In the script The Cellar, a girl struggles to learn the truth after waking injured up in a man’s fallout shelter, only to have him tell her the world has ended. Josh Campbell & Matt Stuecken pen the original draft which sees many changes before it becomes the 10 Cloverfield Lane we all know today. The Cellar was included on The Tracking Board’s “The Hit List” of 2012, a list of spec scripts written that year which impressed the voting members. That year, Paramount purchased the script and handed to Bad Robot— one of their development arms for micro-budget filmmaking spearheaded by J.J. Abrams. Bad Robot codenamed the project “Valencia” and Damien Chazelle was brought in to perform a rewrite and direct— only to drop out of directing once Whiplash received funding. Another draft was written by Dan Casey once the film’s director Dan Trachtenberg signed on. During production, the filmmakers noticed narrative similarities to Bad Robot’s 2008 film Cloverfield and decided to make the film a spiritual successor/anthology film. Star Elizabeth Winstead said the rewrites during production were “nothing… major.”
The film’s title and trailer debuted in January of 2016, only two months before the cited release of the movie. This was the first time anyone was publicly aware of it being a Cloverfield film, the cast having found out only days before. Like the original Cloverfield, a viral marketing campaign was used to reveal backstory information and help tie the film into the larger narrative world. Many of the changes by the later writers seem to have been for the better as the film boasts a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes and brought new meaning towards what a Cloverfield film could be. Released in March of 2016 with a purported budget of only $5 million, 10 Cloverfield Lane grossed $72.1 million domestically and $38.1 million internationally, for a worldwide gross of $110.2 million. Through the Scriptonomics analytics, we can see many of the reasons changes needed to be made—changes which turned the film into the critical and financial success it was.
The vast majority (88.6%) of the script takes place indoors, primarily even the same location—the titular Cellar. Even during the few times the characters venture outside, they typically return to an indoor location like the Farmhouse. There are four characters in the screenplay, with several extras and such needed for the party scene—although this was omitted for the film. The action and dialogue percentages are what you’d expect for a sci-fi thriller, with 67.1% of the screenplay delegated to action writing and 32.9% of it being dialogue. The analytics site the significant scenes as 50-54, 1-6, 125-131, and 114-122. These are right with the majority of the scenes being big story revelations or action beats.
As a mentioned before, thrillers and particularly sci-fi films are known for preferencing action over dialogue yet this film manages to strike a decent balance. When action peaks, dialogue often peaks alongside it. I feel this points to one of the scripts main strengths, its ability to heighten tension through dialogue. Many of the films mysteries are introduced and resolved through dialogue. And while this could cause the script to suffer from exposition heavy moments, the writers successfully manage to orchestrate these reveals without them feeling like exposition dumps. Instead, we get pieces of information which not only further Michelle’s confusion, but our own. We are stuck in Michelle’s shoes, without any further information. Any action beats are often surrounded by discourse, the characters battling both physically and mentally. At scene 139, what appears to be a large action scene contains a whopping 47% dialogue. Howard and Michelle may be wrestling for a weapon, but there’s also a moral debate about shooting someone.
Despite Michelle being the main character, she has only 27.7% of dialogue in this draft of the screenplay. Howard takes on the majority with 62.4%. Michelle’s dialogue completely disappears from scenes 81 to 104. On top of that, many of Michelle’s character moments are her thinking about doing something only to back out. As a result, Michelle becomes very reactive whereas Nate ends up doing a lot of the work. Another difference between the script and the finished film is the change from Michelle being an 18-year-old to someone in her mid-20’s. This makes it all the more unsettling when Howard talks about her as a surrogate daughter but when he seems to be jealous of her and Nate’s relationship.
Dialogue Breakdown by Character:
Characters by Number of Appearances:
Because much of the film was set indoors in a singular location— albeit with several rooms, the budget was able to remain very inexpensive. Even though the rewrites further cemented the film as a sci-fi story, with a CGI heavy alien appearance at the end, the studio was able to spare the expense because everything else was so cheap. To further warrant the CGI spending, moments where the cast exited the bunker earlier were omitted and placed within the bunker. Other moments, like the flashbacks at the party with other actors were also nixed to keep the budget down. These scenes also served little purpose to the narrative. The filmmakers noticed that the script really only had 3 major characters, and made Nate’s role even more substantial to make spending on the third actor worthwhile. The tension largely comes down to the confined nature of the story and the actor’s performances, not the action or CGI one may expect from a sci-fi film.
In both later drafts and the transition towards becoming 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Cellar improves upon its strengths while cutting back its weaknesses. By removing unnecessary characters and keeping exterior locations to a minimum to heighten the tension, the film becomes a taught and gripping story. Improvements to Michelle’s character by giving her more to say and do go a long way towards her own character’s believability. While many cite their only issue with the final film being the seemingly tacked on Alien attack, through the Scriptonomics analytics and through reading this draft I can even find a solution to this issue. If some of the scenes where characters venture outside had been kept, these could have been used as a way to further tease out the possibility of an alien invasion—making their appearance at the end far less jarring.