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How Director Drew Goddard Brought Out Chris Hemsworth’s Dark Side in ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’

Drew Goddard doesn’t write for actors, but the moment he finished “Bad Times at the El Royale,” his story about seven people colliding in a sketchy motel, he reached out to Chris Hemsworth.

Hemsworth, who appeared in Goddard’s directorial debut “Cabin in the Woods” just after his first turn as Thor, agreed to play the most dangerous character in “Bad Times,” a charismatic, would-be cult leader.

The writer-director spoke to Variety about reuniting with Hemsworth, the pleasure of working with Cynthia Erivo and Lewis Pullman, and the future of his X-Force project.

Let’s talk about casting Cynthia Erivo, who owns this movie.

Drew Goddard: When I was writing the movie, I knew I had this character, Darlene Sweet. She’s a lounge singer in the late ’60s. I knew I needed her to sing live. So much of it is not just about the singing, it’s about the act of singing and what it means to be an artist and an artist struggling to find her voice. It became crucial when we were casting the film. I said, “Listen, we will be singing incredibly complicated songs live, that we need to do over, and over, and over. We need somebody with real chops.” And so, we really just started scouring the world. I hadn’t seen “The Color Purple” [Broadway revival] but people speak of her performance with a real reverence. Anyone who was there says, “Oh, you should meet Cynthia, that’s the person for you.” And so she came in and just started doing the scenes and I knew immediately. I just felt the hair stand up on the back of my neck. It was pretty exciting the day she walked in, that’s for sure.

Musicals have enjoyed an upswing; do you see this film as a musical?

I don’t know! Certainly it’s not a musical in the classical sense, but there are musical elements. We definitely have moments where we let the music tell the story. It’s sort of like everything I do: It falls into a “hard to classify” genre.

How did you find Louis Pullman? He’ll be pretty new to many audiences, and he’s as surprising and impressive as Erivo.

He was another one where I just had a very specific thing I was looking for. [His character, the El Royale employee] Miles is integral to the story, and we needed someone that can take the audience on a real journey, in terms of emotional performance. So it was one of those good old-fashioned casting searches. After meeting with lots and lots and lots of actors, Lewis came in and you just felt that immediately. The last time that happened, quite honestly, was when Chris Hemsworth walked in for “Cabin in the Woods.” You’re just looking for actors who inherently fit the role — and then also transcend the role. Louis had that sort of magic.

Can you just text from Chris Hemsworth now and say, “Hey, I got an idea. Do you want to talk?”

[Laughs] We have a very healthy relationship, that’s for sure. We’re very fond of one another.

Hemsworth plays a Charles Manson-type character, what interests you about a figure like that?

For me, it was all about finding something different for Chris. Chris got cast in “Thor” in the middle of [making] “Cabin in the Woods,” so I got to see this young actor just launched into the stratosphere. It’s been really fun to see how he has grown and changed, and yet, how he has also stayed exactly the same. He’s still the same wonderful, hardworking, emotional performer that I met almost a decade ago. I knew that it was time for him to do something different. I was excited to write something that would give him a chance to explore darker territory. And I think he was probably eager to get to play something that is a little left of center from the sort of stuff he usually plays. So it very much came together as we created this character of Billy Lee.

Is it fair to say that writing something for Chris was one of the primary starting points for the script?

The truth is, I don’t really think about actors when I’m writing, but every time I finish a script I look at it and the first thing I think is, “OK, who could Chris play?” When I’m writing I try to only think about the characters. But once I finished, he’s definitely one of the first people I called. I just love working with him so much.

You use a lot of long takes in this film; it’s very patient. What set that as the ideal approach?

There’s a theme of empathy running through the whole movie, in the sense that I was enamored with the idea that people you dismiss as one type of thing, you would learn more about them and have new affinity for them and that your allegiances to different characters would change as the movie progresses. Part of the way that works is to spend time with the characters, and spend time in somebody’s shoes. It all sort of came about through that approach. There’s no substitute for just sitting with someone as they’re experiencing it. For instance, we have a long take where Jon Hamm is discovering things in a corridor. I wanted to put the people in his shoes, I wanted to feel what it is to discover this. I wanted to see what it feels like to be a voyeur in that moment. We hit upon the idea that, in order to do that, you really have to be with him. You have to tell the audience, okay, we’re going to take our time and be with this man while this is happening.

Do those ideas become pivot points around which the rest of the style naturally turns?

There were a couple pivot points. Certainly, any time we had a lot of singing, I really had to think it through. Singing live presents its own unique challenges. For instance, the long camera shot with Jon, as Cynthia is singing live the entire time, is an incredibly technically sophisticated shot. It took us about eight months of research and development to figure out how to do that shot. One of the trickiest parts of it was doing it all entirely silent, because we couldn’t make noise or we wouldn’t capture Cynthia’s singing.

We even tried to figure out how to build a soundproof room so that we could record Cynthia. But we couldn’t make that work. So we had to put everyone in padded shoes and quiet clothes, and come up with new track for the camera so that it would be entirely silent. We used a lot of hand cues and lighting cues. Normally, when you’re shooting a complicated shot, you have an AD calling out cues. We couldn’t call out any cues. So we had to devise this sort of — almost the way they do stage magic.

You shot most of the film chronologically — how did that come about?

Well, the movie is kind of a logistical nightmare. It takes place over 12 hours, right? And half the movie is in the exact same place, in the [motel] lobby. And so the problem with that is I have to think through every single thing that happens four months from now, and make sure we’re set up for it at the beginning. Something as simple as Jeff Bridges pouring himself a drink with Cynthia. I need to make sure I know where that liquor is, and that liquor bottle is going to stay exactly where it is, where he puts it down, until the end of the movie. That becomes a problem later. These are things that are never problems in other movies, but in this movie it was a nightmare.

So we had to shoot in order, first, for pure continuity reasons. The other side of it is, these characters all go on a really intense emotional journey. If we were jumping around, I wouldn’t have gotten the performance I was able to get. They’re all slowly transforming as the movie goes on. One of my favorite parts of the movie is just thinking about where these characters start, and thinking about where they end, and realizing how short a period of time it goes through these changes. I find it very powerful, and if we had shot out of order, we wouldn’t have had that. We would have felt a sort of… falseness about it, I suppose. So it was a two-part decision.

Talking about empathy and dual lives, it’s difficult not to see this story as representative of what we see in America now. What level of allegory was important to you?

Billy Lee says that exact sentence, “Let’s have ourselves an allegory,” so it would be disingenuous of me not to admit that. Here’s the thing. I started writing this in November of 2016. I was fascinated with the ’60s and the turbulence of those times. In the course of researching the ’60s, it became very clear to me that the evils and the turmoils and the darkness of our time are nothing new. These are things that have been happening for a long time. The names and places change, but the darkness has been part of who we are for quite some time. And so it was never my intent to write about today. However, I do exist in the times I live in, and it’s inevitable that some of that would come creeping into the script.

Given the fact studio filmmaking at the very least is so marked by franchises, how do you keep getting able to make original properties?

I do believe that we do ourselves a disservice as we keep saying “Oh, the only thing studios are making are franchises.” I actually don’t believe that to be true. I’m sure people could show us that the math tells us that it’s mostly franchises, but I also think studios are looking for original content. They’re in the content business. And so I’ve always learned to sort of drown out the noise and hope for the best. I tend to just think about what I want to write. And then I try to be smart about budget, so that it’s not too expensive. That’s the tradeoff. That was how we approached “Bad Times,” which was to say, “Listen, this is original and scary, but we’re going to do it for cheap and here’s the budget, here’s how we’re going to get it done.” Then I wrote the entire thing on spec. So it takes a lot of the fear away from the studios. You want to make it as easy as possible for them. You want to be very conscious of the realities of their business, and do your best to make it a situation where they can’t really lose.

What are your thoughts on how the “Cloverfield” series has developed, and how it is evolving into a sort of anthology wrapper around original stories?

I remember, when J.J. [Abrams] first pitched “Cloverfield,” so much of the spirit of that first movie was just this idea of, “let’s remember what it felt like to be kids in our backyard, making movies with Super 8 or video cameras.” That was the approach to “Cloverfield.” It was very much like, “Well, let’s just figure out how to go make a giant monster movie with limited resources, and have fun with it.” I remember J.J. talking very clearly about, “Oh, there’s an opportunity here, this idea that worked so well with ‘Cloverfield,’ what if it became a bit of a tent? And under that tent we could try to do bold and crazy ideas.” Boy, was he speaking my language. I mean, that’s right up my alley. And I love that’s what it has come to be, as a sort of opportunity for filmmakers to come in with crazy ideas and play around and try different stuff. That’s what’s fun to me. We’re seeing a lot of young talent going into Bad Robot, and just trying stuff. That’s how you stumble onto new ideas. You have to be able to nurture artists and give them a space to try different things, and see where it takes you. And I’m really happy that “Cloverfield” has become a version of that.

Have you had an idea that made you think oh, I could go back to the “Cloverfield” setup with this concept?

Yeah, I certainly have. And I also, I just miss working with Matt Reeves and J.J. Abrams so much! Problem is we all got busy. You know, saving the galaxies in J.J.’s case, or wrestling with the apes in Matt’s case, or doing my silly stuff over here. I think all three of us would love to figure out a way to get the band back together. I have not given up on that dream. I think it would be pretty fun to do that again someday.

Along the same lines, assuming that you’re still working on X-Force, what’s the spark that drives your ideas there?

Look, it’s a two-part thing. I just love Ryan Reynolds and I love what he did with “Deadpool,” it was incredibly exhilarating. And then I also loved those comics when I was a kid. I came of age with comics in the ’90s when “X-Force”… people don’t quite… it’s hard to understand now, how big a phenomenon the X-Men relaunch was. [When] Jim Lee took over, and they launched “X-Men #1,” that was insane. And then X-Force, and all around that same time when Todd MacFarlane was on Spider-Man, it was just this Marvel renaissance, and I was right in the thick of it.

So it has a lot of emotional memory, but at the same time it’s much more about, I just had an idea for a movie. Ryan and I got together and we just started talking and came up with a lot of fun stuff. But I also was clear with everyone that I had to go make “Bad Times” first. I’ve been working pretty hard on this movie, for the past two years I’ve been working around the clock on this thing. So I look forward to calling Ryan back up and saying, “Alright, ‘Bad Times’ is done, where were we at?”

Realistically, will this be “Deadpool 3,” or is it “X-Force,” and its own kind of thing?

I think if I was going to do it, it would be “X-Force.” That that would be my approach. To me, the team is important. That’s what I would want to do. The ideas I had were all team-based.

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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