‘El Royale’ an en­dan­gered species: an orig­i­nal movie

The Palm Beach Post - - ACCENT - By Josh Rot­ten­berg Los An­ge­les Times

As a screen­writer and di­rec­tor, Drew Goddard has racked up a vir­tu­ally un­bro­ken string of suc­cess, whether work­ing on scripts for such box-of­fice hits as “Clover­field,” “The Mar­tian” and “World War Z” or di­rect­ing the crit­i­cally ac­claimed 2012 hor­ror­sa­tire “The Cabin in the Woods.”

But in his own telling, he has flirted with dis­as­ter at every turn.

“Here’s the truth: Every movie I’ve done in my ca­reer could be viewed as some­thing the in­dus­try doesn’t want,” Goddard, 43, said on a re­cent af­ter­noon at a cafe in Los An­ge­les. “It all looks good in hind­sight. But at the time, ev­ery­one said ‘The Mar­tian’ would never work. Even ‘Clover­field’ — ‘Oh, you’re go­ing to do some weird “Blair Witch Project” take on Godzilla?’ They all sound like bad ideas in one-sen­tence form.”

Hav­ing cut his teeth early in his ca­reer on such genre-bust­ing TV se­ries as “Buffy the Vam­pire Slayer,” “Alias” and “Lost,” Goddard has al­ways been drawn to the type of projects that don’t make for slam-dunk pitch meet­ings, pre­fab mar­ket­ing cam­paigns or eas­ily di­gestible sound bites. And his lat­est film as a writer and di­rec­tor, the crime thriller “Bad Times at the El Royale,” is no ex­cep­tion.

If you’ve only seen, say, a 30-sec­ond TV spot for “Bad Times,” which hit the­aters Fri­day, you’d be for­given if you were left a bit puz­zled ex­actly what it’s about. In fact, a de­gree of puz­zle­ment is en­tirely in­ten­tional.

In the film, which is set in the late 1960s, seven strangers of vary­ing de­grees of re­pute — in­clud­ing a priest ( Jeff Bridges), a vac­uum sales­man ( Jon Hamm), a lounge singer (Cyn­thia Erivo) and a jaded hip­pie (Dakota John­son) — find them­selves thrown to­gether in a ho­tel on the Ne­vada-Cal­i­for­nia border and … things hap­pen.

There are twists and be­tray­als, sur­pris­ing re­veals and out­bursts of violence. Char­ac­ters who seem

to be one thing turn out to be some­thing else en­tirely. At some point, Chris Hemsworth shows up as a sin­is­ter, fre­quently shirt­less cult leader. It’s prob­a­bly best not to say more.

“Bad Times at the El Royale” grew out of Goddard’s love of noir films such as “Out of the Past” and “Chi­na­town” and au­thors such as Dashiell Ham­mett, Gra­ham Greene and Flan­nery O’Con­nor. As he was writ­ing the script, he con­tin­u­ally tried to sub­vert the stan­dard plot con­ven­tions.

“I don’t like when I know where a story is go­ing: ‘Oh, I guess that’s the third act now,’” he said. “No­body has to watch this movie more than me, so if it gets too straight­for­ward I get bored. These movies take years out of my life so in or­der to do them, I have to find ways to keep my­self guess­ing. There are a cou­ple of big turns that the movie takes that are be­cause I started to grow tired with the story, and I think it led us to some in­ter­est­ing places.”

Gen­er­ally fa­vor­able re­views should help pro­pel the box of­fice for “Bad Times at the El Royale” (with an as­sist from barech­ested Hemsworth). But in an era dom­i­nated by movies with pre-sold brand aware­ness, Goddard un­der­stands the chal­lenge he’s fac­ing in try­ing to tan­ta­lize movie­go­ers into com­ing to see an orig­i­nal story while hold­ing back key de­tails of what ex­actly they’re pay­ing to see.

“It’s hard,” he said. “I get it — if I’m in my liv­ing room, I’d go: ‘You’ve got to tell me more. My time is too valu­able.’ I want to give peo­ple enough to say, ‘You’re go­ing to like this.’ It’s on me to give the au­di­ence a good time. I’m not out to make my weird art film.”

Films for grown-ups

Bud­geted at $32 mil­lion, “Bad Times at the El Royale,” on pa­per, is the kind of movie that is sup­posed to be an en­dan­gered species in to­day’s stu­dio sys­tem: a smart, midrange film aimed at grown-ups that’s not based on any ex­ist­ing prop­erty. That’s largely what drew Bridges — who came up in the 1970s, when such movies were the norm rather than the ex­cep­tion — to the project.

“That mid­bud­get movie — the movie that’s not a $200 mil­lion movie and it isn’t a $10 mil­lion movie — is start­ing to go the way of the di­nosaur,” Bridges said. “I’m hop­ing it comes back. This is the kind of movie that I love to see and be in as well — those movies where the film­mak­ers are ahead of you and you don’t know what the hell is go­ing to hap­pen.”

For his part, Goddard ar­gues that the re­ports of the death of the midrange adult movie have been greatly ex­ag­ger­ated.

“You keep hear­ing, ‘No­body is mak­ing movies for grown-ups’ — but they are,” he said. “I re­ject this idea that there’s a group­think. When I look at the stu­dios, they all want con­tent. That’s what drives them. The trick is to be re­spon­si­ble about it, to give them con­tent in an af­ford­able way and un­der­stand from their point of view what they need.”

In­deed, there was strong in­ter­est from al­most every stu­dio in town for Goddard’s spec script for the film. “It was one of those days you al­ways hear about where sud­denly I’m in dif­fer­ent rooms with peo­ple push­ing pieces of pa­per across ta­bles in very cine­matic ways at me and say­ing: ‘We want this. What do we have to do?’” he said. “It was fun.”

“Bad Times” pro­ducer Jeremy Latcham hopes that the film’s rel­a­tive unique­ness in a land­scape dom­i­nated by se­quels, spinoffs and re­boots will draw au­di­ences hun­gry for some­thing new.

“The midrange bud­get stuff that does kind of squeak through, a lot of it you feel like you’ve seen be­fore — it’s a straight thriller, a straight ac­tion pic­ture or a straight drama or biopic or what­ever,” Latcham said. “But I think stu­dios will al­ways want to make stuff that’s good and ex­cit­ing and thrilling and fresh, and I think this movie falls into those cat­e­gories.”

‘Dead­pool’ spinoff

Goddard — who has also di­rected episodes of the NBC com­edy “The Good Place,” on which he is an ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer — is quick to note that he doesn’t have any­thing against gi­ant fran­chise movies per se. In fact, af­ter “Bad Times at the El Royale,” he is slated to take on the comic-book movie “X-Force,” a spinoff of the “Dead­pool” se­ries.

For the mo­ment, de­tails on that project are still un­der wraps. “(‘Dead­pool’ star) Ryan (Reynolds) and I came up with some re­ally good ideas that got me re­ally ex­cited,” Goddard says. “But I was very clear with them that I had to do ‘Bad Times’ first so I couldn’t re­ally even en­gage on what (‘X-Force’) is go­ing to be, but let’s keep think­ing about it. That’s kind of where we are now.”

But even as pre­pares to take on what would be by far his big­gest movie to date — the kind of brass ring that many di­rec­tors are dying to reach — Goddard says he’s pre­pared to let “X-Force” go if it ul­ti­mately doesn’t feel like the right fit for his par­tic­u­lar sen­si­bil­ity.

“We will get to a point where I’ll say, ‘This is the movie I see — do you guys think this is go­ing to ful­fill what you need it to ful­fill? If the an­swer is no, let’s walk away,’” Goddard said. “The only way I ever end up mis­er­able in this busi­ness is when I’m ac­tu­ally mak­ing some­thing and we’re not on the same page about it.”

For now, Goddard is fo­cused on launch­ing “Bad Times at the El Royale” into the world, then recharg­ing his cre­ative bat­tery and see­ing where his cu­rios­ity takes him, whether it fits with the con­ven­tional wis­dom or not.

“The truth is, I’ve found it’s best to just write what you want to see and hope for the best,” he said. “You sort of hope that your bat­ting av­er­age is high enough that you can take some crazy swings and not lis­ten to the noise. Be­cause oth­er­wise you’ll start to self­edit and say, ‘I guess I’ll just give them what they want.’ And I’ve found that makes me un­happy in my ca­reer.

“I look for­ward to getting back to the blank page, which is some­thing I never say,” he con­tin­ued. “As a writer, the blank page is the worst. The fact that I’m ex­cited to get back to it is a good sign.”


Dakota John­son in a scene from “Bad Times at the El Royale.”


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