In 2008, Cloverfield gave so-called found footage movies a notably exciting spin by going bigger than anything we’d seen before using that technique. Coming from Producer J.J. Abrams, writer Drew Goddard, and director Matt Reeves, the premise was ingeniously simple. What if a group of friends filming a going away party were suddenly in the middle of a Godzilla movie? It used that idea to thrust the film’s characters into the midst of thrilling on the ground chaos and terror, as around them a giant monster rampaged, while smaller but equally lethal creatures scurried about, all as the military attacked the monster through the streets of New York.
This month marks the 15th anniversary of Cloverfield, and Paramount has just released a new Limited-Edition 4K Ultra HD SteelBook to mark the occasion. Tied to that release, I spoke to Reeves – whose career since has included other huge successes, including two Planet of the Apes movies and last year’s The Batman – about the making of Cloverfield and if he’d ever want to return to the found footage realm. Plus, we spoke about the upcoming The Penguin series, spinning off from his Batman film, and why he’s looking forward to Colin Farrell doing more with the character.
KEEPING THE MONSTER MYSTERIOUS
The characters in Cloverfield have no idea what is going on beyond what they are seeing and quick glimpses of news reports, therefore there is never a big “this is what the monster is” explanation scene. The most we get is the character Hud theorizing about what it means that it rose from the sea.
For Reeves, rather than wanting to explain the why of the creature – typically referred to as Cloverfield or Clover – he explained he felt, “What was more important was the experience of what it was.” Though Reeves doesn’t mention 9/11, it’s certainly not hard to assume that’s part of what he was referring to when he said that with Cloverfield, “The idea was to sort of express that kind of palpable anxiety of the time, really. We came to this idea of being in an event that was terrifying, that you were at the center of, but that you didn’t have information about yet. And the experience was about what would it be like in a Godzilla film? What would it be like for the people on the ground if they were there with their handycams? I wanted it to be as experiential as possible.”
Looking back, Reeves notes, “It’s interesting, because the trailers created a lot of excitement about what the answers were, but I never wanted the movie to give very many answers. I wanted the movie to give you the experience of what it might have felt like and what this document would look like if it was people who had no idea what was going on and they were just taking it in as it went.”
That said, Reeves noted it wasn’t like he gave absolutely no thought to the monster, explaining, “In terms of what the monster’s doing, one of the secrets for me was that the monster was a baby, and that it was having separation anxiety. And so the monster was acting a certain way where it was freaking out. It was [about] trying to understand the motivation and the emotions of all of the characters, including Cloverfield, in the movie. So, yeah, it was not really about answers, it was much more about the experience. And to be honest with you, it was one of the things that drew me most to wanting to do the movie. I always have to connect to something in a personal way and the anxiety of that film, for as fun as it is, is really what was drawing me in.”
He added, with a chuckle, “The way that Cloverfield feels, that’s kind of what my head feels like every day.”
THE TRAILER THAT HAD
The first trailer for Cloverfield debuted July 3, 2007, shrewdly placed in front of screenings of Paramount’s blockbuster Transformers movie with little fanfare, and it instantly was a sensation. There were almost no details available about the film at the time and what it even truly was – that first trailer lacked even a title at the end – leading to all sorts of speculation and excitement about what was occurring (who remembers the “It’s a secret Voltron movie” theories?).
Interestingly, this trailer was filmed before production had actually begun on Cloverfield, with the recently cast actors (including the central six of Michael Stahl-David, Odette Yustman, Mike Vogel, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller, and Lizzy Caplan) assembling to perform Rob’s going away party and the ensuing chaos and confusion on the street – ending with that big “Holy crap” moment of the Statue of Liberty’s head being thrown to the ground.
In the final film, though supplemented with additional material from the proper production, much of this footage is included, which Reeves said was always the plan for a simple, resourceful reason. “The plan absolutely was for it to end up in the movie because we had such a tight budget for what we were doing. I remember specifically, when they greenlit the movie, at the time Paramount was going, ‘Wait, you’re gonna do this, this, this, and this, and you’re gonna do it for this price?’ ‘Yes!’ And so then the answer was ‘Do it.’”
Cloverfield came together incredibly quickly, from J.J. Abrams’ first idea to Drew Goddard being hired to write it to Reeves coming onboard, and Reeves recalled that even as they had these overall ideas for what they wanted to include, “What was crazy was, there was no script at that point. When I came on, there was no script. There was an outline that Drew had but Drew and I got together and from the moment I came on, there was 12 weeks until we were shooting. And we just sat there every day, beating our heads against the wall. And at a certain point, we’re like, ‘Okay, so we’re gonna make this trailer…’ And then we were like, ‘You know, based on our budget, actually, it would be really smart if we could use this footage and actually shoot a scene from the movie for the trailer.’”
As far as shooting the trailer, then coming back to film material around it during production, Reeves explained, “What happens is partway through that shot where the [statue] head comes out and smashes, and all of that, there’s actually an invisible edit and the shot continues, but we shot the first part that’s in the trailer. And then when you see the movie, we picked that up, and we continued, we seemed the shot together, and it continues there. And we probably couldn’t have afforded it to do that scene unless we did it for the trailer.”
Beyond using the money for the trailer to get more material into the movie, Reeves said, “The trailer itself was actually an experiment to make sure we could even do the movie because we didn’t know at that point… The idea of doing a handycam VFX movie was something that the VFX people were like, ‘We’re not sure we can do this. We might have to do this on steadicam.’ And I was like, ‘We can’t do it on steadicam! These are people who document their lives on their phones and a little handicam, people are going to know what that moves like. If we do Steadicam, we’ll look like posers, we’ll look like fools.’ And they’re like, ‘Okay, well, we’ll see if this is gonna work.’ So that trailer was a lot of things for us. It was a test and it was also something that we needed to put in the movie because we didn’t have enough money.”
FOUND FOOTAGE AGAIN?
Reeves has never worked in the found footage style again, but asked if he’d ever consider it, he replied, “Gosh, I don’t know. You know, everything is really about story and whether or not there’s a story that moves you. I would never say never in that if there was the right story where that thing [made sense]… It’s funny because before I ever did Cloverfield, there was another kind of horror movie that I had in mind. This was long before, so it was actually 16mm found footage of these people who had disappeared, and then you were trying to understand what had happened and these are all the dailies that they put together and then there was this whole thing. Tthere’s something very powerful about that kind of found footage document. It can be very haunting. To be honest with you, it really just comes down to whether or not there was something that felt like there was something new to do with it, and something really personal and emotional to do with it. For me, like I said, Cloverfield, despite it being this crazy, big monster movie, for me, it was very personal. Because the way to approach it was about my anxiety, the anxieties that we were all feeling when we were talking about the story and with the actors. And so I think that would really be the thing, is if there’s something personal to do, and something new to do. So who knows?”
There have been two Cloverfield-branded movies since Reeves’ original, including 2016’s 10 Cloverfield Lane and 2018’s The Cloverfield Paradox, but there were reports in 2021 of a new film in the works that would be more of a true follow-up to the first film. Reeves is plenty busy right now with The Batman‘s sequel and spinoffs, but would presumably still be an Executive Producer on the new project alongside Abrams and Goddard, as he was with the other Cloverfield films.
Of course, as one expects in the Bad Robot / Cloverfield world, secrets must be kept, so when I attempted to glean information about this new Cloverfield movie from Reeves, he would only say, “I’m super excited about it, but I can’t divulge any information at the moment about about any future installments. But we’re super excited about the idea of more installments.”
PENGUIN’S “SCARFACE MOMENT”
In Reeves immediate future is the start of production on The Penguin, an HBO Max series he’s Executive Producing, with Colin Farrell reprising his role from The Batman. 2022 was quite a year for Farrell from his acclaimed work – under makeup that made him unrecognizable – as Oswald “Oz” Cobblepot / Penguin to films like After Yang and Thirteen Lives to his starring role in The Banshees of Inisherin, the latter of which has already led to Farrell winning a Golden Globe and the possibility of an Academy Award.
Regarding continuing to collaborate with Farrell on The Penguin, Reeves declared, “He is such a genius. He’s such a wonderful, soulful, lovely person and I loved working with him. And I remember it was this thing where when we were doing the movie, he was only in a certain part of that movie, but he just was so amazing. And at the beginning, he was like, ‘I don’t want that many scenes.’ And then as we were doing it, he was having such fun, he goes, ‘Can there be more scenes?’ And I was like, ‘Well, let me see what else,’ but we only had so much space within the movie.”
That led to The Penguin spinoff series, and Reeves said they were excited by, “The idea of getting to do the series and really sort of dive into the depths of who this character is and look at that moment where it’s kind of his Scarface moment. The moment where everyone’s underestimated him, he’s gonna reach for power in Gotham. Lauren LeFranc, who wrote it and who’s the showrunner, she’s so wonderful. She dug into the character. I kept showing her the movie as she was working on the script, before the movie was ever done. So the idea of us getting to go back in and work with Colin is super exciting. He’s so incredible in The Banshees of Inisherin. He’s just an amazing actor. It’s amazing, because he’s so different [in Banshees]. But what he has beautifully, even as Penguin, as Oz, is, there is this level of vulnerability that he plays that is such a beautiful part of his soul and he always finds this way to project into the characters and I just think he’s really just very special. But more than anything, I just love him as a person.”
The Cloverfield Limited-Edition 4K Ultra HD SteelBook is now available from Paramount Home Entertainment.
The Penguin is expected to debut either late 2023 or in 2024 on HBO Max.