Godzilla director Gareth Edwards took on quite a big legacy when he decided to update the classic monster movie — and instead of sexing up our beloved Kaiju, he changed the the story of Godzilla forever. He explains the real events that inspired his monster saga. Spoilers ahead...
What do you need to make a good Godzilla movie? What are the necessary requirements to make a monster movie that is both fun and dark and Godzilla?
Gareth Edwards: Lots of things. I think the most important thing is that for him to big and ominous and scary, you need to have something to contrast him to. You need to have something small and quiet and dark. We were always trying to find that contrast. If you're going to do a shot where you're going to see him, I'd like to not just show him but to show what you think is him, and then you realize that's just his foot. And then you realize, "oh my god he's much bigger than I imagined."
It's that trick, like at the beginning of Star Wars when you see one ship go and you say "oh wow" and then the big ship comes over. If not for that one small thing, the big thing doesn't seem big. And so you're always looking for that element that's going to give you the scale. And typically that's a human. Or something you know the size of. So a lot of the shots in the movie are usually from the perspective of a person. Also it gives it more emotion...
Within a scene you can hit a peak, and then you've got nowhere else to go. So you're always trying to find a way to reset things back to the quiet, back to the distance obscuring what they're seeing. And you give them another dose, and you're trying to try and create that roller coaster throughout the movie.
What about the balance of fun that's in Godzilla? You let Ken Watanabe say, "Let Them Fight!" How do you find a balance, and was that humor important to keep in your version of Godzilla?
Some of that just sort of appears. When you're doing stuff you don't know what is going to work, and what people are going to respond to the most. We were excited about that line in the film (the "let them fight" one). And actually in the beginning of the movie, the boy gets out of bed and he goes past a Japanese poster. That poster is called "Let Them Fight," so it's a little in-joke for us.
You get into those conversations about putting humor in it, and having fun. I think because we're trying to take it seriously, and that the idea that if this really happened it would be quite harrowing for those involved, the idea was (for me) was to have fun, but with the filmmaking. Instead of with the characters. It's not like the characters make jokes or that there are these winks at the camera or one liners, it's more like within the filmmaking we tried to do things that makes the audience chuckle or smile. The people that are going through the situation are still having quite a traumatic experience. I think that's a difference I quite like, when the story telling is fun but the events maybe aren't.
Let's talk about the big monster fight! How much trouble did you go to, to make Godzilla, look like a guy in a suit during these fight scenes? Plus there's that wide pan-out shot where you see the buildings around them, just like in the classic movies, and they are readying to fight. Was that a mandatory shot?
Yeah, there are certain things you have to do for it to be considered a Godzilla film, and that was one of them. The thing we tried to do, when we first sat down to talk about the design of him and how do we pull it off, was that if we literally picked up a Japanese guy and we shot him for this movie. It wouldn't have worked for the sophistication of the modern audience.
But we wanted to stay true to it, so we said: What if it was a real animal that existed and maybe 60 years ago he appeared off the coast of Japan, came out of the ocean and some people witnessed him but no one took a picture? Then they went running off to Toho (who did the original films) and tried to describe him and tried to explain him. And then they went off and made all their own movies [inspired by this story].
In our film, you're going to see that real animal that they originally saw. So we have to keep it in that realm of nature. But we can improve, refine shapes and try and make it more based on maybe the animals in nature and things like that. But that guy in the suit was always in the back of our minds, but we took a license to modernize it. And make it more realistic.
I'm glad you didn't get too carried away. The Godzilla in 1998 looked like a dinosaur. This Godzilla maintains the guy in the suit with claws. Was there ever any pressure to make Godzilla, I guess, sexy? Less like Godzilla, more like a dinosaur?
No, no I think everyone felt the same way. If we're going to do it, we gotta do Godzilla. If anything, the pressure was to make it more and more like the guy in a suit. And Toho, they had approval of the design. We bounced back and forth and refined it over the period of about a year. We did hundreds of designs. There was never really a "eureka" moment. It just kept getting closer and closer each day until everyone including the studio, Toho and everyone said, "Yeah that's him." I thought it was going to be a really simple thing to do, because everybody knows what he looks like. But it took a good year to get it right. It was actually kind of like witnessing the scene of a crime and everyone is trying to describe the criminal. Until you all go, "Yeah that's him, that's the guy who did it." We couldn't stop.
Given how political your previous film Monsters was, did you feel like you had to dial it back a little with these monsters?
This film could have easily worked without any layer of anything in it, it could have been just purse entertainment. And I'm sure a lot of people would be happy. I was always trying to look for what's the inner meaning behind any of the things that we're doing. The original 1954 Godzilla was really a metaphor for Hiroshima and Nagasaki and, I believe, that if they could have just made a movie about Hiroshia they would have. And we wouldn't have ever gotten Godzilla. But because they were censored so heavily after the war, they had to sneak it under that radar under the guise of a monster movie. It has a lot of weight to it because it's really about something else. So I was always trying to find layers in things that we could add, especially the man vs. nature aspect.
I think the best horror is delivered from a place of guilt. The more guilty you make the victims and the audience, the more deserved the horror feels. A lot of horror movies have that — the people involved do something that makes them slightly guilty, so when they get killed [there's a sense that they deserved it]. I was trying to make the human race feel guilty — it was about time for retribution from nature. But hopefully [this film isn't as political] as Monsters, because you know we have to appeal to a much larger audience than I had to with that film.
It's interesting that you say you wanted to make the human race feel guilty and the easiest way to do that is to paint the military with a broad evil brush. But this movie was (in my opinion) very pro-military. They want to blow up Godzilla, but they also take advice from the scientists. And they let them fight, was that your intention?
We had the Department of Defense cooperate with the film, so we had them onboard and they were on set every day. It was really fascinating to me, because when we started, I had an idea about the military, like people do who have not had much experience with it, which is that we always associate them with war and fighting. And the thing that they were trying to make as clear as possible throughout the film is that actually they consider themselves peacekeepers, rather than war and death, that's their main goal. So we tried to keep that in the film, and the thing that I'm most proud of is that our hero in the movie, his job is to stop weapons. It's the opposite to what people think of when they think of the military sometimes. So I was really pleased that we got that, that we showed that aspect of the Navy in the movie. We're actually going to show the Secretary of the Navy the movie this week, so that's a bit nerve-wracking.
Did you worry a little about destroying a Japanese town in the similar manner as Fukushima. It could be considered a little insensitive. Were you nervous about that?
Those events happened while we were writing the film. And we had to make a decision about, "Do we change everything, do we not put the film in Japan?" And we spoke with a lot of people. Obviously Toho were partners on the film, everybody we talked to about it. And there was a general consensus that, no if you do it respectfully, if you do it in an appropriate way, then it's kind of the job of films like this. Especially Godzilla considering that the original version was about Hiroshima. It's an issue that needs to be addressed that we've kind of opened this pandora's box of nuclear power, and it's not something we can easily put back in. When things go wrong they really do go wrong.
Our film is not about Fukushima, it's a fictional town. But it does have those questions in it, which I think are fair. Godzilla has always been associated with the nuclear age and radiation. And so, in terms of bringing it to be relevant today, it felt like the sort of events that happened in that film were the most appropriate thing to do really. Hopefully we did it in a way that is sympathetic.
Do you think Pacific Rim hurts or helps Godzilla?
I think it helps. We come at it from the other side of the spectrum. It allows us to do that even more so. That film did what it did so well. I think that we get to do the opposite, which is what I always wanted to do. I think there's a place, just like if these things were really happening, it would be a world changing event on a scale of at least World War II. Why can't you have a film like Saving Private Ryan in the same genre. There is plenty of room for monster movies of different types.