"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Joss Whedon already belongs on a very short list of the most beloved creators of serial television drama in the medium’s history, a list that includes Gene Roddenberry and Norman Lear (two of Whedon’s more obvious forebears) as well as ostensibly more serious contemporaries like David Chase and David Simon. But while the other guys on that list are widely admired and widely imitated, perhaps only Roddenberry was adored by his fans the way Whedon is. His work is rooted in a deep and sincere passion for the genre traditions of science fiction and horror — as he said during our interview, he doesn’t worry about fans because he sees himself as one of them — but like all the best genre practitioners he sees them as a means to telling bigger stories, not as ends in themselves.
As its devotees will explain to you — sometimes in long-winded detail — Whedon’s signature series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was about many things, and the killing of vampires was often an incidental plot motor but rarely the centerpiece. Along with its companion series, “Angel,” “Buffy” was best appreciated for its long, slow maturation and metamorphosis; there’s just too damn much of it to soak up on DVD over a holiday weekend. (Taken together, those two series offer 255 episodes!) Although Whedon will be identified with “Buffy,” and with the small screen, until the day he dies (he got his showbiz start as a writer on “Roseanne” in the late ’80s), he’s not a total newbie to the movies. He co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for “Toy Story” in 1996, as well as the not-nominated-for-anything screenplay for “Alien: Resurrection” a year later.
Between then and now, Whedon’s only cinematic venture was the 2005 “Serenity,” a spinoff from his failed but beloved western-in-space series “Firefly,” whose fan base (I think) continues to grow a full decade after its cancellation. But in a shift that looks more sudden than it is, the 47-year-old New York native has plunged into moviemaking full bore. This week sees the national release of “The Cabin in the Woods,” a long-brewing, mid-budget horror puzzler hatched by Whedon and his longtime collaborator and protégé Drew Goddard (who directs). Just a couple of weeks later, we’ll see Whedon’s debut as an A-list Hollywood writer-director, at the helm of “The Avengers,” the culminating chapter of the recent series of Marvel Comics superhero adventures. (I know I’m not alone in wishing that Whedon would take on the other “Avengers” franchise, the 1960s British spy series so poorly served by its 1998 film adaptation. But that isn’t what this is.) After that, he has an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” that’s already in the can, and a sci-fi script called “In Your Eyes” that’s in production.
Whether or not Whedon’s storytelling skills are best served by this switch from the long arc of TV drama to the punchier, more concise and primarily visual mode of the movies is, let’s just say, an open question that’s likely to attract all kinds of viewpoints. As for the funny, surprising and action-packed “Cabin in the Woods,” you can read my review if you dare, but many Whedon fans may understandably wish to see it while knowing as little as possible. (Some of my conversation with Whedon has been expunged, for spoiler-protection reasons.) Horror buffs will admire its ingenious twist on an archetypal setup, which may not be entirely new but is certainly put together with humor and generosity. I’ve had several anxious Whedon acolytes ask me whether they’ll enjoy “Cabin” even though they can’t stand horror movies, and I’m going to answer that forcefully: Maybe! It depends!
Whedon called me one evening last week from his Los Angeles office while I was having dinner with friends. I adjourned to the bedroom.
Joss, I apologize for the background noise. I’m at a dinner party in Brooklyn, and when I told people you’d be calling, they all started talking about how much they loved “Firefly.” You know how dinner parties go in that direction.
Yes, it’s a law.
Is that the show that people talk to you about the most? I mean, it got canceled and everything, so obviously it wasn’t as popular as it might have been. But do you run into closet “Firefly” fans all over the world?
I do, I do. It surprised me because I definitely hear about it as much as I hear about “Buffy,” which ran for seven seasons. It’s definitely got its own following, which is awesome.
I’ve had some letter-writers make the comparison between “Firefly” and the recent mega-flop “John Carter,” which I wouldn’t have thought of by myself. But I couldn’t help wondering whether you felt some particular sympathy or compassion for Andrew Stanton and the people who made “John Carter,” which is now being held up as a symbol of everything that’s wrong with Hollywood.
Of course I feel some sympathy. Andrew is a sweetheart and a really great director. I haven’t seen the movie, I have to say. But there’s been, it seems to me, some mishandling in how it was rolled out and that’s always tough to deal with. The fact that he’s directed the most beloved animated classic of all time might provide comfort, but it’s rough. When they put so much behind a movie, and then aren’t even confident enough to keep the title, you know that doesn’t put the best foot forward. That’s got to be a rough situation for him.
It gets weirder the more you think about it. I mean, they made a movie that grossed about $200 million worldwide. So a lot of people liked it, and it’s still going to go down as an enormous disaster.
Well, there’s always this spin on things. I mean, “Sherlock Holmes,” the second one ["Game of Shadows"], did numbers that were comparable to “Mission: Impossible 4″ [aka "Ghost Protocol"], and nobody talked about that. It’s all based on expectation, and at some point even Schadenfreude.
I think that definitely plays a role. If I said I wasn’t guilty of that at times I’d be lying. Listen, break down the history of “Cabin in the Woods” for me. Was that actually being made at around the same time as you were working on “The Avengers”?
No. “Cabin in the Woods” was actually finished three years ago. Drew was finishing the sound mix right when I got the gig on “Avengers.” So it’s been two years since we put it to bed.
So it’s just a weird coincidence that they’re both hitting at the same time?
When Lionsgate told me the week they were targeting [for "Cabin"], I laughed and laughed, and then it was fear.
And then you have the premiere of “Avengers” almost right away. It’ll be the closing night film at Tribeca, and premiere in L.A. around the same time.
They’re premiering it a few times, and early on, and that’s exciting to me because it shows confidence, and it means I get to go to a lot of premieres.
It’s not going to be easy for us to talk about “Cabin,” so let me avoid leading questions. How do you want to describe the guiding concept, which I think is simultaneously ingenious and hilarious?
“Cabin in the Woods” is, for me, a way of making the kind of movie that I love and at the same time making another kind of movie that I love. It’s a way of taking the cabin and — not blowing it up, but kind of exploding it. Not just enjoying it, but turning it over in your hand over and over and looking at it. I know that’s not a great sell, but that’s really what it is to me.
If you take the premise, and then you take the idea that the premise is a premise — without losing the audience, without winking at them — how much can you do? How far can you take it? However far I think I can take it, Drew will take it much farther. And that’s the glory of the thing, what’s in that cabin in the woods is even worse than a bunch of kids being killed. It’s something even darker than that. And I have to be a little proud there.
Right. I love that you found a way to do something that is a little meta, a little self-reflective about the horror genre and its requirements, without having the characters be snarky or self-aware the whole time.
I’m a big fan of “Scream,” and I’m a big fan of “Scream” because I was terrified for the characters. I understood the trick they were doing, but it was so well orchestrated that their snark and their knowledge of genre could not save them. In this, we went a very different way. I wanted to save them from postmodern self-awareness! The movie obviously has a very self-aware element to it, but if you’re not invested in the characters, if you don’t believe that the characters, and not just the kids, but Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins [who play two mysterious onlookers who seem to be manipulating events], if you don’t believe that they truly are the people they are, then nothing means anything, we are all cardboard cutouts. It’s a movie that deals a lot with manipulation, but you can’t really talk about that unless you care about the people who are being manipulated. Stanley Kubrick might disagree, and he could probably pull it off.
In a funny way, we do grow to care about Bradley and Richard’s characters. They puzzled me, they confused me, they pissed me off. But their fate becomes important too.
Besides being lovely guys and great actors, Bradley and Richard represent a completely different kind of identification. We are them — and not just me and Drew, although specifically me and Drew — but they are the people who have chosen for what happens to happen. And you, as the viewer, are the person who chooses that, if you have gone to see this movie. The act of walking into the movie makes you the one to see these people suffer. It does not happen if you do not watch.
It’s like one of those issues in physics, involving the uncertainty principle or the observational paradox.
If you don’t go to the movie, maybe those kids have a really nice weekend. What I’m trying to say is, America, don’t go to the movie. Wait, what have I done?
In terms of coming up with a list of five horror-movie characters — and you explain it in the film: the Athlete, the Whore, the Fool, the Virgin, etc. — how did you get to that point? Did you have to debate how many archetypes there were, did you go and do research?
We did research. I did about 10 more years of research than Drew did, but we’ve both been doing it all our lives. And at one point we said, do we really want an extra person? But we knew we couldn’t live without five. We didn’t want someone there who was just an extra body, we really needed to have the five. We’re going to throw a party, it’s going to be crazy, there’s going to be five of us. It’s an odd number, but you need the essential people and no one else.
I don’t imagine either of you needed to read Carol Clover’s academic work on the “Final Girl.” Although I bet you know about it.
Yes, the “Final Girl” is well known in the horror community. As well as the “murderous gaze” and all kinds of other terms that come to play in this movie.
I was trying to come up with some potential similarities between “Cabin in the Woods” and “The Avengers,” which of course I haven’t seen yet. I was having a hard time before I started thinking about rules. Maybe this is true of all genre storytelling, but you’re very interested in rules and you like universes with rules. Both of these movies are like that.
Well, yeah. The more you can create a structure by which people live in a fantastical situation and by which they will act, and the more you lay that out for the audience, the more they will feel at home in it. And for me, there’s always going to be two things going on at once. There’s going to be the people trying to manipulate a situation and controlling it from above, and the people who are actually in the trenches. In that sense, “Cabin in the Woods” and “The Avengers” are oddly similar.
Don’t you have the particular problem with “The Avengers” that there are a zillion comic-book fans who are going to jump on you if you make one tiny mistake?
You know, I suppose you do, but people are always asking me if I’m worried about that. I’m totally not. I feel like, speaking as a lifelong Marvel fan, this movie will deliver unto them. And I know that someone will be like [comic-book guy voice], “I can’t believe they took the purple out of Hawkeye’s outfit! This is the worst movie ever.” Because there’s always gotta be somebody who’s gonna hate. But the fact of the matter is that this movie celebrates what has always been great about those characters, and I feel confident in it, and it’s a respectful, exciting story about the insane-o characters.
There’s been so much talk among fans about “What is the alien race?” and the alien race is not one of the big Marvel alien races because the point of the movie is elsewhere. But the debate rages on every time there’s a shot of one. That debate is ultimately raging on between a very small percentage of the people who will need to see this movie for it to be a hit. Ultimately, I don’t think of the fan reaction as something that I’m worried about, because I don’t separate them from me. I separate me as a fan from me as a storyteller because you can’t turn the film into the Chris Farley show: “Remember that story line when you were red? That was awesome.” You can’t do that. But you can bring the flavor to it.
You’re always trying to work with two demographics. There are certainly plenty of people who are serious fans of the genres, and serious fans of your work, but for something as big as a mainstream movie to connect, you have to go way beyond that.
I think one of the problems with “Serenity” was that they were like, “We’re gonna target your fan base!” And I was like, “Well, that’s bizarre.” Because they would be the only people who would definitely show up. And my fan base is not nearly as big as I think it is. But with “Avengers,” particularly Iron Man right now, because of the movies, Captain America, too, and the Hulk because of the TV show, everyone’s got their own juice. But at the end of the day, it’s a huge investment. For the movie to work financially, it needs to reach out to people who would never crack a comic and haven’t seen all the other Marvel movies, and that’s really the dance that you do, between the expectation as a fan and your desire to make it palatable to people in the know.
It’s not so much a tonal problem as opposed to how much information you put in. How much will people glean if they haven’t seen the other films? What’s been exciting to me is that people in tests, who haven’t seen the other movies and don’t read the comics, have almost universally said that they had no trouble and that you don’t need to see the other films to see it. And my hope is that Marvel will reach out to the people who don’t see action movies, who don’t see superhero movies, because there’s this kind of old-fashioned aesthetic to it. It’s kind of an old-fashioned movie. It’s not a cavalcade of sensation. There’s a ton of stuff in it and we really put them through the wringer, but at the end of the day, it’s a human story that I feel people can relate to on a lot of levels.
Whereas with “Cabin in the Woods” the budget is lower and I would assume the expectations are more modest. You’re primarily looking for the horror-movie audience, right?
I’d like to think that “Cabin in the Woods” is a tent-pole movie [meaning a major attraction that brings in all four "quadrants" of the audience], but I know one of those quadrants would be traumatized for life. Don’t bring the kids! It is a horror movie. I’ve also had people who don’t watch horror tell me how much they’ve enjoyed it. But at the end of the day, those are the people we will go to first and say, “We will deliver you the goods,” and hopefully broaden from there.
I know that Drew Goddard wrote for you on both “Angel” and “Buffy,” and went on to write “Cloverfield.” But this is his directing debut. What convinced you he could pull it off?
His tallness. He looks very commanding up there. Drew and I have told stories together for years, and to each other for years, and a storyteller who is working in a visual medium, you can tell when they have a command of the visual aspect of it. Drew is an extraordinary guy and very charismatic, so there are two sides to directing. There’s knowing what you’re doing, and convincing people you know what you’re doing. And I could tell, just through our interactions, that Drew had both of those things. Because some people are super-smart, great at whatever it is they do, but you get them onstage and you’re like, “Oh, they have to relate to people. Oops.” And Drew doesn’t have that. You want to follow him, and aesthetically we were always on the same page, and we wrote this thing as though it was coming from one voice. So I couldn’t have been more confident.
The big twist in the film, which we won’t discuss right now, that came from both of you guys?
It came from me. The plot is something I presented to Drew as “I think I found the movie that we could actually sit down and write in a weekend,” because it has a third act. It starts one way then takes you another way and just when you think you know where it’s going, it goes a third way. And this is how it wraps up. And not only did I present it to him all in a bundle, but it came to me that way. The structure came first. Not, “We should make a movie about a guy named Marty.” Or, “We should make a movie about two guys in an office. What could they do?” The structure is what appeared before me, shining like a unicorn. And I went, “Oh.” And we just filled it in from there. And structure is the hardest part of storytelling. With “The Avengers,” the structure nearly killed me. It was very difficult to make it flow and cohere in terms of all the changing perspectives and characters, all these movie stars, all these beats to hit. It’s a ridiculously complex puzzle. But once you’ve got the puzzle, and you’re just filling in the voices and coming up with the moments, that’s what’s fun.
You haven’t made a film in seven years — or at least haven’t gotten one released — and have only had the 27 episodes of “Dollhouse” on TV since “Angel” and “Buffy” went off the air in 2004. And all of a sudden, it’s cowabunga! Two movies in three weeks.
I don’t hate it. I won’t lie. I’m incredibly excited and proud of both of these movies and they have many similarities, but they really couldn’t be more different in so many ways It’s nice to be able to do that.
“The Cabin in the Woods” opens nationwide this week, and “The Avengers” will open around the world on May 4.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)