Writing Your Cabin in the Woods
by Joe Gruberman
I think that everyone should write a “cabin in the woods” script. It’s a good exercise and serves the greater purpose of forcing you to write within constraints. To qualify my statement, not every cabin in the woods is a haven to slashers and demons. Rather, these are situations where the entire story unfolds, beginning to end, in a single location.
Every script exists within a world. That world is defined by what goes on within the script. Consider the gross example of WATERWORLD, which starred Kevin Costner. A good deal of the action takes place onboard the Mariner’s barely seaworthy trimaran, and among the tiny atolls that make up the communities that have survived the melting of the polar ice caps. But, out of necessity, the “world” needs to be the whole entire Earth, because nothing less figures into the plot of the movie. It’s not surprising that this was the most expensive movie ever made (at the time), while having one of the thinnest plots for its scope.
Contrast that with LOCKE. Tom Hardy’s Ivan Locke is the only character that appears on screen, almost all of that time driving at night while negotiating a life-or-death situation with faceless voices on his BMW’s speakerphone. The world of LOCKE is totally inside that vehicle. Intentionally, we have no view into anything else that’s going on and are left to our imaginations, as is Ivan Locke, to imagine the worst.
In both cases, the cast of characters can be narrowed down to just a few, or even just one. The closer the environment, the fewer individuals that can comfortably fit into it. Colin Farrell’s PHONE BOOTH was big enough for exactly one. Luckily, it was almost entirely glass, letting several square blocks of New York City share the spotlight. Simplistically speaking, PHONE BOOTH took place inside and outside the title character.
Speaking of which, it’s almost inevitable that when you limit your locations to just one, the location itself becomes a character. As it should. You interact with it as you would a friend, an enemy, or merely a helpless bystander that, as in PHONE BOOTH and LOCKE, becomes an unwitting accomplice to your protagonist’s imprisonment.
In developing your Cabin In The Woods script, don’t limit yourself to four walls and a door. All locations (that I can think of) have an inside (INT.) and an outside (EXT.). There are rooms and closets and windows; chimney, basement and attic; every picture hanging on the walls; every ringing phone and flickering lightbulb and ticking clock; every creaking loose board; every whistling gap in the wall joints. These can be active participants in your story, if you have the good sense to use them.
And every bed has something under it, waiting to be discovered. The element of surprise has no greater effect than when you think you know the environment. In ALL IS LOST, Robert Redford’s weather-worn seafarer, appears to have everything he needs to get him through a temporary setback after his sailboat collides with a stray shipping container. (He even has some new, high tech gadgets he has not yet even unboxed.) But every good screenwriter knows that once you chase the hero up a tree, you start throwing rocks at him. And you don’t stop. Every rock is a new surprise.
In ARTIC, Mads Mikkelsen plays the lone survivor of a plane crash, who must leave the protection of the plane’s fuselage to find help. You might think that the plane wreckage is the single location — the cabin in the woods. But no. It’s only the vehicle that’s used to deposit Overgård into the desolate landscape that is so vast, yet so confining and uniformly impenetrable. It might as well be a stone mausoleum. But even an arctic tundra has its nooks and crannies.
I think that one of the very best examples of the creative Cabin In The Woods would be THE OTHERS. Nicole Kidman is a distraught and overprotective mother of two children. She shuts herself and her children into their home, barely venturing out into the garden. A permanent shroud of fog surrounds the house like a near-impenetrable wall. The world outside of this house is totally unknown, nor need one exist. It would not be a spoiler to mention here that the element of time further extends the boundaries of the home. THE OTHERS has all of the elements I’ve already mentioned and is one of my favorite scripts.
- Don’t limit yourself, even as you intentionally do exactly that. Look for the nooks and crannies. And the secrets lurking behind every corner.
- Don’t neglect action. Constant, purposeful movement helps refresh the picture in our minds as we read your script.
- Outlining becomes most important. If you fail to outline, you’ll miss opportunities to add texture to the story. Here is where you develop your twists and turns.
- Write for an A-lister. Make the protagonist so dynamic, flaws and all, that A-list actors will clamour to play the lead.
That’s enough talk! Now get to writing!
About Joe Gruberman:
Joe Gruberman is an Arizona-based writer, educator, and award-winning multimedia producer. His latest two films, ELEVEN ELEVEN and RAISING BUCHANAN, are available on most streaming platforms.