HEAT VISION

Why 'Godzilla vs. Kong' Director Adam Wingard Treated Kong Like an '80s Action Hero

Godzilla vs. Kong and inset of Adam Wingard
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures; Jim Spellman/WireImage
The filmmaker also looks forward to his 'Face/Off' sequel and floats the possibility of a limited series sequel to his film 'The Guest.'

Adam Wingard’s journey to Godzilla vs. Kong began in 2013 when his breakout film, You’re Next, entered the orbit of one Peter Jackson. Shortly thereafter, Jackson handpicked Wingard to helm Skull Island, which was initially treated as a direct sequel to Universal and Jackson's King Kong (2005). In 2014, the film was retitled as Kong: Skull Island, but in order to facilitate a showdown with Godzilla, Legendary Pictures eventually worked out a deal that would send Kong to Warner Bros. As a result, Jackson — and Wingard by extension — had to leave the project.

In 2017, Wingard had a general meeting at Legendary Pictures with Mary Parent, who just so happened to be a producer on Universal’s Skull Island before she became Legendary’s production chief a few years later.

“I immediately started talking about how I would love to see Godzilla chasing Kong around with his atomic breath in a neon-soaked, futuristic, synthwave city,” Wingard tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I think Mary always remembered that Peter Jackson had given me his kind of seal of approval, and that meant a lot."

Another one of Wingard’s initial ideas for Godzilla vs. Kong was to embrace Kong’s underdog status, a trait that he associated with ‘80s and ‘90s action heroes like Die Hard’s John McClane and Lethal Weapon’s Martin Riggs.

“I always saw Kong in this film as an ‘80s action hero or an early ‘90s Shane Black action hero. I’m a big fan of that style of action where the action hero is this guy who’s down on his luck,” Wingard explains. “Godzilla is way more powerful than [Kong]. And then on top of that, we’ve put Kong on the ocean. This is Godzilla’s element. So the stakes and the danger level are already high for this character, but then you want to amplify that. And the inspiration for that really comes from Die Hard more than anything. That’s why the movie has a Die Hard reference here and there from a visual standpoint.”

Wingard is also opening up about the first draft of his Face/Off sequel script that he’s currently working on with long-time collaborator Simon Barrett. Naturally, he also views the film as a chance to pay homage to John Woo and his trademark style.

“I want to make a film that feels like it’s a lost John Woo movie. I want to do the irresponsible violence of some of those John Woo movies,” Wingard shares. “Simon and I are in the final phases of our first draft of the script and we’re so thrilled. It’s such a funny read. The characters jump off the page, and the action is just out of this world. But what’s exciting about it to me is channelling John Woo because this is really an homage to him. I want to do something that feels like it’s the John Woo-verse… It feels like it maybe isn’t him, but it has his signatures and vibes.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Wingard also discusses approaching Godzilla vs. Kong’s Hollow Earth location as his audition for Star Wars, the latest on a possible sequel to The Guest and doing a “peach pass” on his Face/Off sequel.

So what was the crux of your pitch to the studio?

Well, funnily enough, there wasn’t really a pitch, and I have to give credit to Peter Jackson in a roundabout way. Back in 2013, around the time that You’re Next was coming out, he had seen You’re Next and was interested in me directing a sequel to his King Kong. It was just going to be called Skull Island, and it was set up at Universal. Mary Parent, who’s running Legendary now, was also attached to that. She was actually the one that reached out to me about it. So I met with Peter Jackson, we really hit it off and that was going to be a project we were going to do. That was going to be my big massive leap forward as a filmmaker, going from indie movies to this thing, all of a sudden. But something happened and the project left Universal. King Kong went over to Warner Bros, Peter Jackson was pushed out, and I went along with him. Flash forward to 2017, I’m looking around for my new project as I’m editing my last film, and one day at editorial, my assistant comes into the room and he’s like, “Oh yeah, we have that general meeting over at Legendary in an hour.” And I’m like, “In an hour? Oh man, I forgot about this. We’re so busy. Maybe I should reschedule.” So I kind of talked myself out of it. Then I was like, “I think we have rescheduled this meeting in the past, so I’ll just go in there.” And it turned out to be one of those serendipitous things because if I hadn’t have gone, I don’t know what would have happened. We had a very casual meeting, and it was with Mary Parent again. So Godzilla vs. Kong came up and I was just very enthusiastic about it. I can’t remember everything we talked about, but I do remember that I immediately started talking about how I would love to see Godzilla chasing Kong around with his atomic breath in a neon-soaked, futuristic, synthwave city. So it wasn’t necessarily like a pitch pitch, but we had a really enthusiastic conversation. I think Mary always remembered that Peter Jackson had given me his kind of seal of approval, and that meant a lot. So, yeah, in a weird way, I give Peter Jackson credit for it.

There’s a common criticism regarding the previous films in this series and it’s often something like, “I just want two hours of monsters fighting. Leave the human characters out of it.” And whenever I hear that, I’ll tell myself that they don’t actually want that since information and emotion still needs to be conveyed. Jurassic Park and Jaws wouldn’t be what they are if they didn’t have compelling human characters. So what perspective would you add to this particular subject?

Well, it’s interesting because, other than these monster movies, there’s no other film franchise where your lead character stands at 6-foot and under, and then right next to them, your other lead character is 300-foot and above. That’s a huge, high, size discrepancy. So there’s a lot to juggle there, and no matter what you do, there’s always going to be a feeling of, “Humans over here and monsters over here.” So you do everything you can to integrate that. In this movie, we take it a step further by having the character Jia [Kaylee Hottle]. She’s a young little girl who has this connection with Kong and can directly communicate with him, so that’s a step further in that direction. I mean, I’m not going to sit here and try to correct people on what they think. Monsters are why we’re going to see these movies. We’re going to see big monsters battle each other, and anything that gets in the way of that is naturally going to rub people wrong. They’re just going to want more of the monster, and to a certain degree, I think these movies are about ready to get to that point. I actually think that this movie represents a bridging point. In the future, if this is a success, I think we can take a step forward and actually do a movie where there’s maybe not a lot of dialogue. Maybe there’s only a small percentage of human characters and it really does just rely on the monsters. I think that is a possibility because, if anything, just at the base level of this, the VFX are there. The capability to make that a reality is there. Weirdly, these movies are half-animated films anyway. Like I said, when you’re dealing with monsters and effects that are 300-foot tall and above, it all has to be CGI because there’s no other way to do it. Most of the time, everything in the frame, including the environment, is CGI. So it’s a complicated thing from a directing perspective because here I am, the director, and I spent a good 80-90 days, or whatever it was, directing some of the best actors on the planet. We’ve got Rebecca Hall, Alexander Skarsgård, Brian Tyree Henry and Millie Bobby Brown. They are incredible actors. So for me to always be talking about them as “humans” is a very distancing and strange thing. (Laughs.) Maybe it says something about our reality right now that we’re just “tired of these humans.” (Laughs.) But at the end of the day, I’m not going to sit here and try to talk down to anybody because the movie’s called Godzilla vs. Kong. That’s what they’re here for.

Did you reach out to the previous MonsterVerse directors for advice and insight?

Well, they actually reached out to me, which was really nice. As soon as Kong vs. Godzilla got announced, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, within a few minutes, hit me up on Twitter and was like, “Look, let’s go out for dinner. I’ve got to let you know what you’re getting yourself into here.” And through him, over the next couple months or whatever it was, I ended up coming into contact with Mike Dougherty and Gareth Edwards. These guys have a lot of experience now because every time one of these films is made, a filmmaker has been on it for years. And you’ve seen it all in the process. You’ve had the full studio experience. You’ve had the full big-budget technical filmmaking experience, and all the things that come along with it. So they had a lot of knowledge to give me, and they would also scare the hell out of me sometimes in terms of what to expect. But it was really helpful. We’re still on a text chain called “Kaiju Club” and those guys are really fun. Like I said, they’ve all been there and done that. A lot of the time, I would shut up, listen and just let them talk because I feel like I have a lot to learn myself. So it’s fun to see their perspective on things. We actually have a private screening today, and I think we’re going to do a little MonsterVerse photoshoot, which I’m very excited about because I’m standing on their shoulders with this movie. They set up these monsters, these characters and the universe itself. So I have the luxury of being able to take what they’ve set up and, of course, do my own spin on it. But they’ve already done a lot of the heavy lifting, and I’m fortunate because I got to play in that sandbox and just have a blast. (Laughs.)

So I’m not the only one who now wants a Hollow Earth movie that’s set within the MonsterVerse. While it’s completely understandable why the movie had to return to ground level, did you find yourself wanting to stay down there even longer?

Oh yeah, absolutely. Initially, I was terrified of it because when you look at that on the page, it reads a lot like Journey to the Center of the Earth, which was a dirty word. Nobody was allowed to mention Journey to the Center of the Earth on the movie because everybody knew that’s not what we wanted, especially at Legendary. And the reason for that is because nobody wanted visuals of caves and oversized mushrooms, which are associated with that concept of going into the Earth’s core. So for me to be able to wrap my head around it, I decided, “This isn’t a movie about people going into the Earth. This is a movie about going to another world.” So that’s how I approached it. I wanted it to feel like you were on a completely different planet. So the big “aha!” moment for me was when I started thinking about the way gravity would work inside this fantasy environment. And that got me thinking about the space station in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and how trippy it is. You can be on the ceiling but you can be on the ground level because of the way that gravity works. It’s on the outside instead of pulling inwards, and so that was a big inspiration for me in doing this. So I always approached it from that perspective going forward, and I really started getting excited about it when I realized that we could do something that was totally new and unique. And in some ways, I approached Hollow Earth like it was my audition for a Star Wars movie and not just another “going into Earth’s core” type of story.

I’m probably the thirtieth person to bring this up, but is Kong a fan of Martin Riggs and John McClane?

(Laughs.) There’s only been a few people who’ve actually brought that up, but I’m glad you did. It’s funny because I always saw Kong in this film as an ‘80s action hero or an early ‘90s Shane Black action hero. I’m a big fan of that style of action where the action hero is this guy who’s down on his luck. He’s a gritty dude who’s been kicked around a little bit, but he’s a total badass. The ship battle sequence, where we have Kong out on the ocean, has classic ‘80s stakes. Here’s Kong, a character who’s already the underdog because Godzilla is way more powerful than him. Godzilla’s got nuclear breath, impenetrable skin and all these things. And then on top of that, we’ve put Kong on the ocean. He’s being shipped on a boat, so this is Kong out of his element. Water is the worst place for him. He can’t swim that well and he can’t breathe underwater like Godzilla can. This is Godzilla’s element. So the stakes and the danger level are already high for this character, but then you want to amplify that. And the inspiration for that really comes from Die Hard more than anything. That’s why the movie has a Die Hard reference here and there from a visual standpoint. In Die Hard, you’ve got John McClane and Nakatomi Plaza. It’s one cop versus all these terrorists. And as though that’s not enough, he also doesn’t have any shoes on, there’s broken glass everywhere, and he’s running through all this. So you could just say, “Okay, these are enough stakes,” but we’re going to take it even further so that he has to really overcome these odds. So the ‘80s action thing is very prevalent in the movie, and that’s where my heart is anyway. That’s the origin of film for me, the ‘80s in general. (Laughs.)

When drinking bleach became a thing last year, was there any talk of removing Bernie’s [Brian Tyree Henry] bleach consumption in order to avoid any unpleasant reminders of our own reality?

What’s funny is we actually wrote that before all that. I remember the writer who wrote that scene, and he was like, “You guys just got handed a golden ticket here with this bleach thing.” He was like, “We never could’ve imagined that it would actually turn into this multi-tiered reference.” So we actually shot that and had created it before the Trump reference came in, if you could imagine that. It sounds absurd. When you watch the film, it seems like that’s what we’re directly referencing, but no, that was something else. (Laughs.)

So I held Dan Stevens’ feet to the fire about this, but he basically redirected my call to you. Simply put, how have there not been three The Guest movies by now? The Guest should be your John Wick-type franchise as far as I’m concerned.

(Laughs.) Well, the simple answer is that The Guest was a slow-burn cult classic. It’s a movie that was pretty largely unknown when it came out. It did well critically, but it didn’t really pick up until last year. During the pandemic, when it was re-released on Netflix, it really made a big splash with audiences finally. People finally started seeing it, and it was the number one movie on Netflix for a little bit. So, even though I don’t have a Guest sequel, [screenwriter] Simon [Barrett] and I have talked about it. We don’t have necessarily something that we’re excited about yet per se, but I’ve talked to Dan about it. Recently, I’ve seen Dan once a week, and we just hang out and chill. So we’ve talked about it a lot, but there’s nothing concrete. But I will say that we do have a very special Guest “sequel” that I’m working on in an unconventional way. It has to do with the music from The Guest, so there is going to be a big Guest thing coming up really soon that I think is going to thrill people. But no movies in the works just yet. There’s also a potential limited series down the line for it. Instead of doing a direct sequel to The Guest, we might do a limited series for it as a sequel. But again, it’s just not where our heads are at right now, so we’ll see.

Now that you’ve pit Godzilla against Kong, it’s only fitting that you’d put Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) and Sean Archer (John Travolta) back in the ring via a Face/Off sequel. Do you think you’ll feel somewhat obligated to do John Woo’s signatures such as characters diving with dual pistols and an excessive number of dove shots?

Oh yeah! Well, the whole reason why I want to do this movie is the experiment of it. I want to make a film that feels like it’s a lost John Woo movie. I want to do the irresponsible violence of some of those John Woo movies. I want to capture the sincerity of those Hong Kong films and what he brought to Face/Off. I think Face/Off  is John Woo’s second best film. I think The Killer is unbeatable; it’s one of the best films ever made. But Face/Off is actually pretty close because he does all of his signatures… Maybe there’s parts of Broken Arrow that work in this way, but I don’t like Broken Arrow that much. Face/Off is just this perfect mixture of action, comedy and drama. It’s a very funny movie, and that’s one of the things I want to bring to it as well. Simon and I are in the final phases of our first draft of the script and we’re so thrilled. It’s such a funny read. The characters jump off the page, and the action is just out of this world. But what’s exciting about it to me is channelling John Woo because this is really an homage to him. We haven’t gotten a good John Woo movie in a long time, and obviously, he’s his own person and I’ll never be able to make a John Woo movie. But I want to do something that feels like it’s the John Woo-verse, you know what I’m saying? (Laughs.) It feels like it maybe isn’t him, but it has his signatures and vibes. So I think that’ll be really fun for me as a filmmaker and as an experiment, but I think audiences are totally clamoring for it. (Laughs.)

I’m pushing my luck here, but have you and Simon written the word “peach” in Final Draft yet?

Oh my God, I have to be honest with you. Simon and I did our initial pass a couple of weeks ago, and we’ve been tweaking it since then. I’ve also been rewatching Face/Off every couple of weeks and just making sure, like, “Okay, is there something that I should be thinking about or am not remembering?” And to be honest with you, we did a “peach” pass on the movie because we realized that we didn’t really have that in there. I was like, “You have to have this reference.” So, yeah, it comes up, and it’s so funny that you mentioned that. (Laughs.)

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Godzilla vs. Kong is available Mar. 31 in theaters and on HBO Max.

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