For writer Max Borenstein, 'Godzilla' is about nature's dominance over humanity
"Godzilla" rampages into the multiplex this weekend, and as I've already detailed, I'm pretty well in the tank for it. It's an exciting, suspenseful, and above all, artful piece of work that really sits on a higher tier than most movies of its ilk.
Max Borenstein was the man given the impossible task of re-imagining this iconic story for a new era (working from a story by Dave Callaham), and I think he and director Gareth Edwards have delivered. And not only that, but Borenstein had a chance to expand the universe a bit with his work in the graphic novel prequel "Godzilla: Awakening," which we've already grilled him about.
Today, though, it's all about the movie, as the screenwriter tells us what he wanted to incorporate from the prior films in the series (not to mention what else from the Toho mythology he'd like to incorporate going forward if given the chance), what Godzilla came to represent, thematically, to him and how he collaborated with Edwards on developing the story, among other things.
Check out our back and forth below, and come Friday, run…don't walk…to your local theater and see for yourself.
HitFix: So I went back recently and re-watched the original film, "Gojira," and it struck me how this iteration is very much in the spirit of that film, using the monster as a backdrop and focusing on the human drama. With that as an obvious case, I'm curious: what else that was inherent about the original film were you interested in conveying in your script?
Max Borenstein: I think in looking back at the original and then the subsequent Godzilla films, the original I found really inspiring. I had never seen the Japanese cut of the original film until I was approached about doing this film. I had seen the "King of the Monsters cut," the American cut, which is, you know, a bit — it’s not the same movie. It’s got all these over-the-shoulder shots of Raymond Burr. It becomes an adventure story rather than the sort of harrowing allegory of nuclear war. And so having gone back and seen that film, I was blown away by its intensity and its ambition to use this monster movie to tell a story that’s gonna really strike at this very deep primal fear that everyone was feeling in that moment. I thought there was a real power in that and that was something interesting to aspire to.
Then I thought, the character evolves and he comes to stand in for different neuroses and fears, be it alien invasions in some and environmental catastrophe in others and bioengineering and all these different things that Godzilla becomes sort of representation of depending on the era and what the fears of the moment were. But it felt like the common denominator there was that Godzilla always represents a force beyond our control. And so in all the different films, whatever that individual theme of the moment may be, it’s always the case that humanity believes that we are in control of the world around us by virtue of our technology, our intelligence, whatever. And we’re reminded by the arrival of Godzilla and whatever ancillary characters/creatures there are that we are insects on this planet. That we are not in control. So that sort of big theme felt like, if we could find a new way to approach it and make sure that our Godzilla hits on that, that feel, regardless of what the specific is, then I think we are kind of doing our job.
Now when did the Fukushima Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster happen in all of this? Were you already well underway?
No, Fukushima happened shortly before I got involved, and really, that was obviously, one certain very resonant example that we definitely thought about. But it feels like it’s not alone in this day and age, you know? It seems like a year doesn’t pass without a catastrophic natural disaster that’s exacerbated in one way or another by human activity, whether it be, you know, Hurricane Katrina which is a super storm arguably exacerbated by global warming and then again on the other end, where it causes tragedy because we didn’t build our levies properly. Or Fukushima, where we built a plant in a way and in a place where maybe it shouldn’t have. And all these examples of the ways in which we have built our society and our technology to believe that we are in control, and then things happen suddenly and catastrophically that remind us that even though we’re more advanced than we’ve ever been, we’re still at the whims of this natural world and it’s a natural world that we treat cavalierly. It felt like that was a really resonant way to start to see Godzilla.
All of that being sort of the broad thematic strokes, when you started to drill down and work on these characters, what were you interested in conveying with the human drama?
Well, you know, one of the interesting things about a Godzilla movie as it relates to human characters is that it presents a very unique challenge as a monster movie. You know, in King Kong you have a monster who inherently by his very nature relates to human beings. The whole idea of King Kong — because he’s at a scale that is bigger than but not that much bigger than human beings — he scares human beings but ultimately bonds with some and has this anthropomorphic quality. Godzilla, on the other hand, is so big at such a scale that human beings become like ants to him. So there without changing the tone that we were going for, which is a more grounded, realistic tone, without changing our tone to something campier, it’s very difficult to imagine a human plot where Godzilla really relates in an anthropomorphic way to the human characters.
So you have to take that challenge and say, well, how do we create a human plot that’s compelling in its own right and that is — it doesn’t feel just sort of random That really ties organically into the plot of Godzilla and the monsters, but also does so in a way that feels that it’s not stretching our tone and asking that, you know, let’s say the humans have psychic communication abilities with Godzilla — which has been done in the past in different Godzilla movies. So, facing that challenge, it becomes a question of, if Godzilla represents this force of nature, then maybe it’s about how people relate to these forces of nature and these disasters. So it’s about survival and it’s about family and it’s about reminders of what’s important.
Given that you've already started to build out this mythology, do you have any interest in drawing in some of the other creatures from the Toho universe?
I’m certainly a fan of all those as I now Gareth [Edwards] is and Thomas Tull. If we’re lucky enough to be able to do a sequel, then I guess we’ll cross the bridge at that point and see what would be appropriate and what might fit into the tone that we’ve sort of tried to establish. And I think there would be a way to do that with new monsters, with existing monsters, if that opportunity presented itself.
It's funny — and this is a bit of a SPOILER for anyone like me who didn't watch a bunch of trailers beforehand — but I was not expecting all the extraneous stuff with the MOTUs. I literally thought it was just going to be a Godzilla movie, so I was sort of blown away at the other stuff and how well it worked.
Oh, cool! That’s so great. See that’s — I love that. I mean it’s like, it’s this fine line these days, isn’t it? The marketing has to release a certain amount and fans are so ever-present, and thanks to the internet, able to pay attention and scrutinize things. And we all do it, so that’s great that you were able to go in pretty fresh, because that was in conception, you know? We wanted people to arrive at that scene, the base camp, and think is that gonna be Godzilla. So that’s great. I’m thrilled to hear that.
And I'm also curious about how you set about actually writing some of the action in the film. There is a lot that stands out as directorial vision to me, though I'm obviously not sure. Like one moment that sticks out to me is when the fighter pilot floats out of the dust and debris and it's real quiet, just before his jet crashes into the building above him. There's a lot of delicate reveals like that throughout. I kept thinking about Edwards as a sort of new Spielberg given his approach to the spectacle.
Right. Exactly. I mean, you know, that’s certainly a moment that was in the script but it’s a moment that was in the script because it’s something that Gareth and I talked a lot about. It was always, "How do you reveal these monsters in a way that’s gonna feel fresh and interesting?" Because when you have things of that scale, doing anything suspenseful becomes a real challenge. And that’s the fun of it, if you take that challenge on and try to tackle it. Because the other option is you just see monsters fighting constantly and from the beginning to end, which is fine, but I think that you’re missing out. The action scenes are great because they have suspense rather than just spectacle, and they always advance the plot in some way. The action scene itself is sort of an out of the frying pan, into the fire series of events that feels like it is a story in its own right.
So that was something that, from early conception, Gareth and I spoke a lot about and, you know, the process was fascinating and amazing. He and I would talk in long conversations on Skype or on the phone about what the set pieces could be in broad strokes, where they might take place, some moments that kind of occurred. Then he would go off and sketch stuff and then work with the concept artist. And then we’d get back on the phone. He was in London so the time difference allowed him to stay up 24 hours a day and then we would talk and suddenly there would be more detail and moments like that that would have sort of arisen through that work of him sort of sitting there and sketching and thinking. And then we would start detailing it more and get back into it.
So it was a very cool feedback loop in the development of that stuff. The script was really detailed because of that, because we had the luxury of being able to talk a lot about it and he had the luxury of being able to start visualizing it at that early stage. I could then incorporate and add some things and he would give feedback on those. So it was a really organic, cool process, which has made it so rewarding to watch now.
That's refreshing to hear, that it was such a close collaboration. It seems to me that kind of thing isn't typical when it comes to films of this scale.
No, I don’t think it is. I feel very fortunate to have been able to be a part of that. And I think comparing anyone to Spielberg is obviously, you know, the best, biggest compliment you could give. But I do so with Gareth, without question. I think he’s that kind of caliber of a director.
Well congratulations, man. It's an awesome piece of work all around.
Thanks, dude. It was great to talk to you. Take care.
"Godzilla" roars into theaters Friday.