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'Bad Times at the El Royale' writer-director Drew Goddard on an endangered species: an original movie from a Hollywood studio

Josh Rottenberg, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

LOS ANGELES -- As a screenwriter and director, Drew Goddard has racked up a virtually unbroken string of success, whether working on scripts for box-office hits like "Cloverfield," "The Martian" and "World War Z" or directing the critically acclaimed 2012 horror-satire "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 genre-busting TV series like "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 hits 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.

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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 bare-chested 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.

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