‘10 Cloverfield Lane’ director explains why they changed the movie’s ending
10 Cloverfield Lane has a much-talked-about ending that’s been divisive among those who have seen the new J.J. Abrams-produced thriller. I already posted my thoughts on those concluding minutes, and now we have the story from director Dan Trachtenberg about how that ending came to be.
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD.
Yep, spoilers about the very end of 10 Cloverfield Lane, so stop right there if you want to stay spoiler-free about this movie.
The majority of 10 Cloverfield Lane has us trapped with Michelle beneath ground, in a bunker that may or may not be keeping her, Howard, and Emmett alive, out of the air that’s been made toxic in an attack by the Russians, or maybe it’s aliens. Once Michelle (played by a superb Mary Elizabeth Winstead) escapes the bunker, and the monstrous man who built it, she faces new horrors outside: Turns out one of Howard’s crazy theories was right — Earth has been invaded by aliens. And we get to see tenacious MacGyver Michelle battle and get chased by these aliens and their spacecraft.
That’s not the way 10 Cloverfield Lane was originally going to end.
Before the thriller took on a title alluding to Abrams’ 2008 found footage monster movie Cloverfield, this project was called The Cellar. The end The Cellar’s spec script has Michelle escaping the bunker, then getting in Howard’s pickup truck, driving away, still seeing no signs of any kind of chemical or nuclear or alien attack. She drives toward Chicago, where her family is (or was). And then, in the final couple shots of the film, once she’s crested a hill, she sees Chicago, reduced to rubble.
Smash to black. Roll credits. No action sequence with aliens. No aliens or spaceships onscreen at all. No explanation of what destroyed Chicago.
After Abrams’ production company, Bad Robot, bought the Cellar spec script, they hired Damien Chazelle to do some re-writes. (Chazelle was actually set to direct 10 Cloverfield Lane before he went off to direct eventual Oscar winner Whiplash instead when that movie based on his short film got funding.)
Trachtenberg came aboard the project after Chazelle had done his re-writes, including adding the new alien action sequence ending.
“I actually never even read that [original spec] script, and I only know of it because sometimes agents would slip it to actors to give them a leg up when they came in to audition, and they ended up ruining it for them because the Emmett character — who was named something different, [Nate] — was entirely different. And Michelle was entirely different,” Trachtenberg told me in a phone interview. “So they hired Damien Chazelle to evolve it into the thing that was what I had read.”
Why aliens? Why switch gears from thriller to sci-fi action in the final 10 minutes? Here’s how Trachtenberg puts it:
“It was to do have something that wasn’t just a little tag at the end. ‘Oh and this is what the world is.’ No, now you have to deal with that. That was always the really exciting thing.”
The hope was to deliver audiences a shocking, action-packed conclusion — but one that didn’t feel like a completely jarring left turn from the rest of the movie, most of which takes place in the claustrophobic confines of Howard’s bunker.
One key to avoiding any sense that the ending came out of nowhere was Bear McCreary’s score for the film. Today I got to interview the prolific, Emmy-winning composer (known for his music for such shows as Battlestar Galactica and The Walking Dead). McCreary said he and Abrams had considered going for minimal, small music for most of the film, then making the score big in the concluding sequence. But they decided that would “risk it feeling disingenuous. You risk alienating the audience,” McCreary said. “You didn’t want it to feel like you were going into a different movie.”
So Abrams and McCreary chose to make the score big from the beginning, from the opening scene of Michelle on an unheard but emotional the phone call with her fiancé, then driving out of town. “The opening scene and the scale of the music might tip you off — ‘there might be something bigger here’ — but the marketing's done that already,” McCreary said. (The tagline on the film’s poster is “Monsters come in many forms” — some interpreted that as a promise we’d see real monsters, while others didn’t.)
There’s already been speculation that a 10 Cloverfield Lane sequel could be like Aliens was to Alien — an action sci-fi to follow up a horror sci-fi, with Michelle joining the fight against invading extraterrestrials in Houston. But Trachtenberg points out that “we sort of did that [genre switch] inside the movie itself.”
Though he did have concept art for the aliens at the time they shot the film’s final scenes, Trachtenberg felt it would be “silly” to show Winstead that art or talk her through a lot of details about the slimy, wormlike, sharp-toothed look of these aliens. “It doesn't really matter what she’s running from. It doesn’t matter if it has a third eye or a tail or whatever. She’s not going to be thinking about a giant three-eyed thing chasing her because you can’t relate to that, you can’t draw on that. She is going to be thinking about those things that scare her on a deep personal level.”
A 102-degree fever may also deserve some credit for Winstead’s performance as weary-but-still-determined Michelle there. The actress had to film that concluding sequence while she had the flu.
“I think a lot of her emotion came from ‘ugh I’m really in misery. I’ve been put through so much.’ So that's why it’s so palpable,” Trachtenberg said.
As for the look of those aliens and their spacecraft, “that really evolved over time,” the director explained. “I loved the idea of the spaceship being this organic thing…. And J.J. [Abrams] loved the idea of it being even more ferocious and armored.”
For the creature that attacks Michelle on the ground, the director “always wanted this icky, gross, worm-like thing. Tremors really affected me as a kid, clearly.”
10 Cloverfield Lane had a successful first weekend at the box office, earning $24.7 million There’s already chatter about a potential sequel (or a non-sequel follow-up establishing the Cloverfield name as a Twilight Zone-esque anthology). Trachtenberg contends “there’s no formal talk” about a sequel. “But I’m sure that the engine is in motion and people are thinking about cool stuff.”