NB: While the below is spoiler-free, do avoid reading further if you’d prefer to see the final film absolutely cold.
Showing off 20 minutes of your forthcoming summer movie before it’s even finished could, in theory, be a risky move. Yet Warner Bros and Legendary clearly have confidence in director Gareth Edwards’ forthcoming Godzilla, and when we’d finished seeing some snippets of footage from his monster movie reboot, we were also confident that the full film will be worthy of the creature’s status as cinema’s King of the Monsters.
With our excitement suitably piqued by the footage (and you can read our spoiler-free thoughts on that here), Edwards took to the stage with presenter Edith Bowman to talk about Godzilla in an illuminating Q&A. Here’s what the director had to say about designing a new Godzilla, migrating to high-budget filmmaking, and lots more.
1. Gareth Edwards’ friends refer to his blockbuster project as Godzooky
When asked whether he was a fan of Godzilla as a youth, Edwards mentioned Hannah-Barbera’s 1970s/80s cartoon based on the character, which saw the iconic kaiju joined by his ‘cousin’ Godzooky – a diminutive comedy sidekick with feeble wings who served as the show’s hapless Scrappy-Doo.
Thanks, perhaps, to its infuriatingly catchy theme tune, the Godzilla show is still mentioned from time to time – and Godzooky is, the director reveals, what his friends call his current work in progress. “[I watched] the Hanna-Barbera cartoon when I was really little, with Godzooky,” Edwards said. “That’s the comedy go-to joke for all my friends about the film I’m making. They always call it Godzooky.”
Edwards was later introduced to the Toho Godzilla movies as a teenager, when Channel 4 screened them on UK television in the 80s and early 90s. “After that, I remember Channel 4 used to show some of the Showa-era Godzilla movies on a Friday night,” Edwards said. “For a while, as a kid, I couldn’t understand that they’d dubbed these things. I thought it was just really bad audio. I thought, ‘Why can’t they get this right?’ And then a bit later I realised that the Japanese make films in Japanese.”
As you’ve probably gathered by now, this year’s Godzilla will be more closely modelled on the serious and quite bleak tone of Ishiro Honda’s 1954 original rather than the more outlandishly fun sequels which followed – or, for that matter, Roland Emmerich’s egg-laying 1998 incarnation.
“I was a lot older when the BFI released a version of the 1954 [Godzilla],” Edwards said, “and I bought it and watched it, and realised how serious and good that version is. It’s a metaphor for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, basically, and a serious take on a monster movie – which is what we wanted to do for this.”
2. The challenges of telling a good story remain unaffected by budgets
Made for a six figure sum, Gareth Edwards’ debut feature Monsters earned considerable acclaim, and set him on the path that would ultimately lead to his Godzilla gig. The obvious question, then, is how do you go from directing a low-budget film with a tiny cast and crew to a multi-million-dollar epic? The answer is simple, Edwards told us: technical concerns aside, the challenge of telling a good story remains the same, irrespective of budget.
“If you wrote a list of all the pros and cons of making a low-budget movie, and then you’re making a high-budget movie, just swap them over,” the director explained. “Everything that is easy to do when there’s just three of you is really hard when there’s 400 of you, and everything’s that’s really hard to do when you’ve only got £10 is really easy when you’ve got millions. And so that balances back out again.
“But the real difficulty, that is full stop the hardest thing in any filmmaking process, is to try and tell a gripping story where you care about the outcome. That doesn’t matter if you have 10p or $200m, it’s just as hard for everybody. And that’s what we’ve focused all our time on, and tried to get right.”
3. The story focuses on one family affected by Godzilla’s fury
Everything we’ve seen from Godzilla hints at a huge story taking place over multiple locations, but the widescreen destruction and global catastrophe will be anchored by a relatively small group of characters. “At the heart of it, we have a family that gets torn apart by a tragedy 15 years ago, which was apparently caused by a natural disaster,” Edwards explains.
That family’s a particularly starry one: there’s Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche as husband and wife Joe and Sandra Brody (who, by-the-by, happen to be nuclear scientists), and their son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who’s a lieutenant in the US army. Ford, in turn, has a wife, Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and a young son, Sam (Carson Bolde). Although precise plot details are shrouded in mystery, it’s clear from the trailers that each character will be directly affected by Godzilla‘s campaign of destruction.
4. The new Godzilla will have a humanity-versus-nature theme
The original Godzilla emerged from a nation still bearing the painful psychological scars left by the end of the Second World War, and as Edwards himself pointed out, the iconic kaiju is a walking embodiment of destruction and suffering. With the 1954 film carrying that much emotional weight, how could a modern, American movie possibly do it justice? That was something, Edwards said, that was considered at length before a page of script was written.
“I think that’s one of the reasons Godzilla‘s lasted so long, because apart from having Godzilla in the film, you have an infinite canvas,” Edwards explained. “It’s not like other franchises or characters, where it’s very much about a particular story you have to tell over and over. With Godzilla, you can kind of do anything you want. That was a bit paralysing to start with, because what are you going to do? We have this amazing opportunity, so what do we do? We brainstormed it for ages, and circled around a million ideas.
“It took a good year, if not a year and a half, to land on the story that felt right to everybody. And what’s at the heart of our movie, which I think is at the heart of the original, is the idea of man versus nature. That if you mess with nature, you’re going to lose. For a long time we’ve thought of ourselves as the alpha predator of the planet, that we can do what we want.
“Godzilla takes the assumption that we’re not the alpha predator. What if there’s something else? With the nuclear age in the original, we embrace that theme in this, that there’s a Pandora’s box, which can be used to our advantage or disadvantage. Godzilla’s putting nature back in balance.”
5. Godzilla’s design took approximately one year
While Edwards and his team mulled over the story possibilities, there was also the design of the mighty Godzilla himself to consider. He’s beloved character who’s gradually evolved over a succession of movies at Toho, and any redesign would have to respect the character’s 60-year heritage.
“I thought it was going to be a really simple task to design Godzilla,” Edwards said. “He’s already designed – you just copy him, right? But it took a year, the process of getting him right. It was kind of like when you witness a crime, and the police say, ‘Well, what did he look like?’ And you go, ‘Well, he had this…’ and you’d try to draw it, but you realise you can’t. It was just this trial-and-error thing. WETA in New Zealand did the design for a lot of Godzilla, and it was a back-and-forth thing until we could rotate him from every angle, and look at every little bit. I’m really proud of the way he turned out.”
Although we only saw Godzilla in brief, dust-shrouded glimpses in the footage, Edwards did reveal that the new incarnation of the monsters stands at 350 feet – around double the height of the one seen in the 1954 film (which stood at approximately 165 feet). Godzilla’s size was also taken into careful consideration – the director said that he wanted the creature to be large enough to be imposing, yet still small enough that he can emerge from behind a thicket of skyscrapers and scare the hell out of everybody.
6. The trailer’s temporary score was inspired by an iPhone on shuffle
Anyone who’s seen the Godzilla trailers so far will probably have noted how powerfully it intercuts snippets of footage with Ligeti’s Lux aeterna, a piece of music famously used by Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The haunting nature of the music perfectly complements Edwards’ nightmare imagery, and its use in the trailers was thanks, in a roundabout way, to his listening habits while coming up with Godzilla’s story.
“My biggest inspiration is music, usually,” Edwards explained. “On my iPhone, I created a playlist as soon as this opportunity arose. I threw on all my favourite tracks and soundtracks, and I’d have this playlist on shuffle. I’d walk around at night trying to picture the movie, which is a great, fun exercise. But I’ve learned that making the movie isn’t as much fun – it’s hard work, and exhausting.
“But that’s the fun bit – fantasizing about what would be really cool. What you’d get goose bumps from watching while sitting in the cinema. And it shuffled randomly on night to the 2001 track, so that sequence was born out of the music. It’s so primal – it’s as if the Devil made a track. It feels as though you’re going into hell, which is very appropriate for that scene.
“That’s not in the movie, obviously. It got embraced by the marketing, because they saw an early version of the film that has all the temp stuff in it, and so it got used – thank God – for the trailer.”
7. Godzilla’s roar has been recreated for Dolby Atmos
When it came to creating the movie’s sound, Edwards turned to sound designer Erik Aadahl, who’s previously worked on everything from Transformers to Terrence Malick’s Tree Of Life. “His range is fantastic,” Edwards said, “and it’s kind of like what we aspired to with this. It’s obviously a massive, epic movie, but we wanted it to have heart and soul, and subtlety, and artistic aspects to it.”
When it came to creating a new, terrifying roar for Godzilla, Aadahl went back to the original recording, generously lent by Toho, and set about trying to create a new version of it that would prove effective in a modern cinema.
“Erik Aadahl did Godzilla’s roar, and it was a lot of back and forth,” Edwards said. “We decided that we wanted to embrace the original classic roar, but obviously do it in Dolby 7.1 or Atmos. And the original recording, they’ve only really got one.
“We asked Toho to send it over, but it doesn’t do justice to the cinema experience of today. So we had to reinvent it, and so our brief was, like our design of Godzilla, ‘Imagine this is a real animal, and in the 60s someone was out in the field, saw it, and went running back to Toho in Japan and tried to describe it, played them the sound, and you could understand from that description why they made all the films they made.’ But when you see the real version – or the one in our movie – you understand how they went for that design, but hopefully in ours it has a bit more realism to it.”
8. The production design was partly inspired by Akira
One of the striking aspects of Godzilla’s visual design is its red and grey palette – look, for example, at the trailer’s parachute jump sequence, where an ominous, slate-coloured sky is streaked by the crimson trails of military flares. It’s the kind of distinctive use of colour that made us think of Japanese manga and anime – and Edwards revealed in the Q&A that he his designer were greatly influenced by Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira when creating the look of the movie.
“I don’t know if it comes across, but one of our designers on the film – a friend called Matt – when we were designing things, and got stuck, we’d always go, ‘What would Akira do?'” Edwards revealed. “Then we’d get inspired again and do these really cool drawings. So that was a big influence for me. Akira, I think, is amazing – a visually stunning movie. Matt introduced me to the original Akira graphic novels, and that was a really good resource for us.”
9. Its executive producer directed 1971’s Godzilla Vs The Smog Monster
Although Godzilla may only be Edwards’ second film, the director’s surrounded by an experienced group of filmmakers, among them cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, who shot Lynne Ramsay’s beautifully stark We Need To Talk About Kevin, and Joss Whedon’s superhero banquet, The Avengers. Executive producer Yoshimitsu Banno, meanwhile, is no stranger to the Godzilla series, having directed the 1971 cult entry Godzilla Vs The Smog Monster (also known as Godzilla Vs Hedora). Banno was also an assistant director to Japan’s most eminent filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa, and worked with the legendary auteur on such classics as Throne Of Blood and The Hidden Fortress.
In a fabulous anecdote, Edwards spoke of a boat trip he shared with McGarvey and Banno, when the realisation suddenly hit him that he was sharing a journey with two extraordinarily talented filmmakers. “What the hell am I doing here?” Edwards quietly asked himself. “I’m from Nuneaton!”
10. Gareth Edwards hadn’t seen Breaking Bad when he hired Bryan Cranston
Godzilla may have a gigantic monster dominating the skyline, but it also has a heavyweight cast to back it up, not least among them Bryan Cranston. Yet while Cranston’s sublime performance in Walter White has earned him universal recognition, Edwards joked that he hadn’t yet seen drama series Breaking Bad when he signed the actor up. He jokingly continued that he knew Cranston from Malcolm In The Middle, and an episode of Airwolf in 1986.
Edwards did, however, quickly add just how effective Cranston’s work is in Godzilla, and that his performance was so powerful in one scene that he chose to abandon some of the more complex set-ups he’d originally envisioned, and simply had the camera slowly close in on the actor without cutting away.
It’s an example, perhaps, of how Edwards has managed to port some of the nimble style of filmmaking from Monsters to this summer blockbuster in the making. “We’d figure things out on the spot a little bit,” Edwards said, turning his focus to Aaron Taylor Johnson’s role in the film. ” There’s a lot of visual storytelling in the movie, and times where there’s not a lot of dialogue, so you have to be able to tell what people are thinking and feeling just by watching them – especially with our main character, Ford, played by Aaron.
“So it’s really important that you have someone you feel you know just by looking at their face, and Aaron’s got that in spades, I think. There’s some really nice, intimate, realistic family moments that make you really care about these characters and make you feel that they’re real people.”