Michael Dougherty established his genre cred with his previous two efforts as a writer/director, the cult Halloween season classic Trick ‘R Treat and the twisted Christmas horror tale Krampus, but neither of those films were quite like the project he’s tackled now. A lifelong fan of Godzilla and the movies made by Japan’s Toho Studios about the giant reptile and his many monstrous friends and enemies, Dougherty set out to make Godzilla: King of the Monsters a love letter to the character and his canon.
A sequel to Gareth Edwards’ 2014 reboot, Godzilla, the new film amps up the monster action in both quantity and scale while adding three classic Toho names in their first American film: the giant pteranodon Rodan, the divine moth/larva known as Mothra, and the terrifying three-headed dragon called King Ghidorah.
In classic fashion, the monsters choose sides and battle it out for supremacy over each other and the planet, with the fate of the human race and the Earth as we know it hanging in the balance. Meanwhile, the secretive Monarch organization — tasked with tracking the monsters, known as titans — and scientists such as the obsessed Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and her estranged and embittered husband Mark (Kyle Chandler) struggle with each other as they race to find a way for humanity to survive.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is, in many ways, a loving, modern-day homage to the classic monster battles that always seemed to be showing, often dubbed or edited, on local TV channels every day for a certain generation of viewers. One of those viewers was Dougherty, who sat down with Den of Geek to talk about being “raised” by Godzilla and what making this epic throwdown of a movie meant to him.
Den of Geek: This movie is obviously a love letter to Godzilla and kaiju movies, and certainly seems like the movie you’ve wanted to make since you were 10 years old.
Michael Dougherty: Yeah, I mean I feel like, in a lot of ways, I was raised by Godzilla. Every Saturday morning for years consisted of waking up, pouring a big bowl of cereal, watching sort of a combo platter of the Hanna-Barbera Godzilla cartoon, which was followed by Super Friends strangely. So right off the bat you’re being presented with a portrayal of Godzilla as a hero, you know, and then that was followed by an afternoon Godzilla movie on the same channel.
Usually that was also paired up with a Universal black and white monster movie. Saturday mornings back in like the 70s and 80s was just a rich period to get caught up on pop culture, and as a kid to really fall in love with the decades of pop culture that proceeded you. That’s when the love affair started, and it just grew from there. But I used to sit and watch the old movies and the cartoon with my Godzilla shogun warrior, and every now and then I would have that sort of wish of what it would be like to make a Godzilla movie.
I remember going to the library and there was even a kids’ book about the character and how they made the movies. It was for kids, but the book didn’t pull its punches — it also talked about the allegory. That was the first time I remember learning about how a film could carry a message. That a film was more about what you just saw in the film. That it was also about trying to convey something deeper and more meaningful. And even back then I thought how inspiring that was. The idea that you could make something that is so fun and visceral, but also something that could have something to teach you.
The great thing about Godzilla is that he’s so malleable, he can change and his meaning can change. Was it clear from the start what you wanted him and the other Titans to represent in this film?
Yeah, because I feel like what the Godzilla and the Titans represent in this film is consistent with what they’ve always represented. To me they’ve always represented Mother Nature, both her beauty and her terror, and the concept that mankind needs to live in sync with Mother Nature if it’s truly going to not just survive but thrive. And what sort of demons are born if you don’t live in sync with Mother Nature. I feel like that message has been consistent since 1954. It’s definitely evolved and changed and I think it was more focused on the atomic and the nuclear dangers in the early years, which have never gone away either. It’s still present in our film too. I think as long as that message needs to be heard, Godzilla’s going to be around to communicate it.
Did you have any particular favorites of the Toho movies?
The original for sure. But you know, it’s funny because as a kid, the way that cable used to show the movies, it was always out of order, and it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter. You weren’t looking for continuity back then. I’m more of a Showa series guy. So it’s the original run, because they were just so bonkers. I mean it was the 60s and 70s so they just weren’t afraid to go for it.
Ghidorah, the Three Headed Monster was a huge fave because it was the first time that you saw these individual monsters coming together. So it was the first time that Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra came together to fight King Ghidorah. That left such a lasting impression, especially because there’s an entire scene where the monsters have a dialogue with each other. They have a dialogue with each other and Mothra’s priestesses, the little fairies, are translating for the humans as the monsters debate whether or not they should fight together to battle King Ghidorah.
Mothra is adamantly trying to convince Rodan and Godzilla that they have to do this. It’s probably one of my most favorite scenes ever put onto celluloid because you finally got to hear the point of view of the monsters, and Rodan and Godzilla are on the record saying basically, “Fuck humans. All they do is bully us. Why should we save them?” And for the first time as a kid, you realize that these creatures have a point of view. These are actual thinking characters that I suddenly have some empathy and sympathy for. So that one was a huge influence. The original Mothra, the original Rodan. The original Showa series really did it for me. But at the same time, each series of Godzilla films, I felt contributed something new and bold and different. So all of them played a part, I think, in the genesis of this film.
There are a ton of Easter eggs in this movie, which are great to see. In establishing that there are the other titans around the world, was there any inclination to call them Baragon or Anguirus or Manda or names like that? Part two of the question is, was the giant spider supposed to be Kumonga?
There was the hope that we would be able to bring in some of the other classic Toho kaiju, but they all have a fee, they don’t come for free. And some of them are surprisingly more expensive than others. So even mentioning their names was going to cost us money. So as much as I wanted to, I saw this as an opportunity to simply add some original Titans to the mix that at least evoked the spirit and the heart of the classic creatures.
And as a monster lover, something I love about the old Toho universe is they did keep adding new creatures and it felt like the right time to do that, you know, to even bring back… I love the MUTOs from the previous film and I was actually kind of bummed that they both died. So I thought, well why don’t we say that there was one more female in hibernation somewhere and add her to the mix. So yeah, I’m glad we got to bring back the classic crown jewels, but I’m also glad that we got to add some new ones.
As far as those crown jewels are concerned, you pay great tribute to the original design.
Right. Definitely. I wanted to add, you know, one more mammal kaiju to the mix, which is where Behemoth, that’s the name for the mastodon-looking creature, comes from. But then also, you mentioned the one that sort of looks like Kumonga, and while that’s not Kumonga, I like the idea that she might be a distant cousin or potential mate for Kumonga. That one’s named Scylla, which is based off a Greek myth.
Did you consult on the next film, Godzilla vs. Kong?
Yeah, when we were in post-production on this film, Legendary asked Zach (Shields), my writing partner, and I to help out with the script. So we did some rewrites on that and it was a lot of fun. I’ve never written for Kong before, so the idea that I spent my days on the sound mix for my Godzilla movie, and then at night went home and wrote scenes where Kong and Godzilla fought with each other, it was stressful. It was a lot of work, but it was a real joy because writing for Kong is very different than writing for Godzilla. He’s a little bit more complicated and human than Godzilla, obviously.
What’s next for you?
I don’t currently have a firm directing project lined up at this moment, which I’m actually really okay with because I need a break. I actually have a fantasy of going off and maybe digging up dinosaur bones for a year or putting on my Indiana Jones hat and playing in archeology if anybody wants to hire me.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is out in theaters this Friday (May 31).