Indie filmmakers have been good to Legendary Entertainment. In 2014, Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla” earned $529 million worldwide; his previous film, 2010’s “Monsters,” earned around $4 million on a budget of well under $1 million. For the second film in their burgeoning new cinematic universe, they went with director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (best known for his Sundance favorite, “The Kings of Summer”), who’s expected to create another blockbuster with “Kong: Skull Island.”
“I did get a lot of offers, and they were big and small and all sorts of things,” the filmmaker said. “I have a love of Kong and I have a love of creature features and monster movies. ‘Kong’ was the first movie that was going into production that I felt like I could actually do my thing with.”
At this point, it’s a familiar story. An arthouse star, a fan of the franchise, a white dude. Edwards went from “Godzilla” to “Rogue One.” Colin Trevorrow jumped from his festival feature “Safety Not Guaranteed” into the massive “Jurassic World.” Next up, Trevorrow will direct “Star Wars: Episode IX.”
Even the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is renowned for its control-freak tendencies, bets big on new talent. Sony and Marvel entrusted “(500) Days of Summer” director Marc Webb with two Spider-Man films; it would have been three, but Webb left the franchise. Later this year, the series will be rebooted (again) by Jon Watts whose two prior films, “Clown” and “Cop Car,” grossed less than $200,000 combined.
Building a MonsterVerse
In some respects, Legendary is no different. The company wants to create its own version of the MCU, the “MonsterVerse,” which it proclaimed with great fanfare at ComicCon 2014 — along with the announcement that they had picked up the rights to classic Toho beasts Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah.
Even so, according to Vogt-Roberts, Legendary is a good match for filmmakers outside the studio system. Unlike other studios overseeing franchises worth billions of dollars, Legendary wants its directors to bring their own sensibilities into their features. While Edwards notoriously needed help while making “Godzilla,” to the point that Tony Gilroy stepped in for rewrites and reshoots, those familiar with “Monsters” can see Edwards’ fingerprints all over the final product.
“I pitched them a very crazy take on it,” Vogt-Roberts said. “I thought they were gonna laugh me out of the room. ‘[It’s] sort of this 1970s, ‘Apocalypse Now’ with Kong, Vietnam War with monsters.’ It was the first thing that came to me that I felt like, ‘Oh, I can make that movie.'”
Set immediately after the end of the Vietnam War — like, the next day — “Kong” follows a motley crew of scientists, soldiers, a stray tracker (Tom Hiddleston), and an “anti-war photographer” (Brie Larson) as they journey to a recently discovered island, ostensibly to map it. What they find is a wild world ruled by the massive Kong, who is not so happy to see them and lets them know as only a massive, 100-foot gorilla can.
Legendary initially wanted to set the Kong origin story in the early part of the twentieth century, but Vogt-Roberts pushed for his concept. It was also the kind of film that he wanted to make. “I would like to think that initial pitch very outwardly conveyed the message of like, ‘This is not a Kong movie that we’ve seen,'” he said.
Vogt-Roberts said he didn’t feel pressure to conform to universe-building rules. In fact, he didn’t even really know about them.
“Honestly, they kind of didn’t,” Vogt-Roberts said with a laugh when asked if he was given a rundown on franchise expectations. “They knew that they wanted to build this thing. They knew, and I knew, that there was sort of groundwork that needed to be laid and there was sort of future proofing that needed to be done to make sure this, A, fit into ‘Godzilla,’ and B, fit into what comes next. But, you know, they didn’t really outline that plan.”
However, it’s clear that “Kong” isn’t meant to be an auteurist expression. The film is littered with references to other classic monsters and, like “Godzilla,” there’s the shadowy presence of Project Monarch, otherwise known as keepers of various M.U.T.O. (MonsterVerse for “Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism”) and the secrets of their existence. Here the Monarch rep is John Goodman’s Bill Randa, who organizes the expedition while fully expecting to find Kong on the island. That’s when “Skull Island” feels the most like a franchise film tasked with linking stories and characters.
Playing the Franchise Game
Vogt-Roberts doesn’t have screenwriting credit. The original writer is Max Borenstein (who also wrote “Godzilla”), with additional drafts and rewrites from John Gatins, Dan Gilroy, and Derek Connolly. Still, it’s Vogt-Roberts’ vision, from the film’s occasional touches of comedy to the treatment of the film’s central monster. While Edwards’ film played up a Spielbergian sense of mystery and fear before unleashing his massive Godzilla, “Skull Island” introduces Kong in the flashback opening scene, which is set just after World War II. When the Vietnam-era action unfolds, Kong is brutally and immediately present.
“Less is generally always more in these movies, if you’re playing that game, and I didn’t want to play that game,” he said. “I just wanted it to be this thing where it’s like, Kong is looming over everyone. He’s a character in the movie as opposed this thing that you’re only catching glimpses of.”
However, like the film, Vogt-Roberts is still a part of a larger world, one that will eventually intersect with “Godzilla.” He was quick to heap praise on Edwards’ very different approach to his material.