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Solving the '10 Cloverfield Lane' mystery: How J.J. Abrams & Co. made a movie no one knew about

Exploding links and red-dyed script pages: Listening to the cast of "10 Cloverfield Lane" describe how they landed their gig rings of "this message will self-destruct" espionage work (yet another movie franchise housed in J.J. Abrams' mystery box-filled warehouse).

"Initially [the script] was sent to me by my agent, in that typical way, but it was somewhat not typical because they weren't allowed to read it, they weren't allowed to know anything about it," Mary Elizabeth Winstead, one of the three main members of the small cast, explained over the phone.

"They said, 'There's this movie, J.J. Abrams is producing it, here's what we know about it.' Which was basically nothing. 'Someone, somewhere is going to send you a script in a link that will delete itself as soon you read it.' You won't be able to keep it, you won't be able to send it to anybody. It was a very top-secret organization."

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"[John] Goodman was joking yesterday that we were sent script pages on toilet paper," director Dan Trachtenberg said.

And it paid off. Two months before the theatrical release of "10 Cloverfield Lane" on Friday, Abrams pulled off a stunt many thought impossible in this spoiler-obsessed world. He dropped a trailer for a movie that very few were aware was being made, and even fewer knew it was tied to the successful 2008 monster movie "Cloverfield" (which Abrams similarly produced but didn't direct).

True, a film with a three-person cast set mostly in an underground bunker shouldn't be terribly difficult to keep under wraps. "10 Cloverfield Lane" stars Winstead ("Scott Pilgrim vs. the World"), John Goodman ("Argo") and John Gallagher Jr. ("The Newsroom"). But add the "Cloverfield" tie-in and the Abrams factor and it's a wonder the movie-spoiler scoop-hounds of the geek Internet didn't dig up anything until that first trailer dropped in January.

In keeping with the film's extreme isolation premise, many audience members will be able to attend this film unspoiled by over-zealous marketing, blissfully unaware of the plot. Exactly as Abrams intended.

"The fun of this was to try and create as unusual a release pattern as possible because the movie's so equally unusual," Abrams said. "For a movie that's meant to be surprising and terrifying and fun, announcing it a year in advance and then giving updates six months in advance and then another update three months in advance. … It just felt like why not break the template we're all used to and make it fun for the audience? So we purposely withheld any information publicly about the movie until just a couple months before release. We're in a moment of instant information. You don't need to prepare people a year in advance to go see a movie. This was all about shaking it up and it felt like the perfect kind of movie to do that with."

One way Abrams' Bad Robot production company managed to sneak this flick under the radar was to keep the "Cloverfield" of it all to a minimum. Members of the cast didn't even know that "Cloverfield" was part of the title in initial discussions.

"It was kind of an interesting progression because when I first met on the film they kind of told me that they were wanting to do something in the spirit of 'Cloverfield,'" Winstead said. "So I knew that that was something that they were going for, it was part of the discussion. The same way that 'Cloverfield' reinvented the monster movie, we want to take this genre and really take it to a new, refreshing and interesting place. That was something that was talked about, and it was also talked about while we were shooting. The possibility of connecting it in a more set way was also talked about, but it was all kind of on the periphery. I wasn't a part of those conversations, because I didn't really need to be. But I did hear things here and there. But I still didn't know it was going to have that title."

But Trachtenberg, a commercial director making his feature debut here and who had been talking with Big Robot for some time looking for a project, has a much simpler theory: "The big secret was we just didn't talk about it."

"If you look at kind of the approach, it's taking a sort of pulp B genre fun conceit and treating it A-plus," Abrams said. "Doing it with a kind of respect for the audience and the characters that you don't necessarily always find in genre movies. That was something that I certainly think that Drew [Goddard, writer] and Matt [Reeves, director] did in the first film and certainly something that the screenwriters again did in this one." (The new screenwriters include Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken and Damien Chazelle, who was originally going to direct "10 Cloverfield Lane" but went on to film "Whiplash.")

No matter how much this film feels like its similarly named predecessor, it's not a sequel. "This is decidedly not called 'Cloverfield 2.'" Trachtenberg said. "What I love about the title is that it sounds like a 'Twilight Zone' episode. And this movie is one giant 'Twilight Zone' episode."

After the cloak and dagger of secret scripts, the cast headed to New Orleans for more isolated drama. As if to solidify the secrecy of the task they'd undertaken, the three-member cast was all but sequestered inside its prop bunker. "I think when you're filming in a place like that and you're going to the same set every day, and you very rarely see daylight because you're working such long hours, it sort of starts to bleed into reality," Winstead said. "I would lose track of what time it was or what day it was..... That was kind of surreal at times."

They were never fully cut off from the Bad Robot army. Although Abrams was off shooting another deeply secretive film, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," he was able to watch from afar. "Miraculously, somehow [Abrams] found a way to watch all of our dailies," Trachtenberg said. "I would wake up before a day of shooting to find an email from him saying, 'Great inserts, love the inserts you're getting!' After I shot the air lock scene he sent me an email that said, 'Airlock! 'Because he loved the way it looked."

But how does one keep a secret from the audience when the title itself could be perceived as a spoiler? Doesn't including this Bad Robot drama under the "Cloverfield" banner automatically show its hand to the audience? Abrams isn't worried and warned that despite what the audience may think they know about his grand plans for the Cloververse, in truth we're still in the dark.

"No one can know what a 'Cloverfield' is or isn't until they know what it is or isn't," Abrams said. "The idea of having an umbrella title that allows for all possibilities is to me incredible fun."

Twitter: @MdellW

MORE:

J.J. Abrams explains his vision for a 'Cloverfield' movie universe

J.J. Abrams says he wanted to turn the genre mash-up machine to 11 in '10 Cloverfield Lane' 

'Batman v Superman': Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill and Zack Snyder talk superhero smack down 

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 14, 2016, in the Arts + Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "The bunker mentality of `10 Cloverfield Lane' pays off" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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