It’s one of the most recognizable franchises in movie history, telling a story that’s been told more than two dozen times over the past 60 years. So how do you make Godzilla relevant again?
That was the task put to Max Borenstein, who wrote the screenplay for Gareth Edwards’ upcoming Godzilla reboot. In an exclusive interview with Blastr, Borenstein said he turned to Steven Spielberg’s classic sci-fi flicks when looking for inspiration to tell a more human story about the biggest monster in cinema lore.
His biggest touchstones for Godzilla, oddly enough? Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and any other classic genre films with “really great characters.”
Borenstein said the characters in the film really served as a conduit to tell a compelling story around the larger-than-life creature who gets top billing. Take that into account, along with a cast list featuring Bryan Cranston, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, and the early critical buzz starts to make some sense. There was also one unwritten role during development: They could have heroes, sure, but they couldn’t be too “super.”
“I think we really wanted to find a way into this through the perspective of characters who would feel like every men characters, not necessarily ‘Joe Nobody,’ but people who have realistic, recognizable jobs in our world today and who have plausible reasons to get involved and wind up swept up in the events of the film that was we can connect to in a relatable way. We all have families and people we care about. Godzilla, in some sense, his arrival is akin to some horrible natural disaster, things we’ve lived through like that now, too.
We were looking for characters who would be positioned in a way they could have some influence on the story and be involved in the story, but we didn’t want to allow ourselves a character who would feel so heightened he was a superhero, because that’d take it to another genre. We wanted a regular person to be heroic, but not superhero heroic, that way we could have a character everyone could relate to and help people invest in the Godzilla story in a way you can walk out, look up at the cinema and think ‘What would happen if this really happened?’”
As fans have noticed from the initial trailers, the new Godzilla is taking a much more grounded and realistic take to the giant monster movie. When asked how you reconcile the opposing sides of making a “grounded” version of a giant sci-fi movie, Borenstein said they decided early on that most moviegoers would sign on for one big suspension of disbelief (see: Giant monster attack). After that, they tried to tell the most realistic story possible.
“For my taste, with a movie like this aspiring to a grounded tone, the best way to do it is to give yourself one ‘buy-in’ as a premise. As an audience, get them to accept the premise you give, but only ask them to suspend their disbelief once — then we want to live in that world. The moment you ask to suspend disbelief again, that’s where you get into trouble. In aspiring to tell a more grounded take, what we said was our one buy-in is Godzilla is going to, at one point in the film, rise out of the ocean. This 350-foot radioactive ancient lizard.
Then we try to tell the story, make no more sci-fi leaps, and build off of that. We need our antagonist monster, or monsters, to relate to Godzilla in an organic way, while not allowing another sci-fi leap in the film. For example, something like an asteroid crashes and aliens pop out. Not in the film. We needed it to feel organic. You’re asking audiences to buy into a pretty big premise, and wanted to limit that and show a response that will be naturalistic to what we have in the world today. There would be military, and firs responders, dealing with this. Then spawn a story out of that.”
Borenstein also dug into the process of figuring out which pieces of the classic lore to keep, and which areas to ax, as they tried to create a Godzilla film for modern audiences. He said they were obviously anxious to stay loyal to the components fans know and love, while not being beholden to every piece of lore — mostly because the franchise has genre-hopped and made enough zany detours that it left things open enough for reinvention.
“Coming in as fans, it felt like our obligation was always going to have to be to the integrity of the film we were making and we wanted to make the best film possible. There’s a reverence and respect for the character as fans, but we didn’t want to be so deferential to any sort of fan service that it becomes fan service, rather than somethings that stands in its own right. The freeing aspect is there isn’t really a definitive Godzilla, as compared to something as revered as Watchmen where you can’t divert from it, because there is no one, pure Godzilla movie. The original is a grim allegory of the atomic bomb, then the next film has him fighting another monster. Then it becomes campier, and in the '60s it’s almost kitsch, and in a very different tone. Over the course of that, you realize there is no singular Godzilla.
You have to reduce it to a common denominator and ask ‘What is fundamental and crosses all Godzilla versions?’ For us, for me, anyway, it’s the idea that Godzilla is a force beyond our control. That’s the case when he represents the atomic bomb, or the threat of alien invasion, or environmental catastrophe. All the different moments he’s come to stand in for or stand against in the course of his 60 year existence. Regardless of what fears we poured into him as a vessel, he’s always been a vessel for humanity’s fear of something beyond human control. A force that can’t be reined in or defeated by all our technology and destructive power. It reminds us time and again, just when we think we’re in control of the world, the world is in control of us. I felt if we could respect that, we’d be respecting Godzilla in the most fundamental way.”
Along with writing the film itself, Borenstein also got the chance to pen a prequel graphic novel dubbed Godzilla: Awakening. The story tells the history of the big green guy, and focuses in on a story that feeds into the film but is not required reading to watch the movie. Borenstein said it was a bit of a tightrope walk to put together a story that connects to the movie ‘verse — but isn’t necessary to understand it.
“It made it really interesting, and I think that what we wanted to do was tell a story that would feel totally at peace with the film, like it exists in the same timeline, but really was an expansion of the universe and an additive thing, rather that as a first act to the film. The film stands alone, but what we wanted to do was establish what our Godzilla was, and what might’ve happened 60 years prior to the film, which is vaguely eluded to in the film. One of the challenges there is trying to end in a state that allows for the beginning of the film.
As fun as it would’ve been to get to maybe destroy a big city, we couldn’t do that, because by the beginning of the film the world is unaware of the existence of Godzilla. That’s the opening state of the film… We wanted to do a prequel kind of story, an origin story, that meant we would end in a state where Godzilla remains a mystery, but still allow enough adventure and action to make the story compelling in its own right. With something the size of Godzilla, that presents certain interesting, logistical challenges.”
Borenstein noted that one of his favorite aspects of the graphic novel was the ability to tell a story in a different medium using tools specific to the comic-book world, such as a massive retrospective on the character’s history:
“One of the fun things about it was the way a graphic novel can express an idea more efficiently and differently that a film. My favorite example in the book is a page that presents a history overview of Godzilla’s existence in the world, from the dawn of humanity until the dropping of the atomic bomb, all on one page and graphically. As a comic reader, you’re trained to pay attention to panels and get visual pleasure from that, whereas in a film, you’d have to go do that in some kind of time lapse. But in comics, that’s something you can do in one page.”
The Godzilla reboot opens May 16.