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Set Visit: GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS

Warning: This article contains spoilers for the upcoming film Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Read at your own risk!

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It’s August 2017, and this writer’s seated before a monitor inside a 300,000 square foot sound stage just outside Atlanta, Georgia, on the set of a film shooting under the cryptonym Fathom. On the monitor before us appear actors Bradley Whitford, Kyle Chandler, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins, the lot gathered around a high-tech operations table fervently discussing what appear to be dire world events. 

“As you know, at approximately 0700 hours, our containment site in China’s Yunnan rainforest was raided by an unknown paramilitary group,” communicates Hawkins to those seated. “Dr. Emma Russell and her daughter Madison were taken hostage. We’ve now confirmed that this is the man responsible: Jonah Allen, a former British Army colonel turned anarchist.”

“And after previously attempting raids on Dr. Russell’s labs in Cairo and Tokyo,” continues Hawkins emphatically, “Jonah has now targeted her latest work, the Orca, an experimental device, capable of communicating with the Titans.”

Joining us before the monitors, producer Alex Garcia of Legendary Entertainment chimes in on the unfolding action, “This scene is a mission briefing that sets up the core crux of the movie.”

Forget the clandestine Fathom moniker the flick’s shooting under. In reality, the movie in discussion is the next chapter in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary’s cinematic MonsterVerse: the much buzzed-about Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which is slated for a tent-pole release on May 31,2019, and Dread’s here to get the skinny.

Directed by Michael Dougherty and co-written by he and Zach Shields, the new story, described in the official synopsis as an “epic action adventure that pits Godzilla against some of the most popular monsters in pop culture history,” follows “the heroic efforts of crypto-zoological agency Monarch as its members face off against a battery of god-sized monsters, including the mighty Godzilla, who collides with the Titans Mothra, Rodan, and his ultimate nemesis, the three-headed Ghidorah. When these ancient super-species – thought to be mere myths – rise again, they all vie for supremacy, leaving humanity’s very existence hanging in the balance.” 

Rounding out the cast of the latest Godzilla film, itself a direct sequel to Gareth Edwards’ 2014 feature Godzilla, is Bates Motel actress Vera Farmiga (as Dr. Russell), Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown as her daughter Madison and Game of Thrones’ actor Charles Dance as Jonah. Joining them are actors Bradley Whitford, Thomas Middleditch and Aisha Hinds, to name a few, and on the producing side, the previously mentioned Garcia is joined by Jon Jashni, Mary Parent, Brian Rogers and Thomas Tull, with music by Bear McCreary, and cinematography by Lawrence Sher.

With our literal boots on the ground, the set visit (as are most) proves lightning fast, so after witnessing a few takes of Monarch’s mission briefing (filmed in what is probably the most immersive 360 degree set I’ve ever stepped foot upon), our unit publicist takes us on a golf cart tour of the massive sound stage being utilized by the production, and it proves to be as spoiler and Easter egg heavy as it is impressive. 

To wit, along our way we pass a re-creation of a partial façade of Fenway Park (now destroyed) in which 2nd unit filming is taking place, a set featuring a full-sized V-22 tilt-rotor Osprey military aircraft, which has crashed in the Antarctic, and another extensive and wintry exterior (44,000 pounds of Epsom salt have been trucked in to complete the tableau) featuring signage which reads (in what I’d later happily find to be a nod to John Carpenter’s 1982 cult classic The Thing): “U.S. Outpost 32.” Snow mobiles, cats, plows and Humvees additionally litter the facility, as does a positively insane amount of tactical gear and military equipment, all emblazoned with the Monarch insignia.

It’s entirely spectacular, and it would appear that the production has come loaded for bear. Or Titan. And as co-star O’Shea Jackson Jr., who appears in the film in the role of Chief Warrant Officer Barnes tells it, they certainly have.

“We eat Titans for breakfast,” offers the twenty-eight year old actor during a break in filming of the movie’s specialized military unit nicknamed ‘G-Team’, of which his character is a member. 

The spitting image of his multi-talented father Ice Cube (who he portrayed to great effect in 2015’s Straight Outta Compton, and for which he won the NAACP Image Award for ‘Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture’), Jackson also proves to be a true blue, through and through, die-hard Godzilla fan.

“I got the call (for Godzilla) right after Compton,” he says of his role, “and I was like, ‘I have to!’ Certain things you feel destined for. And Godzilla’s only happening because of the little kid version of (me). Godzilla’s one of my heroes, and that’s the whole (reason) I got the part (because) whether it’s the Hanna Barbara cartoon or that weird Ferris Bueller (Godzilla) movie, I love them all.”

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Dread Central’s Sean Decker on the set of Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Godzilla

For anyone needing an introduction (unlikely here at Dread), the character’s beginnings date back to the 1954 Toho Co. Ltd. film Gojira. Directed by Ishiro Honda, the black & white originator depicts a sea creature of enormous destructive power awakened by radiation, which then lays waste to Japan (a none too thinly veiled metaphor for the devastation unleashed by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the second World War). 

Upon its release, the film proved to be a hit in Japan, and that box office success would be repeated two years later in western markets when it was released (albeit heavily edited) stateside under the title Godzilla, King of the Monsters!

The original’s undertones, as dark as they may be, aren’t lost on actor Kyle Chandler, who in Dougherty’s latest Godzilla film portrays renowned Monarch zoologist Dr. Mark Russell, a man who possesses an understanding of animal behaviour and a real hatred of the Titans his estranged wife (actress Farmiga) is so fond of.

“In the ’54 film two things just blew me away,” says Chandler, most known to genre fans for his role of Deputy Lamb in 2011’s Super 8. “There’s a scene on a train where a lady flippantly says, ‘First Nagasaki and now this,’ with the idea that Godzilla had just attacked. And the other is that when Godzilla vaporizes people, they’re left as (just) shadows. It shouldn’t be lost how important this was to the filmmakers – what it was doing and (what it was) saying.”

Subsequent Godzilla entries established subtext considerably less grim, and would go on to introduce a bevy of other equisized creatures, some of which would occasionally ally with Godzilla (ala the pterodactyl-like Rodan and the moth-like, er, Mothra) in order to defend humanity from threats greater than themselves. In the 1964 film Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, it was that very titular creature of which the trio struggled, and as a die-hard fan of the series himself, director and co-writer Dougherty took note when constructing the latest entry in the long-running series, as we came to find. 

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(L-R) CHARLES DANCE as Jonah Alan, MILLIE BOBBY BROWN as Madison Russell and VERA FARMIGA as Dr. Emma Russell in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure Godzilla: King of the Monsters, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Photo by Daniel McFadden

Later in the day, Garcia, who previously produced both Godzilla (2014) and it’s cousin Kong: Skull Island (2017) leads us through the production’s ‘war room’ (which contains conceptual art and maquettes of the creatures at the center of Godzilla: King of the Monsters) and offers of the filmmaker’s take on the material, “Dougherty really had a handle on taking that grounded sensibility that we tried to do with Gareth (Edwards), and looking (also) at our plans to expand the mythology. He brought his own spin to it that was super exciting, but was also steeped in real world thematics, as the franchise has always been.”

“It’s very much about how we deal with these threats that are bigger than ourselves, and how we deal with our demons,” allows Garcia of the film. “And the expansion of Monarch is somewhat of a controversial thing in the movie (too), because there are those who are afraid of it. ‘Do they have too much power? Are they telling us everything? These things are out there, and maybe they know more than they put on.’ So all of that stuff is (also) at play.”

It’s informational overload. As Garcia speaks, items in the room too demand attention. The maquettes of Mothra, Rodan and Ghidorah are things of pure beauty: renditions of classic characters which retain their iconic looks yet which have been lovingly updated. Behind them, a map on a wall lists the locations of Titans around the world, some which feature names not within the Toho universe (Sargon: Mexico, Leviathan: Indian Ocean). There’s also concept art featuring Godzilla rolling deep with an accompanying wing of military aircraft, and a painting of a huge futuristic jet called ‘The Argo’ set against the backdrop of a mushroom cloud. And yet another piece of art, this one depicting a submerged Godzilla swimming towards an ancient, underwater city.

For a kaiju fan, it’s quite simply awe-inspiring.

Garcia, who served as an executive producer on Dougherty’s first foray into feature filmmaking, 2007’s Halloween-themed anthology Trick r’ Treat, continues, “We knew where we wanted to take it. We had our ideas for where these movies need to go. And there was a lot of internal think-tanking. And because we had worked with Mike a few times, and because he’s such a fan (of Godzilla), it was natural. He just kind of went off and he and his writing partner Zach came up with the vision for the movie, which perfectly dove-tailed into where we were wanting to take it.”

As for director Dougherty, whose love for the character began in his youth (as he tells it, his Catholic school bible served as a sketch book for many a Godzilla drawing), he professes that helming the follow-up to Edwards’ film is a dream come true, although movie goers should expect something a bit different this time around. 

“Well, I hesitate to say it, but I would call it the Aliens to Gareth’s Alien,” offers Dougherty of his sequel. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a bit more on an ensemble film. Whereas the first movie was really about Brody’s character kind of weaving his way through that adventure, and Monarch was the backdrop for that, here Monarch is the focus, because I find that concept really fascinating. The idea that there is a secret agency that tracks giant monsters? That is a dream come true for me too. I think if the government said to me, ‘Tomorrow you have to fake your own death and abandon everyone you know to go hunt the paranormal,’ I would be gone in a heartbeat!”

“So I felt there was an opportunity to sort of craft Monarch as a group of humanists,” says the forty-five year old filmmaker and writer of 2006’s Superman Returns, who, unlike a lot of top-secret government agencies – where they have their own nefarious mission statements – possess a very positive outlook on what these creatures are, and what they represent. The idea of a team of heroes who are scientists really appealed to me. This isn’t a Marvel film where people in mech suits or with superpowers get into endless fist fights. These are just very intelligent, capable people, who are up against impossible odds. So in a time where, in our current climate, science is being constantly questioned and targeted, the idea of creating a film where scientists are heroes I thought was really important.”

Regarding the timeline and expanded mythology of the follow-up, Dougherty says of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, It roughly takes place in real time, so we are placing the first film in 2014 and we are saying that this film takes place roughly five years after, and as for the monsters, they’ve always been here. They were here before we were. So the concept we’re running with is that this world belonged to them. If anything, we’re the invasive species, and we’ve simply rediscovered something that’s always been here, and that they are in some ways the old gods. The first gods. And that’s something we’re also trying to bring to this film for a more mythological, almost biblical, backdrop to the creatures: the idea that these creatures were once worshipped by some ancient civilization.” 

“I really love that in the old (Toho) movies that Mothra was this deity,” expounds Dougherty of the creature, whose impending arrival in those films was most often heralded by the appearance of two identical fairies with who it possessed a telepathic bond. “It really opened up the mythology. So if Mothra existed thousands of years ago, and Godzilla also existed thousands of years ago, and Mothra was worshipped by some ancient civilization, as was (King) Kong (in those films), than it would make sense that other creatures probably had some contact with human beings at some point too.” 

“As a kid it always bummed me out that dinosaurs (and humans) never actually crossed paths,” continues the director, “and after years of Harryhausen films, that was such a heartbreaking truth to discover. So I’m saying, ‘Fuck that. No. At some point ancient humans – that we have forgotten about – somehow did interact with these ancient beasts.’”

And with The Big ‘G’ set to meet the previously mentioned gargantuan ape in Adam Wingard’s upcoming 2020 feature Godzilla vs. Kong, we ask Dougherty if we’ll see any mention of the massive primate, or their impending mash-up, in Godzilla:King of the Monsters.

“Yeah, he’s out there,” he replies of King Kong, who first arrived to the silver screen in the 1933 RKO Radio Pictures film of the same name. “I mean I love the idea of the two creatures crossing paths. I loved that idea since a kid. Even in the original (1962 Toho mash-up) King Kong vs. Godzilla, for as cheesy as it was, the concept was brilliant. Who wouldn’t want to see that smack down? It makes sense that they would exist in the same universe I think.”

Of that universe, it becomes readily apparent that honouring it, and its fans, is of utmost importance to the filmmaker, not only in narrative, but also in sound design.  

“I think you should be able to close your eyes and listen to the creatures, and be able to identify them without any visual (cues) whatsoever,” Dougherty says of aurally bringing Ghidorah, Rodan and Mothra to 2019 audiences, “because the sounds of the creatures are so distinct. So what I did was I gave a super cut of all the creature’s noises from the original films to the sound designers and said, ‘Start here, and then start layering and playing, but they have to be as distinct as in the original films.”

As for Godzilla’s roar? “I think they did a great job with (it) in Edwards’ movie,” says the filmmaker, “and I pushed them a little bit further to bring it even closer to the (1954) original.”

And as he tells it, those sounds have found their way into principal photography as well.

“My sound mixer has created this massive speaker system I call ‘The Behemoth,’ and I’ve got an iPad in my tent, so I’ve been playing monster noises (as we’ve been shooting),” reveals Dougherty. “So any scene that involves our cast running and screaming in terror, I’ve been playing creature noises. And it really ups the actors’ performance. Something just pops when they hear the noises. So, in some ways, the creatures have been on set with us.”

Visually, Dougherty’s also as equally concerned with delivering a trio of Titans which respect the iconic Japanese designs.

“Similar to the sounds, it’s really important to me that the silhouettes of the creatures (resemble) the originals,” he offers. “That’s always the basis of any good creature design: the silhouette. In the same way that you have to be able to listen to the creature noises and identify the creature without seeing it, you need to be able to look at the silhouette of a monster and be able to identify it. So we started with the silhouettes.”

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“You can’t have Ghidorah without the two tails and the three heads, and it’s got to have the right amount of horns, and the wings are a very distinct shape,” he muses of bringing Monster Zero to the big screen. “They’re not traditional western dragons. So those were marching orders from the beginning, to make sure that Ghidorah looks more like an eastern dragon versus a western. The same thing for Rodan: two horns, very distinct wings, the armour chest plate, and the good news too is that Toho has very specific requirements.”

“All of which,” he adds, “I completely agree with.”

“The bigger challenge was Mothra,” Dougherty offers. “How do you take a giant moth and make it look cool? The beauty of it is, I had to go down a rabbit hole and really research moths. And as it turns out moths are super cool insects. There are so many different species, and they have very different shapes, some of which look almost predatory, more so than the typical Mothra design. So the approach for Mothra was to create an insectoid, huge creature that looks believable from every angle, and especially in motion, while also looking at the different kinds of things which we can draw from, like bioluminescence and moth dust.”

“(So) going back to these creatures being once worshipped as gods,” he expounds. “I wanted to jump off of this idea that Mothra in the night sky would make primitive man drop down to his knees and bow. Same thing with Rodan. It can’t just look like a big dinosaur. Jurassic Park has that covered. These have to be distinct. They have to be their own thing. They’re Titans.”

For fans of the filmmaker’s previous directorial efforts, his penchant for injecting his films with pitch black comedy and occasional graphic horror are well known, but will Dougherty be applying any of that to a film with a budget such as this?

“I wouldn’t call it a horror movie, but there’s definitely horror elements,” he smiles. “I’m definitely trying to bring in some of that. Obviously I’m going for a lot of suspense and fear and tension, and then occasionally some gross-out moments, but, yeah, there’s definitely a little bit more horror to it than the previous film had.”

And for many critics of Edwards’ Godzilla – and the lack of screen-time of the same – hopefully a bit more of the titular creature as well.

“We definitely see them a lot more in this movie,” reassures Dougherty. “But, again, what I loved about the visual aspect of Gareth’s film is that he treated it with a sense of reality. There was never a magic CGI flying camera. Every shot of the creatures felt like it could have been shot by an actual human being. Whether they’re on a helicopter or a crane, hand held or whatever, the camera movements were never artificial. And so that’s also one of our marching orders. Because it does take you out of the movie, whether consciously or sub-consciously, when you realize that, ‘Oh, there’s no way a camera could have possibly gotten that shot.’”

As for how closely he’s expected to hew to the look of Edwards’ previous entry, “I think there’s definitely a visual style we developed for this film that we wanted to adhere to on some levels, but you also want to color outside the lines every now and then,” Dougherty reveals if his approach.  “You don’t want to be slavish, but I think trying to treat the creatures and these stories with a sense of respect, and also just trying to make it feel real, is important.”

Given this desire to establish a reality within the MonsterVerse, he opens up of the human narrative, “I really do want this to be the first film that blow open the doors and lets us get a peek behind the curtain. I think there was something really powerful about the idea of this secret organization, which has altruistic intentions and noble ideals about trying to understand our place in the world after these creatures have been discovered. So this will be the first film where you finally get to know some of these scientists on a deeply personal level, and understand how they interact with each other, and how they interact with the creatures.”

With Wingard’s film continuing the narrative post Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Dougherty says of his level of involvement with Godzilla vs. Kong, “Besides sort of laying the groundwork for the organization and sort of developing a visual bible for what Monarch is, which is still developed from Gareth’s film, not much. We’re keeping a lot of Gareth’s work intact. The logo, and that sort of realistic feel, and the technology, we’re keeping all of that going. So I’m hoping that (all of that) sort of gets passed on into the next film. It’s kind of like an exquisite corpse, where the artwork gets passed from one artist to another, and ideally they’re adding new and interesting layers to it. But I’m not lording over it by any means.”

As Dougherty’s being called back to set, he answers one final question: were there any other Toho monsters that he wanted to feature?

“I mean, it really doesn’t get much better than this,” he effuses. “There’s definitely a few others that I was hoping we’d sort of tip the hat to, but I mean these are the crown jewels of Toho as far as I’m concerned. Mothra, Rodan, Ghidorah and Godzilla, those are the ones that come to mind when you think of the Godzilla universe. What was fun about them too, was outside of the Universal classic monster movies, Toho is one of the first companies to pioneer the idea of a shared universe. They were doing it long before Marvel was. Mothra was a completely separate film from Godzilla when it started. Same thing with Rodan. So it kind of feels like with Godzilla: King of the Monsters that things are coming full circle.”

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