Drew Goddard’s credits as writer, director and producer certainly speak to his facility with genre entertainment, from television series like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” ” Lost” and “Marvel’s Daredevil” to such films as “Cloverfield,” “World War Z” and “The Martian,” and his directorial debut “Cabin in the Woods.”
But look a little closer and you’ll see another crucial thread uniting the bulk of Goddard’s work, and that’s the presence of a keen sense of humor within even the most fantastical situations. That’s why it makes perfect sense that he has teamed with writer/producer Michael Schur (“Parks and Recreation,” “The Office”) for the new NBC sitcom “The Good Place,” which finds its central character (Kristen Bell) coming to grips with an unexpected afterlife, as guided by an otherworldly overseer (Ted Danson).
Goddard, who directed the pilot and set the template for the series’ visual tone and language, joined CBR for a wide-ranging chat that revealed the lure behind his not-quite-radical shift into straightforward comedy, as well as his work in realms both superheroic and super-cinematic, and why heading up a big-screen comic book project remains a dream come true.
CBR: You mutual friend Damon Lindelof was the one who suggested you to Mike Schur, which led to your collaboration on “The Good Place.” Tell me how that came together for you.
Drew Goddard: Yeah, I’ve known Mike for years. We sort of came up around the same time, and I’ve been such a huge fan of his, so I think we’ve been circling. And I got a call and he said, “Do you want to come meet?” I didn’t even know it was about a project, it was more just like, “OK, let’s hang out.” So we sat down and he just started telling me about the show and I went, “Oh, my God, that sounds phenomenal!”
And it’s just those moments, you’re always looking for those moments in your career where lightning strikes. When Mike started talking about the pilot, that’s how it felt. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had that happen to me a few times, whether it’s with J.J. Abrams, or Joss Whedon, or Mike Schur. It’s like you have these moments and you go, “Oh, that sounds special. Now I just have to beg him to let me be part of it.”
There’s certainly been comedy built into the material you’ve worked on, and this is leaning much more in that direction. So creatively, what was exciting about the opportunity for you to be even funnier?
Yeah, it’s weird: I understand how that looks, but to me, I’ve never seen the difference. Like when we were working on “Buffy,” for instance, it was not, “Oh, this is a drama,” just because it was an hour long. It was like, “Oh, we’re going to be funny.” If anything it’s all about, what’s the length? So it’s sort of nice just having the half hour side.
Because “The Martian,” for instance, is often hilarious.
Yeah, I’m very attracted to shows and movies that aren’t afraid to be both. I think it’s OK to have a scene break your heart and make you laugh at the same time, I think that’s OK. And I think that if anything, I reject the idea that it has to be either/or.
What was the fun of the world-building on this one? Because this is such as specific area that’s being built out and has its own inner mythology, much in the way that shows like “Buffy” and “Lost” have?
Yeah, that was honestly one of the big attractions for me: the ability and the opportunity to create this world. Because it’s really a world where anything that you imagine, you can make. Like, we can justify it being in the show. Which is really fun for a director in particular, because you can say like, “OK, here’s how we do it …”
And because my career is a lengthy list of complicated tones, I’ve learned with complicated tones that the secret is to keep it grounded. And so even though we have our fun with this world, it is fundamentally about these characters. The world is designed around their personalities. The idea of “The Good Place” is that every person’s good place is different, and it’s based on what you like. So if you happen to like apples, they’ll be lots of apples in The Good Place. And so it all comes back to character, which is really fun because it keeps you tethered to the world.
Visually, what can you do as a director on television now that you couldn’t do as well, maybe, a few seasons ago?
Certainly, look, there’s always been shows that are visually extraordinary. And I certainly think in the last 20 years, it probably dates back to the Avid [editing technology]. Because I think if you look at, in the ability of editing, how that has fundamentally changed television – before you didn’t have a lot of choices. You still had to make something every eight days. But if you look at say, around late ’80s – or, really, it was “The X-Files” for me – you just started looking and go, “Oh, television can look bold,” you know? That’s what’s inspiring.
And then now we’re just seeing that continue and continues to build. Certainly visual effects are getting much faster so we can turn things around. Usually you couldn’t do that on television just because of the time. And we’ve got an extraordinary visual effects supervisor on our show which is really fun, and our DP is fun. I mean, one of the great joys of the show is the opportunity to develop a visual language, and I think as more directors come into our show, they get to see the tools we get to play with and you see they’re really having fun.
Is there, for lack of a better word or phrase, a mystery-box quality to the show? Are there any big reveals built in, despite being a half-hour comedy?
Yeah, there certainly are big reveals. I think that’s something that’s very important to Mike, that every episode ends with … it’s not always a giant plot revelation, but it is often. It’s sometimes a big character revelation, and then you sort of sometimes go, “Huh?” But Mike really wants you to feel the idea that you don’t want to miss a week. That it is going to be exciting every week because something new and special is going to happen.
You mentioned the career lightning strike, and it certainly happened for you with “The Martian.” How is the feature side of your career fitting into what you’re doing here?
You know, I basically, I’m in a very lucky position. And truly, I have been most in my career, where I just get to work with the people I want to work with on things that excite me, and that’s sort of how I dictate my career. Nothing has really changed since “Buffy” in the sense that I get up, I work with people that excite me, and I try to make the best product I can. So that is just continuing. I mean, there’s nowhere to go after you work with Ridley [Scott], right?
So it’s more, just keep doing what I’m doing, which is finding these projects that excite me and doing them. I’ve never been a person that cared about medium, I never have. I remember at the time when “Buffy” was on the WB, as a fan, looking at it and going, “That’s the most interesting visual show I’ve ever seen. I don’t care what’s going on in movies, what’s going on with this guy Joss Whedon?” Because that’s where I want to be. And that continues. I don’t really see a difference, I just sort of do what excites me.
You’ve been involved with Marvel projects, you’ve been involved with Sony superhero projects – are any of those relationships still building or have you been working on something lately?
Yeah, with Marvel we’re still … we just finished “Daredevil” Season 2 and we’re working on “The Defenders,” which is the team-up, which would be, start shooting this fall. So we’re really excited about that, and we just got picked up for Season 3, which is great.
What’s been fun about both your particular role in “Daredevil,” and the bigger tapestry knowing that “The Defenders” was coming from the get-go, and knowing that all these really, really strong showrunners were working on different characters that were going to end up at the same place at some point?
Yeah, I think what’s most exciting is how each of the four shows, “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones,” “Luke Cage,” “Iron Fist” are very distinct. They all have their own distinct world. They’re all very different shows and different characters, which was important to all of us.
I remember sitting down at the very beginning with Jeph Loeb and Melissa Rosenberg, who is doing “Jessica Jones,” just saying, our job is to just make the best show we can, and it’s OK to be different from one another. We don’t try to be the same, and knowing that that will be more exciting when you put all of the shows together, because it doesn’t feel like we’re telling the same story. It’s “No, here’s a new paradigm where you’re seeing four different genres come together,” which is really exciting.
So creatively, do you just kind of check in when you can?
Yeah, Marco Ramirez and Doug Petrie, who are running it – I’ve known Doug since the “Buffy” days, and Marco and I have been on “Daredevil,” so it’s my friends. And it’s a lot like this: they let me show up and hang out, and I’m happy to do it.
And is your planned build-out of the Sony’s pre-Marvel Spider-Man universe kind of at a point where it’s finished, or will you have creative talks now that Marvel’s at the character’s helm?
Yeah, who knows? There’s certainly nothing happening in the near future.
Do you want to be working on the big screen with this comic book property at some point?
Yeah, I mean, look, it’s hard to say enough good things about Kevin Feige and his team and what they’re doing at Marvel. It’s inspiring on every level. It’s always about, “Do I have an idea that I think fits? And then do they want that idea?” But I know that it’s always been a dream of mine, and hopefully someday that dream will come true.
As a director yourself, what were the lessons you learned from Ridley Scott?
The thing that surprised me about Ridley is how meticulous he was in preparation, his preparation. He worked really hard to know the answers. I always assumed that when you become a professional and you directed so much, you don’t really have to think about it – you just show up and figure it out.
And the opposite was true with him. I mean, he certainly could do that, but he really took the time to make sure everyone was on the same page, and it just made that set so much happier and smoother. I was amazed at how much he got done. It made me rethink my own approach, and how important it is to work before the camera starts rolling.
I’m surprised that, whether you and Joss were involved or not, that we haven’t seen more “Cabin in the Woods” in some form. Did you think it would continue as a franchise? Do you still maybe think you might do something with that world?
Honestly, the tricky part about “Cabin” was how we ended it, and we sort of knew that at the time. We sort of knew like, “No, this is an ending that doesn’t necessarily make you suggest an obvious sequel,” which we sort of liked. That was intentional.
However, we love that world. Joss and I talk about it all the time. To be quite honest, we just haven’t had the right idea. But ideas are weird that way, you never know when you’re going to wake up and think, ah-ha, I got it. Lionsgate has been wonderful. We loved working with them. They’ve let it be known if we really have an idea, they’re willing to make it. It’s just a question of the right concept.
I think neither Joss nor myself want to make something that damages “The Cabin in the Woods” itself. It’s only worth doing if it’s special.
Do you feel like this sort of very reality-grounded genre territory is the place that you enjoy working the most?
I don’t know. It’s a weird thing because there’s never been a conscious plan. I can only look back and go, and look at the threads that attract me to various projects or ideas, and I do see similarities. It’s not like I’ve ever thought this through, I just sort of go, “That’s a show I like – I want to work there.”
That’s a movie idea that I can’t stop thinking about, I want to write it. But when I look back, it’s all characters who care about one another dealing with strange circumstances. I just described everything I’ve ever worked on. So I do see these themes come out time and time again. They clearly resonate with me. But there is never a conscious moment when I’m working on it.
What did all the awards attention you got earlier this year do for your career – and maybe even for your writing or your confidence?
Well, honestly, it was lovely, it was really fun. It was fun to just get to go and see that. I grew up in this small town in New Mexico. It was fun to just be at the Academy Awards. That’s a fun thing to get to see. But I don’t know that it fundamentally changed my approach. I sort of learned either I’m passionate about something or I’m not. And if I’m passionate, then I usually just say yes, and I don’t really worry about if it’s good for my career – sometimes to the consternation of my agents.
But that’s served me very well. I remember very specifically saying, oh I want to go work at “Buffy.” I want to go work with “Alias” because I believe in this guy J.J. Abrams, who at the time was not Giant Superstar J.J. Abrams. He was just this guy doing this weird show, and there were certainly more profitable shows on the air. But I said, “No, no – I want to go there because I believe in these people,” and that’s just what I still do. I just find talent that I believe in and beg them to let me work with them.
Was it interesting to see the sort of cultural ripple that came out of that project? People really said, “Yeah, science – science is cool!”
Yeah, it was very gratifying because I certainly felt that was the goal and something we were trying to do with the movie, to show scientists in a different way than they are normally portrayed in Hollywood. But we weren’t sure it was going to work. We certainly didn’t know it was going to connect the way it connected. So that was particularly gratifying.
I had a really cool talk with Neil DeGrasse Tyson about the movie, he really saw it as a high watermark.
It was nice to hear. I mean, scientists, that’s been one of the most special parts of my career, is to have scientists come up to me and talk to me about what it meant, and say, it felt like the people I work with, which to me is the highest praise I can get.
“The Good Place” premieres Monday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.
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