Director Dan Trachtenberg talks about the divisive 10 Cloverfield Lane reception

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Jun 15, 2016, 7:48 AM EDT

Pulling off one of the coolest cinematic surprises in years, Bad Robot and Paramount revealed in January 2016 that the spiritual successor to Cloverfield would be landing in theaters in less than two months. Kept under complete wraps aside from its shoot code name of Valencia and a cast list featuring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman and John Gallagher Jr., 10 Cloverfield Lane, at the very least, allowed genre fans to ingest a movie without the standard year-long marketing blitz that usually obliterates all sense of discovery.

Director Dan Trachtenberg certainly delivered a smart thriller that deftly transitioned from a dark character exploration into a last-act blast of sci-fi thrills that firmly committed the story to the still enigmatic Cloverfield mythology. It's quite the directorial debut from Trachtenberg, who prior was known for his commercial work and the short film Portal: No Escape.

Three months after the whirlwind release of 10 Cloverfield Lane (now available on Blu-ray and digitally), Trachtenberg talks to Blastr about the benefits of shooting the film in narrative order, initial audience reactions and whether there are more Cloverfield anthology stories in his future.

When the script was offered with the Cloverfield connection embedded in it, did that give you some creative pause considering this would be the official followup (in a way) to the original?

The movie didn't have the title yet, so it didn't dawn on me. It was Cloverfield in the fabric of it, but I never thought that I'm making Cloverfield 2. If that was the title, I probably would have found it quite intimidating, or it might have fueled the fire to make something even more fresh. It could have gone both ways. But the thing that was exciting is that Cloverfield was a very unique take on a very familiar genre. The thing I loved most about this [script] is that the structure is very unique.

Was there a concern about how audiences would react to that last act and its vague monster connections?

I knew it would be incredibly divisive, and some people would hate the movie for what it is. And I knew some people would love it for what it is. If you like a ride, it would be a one-of-a-kind experience for you, and I loved the idea of making something that could be special like that. Those are the movie memories that I treasure, so that excited me much more than intimidated me.

There's a split in the film from this taut, claustrophobic thriller to an all-out monster film in the last act. What side scared you more, and which did you have to prepare for most?

The latter stuff comes very easily to me, as my imagination likes to be fueled by that and will devise the sequences very quickly. We did more pre-viz for it, so in one way it was easier than the challenge of looking at a block of non-verbal scene descriptions and figuring out the best way to make it taut and exciting. But then, ironically, we changed a lot of our ending in terms of practical, logistical set-piece stuff. We couldn't do a lot of things we wanted to do, initially, so we had to re-imagine a lot of sequences when practicality struck. It's funny: Shooting was all one mode on a soundstage, and suddenly we were outside and it's like we're making a totally different thing. From a production standpoint, it was a very interesting experience.

The film was shot it in order of the script, which is really rare. As your first feature length film, was it more to help you, or was it mainly for the actors and their continuity?

It was both. It was really helpful because you're always wondering what's the truth, and how we feel about one character in one section is different than another section. To go in order was essential so that we could always be in one headspace at one time, and not swapping back and forth. It also allowed the visual grammar, the way the movie was shot, to really feed off of itself. If we establish the way a scene felt, or was covered, from the get-go, we could then have visual pay-offs later. If we went out of order, scenes wouldn't fit. So, we took full advantage of shooting in order.

Your editor, Stefan Grube. was on-site with you, which must have been really helpful.

As we were shooting, it was amazing to have Stefan, my editor there. Shooting in order and shooting so much in one location meant the next day we could go back and do pick-ups. If we had wrapped a location, it would have been much more challenging.

What was the hardest sequence to get right?

The most challenging scenes were Michelle's arcs: The opening with Michelle and the middle confession scene with Michelle talking through the wall with Emmett. It was all about, when are we saying too much? It wasn't about how they were shot, but story-wise. Process-wise, it wasn't challenging for Mary and I and everyone. It really was from the fabric of the story perspective, asking, when are we saying too much or too little in the opening and middle because we were desperate for the ending to land. We wanted it to be as cathartic and exciting as we all felt it was, and would be, so earning that final decision was tricky.

You basically directed a three-person play. With the caliber of actors you had, how did you establish a rapport? Was it via a long rehearsal period?

We had a very luxurious rehearsal period of a week in the location, in the rooms, so it put the scenes on their feet. It was totally terrific. A lot of that process is getting a chance to pre-block a scene for the actors to see where they might want to go in the space. But the work is really through conversation. It was chatting with [the actors] and talking about the way those moments might feel for them, and for me. It was also for my cinematographer and I to have a sense of what we might want it to feel like. When we're seeing them rehearse, we get to see their instincts. It helped immensely.

Was it a tough shoot working in those close confines?

It was a really pleasant experience! The movie was really intense but the making of it was really fun. We laughed a lot.

Michelle (as played by Winstead) was such a refreshing, smart heroine. Are there more stories being discussed that continue after her film ending decision?

We talked about what her story might become even before we shot the story. She's always been in our minds, and certainly what this character could eventually go through is something we're all turned on by. It's always been a part of our discussion, but who knows.

What's next for you? Will you stay in the Cloverfield anthology world with another story, or do something else?

I've quite a few irons in the fire. I'm in Los Angeles doing an episode of [Netflix's] Black Mirror right now. It's very awesome. There are some movies I worked on before 10 Cloverfield that I am returning to, and some new ones I'm interested in, so there's lots of stuff I would be stoked to do. Certainly, more of Michelle's story would be awesome as well, and all of it is on the table for me.