Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale is a vivid neo-noir set in 1969 at a fictional hotel split by the state line between Nevada and California. Seven strangers including British actor Cynthia Erivo (on sizzling form as a down-on-her-luck soul singer), Jeff Bridges and Chris Hemsworth share a wild night in the eponymous accommodation where no one is quite what they seem.
Having written for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lost early in his career, Goddard went on to create the Daredevil TV series and pen the screenplays for Cloverfield and The Martian. He’s directed episodes of The Good Place and his acclaimed feature debut The Cabin in the Woods. Here Goddard explains how he journeyed to the heart of ’60s darkness and reveals the events and music that helped him get there.
LWLies: Thematically and tonally, Bad Times at the El Royale is about the death of the ’60s. What attracted you to the era and subject matter?
Goddard: I’ve always had a fascination with the ’60s. I think it started with a love of the art that came out of that time period. As I started studying that art in a real way I started realising that the art came as a reaction to the times. The turbulence of the ’60s gave birth to this extraordinary output in cinema and in music and that led me to think, ‘What caused it?’.
I set the movie in 1969 because it was a real pivot point. The country just watched John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy all get shot within a five-year period. Think about that right now. In five years they watched three of their top leaders get assassinated. On television, live, right before their eyes. That has such a profound effect on a people’s psyche and I wanted to explore that. I wanted to let that be the background to this movie because that change from watching those guys get killed to Nixon taking over – and everything that brought with it – has always been a fascinating time period.
Can you give any specifics about art you loved from the ’60s?
It sounds clichéd but the revolution started with the Beatles, it started with the Stones. This movie, at its core, is about a love for music and about my love of music as a weapon. I feel like this movie is a movie that deals with violence and reactions to violence and one of the ways that characters in this movie deal with violence is through art. They try to create art in the midst of the violence and so for me the songs in the movie sort of reflect my favourite songs of the time period. That’s the best part of being a director. You can just pick songs that are your favourite and everyone has to listen to you.
Was there a particular reason why the classic soul music was used so prominently?
I think because of the violence in the film I needed a light in the middle of the darkness to tether myself to. In dark times I find myself falling back on art. This is a movie with love for the artist, that values the artist and values the act of making art even when art is not necessarily wanted in those particular times – even if it is very much needed. Darlene’s struggle as an artist is very much at the core of this film.
Were there any cinematic influences from the ’60s that helped you on your way?
From the ’60s, specifically? Blow-Up. All directors, sooner or later, seem to come back to Blow-Up, don’t they? It’s an extraordinary film. There’s a reason that it resonates so much with filmmakers in particular. I think there’s a revolutionary quality to it. This idea of the voyeur, the darkness set among the bright colours and the seductiveness of the ’60s. That is definitely a film that I come back to time and time again. It is a film that evolves and you get to evolve with it as you watch it.
Voyeurism, surveillance and paranoia are strong themes in both this film and in The Cabin in the Woods. Is there any reason why?
There must be, right? But it’s not like I set out to intentionally to explore those things, they just sort of happen organically and I dive in. I see it in The Martian as well. It’s a voyeuristic film. There must be a reason I come back to it time and time again. I think there’s something inherently cinematic about it. I think there’s something when we, as an audience, are watching a film, we are voyeurs. We are getting a chance to watch these people when they do not know they are being watched and I think there’s something very powerful about it.
I think at its core, it is about empathy. I think I became a writer because I enjoying empathising with other people. I enjoy trying on other people’s clothes and seeing where it takes me. I think those things all go together the voyeurism and the empathy they’re two sides of the same coin.
How does the film relate to current times?
That’s more a question for the audience. For me, I certainly write about the times I’m in. That’s been true of every film I’ve made. When we were making Cloverfield it was not long after 9/11. The Cabin in the Woods and The Martian were made at the height of the Obama years. And now Bad Times is very much about 2016-2018. That was when I was making the movie and that always seeps into my work, the period I’m living in. I suppose I’ll leave it to the audience how it applies but it was certainly on my mind while I was making it.
Bad Times at the El Royale is released 12 October. Read the LWLies Recommends review.
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