Exclusive Interview: Max Borenstein on Godzilla and Godzilla: Awakening
The new Godzilla film is out next week, but this week you can get an early taste with the prequel graphic novel Godzilla: Awakening. Authored by the movie’s screenwriter, Max Borenstein, Godzilla: Awakening tells an earlier story that predates the film. We got to speak with Borenstein about the graphic novel prequel to the film and the highly anticipated film itself.
CraveOnline: Is the graphic novel the origin of something we’ll meet in the movie?
Max Borenstein: Yes, I would say that is the case. It is an early story, an early tale form the archives, if you will, that exists within the same continuum. There are certainly characters within it that will appear.
I was wondering about that. Is Shaw a character in the movie as well?
Shaw is not appearing in the film. I think I’ll refrain from getting too specific but I think certainly the organization that starts to take shape, in a sense it’s an origin story of that.
The comic book mentions Gojira. Do you say the name Gojira in the movie?
Well, that’s another spoiler, isn’t it?
Maybe more of an Easter egg.
I don’t mean to be so coy, but if it were to happen, it would be a cool moment, so I wouldn’t want to spoil it.
Would atomic breath be another question like that? Does he have atomic breath in the movie?
Well, again, I don’t know what the official party line is, but I would say as a Godzilla fan that atomic breath is certainly canon as far as I’m concerned. So if I were going to watch a movie, I would want to see atomic breath employed in the coolest possible way.
I’ve been watching some of the ‘90s and Millennium Godzillas in preparation. Does an Asian franchise have different needs than an American summer tentpole movie?
That’s an interesting question. I think certainly there’s a very specific taste having to do with the Godzilla franchise, but I’d also say you’re watching the Millennium Series. It’s different from the Showa series and it’s different from the Heisei series and I think one of the interesting things about Godzilla is the extent to which he kind of becomes this vessel and contains a multitude of different ideas and different treatments, depending on the time, depending on the fears of the culture surrounding it.
So while every Godzilla film, with one notable exception, is a Japanese film and is therefore filtered through that specific culture, even within that it’s not one style, one tone, one thing. It changes and adjusts. I think certainly we had to approach this from the standpoint of thinking not about one particular audience but what the best film we could make, the best story that we could tell. And I think obviously it’s not being filtered even just through an American sensibility. Gareth [Edwards] is English. Ken Watanabe is in the film in a very crucial role, so it really becomes a global film like any film these days frankly.
What we were trying to do was tell a story that would resonate and relate to the here and now. I think by virtue of treating it with a kind of seriousness and groundedness and plausibility, hopefully fans will love it but also people who aren’t fans or who really aren’t familiar with the genre, maybe even people who think that they’ve written off the genre as something that they remember seeing as kids but aren’t interested in now, they can watch it and fall back in love or fall in love in a new way because of that.
You’re right about the series evolving. I loved that one was like an Indiana Jones movie, one was a time travel movie and some of the Millennium ones are just insane.
Right, I think the interesting thing about it is these films, especially the older ones, you start putting them on a pedestal and thinking of them as canon. The truth is that in the moment, the creators were thinking, “Okay, there’ve been three, four, five already. How do we do it new? How do we do something that’s going to be fresh and exciting and relevant and not repeating ourselves?”
That’s how they approached it I’m sure, and that’s why you get all these interesting, different twists on the genre. That’s certainly the way we had to approach it. You look at what’s been, in some sense for inspiration, but certainly even more so to not repeat what’s been done and to try and respect the legacy, but reinvent it in a way that feels fresh and that gives people a reason to want to watch something new.
I do think Americans take these kinds of movies more seriously than the Japanese, so there might not be quite as much license to go Final Wars crazy with it.
Well, I think to speak of the Japanese is probably reductive too, right? Because I think that culture, and I’m no expert, has such a multiplicity to it. There’s so much culture produced there, so much popular culture produced there and I would venture to guess that there are hardcore Kaiju fans, there are hardcore Godzilla fans and there are certainly many people for whom Final Wars would be too deeply genre even for them.
I think it’s really aiming at a global audience is I think a really valuable goal, as long as it’s about being expansive and not reductive. I think within every part of the world there are going to be your hardcore fans who are certainly more willing to go father and farther, but I think hopefully you can lead people there. We were trying to take the existence of this giant creature as our buy in. Okay, what if Godzilla came out of the bay? What then? Beyond that, our goal, and it’s the tonal choice about how we wanted to treat this, was to not try to have any more big sci-fi buy-ins because we thought for the normal non-fan filmgoer, that one thing is a big deal. Anything else might be a hat on a hat if you start going too far.
You have to take people, lead them by the hand and say, “Okay, there’s this one thing. Imagine that and then everything else is going to hopefully feel plausible and realistic within that reality.” Then before they know it maybe they’re watching Final Wars, but they didn’t necessarily dive right in. That’s certainly one way to treat it.
Did you have the privilege of creating brand new Godzilla monsters?
I did. We did. That was, frankly, one of the coolest things and one of the hardest things. I mean really, really tricky. Again, you look at the canon and so much has been done and done well, but you go, “Okay, what’s new and also what’s going to fit in that tone that I’m describing?” What’s going to feel coherent to this universe that’s as grounded as possible. And so that was an incredible privilege and incredible challenge.
How did you connect with Gareth Edwards in the first place?
I connected with Gareth through this. He had just recently come aboard the project and I had worked with Legendary on several other projects before and I had watched Monsters and I was a huge fan and thought it was just unbelievable what he’d managed to achieve on that budget but also the deliberate pacing and the sort of unconventional choice of using the monster movie as this human narrative I thought was really exciting and refreshing. The very fact that Legendary would choose a guy like that to do a Godzilla film suddenly ideas were flowing and I was really intrigued, so I was very excited to have the initial conversation about the project and see if we were on the same page. We really were.
We spent a lot of time, especially in those early days, on Skype or very lengthy phone calls between L.A. and London at all hours of the day and night in both places, although I think he bore the brunt of that time difference in the worst way. Starting with blue sky, because Legendary really wanted to make the best movie they could and they didn’t start with limitations. They said, “It’s Godzilla, a great one, go.” That was essentially the marching orders. So that meant starting at blue sky and following every possible train of thought and creative impulse into every possible dead end until some things started to stick. That was an incredible creative process and it was one that certainly Gareth and I shared.
Are any of those dead ends things that could be revived for a sequel?
The whole time, our goal was to try to make the best film possible in and of itself. If people love it and if we’re fortunate enough to get to make a sequel, then there are definitely reams of old notes and dead ends that we’ll get to look back to. I think there are certainly some things in there that will prove inspiring.
To bring it back to the graphic novel, at what point did writing Godzilla: Awakening become part of the deal?
I don’t remember exactly the date but once the film was underway and Legendary has their own comic imprint, so when they approached about the idea of doing it, it was incredibly exciting to get to delve back into that universe and flesh certain things out, certain elements of backstory that had been there but only in my imagination to help me write the stuff that’s contained in the movie. This was a chance to go back and fill in some of those gaps for the audience. It was a really, really cool process.
Are you still working on a Jimi Hendrix movie?
Well, there is a script and I’m hopeful that one day we get to make it. It would be really incredible. I know there’s certainly the desire. I wrote it also for Legendary and Thomas Tull, in addition to being a giant Godzilla fan, is also a huge rock n’ roll buff. I know there’s the desire. If there’s a possibility, there’s certainly the will to do a movie like that.
What period does your script cover?
It’s not one period. It hits a lot of important things without being structured in the soup to nuts biopic style. It takes a very specific structure and uses flashbacks to tell some of the key moments and link them in this almost mystery. It’s chock full of at least my favorite Jimi Hendrix songs.