While beating each other to a pulp, Godzilla and King Kong – two titans who find themselves at odds with each other in the new Legendary/Warner Bros. MonsterVerse movie Godzilla vs. Kong – roar directly in each other’s faces. It’s a moment that makes director Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest, Blair Witch) “teary-eyed,” though he acknowledges it’s an odd moment in the film to get emotional. Still, “every time I watch it, I’m like, ‘This is what it’s all about,’” he told us in a recent interview. “All the work, the three years that I put into this thing. All the heartache and the worry, it’s all worth it for this one moment right here, because this is what everybody’s paying to see.”
Read our full interview with Wingard below, which discusses the unique way he got the directing job on this monster-sized film, the visually distinctive neon city fight sequence, the challenges of post-production, and the element of the film he’s the most proud of.
Adam Wingard Interview
I want to start at the beginning. What was your pitch like to get the job directing this movie?
Well, there was never actually a formal pitch, if you can imagine that. Which sounds crazy for such a gigantic movie. But I think in a lot of ways, the reason for that, we have to travel back in time to 2013 or so when You’re Next was about to come out in theaters. Somehow, Peter Jackson had seen an early version of You’re Next, and he was interested in me directing a sequel to his King Kong film. It was just going to be called Skull Island. Simon Barrett was going to write it. Mary Parent, who runs Legendary now and produced this movie, was on board with that. But this movie was set up at Universal, and the King Kong rights somehow ended up at Warner Bros. That movie went to the wayside, and so did I. In a long roundabout way, I think getting that vote of confidence from Peter Jackson stuck in Mary Parent’s mind.
So I just had a general meeting with her in 2017. It’s really one of those things where, as a filmmaker, you really have to take all of those general meetings. This is a big lesson to me because I remember the day of the meeting, I was in editorial working on my last film and I’m sitting there at two in the afternoon and my assistant comes in and says, “Are you ready for that general meeting at Legendary in an hour?” and I’m like, “General meeting? I don’t remember that.” We were really busy. I was like, “Maybe we should just cancel it. We’ve got so much work to do today.” Then I thought, “Well, you know what, I should just go do it. I haven’t done a general meeting in a while because I’ve been working so hard on this movie.” So I almost didn’t go, but I did, and that’s how we started talking about the fact that they were thinking about Godzilla vs. Kong and I raised my hand immediately and said, “I’m very interested in that.”
Since you were brought in in this unconventional way without a traditional pitch, what kind of ideas did you have early on? What stage was the script in when you came on? How did that work?
I can’t remember everything we talked about in that general meeting. The main image that popped in my head right away in the moment was I remember telling Mary that I wanted to see Godzilla and King Kong in a futuristic, neon city with synthwave music playing, and I wanted to see Godzilla chasing Kong around with his nuclear breath in this city. I remember talking about that, and that’s obviously a main set piece that made it into the film and was probably one of the first things we developed visually for the movie.
The only thing that had existed for the film at that point was Terry Rossio had run a writers’ room for the movie and he had a three to five page outline that was very informal. I think even on his outline, he didn’t call it a treatment, he called it the “Godzilla vs. Kong proposal.” He had a lot of the main set pieces and structure already there. So it had all these great ideas. And fortunately, it had an ending that took place in a big, futuristic city, so I thought, “That’s perfect. That’s already syncing up. That’s a good sign.” Things like the ship battle, the details weren’t in there, but the idea that that’s where one of the action scenes is going to take place [was there], and the sense of the film being a journey into Hollow Earth. All of those things were kind of there and then from that point on, I started meeting with Terry and we would notecard the whole movie. We had a Legendary boardroom to ourselves and we filled them up with every scene and got into more and more detail about how I wanted to approach them as a director, and we came up with all these nuances. Then he went off to write the script. So it was really nice to be there working from the ground up on this thing.
You mentioned that neon city set piece. That’s one of my favorite moments in the movie. It’s so visually distinctive. I think that’s one of the big complaints a lot of us have about modern blockbusters: they have that dull look. Where’s the fun? I love that it doesn’t really make sense that every single skyscraper in Hong Kong is outfitted with a different color of neon, but it looks so cool. Talk about your use of color here and what you were able to do with that in this movie.
I think we’re going to be moving into a new phase of blockbusters, and I think we have been over the past few years. Maybe what really kicked it off was Avatar, and it took a while for everybody to catch up to it. You look at James Wan’s Aquaman: that movie is the most psychedelic thing I’ve seen in theaters in a while. I think we’ve gotten past the point where special effects movies need to be so geared toward making you believe that the reality is real. We believe Godzilla is real because Gareth Edwards really brilliantly was able to give us a palette cleanser from the ’98 Godzilla film with his movie, and he really put it in a reality that we could believe. But it’s not one of those things that you want to just see over and over again. Once you believe Godzilla is real, where do you go from [there]? The MonsterVerse films have kind of followed this natural trajectory that the original Showa era Godzilla films did, which was the very first Godzilla movie, for its time, was very grounded and real and depressing and tragic and very much a disaster movie. Then they slowly got more psychedelic and trippy and cartoony and colorful as time went on. I’m kind of the Destroy All Monsters era, I think those type of films, if I had to pick one. A film that’s very colorful.
Even the way we approached the special effects – we had a lot of discussions early on that I knew I wanted the fight scenes to be really high-octane and very fast. I wanted it to be unpredictable, as though you’re watching a street fight in an alleyway. The problem with that, though, is that normally, when you’re trying to show off scale of creatures that are 300-foot plus, the way to do that is to artificially slow them down and give them a slow motion look so you get more of the size and the weight of them. We did a lot of tests, and what we realized is that if we slowed down all the debris and the smoke and the broken glass falling from the sky, kept those at that same type of slow motion pace, that gives you a feeling of the scale. But we kept the monsters, for the most part, moving very quickly. What I like about it is that it gives almost a modern day stop-motion feel. It doesn’t look a hundred percent real, but it looks really interesting in the same way that, for instance, the original King Kong’s effects hold up nowadays: not because they look hyperrealistic or anything, they just look beautiful and interesting and they get the idea across.
Was there anything that surprised you when it came to the post-production process for this film, maybe any plot lines that you discovered you didn’t actually need despite shooting scenes for them?
It’s interesting, because you always hear these stories of these Hollywood blockbuster movies that start without a finished script and they have like 15-20 writers, and you think, “Why is that?” It’s always for films like Transformers or something, and you’re like, “Well, how complicated could that be?” [laughs] And it’s only when you’re doing these things that you start understanding the processes of that. Our film, because we were working on this sort of accelerated MonsterVerse timeline – we had King of the Monsters already going, we already had a release date planned before we started shooting – we’re kind of backing into this release date. There’s certain elements in the script that you just don’t get 100% right when you’re shooting, and you know it. You know that they’re not done, there’s something missing here. I remember when I got into post-production, the areas that we knew weren’t totally fleshed out didn’t feel fleshed out. So that was the biggest challenge, was figuring that out.
On top of that, we had to be very surgical. We only had five days of pickups on this film, which is the least amount that especially the MonsterVerse films have ever done, because usually they do about fourteen days. We had five. We had to figure out how to change a couple of these plot points, because once we had the full picture in front of us, we could say, “You know what? The vast majority of this works, but we need to figure out how to get a more efficient setup for the film.” So we figured out a really smart plan and jumped in and did it. But yeah, I wouldn’t say it was a surprise, because we kind of knew what did and didn’t work all the way along, we just didn’t have a script that totally nailed it yet. But once we got in post, it was pretty clear how to approach that from there.
Was the five day thing because of COVID or because of the budget? Why were you limited on the number of pickup days?
I don’t remember. I think it was a budget thing. I think we were in a place where we just didn’t want to overspend. There’s so much waste on big Hollywood movies, and I think the studio was at a place where – and I think actually that’s why I was hired to do this movie. Because I’ve done tons of films over the years. Tons of different budgets. Never anything this big, but I think I have a great reputation for always coming in on time and on budget, and I know how to think outside the box. So I really brought that indie mindset to it, like, “I don’t need you to give me everything. I just need to know what I need to fix, and I’m going to figure out the best, most efficient way to do it.” I think initially we said, “If we wanted to fix everything in the film, what would it take? Maybe nine days.” Then we had to say, “How do we whittle that down to five?” It just takes some thinking. I think it actually gives you a better experience because you’re not like, “We’ll figure it out later, we’ll just shoot a bunch of stuff and throw it in.” We had to really make real decisions, and sometimes I don’t think that happens on big Hollywood movies. But we’re in an era where I think blockbusters are changing. People are realizing that that kind of waste is not working. I think movie budgets were getting bloated and kind of out of control over the last decade, and I think there’s a reckoning now where, even though these are still hugely expensive films, you can’t just take a bucket of money and toss it at something anymore. You have to actually have an idea of what you’re going to do.
I know you can’t talk much about your Face/Off sequel, but maybe you can clarify one thing for me: is it essential that both Cage and Travolta sign on for the movie to work?
You know, I’m scared to say yes or no to that because we haven’t gotten into that phase of it yet, that I don’t want to scare anybody off. But again, I will kind of reiterate that this is a definitive sequel to Face/Off, and I wouldn’t do the movie if, at any point, it felt like the film wasn’t going to be a real, definitive sequel. I know that’s not a cool answer, but read between the lines there, you know? (laughs)
For you, what aspect of the work you did on Godzilla vs. Kong are you the most proud of?
I think that it’s really being able to bring out the emotions in the monster. They’re fully fleshed out, realized characters that have all these non-verbal communication moments. I think that’s the thing I’m most proud of. Because anybody can make a big CGI thing look cool, but to really bring it to life in a way? That’s the thing I’m most proud of. That’s the thing that makes me emotional when I watch the film. I’ve never felt emotional, necessarily, when I’ve watched my own work. Maybe here and there. But with this movie, I get teary-eyed at weird points, and it’s not what you would expect. Sometimes I get teary-eyed in the scene in the rain with Jia and Kong because it’s actually an emotional scene. So the first few times I saw that fully done with the music and the special effects in, it was like, “Oh, wow, this is really getting there,” and I’ve seen a lot of people cry at that scene. But the one that I get teary-eyed every time I watch it is the sequence where – it’s in some of the TV spots now – there’s a shot where Godzilla and King Kong are roaring right in each other’s faces. It’s a very long moment in the film because they roar for a while. Every time I watch it, I’m like, “This is what it’s all about. All the work, the three years that I put into this thing. All the heartache and the worry, it’s all worth it for this one moment right here, because this is what everybody’s paying to see.” It’s so cool.
Godzilla vs. Kong will be streaming on HBO Max and arriving in U.S. theaters on March 31, 2021.
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