Papa Vinyard digs into GODZILLA, the Godzilla: Awakening prequel comic, and the joys of working at Legendary with screenwriter Max Borenstein!
Papa Vinyard here, now here's a little somethin' for ya...
Get this guys: Hollywood made another GODZILLA movie. Not like the cheeseball Roland Emmerich jam, this one's got indie cred, courtesy of MONSTERS director Gareth Edwards, and a cast including Kick-Ass, Scarlet Witch, Ra's Al Ghul (his doppelganger, at least), and Walter friggin' White. Furthermore, Jeremy, Quint, and Harry seem to totally dig it.
Screenwriter Max Borenstein, who already had his work cut out for him putting together a plausible, contemporary plotline for Toho's Legendary monster, also wrote a prequel comic setting up the film's events entitled Godzilla: Awakening, which you can check out here. That comic was the only GODZILLA content I'd seen before I chatted with Mr. Borenstein, but it served as an entrypoint into his thoughts on the character, as well as his approach to updating this massively iconic cinematic entity.
VINYARD: Can you talk a little about the genesis of this project? Did they approach you, or did you approach Legendary with the idea of the prequel comic? How'd it come together?
MAX: They mentioned it to me. I'd been working on the movie, and the movie was almost done, we'd finished production or were almost done with production when they approached. I don't know how long they had been gestating the idea, although I suspect, given that they have the internal comic book division and that they'd done that with some other films, PACIFIC RIM notably and successfully I thought, I think they'd been thinking about it. And I was really excited when they mentioned it, 'cause it was suddenly this opportunity to expand the universe that I'd been playing in for quite some time on the film.
VINYARD: So what was your relationship with the actual movie? Did you come up with the idea, or were you brought on later in the process?
MAX: I came up with the idea. I didn't come up with the idea to do a GODZILLA movie (I laugh), they were doing a GODZILLA movie, and I came when Gareth Edwards came in, essentially. They'd been developing it for a little while, and then when Gareth came onboard, it was really a matter of rebooting, because now there's a director, and there's a sensibility and a tone that was implied by the choice of the director, which certainly excited me. That was the reason I was so excited to come aboard. I had done some work with Legendary on other movies, and so when they approached me and said that Gareth was attached, I dove in. We had a conversation to see if we were on the same page creatively, in terms of what kind of GODZILLA movie we'd be interested in trying to do, and we really sparked. That's when I came aboard, and then it was really- we sat down with a kind of "blue sky" scenario.
The studio said, "We want the best GODZILLA movie that we can have, go!" And that was really it. They would've been open to anything if it was good. Indeed, Gareth and I spent countless, truly countless hours on Skype calls with him in London and me in L.A. at various horrible hours for both of us, but mainly for him, just sort of batting around ideas, hitting dead ends, and finding occasionally something that started to stick. That was really the genesis of the story, and then from there it was about, "Ok, let's write the screenplay!" Then it was a long process of getting that developed and refined and polished, writing with an idea of who the actors would be, and then once the actors came aboard, refining further for them. It's been an amazing creative experience, the whole way through.
VINYARD: If you could encapsulate your and Gareth's vision for the film in a logline, what would it be? (pause) No pressure!
MAX: The starting point was, "What if GODZILLA came out of the ocean today? What then?" That's your buy-in. And we didn't want…and I'm not saying that's where the movie begins, but that's the question we asked ourselves thematically. "What if this really happened? What if GODZILLA appeared, then what?" And the "Then what?" I think we were trying to not have any more buy-ins beyond that if we could help it. Beyond that, we wanted to then roll with it, with that being our one science-fiction buy, and then from then, you say, "Ok, well who deals with those kinds of things in the real world? What's analogous to that in the real world that we've seen? How would real people react? What would real people do? How would governments react?" We just really wanted to treat it in a grounded, plausible, realistic sense. It may sound silly to some people when you say, "realistic" and "350-foot lizard" in the same breath, but that really was our foothold the whole way through.
VINYARD: Well, in the comic, you do deal with GODZILLA's origin quite a bit. You present…maybe not a plausible scenario, but a believable scenario, let's say, for his existence. Was there any sort of- you said you had control over the script for the movie, when it came time to do the comic, were there any sort of mandates by Legendary or even Toho, in regards to what you could show, what you could reveal, what you could talk about, or not?
MAX: The limitations in the comic book really had to do with the movie. We were making something that- when they mentioned it to me, I could've said, "I want to make a side-story that's happening the same time as GODZILLA." I could've said anything. The story that intrigued me was this idea about Serizawa, and about a backstory for this organization that has some role to play in the film. In leaping to that, it meant that we were doing a story that took place earlier in the timeline than the film, so that meant the limitations are less imposed from the outside as they are by the fact that you go, "Ok, I don't want to give everything away." Moreover, we know where the movie starts in terms of…we know what the relationship- how much knowledge there is about 'Zilla going in, which I won't say what it is, but we knew where we had to get to. So if we had to get there, the limitation was you can't go farther than that in the comic book, so how do you do it?
Obviously, the comic ends with a limited knowledge of GODZILLA, confined to a relatively small circle of people. By extension, one might presume that the movie will begin with that kind of baseline, and then go from there. Obviously, you've seen the trailers enough to know that, by the time the movie's over, everyone in the world is gonna know who GODZILLA is. Our limitation was really about that. It was not imposed from the outside, in terms of what we were and weren't allowed to say. We already knew that we didn't want to do an origin story for GODZILLA in the sense of, "Here's how he was created, here's how he was born." We already had a sense of what our answers to those questions were. We just wanted to incorporate that into the story we were telling in the graphic novel.
VINYARD: You said you made an effort not to give anything away. So ideally, should people be reading this comic before they see the movie, or is it kind of a supplement for after they've already had the actual, full experience?
MAX: I think it can be read before, and I don't think it gives anything crucial away. I don't, because the creatures in it are not…the adversary creatures in the comic are not the same that we will see in the film. In a sense, it's a palette-setter for the film, and I think if you read it before seeing the film, you'll come into the film with an extra appreciation for the backstory of some of the elements in play. But I don't think if you didn't read it, you'd be missing much, and I don't think if you read it afterwards it would hurt, but I don't think it would spoil anything if you read it before. I guess what I'm saying is it stands on its own, but it also will embellish the experience without spoiling it.
VINYARD: Was this your first script for a comic?
MAX: It was. I'd started writing one with Greg, my cousin, who I collaborated with on this graphic novel, we had been working on one on our own already in our spare time, what there is of it- between the stuff I write, and he's an author but mostly an academic and a technologist at MIT media lab. We'd been working on something on our own that we're still working on, and this kind of jumped in in between. It felt like a great opportunity to do a comic book, since we'd kind of already been in that training ground a little bit. To jump in and do a comic about GODZILLA was an opportunity that we couldn't pass up when it presented itself.
VINYARD: Can you talk a little about the differences between writing the script for a feature and a comic?
MAX: Ultimately, the differences are technical differences. The main difference really comes down to the medium, and the differences between these two media and how they tell stories. Certainly, there's more compression plotwise, in terms of the amount of information that you digest per-page in a comic book being significantly more than a page of a film, usually. I certainly approached it the same way I approach anything, which is, "What's the story? Who are the characters?" and What's the best way we can tell that story?" Then you go from there. If you're doing a screenplay, you start with that, then you go, "Now how does that break down into visual moments, and how do I express that on a page that are playing as frames in time?" And then in a comic book, you go, "Ok, now how does this break down in panels that are playing over time as your eyes scan the page?" It's a learning curve in all the detailed senses, but in the macro, in the larger sense, it's the same thing. You're just trying to use that medium in the most expressive, creative way you can.
VINYARD: So what's your personal interpretation of GODZILLA? He's portrayed semi-sympathetically in the comic, but in your eyes, is he a hero? Is he a monster? Is he an anti-hero? Is he some sort of combination?
MAX: In my eyes, he is a noble animal. One thing that I think is so interesting about GODZILLA, is that no one can answer that definitively except as a subjective opinion, because there is no one GODZILLA. Over the course of 60 years, there have been as many GODZILLAs as there have been GODZILLA films and GODZILLA comic books. Every one is slightly different in terms of what it's interpretation of that character is. Sometimes the character is diametrically opposed to other versions of the character. GODZILLA is more than one characterization. It's this vessel, this dramatic vessel, that will contain many different things that we impose upon it, or that we interpret into it, whether it be the GODZILLA in the first film that's a walking embodiment of our fears of the Atomic Age, to GODZILLA of the '60s where it starts to be a bit campier, and a bit more of its moment culturally, where it's dealing with the Space Race, where it's dealing with our fears of what may come from outer space, and then later, for our environmental fears, or our fears of genetic science.
Now, I think the metaphor of 'Zilla is that of a walking natural disaster, which certainly resonates given recent events in our age. So I think in that sense, I suppose my GODZILLA is different from everyone else's GODZILLA, and that's one thing that makes it so interesting. In the film, without spoiling it, he has a similar relationship to humanity that he had in the comic book, where he's sort of a "the last of his race", ancient, noble samurai rising up because he's been disturbed by something that has happened, perhaps because of our tampering with the world around us, which we believe we control. His presence, while not malignant or malicious, can be destructive, and reveals to us our own place in the natural order, which is less impactful and certainly less in control than we sometimes give ourselves credit for.
VINYARD: Aside from I guess the one that's coming and the original GOJIRA, what's your personal favorite GODZILLA movie?
MAX: Aside from those- 'cause my favorite is the original GOJIRA.
VINYARD: Right, of course. (we both laugh)
MAX: That's a good question. I'm partial to a bunch of them. I'm a big fan of the first- (laughs) I'm a big fan actually of GODZILLA VS. KING KONG. I'm a big fan of the first King Ghidorah movie. I really like what they did in the "Millenium" series, in kind of reinventing it. I have rewatched all of them, actually, over the last three years, but my favorite is still the original. I love all the GODZILLA films, and moments in them, to different ways and different extents and for different things, but the film that really resonates with me as an absolute classic, not only for fans of the genre but for anyone. I can recommend that film to anyone without having to preface it by saying, "But bear in mind, it has its camp," or, "You have to know this or that or the other thing about the franchise." It's just a movie that resonates as well as KING KONG, as well as FRANKENSTEIN, as well as any of the classic monster movies of filmdom, which is, you know…that's saying something.
VINYARD: One last question. A little off-topic: you mentioned there were some other projects you were working on with Legendary. I assume one of those was SEVENTH SON. Did you write that? That's not coming out 'till next year, but did you write that before GODZILLA or after?
MAX: I worked on it before GODZILLA. I was not the only writer on that project, but I did my work on it before it went into production. At that point, I shifted over to GODZILLA, and have been fortunate enough to be on the GODZILLA train ever since. That meant I sort of had to let go SEVENTH SON, and I think that's been handled very ably and capably by the director and other writers since. I'm not as involved in its fate as I have been with GODZILLA.
At this point, I was ready to wrap it up, but I was told that I had a few extra minutes with Mr. Borenstein.
VINYARD: This has been great. I just wanted to say that the buzz- I mean I'm sure you're aware of this, but the buzz on this movie has been amazing, so I think you should be expecting some awesome accolades and positive reception in the weeks to come, so that should be pretty exciting.
MAX: Thanks. I certainly hope so. The truth of the matter is, and I don't think you can say this about every…I think everybody always goes into every project, at least this is my sense, I've never seen it any other way, but people are not cynical. People are always trying to make the best product they can, but some movies are more… more labors of love than others, and this really has been. Which is unusual for a movie of its size and scale, where everyone from top to bottom has been approaching it as a passion project, and as a labor of love. The fact that people are starting to see bits and pieces and are really responding well is so gratifying, so thank you for saying that.
VINYARD: Absolutely. Had you seen Gareth's MONSTERS before you signed on?
MAX: Yes, and that was what excited me the most going in. It was that and rewatching the first GODZILLA film, which I had never seen the original Japanese cut of. It was those two factors that got me excited about potentially doing the movie. Then I got on the phone with Gareth, and then it clicked. I thought what he did with MONSTERS, both in the sense of the achivement on the budget, but more than that, just what it made clear about his sensibility as a storyteller, as someone who can do a genre movie but use the genre towards the end of telling a human story. That's, for me, the best kind of genre movie, and the best kind of movie, period, is one that has something to say about the human experience. He does that. That's just where his interest lies, and I think that's where we found our Venn diagram of common ground that has stood us in good stead.
VINYARD: Do you have anything exciting coming up that you want to talk about?
MAX: I have various things that I can't talk about, yes, but they're exciting! (we laugh)
VINYARD: I'll take your word for it.
MAX: I'm certainly lucky enough to be continuing my relationship with Legendary on something else, and I think fans of this film will certainly have cool things to look forward to.
VINYARD: Has anything changed behind the scenes at Legendary since it moved from Warner Bros.?
MAX: Not in terms of the user interface! (I laugh) I've never found a better place to be in business, it's really, very unique. Kind of a breed of a different color, in the best way…or horse, or whatever the expression is. It's great. The great thing about Legendary, from the top down really, from Thomas Tull who is sort of the Grand Poobah and sets the tone, he loves the movies that he makes, and that's why he makes them. There's just a great amount of passion behind everything in the company, and the cool part of that is that you know that your aiming at a target that's…like your audience. You're trying to please someone who is the kind of person who's going to be watching the movie, and who's going to appreciate it. When you send in the script, you get a note from Thomas, it's coming not about corporate bottom lines, or anything aside from his desire to add more films to the pop culture reservoir of great films. The kind of movies that he loves, and has always loved. Being able to work with people who consider this a labor of love is a real blessing, so that place is the best.
Godzilla: Awakening is now available, and GODZILLA roars nationwide this Friday.
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