Godzilla vs. Kong isn't just a long-awaited rematch between two of the most famous monsters of all time. When it premieres internationally this week and in U.S. theaters and on HBO Max on March 31, Godzilla vs. Kong is essentially fulfilling the entire reason Legendary's Monsterverse came into being in the first place. Seeing these two titans square off in a Hollywood blockbuster was the fandom dream of Thomas Tull, Legendary Entertainment's former chairman and CEO; he helped acquire the kaiju's film rights from Japan's Toho and work out King Kong's complicated rights so they could eventually battle in the definitive cinematic brawl.
Back in 2014, when director Gareth Edwards kicked off the whole endeavor with Godzilla, no one was sure if audiences would care about seeing another reboot of the King of the Monsters smashing and crashing his way around the globe — again. As it turns out, they did. Godzilla had the biggest North American debut ever for a creature feature (besting the champ at the time, The Lost World: Jurassic Park) and earned $529 million globally. That success opened the door for writer Max Borenstein to help Legendary and four different directors craft a connected universe that ended up here.
As the only writer who worked on all four Monsterverse installments in some capacity, Borenstein has a unique perspective on how the different directors passed the creative baton to the next guy, ultimately snapping together to make the overarching ambitions of Tull, Legendary, and Warner Bros. come true.
SYFY WIRE recently connected with Borenstein for a two-part conversation about their kaiju-sized plans for a monster of a franchise. (Look for the second part of our conversation about some of Godzilla vs. Kong's most epic moments after the movie premieres.)
There's been a trend of movies that were essentially meant to set up a full franchise, allowing writers to chart the entire course of the series from the start, such as Transformers and Universal's Dark Universe. Was the Monsterverse set up that way too?
No. It's been a long journey that's been organic. Initially, it began not as a franchise, but as an attempt to reboot an American Godzilla and do that in a way that was going to be different, but hopefully more successful — in our minds — creatively in other ways than the original American version from the '90s.
Coming in initially, working with Gareth Edwards was the goal. And that was really an all-consuming project where we really weren't putting any thought into anything else. It was trying to coherently create a grounded version of that story that would feel like it resonated with everything that you love about the Godzilla mythos and the franchise, but in a way that was renewed and felt plausible and contemporary.
When was the first time a bigger storytelling canvas was proposed and included your involvement?
We were in post on that film when I had the first conversation with Legendary. Thomas Tull, who was CEO of Legendary at the time and the founder, was the real initial impetus and stan. He was the reason that they were doing Godzilla in the first place. He said, "Would you be interested in doing a new King Kong story that would be set on Skull Island?" I started working on that a little bit during production, but mostly very close [to the end] on Godzilla. His vision from the beginning was that one day we're gonna get to Godzilla versus Kong. But the [initial] goal was let's just try to add Kong into the universe that we've created for Godzilla.
I wrote the first draft, and [left to do the TV show] Minority Report, as it developed further. I came back to [Skull Island] in the early days as it was moving toward the green light. And that was where it shifted from just coming in [to write] on Godzilla, to let's build [a universe] from the ground up. We really kind of rebuilt it. And then in Kong, it was much more coming back in and trying to fashion what we have, and also connected that to the larger mythology that we've been building.
What was the bridging device, Monarch?
We created this Monarch organization and the idea that Godzilla was one constellation, or an ecosystem. It evolved organically that this organization was behind the cover-up in some form, and whatever else it took: containment, sighting them, etc... And over the years, we imagined that it evolved. My cousin Greg and I wrote a comic book [Godzilla: Awakening], and the idea there was to imagine some of that history surrounding the appearance of Godzilla in 1954 after the bomb site in the South Pacific. And this was going to start the build out of what else Monarch was doing.
One of the signature elements of the Monsterverse are the opening or end title sequences, which are a veritable mythology dump of all the stuff we don't see in each film, like a titan library archive of public-facing and redacted materials. Did you touch those in any way?
No, it's an organic thing where they get brilliant title companies and title designers and they've done an amazing job. But what I noticed is that things from earlier drafts, ideas that ultimately got cut but were still foundational, get back in [those credits] in cool ways.
So, it wasn't like, "Let's sit down and plan every single thing." It's more like you've got really brilliant, artistic people who have access to all this information we've been working from, and they pick pieces that sometimes didn't make it in, which is great. And then they've added stuff as well.
Making successful cinematic universes are all the rage but most of them don't work. What was the vision for constructing this Monsterverse, especially since there have been four separate directors at the helm of each installment?
It's been wonderful working with Legendary, and I think it's a really unique franchise in the sense that they've allowed every film to be representative of the vision of the filmmakers that they brought in. Marvel [Studios] does it, genre-wise, brilliantly; maybe a lot better than anyone, obviously. But genre-wise, it's almost like you're watching a giant, extensive television series where everything is meant to fit together. Whereas with Legendary, they've really allowed each filmmaker to make the film their own, in a way that's interesting cinematically.
It's been wonderful working with them, but then also with each of the filmmakers because all of the filmmakers have different sensibilities. The movie Gareth [Edwards] made, [Godzilla], is very much his vision. He and I got on really well and worked really closely on it, which was an amazing process. And then Jordan [Vogt-Roberts] is completely different, also great at what he does, but with a very different tone for [Kong: Skull Island]. Michael Dougherty is wonderful and has a completely different sensibility than those guys. He's drawing a lot more on horror and camp and things like that for [Godzilla: King of the Monsters]. And then Adam [Wingard] is a different kind of horror filmmaker, and a different kind of visionary that brought in a New Wave-y, '80s look with amazing colors and vibrancy to [Godzilla vs. Kong].
What did Legendary do right? Because they did achieve the goal of a Godzilla vs. Kong endgame.
What Legendary has done is they've carved a separate space where they're almost like patrons. They're like, "We're going to bring in creative, cool people with a vision and we're going to give them the keys for a little while. We're going to make sure it integrates, and have quality control, but we're not going to exert a heavy hand on reining in their creativity."
I think that's why all the films are very different. And some people love them all. Some people don't, but a lot of people love some.
Godzilla vs. Kong premieres internationally on March 24 and in U.S. theaters and on HBO Max on March 31.