Godzilla is King of the Monsters, and right now, Max Borenstein has the ear of the king. And that puts him in very rare company.
Since the first time he rose over Tokyo Bay and laid waste to the rebuilt capital city in 1954, Godzilla has continuously transformed with the times. He’s veered from ferocious force of nature to campy children’s hero and back again, responding to cultural and political moments as well as the business needs of Toho studios, the legendary film company that built an empire out of kaiju and creature features. In a franchise that spans over 65 years and 30+ movies, it’s hard to stick to any one particular auteur or aesthetic, but a few names stick out as particularly influential creative forces throughout the king’s long reign.
Borenstein’s role as a screenwriter on each of the four Legendary Pictures’ Monsterverse movies puts him in rare company. Director Ishiro Honda and special effects revolutionary Eiji Tsuburaya, two of Godzilla’s co-creators, are rightfully seen as the architects of the series. Honda directed 11 movies in the Toho monster line featuring Godzilla and/or fellow monsters such as Mothra, Rodan, Ghidorah, and Japan’s borrowed version of King Kong. Jun Fukuda directed a handful of the movies that followed. Producers such as co-creator Tomoyuki Tanaka and Shogo Tomiyama have also long played a major role in the monster’s direction.
“[Toho] have their little fact sheet of what you can do with Godzilla. The irony of it all being that they’ve done all the things they say you can’t do.”
Legendary Pictures licensed Godzilla from Toho to make its own Americanized movie series in 2010. Executive Thomas Tull quickly brought on director Gareth Edwards, who’d scored an indie hit with the low-budget flick “Monster,” while Borenstein was hired to fully rewrite an original pre-Edwards script. Over the past decade, while Borenstein has also directed a movie and written on projects like the upcoming miniseries about the 1980s Showtime Lakers, he has largely been focused on crafting a big kaiju universe that can stand with the Japanese original.
Godzilla vs. Kong marks a kind of climax for the series, delivering exactly what the title promises: A battle between the two towering titans of monster movies. Here, Borenstein talks to us about how he helped shape the Monsterverse, a unique accomplishment in kaiju cinema.
Observer: What was the status of the first Godzilla movie (that eventually came out in 2014) when you came on?
Max Borenstein: There had been a couple of drafts by really talented writers, but they’d been developed in the dark before there had been a director attached. I came on at the same time that Gareth Edwards came on and he had a tonal idea of what he wanted to go for. He wanted to find a grounded and authentic way of creating a disaster movie where Godzilla is the disaster. The two of us collaborated in trying to reconceive this character and this mythology of it in a way that would feel like it drew on the imagery and themes that were really resonant at the moment, whether it was Hurricane Katrina or 9/11. These moments of trauma that were tying the world together, and Godzilla, being a creature of such scale, everything he did was going to have an impact globally.
We got greenlit and another writer came in to do some work. That didn’t fully pan out, so then I came back. I was a little fresher and younger at the time and was eager to cling on to it as much as I could. In this business, you come in and then you get replaced. And so it was fun to be able to come back and then get production experience and work in production and then post on that film.
The 2014 movie is pretty contained, it doesn’t tease some big sequel, though the fact that ancient monsters — Godzilla and the two wormy MUTOs — [exist] certainly made that viable. When did a whole crossover universe come into the picture?
The head of Legendary, Thomas Tull, told me while we were on set that he had this ambition for bringing Kong into the universe, and ultimately building towards a Godzilla versus Kong movie. I wrote the first few drafts of Kong: Skull Island, and then left for a little while, and then came back before production and stayed on through production and was intimately involved in that as well.
I also wrote the first act of Godzilla: King of the Monsters while all of that was going on, but that was one where once Mike Doherty came in, he’s a writer-director, so he took it in his own direction. So some of the story stuff remained, but I had a lot less involvement in that film.
And that movie wound up with new versions of the classic Toho monsters Ghidorah, Rodan and Mothra.
It’s funny, because in my draft, I had written Mechagodzilla into the film, and I was pretty stoked about the potential there. I knew that Godzilla vs. Kong was the thing that it was all building to, and I was off doing other things. Alex Garcia, a producer on the film who I’ve worked with since Godzilla, called and asked if I was able to come back in and help them. They had a lot of great bones and they were trying those bones into a bit more of a coherent skeleton. So I came in and did that work on that in prep and then stayed through production and in post on this film. It was really cool to see that Mechagodzilla had made his way back into the franchise and to be able to actually get into that.
The Godzilla franchise and Toho monster movies generally are often one-offs. Maybe they’ll have a sequel or two, but they so often totally reinvent characters, storylines and origins for the monsters. How did you approach trying to build a cohesive franchise with a connected storyline? And how did it wind up being the Hollow Earth theory, which posits that tunnels run through the Earth and lead to a sort of hidden ancient world?
The Hollow Earth theory emerged out of the brain trust of all of us thinking about it during the conception and production of Kong, where it was about how do we explain this island? Why this island? Is it simply that dinosaurs never died off? That felt like we’ve seen it and done it and didn’t feel like it explained these giant creatures? But what if it was a source of these creatures. And then why? Was it something in the air or the
So Skull Island becomes the obvious port of call, and maybe once upon a time, the Titans were more prevalent, but as mankind took over the surface of the planet, like the virus we are, they’ve receded in the background.
But the balance is tipping now and they’re starting to emerge. That felt like it freed us from some handcuffs and opened up this whole new—literally a whole new—world that we could explore. And it was really exciting that in this film that we finally got to go there. And that the way we go there is my favorite part. It is really barely plot-driven. There is a MacGuffin that we’re going for, but the real reason is that Kong is the last of his kind and searching for connection and home and family. What he finds is emotional and really resonant.
That brings up the fact that you’re building stories around two giant monsters who aren’t the best at communicating — now Kong can do some sign language, but they’re not exactly human. At the same time, the humans in this movie don’t have a ton of backstory. How do you build a cohesive plot through four films around creatures that are only so communicative?
I’ve learned something over the course of the project that I didn’t really know going into it and I think it’s a lesson worth carrying forward into any future with these films if I were to do any. Now that we’ve met Godzilla, now that we’ve met Kong, they’re the stars of the movie. I do think it was the right choice to introduce human characters gradually. Now that the monsters are the stars, the human stars have to be supporting players. And the best human characters in the franchise, like John C. Reilly’s character in Kong: Skull Island and the Jia character in this movie, they’re still treated as supporting characters.
They’re emotional, they add levity, they have their own agenda, but they don’t try to carry the film as a leading man or woman. And that allows Godzilla and Kong to be the leading man or woman and or whatever they are. It allows them to take prominence. It allows human beings to be great touchstones and get great performances from actors, because they’re not being asked to engage in too much expository drivel, they’re allowed to actually be emotional. John C. Reilly wants to get off the island. Jia Wei wants family and connection and she loves Kong and she wants the best for him. Very simple and very relatable, and very emotional. It is a challenge to create the human stories around it.
“Godzilla is a force of nature and to the extent possible he should always remain somewhat unknowable. Kong is a much more anthropomorphized character. He always has been.”
And so with Godzilla and Kong being the stars, what level of sentience do you want to give them? Godzilla has ranged from being a force of nature to literally being a father and, famously thanks to the internet, shaking hands with Jet Jaguar.
Godzilla is a force of nature and to the extent possible he should always remain somewhat unknowable and impossible for people to fully understand. Because he’s so inhuman both in scale and just in species, he is some kind of unknowable mysterious outsider. He kind of becomes The Gunslinger, he’s become that figure that you don’t quite understand, usually a force for good, but not always benevolent. He means no malice, but some people get caught in the crossfire and there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of tears shed by Godzilla when that happens.
Meanwhile, Kong is a much more anthropomorphized character. He has always has been. Kong has always had, ever since the first film, a relationship with human beings. Whether it be they’re trying to exploit him, he’s misunderstood or he falls in love. It’s just in the DNA. What helped conceive this story was that you have these two characters, and you know that the moment that you start identifying too closely with Godzilla, it starts to cross into that old-fashioned campy terrain, where he’s too human. But with Kong, you can go a little farther.
It’s not that they’re hard and fast rules, but more like the dos and don’ts. And then within that you can bend the rules sometimes. When Godzilla does have a moment with a kind of glimmer in his eye as he looks at Kong with a sense of respect, it means a lot, because it’s hard to come by.
There’s also the matter of Godzilla being a character you can’t totally control — Toho is I’m sure very protective and involved. What was it like working with them on it?
I have had my interactions with them, but it’s much more a thing that happens at the level of the producers and the studio, negotiating that stuff. It’s a long and storied company with its own legacy and its own ways of operating. They have their little fact sheet of what you can do with Godzilla. The irony of it all being that they’ve done all the things they say you can’t do at different times in history. But that’s why they stick to the rules, because they’ve learned these lessons of what works and what doesn’t work.
They’re very protective. It’s the IP that has kept the company around for decades. It’s not Seven Samurai or Rashomon that’s made them the most money. So they know that and they’re really protective of it, but great to work with and they understand that, in a sense, Godzilla has always been up for interpretation.
What’s on the sheet? What are their rules?
They’re all very sensible. Some of them are just protecting Godzilla. You certainly can never kill Godzilla and there are certain ways in which you can’t harm him. Some of it is logistical or physical, like he has x-many toes, dorsal fins, stuff like that.
Godzilla vs. Kong is playing in theaters and on HBO Max.