How does one go from directing a film budgeted at $500,000 to one that costs $160 million? That's the natural question that comes to mind when considering Gareth Edwards' Monsters (2010) and the just-released Godzilla.
And when looking at the Big G’s return to the big screen, the answer becomes pretty clear: not too many filmmakers would take a potential summer blockbuster and focus so heavily on a the human element as a means of allowing the spectacle to have more resonance. Add in gradual reveals in the tradition of the original King Kong and Spielberg’s Jaws as well as a cast including Bryan Cranston, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen and Ken Watanabe; and you’ve got a Godzilla movie pretty much unlike any other.
Geek Exchange was among a handful of journalists given the opportunity to sit down with Edwards to discuss the making of the film.
GEEK EXCHANGE: Let’s start with Godzilla’s roar. How was that accomplished?
GARETH EDWARDS: It’s kind of a secret. Erik Aadahl, the sound designer on the film, I think he’s a genius. He does one side of the spectrum with Transformers, and he also does Terrence Malick and Tree of Life. He’s got this massive range. I don’t know what you know about the original, but the original Godzilla sound, the one they used in all the movies, is a leather glove with resin on it scraping down a double bass. Don’t ask me why they did that – sounds a bit kinky to me. That’s how they found that sound. We tried that and it didn’t quite work.
What he came up with – and he wouldn’t tell me what it was because he didn’t want to ruin it for me – was not animalistic. It’s very unnatural, but what I can say, because he let me in on it the last day when we said goodbye, is that one of the breakthroughs for them was this new microphone recording device. You know when you shoot in the camera in high speed and play it back you get slow motion? There are these ultra fast recording devices that, when you record and play it back, it’s a hundred times slower and it’s got all the fidelity in it. Something as simple as unscrewing a Coke bottle, when you play it back it’s like thunder or a roar or something. So this whole new world of audio was opened up. A lot of the sounds in there are very strange things from using these scientific microphones.
How much of a stigma is there to overcome in selling a more serious Godzilla? Let’s face it, this is a character, who , in the past, would punch out an opponent and do an Irish jig.
Personally, I think, deep down, everybody wants to see in a Hollywood version of Godzilla a serious take. Maybe I was wrong, but I felt as long as we would make the best film we could, the stigma would just go away naturally because everyone wants to get rid of it, everyone wants to enjoy a film like this, so we treated it as realistically as we could and made a film that we wanted to sit and watch, and prayed that marketing would come along and sell it in the right way. I’ve been really impressed with what Warners and Legendary has done. The trailers and the tone of everything feel like they’ve sold it in the right way.
What about the Snickers commercial? Were you cool with that? I just felt that went against the notion of a serious Godzilla when he’s water skiing and high-fiving everybody.
I just say that those decisions are way above my pay grade.
Part of your pay grade is surviving a massive production like this after being almost a boutique director in your earlier outings. Talk about that transition for you, going to such a grand scale and the terror that goes with it.
Yeah, it was. All filmmaking for me is terrifying. My bad analogy is being a filmmaker is like learning to be a surgeon; like they bring in your child and you’re, like, “Oh my God, I can’t cut my own baby.” They say, “Someone else will do it, then,” and you’re, like, “No, no, no, no, it’s my baby.” So I remember on day one I left a half hour early and where we were filming was walking distance from where I lived in Vancouver. So I left half an hour early, put on my headphones, listened to some music and tried to get to a place of, “Okay, you’ve always wanted to do this. Deep breaths. You’re going to walk through that door and everything is going to change.” What was so good about the way it turned out was, and they told me this before we went in, especially Shamus McGarvey, the director of photography, who said, “There’s going to be a bubble around you and you only really have to talk to five people all day long.” So what would happen is I would talk to the assistant director, the director of photography, Shamus; and the actors and that was mainly who I was interacting with, and they’d go off and talk to their teams.
There’s this sort of weird hierarchy or respect on the set where no one talks to the director unless they get asked something. So this very strange social interaction happens where no one will talk to you, and it’s kind of a good thing because you need to concentrate. As a result, you can kind of convince yourself that you’re making a movie with five people and there are 300 spectators. You can sort of get that illusion and that’s evolved over decades. I couldn’t have done it without that process, because if someone printed out a list of all of the questions you’d be asked over two years, you’d just have a meltdown. The amount of silly little things -like what color shirt should that character be wearing, what material should this table be made out of – it can get overwhelming sometimes.
As the film says, Godzilla is a balancing element created by nature and while you’re thinking one film at a time, how easy is it to think franchise, bring Godzilla back and say, “Now he’s the balancing agent for…THIS threat”?
There was a conversation very early on – there’s this craze now to put buttons at the end of the movie, or tags – where we all said, “The best thing we can do in terms of a sequel is make the best film that we can and leave it at that.” If it does well and people like it, that’s the best launch pad for another one that there could be. So we never really worried about how this would branch off, how it would go. It was all about making this one work as a standalone film so people could come who had never seen a Godzilla film before, and enjoy it. I had a meal last night with Thomas Tull the producer, and that conversation came up, but we didn’t want to jinx anything. Let everything play out, see how people respond to it, and if there’s an appetite, I would be the first one to want to dive in. The origin story is always the hardest. Once you’ve established the world, you can really have fun.
Was there a risk in holding back Godzilla for so long in the film?
I think the risk in showing him too soon is that people can get bored and have fatigue. I was more worried about that than the opposite. I listed all my favorite films like this, like Jaws, Close Encounters, Alien, the original King Kong. They all have something in common which is that they all take their time to slowly milk the reveal of the creature in glimpses and things. They’re so effective and powerful and they’re such classic movies, that you think, “Why wouldn’t you want to use that blueprint?” There’s a temptation to just throw everything in all the time and turn everything up to number 11, but I just think you’ve got nowhere to go after that. You can reach a fatigue and a feeling where everything just washes over you and you just don’t care anymore. So we wanted to make a film that goes back to that ’70s and ’80s style of filmmaking where it’s more incremental, for better or for worse.
Gareth, what do you feel that this film is bringing to audiences?
I hope a level of suspense and mystery… the feelings I got as a kid with the films I grew up with. I sort of miss that in a lot of blockbusters. There are many examples of great blockbusters, but I personally miss that style of filmmaking that I grew up with. Just like that generation that made those films, that were harkening back to a previous generation with David Lean and things like that, I’m stealing from them and trying to bring it into the films I’m making. I’m trying to give a different flavor in a film of this sort of budget level for audiences, maybe younger kids, who haven’t had so much of this, and see how they respond to it.
Images: Legendary, Warner Bros.