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Godzilla’s Screenwriter and Graphic Novel Co-Author Tells Us All About Creating a Modern Godzilla Story

TL;DR: Sometimes ants need to get squashed.


I had my own thoughts on the Godzilla: Awakening prequel graphic novel for the new Godzilla movie (which you can read here), but to really get the inside story, I spoke to the book’s co-writer—the film’s screenwriter—Max Borenstein. He had a lot to say about what Godzilla is, what he’s not, and how to put together a compelling Godzilla story.

When I talked to Borenstein, I hadn’t seen the movie yet, so we both tried to keep the spoilers to a minimum in our conversation. The graphic novel is on store shelves today, so let the man behind it tell you how it came together.

Geekosystem: How did the idea come about to do a graphic novel as a prequel?

Borenstein: Well, in the case of the story that we decided to explore in the graphic novel, its genesis was a speech in the film—a moment in the film—that had been a part of the movie from early days. That was something that survived all the way through in the film and still exists, but by the nature of the moviemaking process, it wound up being significantly trimmed down. We had to refine it, and some of the details about it wound up by the wayside.

So, when Legendary said that they were interested in expanding the universe of the film and were open to doing a graphic novel, I got really excited. My mind immediately went to this backstory that I had always thought about that kind of pokes its head into the film, but of course, there wasn’t really enough time to do it justice. So, that was sort of the genesis for the story of the graphic novel.

Unlike maybe the last Godzilla reboot, this one seems like—after reading the graphic novel and seeing all of the backstory that you explored—a lot more thought went into it than just cashing in on the character. Are you big fans who just want to see some justice done to the franchise?

There are a few questions there, and the answer is probably yes to all of them. Certainly, we—the studio, Gareth [Edwards, the director], and me, and everyone involved—spent a lot of time thinking about what Godzilla is and what the best Godzilla movie for this day and age could be.

I think it wasn’t explicitly about upstaging any prior attempt at doing a Godzilla movie, but the idea was never  about capitalizing on the franchise. It was really about honoring that legacy and making a Godzilla movie that we would be proud of and would’ve loved if someone else made it—or if we’d watched it during those formative years when we watched and fell in love with Godzilla movies.

I did a lot of thought and spoke a lot with Gareth about what it is that Godzilla represents and, “What is Godzilla?” I think one of the fascinating things about Godzilla is that there is no answer to that that is a single answer.

Godzilla has evolved and been very different—often drastically different—from film to film, to the point where he starts as a walking embodiment of nuclear annihilation, and he evolves—in a punctuated equilibrium—drastically into a campier protector of Japan, occasionally, into a metaphor for the threats that might come from outer space, to environmental degradation, and to bioengineering. Any fear that was the fear of the moment that felt like it was the thing that reminded humanity that we were relatively insignificant in the scheme of the universe, Godzilla stood in for that. And, Godzilla’s adversaries have played a role in that in the course of the franchise.

I can certainly speak for myself—and I think it’s fair to speak for Gareth in this—we love genre movies that have something to say. Ones that use the genre as a means for exploring interesting ideas—for coping with some primal fears that we have as humans. That’s both what they’re good for, and also, it’s when they resonate the most. It’s why the films that we gravitate to the most are the ones that hit home and resonate at a real gut level.

To do that, you have to tap in, in some way, to what it is that we as a society—and maybe as a global community—are afraid of. Or, in other cases and other films, what we want or that kind of thing. The graphic novel takes place some 60 years before and is in a different era with different concerns, and is paying homage to the fears of that moment, which were the nuclear fears that were prevalent at the inception of Godzilla. But now, in the film, it’s the present day experience, and it felt like one thing that was very resonant was the natural disaster.

We live in an era where we seem to be experiencing a preponderance of extreme environmental disasters. They are often times either spurred by human activity or by our impact on the environment, or on the other end, often exacerbated in their effect by some way in which we built somewhere we shouldn’t have, or built something we shouldn’t have, or didn’t take the care or the pains that we should have. And, the result is a huge event that reminds us, yet again, something that we will always continue to forget as people, which is that we are powerless in the face of nature.

So, it felt like Godzilla was a really perfect vessel to pour contemporary fears into. That would be something that was in keeping with the legacy of what Godzilla is while still feeling fresh and updating the franchise in the same way that any of the great Godzilla films do update the franchise.

That’s what it seemed like when I read the graphic novel; it has a lot of the initial nuclear fears in there, but it seems that, as it moves in towards the movie and Godzilla is actually battling off the other monsters, it has a larger statement about our appreciation for nature.

Yeah. That’s definitely a big part of it. I’m glad it comes across in the graphic novel.

In that vein, it seemed like… almost like a Terminator 2 type of thing, where Godzilla is almost the good guy going forward in the story. Is that a fair assumption, or are we going to incur his wrath in some way before the movie picks up?

Well, without giving anything away, I would say that in the comic, it’s not necessarily that he’s a good guy; he’s kind of an anti-hero. Gareth’s used this metaphor: he’s kind of the lone samurai—the last of his kind—and that he has no real interest in our world. But, sometimes things we do or things that happen cause him to emerge from his slumber (or whatever it is he does down there) and intervene in some way.

I think that the concession in both the film and the comic is not that Godzilla has an anthropomorphic intent, although we may ascribe that sort of thing. We may think of him as a sort of balancing agent in a sense, but he may be that, or maybe he’s just an animal, but he’s an animal looking out for his habitat. His habitat is a lot bigger than one city; it’s the globe.

We tried to ascribe a more animalistic motivation to Godzilla, while still walking that line and respecting the idea that this is a character with a nobility. So, when I say animalistic, I don’t mean it in a way that demeans Godzilla to, “Oh, it’s just an animal.” Rather, it elevates him like a mythic kind of king of the forest, king of the jungle, king of the monsters.

So, that’s how we tried to see him, but obviously many Godzilla films over time have treated him in different ways. First, he’s sort of the ambivalent but malignant force of nature. Later on, he becomes the goody guy who’s really intentionally protecting humanity. But, I think we’re trying to walk a line where his interest in humanity is the same interest that humanity has in ants. We leave them alone and don’t bother them until they come into the kitchen and start disrupting our world, and then maybe we’ll just squash them, but we’re not going to concern ourselves too deeply with them.

That said, ants can—in great numbers—create a bigger problem, which might cause us to have to act in some way. It’s maybe a silly metaphor, but that was the analogy.

Speaking of which, where humans come into play, since Godzilla is mostly a giant monster and kind of a metaphor, having the human characters and the human plot be interesting is kind of important to the movie, so where does the inspiration for those characters and that story come from?

I don’t want to give away too much of that story, so I won’t get into it too deeply. It was very important to me and to Gareth from early stages that the human story be compelling in its own right and feel organic to this but also feel realistic. So, one thing we didn’t want to do was create a human story that would feel as if we were creating some character who, let’s say, had the ability to speak to Godzilla in some magical way or things like that, which are just extra sci-fi additions to the basic premise.

That kind of thing has certainly been done in the franchise before, but given the grounded realism we were striving for with the tone of the story, we weren’t allowing that. So, we wanted to come up with a human story that would feel plausible and as though you were following almost an everyman, but not such an everyman that the person had no role to play and no impact on the story.

Given Godzilla’s size and power—and given that it’s so extreme in comparison to humanity and in reality there’s nothing human beings can do to stop him, although we think we can, and we get ourselves into trouble believing that we can stop him and causing more problems—given all of that, you have to come up with a human story that feels emotional and compelling and has real stakes. It involves Godzilla, but it isn’t really an interaction, mano a mano, with Godzilla.

That’s not what Godzilla is. He’s not King Kong. Godzilla doesn’t fall in love with people, and he doesn’t interact with people on an anthropomorphic level.

The graphic novel and this conversation got me really excited about the movie, so if you’re interested in Godzilla, I recommend picking it up and giving it a read. Check back next week for a review of the movie and interviews with the cast, director, and producers.

(Image via Godzilla: Awakening)

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Dan is many things, including a game developer, animator, martial artist, and at least semi-professional pancake chef. He lives in North Carolina with Lisa Brown (his wife) and Liz Lemon (his dog), both of whom are the best, and he will never stop reminding The Last Jedi's detractors that Luke Skywalker's pivotal moment in Return of the Jedi was literally throwing his lightsaber away and refusing to fight.