'Godzilla' Writer on Monster Hit: 'We Aimed as High as We Could' (Q&A)
Max Borenstein defends the decision not to show the film's giant star until well into the film, saying he took a page from the "Jaws" playbook: "That movie becomes incredibly suspenseful, and perhaps it's the reason 'Jaws 2' becomes a lot less interesting."
[WARNING: Spoilers ahead for Godzilla.]
After three years of work, Godzilla screenwriter Max Borenstein is enjoying the monster-sized fruits of his labor. The monster picture from director Gareth Edwards debuted to a huge $93.2 million domestic haul over the weekend, with the film amassing a global total of $196.2 million.
"We aimed as high as we could aim, because the universe is going to throw you curve balls here and there," Borenstein tells The Hollywood Reporter of the Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. project.
He also defended the controversial choice to delay showing Godzilla until well into the film, saying he took inspiration from Jaws.
"It's done less these days because CGI has allowed us to show whatever we want when we want," he says of delaying big reveals. "There was something great about the suspense that was built up when you didn't see Jaws in the full until the end of the film. … By doing so, that movie becomes incredibly suspenseful, and perhaps it's the reason Jaws 2 becomes a lot less interesting, because you see him right from the very beginning."
What were your big challenges with starting to write this script?
Godzilla is unique in cinema history. His relationship to human beings is not an anthropomorphic one, unlike the other great monsters of cinema, like King Kong or Frankenstein. Jaws is at the same scale as human beings, so you can have a mano-a-mano battle. Godzilla is so much larger in scale that unless you want to manufacture something that feels tonally inconsistent with what we wanted to go for – such as some human being with a telepathic link to him – then you have to treat Godzilla more as a force of nature than an actual character. At the same time, he's a force with some kind of intelligence. It's just not one we can relate to or understand. Therefore, creating a human interest and a human plot within the context of a Godzilla movie becomes a unique challenge.
When you worked on Godzilla the character, did you go inside his head to understand his motivation?
Absolutely. He's a force of nature from our perspective in the same way human beings are a force of nature from the perspective of an ant. We can stare up at Godzilla. We can imagine his motives, but from our perspective, in practice, he is basically the same as a tsunami.
Did you always know Godzilla would become the hero?
In the very first Godzilla film, he's not exactly malicious. He's really like a force of nature and we don’t understand his motivations at all. Later on, he becomes so much of a hero that it verges on campy in most of the Godzilla films, where he becomes protector of Japan and fairly anthropomorphic. We went for a version where we treated him as a real animal. It was the idea that Godzilla is interested in his own life cycle. He is perfectly comfortable at the bottom of the ocean where he lives out his days. But things that we've done on the surface of the Earth have upset the balance and resulted in him coming up. It's not that he's coming up to punish us – although that's how it plays out – he's coming up because the balance has been upset. If you have a dog who is sleeping somewhere and you open a tin of meat, it's going to sniff that and come.
Did you draw on modern day disasters for this?
The direction that most intrigued me was those natural disasters that are not completely natural, whether it's a hurricane that is exacerbated by global warming and takes a human toll because of inadequate levies, or a tsunami that takes a human toll because of a reactor built in the wrong spot. These events are very common and are only going to get more common because of our existence on the planet.
Where did the idea for the enemy monsters come from?
Once we chose a grounded tone, it meant we had to pick an advisory creature that would feel as grounded as possible. Given that we were trying to play in this more grounded sandbox, it meant thinking deeply about, "OK, if Godzilla is an animal, what are his natural enemies?" If you say Godzilla is an ancient creature, then perhaps the reason he comes up is because some other ancient creatures have come back for whatever reason, and maybe there's a link to how the human beings got involved.
This was a three-year process for you. What was the longest part?
It's a combination of factors. With any hopeful blockbuster, it has so many moving pieces. It's a miracle any movies ever get made, but when you are dealing with so many moving pieces and trying to keep the bar as high as you can in terms of hoping you can tell an interesting human story within the context of a monster movie …
Then like any project there are always refinements, but the train is starting to move. Once the train is moving in production, things get complicated by the realties of production. In a vacuum writing a script is hard enough, and then out of a vacuum, it becomes exponentially more challenging in different ways. But one of the things we tried to do, and I think Gareth and Legendary and Warner Bros. did a great job of, was trying to keep the eye on the prize of the movie we wanted to make. We aimed as high as we could aim, because the universe is going to throw you curve balls here and there.
How did you decide when Godzilla would appear in the movie? He doesn't show up for a while.
It's a balance between suspense and reveals. People are going to react differently to it. There are people who will appreciate a slow build, and there are people who are going to want Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots from the very beginning. It's a matter of taste and a matter of choice. It's done less these days because CGI has allowed us to show whatever we want when we want. There's no longer the necessity of withholding, but necessity is the mother of invention. There was something great about the suspense that was built up when you didn't see Jaws in the full until the end of [Jaws]. There are all these creative and interesting things you can do without showing all of him. By doing so, that movie becomes incredibly suspenseful and perhaps it's the reason Jaws 2 becomes a lot less interesting, because you see him right from the very beginning.
What was the most fun thing for you to write or see on the screen?
Getting to see these actors do stuff that was text long ago and now you get to see them perform. That includes Godzilla and the M.U.T.O.s, because I think there's a little bit of emotion in the monster stuff, and that was all stuff we worked really hard on from the storytelling level. It's exciting to hear people cheer or gasp or react in the theater.