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Adam Wingard Focuses on the Monsters

To paraphrase everyone’s favorite AMC Theaters spokesperson, “We come to kaiju films to see giant monsters beat each other up,” and “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire,” the fifth installment of Legendary’s MonsterVerse franchise, delivers the creature fights in spades.

In this franchise, plot was always secondary to showcasing the gnarliest brawls CGI could muster and money could buy (with the possible exception of Apple TV+’s “Monarch: Legacy of Monsters”). Although the core cast of Dan Stevens, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, and Kaylee Hottle have serviceable narrative arcs, the stars truly are the monsters. Director Adam Wingard understands this on a fundamental level, and for the first time in the franchise’s 10-year history, viewers are treated to long scenes solely focused on the monsters. From seeing where Godzilla sleeps (he’s taken a liking to the Colosseum) to witnessing Kong’s sushi preferences, we get to know these creatures as fleshed out characters instead of just icons.

That was one of the intentional dynamics Wingard wanted to feature. Having helmed 2021’s “Godzilla vs. Kong,” he’s the only director to helm a second installment in the MonsterVerse franchise. “I had a completely different take on this movie than I did the last one,” he told RogerEbert.com via Zoom. “For the first time, we started experimenting with having these sequences where you weren’t just seeing the monsters from the human perspective but from the monster’s POV.” Despite an initially rocky start to our conversation due to some technical difficulties (it can only be chalked up to Hollow Earth interference) for our conversation, Wingard shared more about crafting the personality of the film’s kaiju, the surprising influences “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” had on some of the film’s wackier elements, and an alternative title he had toyed around with for the film.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You’ve shared prior that the MonsterVerse was created to culminate with “Godzilla vs. Kong” and that the franchise was at a crossroads after its release. It is a different approach from say, the MCU, which maps out its films for what feels like decades in advance. What made you want to take the story in the direction you did with this latest film? Was it daunting because there were so many possibilities?

It all really came down to the fans. At the end of “Godzilla vs. Kong” there’s that moment where Godzilla and Kong briefly team up against Mechagodzilla. And when I watched it with a crowd, as much fun as they had seeing Godzilla and Kong fight it out, they were all more excited to see them team up. That was the big “aha” moment. Before I had seen the crowd’s reaction, I probably would have thought “Okay it’s time to go back to solo films.” But it was clear that there’s more untapped stories to be told between Godzilla and Kong. I don’t think audiences were ready to split them up just yet.

What’s exciting about them as characters, though, is that the team-up won’t be straightforward. They're territorial monsters. Godzilla controls the surface and is very strict in how he sees the world. In many respects, he represents the white blood cells of the earth. His job is to protect the surface of the world.

That’s true. Even though Kong and Godzilla worked together prior, their team-up wasn’t a given.

I took a lot of influence from movies like “They Live.” What I liked about “They Live” was that its best sequences aren’t about the villain versus the hero; it’s about two heroes fighting each other over a misunderstanding. I wanted to have that dynamic again in this film.

It speaks to how you’ve imbued these creatures with such personality and attitude. One of my favorite scenes was when Kong knocks out [the villain] Skar King’s tooth and then he points to his own replacement tooth to gloat. What went into crafting Godzilla’s and Kong’s personalities and fully realizing them as characters?

It all started with my experience of watching the Shōwa era of “Godzilla” films on daytime television when I was growing up in the early eighties. Those were the films that first made an impression on me in terms of Godzilla. I remember being engaged with just relational dynamics between the monsters. There are all of these alliances Godzilla makes. He starts out fighting Anguirus but then they become buddies. I also always loved Godzilla’s relationship with Mothra. Those dynamics are the kind of things that I carried over into this.

I was so excited about doing another one of the MonsterVerse films for that reason. I had a completely different take on this movie than I did the last one. “Godzilla vs. Kong,” was the first movie that I made that was very visual effects heavy. I learned not only what was achievable but also what I really enjoyed watching.  

With “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire,” for the first time, we started experimenting with having these sequences where you weren’t just seeing the monsters from the human perspective. Instead of it just being about “[these humans] are going to photograph and video these monsters and make you believe they’re real”, by showcasing the monster’s POV, I wanted you to believe that the monsters’ emotions were real too.

You’ve shared also that in the scripting process, you wrote out dialogue for Kong so when audiences are seeing his grunts and growls on-screen, there are words to correlate.

Kong’s just a great kind of character to ground us because he’s very human-like. His journey is an emotional one. He's a lonely character and in search of his place in the world. The way people tend to read scripts in Hollywood where if there’s a dense script with lots of descriptions, people glaze over them and gravitate towards the dialogue instead. It makes sense because it informs you of what’s going on in a much quicker way. I knew that this film’s script was going to have a lot of descriptions because there would be so many scenes where no one’s talking, it’s just monsters roaring at each other.

Knowing that everyone on our team was probably going to be reading the script in the way I’ve described, that’s when we came up with the idea for writing out dialogue for Kong and Godzilla. It was helpful for the crew as they could see the intention behind the roars. Plus it just made it fun and clear to read for everybody.

We’ll need a re-release with the subtitles added back in later. I’m struck by something Takashi Yamazaki said in a conversation you two had about each other’s respective Godzilla films. He said that the “Godzilla” franchise is so rich because each film “mirrors the social climate” it was made in. With that in mind, what do you think your “Godzilla” film is mirroring, if anything, about our time?

Well, an alternate title for this film would be “Kong Goes to Hell.” He literally goes into the bowels of the earth and discovers that there’s a devil there forcing others of his species to toil away. The film is almost about Kong resuscitating these ghosts from the past. Until you have clarity of retrospect it’s sort of hard to know in some ways what everything means. It’s not like this film is necessarily responding to a world event going on.

But then again, maybe there is something there. Maybe that’s what Skar King is. He is this dictator character. I can’t summarize my film’s themes in the same way I could do with “Godzilla Minus One.” But I do think there will be things that we look back and say, “There’s a reason why this movie was made right now.” It may even be that the tone of this film is something that reflects our reality.

Going back to the Godzilla formation of your youth, one of the most endearing things at the press screening for the film this week was that one of my colleagues brought his family with him. His son had a Kong figure and seemed to be having a blast with the carnage unfolding on screen. How does it feel to know that there are kids right now watching your films, maybe they’re the 6- or 7-year-old you, and instead of watching the Shōwa films they’re watching your MonsterVerse films? What do you think of the fact that you have a helping hand in sculpting people’s formative impressions of these iconic monsters?

It's really exciting. That’s what I was trying to channel when I was making this movie. I was trying to go back in time and think of all the things that I thought of when I was first experiencing the Shōwa era movies. What are the things that I would've told myself that I wanted to see from a 6-year-old perspective? It’s interesting because at the same time, this is a movie very much geared towards kids, but the key to making a good kid’s movie is you want the kids to feel like adults and you want the adults to feel like kids. In that sense, it’s also meant for people my age as well.

The other interesting thing about making a movie like this is that the six-year-olds aren’t online talking about and reviewing the movie. They’re not the ones controlling the discourse. But they are the ones that are going to love the movie the most and this film is unapologetically geared towards them. All I can do is create a film that is true to my experience of Godzilla. I think that's the best thing you can do as a filmmaker coming in a series like this. You have to ask, “What does Godzilla, Kong, the other kaiju etc. mean to me?” It happens to be that the version of these characters that speaks to me is the version that spoke to me when I was younger, and it's just reverberated till now.

I’m curious about the way some of the wackier elements of this film came to be. I saw that Jason Eisner sent a text back to you in 2021 about how Kong should have a steel gauntlet like a character in “Masters of the Universe.”

(Laughs) Yeah, that’s right.

We see that manifest with Kong’s B.E.A.S.T glove in the film. I’m sure a lot of this film is meticulously and thoughtfully planned but I also love that some of the coolest ideas we might see just comes from two friends saying, “This would be cool to put on-screen.” Can you speak to how much of building out this film’s lore was you planning it versus you just incorporating ideas from talking about it with friends?

You can’t deny that what’s exciting about the MonsterVerse is the aesthetics of it. It’s fun to push things stylistically but also still make it real. The B.E.A.S.T. glove was one of those things. We were developing a concept of Kong having a brace in the movie. My friend, Jason, had no idea what we were doing with this film. So, when I got that text from him with that He-Man figure that had this iron gauntlet thing on his fist, I remember thinking “Is Jason psychic?” He sent that to me and I said “this is very similar to what we were trying to develop.” What’s trippy about that was I was already taking different inspirations from “Masters of the Universe.” That was one of the biggest inspirations I had for the film visually, specifically the toy boxes and advertisements where they had these lush landscapes and all of these crazy neon colors.

What’s fun about that story too is that when you come up with these crazy ideas, you go “well, let's put it in the hat over here and as we develop the script let’s see which ones we can actually figure out how to make work.” Honestly, the B.E.A.S.T. glove is a pretty big leap forward even in this movie, but I think we tonally make it work. That’s why we have that KISS song playing when its assembling. We tell you tonally like “I know all of this is ridiculous, but don’t you want Kong to have this cool glove on?” Just let it happen!

Speaking of KISS, I know a lot of people want the kaiju to kiss in this one. Maybe that can happen in the next movie.

(Laughs) Wouldn’t that be nice. They’re always fighting but not kissing. Let’s get there. 

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