Adam Wingard’s “Godzilla vs. Kong” has already proven to be the biggest box office success of the current pandemic era. For the 38-year-old filmmaker, it’s a radical new chapter after his initial foray into the studio arena, when the response to his 2016 Lionsgate-backed “The Blair Witch Project” sequel left Wingard uncertain if he’d make another studio movie again.
The found footage project wasn’t a total bust — “Blair Witch” made a healthy $45 million compared to its $5 million budget — but it wasn’t the cash cow Lionsgate anticipated after the massive success of the original film. After its disappointing first weekend and mostly tepid reviews, Wingard and writer and frequent collaborator Simon Barrett took to Twitter to lament the film’s chilly reception, with some cheeky jabs at the weekend’s big winner, Clint Eastwood’s Tom Hanks-starring “Sully.” Wingard first tweeted, “Ya win some. Ya lose some,” before commenting to Barrett that they “shoulda made that movie about the boring guy who landed a plane in water instead.”
Soon, the tweets became more of a story than the movie itself. “I got in a lot of trouble for that at my agency,” Wingard said with a laugh during a recent interview with IndieWire. “They’re like, ‘We represent Tom Hanks, what are you doing?’ It’s like, ‘Look, we’re just joking!’ … That was the first time I realized we were at the point where we had to be careful what we say, because people will flip the context around and that kind of thing.” Wingard pointed to a Perez Hilton story that attempted to frame the story as if the duo were attacking American heroes with their tweets rather than having fun at their own expense.
It was an awkward entry into the world of studio filmmaking. Wingard quit Twitter and worried that his burgeoning career was over. “It felt pretty devastating,” he said, though not because “Blair Witch” tanked. “I was more afraid that it was going to affect the plans that I had for movies in the future.”
Those fears were ultimately unfounded. Before Wingard’s official “Blair Witch” followup, the Netflix-backed “Death Note,” was released, he had already been tapped to direct the fourth film in the MonsterVerse series, “Godzilla vs. Kong,” with a $160 million-plus budget to match. The film was released this week in both theaters and on HBO Max, is already a box office hit around the world; last week, it debuted to $121.8 million worldwide, the biggest worldwide opening of the pandemic. As the U.S. box office starts bouncing back, it’s expected to do big business stateside, too.
Wingard has spent the past decade scaling up, from his 2007 second feature and festival favorite “Pop Skull,” which he shot for a mere $2,000, to his breakout horror effort “You’re Next” and its delightful dark-comic follow-up, “The Guest.” Back then, Wingard was wary of studio gigs.
“I was talking with Joe Swanberg, and I remember asking him like, ‘Why do these directors, whenever they get their big shot, do they not go back and just make a bunch of no-budget films?’ And he was like, ‘You know what, they just get spoiled,'” Wingard said. “And I remember thinking, ‘Well, I will never let that happen to me.’ … I’m kind of back in that head space now where I want to get back to doing smaller stuff. I just haven’t had a chance.”
Wingard is the fourth filmmaker to turn from indies to Titans: each of the films in the series has been helmed by a filmmaker that first rose to acclaim through their low-budget features, preceded by Gareth Edwards, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, and Michael Dougherty. But Wingard said he has emerged from the experience eager to return to his roots, now armed with a better sense of what’s possible with a bit more freedom and a lot more money. It’s a trajectory that recalls the path of Oscar nominee Chloé Zhao, who has spent the last year working on both her Best Picture nominee “Nomadland” and her Marvel debut “Eternals.”
Still, Wingard’s upcoming development slate is heavily tipped toward similarly large-scale projects, from a “Face/Off” sequel alongside Barrett to an animated and CGI “Thundercats” project for Warner Bros. Wingard may be rising through the blockbuster ranks, but insisted he will return to working on a smaller scale.
“I don’t think I’m ever not going to be an indie filmmaker,” he said. “I’ve been on a trajectory over the years trying to get to this point. The origins of me wanting to be a filmmaker were in trying to make big Hollywood spectacle sci-fi films. That’s the movies that inspired me to make movies, the ‘Star Wars’ films, the ‘Alien’ movies. I can’t wait to use the potential power that this might buy me, so that I can go back and make smaller movies that I have even more control over.”
For Wingard, “smaller movies” isn’t just a handy way to say “movies that don’t cost $100 million.” This is, after all, a guy who is used to trafficking in features that cost less than the daily catering budget on most blockbusters. But he has more options now. “The smaller movies don’t necessarily have to be as small as they used to be,” Wingard said, and said his latest experiences led him to consider upgrading his next personal project to the $15 million range.
“It’s still enough money where you can do a lot of stuff, but it’s not so much that it’s a major financial risk,” he said. “That’s the sweet spot that I want to kind of hit.” Being able to point to the multi-million dollar success of “Kong” won’t hurt.
While Wingard had a hand in the rewriting process on films like “Death Note” (“my job was just trying to wrestle that thing and try to make it work,” he admitted) and “Godzilla vs. Kong” (“I was able to work with the writers closely and make it my own”), he knows “that’s different than starting from the ground up and building it.” He added, “That’s the next phase of my career. That’s where I’m at now. I’ve done all this work, I’ve been working up over the years, and now it’s time to really just sink in. I want to develop projects from the ground up now. That’s what’s important to me.”
For the “Face/Off” follow-up, Wingard said he feels like the studio is giving him and Barrett total control. “This is 100 percent our story and our script. It’s a pre-existing IP obviously, and I hate the term ‘IP,’ because it sounds so cold,” he said. “It’s like that Martin Scorsese thing about content. I totally get that! But at the end of the day, that’s what it is, it’s an intellectual property, and it exists before us. We’re making a sequel. But that’s the exciting part about it, that it’s our version of what would happen after ‘Face/Off,’ 20-plus years later.”
Wingard was still coming to terms with the opportunities afforded by bigger budgets. “When you’re doing movies like ‘The Guest’ and ‘You’re Next,’ you’re always kind of backing into a budget,” he said. “So creatively, you start from a budgetary place, so we have to kind of put it in a box, and then try to make that as amazing as possible. When I did ‘Godzilla vs. Kong,’ that’s the first time that I was ever able to ask to use just pure imagination. I was able to unleash that part of me that had always been kind of restrained before.”
The result finds his central monsters starring in massive battles that take place everywhere from the middle of the ocean to Hong Kong. His stacked human cast, including Rebecca Hall, Alexander Skarsgaard, and Eiza Gonzalez, literally venture into the middle of the planet over the course of the film. Imagination is not in short supply.
Wingard pointed to a moment in the upcoming “Face/Off” script that exemplifies his new comfort with bigger resources. “There’s a scene in the script where we needed a character to have a discussion with another character very quickly to set something up early on,” he explained. “Back in the day, we would’ve been like, ‘Okay, let’s set this in a coffee shop or something.’ Nowadays it’s like, ‘You know what? Have a helicopter land behind them and have them get in the helicopter, and let them have this conversation while they’re in a helicopter!’ It’s just thinking bigger. It’s not necessarily easy to go from the independent way of thinking to the big budget thing, but once you’re there, the sky’s the limit.”
The filmmaker has expressed interest in returning to the MonsterVerse, should another project present itself, but he’s not eager to franchise his other films any time soon. His popular 2014 thriller “The Guest,” which starred Dan Stevens (who the filmmaker tried to cast in “Godzilla vs. Kong” until the actor’s schedule got in the way), might inspire a miniseries, and Wingard teased that he was working on a news music-centric accompaniment to the film, which included an original score from Zombi’s Steve Moore.
Wingard also said he was tinkering with a passion project developed during the pandemic he hoped to push along soon, as well as an original script about Elvis Presley, which he had to put on the back burner when “Godzilla vs. Kong” came along. Now, of course, there’s another wrinkle: Baz Luhrmann is making an Elvis Presley film, and while Wingard knows his film is “100 percent different” than the one Luhrmann is prepping for 2022 release, he also gets why now is not the time to try to make another one.
And, no, it’s not at all lost on Wingard that Luhrmann’s film stars no less than Tom Hanks. Wingard smiled. “Tom Hanks,” he said. “He’s destroying my career!”
A Warner Bros. release, “Godzilla vs. Kong” is now in theaters and available to stream on HBO Max.
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