The Cabin in the Woods is a horror-lover’s dream. As a scary movie fantastic myself, you’d think I’d be beyond thrilled to have the opportunity to interview cast member Jesse Williams about the film, but as an easily spoilable piece, it wasn’t easy to both contain my excitement and keep Cabin’s most unique twists and turns under wraps.
Williams plays Holden, one of five college kids heading out into the woods for a weekend away in a secluded cabin. While Curt, Jules, Dana and Marty (Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Kristen Connolly and Fran Kranz) are all close friends, Holden’s a bit of an outsider, brought in by Curt to cheer up the recently single Dana. Once at the cabin, it’s all fun, booze and budding romance until a certain something turns their vacation into a bloody nightmare.
After kicking our chat off with the basics, specifically Williams’ horror movie preferences, we jumped right into the gory Cabin details. If you’re one of those folks who wants to be entirely surprised by what the full feature’s got to offer, I’d advise holding off on reading this interview until after you’ve seen the film. However, for those looking for a Cabin preview, the film’s secrets are safety hidden behind white text. Highlight at your own risk.
Are you really into horror movies?
Jesse Williams: I am. I really am. I’ve been a little bit out of the loop lately, but I grew up really loving them and also loving the kind of mischief behind trying to find ways to sneak off to go watch them. When I wasn’t rated-R age I used to sneak into theaters all the time. Buy a ticket to a comedy or whatever was age-appropriate and sneak into A Nightmare on Elm Street or Jason or Hellraiser or Poltergeist or something like that. I also loved the B-movie stuff, Pumpkinhead or Killer Klowns from Outer Space or crap like that. That was a lot of fun.
Any favorite slashers?
Freddy was the one that really kind of messed with more. All the other ones I thought were just awesome and funny and hilarious, and you’re laughing with them as much as you’re laughing at them, but Freddy was the one that really messed with me, but I wouldn’t call it a favorite because I’d really need to watch it again. I also really like Cujo, Pumpkinhead; I have fun memories sneaking off the watch those. Evil Dead!
If you were the Bradley Whitford character, which killer would you want to see in action
Oh, that would probably be the ballerina with the rows and rows of circular teeth or it would be the baby face mask gasoline-carrying silent strollers. I just love all villains and killers that only walk and don’t talk. While you’re sprinting away they just stroll and I just think the confidence behind it is spooky.
What was the preparation process like for this? I’m sure you have your own things you like to do, but was there anything Drew had you do that you’ve never done before?
Drew and Joss made sure that we had a sense of context. They gave us a bunch of films to watch. There was Heart of Darkness and Evil Dead. Peter Deming, the DP for Cabin actually also shot Evil Dead. Last House on the Left, a couple of films just for a sense of the context. And really, otherwise for me, it was spending time with the other cast because we were very much like these kids, not character-wise, but in the situation. We were five young people who’d been thrown together to go on a trip, you know? We’re meeting in an airport and going on a trip to Vancouver to live together for three months and to go to a cabin in the woods. Getting a chemistry with them and an understanding of them and an understanding how the dynamic plays out just for comfort on set. Again, that’s not for character because for Holden, he didn’t know any of these people before he got into that Winnebago and joined the trip. He’s a friend of Curt, but unlike the rest of them, they all have long standing relationships and a dynamic built, and Holden, my character, doesn’t know anybody except for playing a little bit of ball with Curt, so he’s got a little bit more of an outsider’s view and that effects his journey a little bit differently than everybody else’s. He kind of finds his place and who to trust and how to behave.
How about the office material? I’m sure they shot the cabin material and the office materially separately, but how aware were you of that side of the story while shooting your own?
Yes and no. I tried to avoid it because my character doesn’t know about it and I don’t want to anticipate anything. And yes, you’re right, we didn’t shoot with them. It’s a different set, of course, and the schedule was such that we didn’t interact with them that much. We had dinner a couple times, but we’re not sharing space during the working day. But there are little moments where, and I guess this is gonna get a little spoiler-y, but there are moments where you feel like your decisions are not necessarily your own, or do you? Is Curt behaving the way Curt normally behaves or is this a little bit unlike him? You’d be walking at an even pace, a couple more obstacles are thrown your way and you’re kind of like, is this the way we normally behave? Okay, I’ll brush it off. It’s nothing; move on. But a couple little tests like that, that you know are coming from this kind of unknown place, but again, I try to keep the control room stuff in a separate kind of consciousness.
How about the horror of it? Scary movies aren’t scary while you’re shooting them; they’re scary when they’re edited, so how’d you bring that horror to life on set?
I guess that’s probably the most challenging part is maintaining a sense of real spontaneity. Yes, you’re exhausted, it really is 4am, it really is 2am, you really are deep in the woods of British Columbia and you’re covered in blood and rain and it’s cold. So there’s a lot of real discomfort to play off of, but you have to have these truly spontaneous reactions over and over again without anticipating, without jumping the gun, without a reading on your face that you expected that to happen, to be truly startled, to really be in the moment and be present and have to do that again from this angle, from that angle, in close-up, in medium and then wide and the establishing and the crane shots. Keeping these things fresh under duress, it is a challenge. You do have to take care of yourself and your voice and your health and your fellow actors, but that does wear you down a bit and, yeah, that is part of the horror of shooting a horror movie.
Speaking of the bloody material, it isn’t easy to re-dress a set after basically destroying it, so how many takes were you guys doing with the kill scenes?
You’ve got to try to keep the takes to a minimum when you’ve got a splatter of blood or something that’s gonna make you have to change your wardrobe, wash down your skin, your hair. They did a good job of keeping those minimal because Drew was very good about doing a lot of tech rehearsals and making sure that he had the understandings or whatever to make sure that the tech is right and that the way it needs to hit is the way it’s gonna hit for camera, towards camera, etc. He comes from background, from being a producer, from being a writer and handling a lot of the technical aspects on other projects, Lost and all the stuff he’s done for Joss. I think he had a real respect for trying to preserve all moments to not wear the actors down and also not exhaust the crew. I think he was very wise to be prepared for that because it happens a lot in our film.
Horror films with action like this also tend to be very choreographed. Did you have any leeway when it came to the material or did you have to stick with exactly what was on the page?
You know what? I thought we had the perfect amount of leeway because the process was really more about where you end up versus how you get there. It wasn’t really rigid on hitting this mark, that mark and then go left where you have to be really conscious of your steps. Sometimes that absolutely happens and you feel like you’re playing a game of Twister or connect the dots, and it becomes a little mechanical and it’s like you’re learning how to dance, one step, two step, three, but while you’re also trying to have your performance the best it can be. So we were able to kind of get down that duality, so as long as I end up near the stairs, then I can react honestly. I can stumble, I can fall, I can jump up, I can grab this, it doesn’t really matter as long as I hit a mark at the end for the punch. So again, I think that Drew working through the tech of it to try to streamline our process– him and Joss were both really open to what we were doing and us being able to twist words or make adjustments and just make it honest and that’s all the really mattered for him was that these kids are acting honestly so that the audience can stay connected.
I watched a lot of the promo material for this film, but still, when I saw the full feature, there were so many “holy shit” moments. Having worked on it, was there anything in the finish product that really blow you away?
I think something that’s really stayed with me as a really iconic moment that was more impressive on screen than it even was on the page was the elevator bay in the third act when, we both know what happens, but when all hell breaks loose and it’s a real frenzy. I just remember the “ding” of the elevator doors opening and then the “ding” and the “ding” and it kept happening and it was just this bloodfest and that was really awesome to me. And it was really a payoff for me from the beginning of the script because Joss and Drew created such interesting, wild beings that you wanted to see all of them play out. They could have made 13 different movies with 13 different animals. And so that was a really nice payoff in the third act, so good luck veiling that enough to be able to print that.