If you, like me, loathe the 1998 version of Godzilla, direct all vitriol towards the hiring of director Roland Emmerich. An excessive orchestrator of grandiosity over emotion, Emmerich is the quintessential summer blockbuster filmmaker, and prior to making his Godzilla, he directed the still-awesome Independence Day. But take another look at ID4—whereas the humans, played by Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum, are well-developed, the aliens are thin, one-note ciphers of malevolence. You don’t care about them, much like, in Emmerich’s Godzilla, you don’t feel much sympathy for or connection to the humongous, titular monster. And as anyone who’s loved Godzilla since first seeing the classic 1954 O.G. film will tell you, the god’s movies work best when the beast is handled with empathy. Who doesn't want to root for the big guy?
Now, after you’ve seen the new Godzilla this weekend and you’ve fallen in love with it, be sure to direct much of that excitement in director Gareth Edwards’ direction. Under his watch, the iconic monster is back in sentimental form. Edwards builds towards Godzilla's big physical reveal, but once the gargantuan-of-the-hour finally shows up, he's not some one-dimensional spectacle. Edwards' Godzilla has a personality. He (not "it," because, yes, Godzilla has earned that pronoun) connects with main character Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and, even better, he'll connect with you.
Although Edwards' first Hollywood production is a massive ($160 million affair, the English filmmaker treated his Godzilla the same way he did his highly impressive 2010 feature film debut, the indie sci-fi flick Monsters. With its skyscraper-tall creatures, Monsters is steeped in the now-60-year-old Godzilla tradition, but the film ultimately works because it’s an engaging, character-driven drama first and foremost.
Thankfully, the same can be said for Godzilla. Edwards saves the film’s eponymous monster for its second half, instead centering on military man/family man Ford, his father, Joe (Bryan Cranston), and the other flesh-and-blood characters suddenly living in a world where creatures the size of Manhattan building run amok.
Edwards making a Godzilla is about the best director-on-material pairing one could hope for, and the 38-year-old director delivers on all fronts. Complex recently chatted with Edwards about his unique, anti-blockbuster approach to one of the year’s biggest movies. In his eyes, it’s more Steven Spielberg’s E.T. than Peter Jackson’s King Kong—or, heaven forbid, Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla. [Warning: Spoilers ahead!]
This is perhaps the biggest compliment I can give to you and your film—once Godzilla ended, I realized that this was the first big Hollywood movie in a long time to make me feel like a kid again.
Wow, thank you. It’s this crazy thing—you close your eyes, you make the film you want to see, and in order to get past the pressure of the fans and the studio and the money, you pretend that it’s just for you and that nobody else is going to see it. Then, suddenly, you finish the film and you remember that it’s an illusion, and that, actually, the whole world is going to see it and have their own opinions about it. We finished it a week ago [Note: This interview was conducted on May 4], and they told us they were going to show it to people but that these people would be embargoed from saying anything about it. So, for the last week, I’ve been so paranoid. [Laughs.]
It’s been horrible just knowing that everyone’s seeing it but I can’t know what they think. But to hear something like what you just said is really nice, because, as a whole, this experience can be pretty traumatic. Obviously you do these things because you want to make something that people like, but you never know how it’s going to turn out.
Like everybody my age, I grew up with the Spielberg movies and things from the ‘70s and ‘80s. I was just a child back then, but I used to get that feeling that you’re talking about like once every other month at the cinema. But then I got older and it doesn’t happen as often anymore. I’m lucky if it happens once a year. You partly think it’s because the films were just better back then, so purely as an experiment for myself, I wanted to make a film that was like the films I saw as a kid, and try to tap into that feeling again. I wanted to see if I could get close to that old feeling of going to the cinema and watching the movies that I consider to be the classics.
Your film is so patient and so much about the build-up, a foreign, forgotten concept when it comes to modern-day blockbusters. All of the recent superhero movies open with a big action set-piece, but Godzilla takes its time and saves the big money-shots until closer to the end. Is that connected to recapturing that old Spielbergian spirit?
There are a lot of brilliant films that are out at the moment, and I’m not in any way disrespecting anything, but I think a common thing that can happen with CGI is that you get what I call “CGI fatigue,” where you get so much crazy, amazing, spectacular images that, after awhile, they start losing their value. You hit a brick wall with how much you can care about what you’re seeing. I was more nervous about doing that than I was about frustrating the audience with the slow-burn effect. Everyone’s watching it, we’re showing it to people as we’re making it, we’re getting everyone’s opinions, and we’re trying to find that little balance between hooking people and drawing them in but not frustrating them.
I’m sure we went too far for some people. As an audience, if you literally get what you want all the time, then you might as well not go to the cinema—you should just close your eyes and picture it. Storytelling should be a little bit about what you weren’t expecting and what you weren’t thinking of next. Your goal when you’re making a film, obviously, is to surprise people or do something different from what they’re expecting to happen next. Some people may find that to be frustrating, but I know that when I watch a film, I kind of give in and let them film take me and get excited by that.
You seem to be having a lot of fun playing with that build-up and audience expectations throughout Godzilla. The first big fight between Godzilla and the Muto is shown through news reports and spliced-up TV footage, and there’s another fight that begins as these big hangar doors start closing shut in front of the fighting.
Yeah, exactly. With the Hawaii stuff, the approach is, “We’re going to show Godzilla for the first time, so let’s really build to it,” and then when it’s time to finally show Godzilla and have the big face-off, you think, OK, what’s the thing audiences will least expect in this moment? Well, it’s to cut away. You cut away, and then you go, “OK, now they’re gonna groan because I cut away,” so then you show it but show it in a crappy, realistic way on TV. I enjoy that style of filmmaking where you’re sort of teasing the audience and playing with them. It’s like foreplay—they’ve paid their money, they know they’re gonna get their climax, but along the way they want a really good striptease, I think.
Which then, unavoidably, adds a lot of pressure for you to really deliver big-time during the film’s third act. Did you ever stop and say to yourself, “Damn, I really better make the payoff kick ass if I’m going to do all of this teasing beforehand”?
That was definitely where all the attention went when we were in post-production. While you’re filming, you’re focused on the drama and the performances and those more intimate elements. A lot of that third-act climax stuff is computer-generated to a certain extent, so that’s where you say, while filming, “OK, we’ll deal with that third-act stuff in post-production.” And then suddenly post-production came along and we were like, “Oh, shit, we really need to get our heads down and nail this.” Post-production became as full-on relentless as the filming had been.
That took a lot of trial and error. We threw a lot of different ideas at that section, refined it, and reinvented bits. It was definitely the part of the film that got the most attention when we were in the edit suite. We knew that we’d been stringing those big moments out for so long that we needed to fully deliver on all of the promises and teases.
So much of what we see of Godzilla and the Mutos comes from the human, ground-level point-of-view. There’s a sequence where Ford Brody and his fellow soldiers are running through the decimated city as the monsters are brawling, and we only see glimpses of the monsters' bodies and the action off in the distance, rather than you just focusing on the main event like most other directors making a film like this would. Why was it important for you to present so much of the film from the human POV?
I think when you put the camera right by the monsters, then they’re not monsters anymore—they might as well be people. The thing that makes giant monsters so scary and exciting is that they’re massive. So, I kept trying to keep camera down on the human level, or if you’re higher up and closer to the monsters’ level, you’d feel like you’re on a rooftop or looking through a window or something. I also really get a kick out of jumping perspective a lot. You’ll be watching something far away, going, “Oh my god, what is that? Imagine being in the car closer to there.” And then we cut to the view from inside that car, watching people screaming and trying to leave, and then suddenly you’re in an office looking around.
I really like jumping around like that because it makes you realize that when you have a different perspective on a chain of events, you have different thoughts about what it’d be like to be those other people. You feel emotions for all these different people and they’re differing perspectives. I think it’s a more emotional experience when you’re imagining what it would be like from each perspective. It’s also about scale—you’re always trying to convey a sense of scale in films like this. There’s nothing that says scale better than a human figure. We all know the size of a person, so as often as I could get people into the shots, I did that, whether it be over a person’s shoulder or there are people off in the distance. Everything’s always relative to something you know. That was always the default thing.
The best example of that is the Golden Gate Bridge sequence. It's mostly shot from the kids' POV, inside the bus. It really drives home the fact that Godzilla is this awesome and massive thing in the eyes of kids.
Yeah, and that’s why capturing things from a kid’s perspective is so much fun from a filmmaking angle. They don’t always have the same reactions as adults, like the fact that they’re playing around on the bus and don’t seem to really know or understand the threat. Or how Ford’s son watches the footage on TV and think it’s so cool that there are dinosaurs on his television. I like that innocence. They don’t know that they have to be afraid, so they’re not afraid until it gets really bad.
Maybe it’s part of the Spielberg thing for me. Films like E.T. were filmed almost entirely from the child’s height, and the adults were all leaning out of the shot. I like bringing the camera down to the kid’s height and experiencing things from a kid’s point-of-view. Maybe it’s part of that thing you mentioned earlier, about wanting to feel like a kid again, what it was like when you were still in awe of the world and everything was massive.
There’s even a sense of that childlike wonder in how Godzilla and the other monsters are depicted. You give them all such strong personalities and tangible emotions, like that great moment where the two Mutos finally reunite and basically kiss, or when Ford destroys their nest and they react like any parent would at the sight of their children suffering. They’re actual characters, not just destruction machines.
I really enjoy the complexity of the real world. It’s never as easy as, “OK, this is evil and this is good.” So with the Mutos, the temptation is to approach them as purely evil, horrible creatures, but there was a point in the film where I decided that I really wanted to show them as loving creatures. It makes you realize that they’re just like us—they’re just trying to reproduce and survive, and that’s what we do.
The scene that hit me, personally, the most is when Godzilla’s lying on the ground in pain and he looks at Ford, and they have this moment of shared acknowledgement and empathy.
I love it when you get the audience to wish for an outcome and then you give them that outcome and you want them to wish they’d never asked for it. You want to say, “Please get Godzilla! Please stop him! Please make all of this destruction stop happening!” And then when it happens and you get to that point, you go, “Wow, I actually feel really bad. I don’t want this to happen anymore.”
In a way, that moment feels like someone putting down an animal. I just felt there was an opportunity to generate some real empathy in that moment. You might go, “Why is this movie about Ford? Why this guy instead of another guy?” So, to some extend, we tried to make Ford’s experience a mirror slightly to Godzilla’s experience. Like, when Ford jumps off the bridge and goes into the water, Godzilla goes into the water and we lose him, or when Ford falls over, Godzilla falls over. When Ford gets hope at the end of the movie, Godzilla gets hope, too. We’re trying to connect the two of them a little bit, but without it being cheesy like Free Willy or something. [Laughs.]
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)