Bad Times at the El Royale is perhaps one of the most soulful movies of the fall season -- a super stylistic crime drama fueled by soul music about strangers who show up at a rundown motel all searching for something or someone. As their paths begin to cross and their stories intertwine, we're left with a refreshingly unique film that produces shades of Quentin Tarantino, the Coen brothers and even classic noirs like 1974's Chinatown.
Fandango sat down for a lengthy chat with the film's writer-director, Drew Goddard, who is one of the more exciting emerging voices in Hollywood right now. As a writer on films like Cloverfield, The Cabin in the Woods and The Martian, he has managed to leap across genres while telling engaging and successful stories that are mostly original. That continues with El Royale, a completely original story that was inspired by some very real places.
Below, we talk about the film's stars, its music, its shirtless Chris Hemsworth and just how difficult -- or easy -- it is to write and direct an original movie for a major studio.
Fandango: What’s so refreshing about Bad Times at the El Royale is that it’s a completely original story and not based on some pre-existing property. Is that a hard thing to pull off these days in Hollywood?
Drew Goddard: You know, the truth is, I think all movies are hard. I think every movie has its own challenges and there's so many reasons not to do something. There's so many reasons that you can find to say no that I think a lot of those people just don't do them.
Every single movie that I've done has seemed like a bad idea at the time. When we were doing Cloverfield, everyone was like, “I'm sorry, you're going to do what? That sounds insane.”
When we were doing Cabin in the Woods, it was like, 'that sounds crazy.' Even The Martian, which seems like a no-brainer now, but at the time it was like, 'this is not the sort of thing studios are ever going to want to make' and I've just learned not to worry about it. Honestly, it doesn't, because if I worried about it, I would never get anything done, and I just sort of keep my head down and write about what I want to watch and hope for the best.
Fandango: The motel featured in the film is based on a real motel. Other than the fact that the Nevada/California state line runs through it, what else did you take from the real story as inspiration for this fictional story?
Drew Goddard: You know, not much. I decided very early on that I wanted this hotel, the El Royale, to have its own character and become its own place. I really love when movies transport you to worlds you've never seen or never lived in, and I wanted this to become its own, so there was a few hotels that served as inspiration. There was also a lot of voyeuristic hotels where people were, for lack of a better word, doing perverted things and that sounds fascinating, and I took the best little bits from all of that and poured it all into the El Royale.
Fandango: What was the idea that sparked the film? Do you come across some crazy hotel and think it was a great framing device for a film, or is it a character’s story that serves as the inspiration?
Drew Goddard: The weird thing about ideas is that it's never a bolt of lightning -- it's always a bunch of little ideas that sort of start to accumulate and snowball. I think, in it's earliest incarnation, it really started with a love of crime cinema and crime fiction, and wanting to deal with a genre that I hadn't dealt with before, because I think I was coming off The Martian, which is sort of the opposite of the film in some ways. Where that was a big epic science fiction film full of multiple locations around the universe, and I wanted to kind of go in the opposite direction to something smaller -- a big ensemble cast, just get a lot of meaty characters in a room and let them start throwing punches at each other.
Fandango: Soul music is very present in this story about people trying to rescue their own souls. How much did the music influence the story and, ultimately, the movie as a whole?
Drew Goddard: The music was everything. I actually think I started with the music before I started with the plot.
Drew Goddard: Yeah, I started just immersing myself in the music and letting the music sort of dictate the emotions of the film. The thing I love particularly about soul music in the sixties is you have the incredibly infectious, catchy tunes that lead you to bop your head at anytime, and yet when you stop and listen to the lyrics, they're heartbreaking. They're heartbreaking and lonely and painful. Those two things -- that sort of infectious melody combined with the heartbreaking loneliness -- very much felt appropriate for this movie.
Fandango: Do you have a personal favorite?
Drew Goddard: It's really, I mean, it's not an accident that I will say that Darlene, one of the key moments of this film is [when she sings], “You Can’t Hurry Love.” Because I think that that song, and the message of that song, and the arrangement of that song, is perfect. And it's a song that can bring me to tears anytime, because it is so extraordinary.
Fandango: Cynthia Erivo is kind of a revelation in this film. And she can belt tunes!
Drew Goddard: Yes! With Darlene, the way that her character was designed, was that she never shows her emotions. She's so armored because of the damage that has been done to her in this world that she did not give her emotions freely to anyone. And the only time -- at least for the first two thirds of the film -- the only time her emotions come out is during song. So I needed someone who could both sing, but also perform, like her soulfulness is coming out in the performance of the song. I needed a dual threat, someone who was an extraordinary actress and an extraordinary singer. Thank god Cynthia walked through the door, because if she hadn’t, I'm not sure I would've been able to make this movie.
Fandango: Jeff Bridges' character is named Father Daniel Flynn. Any relation to Bridget's Kevin Flynn, from the TRON movies?
Drew Goddard: [laughs] It was not intentional! I remember when I cast him, I thought, oh boy, we should probably change that name, and I talked to Jeff and he laughed. Then we realized that over his multi-decade career, basically anything is going to seem like it's a reference to something else, so we decided just not to worry about it.
Fandango: How was it working with him?
Drew Goddard: There are not enough superlatives to talk about Jeff Bridges. He is everything you want Jeff Bridges to be. He is an extraordinary talent, obviously, but he's also the type of talent that lifts and nurtures everyone else around him. He is always conscious of his other actors, and he's always conscious of the crew. He is the first person and the last person to leave, at times because he's just so dedicated to his craft. I have to say all of us who had never worked with Jeff before came away better people for having been around him.
Fandango: You know, this may be the first movie where Chris Hemsworth being shirtless actually plays into the type of character he is, instead of him being shirtless for the sake of being shirtless.
Drew Goddard: It’s funny, we talked a lot about that because I think he did not want it to be fetishistic. [With his character], that was the point. Chris sort of played the embodiment of toxic masculinity. So much of that character is about invading your space, and there's so many ways you can invade a person's space. You could actually could do it by what you're forcing them to look at, you can do it by where you're standing, you can do it with your words, and how you're attacking, and every choice we made with Chris came down to that.
How can he be aggressively invading your space? And so the shirtless [aspect] was very much designed to be an aggressive act. And Chris was so game to do it. I think he understood, inherently, what we trying to do, and how in many ways we were deconstructing the very thing that he has done before in movies.
Fandango: When you're prepping for this movie are you watching anything? Did you give the cast any movies to watch?
Drew Goddard: Yeah, it's one of the fun parts of the job. I was just more comfortable this time around to be like, “Let's do all the fun things that I hear about! Let's get weekly screenings together, and just watch movies together, the cast and crew, and talk about movies." It's not even about a love of cinema – I just wanted us to immerse ourselves in stuff. So we watched Out of the Past, which is my favorite film of all time. We watched Blow-Up, we watched Chinatown, we watched Pickup on South Street, the Sam Fuller film, which was a huge influence on this movie. We watched Barton Fink – I mean, we could’ve watched every since film that Joel and Ethan [Coen] have ever made because they are a preeminent influence on me, I have to say. It was really fun and really rewarding just to get everyone together and talk about movies.
Fandango: You’ve jumped around to all different kinds of genres throughout your career, so what haven’t you tackled yet that you have an itch to try out?
Drew Goddard: A musical, maybe. A romance. I would like to do a straight-up romance. I think that might be a fun space to explore. I'm very fortunate. I've really got to play around with a bunch of different genres in my career, and I'm starting to run out of new ones… but I'm sure I'll come up with something.
Bad Times at the El Royale is in theaters now. You can snag tickets right here on Fandango.