SXSW Interview: Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford on ‘The Cabin in the Woods’

Bradley: "I feel like chemistry is a scene that works"

Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford star in the incredibly fun new horror film, The Cabin in the Woods.

The two play, uh…. well, I can’t really say. If I give away plot details, I may be doomed to the same fate some of the characters in the film meet. That being said, Richard and Bradley totally make the film the standout that it is and I promise you’ll love it.

In this roundtable I did with them at SXSW, they talk about shooting the film, why they don’t create a back story for their characters… ever(!) and what on-set chemistry really means.

I recommend downloading the audio interview because it’s so much better. You can hear their humor and you’ll get much more out of it. In the interview, both the audio and the one below, there are some small spoilers but nothing that will or could ruin the film for you. Promise!

The Cabin in the Woods opens April 13th. Go see it! The parts were written with you guys in mind. When you received the script, was it obvious that it was written for you guys and that you had to do this project?

Richard Jenkins: Well, no, I didn’t know that he had done that but it took me about three pages to know I wanted to do it.

Bradley Whitford: I’ve said this a bunch, but what’s miraculous about this is you have two guys who obviously are great imaginative storytellers and they look at each other and they go, “What would we write if we could write anything?” And the fact that that actually got done and that movie got made is just a f*****g miracle. [laughter]

Richard Jenkins: I just think that it was like a bet that they made. They wrote this unbelievably complicated story and then he turned to Drew and they flipped the coin and said, “Okay, you direct it.” And you know as good as the script is, the movie is better, which was amazing to see.

Bradley Whitford: I mean there’s so many ways that, really, I mean it is amazing, he’s a first-time director. Because, I mean, when you’re reading the script, when the elevator doors open, there’s a lot of stuff that comes out of there. How do you make that work? I thought the kids, the acting across the broad, which is a testament to Drew. I thought stuff, you can really screw that up, modulating that kind of ridiculous horror and remaining human is really difficult.  Most directors will f**k that up for you.

Richard Jenkins: I’ve been known to do it myself.

Bradley Whitford: I mean, it was a shock seeing it. Realizing that the original impulse was achieved with that kind of clarity.  It was amazing to me.

Your character was kind of fall in this moral gray area where you’re obviously doing heinous things to this people but it’s for the greater good.

Bradley Whitford: I think it’s like working at the Humane Society.

Richard Jenkins: That’s a great image, you know, somebody who loves animals but he has to put some to sleep. I don’t think we ever thought of ourselves as being anything but fantastic. [laughter] I mean, we’re saving the world.

Bradley Whitford: I mean they do this kind of cocky, blow hard, surgeon, fighter pilot thing. But I think that’s part of doing the most important job in the whole world.

Did you guys have a back-story at all for your characters that you may have discussed with Joss or anything?

Richard Jenkins: No, we don’t do that.

Bradley Whitford: We don’t do that.

Richard Jenkins: The way we work really is like, it’s all the clues for these guys who were in the script.

Bradley Whitford: Yeah, your job, I mean if you’re pretending you work in the White House, your job is not to know how to work in the White House.  Your job is to make scenes work.  It’s always in the acting issue more than a research issue.

Richard Jenkins: I do think that the first three or four pages of this script tells you all need to know about these two guys, their relationship, that they have been doing this for a long time. They’re friends.  It’s beautifully done and that kind of information, that’s information. All the stuff in those scenes are information that Drew and Joss said that the audience needs to know this about these guys. How do we do it?

And the way they did it is brilliant. That’s great screen writing because you don’t know that’s’ what it is. It’s just two guys having a conversation about drawer pulls and locks. It’s just incredible. When you read stuff like that, you go, “Oooo…”

Bradley Whitford: It’s funny because the back story stuff, I actually think when you’re writing, you can wonder that but back story stuff can lead to weird things like a North Carolina accent, which would just be weird.

Richard Jenkins: I didn’t think mine was too heavy.

Bradley Whitford: A limp.

Richard Jenkins: Oh, I forgot the limp! [laughter]

Can you talk about the chemistry you had to have?

Bradley Whitford: Again, I feel like chemistry is a scene that works. I didn’t want to make eye contact with Richard when the camera was off. No, it’s not that. No, it really is. That’s what chemistry is. We had a lot of fun and that’s another indication of, when you see, what I think is really good truthful acting across the board it’s because the director created a really good creative atmosphere, and that does not always happen.

When you’re reading the script, do you think how much gore is too much?  What’s going to look like at the end?

Bradley Whitford: Listen, I do.  I struggle with it. I have kids. My son who is 12 really wants to see this, probably not a great idea. I have a 14-year-old daughter and there’s creepy teenage sexualisation going on in the movie.

Richard Jenkins: And their father watching it.

Bradley Whitford: Yeah. That’s dad. Daddy’s working!

The gore, listen, yes, you worry that it’s just going to be exploitative. I remember when I saw a great movie, Pulp Fiction, and I came out and there were reporters out, it was a big deal when that movie came out. I grew up Quaker and they said, “What do you think of the movie?” I said I thought it was great but I wanted to take Quentin Tarantino and slam his pinkie in a car door just so he knows it’s not funny.  I have really mixed feelings about, “Oh his head got blown off!”

But I don’t think it’s exploited in this.  I’m totally fine with violence with consequences and I’m totally fine with what I think is a very interesting look at why people were posing the question why do we have to watch this which I think the movie achieves.

Joss was saying that part of the idea of the movie was that people are not expendable and we watch it for our entertainment.  Do you feel that that is maybe what we’re seeing now on TV and those reality shows and things like that?

Richard Jenkins: First of all, there’s nothing real about a reality show.  It’s a situation that’s amped up to create controversy.

Bradley Whitford: To bring out the worst in people.

People watch that, why?

Richard Jenkins: Yeah, they do because they say my life is better than that.  I think that’s a lot of it.

Bradley Whitford: Going back to the violence thing too, it is really fascinating that we live in a culture where you go to an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie and bodies are blown off the screen, but the definition of obscenity is the act of creation. What would be more pornographic than that image to us but yeah, we’ll do a whole movie where people’s heads get blown off.  I always joke that it’s like God came down and said, “act of creation, definition of sin. Good luck.” Good luck with that, good luck explaining that to your kids.

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