Back in July of last year I took a quick flight up to Vancouver to join some other journalists on the set of the new Warner Bros/Legendary film Godzilla, from Monsters director Gareth Edwards (you can read the entire on set interview with Evans here). Normally I walk away from these visits with a checklist of things I expect to go wrong and a checklist of things I expect to go right. But I typically never feel as bullishly positive as I did after this.
Not only did we see some breathtaking renderings of scenes from the film, we also got to tour the production’s war room – which gave us a vast understanding of the tone, flavor and designs of the new Godzilla. We also nabbed some killer on-set interviews and Bryan Cranston brought in an ice cream truck (complete with “Breaking Bad” and Godzilla themed concoctions) to round out the day.
The film, starring Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, Aaron Johnson, Juliette Binoche, David Strathairn, Ken Watanabe and Richard T. Jones, is an epic rebirth to Toho’s iconic Godzilla, and Edwards seems to be paying respect to the past while making something very current.
Metaphors aside, the closest I’ll ever get to standing in the belly of the beast is right here on a soundstage in Vancouver. Here I am, walking around a highly detailed and slickly painted plaster spine. Giant – and I mean giant – ribs jut up all around me. If you’ve seen the trailer for director Gareth Edwards’ new take on Godzilla, and if you’re reading this I’m sure you have, then you’ve seen this massive ribcage (albeit with some of the corners of the room painted in a bit in post). Is this Godzilla? One of his ancestors? Another creature entirely? I have no idea.
But that’s not to say that we didn’t get any information on our trip to the film’s set last July. Not only did we see pre-viz of several astounding action sequences and chat with the cast and crew – we were also privy to the film’s war room. What’s the war room? More or less what it sounds like – an astounding space full of concept drawings, art, designs and models – most of which seemed to be laid out in almost chronological order. Even if what we saw in the room doesn’t tell the entire story of the film (and I’m sure it doesn’t), it gave us a nice comprehensive look at the overall flavor of the piece. And I gotta say, it looks pretty damn tasty.
One of the first things that’s made clear is that this isn’t necessarily a sequel, as some have been speculating. In fact, Edwards is keen to point out that it’s an origin story, “it’s supposed to be the beginning.” Nor is it in any way a comment or riff on Roland Emmerich’s 1998 version of the film. One of our guides explains, “The ’98 version was never even looked at. It looks like how Gareth would do Godzilla, but inspired by the classic Godzilla. I think it looks like it’s inspired by all the best classic versions of Godzilla. It has the DNA of Godzilla, but it’s how Gareth has interpreted it.”
We continue our walk through the room, getting glimpses of sick bays, Hawaiian jungles, Japanese ruins, tsunami wreckage and more tantalizing visual information than we can even really process. It’s clear that something big did this. This version of Godzilla his downright huge. “Around 400 feet,” our guide replies. “At one point he was bigger, then he was smaller, but he’s big enough.” An additional piece of information to assuage any concerns? This Godzilla is 100% Toho [the studio behind the very first films] approved. “They were nervous going into it in the early days, just in how we would treat Godzilla and what he was going to look like. And honestly they embraced [both] the vision and Gareth the way we did and it’s been great.”
Producer Mary Parent (who also worked on Pacific Rim – a film that this new Godzilla surprisingly has very little in common with tonally) addresses the style of the reboot amongst the art surrounding us. “It’s very ‘Close Encounters.’ That is a good tonal and visual [reference], if you had to pick a touchstone. It looks very different from when you go back and actually look at ‘Close Encounters’, but it has a 70s vibe.” Someone asks if Cloverfield had any kind of influence on Edwards’ vision, which is met with a resounding “no no no no” from just about everyone in the room. As far as the action in the film goes, Parent gives another encouraging touchstone, “There’s a ‘Black Hawk Down’ aspect to it. When you get dropped into this stuff, it’s all incredibly visceral because it’s so real. There’s nothing campy or heightened. It’s as though this is really happening. Gareth has done a really good job of making you believe that this could happen and, if it were to happen, how people would react and behave and what those set pieces would be like.”
She’s not joking. Later on we sit down in an editing bay to watch a few extended pre-viz segments. In a film as large as this one and with as many intricate, expensive set pieces – it’s always a wise decision to make a detailed map of exactly what you’re going to be filming (and CGI’ing). It’s a rough form of computer animation, but it is an invaluable tool. Sometimes pre-viz looks blocky and ill-defined, a utilitarian approach just to get down the basic camera movements, edits and requirements for a scene. Other times – especially when you’re trying to sell the tone and mood of a set piece – they can be extremely detailed and fleshed out. The scenes we’re shown are most certainly of the latter, more detailed variety. In fact, it may have been the best pre-viz I’ve ever seen.
The first scene we see is an extension of what you guys saw in the teaser that hit a few months back. The one where the soldiers perform a halo jump from a plane high above San Francisco, the red streamers from their flares streaking across the sky as they cascade downwards toward the destruction below. As striking as the sequence appears in the teaser, the uncut sequence from the film is much longer and – when married to the polished look of the finished film – I expect it to be utterly breathtaking for a sustained period of time. You see the cluster plunge through more layers of atmosphere, and through significantly more frame space, to an incredibly dramatic piece of music from composer Alexandre Desplat. It’s jaw dropping and epic and I immediately got concerned that it was too good not to be meddled with.
The second scene involves a different group of soldiers navigating their way through some jungle terrain until they reach a train trestle high above a seemingly bottomless ravine. They cautiously branch out onto the tracks only to notice that they’re not alone. This sequence is fairly exemplary of that Spielberg/Close Encounters touch Parent mentioned earlier. We see the eye of a huge creature pop up over the track, below we see the legs of perhaps another creature. There’s no destruction here, and the emphasis isn’t just on suspense (even though there’s plenty of that) – it’s on wonder. That’s what Edwards really seems to be getting at with everything we’ve seen up to this point. Anyone can arrange a bunch of pixels and simulate the leveling of a city, but very few directors can make us engage with something so destructive in such an intimate way. This sequence is the cinematic equivalent of swimming next to a whale shark. It’s indelible.
But the film isn’t just about monsters. It’s about the people trying to fight, understand and perhaps even protect them. Later that day we watch Bryan Cranston and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, playing reunited father and son Joe and Ford Brody, film a scene. They navigate though the ruins of an office or lab. And I mean ruins, the place isn’t freshly pulverized – it’s grown over. Abandoned. A mystery at this point to even the man who designed it. At one point the camera lingers over the glass of a long empty terrarium, about the size of the average fish tank. A faded label on the glass reads “Mothra.”
Though we’re not exactly sure if that’s what they’re looking for (I’m betting “Mothra” is an easter egg joke since everyone else seems more focussed on creatures called “MUTOs”). On a break between set-ups, Cranston elaborates, “I go into my old office searching or something specific, something that’s alive.” Not much info, fair enough – it’s early in the game. He’s less cagey when it comes to explaining why he was eager to sign onto the film, “The reason I’m here is because this story in interestingly driven by strong character motivations. If you saw [Edwards’] movie ‘Monsters’, which is one of the things that got me involved in conversations, it was like a character-driven monster movie, and I’m much more attracted to character-driven pieces. There is very strong father-son component to this, and my character makes huge, sweeping decisions that reverberate throughout the rest of the story, that are emotional as well, which is really what brought me here.”
What about all the talk about Frank Darabont (“The Walking Dead”,The Shawshank Redemption, The Mist) being brought in near the end of preproduction to overhaul the script? Cranston admits he had some initial notes on the piece but what they were in regard to is “hard to say. As you know, there are a lot of writers on this. I don’t know who did what, and whose sensibility was woven through. There were some minor things, just points of view. For instance there was a thing where my character assumes that my son is going to go with me on this dangerous excursion, and I just thought that was wrong. It was an easy fix. Nothing that I raised was, ‘Oh no, we have to draw the line there!’”
If there’s one thing Cranston is even more clear on, it’s the enormity of the new Godzilla design and his appreciation of it. “My god, yeah! Actually, the new design is basically back to an old design, I think. The scale surprised me. The extreme size of it compared to the MUTO’s that they are fighting. Even that! When you see the MUTO it’s enormous, but it’s not nearly as big as Godzilla.”
After Cranston is pulled away for another shot we’re given a few minutes with Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who is looking pretty ripped for his role here as a Marine. He carries himself like one as well, explaining, “We have a Marine sergeant/major, Jim Dever, who has worked on many films before as well. He did ‘Black Hawk Down’ and ‘Man Of Steel’. He does a lot of movies like that and works really closely with us. There’s a lot of military stuff going on throughout this so he keeps an eye on everybody and everyone. I spent a bit of time with him. It was really great fun. A new experience for me altogether. I play a lieutenant in the Navy, EOD which is explosive ordinance disposal so he operates bombs. They’re always onhand, we have Navy captains onset to approve things. And see how they go about doing things, if this was to happen the way they go about operations. Everything is as accurate as can be.”
After the shoot breaks for lunch we all gather with director Gareth Edwards on the opposite end of the set. He’s obviously tired, but there’s a refreshing wide eyed quality to him – you can tell he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. He’s even excited about the added challenge of not having Godzilla be the only monster in the film. “I’m not sure what I can and cannot say, but I’ll say that it was really important that we didn’t do a Godzilla movie where it wasn’t just one creature because you can quickly run out of people pointlessly trying to fire and stop the thing storyline, which is why Toho movies were always him versus something else. The whole “franchise” or whatever you want to call it was involved in the creatures. So when you get into it, you have to make that choice that you mentioned and we made…a choice. But without giving too much away, it’s not as simple as that.”
Perhaps most importantly to, someone asks what makes a Gareth Edwards Godzilla different than, say, a Michael Bay version of the same material. “I don’t know. I think something that’s coming through that I’m quite pleased about and I’m really proud of is that there’s a lot of scenes we’ve already shot that are quite engaging. Like you’re really pulled in with the way the characters are coming together and the actors. I can’t go into too much detail because it will ruin the movie for you, but we’ve watched dailies and teared up on a few occasions, so I’m really proud. Obviously, there’s a giant, epic spectacle to it as well. I think, for me, if I’m honest, I’m personally not a fan of some of the Hollywood blockbusters that come out, and we’re trying to hark back to the movies we all grew up and loved like early Spielberg stuff, and trying to get a bit more restraint and suspense, and not this cutting-every-three-seconds and explosions-every-two-seconds mentality. So hopefully we’ve been quite brave with the storytelling that we’re doing.”
While this is the type of thing most filmmakers say on set – it’s rare that I actually see them back it up. But Godzilla really looks to be something special. A film that operates within the general parameters of the modern blockbuster, but offers up a sense of wonder and awe that we perhaps haven’t seen since Jurassic Park. Of course, it’s too early to tell if this really takes hold in the final product, but I’m seeing far more positive indicators than I’m accustomed to. And that’s not just because Bryan Cranston ordered an ice cream truck for us. That happened on the way out.