Gareth Edwards interview: making Godzilla, Spielberg, Giger
With Godzilla looming on the horizon, we talk to director Gareth Edwards about Spielberg, HR Giger, blockbuster filmmaking and more...
Across the six decades since his first appearance in 1954, Godzilla’s roar has echoed through dozens of sequels and spin-offs. The 1954 Godzilla was a moving, angst-ridden account of an uncontrollable beast wrecking havoc on Tokyo. For a nation living through the aftermath of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the parallels between Godzilla and the events of 1945 were plain to see. This, clearly, was more than just a mere monster movie.
16 years on from the financially successful yet hollow American incarnation made in 1998, British director Gareth Edwards takes the King of the Monsters back to the roots Ishiro Honda established in the creature’s debut outing. Edwards made his own impression on the genre back in 2010, with his debut feature, Monsters. A romantic road trip drama with an invasion of giant extra-terrestrial creatures as its backdrop, it was personal, delicate and heartfelt - and given the constraints of its ultra-low budget, its achievements were quite remarkable.
By the time we spoke to the director for Monsters’ DVD release in early 2011, word had already broken that he’d been signed up by Warner Bros to direct a new version of Godzilla. Understandably, he had misgivings back then: numerous directors have made the leap from the low-budget to the mainstream, but relatively few have managed to put their own authorial stamp on the resulting movie.
Godzilla, on the other hand, feels entirely of a piece with Monsters, as well as honouring the classic film Honda directed 60 years ago. It’s both a spectacle, with all the building-toppling action you’d expect, but it’s also intimate and restrained where most movies of this type are bludgeoning and bombastic. In one early scene, we see the characters played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Bryan Cranston picking through an area where buildings have been reclaimed by nature. Thick vines grow through what was once a bedroom window. It’s a quiet, introspective moment, a pause for breath which makes the action sequences which follow all the more effective.
When we sat down to talk to Mr Edwards in a decidedly gilded London hotel, Godzilla's contrast between loud and quiet, and the personal and the grandly exciting, was at the forefront of our minds. How difficult is it for a relatively new director to make a mark on a Hollywood film? How big an influence was Steven Spielberg, given the nods to the director’s work?
Here’s what Gareth Edwards had to say about these questions and more.
It’s very different from the last time I met you, which was for Monsters.
Oh God, yeah. That feels like a lifetime ago now.
I should imagine it does. What I found exciting about Godzilla - apart from being a great Hollywood film - is that it really feels as thought it has your fingerprints on it. Your personal stamp.
Thank you. That was the big fear, I think, doing a movie like this. How much of your voice are you going to get through the machine, you know? The reality is, if I’d been hit by a car and gone into hospital, the film would have finished itself. Everyone is so experienced that the film could just make itself to some extent, and maybe some films do.
So your job as a director is to constantly try to stay at the steering wheel and pull it hard left or hard right. To try to give it a voice. And I guess my biggest fear was showing this film and no one recognising me in it. So you saying that, I’m really happy about.
I think it’s a tribute to Legendary and Warners. Because I didn’t know anything about the studios when I started, but everyone was saying, if you’re going to do this, the studios to do it with are those guys. You look at their track record, of having things like Where The Wild Things Are or 300 or Inception - they support their filmmakers, and they take risks. So that was reassuring.
Thomas Tull, who was the producer of the movie, I really have him to thank. I genuinely would not be here, having directed Godzilla, if it were not for him. He defended me and protected me from the machine. So I’m very indebted to him.
The opening credits, I thought, felt like the filmmaker who made Monsters. I remember you saying once that an early concept for Monsters was to use existing news footage, and cut it together like a Discovery Channel documentary. Was this a deliberate callback to that?
It was actually a sequence we filmed, which we called the Bikini Atols, and I think we’ll put some clips of it on the DVD. It was a five or six-minute scene, but the film already had two prologues in it, so it was like a prologue to a prologue to a prologue, and we were going to get rid of it initially. But I fought to keep it in, and the idea was, why don’t we turn it into a title sequence?
Then Kyle Cooper got involved, who’s one of my heroes. He did the titles for Seven and films like that. He’s the new Saul Bass - he’s a genius. We had a meeting with him and his people, and talked about title sequences. We talked about the opening of JFK, where you cut through the different archives. I don’t remember how it came up, but the idea of redacted text, in the credits - as soon as I heard like, I thought, we have to do that. It all came together. It wasn’t a masterplan at the start, it was just born out of what we had left.
I liked the elements of Steven Spielberg, the little nods and references. But the film itself feels very humanistic, which is a Spielberg thing.
The film itself? Yeah. I consumed Spielberg movies when I was little. Like, when I did Monsters, I shot it myself, so out of necessity, it became this pseudo-documentary vibe. Like, my high benchmark for that style was films like Babel, that are kind of handheld, but also beautiful in their own way. As opposed to just a documentary style, which from a cinematic point of view can be very flat.
So you want that realism and beauty, that combination. Then you go and make a film like this, and you have to plan it so far in advance, like, six months. We were shooting stuff that we’d pre-vizzed a year before, so you can’t be that documentary-esque with it, or that opportunistic. The go-to style was that classic Hollywood look.
Seamus McGarvey, our director of photography, early on, up until a week before filming, I was going, “I want to do this beautifully real documentary vibe, but also that classic Spielberg style, and I haven’t landed on which is going to be the best way.” I was really having a schizophrenic, like, “We’ll do it like this”, then the next minute I’d say, “We’ll do it like that.”
Seamus was really supportive. He said, “Just do both”. On a per-shot basis, just do what feels right. If you think it should be stable, do that, and if you want rawness, do that. I was paranoid that it wouldn’t cut together, that it wouldn’t feel right. But it doesn’t notice, really. You don’t notice that it’s changing gears, or that it’s schizophrenic really.
I was excited by that, because all my life, I’d probably pictured making films in that Spielberg and Kubrick way, with a steady camera style. Then suddenly, through necessity, I found this other style in Monsters that felt really from the heart and organic. I didn’t know how I was going to marry the two. This has made me realise that you can have your cake and eat it, really. You can do both.
I thought the colour scheme which runs through gives a sense of unity, as well. It’s very distinctive; it’s not the teal and orange we keep getting in action movies. You have the reds and greys.
Yeah. There was a conscious decision to do that. Teal and - what is it?
Yeah! That, normally, is done in post-production - it’s a grading thing that’s done at the end. We had a guy called Steve Scott, who’s graded some of the most beautiful films of recent years, like Tree Of Life and things like that. The classic thing you say to them is, “Make it look beautiful but real, so it doesn’t look as though we’ve manipulated it.”
And it’s really hard, especially the night time scenes, especially when there’s a powercut, which you have in our movie. Because usually you have moonlight, or you don’t see anything. When you do moonlight, it’s really tricky to get that right, because you have reflections. Take something like a monorail - you’ve got reflections off the window, but how do you see the people inside, because there’s nothing lighting them? It can get a bit tricky in those areas, but I think we got away with it.
In a big summer movie, you usually get a lot of shouting and arguing. I think screenwriters think that, because a script needs conflict, everyone needs to be arguing all the time. You have to have a lot of evil people, too: military villains, corporate villains, mad scientists. Godzilla isn’t really like that. It has people trying to do their best in a nightmare situation, which is quite humanistic, as I say.
Yeah. I like grey, not black and white. Even the bad creatures, you want to give them a moment where you empathise with them. You realise that what they do isn’t so evil. And I think it also comes from the actors themselves. David Strathairn had one of the hardest tasks, because he was the admiral who could have been portrayed as a warmonger. But he was very keen, and I was very keen, on making him be a peacekeeper. He’s trying to prevent death.
We had a military advisor from the Pentagon, who was every day when we shot a scene like that. And they were keen not do the cliched military villain. So it was through a series of thing. it’s tricky, because you do need conflict, but it’s doing it in a way where you can empathise with everybody. That’s the best kind of conflict. Then it’s just like a train wreck.
A film I really liked when I was younger was Cape Fear. What was so interesting - and this is the De Niro and Scorsese version - from De Niro’s point of view, he’s in the right. And when you hear him lay it out - he goes, “So what’s the compensation for being sodomised in prison by four white guys?” You hear him do the maths.
“Counsellor, that’s not even minimum wage!”
Yeah! And he’s right. He’s right. [The counsellor] deserves a kicking. What’s even more horrific is when a character deserves it. That’s what we tried to do in this film, which is to try to make the audience feel as guilty as possible. In the beginning of the movie, there are these shots where we see a beautiful rain forest, and I tried to make sure that the company logos that you see are western, to imply that the company’s gone there and abused the place. You’ve got the guy in the suit in the American accent, and stuff. Because I feel, the more guilty you make the audience, the more you feel we deserve the beating. It makes things less black and white.
I think horror is always best served with a bit of guilt.
The other thing that distinguishes Godzilla is that it isn’t all destruction. It bides its time, it builds up to the things that happen in the second half. Do you think there’s too much emphasis on destruction and special effects in recent summer films?
It’s up to each film to pick a path, I guess. It’s about the effect it has on the audience when it watches it. I can’t help but gravitate towards films that had the maximum effect on me. Maybe it’s just because I’m old, but early 80s and 70s movies, whether it be Jaws or Alien, they spend the first half of the film building up glimpses of things. Maybe because they had to, because they couldn’t show so much back then.
But it’s a fascinating thing, if you look at the timeline of cinema - and maybe this is showing my age - but there’s a specific point where digital effects arrived. And if you look at horror and action, like my favourite films, like Aliens or Close Encounters or Jaws, they’re movies that couldn’t show everything. They’re so powerful as a result, and there’s an important lesson for filmmakers there, which is that sometimes, less is more. And sometimes, more is more.
There’s a side of me that wants to rebel, and as soon as you go down this path with a movie, and you’re supposed to go right, I want to go left, just to see what it’s like. I just want to do it,because the more I know you aren’t supposed to do something, the more I want to do it. Sometimes, some of those paths can be dead ends, and you go back and you find the right path or the best path through the movie. You’re trying to play with expectation, and flip things and throw people a little bit without frustrating them or throwing them off the bus.
I definitely, with this film, wanted it not to feel like a typical summer blockbuster. I wanted it to harken back to the movies that made me want to get into filmmaking.
Did you hear the sad news about HR Giger?
I did, at lunchtime. It’s so sad.
He was such an influence on cinema. When you mentioned Alien just then, it reminded me.
I know, and our movie’s full of it. HR Giger’s probably one of the biggest influences on me.
What do you think you’ll do after this,because you’ve now made a big blockbuster movie so early in your career? Would you do another one?
I’d be lying if I said it was two years of solid fun. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do times a thousand. It all really depends on how people like the movie. You ask yourself, why do you do this? And I only do it, if I’m honest, because I want people to like it. I want people to sit in the cinema and have that same feeling that I used to have when I went to the cinema as a kid.
It’s like this healing cream. If there are enough nice things that you hear, and people like the movie, it kind of heals all wounds. Suddenly, you’re ready to go make another. I’m gonna need a bit more cream, I think, before I go back to Hollywood!
Gareth Edwards, thank you very much.
Godzilla is out on the 15th May in UK cinemas. You can read our review here.
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