This article conatins spoilers for GODZILLA VS. KONG.
Aside from studios Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures, and certain behind-the-scenes executives, the four MonsterVerse movies to date have embraced largely different creative and directorial visions for each outing. This includes the latest installment Godzilla vs. Kong. But even though all four movies have had different directors, somewhat different tones, and mostly different casts, one of a handful of constant names has been that of Max Borenstein.
Borenstein has had a writing credit on all four MonsterVerse movies, starting with penning the screenplay for 2014’s Godzilla. Since then he’s co-authored the screenplay for Kong: Skull Island (2017), gotten a story credit for Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) and is back to full screenplay credit (with Eric Pearson) on Godzilla vs. Kong.
Of course Hollywood screenwriting is a tricky field: many projects have multiple writers come and go during development, production and even post-production, with the issue of who wrote what and how they’re credited an often complex negotiation between producers, agents, and the Writers Guild. But Borenstein (whose other projects include executive producing the TV series Minority Report and The Terror Infamy) has legitimately had a hand in the evolution of the MonsterVerse since the start.
With Godzilla vs. Kong off to a–yes, we’re going to say it–roaring start at a still-reopening and recovering worldwide box office (including nearly $50 million in the U.S.) and streaming away on HBO Max as well, Den of Geek got on Zoom with Borenstein shortly before the movie’s launch to discuss the development of this fourth–and perhaps final?–entry, its relationship to the other films, and what these iconic monsters mean to new generations of fans.
Den of Geek: You’ve been involved in each of the films up to this point. What was the process for this one? How many iterations of the story were you involved in?
Max Borenstein: I’ve been involved in the franchise in different ways from the beginning. I helped with Godzilla, the first film. It was a kind of a rebuild of the script from brass tacks when Gareth Edwards came on board to direct, and we worked really closely together. And I stayed more or less on that movie from then through production.
It was in post-production on that, that the head of Legendary at the time, Thomas Tull, and Mary Parent–who was then a producer and is now running Legendary–and Alex Garcia, who’s the exec there who’s really been overseeing the whole franchise, first came to me and asked if I was interested in being involved in writing a Kong movie that would sort of bring Kong into that universe. For Thomas, who was really the big fan and the kind of driving force behind it, it was always about creating a universe where ultimately we can bring those two together, like the Avengers, in Godzilla vs. Kong.
So those were kind of the marching orders from the very beginning, at least for me, once it was clear that we to some extent had cracked the code on the new American version of Godzilla. And through the years, I was involved on and off in every one of these films, but Godzilla vs. Kong was the one where I at this point, had become part of the brain trust, so to speak.
How did Godzilla and Kong change from the previous films?
By this point it was clear we had done the groundwork in terms of filling out what these monsters were, how we envisioned Godzilla, what level of anthropomorphic attachment they had to people, and how unknowable our Godzilla was. There have been so many different Godzillas over time. So we developed that and we developed an idea of how our Kong fit into the spectrum of different King Kongs over time.
Really for me, the mandate of this film was: how do we finally allow Godzilla and Kong to carry their own movie? In the previous films, because we were sort of establishing them, we always had these human characters who were our way in, and they still are. But more and more in this film, Godzilla and Kong are the stars, and everybody else is a supporting character.
Is it a challenge to come up with interesting human characters, especially when you know that people are there to see the monsters fight?
Yeah, it is. It’s always a challenge. And I think one of the challenges of it is scale. It’s very different from the superhero franchises, because in superhero franchises, your characters are actual people who also have superpowers. But in the case of Godzilla and King Kong, particularly Godzilla and Kong in this iteration, you’re operating at a scale that’s not human. It’s societal, it’s global. When they do something, it has a much larger impact. It’s much harder to have a human character have too much agency with these creatures without stepping into inventing devices that control the creatures. We do some of that, but on some level, it becomes boring if people are just piloting these guys.
So the challenge is how do you create human characters that allow us to experience that while not taking too much of the spotlight? I think we honed more and more as we went forward, that if you see the human characters less as protagonists in the traditional sense and more as supporting characters in the stories of Godzilla and Kong, they become crucial in storytelling. They’re not carrying the movie, but they might be like Simon Pegg in the Mission: Impossible movies, where there’s charm and there’s humor, and there’s emotion that comes from those characters. But they’re not being asked to carry the movie in the way that a star would, because our stars are Godzilla and Kong.
Did you know early on that Millie Bobby Brown and Kyle Chandler would be coming back from Godzilla: King of the Monsters?
Yeah. By the time I came into this project, those kinds of bones were in place. It evolved somewhat, but we knew largely what the cast of characters was going to be. They were kind of Camp Godzilla, and then Camp Kong was the main characters, Alexander Skarsgård and Rebecca Hall, and those guys.
Was Mechagodzilla always the secret villain?
Well, it’s funny. Because like I said, a lot of the bones for this one were in place by the time I kind of came in, in terms of those decisions. But I had originally written Mechagodzilla into [Godzilla: King of the Monsters]. It was very similar in the sense of being an opportunity for the human characters to have some agency at the scale of the monsters, which is one of the hardest parts of these stories.
It was something I really quite liked, and ultimately [KOTM director] Mike Dougherty, as they were developing it, kind of put it aside. But I was really happy that we had brought it back in Godzilla vs. Kong, because it felt like one of the main challenges of Godzilla vs. Kong is neither Godzilla nor Kong is a villain. We’re rooting in different ways for each, we’re connected in different ways to each.
So it felt essential to have a third thing. Round one goes to Godzilla and round two goes to Kong. The question is in round three, rather than having one or the other win, how can we have the two of them develop a grudging respect for one another and go up against the third thing. Mechagodzilla felt like this perfect route into that.
It’s fun how you tied him back to King Ghidorah by using Ghidorah’s skull as a control panel.
Yeah, totally. It had different kind of evolutions and expansions as we went along and then contractions, but it was always those two characters, Serizawa and Simmons [the Apex Cybernetics scientist and CEO, played by Shun Oguri and Demián Bichir respectively], who both are interested in this idea of being able to act at the level and the scale of the creatures. But each has a very different kind of perspective on what they want to do with that power and how that can corrupt them. Ultimately it got slimmed down, but still I think retained its fundamental sort of core.
When it came to the final battle, was there any point where one of them was going to lose or was it always planned that both of them would survive?
No, neither Godzilla nor Kong were ever going to lose. There were different moments of how far we took it in terms of Kong taking a beating, but the two of them were always going to gang back up and work together.
Have there been discussions about what comes next? Do you have ideas for a fifth film?
There have definitely been ideas thrown around. I can’t say I’m appraised on the absolute latest right now, but I know that it’s all about this being the kind of Avengers moment and hopefully people respond and audiences will dig the way that we’ve kind of wrapped up this initial chapter of the Monsterverse.
What about a Monarch TV show where they would chase different monsters around the globe?
Again, I couldn’t speak to whether anything like that has been discussed, but that’s something I’ve always thought would be really fun. It would allow you to get into a different kind of storytelling in a different kind of scale that has a little bit more X-Files vibe within that universe. I’ve always thought that’d be cool.
Over the course of the four movies, what elements do you feel the most ownership of?
These are such collaborative endeavors, as are just movies of this scale in general, and in particular movies like this that are so reliant on what you’re building in post-production in terms of creatures and everything. But every now and then, in the actual writing, there’s some dialogue here and there that makes you think, “Oh, that was mine. I’m proud of that.” The “let them fight,” moment from Godzilla is one, and there are a couple of moments in this one, like when Rebecca Hall says, “Kong doesn’t bow to anyone.” Things like that are moments that I’m proud of that made it into the movie, because those are the kinds of moments of dialogue that you look forward to in a movie like this.
The thing that I’m proud of is what you feel when these two characters finally come together–the emotional investment, I think, that we’ve built. When you get to that moment at the end, when Godzilla and Kong square off, not as enemies, but as allies, it’s the kind of thing that I feel proud of because I think we’ve done a lot of work to get to a place where we’re invested in these two characters and we feel kind of thrilled at the fact that the two of them create this grudging alliance.
What are your feelings about the original King Kong vs. Godzilla?
I had watched it when we started working on this, and it’s super campy and fun and hopefully we did it justice. It’s one of those films that it felt a lot like playing with your toys on the floor where you take the two toys that don’t go together, and suddenly they’re together in the same story. I always thought that one of the best parts of that whole franchise is the playful quality of just taking Kong, who has nothing to do with that world, and throwing him in there. That’s why those films always captured my imagination in that way.
What do you think that these monsters represent nowadays?
I think they’re both vessels. Godzilla certainly over the course of the decades has been a vessel for, at times our fears — whether it be fears of nuclear annihilation initially, or environmental degradation, the anxieties of the moment have been sponged up by Godzilla in different iterations over the years. Certainly Kong has evolved from his earliest days of being kind of a somewhat problematic kind of colonialist metaphor for “the other,” and over time has become just an iconic beloved character.
When these characters take on this scale, there’s this philosophical term, “hyperobject,” which this philosopher Tim Morton talks about–something so large that it touches everything and everyone all the time. You can’t have any conversation about anything without kind of also talking about it. Climate change is one of those things that’s just ubiquitous and everywhere. So is the pandemic. There’s not a single moment of any day or a single thing we do right now where COVID isn’t having some kind of impact because it’s on a scale that touches everyone around the world.
So [Godzilla and Kong] reveal to us the fact that we’re all connected, which is easy to forget when we live in big glass skyscrapers and we ignore the other people around the world. Hyperobjects bring us into connection. Godzilla and Kong, creatures of this scale that can hop around the world and touch everyone haphazardly and create tumult and chaos, reveal that in our globalized world, we are all connected for better and for worse. To me, that’s really what this movie is kind of all about.
Godzilla vs. Kong is out in theaters and streaming now on HBO Max.