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Director Gareth Edwards Returns to the Nuclear DNA of ‘Godzilla’

Director Gareth Edwards Returns to the Nuclear DNA of 'Godzilla'

Director Gareth Edwards (“Monsters”) has admirably returned to the Toho roots of “Godzilla” 60 years on and made the Kaiju myth as relevant as ever, even adding a humanistic twist. Drawing on the recent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster as inspiration (what if it wasn’t a natural disaster?), and utilizing the best that CG animation has to offer, Edwards delivers the thrilling monster goods along with a sense of melancholy.

“Godzilla represents nature in our film and the MUTOS represent our abusive nature,” Edwards explains. “And so Godzilla is here because of our sins and our misuse of the power of nature, specifically using nuclear weapons and power. Even when they discover fossils at the beginning, we have to find it because we’re doing something wrong to the planet. And so in the middle of this beautiful rain forest we’ve carved out this quarry to benefit. I think the horror is best served when there’s guilt. 

“In a lot of horror movies you try to make them guilty of something and then they kind of deserve it and it’s a lot more awkward to watch. I always remember [Martin Scorsese’s] ‘Cape Fear’…. retribution was a long time coming and I feel that Godzilla is nature’s retribution for our abuse of our position.” 

“Godzilla” (which utilizes IMAX 3D to the fullest) is a return to storytelling from the late ’70s and early ’80s before our senses were assaulted. It takes its cue especially from “Jaws”and “Alien” by holding back and placing Godzilla in silhouette early on (Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography is a stunning combination of pseudo-documentary and hyper-reality in keeping with Edwards’ vision).

However, making the leap from the low-budget indie “Monsters” to a $100 million tentpole about the grandfather of all post-war monsters was a reminder that studio movies have their own hierarchy, and Edwards, who started as a visual effects artist, could no longer interact with individual crew members.

“It was weird. To some extent, when you direct a film you only talk to a handful of people,” Edwards relates. “It’s been established over decades. But initially it’s like: ‘Why can’t I talk to that guy putting up lights?’ I feel really bad: I see him every day and I can’t say hello. And then you realize very quickly that there’s just not time and that’s how the machine works. It’s best that you have these heads of department that you relate to and then they have the teams that do everything, and so in some ways you can convince yourself for quite a while that you are only making a film with 10 people because you talk to the production designer, the director of photography and the assistant director and then the actors.”

But after watching the ’54 original with Edwards, Legendary producer Thomas Tull was struck by the director’s attention to detail. “He had an idea that hooked me. The soldiers are trying to figure out where Godzilla is and he roars. And one of the guys is counting: 1…1,000…2…1,000…3…1,000. And he roars again. And somebody says, ‘What are you doing?’ And he says the thunder tells you how far he is and he’s only a mile away.” 

But studying bears and other predators wasn’t enough for creating the first photo-realistic Godzilla. As Edwards says, “Animals are very bad storytellers. And so we wound up dialing in a lot more human performance and went incrementally from totally animalistic to more like a guy in a suit doing a performance because you needed to understand in his body language whether he was tired or angry.”

That’s where London-based MPC (under the VFX supervision of Guillaume Rocheron) shined in delivering its best creature work to date. New in-house tools were created for skin and muscles, while extremely high levels of detail were used by artists due to the close-up nature of the camera work on the 350-foot Godzilla, particularly with texture. Yet this is still a lizard and so a lot of time and effort were spent on poses and expressions. At various times, Godzilla not only expresses anger or frustration but also nobility.
“Godzilla and the MUTOS are animals like we are animals but there is an intelligence, a soul there, which is quite comprehensible,” adds screenwriter Max Borenstein, who co-authored the new graphic novel “Godzilla: Awakening.” “The MUTOS want to do their thing and Godzilla, knowing that they are prey and parasitic and dangerous to him, tries to eradicate them. It’s really about nobility — that’s how I see it.”
The nuclear allegory also had a strong impact on Borenstein. “You look at events like that [Fukushima Daiichi] on a personal level and it has to do with family and loss of life and moving on, And people being reunited with families after moments of fear and terror. And thematically that is a very real and present fear, and it felt like that was a really good place to go with this… it reminds us how fragile this infrastructure is.”
Meanwhile, actor Ken Watanabe, who plays a compassionate nuclear scientist, was struck by the power of the Godzilla myth and using it as a bridge between the past and present. “Even after 60 years, people are fascinated by Godzilla. Why? Because nuclear power still terrifies us. And for me, as a Japanese actor, I wanted to join this project. Then Gareth has a great vision for this same theme. [My character’s] father was a survivor of Hiroshima and because of that background he wound up studying nuclear energy in hopes to do something meaningful for mankind. Then he discovered the existence of Godzilla. And he comes to believe and fear the power of nature, which man cannot control. He admires [Godzilla] as part of nature.”

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