Screenwriting is a messy, murky process. That’s evident when you take a closer look at the making of 10 Cloverfield Lane, which had three credited writers, and perhaps one or more that went uncredited. It sounds like a lot of cooks in the kitchen, but this is not unusual. For audiences, it’s often easier to assign authorship to one person, like the director, or a big marketable name like producer J.J. Abrams. But in reality, authorship lies somewhere in the murk.
The screenwriters (the credited ones, anyway) responsible for bringing this film into the world are Josh Campbell & Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle. The ampersand (&) denotes a writing team, so Campbell and Stuecken were partnered up when they wrote the first drafts of what was then called The Cellar. Damien Chazelle, writer and director of the drummer drama Whiplash, was hired to re-write that script. He would’ve been given specific notes from the film’s producers and director Dan Trachtenberg, bringing the project closer to their visions of the film. The differences between The Cellar and the final film are significant, though the structure of the earlier version is largely intact. How did the story change? Read on to find out, but beware of MASSIVE SPOILERS.
The film’s opening, in which Michelle leaves her engagement ring behind and drives out of New Orleans, is not present in The Cellar. Instead, it opens with the impact of Michelle’s car crash, written in quick flashes. Then, we cut to the inside of the concrete bedroom, where Michelle is recovering.
In this early draft, Michelle is 18 years old, very naive, and not nearly as resourceful as she is in the film. Her talent and passion for clothing design is absent, as is her monologue about wanting to intervene between the abusive father and his daughter. The rewrites offered a clear improvement, deepening Michelle’s characterization.
When she wakes up, Michelle is not initially chained. But in the film, the addition of the chain on her knee allowed for more suspense and conflict when she reaches for her cell phone using the IV stand. This extended sequence, presumably added by Damien Chazelle, also emphasized Michelle’s resourcefulness.
In the early draft, when Michelle sleeps, we get occasional flashbacks to the night of the crash. We learn that she was at a house party with dozens of college students. In the basement, Michelle is seen arguing with her boyfriend, Patrick, who’s been caught cheating. Ticked off and drunk, Michelle gets in her car and leaves the party. This backstory was replaced by the nearly dialogue-free opening sequence in the film.
In the film, Michelle lights a fire in her air duct. While that is missing from the early draft, she does block an air duct with a pillow, straining the ventilation system, and later causing it to fail.
Howard, played in the film by John Goodman, was substantially re-written. In The Cellar, Howard is much more of a mystery. He’s very ambiguous on the page, and it’s not easy to tell if he’s good or bad. Initially, he’s much gentler and nicer around Michelle. Howard only acts hostile when she begins to deceive him and threaten the safety of his fallout shelter. But at first, he doesn’t want her to fear him . . . or so it would appear. For instance, when she asks for privacy in the bathroom, he walks away without an argument. In the film, he won’t let her have the privacy she wants.
Howard claimed to be a veterinarian in the original draft, and says his daughter is in Washington, DC.
While still a villain, Howard is a much more tragic figure in The Cellar. The shelter has an enormous wine rack, stocked with all sorts of wines. While he allows others to drink his wine, he initially refuses alcohol, implying that he is a recovering alcoholic. Later, he drinks to excess.
Near the climax of the original story, Howard confesses to Michelle that three years prior, he and his wife were driving home after a party, and Howard was drunk (echoing Michelle’s brief backstory). He hit a tree, and his wife did not survive the crash. In the ensuing court case, Nate (see below) testified against Howard. Howard was declared an unfit father, and his daughter was taken away to D.C. by his in-laws. Most of this is missing from the final film, which helps turn Howard into more of a monster.
In 10 Cloverfield Lane, the alcoholism aspect and wine rack are gone. Howard says his wife left him and got sole custody of their daughter. It’s implied that he abducted and imprisoned Brittney in an attempt to “replace” his missing daughter, and that his intentions for Michelle are the same.
In the film, Howard meets his demise when Michelle dumps a barrel of acid on him and escapes from the burning shelter. She then finds out the bizarre truth about the world outside, and has to escape from the clutches of vicious alien creatures. This is totally absent from Campbell and Stuecken’s draft. Instead, Michelle and Howard face off in Howard’s farmhouse, where she shoots him. She then escapes his farm in a pickup truck to find that the roads are empty, the gas stations are dark and vacant, and Chicago has been utterly decimated. Roll credits.
Before rewrites, Emmett (played by John Gallagher, Jr.) was called Nate.
In the film, Emmett is already in the underground shelter when Michelle wakes. In The Cellar, Nate does not appear until page 30, arriving from outside. He’s wearing a hazmat suit, which is used later in the film. Nate’s arrival serves as further evidence that the outside air is indeed contaminated. This moment, albeit heavily modified, still exists in the film, when Michelle sees a heavily scarred woman pounding on the shelter’s exterior door.
In the original draft, it’s not apparent until the climax if the outside air is actually contaminated, or if Howard and Nate are conspiring against Michelle.
In The Cellar, Nate just disappears one day. Howard claims that he’s left the shelter. We don’t find out that Howard shot him until Michelle escapes in the third act of the film, when she sees Nate’s body outside. In the film, however, Howard shoots Emmett point blank, right in front of Michelle. She later sees his remains in a large plastic bin. Urgh.
In the film, having Emmett in the shelter to begin with helps conceal the alien secret, and solidifies the bond between him and Michelle. They are allies and confidants. But in the earlier draft, Michelle and Nate begin a sexual relationship. This was completely written out of 10 Cloverfield Lane, although hints of chemistry remain between the two characters.
Some other large differences are present in the earlier draft. For instance, Campbell and Stuecken wrote their draft with an R rating in mind, so you’ll find quite a bit more profanity and a bit of sex in The Cellar. Also, the story was originally intended to take place near Kenosha, WI. Now it takes place in Louisiana, likely because it’s inexpensive to shoot there.
Overall, the rewrites that helped shape The Cellar into 10 Cloverfield Lane are huge improvements. That’s not to say that The Cellar is bad — J.J. Abrams and his crew at Bad Robot clearly saw promise in this little indie screenplay, and much of its structure remains intact on the screen today. That’s worth something. And if Bad Robot is looking to make an anthology of low and mid-budget genre films to market as Cloverfield movies, then that’s a great thing for genre screenwriters like Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken.