J.J. Abrams was explaining recently how he is no great fan of what he called “jump scares”: those moments in horror films that rely purely on surprise, and what is just out of view, to make you leap out of your seat.
Still, that philosophy did not stop Abrams from giving audiences a good jump scare back in January, when, without warning or fanfare, his production company, Bad Robot, and Paramount released a trailer for a previously unknown movie called “10 Cloverfield Lane.”
In brief glimpses, this trailer seemed to tell the story of a young woman (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who is either given refuge or taken captive by a fearsome survivalist (John Goodman) in the midst of what might be an apocalyptic event.
Most tantalizing about the film, which Paramount will release Friday, was its title, which marked it as a pseudo-sequel to “Cloverfield,” the hit 2008 horror movie, also produced by Abrams, which was similarly dropped on unsuspecting viewers.
While this kind of surreptitious marketing strategy has since become more common in show business, it is usually an enticement for products that are readily available on the Internet, and not coming soon to a theater near you.
Like its predecessor, “10 Cloverfield Lane” was made under several layers of mystery, as its director, Dan Trachtenberg, Abrams and their colleagues shrouded details from moviegoers and even their own actors.
For Abrams, the director of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and an aficionado of all things geeky, “10 Cloverfield Lane” is his latest modern-day throwback to the suspenseful monster movies and science-fiction TV shows he grew up with.
“When there’s a B movie that’s done as an A, that’s my favorite thing in the world,” he explained.
What connects “10 Cloverfield Lane” to the first “Cloverfield,” its creators say, is not necessarily characters or plot but tone and feeling — a desire to take the familiar elements of genre movies and reinvent them for contemporary audiences.
The new film comes with the risk that some moviegoers may be disappointed if it isn’t connected cohesively enough to the original “Cloverfield.” It is also a curious entry in a series that perhaps was never meant to be a franchise, and an unusual tactic to release a studio motion picture without the many months of advance hype they customarily receive.
Still, as Abrams argued, “In an age of reboots and sequels — which I know I am as guilty as anyone of being involved in those things — it is an exciting and refreshing way to tell a story that is not just a rehash of something we already know.”
That is the challenge Bad Robot has faced since the success of “Cloverfield,” its found-footage blockbuster about colossal beasts wreaking havoc in Manhattan. Introduced in a trailer that was shown before “Transformers” in 2007, “Cloverfield” went on to make $170 million worldwide.
As he went on to resuscitate the “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” franchises, Abrams continued to think about how to follow up “Cloverfield,” a question that became more complicated after the releases of other giant-monster movies like “Pacific Rim” and the 2014 remake of “Godzilla.”
”I’d have been happy saying that ‘Cloverfield’ was just that movie and doesn’t need to be sequel-ized,” Abrams said.
But then Bad Robot acquired a screenplay, called “The Cellar” and written by Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken, that Abrams said was “a very cool, frightening concept.”
The script was revised by writers including Damien Chazelle, the writer and director of “Whiplash.” During this process, Abrams said with deliberate ambiguity, “it was becoming increasingly clear to me that this movie was of the same DNA as ‘Cloverfield.’”
”They feel the way a brother and sister might, standing next to each other,” he said. “They’re different people, and yet you look at them and you go: ‘They’re related. There’s a connection.’”
Winstead, a star of films like “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and “Final Destination 3,” said the whole project “felt very top secret from the get-go.”
She said she first read the script through “a link that would delete after one viewing,” and when later revisions came in, “they didn’t get sent to you freely — it was always, ‘We'll get it to you on set when you come in.’”
Filming took place primarily on sound stages in New Orleans and did not try to duplicate the wobbly, cinéma vérité of the original “Cloverfield.”
”It was fun to play with expectations of when you want the movie to feel big or small,” said Trachtenberg, who is making his feature-directing debut on “10 Cloverfield Lane.”
”There’s times when it’s very claustrophobic and boxed in, using composed frames to tell the story,” he said. “And there’s moments that are very hand-held and visceral.”
Throughout the shoot, the actors believed they were working on a movie called “Valencia,” but with the understanding that name would change.
“It was like a murmur,” said John Gallagher Jr. (“Spring Awakening”), who plays another resident of the bunker. But then, he said: “I never know what’s going on. I’m always the last person to get there.”
For many months after the shoot, Winstead said she heard few updates and was unsure if the film would come out at all. “When things are so quiet, you can’t but wonder those things in your head,” she said.
Then she got a momentous call from Trachtenberg that the trailer would be released very soon.
“Like, that night,” Winstead said. “And he was like: ‘So. Here’s the title.’”
”It was a great outcome,” she said.
Trachtenberg said neither he nor his actors had been deceived about what they were doing and that everyone went in knowing that a certain amount of confidentiality is customary on Bad Robot’s films.
“Their brand is about keeping precious what people are going to experience and not trying to ruin it for anyone,” he said. “Whenever you take a job there, it’s assumed that will happen.”
Even without its final title, Trachtenberg said, his movie was “already written to fit into the ‘Clover’-verse.”
Asked if he felt guilty about keeping his actors in the dark on release plans for the film, Trachtenberg said, “A little bit.”
But he said it was also fun to surprise Gallagher just before the Super Bowl by telling him that a trailer for “10 Cloverfield Lane” would be shown during the game and seen by tens of millions of people.
“John said, ‘I don’t have a TV, so I’m going to a bar to watch it,’” Trachtenberg recalled. “I said, ‘I really hope when the trailer comes on, there’s a guy who slowly looks over to you, raises his glass and just nods.’”
(“That didn’t happen,” Trachtenberg added.)
Abrams said that raising the curtain on “10 Cloverfield Lane” only two months before its release, rather than six months or a year, was potentially perilous.
But he said it was also a welcome contrast to his experience on “The Force Awakens,” on which, he said, “There was a moment where so much was going on with promotions that we were actually talking about pulling back some of our commercials.”
Unlike the intense security around “Star Wars,” Abrams said there were no formal strictures on “10 Cloverfield Lane” controlling what its participants could or could not discuss with the outside world.
But in an age of instant information, he said: “Everyone knows the rules, and the rules are that if you say something, everyone knows it.”
Abrams said that there was also an upside to our contemporary desire for immediate gratification and one that artists could use to their advantage.
“You don’t need to know about the thing so many months before,” he said, “to see Beyoncé drop an album or a video, or to suddenly have a Louis C.K. series dropped in your lap.”
When you can release a piece of entertainment to audiences at the moment they want it, Abrams said, that can be as exciting as any horror movie.
“There’s something thrilling about the ability to give something to the public that doesn’t require months of study or anticipation,” he said. “They can just say: ‘Ooh, this seems like fun. Let’s go do it.’”