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Blazing "Godzilla" Heading to a Cinema Near You
“‘Godzilla’ is the benchmark of monster movies,” says Gareth Edwards, the British director at the helm of the epic new vision for Toho’s iconic creation. Edwards grew up on Japanese monster movies before discovering Honda’s 1954 masterpiece on DVD and was fascinated by its stark allegorical subtext and continuing relevance in contemporary times. “If you went around the world with the silhouette of a giant dinosaur looming over a city, everyone would know exactly who it is—whether they’ve seen a Godzilla movie or not. But what many people don’t realize is that the original Japanese ‘Godzilla’ is actually a very serious film. I think that’s the reason it was so embraced by Japanese culture—because not only is it a great monster movie, it was also very cathartic for people to see those images brought to life on screen in such a visceral and real way.”
Partially reshot, softening some of its metaphorical bite, and dubbed into multiple languages, the film was released abroad two years later and a legend was born. For the past six decades, the towering “King of the Monsters” has cut a swath through pop culture, spawning numerous sequels, an army of toys, and incarnations in everything from comic books to video games. A whole new genre of movies emerged—kaiju eiga—and Godzilla became one of the most beloved and recognizable movie heroes of the 20th and, now, 21st centuries.
Bryan Cranston, one of the stars of the new film, has vivid memories of being enthralled as he watched the monster rampage across his childhood TV screen. “Godzilla with his fiery breath...he just destroyed everything in his wake,” Cranston remembers. “It was actually a man in a suit stomping through a miniature Tokyo, but it was marvelous to a young kid.
There’s a part of me that will always be that boy, but the whole sensibility of how to make a movie like this has matured; the audience has evolved. It’s not just about Godzilla smashing things up. People are still going to root for him, but you also want to be connected to what’s happening and root for the characters to make it through.”
Like Cranston, Legendary Pictures’ Thomas Tull grew up devouring monster movies, but the crown jewel of Toho’s legion always reigned supreme in his mind. “From his signature roar to the outline of those dorsal fins to the radioactive fire that he breathes, Godzilla is an absolute global icon,” he says. “Over the years, Toho has examined the character in different ways and pitted him against a whole menagerie of giant creatures, but my favorite will always be the Japanese original, which was at once a terrifying monster movie and a profound cautionary tale.”
Tull, who produced Edwards’ “Godzilla” along with Jon Jashni, President of Legendary Pictures, veteran producer Mary Parent and British filmmaker Brian Rogers, long harbored a passion to bring the titanic leviathan to the big screen in a summer spectacle with all the heart and human stakes of the original. “Our intention has always been to do justice to those essential elements that have allowed this character to remain relevant for as long as it has,” Tull explains. “Our plan was to produce the Godzilla that we, as fans, would want to see—a movie that didn’t feel like a thrill ride for its own sake, but to take it back to its roots and create a human story within the context of today’s world. I’ve been waiting for this film my whole life.”
Inherent in the challenge of reinventing such an iconic property was putting at its helm a director who could offer a fresh perspective and keen cinematic aesthetic while remaining true to Godzilla’s integrity and legacy. They found all those qualities in Gareth Edwards, an emerging filmmaker who took the independent film world by storm with his award-winning “Monsters.” Edwards not only wrote and directed the film, but designed and shot it as well as singlehandedly creating all the visual effects on his laptop.
“From our very first conversation with Gareth, you got that sense that he was a passionate Godzilla fan,” Tull notes. “And after seeing ‘Monsters,’ which he made on an absolute shoestring budget, we came away with the feeling that if he had more resources and a bigger canvas, he could do something extraordinary.”
Jon Jashni adds that the young director struck the perfect balance between invention and human truth. “Just because you can throw a ton of digital resources at the screen doesn’t mean you should, as that doesn’t really aid audience immersion in the world you’re trying to create,” says the producer. “On ‘Monsters,’ Gareth had to suggest a lot more than he could afford to show. He came from a character-based perspective, grounded in the real world, and then layered otherworldly elements into that world. ‘Monsters’ was microcosmic of what we hoped to create with our new Godzilla movie: something real and true.”
Producer Mary Parent was also impressed with Edwards’ indie hit, noting that both his storytelling sensibilities and filmmaking background inspired confidence in everyone that Godzilla would be in good hands. “We knew that Gareth would channel all his vision as an artist and storyteller, along with his command of visual effects technology, into making a film that’s worthy of putting this character on screen in the way that he deserves and hasn’t been seen before," Parent says. “But we also knew that he could create characters that we can relate to and care about, and take the audience into the experience of ‘Godzilla’ through the eyes of the people living through it.”
Knowing he was being handed the reins to a legend, Edwards turned for inspiration—as Ishiro Honda had before him—to the world he saw around him. “I know it sounds impossible, but imagine for a moment the arrival of a great creature that mankind can’t even communicate with, much less control...what would that be like to live through?” he posits. “How would the world react? We’ve all seen or experienced incomprehensible disasters, natural or otherwise, that would seem like a scenario from a movie if they didn’t actually happen. So the challenge of making the ultimate Godzilla movie was to reflect that reality, which gets back to the heart of what Godzilla is really about.”
Tull says, “One thing we wanted to do with the film, which was a goal shared by our partners at Toho, was to set part of the story in Japan and maintain Godzilla's connection to nuclear energy, but to also do so with respect and sensitivity in light of current events."
Producer Brian Rogers adds, “The parallels that existed in the 1954 film, dealing with the balance between man and nature, and all the potential ways it could be pushed over the edge, is still as relevant today as it was back then—maybe even more so in this day and age.”
Working out of London, Edwards embarked on marathon Skype sessions with the film’s Los Angeles-based screenwriter, Max Borenstein, to shape a story that would both hint at Godzilla’s origins and unravel the mysterious events that herald his emergence in the context of the today’s world.
Though cast-member Ken Watanabe grew up in Japan, he did not see the 1954 film until recently, and appreciated Edwards’ meticulous care to honor it. “The original ‘Godzilla’ weighs the provocative question that Japanese society was grappling with at the time—nine years after the bombs—when the emotional and physical scars were still very present,” the actor reflects. “Gareth has a deep understanding of that film, and I responded to his courage in reviving those ideas again.”
Borenstein wrote the screenplay, from a story by David Callaham, after immersing himself in research, which included taking in all 28 “Godzilla” movies produced by Toho Co., Ltd., encompassing the Showa, Heisei and Millennium series. “Our ambition was to treat this story as if this was a terrifying, real incident happening today, with all the gravity of a real disaster, while still making a big, spectacular monster movie that’s fun to watch,” Borenstein details. “The original film is an amazing tale of humanity’s insignificance in the face of nature, but with the human strength and resilience to rise and survive a disaster of that magnitude.”
Before a single frame of “Godzilla” had been shot, the director and producers created a 90-second teaser to express the mood they wanted to bring to the film, which they debuted at the annual Comic-Con International before nearly 7,000 screaming fans. The grainy footage revealed a city reduced to rubble, with the great creature materializing through the smoke and dust, and issuing his deafening roar. Over the imagery, Edwards played the haunting words of Robert Oppenheimer, “father” of the atomic bombs that reduced the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki to radioactive ash, quoting the Hindu scriptures to describe the incomprehensible Pandora’s Box they’d opened: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Godzilla has always had a mystery and duality about him—a being of pure instinct that moves not in concert with humanity, but towering over it as he rises implacably from the sea. “Monsters have always been metaphors for something else,” Edwards notes. “They represent the darker aspects of our nature and our fears of what we can’t control. In a way, Godzilla almost embodies a kind of ‘wrath of God’—not in a religious sense, but rather nature coming back to punish us for what we have done to the world. In our film, we are definitely tapping into those ideas.”
THE STORY AND CHARACTERS
“Godzilla” unfolds across multiple continents and spans several decades, tracing the impact of a series of mysterious and catastrophic events through the eyes of a handful of people caught at the epicenter. “Our film doesn’t tell this story from an omnipotent perspective,” Tull explains. “In the midst of this crisis are people whose lives are irrevocably changed by it. These aren’t super heroes, but regular human beings caught in extreme circumstances, which made casting such a vital component of our film.”
In this spirit, Edwards wanted to populate the film with actors who could deliver a level of performance that brought truth to the characters’ extraordinary journeys. “In a film like this, you get one buy, which is that there are giant monsters in the world,” he says. “The rest has to be as believable as possible, which is one reason I feel incredibly lucky with this cast. They were able to take what was on the page, bring it to life, and create an emotional reality that helps you believe everything else.”
For the cast, the combination of a cinematic icon and Edwards’ vision for his epic rebirth made “Godzilla” an irresistible prospect. “When Gareth and I first talked about the film, he told me to forget that it was a big monster movie,” recalls Aaron Taylor-Johnson. “I loved what Godzilla meant to him, and that he wanted to bring him to the screen in a big disaster spectacle, but to tell the story with a high level of artistry and emotion. That’s what made me want to do this project, and Gareth made the experience incredibly special.”
The actor takes on the central role of Ford Brody, a Naval officer specializing in disarming bombs, who has just reunited with his wife and young son in San Francisco when he is called away to help his troubled father in Japan.
“Ford is the hero of our film and sees a lot of action,” Edwards comments. “And because so much of the storytelling is visual, it was critical that we understand what he’s thinking and feeling, so we needed an actor capable of communicating a lot in a single look. I’d seen ‘Nowhere Boy,’ in which Aaron played John Lennon, and it was such a soulful performance. There was so much intensity and emotion behind his eyes. I knew from that moment we’d found the guy.”
Ford’s expertise at disarming bombs draws him to the frontlines of humanity’s united defense against the greatest threat it has ever faced, but he's torn between duty and the need to find and protect his young family. “He’s the kind of specialist the military needs and it’s all hands on deck,” Taylor-Johnson explains. “At the same time, his mission is to get back to his family, and his work in the military becomes the only way he can maneuver himself closer to San Francisco. But it’s heartbreaking because he knows he might not make it home at all.”
Trapped in the city when Godzilla zeroes in on San Francisco is Ford’s wife, Elle Brody, played by Elizabeth Olsen. A nurse at a busy hospital, Elle is forced to make tough choices to both cope with the human toll of the disaster and to protect their four-year-old son, Sam, played by newcomer Carson Bolde. “Elle’s story is heroic in that she has a job to do, but she is also desperate to protect her own child,” Olsen details, adding, “Their story and Ford’s journey to try to get back to them is part of what I love about this film—how the value of family is at its core, and how moments of crisis bring out the courage and heroism that lies within everyone.”
For Edwards, her feel for the emotional material made her riveting to watch in the role. "Elizabeth has this documentary style to her performance—It just doesn’t feel like acting at all. With her, it was like doing some serious drama that just happened to have giant monsters in it."
Olsen got her first taste of the level of realism Edwards wanted to bring to the film when she first saw the evocative teaser piece he’d made. “Gareth’s approach to it is what hooked me, and how it reflected some of the imagery of disasters we’ve seen around the world,” she notes. “What Elle deals with in this film taps into what it’s like for the people caught in these kinds of events, and the lengths you’d go to in order to save the ones you love.”
This same impulse drives Ford throughout his journey, and Taylor-Johnson admits that even amid the film’s tremendous action, the physical demands of the role were trumped by the emotional challenges his character faces. “Ford is really put through the ringer over the course of the film, both internally and externally,” he says. “When we meet him, he’s a husband, father and son, and is trying to do all those things correctly under the weight of some serious emotional baggage. He has unresolved issues with his father, and his efforts to try to mend their relationship places him far from home when his family most needs him.”
Ford carries with him the weight of an incident from his childhood that tore his family apart 15 years earlier, when he lived with his parents in Japan. But the events leading up to that fateful day in 1999 originate farther south, in the Philippines, where the film begins.
A remote mine in a Philippine jungle collapses, revealing beneath it the fossilized, highly radioactive remains of something very big and very old. A pair of scientists from a secretive government organization, Dr. Ishiro Serizawa and Dr. Vivienne Graham, arrive on site to examine the bizarre relic.
Ken Watanabe plays Serizawa, a Japanese scientist who has devoted his life to the search for Godzilla and hopes to find in the cave evidence of the mythical creature’s existence. “His quest goes deeper than scientific curiosity,” Watanabe describes. “He is concerned about the kinds of terror that could exist in the world, and has his own theories about what he calls the ‘Alpha Predator’ and the role it plays on the planet.”
In the film, Godzilla’s origins are linked to an alternate take on recent history, a dark legacy that haunts Serizawa, who is both named for and inspired by a key character in the original Japanese film. “Dr. Serizawa is the scientist with the deepest insight into the creature, and Ken brought so much complexity and depth of feeling to this character,” Edwards says. “We used to joke when we were filming that no one’s got more different looks than Ken. He is such a fascinating actor to watch because you can see all of his internal thoughts on his face. When we were shooting, he would always do another look or take a breath or go to leave the room and you’re saying, 'Oh no, don’t stop, don’t stop.' The takes would just go on and on because you’d never want to yell 'cut.'"
Watanabe responded to Edwards’ desire to draw upon the thematic threads of the original within the context of the contemporary world. “I feel that Japan and, really, the entire world, are facing similar challenges today as we were at the time the first film was made,” Watanabe reflects. “Godzilla cannot be separated from the nuclear element, and serves as an urgent reminder that we have to look to the future and think about what kind of world we want to have. So, when I read the script, I was impressed that Gareth’s film maintains Godzilla’s connection to the consequences of trying to harness forces we barely understand.”
Sally Hawkins, who plays Serizawa’s colleague, Dr. Graham, adds that Edwards’ passion for the project illuminated every creative decision on set. “He had so much else to contend with, but really showed care towards the actors and the story, always emphasizing the need to keep the heart and truth in it.”
With all her scenes done in partnership with Watanabe, the two formed an immediate connection. “Graham and Serizawa are on this journey together because it is both their life’s work,” Hawkins shares. “When we meet them, you see that they’re almost telepathic in how they communicate. And I think Ken’s brilliant. He’s got such a presence, and working with him to convey their relationship was a real pleasure.”
As Graham and Serizawa move deeper through the mountain, they discover that the entire cave system once encased the carcass of a giant creature, but that it also held something else. And at its end, they are shocked to discover that the mountain has been blown out from within, giving way to a pulverized trench etched through the forest, leading straight to the ocean.
North through the East China Sea, a series of tremors rock the Janjira Nuclear Power Plant near the Tokyo district where Ford, played as a youth by CJ Adams, lives with his parents Sandra and Joe Brody, played by Juliette Binoche and Bryan Cranston. In 1999, both are scientists at the power plant, and the morning after tremors hit, his father is the first to raise alarm bells. Cranston details, “Joe is a nuclear engineer and very good at his job. He has detected anomalous sound patterns in these tremors that others are trying to write off as mere earthquakes, but his data doesn’t support that. He knows there’s something more here and wants the nuclear plant shut down, but nobody listens. And when they finally do, it’s too late. He’s a whistleblower in all the good ways that one can be, and that troublemaker streak follows him into the present.”
Though Cranston is best known for bringing to life the thrilling, tragic arc of Walter White on TV’s “Breaking Bad,” Edwards remembered him as the father in the series “Malcolm in the Middle” and envisioned him as Joe from the start. “I was an avid fan of that show. I think it’s often harder to be a good comedic actor than it is to be a good dramatic actor, and Bryan can nail the joke every time, but he’s also able to convey so much emotion in everything he does. So the whole time we were writing this part, Bryan was always Joe in my mind, and, fortunately, he said ‘yes.’”
For his part, Cranston, in spite of his stated affection for Godzilla movies, never imagined that he’d be in one. “But, as Gareth said to me, this film is different,” the actor relates. “It’s steeped in character, which makes the fantastic elements of the story more fulfilling because, as you follow these people through this adventure, you see good and bad decisions being made and relationships being pulled apart and brought together. All the elements of any good drama are here, wrapped up in big, epic monster movie.”
Juliette Binoche agrees, noting, “Monsters have an enormous power for catharsis. These stories help us to understand something about ourselves and to see our emotions on a big scale, and Gareth as a storyteller understands that instinctually. He’s a great talent, and I was thrilled to work with him on this film.”
Binoche’s character Sandra Brody is, like her husband Joe, also a dedicated scientist, but on the morning of the accident, Sandra’s instincts as a mother override all other considerations. “When the situation at the plant escalates into a crisis, she has to make a choice,” Binoche relates. “These situations can often be moments of total truth, and in that moment, her actions are driven by her love for her son and her husband.”
Fifteen years later, when Ford travels to Japan for his uneasy reunion with his father, he finds Joe still consumed with the accident that destroyed the plant and shattered his family. Cranston comments, “Joe has spent his life trying to unravel the mystery of what happened that day, but the greatest casualty of his obsession is his relationship with his son.”
Even as his son arrives to take him home, Joe is on the cusp of proving that the powerful forces that destroyed the Janjira Power Plant in 1999 are happening again, and that reports of leaking radiation are lies the government has concocted to hide the truth. With one last plea, he persuades Ford to venture back to their ruined home to retrieve evidence that the disaster was anything but natural. But after being ambushed by security forces, what they discover inside the quarantine zone is much worse.
Within the hollowed-out relic of Janjira itself, they are confronted with the enormity of the government’s secret: something has been feeding on the plant’s nuclear reactors, and after 15 years, it’s finally awake. Mary Parent remarks, “In our film, we introduce a destructive force that is, in some ways, a consequence of humanity’s hubris in the face of nature. And how that conflicts with Godzilla’s agenda is what draws us into a massive conflict that plays out against our planet.”
In the terrifying events that follow, Ford and Joe are swept away with Dr. Serizawa and Dr. Graham to the Navy vessel that will serve as a command center for the rapidly escalating crisis. Heading the multi-force tactical operation formed to defend the planet in the face of a terrifying new paradigm is Admiral Stenz, who tracks Godzilla across the Pacific toward the continental U.S.
Acclaimed actor David Strathairn, who plays Admiral William Stenz, offers, “No one on Earth has encountered anything of this magnitude before, so Stenz is a little out of his depth in postulating ways to deal with it. You can’t take down monsters with normal munitions, so what do you resort to? A nuclear device? That’s the military's last resort, but it ups the ante dramatically, and as the officer in charge of the joint task force, Stenz is strategically at odds with Serizawa.”
Strathairn relished exploring this philosophical conflict with Watanabe. “Serizawa is a very passionate and deeply committed scientist; he also carries deep sadness and fear about our arrogance as a species in the face of nature,” Strathairn observes. “Stenz has some very crucial decisions to make, which conflict with Serizawa’s ideas of how to resolve the situation, and Ken brought such grace to these very intense moments between them. Serizawa is the heart of this story’s compassion.”
Like his fellow cast members, Strathairn was impressed with Edwards’ acuity for capturing the human dimensions of the Godzilla story. “I feel that this film is basically about how we, as a fragile, too often environmentally irresponsible creature, respond to the symbol of Godzilla, a metaphorical construct for so many things that we are still working on as a species. Gareth had a monstrous task with this film, so to speak, and I'm really impressed by the way he’s held this franchise, this dinosaur, in his hands while still respecting and honoring the human aspect.”
After witnessing Godzilla’s earth-shattering entrance at the Honolulu Airport, Ford joins up with a military unit headed for the mainland, following a colossal wake of destruction through towns and cities that have been leveled by forces of unimaginable power and menace. Seizing his only chance to secure his family, Ford volunteers himself for what may end up being a suicide mission to plunge into the heart of a besieged San Francisco in a desperate bid to save the city from imminent nuclear annihilation.
With its skyscrapers shattered like broken toys, and its underground shelters overflowing with terrified refugees, the fragile human city has become a monster-sized arena where the Alpha Predator closes in on his malevolent prey, unleashing the full weight of his fury in an epic battle for dominance, with the future of humanity hanging in the balance.
“We made a choice about how to reveal Godzilla to the world in this film,” says Edwards. “It was a difficult choice, but it has to do with the question of whether Godzilla is good or bad. I think he represents something entirely different. It’s like asking if a hurricane is good or bad. Godzilla is a force of nature, but its more violent, unpredictable side. What he’s up against in our film very much represents our abuse of nature, so when Godzilla rises, it’s to set things right.”