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SXSW: Translating GODZILLA With Director Gareth Edwards

If you were at SXSW and lucky enough to be at the screening of the original 1954 Japanese classic Gojira, you know that the footage Gareth Edwards revealed from his new Godzilla was something quite spectacular. The British filmmaker was quiet, charming and massively appreciative of the audience at SXSW. He should be: his incredible low-budget sci-fi opus Monsters debuted at the festival almost exactly 4 years ago. It was around the same time that Legendary announced with Toho that they had acquired the rights to make a new Godzilla in partnership with the Japanese studio. The timing couldn’t have been better, as Edwards’ Monsters was a parable of immigration and geo-political isolationism. It was also a great sci-fi film about giant energy-addicted creatures from the sea. Legendary saw the correlations between Edwards’ efforts and Toho’s original film that warned against the dangers of nuclear testing.

It was with these thoughts in mind we began our discussion with Gareth. The soft-spoken director was quietly effusive on the subject that seems to be a catalyst for his involvement. “Originally, it was a blatant metaphor for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For me, it’s the whole point of science fiction and fantasy. On the surface level they’re about something very literal like a giant monster, but there’s always something, or can be something – a layer underneath that has a metaphorical meaning that you can choose to leave or take. To be honest, that’s what I was looking for, when we started having the early conversations about this film. If it’s literally just a bunch of monsters smashing up a city, then it’s kind of pointless. Then it has no meaning. I think films that affect people, that resonate, sort of stand the test of time… deep down, they’re about something. They have something to say about the world without feeling like you’re being preached to.”

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After the reveal of other monsters in the film, many people have been left wondering what Godzilla’s role will be, protector or destroyer. The director says it’s not as cut and dry as all of that. “For us, Godzilla was very much about man-vs.-nature. We have been the alpha predator of the world and abused that position. What if there was another creature that was the alpha predator that would basically come to put us in our place? What I found so fascinating is people will watch it as a popcorn film and enjoy it, but what’s interesting about our film is that we’ve all been abusing nature, especially the nuclear side of nature in terms of nuclear power and nuclear weapons. We’ve also been saying who can and can’t have them around the world. What if there was a creature out there that was attracted to radiation? Suddenly having this power was the worst thing possible and you’d be trying to get rid of it because it’s coming after them. That would be interesting from a sort of cinematic fun point of view, but also there’s a layer of subtext in our film that I think is [important]. I wasn’t interested in making a film that didn’t have another layer to it. It’s hard to get that right. This is a massive movie that’s going to go everywhere in the world. The last thing you can do is look like you’re preaching any kind of political stance. But at the heart of Godzilla is that theme [that] he represents [the] force of nature and the wrath of nature. There was an opportunity within our story to hint at and certainly raise questions about what we’ve been doing to the planet. I think they could go over your head, but I was shucking as many as I could into the film and trying to place it in the right places.”

The director also hopes the layers give the movie a lasting legacy. “The movies I love and have grown up with, I keep watching over and over have some inner meaning, and it might not be much. It might not be a statement, but it’s there if you want it. If that’s what you’re into, there are questions raised and ideas provoked that the film can explore. Even though it’s a fantastical situation, you can still make people think a little bit.”

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Throughout the process of making the film, the idea of finding elements in the movie that the director hadn’t originally envisioned began to bubble to the surface. “It’s always that classic analogy of having this massive stone and trying to find a sculpture. You’re hacking away at it thinking, ‘I know exactly where to go.’ As you’re creating the piece it, you suddenly go, ‘Oh wait a minute, this actually quite strong over here. Maybe we should adapt and let this become stronger in the film.’ There were certainly ideas I had when starting off that maybe took a backseat to stronger ideas that surfaced as you put the film together. Without sounding pretentious, but anything creative, with art and films and cinema, I actually don’t think you create them. You discover them. You’re trying to find what works and what’s strong and what you have a reaction to. It’s not like you have this idea and you put the scene and shots together and you hit play, then go, ‘Oh well, it’s not that great, but it’s what we decided to do. You hit play and you kind of go, “Ah, this is really working, but this bits not so great, so let’s get rid of this. Let’s amplify this a little bit.’ You react to it. It’s this organic process where it kind of tells you what it wants to become. It’s like a child. You have all these aspirations for it, but it’s got its voice and what it wants to be. our film’s kind of done that to some extent. The difficulty is having a proper conversation about it until people have seen the film. For a major Hollywood summer tentpole movie, I’m really proud of what we’ve done. It’s got all the elements that it’s not just a disposable popcorn film.”

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As our society has progressed we’ve grown both culturally and literally; The landscapes of our modern cities have massive skyscrapers reaching hundreds of feet in the air. To keep the monster relevant, Edwards had to make sure his creature was up to the task of being imposing against a classic skyline. “Our buildings have gotten taller. Our Godzilla is the tallest one I think they’ve ever done. 350 feet is like the technical height. And you think, ‘Oh, isn’t it strange that ours is the tallest?’ Well, not really, because our buildings over the years have gotten taller and taller and taller. We did a test where we had the 3D model of the city and literally animated him and watched him from different angles at lots of different heights. The 350 feet felt like the obvious choice, because you want him big enough that seeing him from the ground and lots of different places he seems imposing and sort of dominates the environment. But you want him just small enough as well that he can be hidden, because a lot of fun of this film is in never being 100% sure where he’s going to come from or where he is. We play with that a fair a bit in the movie and it’s become one of my favorite moments. So, we couldn’t make him insanely tall, because it would kill that.”

It’s that element of hiding that also led to the delightful contextualization of the creature against our planet’s history. As other films like X-Men: First Class utilized real events to play out their larger than life scenarios, Gareth too took the opportunity to contextualize his larger than larger than life lizard. The director had his reasons for wanting to go back to the nuclear testing that happened in the South Pacific in 1954, and is still on the table for many governments today. “It was two things. Firstly, trying to find a nod to 1954 and the original origins of Godzilla, which was in the test that happened in the South Pacific. Also, trying to find something that felt realistic. The biggest problem we had was, is this an origin story, basically a stand alone movie, and how do you explain where this thing came from? Why have we never found him before? Why has no one ever seen him? This is just silly. The easy answer was what if we have found him. What if as soon as we could go to those depths, as soon as we had submarines in the ’50s we found him? Everything that happened, those nuclear tests, it was a response to trying to eliminate this problem to the Navy and the world. It was a couple-of-sentences idea that I said out loud to Legendary in an early meeting, and they were like, ‘Great! Where does it go from there?’ We spent a year and a half letting that unfold.”

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The film has taken longer than fans expected to reach the screen since it was announced in 2010. In an age where the release date is announced before you even have a director, Legendary took a different approach with what they knew was an important property, cinematically and culturally. Gareth says he couldn’t have been happier with the partner he had in Thomas Tull. “Legendary do really care about Godzilla and, more specifically, Thomas Tull really cares about Godzilla. We all felt the same way. If we are going to do this, we’ve got to do it right or not do it at all. And you think to yourself, ‘Oh yeah, I know what we’d do. It’s obvious what you could do for Godzilla.’ And then you start talking about it and laying down the storyline. You start to realize there’s a reason people haven’t cracked this. It’s tough to try to create an origin story with human characters you care about, who feel real. That leads to all the events we want to happen in this film. It took us a long time and thankfully no one wanted to rush it. It took us a long time to do something that felt right and everyone agreed would be a great film. I was sitting there thinking at some points, ‘Is this ever going to happen?’ I was in the U.K. when we were developing it, on a million phone calls at all hours with the writer and Legendary. Thankfully I think the thing that tipped us over the edge was the Comic-Con piece that we showed two years ago now. We were ready, we had the screenplay and everything was feeling really good. When that got out and there was such a good reaction from the public it just pushed the film over the edge and we were like, ‘Go! Go! Go!'”

Edwards was first noticed when he won a 48-hour film competition that allowed him to produce Monsters, and, even then, he only had a crew of five, including the cast, who also assisted as crew members when not in a scene. On the subject of working on a massive, big-budget film versus a micro-indie, Gareth said, “You have even more limited time. Once they pull the trigger on it, it’s as crazy as any filmmaking would be, but you have the resources. Time is something you don’t have, but talent and resources we have a stack of. It’s more like it all happens in parallel. People are busy doing shots as you’re filming, as people are busy doing design and audio and writing music. It’s not a linear thing, it’s all happening simultaneously. That’s probably one of the biggest differences. As director you can’t just go, ‘I’m going to do this, then I’ll pay my attention to this.” It all happens simultaneously.”

At the end of the day, though, Gareth is incredibly light and happy, though clearly tired. “It’s been such a marathon and I’ve been pulled in a million different directions, but I wouldn’t have done it for anything else. It’s worth it because of this movie. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I feel good about the film we’ve come out in the end with.”

Godzilla will arrive in theaters May 16th.

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