Scare Tactics Pay off for Cheltenham’s Dan Trachtenberg


Monsters are not a new phenomenon for Cheltenham native Dan Trachtenberg — or any other Jew with a passing familiarity with Jewish folklore. 


It’s the end of the world as we know it — again.


10 Cloverfield Lane retells the story of the 2008 monster thriller, Cloverfield, through a different lens — quite literally — thanks to its director, Dan Trachtenberg.


Monsters are not a new phenomenon for Trachtenberg — or any other Jew with a passing familiarity with Jewish folklore. In fact, some might argue that it is a straight shot from the Golem and dybbuks to the apocalyptic aliens destroying the world in Trachtenberg’s big screen debut.


The apocalyptic fan favorite Cloverfield documents young New Yorkers fleeing an unknown monster attack on the city, depicted through the shaky found footage of a camcorder.


The second film in the franchise is told through a more traditional point of view — that of Howard, a psychotic, violent doomsday prepper, played by John Goodman, who instills both great fear and compassion (as far as twisted psychotic individuals go) upon Michelle and Emmet, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher, Jr. 


The three characters are trapped within a highly equipped bunker to wait out the widespread, nonspecific attack.


The film hit the big screens on March 11, totaling just over $25 million in its opening weekend, according to Forbes.


10 Cloverfield Lane is a blood relative of the original, according to J.J. Abrams, who produced both films. While the sequel still follows the same monster attack, Trachtenberg put a different spin on it.


In his directorial debut, Huntingdon Valley native Trachtenberg wanted to take a more cinematic route. Instead of the iconic handheld cameras that made the first film a top-notch genre horror flick along the lines of The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, 10 Cloverfield Lane follows the main character throughout the entire film.


Trachtenberg started in the industry by directing commercials, but what caught Hollywood’s eye was his 2011 short film, Portal: No Escape, based on the popular video game series that began in 2007.


“I think the awesome thing about the original Cloverfield,” he said, “was that it was a really unique take on a familiar genre. And we are a different but unique take on a familiar genre. I think I’ve become as inspired by video games as I have by movies recently, and the first movie had this really cool first-person narrative perspective. And video games have these first-person shooters that really make you feel like you are the protagonist of the story.”


Trachtenberg, a Cheltenham High School and Temple University graduate, grew up surrounded by cinema, drawing on what he called his “movie geekdom” for inspiration.


In high school, he worked at a video store in the Willow Grove Park Mall, which is where his admiration for directors Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg began.


“I annoyed everyone I knew by talking about movies and pushing to see certain movies,” he recalled. “And certainly, I got that job at the video store not because I was old enough but because I loved movies so much — I was always trying to sell them to people.”


Rosemary’s Baby was a big influence on his Cloverfield spin, he added, because both stories are told through the main character’s point of view. There’s never a scene where the audience goes without the main character, yet there is still tension.


“It’s much more delicate to accomplish when you don’t get to have a scene where you can cut away from your main character,” he explained, “but it’s also the thing that makes it more intense — you feel like you’re experiencing it in her shoes.”


Trachtenberg said the movie is designed to make the audience feel everything the characters are feeling, especially the protagonist. By the end, he hopes, you’ve experienced it rather than just watched it.


“Even though it’s a third-person, more traditionally told narrative, it still feels subjective; it still feels like you are feeling everything that character is feeling,” he said.


Movies like The Hunt for Red October and Crimson Tide were also big influences for him, as was his upbringing.


Trachtenberg, who became a Bar Mitzvah at Old York Road Temple-Beth Am, always pondered the connections between horror flicks and his Jewishness.


“There are so many Catholic horror films like The Omen and The Exorcist — I always remember wondering if Judaism had its own bit of mysticism in it,” he questioned. “I do remember [my mother] bringing up the Golem,” he said, but if there was a Jewish influence in his work, it came to him subconsciously through his upbringing.


But if there is a more direct Jewish influence, it’s through the guidance of his parents.


Trachtenberg said they recognized his cinematic passions and allowed him to take screenwriting and directing classes every Saturday at the University of the Arts while he was in high school.


He now lives in West Hollywood, but credits his inspirations to the discovery of film in his youth.


When it comes to the horror genre as a whole, he quoted the late horror film director Wes Craven, who said, “One: Horror movies are boot camp for the soul. And two: Horror movies don’t create fear; they release it.”


“That is something that not only is a guiding force for me,” Trachtenberg continued, “but this movie is very much about the fear of the unknown, and I think that there’s something very attractive. To go see a movie like this in a world that is very overwhelming — we have all sorts of scary things that could potentially happen at any time, culturally, politically — and when you go to a movie you know that you’re going to be put through your paces, especially in something that is this intense, but know that you’re going to come out the other side of it OK. That’s always attractive to people.”


Even at 3 years old, he wanted to capture that attractiveness on film — well, a home video.


After watching a behind-the-scenes video about the sound effects on the Star Wars franchise, Trachtenberg wanted to recreate it.


He recalled the video explained how the sounds of the Millennium Falcon were actually created by the hums of a refrigerator. Of course, at such a young age, he took that to heart quite literally and decided to recreate it with kitchen appliances.


He still remembers the disappointment watching what he recreated.


“What I had done looked nothing like Star Wars,” he laughed, “and I think that I’m still trying to scratch that itch. I still have that feeling of, ‘I’m seeing something in my head and I desperately want to recreate that for people and put that on screen.’


“I think that will be the endless itch I’ll always be trying to scratch.”


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