One of the most important things that Godzilla screenwriter Max Borenstein sought to bring to Hollywood’s latest incarnation of the Japanese-born monster was not to forget where he came from. Borenstein also wanted to continue the monster’s role in the last 60 years as serving as a physical manifestation of human fear.
We caught up with Borenstein for an exclusive chat where he took us inside the making of a monster movie that is surely one of the best summer movies this season -- as we report in our Godzilla review.
Movie Fanatic: There is a real reverence for the Japanese origins of Godzilla and it is clear you did a lot of research and there is a lot of love there for the series -- why was it important to you to have that and not have this be an Americanized version of a classic monster story?
Max Borenstein: Yes, I did a lot of research for it and I have a lot of reverence for it. And while doing the research I wanted to make sure I really was paying homage to the legacy and I developed a lot of love and respect for the franchise and the character. Part of it is thinking about… why Godzilla? Is there something special about Godzilla as opposed to any other intellectual property that you would adapt into a new film? I think there is. For me, it felt important to love this character. I wanted to dig deep and answer the question that is, “What is it about Godzilla that's so resonant over the years?" 60 years! It’s to the point that I know people who know the name Godzilla and have never seen a single movie.
Movie Fanatic: What did you find? Why is he so resonant?
Max Borenstein: You look back at all the Godzilla films and there is no one Godzilla. That’s why Godzilla can’t go out of style. Godzilla started as a walking allegory for nuclear war and became, over stylistic changes and cultural shifts in the '60s, a folk hero dealing with different fears, whether alien invasions or the like. In the '70s, he was dealing with environmental catastrophes, and in the '80s and '90s, with bioengineering. Whatever the fears of the moments were, he’s always able to accommodate those. The character has morphed from darker to lighter and darker again as taste changes. The thing that is the common denominator is the idea of Godzilla representing a force of nature that's beyond our control. He is the ultimate reminder that mankind, as much as we believe we are in control of the world around us, we’re really at its whim. That’s something that is very primal and infinitely variable because there is always something new. That was the linchpin.
Movie Fanatic: Clearly we can’t have Godzilla talk, but in many ways in your script, you have the scientist played by Ken Watanabe serve as the voice of him. Was that integral to getting your themes into the movie and having them verbalized?
Max Borenstein: Absolutely. That was the origin from the early phase of his character. He needed to be a Japanese character that had a connection to the events of the origin of Godzilla -- the mythos with the atomic bomb. That’s why he’s that voice. It felt important tonally to not allow that character to become just a talking head in terms of giving us scientific information. We were more interested in using him to convey these larger notions of balance and nature. In developing the Godzilla character, we wanted to respect that he’s an animal, but an animal with intelligence. It’s like the same way we look at a dolphin or a whale and we know there’s something going on in there, but we don’t understand it.
Movie Fanatic: You needed someone in this movie for Godzilla to fight, how did you settle in on the MOTUs?
Max Borenstein: We were searching for an antagonist for Godzilla that would feel tonally at peace with what we were trying to do. In a film like this, we’re trying to refresh the brand for a new audience. We didn’t want to say, “Accept as your premise that this 350-foot radioactive lizard will walk out of the ocean, and by the way, 30 minutes in, an asteroid is also going to crash to Earth that’s an alien.” For what we were trying to do, we wanted the audience to only have to make one major buy in, and beyond that we wanted to run with it in the most organic manner we possibly could. We struggled to conceive the antagonist that would be related to Godzilla’s natural life cycle. It would explain why he comes up and it would explain why he goes away.