With Legendary Picture’s upcoming feature Godzilla releasing wide on May 16, 2014, here’s the first part of our extensive coverage from the set: a lengthy interview with director Gareth Edwards.
Beware – this coverage is as full of spoilers as ‘the Big G’ is radioactive (oops, there’s your first one there), so if you’d rather remain in the dark, not unlike San Francisco after Godzilla rolls over it (oh, there’s number two!), stop right here. Otherwise, suit up and HALO drop with us into gargantuan mayhem.
Part reboot and part direct sequel to director Ishiro Honda’s 1954 original of the same name, the 2014 Edwards-helmed Godzilla features actors Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass), Juliette Binoche (The English Patient), David Strathairn (The Bourne Legacy), Elizabeth Olsen and Ken Watanabe, in a script by Max Borenstein, Dave Callaham and Frank Darabont, which pits the world’s most famous monster against malevolent creatures who, bolstered by humanity’s scientific arrogance, threaten our very existence (as the film will apparently our pocketbooks, given the insane box-office buzz and merchandizing push surrounding it).
Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni, Mary Parent and Brian Rogers produce, alongside executive producers Alex Garcia, Patricia Whitcher, Yoshimitsu Banno and Kenji Okuhira.
Arriving with considerable trepidation to the Vancouver set last June (given what transpired with the previous ‘Big G’ film attempted by an American production, namely Roland Emmerich’s deplorable 1998 flick, this was understandable), my concerns were quickly allayed, initially by a visit to the ‘War Room’ (which contained volumes upon volumes of absolutely awe-inspiring storyboards and conceptual art), then by a sneak peek of two entirely mind-blowing pre-visual sequences. Excitedly comforting interviews with actors Cranston and Taylor-Johnson followed (the pair’s sincere enthusiasm was contagious), and with my appetite whetted (stay tuned for all of the above in the coming days), we sat down with director Edwards on the mammoth sound-stage to discuss his vision.
Of note, and before I dive in, I am a huge, and rather discerning Godzilla fan. Of the twenty-eight films produced by Toho Co., Ltd. (and I’ve seen them all) featuring the titular character, the sheer impact the original had on me cannot be understated. While the metaphor of ‘Godzilla as Hiroshima/Nagasaki’ eluded me as a young boy, the tone of impending doom of Honda’s film did not, nor did the immensity of the force at its core.
My imagination was (and remains to this day) sparked, and Godzilla loomed in my psyche as real as did the Cold War threat of my childhood. Subsequent entries may have found him defending Tokyo from a comically wooden ape (1962’s King Kong Vs. Godzilla), toxic waste (1971’s Godzilla Vs. Hedorah) or effete aliens (2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars), and pop culture may have diluted him via the cartoon “Bambi Meets Godzilla” and the animated series “Godzilla” (seriously, ‘Godzooky?’) among others, but through it all, Honda’s original remained for me authoritative and omnipresent. In Honda’s film, Godzilla was clearly the ‘King of Monsters.’
I’m happy to report that from what I witnessed on set, Warner Bros. and Legendary’s Godzilla may very well be the definitive modern iteration of Honda’s classic, capturing not only the raw essence of the original but imbuing it with a needed modern sensibility.
“There’s definitely a strong theme in the film, and in (the) simplest terms it’s kind of ‘Man versus Nature,’” the soft-spoken Edwards, whose previous giant creature flick was 2010’s thoughtful Monsters, told us during a break in filming on the set, which had been constructed to represent an abandoned, irradiated Japanese structure.
“When we started off in the process of defining (the character of) Godzilla, what is he about, what makes a Godzilla movie, what makes a monster movie, and we were brainstorming and watching all the old movies again, the thing that comes through is that in some movies he’s slightly evolved and represents different things, but he’s always a force of nature, like the wrath of God, that comes to put us back in our place when we kind of think we own the world. I would go into more detail, but I’ve been told I can only say certain things, but there’s definitely very strong themes that hark back to the original 1954 Godzilla. It’s the ‘Man Versus Nature’ that comes through a lot. When we start thinking we can control nature, that’s when it all starts to go wrong. And that happens a lot in our movie. You see it quite a bit; that our arrogance always comes back to bite us.”
Pertaining to Edwards’ reluctance to discuss certain topics, of note on-set security was entirely tight, and non-disclosure agreements were indeed signed by all journalists in attendance, a standard practice on films of such magnitude. With the embargo now lifted, I’ll try to fill in the holes for you as best I can.
Legendary’s Godzilla takes place in three separate time periods: the 1950’s (in which the U.S. Navy discovers the last surviving member of an ancient radioactive amphibious species surviving under the waters near the Marshall Islands and metes out a failed attempt to kill it with nuclear weapons), the 1990’s (in which the creature arises to smack the crap out of Japan and in the process destroys the childhood home of Taylor-Johnson’s character as well as that of his father, a scientist portrayed by Cranston) and in 2014, in which the appearance of creatures known as ‘Mutos’ (kaiju who look vaguely reminiscent of the creature at the center of the feature Cloverfield) appear, which in turn elicits the return of Godzilla from the depths of the ocean.
“It is an origin story,” Edwards illuminated.
“It’s not about having seen another film to understand this movie. It’s supposed to be the beginning. But it doesn’t just take place in modern times. There are other aspects to it. And in a way, the mistakes we made in the past come back to haunt us in the present, and that is something that the whole movie is driven by. ‘Mistakes’ or ‘choices’ that now we pay the price for, because for me a monster movie just for the sake of being a ‘monster movie’ can kind of become a pointless exercise, so it’s about finding the right symbolism in what Godzilla represents, and trying to find a storyline that expresses that. And I’m really pleased with the playground we’re playing in because I think it’s very much on theme. I hope that when people see it, people who are big Godzilla fans, they’ll be happy with the choices we made. We definitely tried to stay as true as possible to the original in terms of theme.”
As for the secondary ‘Muto’ threat to mankind, “I’m not sure what I can and cannot say, but I’ll say that it was really important that we didn’t do a Godzilla movie where it was just one creature, because you quickly run out of the ‘people pointlessly trying to fire and stop-the-thing’ storyline, which is why Toho movies were always him versus something else, and the whole franchise or whatever you want to call it was involved in the creatures,” offered Edwards.
“So when you get into it, you have to make that choice, but without giving too much away, it’s not as simple as that. It’s not as simplistic as, ‘Is there a good or a bad?’ Through the course of the movie it starts to form, and… it’s really hard to answer these questions.”
Genre journalists sometimes ask questions which to mainstream audiences may seem unimportant though to us, and to fans of the genre, are rather burning, so it was only inevitable that Gareth was queried on whether or not anyone (in the film) utters the classic line, “It’s Godzilla!”
Edwards responded with a chuckle, “For a long time, we liked the idea of never saying his name, and we had a million ideas of how you could say that name. And it might be that one of them ends up in the movie. We’re still playing with a couple of them. But I think it’s just as good to never say his name out loud. We’re going to have it on every single poster and every single everything everywhere. There’s something more ethereal about a person you don’t really label. It’s so obvious to say, ‘It’s Godzilla,’ and we have the same problem in a lot of scenes. How do you talk about this thing? Is it a thing? Is it a creature? Is it a monster? Is it an organism? Is it an animal? And we kind of use all of those and wait for the right moment to use the actual name gag. I saw Man of Steel last night and thought they were quite clever (in how they referenced ‘Superman’).”
Of Godzilla’s ‘character,’ the 38-year-old British filmmaker stated, “I guess with all good characters, there’s some sort of arc to their character, and sometimes that’s not theirs; it’s our understanding of that character that changes. I don’t think we could be the best film we could be if there wasn’t a perception change in the movie. So it does evolve, but it’s not straightforward, and it’s not black and white. Hopefully it’s subtle enough that people can watch it and have their own opinion of him and (of) what was really going on. But amongst ourselves, we’ve made decisions and hinted at certain choices, but I like the idea that if some people just want to come and watch a big, massive monster movie, they can and (will) have fun watching things get smashed up, and other people can come and there will be another layer and a bit more meaning to some of the things that happen. Because at the end of the day, we’re not really going to have a giant monster attack the world. It’s not something we need to worry about.”
“But the ramifications of the giant monster attacking the world – skyscrapers collapsing, whole neighborhoods being trashed, radiation being left behind – they’re things we deal with all the time, and that’s probably why we invent monsters,” he continued.
“It’s usually sci-fi and fantasy films that get to address modern-day concerns quickest because they can kind of go ‘under the radar’ and more serious films have to kind of wait more in line. So hopefully it’s not lightweight, popcorn fodder. I hope there’s a little bit more about it than just that.”
Questioned in regards to his journey from the independent Monsters to helming the summer tent-pole that is Godzilla, Edwards said, “I wouldn’t call it a ‘journey’. It’s more like teleportation. It was like this instant, ‘There you go. You’re making a massive movie.’ It was overwhelming in the early days. But it’s so incremental; it’s like climbing a mountain. One step is not that different than the step before. We presented the film to the studio last year, and we started filming in March. That’s quite a long time to get ready for the fact that we were going to be making this. And no matter how much people warn you and tell you what it’s going to be like, it’s still sort of a culture shock. I’ve worked in TV, and it’s like a micro-version of this. Yeah, I guess if the previous film is like riding a bicycle, this is like flying a 747.”
As for Toho’s involvement (a company who was none too keen on licensing Godzilla once again to an American production following Emmerich’s 1998 ‘Not-zilla’ flick, as it’s known by fans), “I went to Japan probably over a year ago and went to visit them and met with the heads of the studio and the president of Toho, and they were very generous,” said Edwards.
“They released Monsters, my previous film, and they had the rights to that, and when I arrived, they had the DVD and Godzilla merchandise, and they were incredibly welcoming. We went to dinner and they had a few questions about the story and (about) what we planned to do, and then from that point on, we’ve been sharing all the scripts with them and sharing the concept art and the development of the film, and they were heavily involved in the design of Godzilla in terms of approvals and everything, so it’s very much been a Toho-approved Godzilla movie, which we wanted it to be because for us it was very important. It would be kind of pointless if Toho didn’t feel like it was a real Godzilla movie. So we were pretty keen to try and get that right.”
The question arose of the inclusion of ‘Easter Eggs’ within the film itself (which as of last week came to certain light in the film’s second trailer, which featured the ‘Mothra twins’ appearing on the floor of a destroyed high-rise), and Edwards responded, “There’s loads of Easter eggs in this film. Is there anything to do with Monsters? What I’ll tell you, and it doesn’t really answer your question, but on Monsters, for the girl in the film, Whitney, I made a charity bracelet for her character, and the idea was that it was for a pretend charity for people who had been displaced by the monsters. And everyone on that film wore it, and I wore mine from the day we started filming to after the world premiere. I was adamant (that) I was going to do the same on this, but we had a minimum run of these of four hundred, so we gave one to the whole crew, and you’ll spot them around. This is a clue to the movie. Something in the movie happens and this is a clue, and that’s all I can do.”
“There’s a few in there (too),” stated the director, gesturing to the nearby set. “There’s one right over in that room if you have a look. You might see it in the shot we’re setting up later. There’s something actually specific.”
Writer’s Note: The scene in conversation found actor Taylor-Johnson revisiting his character’s childhood home, which he perhaps hastily abandoned during the film’s 1990-era attack by Godzilla. Positioned with intent on the set’s floor of his bedroom were a dozen or so toy tanks and plastic army men, squared off against a plastic dinosaur (undoubtedly a representation of the titular creature). To be more specific, however, written on an abandoned pet terrarium atop his childhood dresser was one word: ‘Mothra.’ (Lends credence to the inclusion of the giant moth in Edwards’ world, now doesn’t it?)
Talk turned to filmmaker Frank Darabont, who lent his considerable talents in a story capacity to Godzilla.
“He did a fantastic job,” Edwards gushed.
“There’s a particular scene we finished filming the other day, and I can’t talk about it, but it was very strong, and it was all his idea. One of the actors that was in (the scene), as we were just chit-chatting off to the side, said, ‘This is the reason I took this job.’ And everyone felt that way when we were filming it as well. He brought a very emotional, powerful series of ideas to the story.”
“It’s a global journey,” Edwards offered of the narrative, which is reflected in the various shooting locales and set dressings of the film.
“It felt like what we were doing with the franchise was taking something that was very Japanese, that belongs to Japan, and bringing it to America. And so from a very early stage, it was the journey of this movie from Japan to America. That felt like the heart of everything. It felt the most appropriate. Hawaii’s (geographically) in the middle of it, obviously (and we shot there). So we sculpted the story around that basic, global path. And it’s not as literal as, ‘Something from Japan comes to America’. It’s not that straightforward. But it felt like visually we wanted that transition to happen, from a feeling of a very Japanese thing to become an American thing.”
Given Edwards’ interest in character-driven pieces (as evidenced by his Monsters, which found some fans wishing for more of a creature presence), the following question was posed pertaining to the ‘summer tent-pole’ aspects of Godzilla: ‘How big is this film and the creature itself?’ (Writer’s Note: He’s a staggering 120 meters tall).
Joked the director, “Well, obviously, the one downside to shooting this film is that we don’t have Godzilla on set. He’s too expensive, and he’s in (his) trailer, and he has to do all of his stuff against green screen, well, blue screen, because green wouldn’t key very well.”
“Honestly, there are certain key words that you bring up over and over, like, ‘It’s gotta be this,’ and, ‘It’s gotta be that.’ And, obviously, the term ‘emotional’ gets in there, like you gotta care, but the other one by far is ‘epic’. I feel like if we haven’t made an epic movie by the end of this, and if you haven’t felt like you’ve gone on a massive journey, and if you don’t nearly tear up, and if the hairs on the back of your neck haven’t been raised, then I probably failed at what we’re trying to do because all of that’s definitely the goal. Hopefully it’s not spectacle for the sake of it, and not, ‘Let’s just throw every trick at the screen and try to distract the audience.’ It’s more of a cinematic style, like holding back and letting the audience do the math. Like a lot of our sequences, our set pieces, people don’t talk much through them. It’s all thoughts and visual storytelling. We’ll see how it pans out, but the films I love are those sorts of movies, and everyone knows that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Edwards was queried on what he felt would distinguish his Godzilla from perhaps a Michael Bay-directed version of the same.
“I think something that’s coming through that I’m quite pleased about, and I’m really proud of, is that there’s a lot of scenes we’ve already shot that are quite engaging,” he replied.
“Like you’re really pulled in with the way the characters are coming together and the actors. I can’t go into too much detail because it will ruin the movie for you, but we’ve watched dailies and teared up on a few occasions so I’m really proud. Hopefully, this will be a blockbuster where you really care about the people you’re following.”
“Obviously, there’s a giant, epic spectacle to it as well. I think, for me, if I’m honest, I’m personally not a fan of some of the Hollywood blockbusters that come out, and we’re trying to hark back to the movies we all grew up on and loved like early Spielberg stuff, and trying to get in a bit more restraint and suspense, and not this ‘cutting-every-three-seconds’ and ‘explosions-every-two-seconds’ mentality. We’re trying to respect the audience, and hopefully they want to see a good story. So hopefully we’ve been quite brave with the storytelling that we’re doing. But we’ll see. I say all this, and then we see the edit, and it reveals itself again to you. It’s really hard at this stage to be that definite about everything in the movie because we’re still finding it.”
With Edwards called back to the camera, we asked him if there had been one particular memory of the production that stood out above all.
“I’ve purposely not processed any of it,” he answered.
“I think if you really (were to) comprehend what we’re doing here, it would paralyze you. You just have to look at all the cars on your way in, down the street. That’s just the crew for this film. I purposely just bank it in my brain and try not to think about it. It still hasn’t hit me. Like the other night, obviously, there’s marketing aspects and visual effects aspects that have all started to happen already, and I had to quickly look at some video that was an approval thing to me, and it was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s cool. That’s like something you’d see in the cinema! Wow!’ And there was this excitement over, ‘Oh my God, this could go right in the cinema the way this looks. That’s fantastic!’, and then realizing, ‘Oh my God. That is going to go in the cinema.’ And I still haven’t really let it set in because otherwise the pressure would be too much. It’s really hard to take risks; and in doing anything slightly creative, if you’ve got too much pressure on you, it’s not healthy. You don’t do your best stuff. So it’s been really hard to get rid of all those thoughts and not think of how much this is going to be around the world for a week or so next year.”
I have a feeling it’s going to be in theaters for a bit more than a week or so, Mr. Edwards.
Up next, our on-set interview with Godzilla star Bryan Cranston.
And oh, not to be remiss (burning fan questions and all), in this film Godzilla does indeed breathe nuclear fire.
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