Gareth Edwards and Thomas Tull Talk About Making ‘Godzilla’

godzilla-2014-poster

I was invited to attend a special press screening of the 2014 “Godzilla” at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (it’s now called TCL Chinese Theatres, but I prefer to call it Grauman’s), and it proved to be a huge improvement over Roland Emmerich’s 1998 debacle. Following the screening, we were treated to a Q&A with the movie’s director Gareth Edwards and the CEO of Legendary Pictures, Thomas Tull. The two of them discussed how they saw this version of the giant monster, the first time they became aware of who or what Godzilla was, and of how their film mirrors the current events of today.

There have been dozens and dozens of “Godzilla” movies made since 1954, most of them made in Japan by Toho Company Limited. There have been a couple of American movies made about this enormous monster as well, but they didn’t fare well to say the least. “Godzilla 1985” was universally panned by film critics and died a quick death at the box office. As for Roland Emmerich’s “Godzilla” which came out in 1998, I still cringe at the thought of its existence as it was amazingly awful. But when it came to making the 2014 version, Edwards made clear he was not about to let fans or critics down.

“We were trying to put more into it than just a simple monster movie because the original was definitely a metaphor for Hiroshima and Nagasaki and a very serious film. So we were inspired to try and reflect that,” Edwards said. “We police the world and go, ‘You can’t have nuclear power. You can’t have it. But we can have it, and we have nuclear weapons.’ And what if there were a creature that existed, creatures that were attracted to radiation? Suddenly the tables would be turned, and we’d be desperately trying to get rid of that stuff.”

From there, both Edwards and Tull described the first time they saw Godzilla. Hearing Tull talk about his first exposure to the Japanese monster came to illustrate just how big of an effect monster movies had on him when he was growing up. As for Edwards, he ended up describing his first exposure as being embarrassing.

“First time I saw it, it was the ’54 version,” Tull said. “I was probably around 7 years old. Where I grew up in upstate New York, what I looked forward to every year was the Friday after Thanksgiving when the local TV station would play ‘Godzilla’ marathons all day. That was my favorite thing of the year. I had the incredible fortune of making movies out of all the stuff I loved as a kid: ‘Batman,’ ‘Superman,’ Watchmen’ and now ‘Godzilla.’ Somehow the magic genie made it happen. This is really special to me.”

“In the U.K. when we were kids growing up, they had the Hanna Barbara cartoon. Not many people know that in America. I thought it was a worldwide thing,” Edwards said. “But it was basically Godzilla and I guess his son, Godzuki, and it would fly; it was all very cute. When you’re a kid it was great. I got offered this amazing opportunity. People in the U.K, they like to take the piss out of their friends, so just to mock me they would always refer to it as Godzuki. They’d be like, ‘How’s Godzuki going? Have you been to any Godzuki meetings?’ And I used to play along with it to the point where my phone learned how to spell Godzuki more than Godzilla. So when we used to have regular emails about the film, I’d type Godzilla and it would automatically change it to Godzuki. And for a while, I thought I might get fired.”

Edwards said while he and Tull were in the process of putting the movie together, the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, also known as the Great East Japan Earthquake, occurred which decimated much of Fukushima and caused serious accidents at nuclear power plants. Now when horrific events like this occur, Hollywood is quick to distance itself from them for fear of appearing like they are profiting from them. But considering the genres “Godzilla” covers, there was enough of a reason not to ignore the serious events happening around the world.

“There was a point where it felt like, well, maybe we shouldn’t set it in Japan. Maybe we shouldn’t deal with radiation or anything like this,” Edwards said. “We had genuine conversations for quite a while and we talked to a lot of people, and knew a lot of people, who were Japanese obviously working with Toho. And after a while the general consensus was that the 1954 version, the whole point of that movie, and science fiction and fantasy in general I think, they have this opportunity to reflect the period that they’re made in, and so it was thought as long as we did it respectively and the city and the events in our film are not about anything that happened in Japan. So, we felt it kind of appropriate to acknowledge some of these issues as we were figuring out the storyline.”

“When I was a kid, my dad used to have an encyclopedia on the twentieth Century, and on the front cover was Hiroshima, JFK’s assassination, Hitler, all the major events of the twentieth century,” Edwards continued. “I used to look at it and think none of that happened in my lifetime. Nothing significant like that has happened in my lifetime. Maybe nothing like that ever will. And then in the last ten years with the obvious things, it’s nearly impossible to genuinely sit down and say, ‘OK, I want to do a monster movie. I want to try and treat this like it really happened. What would it look like? How would people react and not be infected by the imagery over the last ten years, whether it be the natural disasters or even some of the terrorism?’ So that kind of infected the film a little bit. But we tried to do it in a way that, first and foremost, it’s entertainment. You’re here to see a Godzilla. But I personally like a little meat on my bone, so within that there’s obviously this other imagery and meaning that you can pull from as much as you want or as little as you want.”

Before this, Edwards had only one directorial effort to his name, the 2010 film “Monsters.” It had a budget of only $500,000 and, in addition to directing it, he also worked as writer, cinematographer and the visual effects artist which may explain why it didn’t cost much to make. With “Godzilla,” he had the backing of a major studio and an estimated budget of $160 million. Talk about one heck of a promotion! This has got to put the fear of God into any filmmaker making this kind of transition, but Edwards sounded like he has handled big budget moviemaking very well.

“It’s a massive, massive deal,” Edwards said. “It’s not just a once in a lifetime opportunity; it’s a once in a million-lifetime opportunity to be able to get to do this. The way I dealt with it was to forget we were doing it and just convince ourselves, which was kind of very easy to do, that we’re just in this bubble; it’s just us, and we’re just making a movie that we want to sit and watch, something that will give us goose bumps. And it’s kind of this selfish passion project in the way you kind of approach every day. Because I’d get paralyzed if I really thought about the number of people who would end up seeing the film and all the publicity and press that would come from it.”

“But it’s such a great opportunity,” Edwards continued. “I grew up since I was a little kid desperate to be a film director, and the second they mentioned it I was just like, I could never live with myself if I ever turned this down. I mean, I love monster movies. My first film was a monster movie. This is the ultimate monster movie. So how could you live with yourself having not made ‘Godzilla’ when you had that opportunity?”

Even before its release, “Godzilla” had already sparked conversations about a sequel or a potential franchise. This is not a surprise as movie studios are always looking for the next big movie trilogy to thrust at movie fans eager to pay their hard-earned money for. Edwards, however, said it was his intention to make a stand-alone movie, something I was very pleased to hear. As for Tull, with Legendary Pictures having been purchased by Universal Pictures, he was asked if a sequel would be released by either Universal Pictures or Warner Brothers, the latter which is distributing this movie. In the end, Tull could only say the following:

“We have a little rule: we can’t talk about anything else until this comes out and works,” Tull said. “It’s a little superstition I have. All I can say is, we’re passionate fans of the universe and we love Godzilla and some of those other folks do too, so if this comes out and works we’ll figure it out.”

Save

Advertisements

Godzilla (2014)

godzilla-2014-poster

The stench which emanated from the sheer awfulness of Roland Emmerich’s “Godzilla” has haunted me ever since I saw it on the big screen in 1998. For a time, it dampened my spirits in terms of where movies were headed as I was afraid many more of them would be dumbed down like Emmerich’s movie was. Had it been an even bigger hit, I feared more summer blockbusters would look exactly like it; filled with lame one-dimensional characters and special effects which look no different from the video games we play at home. But in the end, it was so critically reviled that even Toho, the company that owns Godzilla, looked at Emmerich’s version of the monster as a separate, stand-alone character whom they renamed Zilla. It was if they were saying, “Oh no, that was so not Godzilla. That was a cousin or a step child or maybe the product of a one-night stand.”

But now that stench has vanished as Gareth Edwards has given us his version of “Godzilla,” and it makes for one of the most entertaining movies of the 2014 summer movie season. Instead of having this enormous Japanese monster chase after characters who look like they were part of a rejected sitcom pilot, he stays true to the style of the Toho series of Godzilla films and manages to weave in some commentary about nuclear power. Just as the original “Godzilla” served as a metaphor for Hiroshima, this one doesn’t dare hide away from what happened in Fukushima where nuclear accidents occurred after the massive earthquake and tsunami which occurred there.

The movie starts off with the terrifying destruction of a nuclear power plant, one which ends up dividing a father and his son. We then move to several years later when Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), an explosive ordnance disposal technician in the US Navy, comes home to his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and their son after a long tour of duty. Their reunion, however, is cut short as Ford gets word his father, nuclear physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), has once again been arrested in Japan for trespassing into areas blocked off to the general public as the area surrounding the power plant isn’t all that different from Chernobyl when it suffered a meltdown.

Joe is still convinced the power plant accident was really a cover up for something, and he and Ford come to discover what’s left of it has been converted into a laboratory of sorts. Scientists led by Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) reveal they have been housing a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) and are trying to keep it contained by giving it doses of radiation. But, of course, all hell breaks loose when the MUTO breaks free of its captivity and heads out to sea, and it is then we learn another MUTO (this one a female) has been held in the United States and has also escaped and quickly laid waste to Las Vegas. Like Natasha Henstridge’s character in “Species,” she is looking to start a big family with offspring which will surely destroy all of humanity, and it’s only a matter of time before she finds her MUTO mate. Clearly, safe sex is not on their agenda.

This is where the iconic Godzilla comes in. Now in the past, this gigantic creature has been portrayed as an enemy to all of humanity and as an antihero who looks to take down any other monster who foolishly thinks it can defeat him. But in Edwards’ movie, Godzilla is really the good guy who, as Dr. Serizawa puts it, is here to “restore balance” to the world, and he doesn’t even bother the battleships which sail alongside him as he swims from one country to the next. We all know Godzilla will end up destroying a lot of expensive real estate which will cause many insurance companies to go bankrupt, but we’re still on the monster’s side as we know the military won’t have enough firepower to bring down the MUTOs.

Edwards takes his sweet time in revealing Godzilla to the audience, and we don’t really get a good look at him until almost an hour into the movie. When he does finally appear onscreen and let out the biggest of roars anyone has ever heard, the audience I saw this movie with broke into a tremendous applause. This is the fiercest Godzilla has looked in many years, and the way he towers over the tallest of buildings had me in awe. This is the way Godzilla should look and feel.

One of the many problems I had with the 1998 “Godzilla” is it never felt like I was watching a real monster on the big screen. It felt more like I was watching a big special effect to where the creature didn’t even fill the least bit threatening. But in 2014’s “Godzilla,” the creature looks and feels real to where I kept praying the human characters would keep themselves from standing underneath its feet. The thought of being crushed by a creature that big is horrifying.

As for “Godzilla’s” human element, it’s not altogether strong, but I still liked how the characters came across as relatable even if they were at times clichéd. I also have to give the screenwriters credit as the movie starts as one thing but surprisingly turns into something else. Just when I thought I knew what kind of movie this “Godzilla” was going to be, it continued to surprise me as it went along. Yes, we all know how things will end, but getting there proved to be more fun than I expected.

It also helps there is a terrific cast of actors to keep us emotionally involved in the characters before and after Godzilla makes his grand entrance. You can never go wrong with Bryan Cranston whether it’s “Breaking Bad” or anything else, and he makes his character very empathetic when he could have been easily laughable. As for Aaron Taylor-Johnson, I almost didn’t recognize him after getting so used to how he looked in those “Kick Ass” movies, and he does good work portraying the typical heroic military character we always see in “Godzilla” movies. Ken Watanabe remains a tremendously gifted actor, and even though I thought stared in horror one too many times in this movie, he is a very welcome addition to this cast. And then there’s David Strathairn who plays Admiral William Stenz, and he can always be counted on to give the military leader the gravitas and humanity a character like this deserves.

As for the female characters, their roles are a bit underwritten and I didn’t get to see as much of them as I would have liked. Still, you have actresses like Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche and Sally Hawkins making them into memorable characters when they could have been ones who were easily forgettable.

This “Godzilla” does have its problems, and there are times I wished Edwards and company had injected just a little more humor into the proceedings. Also, the big fight between Godzilla and the MUTOs never seems to come soon enough. There’s a moment where it looks like the fight will begin, but then a door closes on the characters and on our view of the monsters, and that was really frustrating. The human characters may have wanted the door shut, but everyone in the audience was clamoring for it stay open so we could see one enormous mutated creature beat the crap out of another. And yes, there probably are some plot holes and gaps in logic in the story, but I really didn’t care. You don’t always go to these movies expecting a whole lot of logic anyway.

What makes this “Godzilla” work is how it is clearly made by filmmakers who have a great love of monster movies. Edwards, whose previous directorial effort was British science fiction film “Monsters,” has talked about just how much he loves those kinds of movies, and he does an excellent job of making Godzilla a truly terrifying force of nature. After being absent from the big screen for over a decade, it is great to see this iconic monster make such a tremendous comeback.

I also got to say watching “Godzilla” makes me really happy that I do not work for an insurance company. Seeing all those destroyed buildings and roads, I can see claim adjustors going nuts as they field one phone call after another regarding totaled Hondas, decimated condos and bridges which now really lead to nowhere because they’ve been destroyed. You can bet no one’s going to take any guff from someone who tells them their insurance policy doesn’t cover attacks from giant mutated monsters!

* * * out of * * * *

Save

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

rogue-one-a-star-wars-story-poster

I went into “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” with the hope it would be a true spinoff and not just a “Star Wars” sequel in disguise. This is the first in a series of “Star Wars” anthology movies which are meant to exist outside the main saga we have all grown up on. While “The Force Awakens” was heavy with nostalgia, this can’t be the case with “Rogue One.” Otherwise, what would be the point of making this one other than to make a gazillion dollars and sell a lot of toys?

Well, “Rogue One” proves to be an excellent “Star Wars” movie as it breaks new ground in the infinitely popular franchise. Set before the events of “Episode IV: A New Hope,” it follows a band of rebels as they attempt to steal the design plans for the just-completed Death Star, something which might be mistaken for a moon but is actually a space station capable of destroying planets. While we go into this movie knowing they will succeed in getting these plans to the Rebel Alliance, we have yet to see how they will pull this off and how bad the odds are, something our heroes never want to be told about.

The main character of “Rogue One” is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), and we meet her as a child when she is separated from her mother and father. Her father, research scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), is one of the main designers of the Death Star, and as we catch up with Jyn years later when this deadly space station has finally reached its final stage of completion. Along with a ragged platoon which includes intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), blind warrior and die hard believer in the Force Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), warrior and mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), and a Rebel-owned Imperial enforcer droid named K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) whose sarcasm knows no bounds.

One thing which really struck me about this “Star Wars” spin-off is how many Jedis it has in its character roster, which is just one. Darth Vader shows up for a spell, but he is too enamored with the dark side to help our heroes in any way, shape or form. Essentially, this group of rebels are on their own. The force is strong with them, but they are not as desirable to the Rebel Alliance as Luke Skywalker or Princess Leia. For the Rebels, they are basically a means to an end.

I liked how “Rogue One” focused on the power struggles which take place within the Empire and the Rebel Alliance. Both factions deal with inner turmoil as they do what is necessary to gain the upper hand in a galactic war bound to have many casualties. Even the Rebels come across as dubious as they are willing to sacrifice their own to achieve victory. With the Empire, the power struggle is all the more intense as Director of Advanced Weapons Research Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) looks to claim all the credit for the Death Star even as Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing, brought back to life through some incredible CGI) is not about to let that happen.

The movie also deals strongly with the themes of sacrifice and courage as our main characters fight for a cause so much bigger than themselves. Seeing them do what is necessary to achieve peace in the galaxy actually hit me harder on an emotional level than I expected, and it made “Rogue One” all the more exciting and invigorating to sit through. Granted, seeing what happens to these characters might make it seem like an emotional endurance test for the youngest audience members, but many “Star Wars” fans will be quick to appreciate what Jyn Erso and company are willing to do for the sake of so many others.

Directing “Rogue One” is Gareth Edwards who previously gave us “Godzilla,” the good one, a few years back. His direction of this spin-off feels very confident as he gives fans a good dose of what they expect from a “Star Wars” movie, but he also gives it a gritty feel none of the other episodes had. There are many sweeping shots of grandeur throughout “Rogue One,” thanks to Director of Photography Greig Fraser, as we go from one planet to the next, but this feels a lot more down and dirty as these characters do not live in a world of glamour and never will.

It’s also refreshing to see a “Star Wars” movie with a female lead as comic book movies have yet to offer the same thing. Felicity Jones, so good in “The Theory of Everything,” turns in a strong performance as Jyn Erso, and she makes the character a formidable warrior even as she sneaks around dozens of stormtroopers who would be quick to take her down if they ever discover her true identity. There are also some nice supporting turns by Diego Luna whose Cassian Andor finds his conscience getting in the way of his orders, Mads Mikkelsen who plays a scientist caught between duty and family, Ben Mendelsohn whose villainous character is ever so ruthless and eager to climb up the Empire food chain of power, and Donnie Yen is especially good as a blind warrior whose faith in the force is never misplaced.

It’s also great to see Forest Whitaker on board here as Saw Gerrera, a Clone Wars veteran who raised Jyn from a girl into a fighter. I do have to say, however, that watching him breathe through his oxygen mask quickly reminded me of Dennis Hopper’s character from “Blue Velvet.” I don’t know if it was the intention of the director or screenwriters to draw inspiration from Frank Booth, but it definitely crossed my mind every time I saw Whitaker onscreen.

“Rogue One” also contains some eerily effective CGI which allowed the filmmakers to bring actors like Peter Cushing back to life in a way which feels all too real. Cushing has been dead for two decades, but here he looks like he just rose from the grave. On top of Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book” which also contained a number of photorealistic characters, it makes me worry how soon actors could be replaced with CGI creations. Here’s hoping it’s not for a very, very, very long time.

“Rogue One” is by no means perfect as the movie rushes us from one planet to the next to where we have a hard time keeping up with all the places we have been to, but I admired what the filmmakers were able to accomplish. They have succeeded in giving us a fresh take on a franchise which has lived on from one decade to the next, and it bodes well for future installments like “Episode VIII” and the Han Solo movie as well. I very much enjoyed it, and I have no doubt the fans will as well as there are many easter eggs to discover. Plus, with us all living in such a volatile political climate which begs for a rebellion of some sort, this movie could not have come out at a better time. Timing is everything, and the time to rebel against our oppressors is at hand.

“Rogue One” definitely ensures that the “Star Wars” franchise will live long and prosper. Yes, that’s a saying from “Star Trek,” but it feels very appropriate to use here.

* * * ½ out of * * * *