SXSW 2014 Interview: Gareth Edwards on Godzilla
The South by Southwest Film Festival featured a screening of the classic Gojira on 35mm, celebrating the film’s 60th anniversary and anticipating this summer’s new Godzilla movie. After the film, Godzilla director Gareth Edwards greeted the audience with a clip of his new film. He shared that he put a rush on Alexandre Desplat’s score for the scene, to avoid expensive licensing issues with temp music. The scene featured Godzilla emerging from the ocean onto the beach and into the city, and all the havoc he causes. It also included a surprise of Godzilla facing another monster. The morning after the Gojira screening and Godzilla preview, we got to speak with Edwards before he flew back to finish post-production. Godzilla will be out May 16.
CraveOnline: I have an idea, maybe you can use it on the sequel. I think there should be a Godzilla movie where Mothra has to fight giant snakes, and as the planes are circling around Samuel L. Jackson can scream, “I’ve had it with these Mothra-fucking snakes and these Mothra-fucking planes!”
Gareth Edwards: Now, you shouldn’t have told me that because when we do it, you’re going to end up suing us.
You can have it. I just want to see it.
[Laughs] It sounds like it would work. I’ll pitch it to the studio as soon as I get back.
Is the scene you showed last night the first time Godzilla appears in your film?
It’s the first full body reveal, yeah, but he is glimpsed earlier.
And the surprise other monster in that scene, is that a new original creature?
Yeah, yeah, that’s unique to the film.
Do you have a name for that creature since the footage has been seen now, so we can identify it?
We call it MUTO. I’m not sure it’s out yet what that stands for.
But we can say MUTO?
Would you have called it Gojira if you could have?
I think if it didn’t affect marketing I would have not even called it that. I would just have the Japanese font.
Last night you said Godzilla is not a sequel to Gojira but they reference reports of sightings in the ‘50s and ‘60s, so is that not a reference to the attack on Japan?
I think the problem is, basically in our film it’s an origin story so it’s about when the world first finds out about these things. So if that had happened in the ‘50s to Tokyo, it wouldn’t be a secret. It’d be very hard to keep that secret because in that movie, in the original so many people would have seen it. We wanted to give a nod to the ideas that were in that movie, so Ken Watanabe plays a character called Serizawa whose name is inspired by the character in the original.
We wanted to find a way of linking Godzilla to the nuclear bomb tests that happened in the ‘50s, and just as I was doing my research, the obvious thing is that in the Pacific they were doing all these different tests which is what is mentioned in the original Godzilla. Then it became this idea of what if they weren’t tests? What if they were trying to kill something? I found that really interesting and exciting and it’s sort of a way of reinventing history a little bit.
We had the Department of Defense cooperation on this film, so the U.S. Navy were partners on it. I was really nervous when we pitched the movie to them because reinventing things like that, you think, “Oh no, they’re going to just totally say no.” What surprised me is a lot of people in the Navy are big Godzilla fans and they get it. They know we’re telling a story so they cooperated with everything and gave us a lot of access to things. That was a real surprise for me, that the military would be so cooperative with a fantasy film like this.
But that’s not necessarily the events of the Gojira movie they’re referring to.
Not the movie, not the events of the movie, no.
My pet peeve in CGI movies is that a lot of directors and visual effects artists seem to think if you have great CGI you can just show the visual effects full frontal, but movie magic is when you obscure it a little. Just like when all they had was makeup, they’d show it in the shadows. It looks like you’re doing that in Godzilla. Do you agree it’s still a mistake to show the visual effect completely clearly just because it looks so good?
I completely agree in that I think a lot of the fun from these kind of movies is the anticipation and the fear that you get from hiding things in the shadows. There’s a fine line between frustrating the audience and teasing them, and we tried to balance that as perfectly as we could. You definitely see Godzilla in our movie. There’s no hiding him but I really wanted to have fun when you know he’s coming, and there are many sequences where we abuse that storytelling.
I think the thing is that the films that I grew up with, I guess because they couldn’t show everything because there wasn’t digital animation back then, they were so effective. If you look at the greatest monster movies ever made, for me it seems like Jaws, Alien, Aliens and Jurassic Park, the thing that a lot of those had in common was that you don’t see the creature for quite a while but they build and build on the anticipation of seeing it. You glimpse things. They’re omnipresent in the atmosphere of the film but they hold off and they get the structure of the movie right so that when it peaks, it’s peaking towards the end.
I think the big mistake with some of these things is they show things straight away and the film plateaus and there’s nowhere else to go. Then you get what I call CGI fatigue. It just has no meaning anymore and you get bored quite easily. So I didn’t want to make that kind of movie. We have a lot of fun with suspense in our film and anticipation. I feel like that’s one of the most powerful emotions when you’re watching a movie and so I try to tap into that as much as possible, without frustrating people. I think if Godzilla fans came to see him in all his glory, they’re going to leave happy, but certainly there’s going to be a bit of foreplay along the way.
I think the aesthetic is still the same no matter how much technology advances.
Yeah, yeah, exactly. It’s that Jurassic Park line, “Just because you could doesn’t mean you should.”
Yes! But, are there any shots where you can see the entire body of Godzilla in a single shot?
The entire? Only at a distance because that’s also part of the trick of filming him is you shouldn’t be able to see him in the whole shot. I’m trying to think through it. There might be the odd moment like that but we’re at quite a distance if it ever happens, like he’s far in the horizon. The whole point is to find ways to show his scale and scale is always relative. You’re trying to always put things in the image that you know the scale. Obviously people is the obvious one. There’s lots of cues to tell you how big something is. The visual effects companies have been working really hard to make sure every shot has some details in it that even if you just saw that shot on its own, you’d know he’s 30 stories, or whatever he is, high.
The wing suits have gotten a lot of attention and were one of the most striking new aspects of your Godzilla. What other cool new toys can we look forward to?
The heli-jump, yeah. That was a scene where the way it was on paper, it was like, “Oh God, this can go two ways.” There’s obviously a cheesy version of this and I’m allergic to cinematic cheese. I have a lactose intolerance. It was trying to find a way of doing a scene like that that felt cool and serious. So that’s the thing with a lot of the sequences in the movie is that when you’re doing something like this, there’s always that potential. It could so easily slide into goofy cheesiness if you don’t take it seriously.
In terms of the storyline, I didn’t really want that to be something too far fetched scientifically. The one buy-in that the audience will give you is that there’s a giant monster called Godzilla. After that I think they want to stick to the real world rules. In terms of how our movie unfolds and what’s going on in the film, there’s no real sci-fi beyond that. Anything that happens is about real-world weapons and resources and how on earth they’re going to try and stop this thing.
Watching Gojira last night, it was great to see the full frame 35mm film. How do you use the full widescreen in Godzilla?
I love the anamorphic aspect ratio. I don’t know if it’s because the films I grew up with were shot that way and so I just have this in-built bias towards it, but I think there’s something about your peripheral vision. When you walk around, you sort of see everything in a stretched rectangle. That’s kind of the way your brain works, so anamorphic, 2.35:1 or whatever you call it, I think is closest to the way we see the world. There’s something about that framing of long widescreen, I love it because you can get a wide shot, a closeup and medium shot in the same shot. I think it’s a lot more cinematic.
That said, the original that we saw last night, it’s really a square, wasn’t it? It felt very classic. I think back then, obviously they grew up with different films. I’m sure if I was born back then and ended up wanting to be a filmmaker, I probably wouldn’t shoot everything in that format. It’s just because films like Star Wars and Close Encounters and things like that were anamorphic, it was the first stipulation of this was I want to shoot anamorphic. Seamus [McGarvey], the DoP on the movie, even got hold of these old C-Series lenses that they shot a lot of classic movies with. They actually have numbers on them and you can actually look up which famous films were shot with them. They were all films from the ‘60s and ‘70s because we wanted to give it that look.
Is there anything you like about the Roland Emmerich Godzilla?
I think the problem people have with that film is just probably the fact that it was called Godzilla and the fans feel that it wasn’t true to Toho’s version of Godzilla. I think Roland’s an amazing filmmaker. I own a lot of his movies. It’s difficult when people ask me that question because I’m a fan of his and I think he’s a great guy as well. He’s been very supportive of the film, but our reference really was the 1954 original.
One of the great things about any disaster movie is not just the disaster but how the regular people have to work together. Is that aspect alive and well in your Godzilla?
Yeah, the heart of our story is about a family. Our main character played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, he’s a military guy on leave. He’s not been home for about 14 months and that’s where the film picks up with him. The other members of the family, Elizabeth Olsen and stuff, are very normal regular people. I didn’t want the film to be about these superheroes. It’s about a normal regular family that get sucked into this insane event and have to deal with it. Elizabeth’s character, she’s a nurse and she’s on the ground when things start kicking off. It’s a story really of him trying to get back home to his family. It’s kind of an odyssey with all these hurdles along the way.
But how about people who don’t like each other forced to work together?
There’s always conflict in drama but not like over the top antagonistic, not really in the realms of what feels fake. There is a big debate in the heart of the film about what to do with these things and it’s a very personal issue for some of the characters, but one thing about these events, forget giant monsters, just natural disasters is that it pulls everyone together. People who previously had problems or disagreements, we put them aside and try and get through and cope with this stuff. So yeah, that was part of it. We didn’t want people to be falling out too much.
I just have to ask, have you ever met Gareth Evans?
No, he was apparently here yesterday but he left before I arrived. I don’t think we’re allowed to meet. The universe will explode.