the end of it.
What was the pilot you were working on before the pandemic?
It was called Langdon. It was sort of like the prequel to The Da Vinci Code. It’s the story of that character before we know him in The Da Vinci Code and as Tom Hanks in the movie, and as the character is in the books. It was for NBC.
Are you going to be directing any more of the series when production picks up again?
I don’t know. We were two days away from shooting, so we hadn’t shot it yet. Now it’s a big question mark: Is it still happening? Are we still gonna go back to doing it? They might just pick up the series instead of doing pilots, is the rumor I’ve heard. I have no idea.
Regarding the ending of 10 Cloverfield Lane, what did you think of it when you first read it? The ending seems to be the only thing that —
— is controversial, and that people don’t like? [laughs]
I was going to relate it to Contagion, in that both it and 10 Cloverfield Lane emphasize the importance of actually taking safety procedures and staying in lockdown. But in 10 Cloverfield Lane, Michelle ends up going outside.
Right. But with the suit! With some protection. With a mask. Yeah, I did. My wife sews, and she started sewing masks. And I remember there was legitimacy to the protective gear Michelle makes. I’m just gonna sound really ignorant, but there was something about using charcoal as a filter, I don’t know. I was telling my wife, “Oh, we researched, maybe you need to put charcoal in the pocket, in the filtration part of the masks she was making.”
There’s also something shocking about a lot of the bunkers, I’m just now remembering, having sensors or a meter for when the air is safe to go out, and I remember it wasn’t going to take as long as one would think after a disaster. That was a big artistic license that we took, of two years [before it’d be safe to leave]. There were different versions, [depending on whether the crisis was] nuclear bombs vs. gas weapons or whatever. But it was closer to two weeks or two months. None of them were years in the bunker.
As for my reaction to the ending, when I was reading it, I was like, “This is great.” I’m shocked that it was a Bad Robot thing. And when I got to the end, I was like, “Oh! Now I get it.” I was ecstatic. I could not believe I’d get to make a movie that does something no other movie does. There’s nothing for me to reference, nothing for me to lean on. The closest I could think was From Dusk till Dawn, which does a complete genre shift, but it’s 60 minutes in. There’s Psycho, too, but none of that is the same thing. I was really excited to have the opportunity to make something so unique.
I understand anyone who doesn’t like it. I’m not like, “Oh, that’s what I like, is that people were mad.” I think there are several components of why someone would be off-put by that ending. There could have been filmmaking that could have smoothed the transition more, that I obviously now think about all the time. There’s the Cloverfield title, which sets up an expectation that either goes toward or against mitigating or exacerbating that ending. And then there’s also the nature of — you fell in love with the kind of movie it was [and then it became a different movie]. But what an awesome experience to have. It’s not every movie. You can watch Misery or Dead Calm to have the traditional experience, and you can put this on if you want to have a different kind of ride.
But also, I think [Michelle’s] story is not finished when she gets out. If it had just ended where she sees the thing and we cut to black, or, “Oh my God, he was right,” or “Oh, he’s wrong,” none of that would have resolved her arc. Her arc is only resolved when she knows there’s certain danger in one direction and safety in another, and she chooses not to run away from her problems anymore. Some people seem to think that is the problematic part. I’m not gonna worry about criticism. That wasn’t a part of the ending, initially, the “choosing certain danger” thing, but in general, the genre element showing up in the final act, I thought was just awesome.
Was there ever a discussion of continuing her story?
Just casually. Even before we even shot it, we were like, “Well, you know what would be cool is to do XYZ.” But nothing really serious, just occasional little email thoughts.
How explicitly did you discuss how much of what we initially see outside the bunker was real, like the pigs, or the lady at the bunker door with the lesions on her face?
In my mind, it’s all legit. Of course, in the experience of the movie, you want to feel like, “Did he do that to the pigs?” I think the woman is the thing. There’s just no way [Howard could have done that], and her begging to be let in. That should feel like the nail in the coffin of, “Yeah, something’s definitely happening outside. Whether or not this guy is cool, we don’t know, but for sure.” The pigs were meant to be ambiguous, like, could he have caused that himself or not?
To return to one of your earlier points, the “amusing yourself in quarantine” montage sequence feels like our normal lives now. Besides playing video games, what else have you gotten up to in order to pass the time?
I have a 3-and-a-half-year-old daughter, so I’m playing keepy-uppy with a balloon, playing hide-and-seek and tag, going around the block on her balance bike. Playing Just Dance, which I thought was a good idea because, “Oh, we’ll get exercise,” but she’s honed in on one song, so we’re just doing this one song over and over again, and it’s killing me. I might have chosen differently if I had a time machine. We’re doing some puzzles.
If she was just a little bit older, we’d be doing Legos. I’d be doing so many Legos, and we’d be doing them together. That’s my dream, is I’d be building Legos. I just found something, too, and I was dreaming about, “Oh, one day.” There’s a ship-in-a-bottle Lego set you can build. And it’s not even that expensive! I was like, “What the hell is going on here?” So I’d be making that if I didn’t have a small child.
I’m glad you’re still not tired of talking about this movie, even though it’s been years.
I haven’t [talked about it] in a long time. It’s cool that it has a relevance again. The Trump stuff, the frustration with his lying and deceit, made me feel like there’s relevancy to the movie again, and now with the quarantine, even more. For me, I think its relevance is less about the fact that people are contained. What’s even more relevant is the fear of the unknown, and the way we’re dealing with with it, and the three different ways you can deal with something like this.
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