Gareth Edwards’ career in blockbuster filmmaking grew as swiftly as the big guy himself when rising out of the sea after Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures tapped the one-time director to helm a modern 21st century reboot of Godzilla. Then again, it makes perfect sense if you have seen his first film, the dramatic and surprising indie kaiju-meets-natural-disaster flick Monsters (2010).
Thus when we sat down with him shortly after watching his very human take on a Godzilla that is as much tsunami and earthquake-causing bear as he is a giant fire-breathing reptile, it was with an eye to unpack what that creature really means to him. We also discuss how you find the human emotion under 40-stories of kaiju greatness.
I know that you and this film’s marketing team have described Godzilla as a force of nature. Could you describe what aspects of nature influenced both his devastation, as well as his look, appearance and movement?
Gareth Edwards: In terms of his movement, we initially got hold of hundreds of different clips of animals fighting and animal behavior, because I felt the obvious thing to do was to use nature as a reference. We’re going to do this realistically, let’s look at animals, let’s just copy that. “That’s all we have to do!” So we got bears fighting and wolves hunting, and everything, and animated him based on that. We then sat down and watched it, and went, “Hmm, there’s a problem here.” Which is if you watch animal or natural history documentary or wildlife documentary, and you don’t have any narration, you don’t know what the hell is going on. Like animals are very bad storytellers. [Laughs] You can’t tell if that thing’s scared or if it’s gesturing to try and find a better position, or is it trying to leave.
So, we ended up dialing in a lot more human performance to him, and he slowly went incrementally to being animalistic to like a guy in a suit doing a performance, because you need to understand in his body language if he is tired or angry. There was just a more human performance [because] we needed in that.
Along those same lines, you have a background in visual effects. You did Monsters. Now you jump to the ultimate monster movie. What was that like for you?
It was weird. To some extent, when you direct a film, you only really talk to a handful of people. It’s been established over decades. Initially, you’re like “why don’t I ever talk to that guy putting that up? I see him everyday and I never say hello.” And then you realize very quickly that there’s just not time. The way the machine works is you have these heads of departments that you relate to, and then they have the teams who can go and do everything. So, in some ways, you can convince yourself that you’re only making a film with 10 people, because you talk to the production designer, the director of photography, your assistant director, and then the actors.
I can sometimes get to the end of the day and spoken to five people. So, you sort of strain to convince yourself that you’re making a film with five people and there’s 300 spectators holding lights and cables, and just watching. And you can start believing that for quite a while. It’s only when you start doing things like this and walking around New York, and there’s a giant billboard. You’re like “oh shit! It was a big movie after all.”
If Godzilla represents the U.S. and its nuclear policy in the 1954 film, what does Godzilla and his fellow monsters represent in this movie?
He really represents nature in the world. And the MUTOs represent our abuse of nature. So Godzilla is here because of our sins and our misuse of the power of nature, and specifically the power of using nuclear weapons. Hopefully, you can watch this film and enjoy it as entertainment, but I personally like science fiction and fantasy when it has a little meaning behind it. So, there was the idea of man versus nature, which was this dominant theme throughout the movie.
Even when they discover the fossils at the beginning, as opposed to it being like “oh, we found some fossils,” it was “no, we have to find it because we’re doing something wrong to the planet.” So, in the middle of this beautiful rainforest, we carved out this quarry to try and benefit from. I also wanted it to be western companies whose logos were on things, so that it felt like “us” as the West abusing our position. I think horror is best served when there’s guilt. Like in a lot of horror movies, you try to make the characters guilty of something, so they kind of deserve it. It’s then a lot more awkward to watch. It’s not black and white. I always remember Cape Fear, because he kind of deserved it. From one kind of perspective, the retribution was a long time coming. I feel that Godzilla is nature’s retribution of our abuse of our position.
Coming from an independent background on Monsters, did you try to practice restraint on Godzilla?
…I think what I wanted to do—my goal, was to show some restraint where we could. I know that sounds silly, because there’s a lot of spectacle. But when there is spectacle, try and limit it to watching it from this perspective. We’re not going to see all of it, so that you’re using your imagination. So, the audience is a character in the film as well, and they’re having to think and have expectations that get rewarded or twisted. Try to give it a pace where you can think and have a thought—sometime things go so quickly, and you don’t have time to comprehend anything, and it’s just an overwhelming attack on the senses.
So, we were trying to hark back on that style of filmmaking from like the late ‘70s or early ‘80s that we all grew up with that for me made the movies that made me want to get into filmmaking. The restraint they had before they had computer graphics. I’m not saying we did that fully [Laughs], because there’s a lot of that stuff in the film. But at least one foot in that world of leaving some of it to the imagination. I feel like when you show everything straight away—the excitement I get, and the fear, when watching a film is by not seeing things, and you have to imagine things. The second you show something in all its glory, you can’t get scared of it anymore, because you revealed it.
So, we just wanted to build the film in a way where you incrementally progressed, and we’re always topping ourselves. When we reach that point where “We peaked, can’t do anything more, this is it.” Then we hit the end credits.
Was there anything that you came up with when you were filming where you’re like “Oh my god, this is such a good idea. We do not have the money. We can’t put it in this movie, but maybe down the road…”
The most expensive thing in a film is screen real estate. And it’s never because they can’t afford to shoot it; it’s always because we can’t afford to put it in the two-hour experience. If you go off on too many tangents and do too many things, you distract from the audience.
Thank you, cheers.