Hide yo kids, hide yo wife. Godzilla is back.
Legendary Pictures, the production company that rebooted the Batman franchise with Christopher Nolan, decided to sink its claws into the celebrated Japanese film monster—putting a noirish spin on the proceedings with the hope of eradicating any memory of Roland Emmerich’s ’98 disasterpiece. The herculean task fell on the shoulders of Gareth Edwards, a 39-year-old British filmmaker who helmed the $500,000 creature feature hit Monsters.
Godzilla, written by Max Borenstein and directed by Edwards, was a decidedly pricier endeavor—with a $160 million budget. The 3D film is set in Japan, Hawaii, Las Vegas, and San Francisco, and sees the Toho kaiju protect mankind against a couple of MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms). A symphony of destruction, naturally, ensues. While all the chaos is going on, an ex-nuclear physicist (Bryan Cranston), his bomb disposal-expert son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and nurse daughter-in-law (Elizabeth Olsen) find themselves caught in the crossfire.
The Daily Beast spoke to Edwards about re-creating the Godzilla monster—it’s based on one of your favorite Muppets, apparently—the film’s Man vs. Nature message, and much more.
Your version of Godzilla seems to be more rooted in current events, and centers on mankind’s tenuous relationship with nature, and the environment.
Yeah. Man vs. Nature is the predominant theme of the film, and I always tried to go back to that imagery. At the beginning when they find the fossils, it was important to me that they didn’t just find them—it was caused by our abuse of the planet. We deserved it, in a way. So there’s this rainforest with a big scar in the landscape with this quarry, slave labor, and a Western company. You have to ask yourself, “What does Godzilla represent?” The thing we kept coming up with is that he’s a force of nature, and if nature had a mascot, it would be Godzilla. So what do the other creatures represent? They represent man’s abuse of nature, and the idea is that Godzilla is coming to restore balance to something mankind has disrupted.
Characters even refer to Godzilla as a “god” several times in the film, which is interesting. Many of the “Pagan” gods were essentially forces of nature.
Well, there’s a reason his name begins with “God,” I think. He is a god, really. He’s at the top of the food chain and probably King of the World, in a sense. We did this title sequence at the beginning of the film filled with sea serpents, ancient Greek symbols, and that sort of thing, and the idea is that for all of time man has always found that there’s something out there for us to worship or fear, and it’s gone away for a while but in our film it returns.
We are seeing a lot of films dealing with mankind vs. nature—take Noah, which the filmmakers have gone on record admitting is a global warming allegory about mankind’s ravaging of the Earth.
All stories are about something else. You examine this stuff deep enough and you eventually get into the realm of, “Why do we tell stories?” One of the theories is that we’re born into the world and you know nothing and you haven’t left your tribe but the elders have, so you ask them, “What’s it like out there? How did you win? Who lost?” So they tell you all this stuff, and it’s equipment to live your life by. In this day and age, it’s turned into entertainment, but the desire to have a deeper meaning is still there. As we got into it, the message of Godzilla turned into, “We should let nature take its course and shouldn’t try to control it.” Stories have been used for a long time to smuggle the morals of the day inside them, and today, people are worried about global warming. In our film, the nuclear side of it was a concern with the things that have happened recently in Japan.
I liked that the film didn’t pit Godzilla against man, but had him battling other creatures.
[Producer] Thomas Tull’s main condition was that he fights another creature, so the second you do that, you have the audience rooting for an outcome. So, the audience gets to go on this journey where they grow to empathize with Godzilla. It was then a case of how to get another creature into that world without it being this weird fluke. Eventually, we hit on this idea of it being a parasite, and some sort of symbiotic relationship between Godzilla and whatever the MUTOs are, and through our abuse of nature, we inadvertently bring them back to the world. As a result, they’re attracted to radiation, so all our hoarding of nuclear power and weapons becomes such a negative, and people are trying to get rid of all that stuff.
“Do you remember Sam the Eagle from The Muppets? He has a very noble look, so we copied that idea of putting his nose close to the top of his head.”
How did you capture the look of Godzilla?
The design of Godzilla was worked on a lot by Weta Workshop in New Zealand, and my brief to them was: “Imagine if it’s a real animal that really exists, and 60 years ago it appeared off the coast of Japan and people witnessed it but didn’t take any pictures, so they went running off trying to describe it, and Toho made all their movies based on that description. So in our film, for the first time you get to see the animal that they saw.” We took some license to make it more animalistic, and real. The thing we mainly brought to it is there are a lot of curves on the original Godzilla—a lot of rounded shapes by the snout, especially—and that can look cute sometimes, like a Muppet. We went for more square, sharper, aggressive-looking shapes using dogs, bears, and birds of prey as models. Do you remember Sam the Eagle from The Muppets? He has a very noble look, so we copied that idea of putting his nose close to the top of his head; it makes it seem like he has a lot of stature.
How did you land the gig? This is a pretty big step up from Monsters—a $500,000 budget to a $160 million one.
I went to meetings and this and that, but I don’t know why. What happened was Legendary and Thomas Tull, the producer of the film, called, and I’d had a really good meeting with him about the process of making Monsters, and I figured I’d work with those guys at some point. Out of the blue, they called up and offered Godzilla. I was really shocked. In my mind, there was a whole list of directors I thought they’d go through before me. Thomas took a big gamble with me and a lot of people probably thought he was nuts—I thought he was nuts!
I grew up with the original ’50s Godzilla films, but then my attitude towards the franchise was sullied a bit by Roland Emmerich’s horrible ’98 version. How did you try to differentiate your version from that one?
Yeah. The younger generation thinks of that movie when they think of Godzilla, but it seems like we’re in a similar position that the people in the Batman franchise were in.
Right. Batman and Robin was such a calamity that it was easy to reboot.
From a filmmaking point of view, if someone says to you, “You can re-create an icon that’s recognized all over the world that everyone wants to see a good version of and they’re hungry for it, and the previous version the fans weren’t keen on at all,” well, that’s an open goal for a filmmaker; you feel like that’s the best place to be. It’s much easier than trying to remake Casablanca. Roland Emmerich’s a very talented filmmaker and I own a lot of his films, so it’s always awkward when people talk about it because you don’t want to imply that you’re not a fan, but the problem with it, from a Godzilla point of view, was that there weren’t enough elements of what people expected Godzilla to be—the blue breath, walking on all fours, etc.
What was the toughest scene for you to stage? I enjoyed the sequence where Aaron and his team parachute in.
They were all tough to film! We did a real halo jump in the desert at sunrise, and also mixed in some green screen. We actually used the parachute jump footage the most, because it seemed more realistic. It’s one of my favorite bits in the film in that it’s a few minutes of—not story, but cinematic-ness. They’re like angels descending into hell—that’s the symbolism of it all—and they’re saviors who’ve entered the bowels of hell to do what they need to do. All that Dante’s Inferno imagery was subconsciously coming through.