Kong: Skull Island’s producer on Godzilla, monsters and more

Producer Alex Garcia talks to us about Kong: Skull Island, Godzilla and Legendary's growing kaiju movie universe...

Alex Garcia knows a thing or two about giant monsters. He was the executive producer on Bryan Singer’s 2013 fantasy Jack The Giant Slayer and 2014’s Godzilla, and now he’s the producer of this year’s Kong: Skull Island. The movie not only represents the giant ape’s return to cinema screens for the first time since 2005’s King Kong remake, directed by Peter Jackson, but also the next step in a larger series of giant monster flicks from Legendary Entertainment.

After Skull Island, Godzilla’s set to rise again in 2019’s King Of Monsters, due to start filming this summer, while further ahead, there’s Godzilla Vs Kong – which will, as its title implies, pit the two outsized beasts against each other for the first time since 1962’s King Kong Vs Godzilla.

Before all that, we have Kong: Skull Island, which sees a motley group of adventurers, mercenaries and Vietnam veterans fly into King Kong country circa 1973. The foolish humans don’t exactly tread carefully, and Kong’s response is as hair-raising as you’d expect. Ahead of the movie’s UK opening this week, we spoke to Mr Garcia about Skull Island’s conception and location shooting in Hawaii and Vietnam, and his plans for the larger ‘MonsterVerse’ set to unfold on our screens over the next few years…

Kong: Skull Island feels like a traditional pulp adventure in some ways, but in others it feels modern, in the sense that it avoids stereotypes.

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Yeah, we were trying to make a movie that would feel relatable to audiences – something relevant to today. And Jordan [Vogt-Roberts, director] was very set on making the movie in the 1970s, and all the thematic resonance that it brings. It’s just an undercurrent in this big, popcorn adventure. It gave us these characters who’ve come through a difficult conflict, and they aren’t ready to go home yet. 

Brie Larsson’s character, Weaver, who’s this strong female photographer who’s been trying to uncover the truth. Connor [Tom Hiddleston’s character], who’s a noble guy who’s maybe lost his way a bit and become a mercenary in the aftermath of the conflict. Samuel L Jackson’s character, Packard, he’s hopefully a villain you can understand – if calling him a villain is even accurate, because he loses his men on the island. He’s just shepherded them through this extraordinary war, and then he loses them on this seemingly innocuous mission. He has trouble letting it go.

It reminds me of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla in that sense, in that there aren’t any black-and-white villains in this as such.

It’s interesting you reference Godzilla, because there’s something about Kong, too, where there are these misunderstood characters. Whether those characters are representative of our id or things that are larger than ourselves, or representative of man’s inability to control the Earth, even though he’s always going to try to do so. In Godzilla, there are those who want to bomb them [the monsters] and take them down, and there are those who try to see past the immediately fearsome and see something more in them.

It’s interesting how monster movies can be bent to mean different things in different times. In the 50s and 60s they tended to represent the nuclear bomb or science run amok. I get the sense with Skull Island that it’s more about our lack of respect for nature.

Yeah, and the best genre movies are like a prism to examine our lives and our world. Again, you can enjoy the experience, and also take something away from it. The original Godzilla [1954] was a catharsis – it dealt with what happened to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and wanting to tell a story that helped people come to terms with it. In the Godzilla we made later, we tried to have some of that thematic resonance within the movie as well. It’s why these characters have persisted for as long as they have in our imaginations – they aren’t just cool designs and big, giant creatures. They represent something that’s more universal and something that’s almost aspirational. You come to realise that Kong actually represents something greater than us that is actually really good – that we should be careful and take care of what we’re given. 

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Can you talk about how you chose Jordan Vogt-Roberts as director? He’s an interesting choice, like Gareth Edwards in a way, in that he hadn’t made a blockbuster before.

The hardest thing with these movies is coming to a take and an approach that feels fresh and distinctive. Both with Gareth and Jordan, that was the initial thing that got us excited. Jordan came in with this idea of setting Skull Island in the 1970s, and that gave us a number of things. One of which was, it was the dawn of the Landsat program, which was the first time we mapped the Earth with satellites. Which immediately explains why they haven’t found Skull Island already, and why they’re finding it now. It also gives this thematic backdrop of a post-war world, where people are finding their way back; and it gave us these characters who go on this seemingly innocuous mission to map a place. Some of them think something else is there, some of them know more than the others, but it’s potentially a harmless mission nonetheless. 

The setting also gave us the music of the period, which felt really distinctive for a monster movie like this. And it gave us a fresh visual aesthetic.

I read an interview with Jordan, and he was saying by influenced by Japanese animation – Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, even Pokemon. I think it’s interesting how anime’s coming through in the work of American filmmakers.

Yeah. I don’t know if that’s a new thing. I mean, you have The Matrix. We grow up on things and they lodge themselves in our imaginations. Again, these extraordinary characters, both in Miyazaki’s films and something like Pokemon – they may have the same longevity that Kong and Godzilla have had. But in creating Skull Island, there’s a variety of creatures that have all different kinds of influences, but yes, there’s a Princess Mononoke influence in a few of them, specifically.

I also think these characters have always crossed boundaries. With the original Godzilla, there were two versions – there was the Japanese version and the American version, with Raymond Burr. That was a very different movie than the Ishiro Honda movie. So there’s something about those characters that push past those lines. And now, we’re living in a more global world. We’re more aware of different cultures, and they infuse the work.

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This is a really distinctive looking film. How hands-on were you with the storyboarding and pre-visualisation?

That was Jordan working with teams of artists and pre-viz guys. He brought a really distinctive visual sense to the movie. The first sequence that we saw was the Valkyrie sequence, which is the helicopters initially arriving at the island and the discovery of Kong. We were really excited by that, because we’d never seen Kong like that before – a very fresh backdrop. So I’m involved with it in that we look at sequences, we talk them over with Jordan. There were certain sequences that we thought were phenomenal, and we pushed him to expand them, maybe make them bigger parts of the film, so I was pretty involved as we went along. But Jordan really worked closely with those guys to craft these sequences. 

What I think this movie does really well with its action is that, no matter how chaotic things are, it’s always grounded in someone or something’s perspective. So the helicopter sequence it keeps cutting to the little bobble head of Richard Nixon. It keeps you rooted, you know where you are.

It’s a bit of a wry wink. “Yes, this is horrifying, but you can smile just a little bit here.” 

It’s quite Steven Spielberg, I thought.

Jordan has an attention to detail in those sequences. Like you said, a seemingly small piece like that has as much resonance as you want to take from it, you know? It might not mean much if you’re a young kid and you don’t know who Richard Nixon is. But it’s a funny element to watch if you’re of our age. You take something else from it. It’s like at the beginning of the movie, where John Goodman says, “There’ll never be a more screwed-up time in Washington.” There are many ways you could take that line!

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I was going to ask you about that, actually. It seemed so current, I almost wondered whether it was a line you put in later.

Well… no. And, by the way, the intent was always for Monarch, the organisation we introduced in Godzilla, which had been tracking Godzilla since the 1950s when he was first found to be taking out nuclear submarines… placing Kong in this timeline, and also having their organisation because they haven’t found anything since the 50s. The world has had other challenges and other focuses, and Monarch has become less of a priority. These guys are up against it, and the world is in a turbulent place. So the line really came out of that – it came out of the story. But it has resonance for people for different reasons.  

I get the sense as well that a lot of Skull Island was shot in outdoor locations.

Yeah, I’d say 90 percent of it. We shot in Hawaii, Australia and Vietnam. We did our stage work in Australia. In Hawaii we shot a lot of exteriors – the hangar where we meet Packard and the Sky Devils. And then we were the first large studio movie to shoot in Vietnam, and it was really important to us that we capture that backdrop, because it felt so distinctive. It hadn’t been seen before in a movie like this. And to be able to give the island that never-seen-before quality was paramount for a movie like this. And it’s challenging because we had to shoot out of order; we couldn’t shoot in continuity at all, because we had to finish each location while we were there, so we were jumping all over the script.

Again, we were lucky to have the phenomenal cast we have, because they make it seem effortless. But we were jumping around all over the place, so it was exciting to see it come together in the end when you weave it all together, and then you see Skull Island start to come to life. It can be scary when you’re shooting it, because you’re going from location to location, and you’re thinking, “Are these all gonna weave together?” Having the island feel like this bastard child of nature was something we were aspiring to, but it was exciting to see it come together in the editing room.

I think that’s one of the things that makes this film, actually – the editing is great. The sense of momentum in the first third reminds me a bit of Predator, where its pacing is really engrossing.

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We wanted to have the movie just start off right out of the gate. It’s an adventure movie, it’s a survival movie, we wanted it to be thrilling and fun. We very quickly see the group put together and thrust onto this island. 

I’m guessing you’ve already started planning the designs and scales of other monsters in the kaiju movie universe. Is it difficult making a character like, say, Mothra scary to a modern audience? 

I can’t be specific about who we’re introducing. But you might have said the same about Godzilla and King Kong – but with the artists and technology we have today, and the filmmakers’ passionate love for these characters, there is something that transcends those initial designs. Whatever the core foundations of those designs are, rendering them with modern artistry, like at ILM with Kong, that becomes less challenging.

The most challenging thing about it is having them feel authentic to the characters we all know. We want Kong to feel like Kong, and that means he should feel like Kong to someone who loves the 1933 version, and someone who loves Peter Jackson’s film, and hopefully somebody who likes our film. Even though they’re different versions of that character, they see a throughline in him.

Kong: Skull Island is clearly the next step a larger movie universe you’re building. So what are the challenges of building that, and do you have one person who’s overseeing it all from a top-down perspective?

We have a team within Legendary who are crafting it together, and our next film will be Godzilla: King Of Monsters, which starts shooting in June and comes out in 2019. Look, the most daunting thing is in reintroducing these characters in a new way that also feels authentic to their roots. And again, these are characters that people have loved for generations, so it’s taking those foundations and then having them feel fresh and new. That’s the biggest challenge. Then it becomes about making, as we said before, the characters’ thematic and social resonance – weaving that in with the story. We aspire to make movies that work for audiences now as well as they did for us when we were kids. 

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Godzilla was largely set in the present, while Kong: Skull Island’s set in the 70s. Do you think future films will take a similar approach, where they’ll alternate between past and present?

Um… the timeline of Monarch and the universe will allow us to play with some of that. Right now, because Godzilla re-emerges in the 2014 film, that means the world is now aware of monsters. We’re pushing forward from there, but there’s always the chance that we could take a side trip. 

So are Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larsson contracted for any more of these films?

Uhh… I can’t say. Sorry, sorry!

In a more general sense, what’s it like as a producer finding a place in the schedule for a film like this? Because there are so many blockbusters coming out in any given year now.

Look, it’s challenging, but it’s also exciting. There’s so many great franchises that are doing so well, so sure it’s difficult to find a space in the schedule where you can carve out time for the audience to really come and enjoy it. But as a fan of movies, I’m thrilled that there are as many of these big, fun movies as there are. 

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Alex Garcia, thank you very much.

Kong: Skull Island is out in UK cinemas on the 10th March.