Cloverfield – Interview with Michael Stahl-David

cloverfield8Michael, you must be so pumped about this film finally coming to theaters!

Stahl-David: I am pretty excited, it’s true.

The first time anybody saw the initial trailer, it seemed so mysterious. The movie didn’t even have an official title, they were calling it 1-18-08 (for the release date). I think the mystery around this movie has really helped in peaking interest.

Stahl-David: I so agree with you. I have had friends asking me about the movie from the minute that trailer was released in theaters and on the Internet.

Can you recall the first time you saw that trailer and how you felt?

Stahl-David: I was called in to do some additional recording so I went into this mixing stage in Los Angeles where they were putting the finishing touches on the trailer and that’s when I got to see it. I saw it with this incredible sound on the big screen and I was like, “Holy shit! This is amazing.” It made me realize right then and there, this is going to work. I had no idea when we were shooting it if the style of filming was going to work or how it was going to feel. I hoped it was going to feel real and exciting but I had no idea. None of us did.

The mystery surrounding this movie has been brilliant. Don’t you think that more people are probably more intrigued to see it because of the hype and secrecy?

Stahl-David: Absolutely. The marketing has been totally cutting edge, playful and I think also the movie is going to be somewhat controversial. A lot of people are going to love it and some people are going to hate it.

Really, why?

Stahl-David: Just because of the style and the way it was shot, but I think that makes it even more exciting. I think it’s going to be a movie people are going to talk about. It’s an experience to sit through it and it’s very intense. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s going to be fun but for some people it might be too intense. Many people will respond the opposite way and find it interesting. No matter what, people will be buzzing about it.

Here you are an up-and-coming actor and you’ve done a few smaller movie roles and you were on the TV series, The Black Donnellys. How did you get involved with Cloverfield and land the lead role?

Stahl-David: It was just another audition. I had been going out for a lot of stuff and working away at it. This one really felt good, it sat well with me. I liked the character (Rob Hawkins). I related to his vulnerability and his love for his girlfriend Beth and I liked his awkwardness too. It was easy for me to tap into his emotions and feelings. For the first audition I did a scene where I was actually behind the camera so I brought a small video recorder with me and that feeling of being behind it and kind of hiding behind the camera was very helpful.

How much did you actually know about the story when you went into this?

Stahl-David: Nothing. When I got the offer, Matt Reeves (the director) called me up and he was like, “O.K, here’s what the movie is about, you’re going away for a job, your good friends are throwing you a party, you don’t want to leave your girlfriend and then all shit breaks loose in New York City and you guys don’t know what to do.” He was talking a mile a minute for about 45 minutes. He was so psyched and excited, how could I refuse? (laughs).

Did you have to sign your life away once you committed that you wouldn’t say anything about the plot to anyone?

Stahl-David: We always knew from the beginning that it was top secret, so when we “officially” signed on, we signed a contract without seeing a script. From the beginning, we’d get these scripts that were red, and they wouldn’t let us take them home. There was one morning where I left my script somewhere by accident and didn’t know where it was —and that was not cool! As it turned out, the cleaning lady had put it in a drawer; but there was this brief intense moment where it was like, ‘You are going to go find that script!’

Yikes!!!

Stahl-David: Yeah, talk about being pretty freaked out! I can laugh about it now, but when that happened I was pretty messed up!

So the movie begins where your friends are throwing you this going away party and then havoc starts wreaking in New York City. Pretty intense, don’t think you are going to be making it to the airport!

Stahl-David: Yeah exactly! (laughs) The movie starts and you are immediately finding out what you need to know about these people in this untraditional set up. You are seeing it through a party tape, one of my friends is shooting it so it’s from his point of view, through the lens.

Was that intimidating in any way? Was it challenging acting and focusing on this small video recorder being operated by one of your fellow actors?

Stahl-David: In a way it was, but it was also very exciting. T.J. Miller, who plays my best friend Hud, is the guy and voice behind the camera. He is fantastic and a very funny guy. He was actually running around with that camera for most of the movie.

Yes, he is one of the stars of the TV sitcom Carpoolers, in which he plays Marmaduke. That guy is hilarious.

Stahl-David: Yes, but in Cloverfield he plays a very different guy but is still very funny. He’s loud and funny but not the most tactful guy, but he really cares about his friends. It’s a great element to have in the movie because it does allow for there to be some moments of humor, which I think is really important.

I’m sure you need that element of comic relief because the movie is so intense.

Stahl-David: Exactly.

Was it an intense shoot? What was the bonding process like on this set?

Stahl-David: Nothing bonds a group of people better when they are thrown into a situation where they have no idea what’s going on and what’s going to happen. We were all in the same boat, so we were all experiencing the same things all at once. We all were like, “What are we doing? What is this weird movie we have gotten ourselves mixed up in?” Everyone around us seemed to think it was weird; the way we shot it was weird, so it was kind of nice to have that in common. It wasn’t like everyone was off in their trailer doing their own things. We were constantly together trying to figure out what was going on.

Can you briefly tell me about your character Rob’s relationship with his friends?

Stahl-David: Well my character, Rob, is not a big risk-taker and he’s pretty spontaneous. Then there’s Hud, (who we just talked about), the man behind the camera. Then there’s Lizzy Caplan [who plays Marlena], who randomly gets stuck with us—she’s not in our close circle of friends … she’s the outsider you might say. Then there’s Jessica Lucas, (Lily) who is the caretaker of my brother Jason, played by Mike Vogel (last seen in Poseidon), who is a pretty wild and reckless guy. We also have Beth [Odette Yustman], who is kind of my girl friend. Our characters have been friends for a long time, but whenever I’m single, she’s been seeing somebody and vice versa. We’ve never really connected, until a few weeks before the tape begins to roll—but I’m leaving, so it was just going to end where it was.

So what ultimately challenged you making Cloverfield?

Stahl-David: The most challenging thing about the shoot was that the whole movie takes place in about six hours. Trying to figure out how to sustain the right tension for that time and plus we were shooting scenes out of order. So it felt a lot like we were flying by the seat of our pants a lot of the time not really knowing how it was all going to turn out.

Plus, here you are reacting to this monster that obviously isn’t there so you are reacting to nothing. Did you find your theater background helped you on working on something like this?

Stahl-David: Yeah, kind of. I just felt that sometimes I had to go bigger with some of my reactions. I remember for instance on one certain take I was like, “Come on guys, let’s just go stupid over the top and make fools of our selves on this one and see how that goes.” It kind of worked, because the way the camera is going it just helped to be over the top. It was always in our face so we could be a little nuts with our expressions and actions.

Now, the big question. Have you seen the completed movie yet?

Stahl-David: Yes, I just saw it on Saturday.

cloverfield20

Very cool, so who did you see it with?

Stahl-David: I saw it with 25 people who had won this Facebook contest in New Jersey. It was REALLY exciting! I mean, it’s a rush. It starts, it doesn’t stop; it’s relentless. You can’t believe some of the stuff that is happening and then it ends. Then you are like, what the &*^% was that? I’m really proud of it. I know people always say this—but I swear, it’s not like anything else you’ve ever seen. It really isn’t. I don’t think anyone else has done this handheld point of view with a catastrophe story of this magnitude. This blows Blair Witch out of the water. The special effects are awesome. It is New York going crazy and you are seeing it through this one point of view, just us trying to make it through. Woah! It’s freaking awesome!

Have you ever been that freaked out about anything in your life that you could put towards this character or situation?

Stahl-David: (laughs) I’ve been in some bad situations, but no, nothing like what goes on in the movie. So to get into the character you have to really use your imagination. Or what I found was finding a way to display control. Just trying to keep it together. How on earth would I react if something catastrophic happened, but how would I try to say calm? I found that aspect of it really challenging. You don’t process it all right away.

J.J. Abrams (creator of TV’s Lost) was the executive producer onCloverfield. How hands-on was he?

Stahl-David: Matt Reeves was the director and he was the guy who was there every day, relentlessly positive, figuring everything out. J.J. Abrams was consulting with Matt every night on the phone, watching the dailies and giving feedback constantly. His involvement was critical.

Did you get to interact with him at all?

Stahl-David: He visited the set, but he let Matt direct the movie. He would give his notes to Matt but I really think he trusted Matt with this.

Did you find that you guys had to do a lot of improvisation or did you stick to the script?

Stahl-David: There was a lot of improvisation, but a lot of times we had to do the same action over and over but make the words our own. There were a couple of times, for example the party scene and other times when we were given free range to just make something up and run with it. It was a trap when we tried to be too clever or do too much with it. It was more like trying to make it simple and try to react as if it were really happening. The story in the script was really good so we had a lot to go on.

Did you make some good friendships on this set?

Stahl-David: Yeah, I did. I haven’t seen folks in a little while because I am the only one who lives in New York. I’m really excited to see everyone. Hud (T.J. Miller) is my best friend in the film and we really hit off. We really connected. Here’s this comedian on the set of a monster movie who really didn’t know what he was doing there and he just made the set so much fun. Every chance he got, he’d go up to the guy who was filming the extras for the DVD and started filming these hilarious extra sketches. We filmed SO much extra stuff for the DVD. That was a ton of fun. For us it was a great way to keep our energy up on set too.

So, do you have a favorite scene or is there something you are particularly excited for audiences to see?

Stahl-David: Oh yeah, all I can say is watch out for the scene in the subway! It’s not a good place for us to be! (laughs)cloverfield10

So what other projects do you have in the works after this?

Stahl-David: I have a film premiering at “Slamdance” actually a week afterCloverfield opens, called The Project. The trailer is on YouTube if any one wants to check it out. It’s also this documentary style type film and then I don’t know what is next. I just hope the writer’s strike ends.

When you worked on the TV series The Black Donnellys, that had to have been a great learning experience, especially because it was brought to us by Oscar-winning Canadian Paul Haggis?

Stahl-David: Yeah, he is a very sure footed guy, very confident and very humble. However when he is on set directing he knows what he wants and is very sure of himself. It was cool working on that show, I was in the big leagues and I learned a lot from working on that series. It was gift to spend all that time on a set with these really smart people. I learned a lot from my fellow actors on that show who had worked a lot longer than me in TV and film, so overall it was a really good experience. They made me feel comfortable on the set, it’s a very strange place for a theater actor to be if you’re not used to it.

Would you like to return to the stage? Maybe tackle Broadway?

Stahl-David: Yeah sure. I am always going to be a theater actor at heart. One of my career goals is to do “Shakespeare in the Park” someday but for now I am really excited to get working on another movie. I did some off Broadway theater this past fall, so I am ready to try something different. I love live performance, but I am excited to try my hand at whatever comes my way.

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