Godzilla is about to roar back into theaters, attempting to wipe away his own tarnished legacy in the American film industry due to Roland Emmerich's 1998 film, where the real monster was the total desecration of classic Godzilla lore. To that end, a lot of eyes are on director Gareth Edwards, who is stepping into a worldwide blockbuster franchise relaunch after having gained notice for work in the much smaller (and in many ways more free) lane of indie sci-fi (Monsters).
During the Godzilla press junket in NYC, Edwards spoke to journalists about the monumental task of creating a 'proper' version of the King of Monsters; the technical challenges, narrative challenges, and the goal of honoring the original 1954 Toho Film version of "Gojira."
Can you tell us about the looks of the monsters? About retaining that look that we grew up on, but also making it completely new and intimidating for a 21st Century audience?
Gareth Edwards: Yeah, well we said to the designers—you have to try and frame it in a way that we’re going to get Godzilla but try and not date it—and we said, 'imagine like 60 years ago, Godzilla’s a real animal, he really exists and then he comes out 60 years ago and he was witnessed by people in Japan. And no one took a picture but they went running and screaming back to Toho Studios and made the original films and tried to describe him to them. And they went off and made all the movies that we know and love, and in our film you’re going to get to see—the idea is you’re going to get to see the original animal that they witnessed.' So you should be able to correlate it and go, “Oh, I see from the description how they’d arrive at that Gojira suit”, but that would give us a bit of license to bring it up to date a bit and make it more realistic potentially. And the main thing I tried to do was refine the shapes, just give it a little bit more aggressive lines in the face, and a straighter sort of sharper silhouette so that it just feels a little bit more fierce.
Can you talk about casting the film? Because—with humans—(laughter) if I’d seen this list and not known there was a monster in it, I would’ve thought it was an art house film.
GE: Good. (laughter) I think the idea was that—it’s funny because you end up—with every actor, to be honest, and maybe they’ll tell you differently, but with each actor there was a hesitation about doing it because there’s a version of this film they feel could be not a great movie. And I feel like a lot of actors, you get the impression looking at their resumes that they sort of go, “Okay, I’m going to do a personal project and then I’m going to do a commercial project. And then I’ll do a personal project and then I’ll do a commercial project.” And I said to everybody, you have to do this as your personal project. Like, don’t be treating it like it’s some popcorn blockbuster. We need a performance that’s as strong as an Oscar-bait drama. And they all responded to that really well. And when they read the script, they could see there was some emotion in there and hopefully another layer to the film other than just a monster movie, they all jumped on board.
Could you tell me how it’s determined which city he will trash?
GE: Yeah, it was kind of math in that I felt that what we’re doing conceptually is we’re taking this Japanese icon, franchise—whatever word you want to use—and we’re bringing it to America. And so when we talked about what the global journey was of Godzilla in the movie, I felt like well, the most relevant thing is that it starts in Japan, the movie begins in Asia, and by the end of the movie it arrives in America. And as soon as you do that, you’re looking at the Pacific Coast. You’ve got Los Angeles, you know, you’ve got the major cities, and I felt that San Francisco had—I wanted a city that had a relationship with the ocean, you know? And that seemed to, you know with the bay and such iconic landmarks, it felt like something coming from the ocean was a lot of fun to be had with that, versus Los Angeles, which is literally like they step onto the beach and that would be that. (laughter) And so San Francisco just felt like the best playground—no offense to them. I think it’s an honor when Godzilla trashes your city.
You guys looked at twenty-eight Toho Godzilla movies. Which ones in particular—were there any that served as inspiration more than others? Or what did you look at in the different twenty-eight movies to serve as inspiration in the film?
GE: The main one we always talked about was the original, the 1954 black-and-white movie. For a lot of people who don’t know about Godzilla, or they grew up on some of the more child-friendly versions, it’s a surprise to watch the original because it’s really a very serious metaphor for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I believe if the Japanese could’ve made a movie just about Hiroshima they would’ve. But there was a lot of censorship at the time from the west after World War II, and they couldn’t make any movies about WWII or their experience, and so they hid it under the radar in the guise of a monster movie.
So it had this serious weight to it, so that was kind of our benchmark, but personally—they divide Godzilla movies up into eras, and the Showa era, which is kind of the ‘60’s era, is the one that I like the most. I’ve got a high tolerance for any sort of science fiction from that period of time. And I just love things like 'Destroy All Monsters' and stuff. I love the idea of Monster Island and multiple creatures. Like the child in me, that is. The sort of movies I wouldn’t necessarily show to a friend and say 'you’re going to love this.' I think it’s a particular tastes that you acquire, but they definitely influenced me anyway in making this film.
How did you do the monster? Was it performance capture, digital? What kind of combination?
GE: Oh, yeah. It was mainly animation, keyframe animation. We had for a brief period of time towards the end when Andy Serkis and his team got involved. And that was more because the fastest way sometimes to arrive at a result, just like having an actor, is when you have someone playing the character. You can get a result of what a reaction or particular movement should look like. So we did that for a short period of time towards the end, but predominantly it was all keyframe animation.
Initially we looked at hundreds of clips of animal behavior, like wildlife documentaries, and my first approach was going to be we were just going to copy nature and it’s just going to be this animal. We looked at bears fighting and all sorts of different things. And then we found the problem with that is when you just drop into the middle of a wildlife program and you watch two animals, you don’t know what the hell is going on. Which is why they always narrate these things, because it’s very confusing what animal—like is he angry or scared. You just can’t tell anything. So we had to dial slowly away form animals and more towards a human performance, which is why Andy got involved towards the end. It really was the Moving Picture Company and Double Negative, which were the two main digital effects companies—
Did he actually get into a Godzilla costume, Andy? Is that what happened?
GE: No, no.
So what did he do, exactly?
GE: There was some motion capture that happened, and then they videoed it and things. And it was him and his team—he’s got a team of people. And it was mainly used as reference for the animators, because we has such a narrow period of time to convert everything and use it properly. It was more like as a reference for—it’s quicker to talk to an actor and get that performance than it is sometimes with animation. It can be inefficient because it takes much longer, and just towards the end we didn’t have the time so we decided to try and use Andy to help speed thing sup. But it was definitely animators that were at the hands of the performance after that.
I’m curious, what didn’t make it to the screen that you feel a little upset about?
GE: There’s lots, to be honest with you. When you make a film there are many, many scenes and a lot of my favorite little ideas or shots are not in the movie because you’ve got to think about it as a whole. From an emotional point of view, in terms of my love of Godzilla, the hardest thing was Akira Takarada, who was in the original films, did a cameo for us on day one. And it felt very appropriate at the time because he played an immigrations officer that welcomes Aaron’s character to Japan, and so it was like this perfect day-one first shot. And then when we constructed the film, like everything, basically there was a lot of pressure to get on with the adventure and get to the monster, you know, as soon as you can and things like this, and so lots of things came out of that part of the movie, lots and lots, and I hung on to that until the last second and it was still deemed by the screenings when we tested it that we had to get it shorter. And so that ended up having to go. Which is probably my biggest regret.
And his comments on not being in the movie anymore? Did you hear from him?
GE: I’ve written to him, yeah. And he did a chat show I believe, and he’s a real gentlemen so I think he was understanding. But it’s just one of those horrible things about the process.
Godzilla will be in theaters on May 16th. Click the tag below for more of interviews with the cast and crew.