Bad Times at the El Royale – A passion project for writer-director Drew Goddard

“I wanted to explore this idea that one night in one hotel can change everyone’s life, says writer-director Drew Goddard of the zany  Bad Times at the El Royale, “It was very much the definition of a passion project.”

“I wrote it for myself. I’d been working on a lot of big-budget films, things that had a lot of pre-vis and complicated visual effects, and I was complaining to my wife one night. I said, ‘I’m so tired of this. My next movie is just going to be a bunch of actors in a room talking.’ At first, I was joking, but limitations can be good for a writer. So I challenged myself to create a construct where you have several people in a confined space. How do you make that interesting? How do you turn the story even though most of it takes place in the same location? How do you change that location over the course of one night? All these questions make it hard but really fun to write. And also I just love hotels. I love how they are this place where people come together for a very brief period of time and have these encounters. I wanted to explore this idea that one night in one hotel can change everyone’s life.”

Drew Goddard

It’s January 1969. Richard Nixon has been inaugurated as the 37th president of the United States. A new decade beckons. And seven very different but equally lost souls converge on the El Royale, a once-glorious resort that has since fallen—like its visitors—into disrepute.

Situated on the border between California and Nevada, the El Royale offers warmth and sunshine to the west; hope and opportunity to the east. It also straddles the colliding worlds of past and present. Once the hotspot of Tahoe, where the country’s most famous celebrities and politicians comingled in and around the resort’s casino, bar, bungalows and pool, the good times have now come to a close.

As is the El Royale.  Now, in the resort’s lobby where the shine has faded and the laughter fallen silent, gather Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), soul singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), traveling salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm), hippie Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), her sister Rose (Cailee Spaeny), manager Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman) and the enigmatic Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth).

Over the course of one fateful night, everyone will have a last shot at redemption… before everything goes to hell.

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“There’s that adage in screenwriting,” adds Goddard, “just write what you want to see. So I locked myself in a hotel room and wrote the movie I wanted to see. It started from my love of film noir, crime fiction, and classic ensemble movies where you don’t quite know who the protagonist is, and you get to see a bunch of movie stars in a limited space. And then I convinced Fox to let me make that movie, and here we are.”

Goddard set the film in the 1960s, the perfect era for a film that peels back the layers of both its action and characters. “In the ‘60s there was a spirit of sexiness, of warmth and celebration,” says Goddard, “but beneath the surface there was paranoia. There was surveillance happening beneath the glitz and glamour.”

“The El Royale is not a place that exists,” says production designer Martin Whist. “It’s not a reproduction. It’s not even accurate. But it’s still very rooted. You believe this place. It’s comfortable. But at the same time, it’s now oversized, because it was built for a lot of people but now there’s only a handful in here at any time. So it’s got a Western kind of framing. One person here, another way over there, yet another farther still, and you can see each one. There’s almost an exterior geography to this interior. So there is an eerie, lonely, left-behind sense in here. It tricks you, basically.”

The quirky California-Nevada border split creates a metaphor that runs throughout the film. “Warmth and sunshine to the west; hope and opportunity to the east,” explains Goddard. “California is warmth and sunshine that beckons people like a siren call. It is a place you walk towards. Nevada is very much about changing your life, the idea that you can walk into a casino and walk out a different person. It’s that promise of hope combined with the frontier element of Nevada, which began as an outlaw state and slowly became this beacon of capitalism.”

Dream Cast

“I wanted to work with my dream cast,” says writer-director Drew Goddard, “so I knew I had to create a document that would attract them. I had moments where I would look at Jeff and Cynthia and Chris, Jon, Dakota, just sit and look at all these heavyweights and think, how did I get here? I don’t understand how I got to be so lucky. It was never lost on me how special it was.”

Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo in Bad Times at the El Royale

The feeling, says Jeff Bridges, was mutual. “Drew Goddard, what a wonderful director and writer. My favorite directors to work with are the ones who set a really loose, loving vibe on the set. And Drew certainly did that. You very much felt the spirit of collaboration, gentleness, a lot of kindness, that made everybody relax. And when you’re relaxed, your best work comes out, you’re up for exploring different ways of doing things. It was very encouraging to hear him say ‘What are your ideas?  How do you see this?’ I loved working with him. He’s now one of my favorites.”

“As a kid growing up,” says Jon Hamm, “we traveled almost everywhere by car. I lived in Missouri, right in the middle of the country, so it was easy to get anywhere, but air travel was very fancy and pricey, so we just piled into the car and went to Florida. We went to Utah. Down to Texas, up to Wisconsin. Chicago. I remember staying in a lot of motels just like the El Royale, and it was exciting. It was an adventure. You don’t really get the seamy underside of it as a little kid. It just seems like a fun, new place to go, with hopefully a pool.”

For Hamm, the script brought up fond memories, but for fellow cast member Lewis Pullman, he was actually in such a resort when he got the call. “I’d done an audition,” says Pullman, “but it was just a monologue at first, so I had no idea what the movie was about. Then Drew sent me the script on a crazy FBI-grade security thing. I was actually on a road trip up the California coast with my sister, and we were staying at this lodge that was surrounded by redwoods and was past its prime; it was the perfect place to absorb the script. The script is phenomenal. I had never read anything like it. I didn’t know what to compare it to. It’s awesome.”

“Awesome” is also how Jeff Bridges would describe the story. “Every once in a while I read a script and say, ‘Wow, this is nothing I’ve ever seen before. This is the kind of movie I’d like to see.’ And then to find out that the writer, Drew Goddard, was also directing it, that was a big plus.” For Bridges, “One of the wonderful surprises—because it is rare that something like this is attempted—is that some takes go on for 10 minutes. That really gives the actors a chance to immerse themselves in the scene. It gives all the actors a chance to show their stuff. And it draws the audience in, in the most beautiful way when the camera isn’t cutting so much.”

For newcomer Cailee Spaeny, who plays Rose, the fifth guest at the El Royale that night, the complexity of the script and her role was at first daunting. “This was something that I’d never done before and I didn’t know if I could do it. But then I met Drew, and he’s just the most genuine, kindest man you’ll ever meet.”

Chris Hemsworth had worked with Goddard before and was already a huge fan, but even so, says Hemsworth, the script “is one of the best things I’ve ever read. It is fresh, unique, full of drama and sinister humor, complex and layered. The chaos just builds and builds and becomes this house of cards that all goes very pear-shaped. It’s wildly unpredictable and intense.”

As, of course, is his character. “I didn’t think I’d have that much fun,” laughs Hemsworth. “I’ve spent a lot of my career playing the hero, and there are certain rules that they have to stick by, and so it becomes predictable. So to be able to be unpredictable, to keep the audience guessing, was surprisingly enjoyable.”

Filming El Royale also brought Cailee Spaeny a new friend and mentor in Dakota Johnson. “Cailee is a magnificent little creature,” raves Johnson. “She’s an amazing actress, and she’s so beautifully complex and intelligent. We became close, and I love her. It’s really special when something like that happens. I haven’t experienced that very often on set where you truly bond with a person, and it continues off set. She’s deeply talented, and I think she has the whole world ahead of her if she wants it.”

Perhaps, though, the biggest surprise was reserved for Cynthia Erivo, who plays Darlene. “We couldn’t have the script, we only had sides, so I didn’t realize just how big the role was,” says Erivo. “I just knew I had to sing, so I put myself on tape thinking it was likely a small role that would be really awesome. Then I had a wonderful workshop with Drew and Carmen [Cuba], the casting director, and I remember leaving the room thinking, whoever gets to do this is going to have a really great time. Later, when we were working through the contract, I was like, ‘Well, that’s very nice. It’s very generous of them. Why would they do something like that for me?’ And my agent didn’t say anything. So I said, ‘This is a bigger role than I think it is, isn’t it?’ ‘Yes, Cynthia,’ he replied. ‘Yes, it is.’ It was such a surprise. I wish someone had filmed it, because I was genuinely, completely oblivious to the fact that Darlene is the lead.”

El Royale was also shot on film instead of digital. “When I was writing this movie, I realized it needed to be shot on film,” recalls writer-director Drew Goddard. “There is a legitimate financial reason to shoot digital, and I understand that, and yet I also felt this movie was about film as much as about anything—the idea of how we remember things, how we capture things, and how images have meaning even long after the image has been taken—and so there was an emotional reason for me to shoot on film. I wanted to see the grain. I wanted to see the happy surprises that can happen on film that just don’t happen when you’re shooting digitally.” Luckily for Goddard, his choice for cinematographer, the “fearless” Seamus McGarvey, was of the same mind. “We were very much on the same page about how this one should be done.”

But why anamorphic? “Bad Times at the El Royale was designed to play in theaters,” Goddard explains. “We shot it anamorphic and on film for that reason. I love movie theaters. I love the communal experience. When you hear a stranger sitting next to you laugh at the same thing that you’re laughing at, there’s a connection that is made that you can’t replicate in your living room. I wanted to shoot anamorphic to really take advantage of the frame size. When you have this many actors, you need a wide frame to capture them all. I looked at a lot of Sergio Leone films, the way he expanded the size of the frame so that he could get all his actors in frame and still do them justice. It’s not an easy task, quite frankly, when you have one space and seven actors all on screen at the same time, so anamorphic was very important to me.”

Drew Goddard (Writer, Director, Producer) has a talent for creating strong characters in genre material. Prior to Bad Times at the El Royale, Goddard wrote and executive produced the critically acclaimed box office hit The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott, earning Goddard Oscar and WGA nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay. Goddard serves as an executive producer and director for the new NBC comedy The Good Place, and is also the creator and executive producer of the hit Netflix series Daredevil. Both series are in their third seasons. Previously, Goddard wrote the groundbreaking “found footage” feature Cloverfield and co-wrote the hit zombie film World War Z. Goddard made his directorial debut with the 2012 cult hit The Cabin in the Woods, which was produced and co-written by frequent collaborator Joss Whedon. Goddard got his start on the hit television shows Lost, Alias, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. He earned a WGA Award and Emmy Award nomination as an executive producer on Lost and a prestigious Hugo Award alongside Jane Espenson for their Buffy script “Conversations with Dead People.”