As well as being the driving force behind the new Godzilla screenplay, Max Borenstein was also tasked by Legendary with writing a tie-in comic book, Godzilla: Awakening. I called up Borenstein last week and, after a series of technical problems, we finally had a good, long chat about the film, the comic, the monster and much more besides.
Here's the full transcript of our conversation.
How much do you consider this comic book and the film to be part of the same thing and in what ways do you consider them to be distinct?
Well, they're part of the same universe. The comic book expands the universe of the film. It does it, of course, in the style of a graphic novel, trying to adhere to the same tone as the film and the same thematic sensibility and style in terms of its general sense of plausibility within a real world. But by the nature of a comic book or a graphic novel there's a lot more compression in terms of plot, there are differences in that sense, in terms of the general feel of the film vs. the feel of the comic book. It would probably take somebody further outside it to see how they each have their differences but certainly they live in the same universe and have the same sort of voice behind them, in a sense.
The Godzilla of the comic book and the Godzilla of the film are the same Godzilla. the timeline of the comic book… the comic takes place in years before the film, expands on some things that go unmentioned in the film but serve as expansion and back story.
Writing for a comic book requires a different approach in that there's that compression, and the visual language is also very different. How did you find it, and what are the benefits of writing for this medium?
I thought that it was a great amount of fun. I wrote it with my cousin Greg [Borenstein]. There was a learning curve in writing for comics rather than for a screenplay, certainly in terms of compression of information and a different kind of visual storytelling. Where I had the most fun with the differences was, for example, the page in the comic book where we visualise Godzilla over the years since the dawn of humanity, all on a single page. That was great fun to think about and that's something you could never do in a film. I suppose the closest thing to that in a film is something like Tree of Life or Aronofsky's Noah movie, those weird, interesting time lapses. But you can't do it in quite the same way and that kind of thing was really exciting to get to do.
Dialogue scenes and things like that are harder in the graphic novel because they become static or stodgy and sometimes that's great if that's the tone, but in this particular case, it's essentially an adventure and an action piece so when one is throwing in a lot of dialogue or a back and forth, you have to think in terms of how you can cut away, perhaps, and show other things. There's a learning curve, but that I found to be very refreshing and interesting.
At the point you were engaged to write this comic what state was the film in? And is this comic in any way a response to what you wish you might have included or what you knew what was going to be left out, hindsight in any sense?
It wasn't a matter of hindsight in terms of regrets of anything not being in the film, however it came up while the film was in production, late production, once the script was very much finalised and underway. Something I think that Legendary had been contemplating and wanting to do, then they approached me and asked if it was something I'd be interested in doing to carry over the same voice. They asked if there were any stories I thought would be appropriate and that's where this came up.
The genesis of this was very much something alluded to in the film. Without giving away any spoilers, the story of the bombings and the idea of the connection between this character Sarazawa and his father and those events, and by extension to Godzilla too, that was something that was alluded to in the film and then something that, from time to time, in different drafts, there was a longer speech happening to do with that. That wound up, just by nature of the process, getting condensed for the benefit of the film. It was always something I was very fond of, as was Gareth [Edwards] and so this found like a really interesting opportunity to explore that thematic resonance.
There's a couple of weird quirks to the way people write about film. One is a heavy bias towards thinking of the director as an auteur and another one, particularly in the modern day and age, is that any writer who comes on to do a bit of polish or contribute anything in any way, we hear about it and it goes on the record in a way it didn't use to. So we heard about Drew Pearce, and Frank Darabont, and so on. But I understand that the film is credited to you and the film is very much your work. Could you comment on that, and on sharing the ownership of the comic with your cousin? And how much ownership do you feel of the whole concept?
You know, any movie of this scale, there are always – or very, very frequently, I mean 'always minus one' – many writers that at some point take part. In this particular case, I was on the film for a very long time. I started three years ago and have been on it, really, with slight intermittent moments while I was doing other things, ever since. There were a couple of moments there, and I respect both of those writers but the film that ultimately exists, in terms of the screenplay, is very much mine. It's interesting, the extent to which everything is covered in the media.
It can be creepy and voyeuristic, I think. Particularly when it gets to casting stories.
But I get it. I'm a fan as well, so it's fun to be able to track and see, or at least guess, as to what is going on behind the scenes. But obviously, in terms of what this film is, it's really a collaborative work. Not so much in terms of the screenplay but in terms of the screenplay plus everything else. Gareth is the filmmaker and a tremendous filmmaker and he's done an incredible job on the film, in the genesis of the story and the screenplay along the way, from the very beginning of when I came on board, we were working together very closely. That's been a really deeply rewarding experience on my end. It would be ridiculous for me to claim the movie, it's very much a collaboration. I feel a great deal of ownership over it in that way.
Do you feel that the comic book is a very different mix? It's a very different process, but has that resulted in there being more of you in the comic, in a way?
The comic book was completely different in that it was written exclusively by me and Greg. We worked together, it wasn't a sequential thing, with us separate and exchanging it to do passes. It was the two of us working together as one voice. It was as rewarding as writing something on your own, if not in someways more as you get to share that creative process and even more interesting things can come up.
Do ideas come to mind now and you think 'That's a comic, I should do that as a comic' or do you just think only in cinematic terms?
It's funny, there are some ideas that… this came about, Greg and my collaboration on this, because we had been collaborating a comic series for a while in the background of our 'real lives' where I'm writing movies and he's an academic, an artist, a technologist at the MIT media lab. We had been collaborating on something together, which we are still collaborating on and now that this is on the shelves, we're going to get back into and which will hopefully see the light of day soon. Because we had started to develop this collaborative voice and this sort of short hand together we decided, I called and said "Legendary want us to do this, I want to do it, would you do it with me" and he jumped in.
It's very interesting to find out what your cousin does. I remember that you were, at least, working on Mona for New Regency, and that seems like something a technologist from MIT would have a lot of contributions for.
Yeah, absolutely. I certainly talked to Greg about that kind of stuff and he's a wealth of ideas and opinions and inspiration for that. I hope you get a chance to talk to him, actually, I think it would be fun. He's definitely, you know, a really top notch thinker in that department.
Mentioning Mona reminds me of the other thing I heard you were working on is Paladin. Is that still going, have you finished? What's the latest?
Mona is in development but there was, you know, progress being made very recently. That's exciting and moving forward. Paladin is in the same development as well, we're waiting on some stuff but it sounds like we'll see. It's not going to be next month or in a few months, but it may well be soon.
Is that an original concept of yours, Paladin?
Yeah, it's an original concept I developed.
Is that where your heart lies, really, with original concepts? I know that sounds like a leading question.
I would say not necessarily. I think there's originality in everything. When you look at a movie like Godzilla, to bring us full circle just for a moment, there have been what – 30 Godzilla films? Around that, and every one of them is, even when there are aspects that are similar to the others, they are these interesting, unique, weird artefacts that represent the filmmakers that made them and the time they were made. In a very real sense there's a much originality, or at least creativity, that goes into reinventing something. Or at least there can be. What gets my juices flowing is finding an idea, whether it's an idea that's how to reboot something or how to adapt something or something completely fresh that's just developing from a thought I had, an idea that gets me thinking about the world in an interesting way, will be a story that I think is compelling and that I'd like to see. I've tended to, in my career so far, to jump between genres, and between adaptations and original stuff. Maybe more than some people do. What attracts me isn't really just one genre, it's the ability to use different genres to tell some story that hits the heart of what I'd like to say bout the human experience. I know it sounds high-falluting but that's the thing that unifies writing a movie about Jimi Hendrix and writing a movie about a 350 foot lizard.
There is something inherently of its time about the original Godzilla, it's addressing the concerns of its day. The new film seeks to address concerns of today, I'm sure, but the comic seems to be 'historic' in a sense. It seems to be about tracking the concerns of the past, like a history lesson in a way.
I think that, in a sense, the comic, by taking place in years before the film – we decided to set it in the year of Godzilla's origins, not the year of the birth of Godzilla but the origin of the franchise of Godzilla – so we wanted to pay homage and explore the themes that were resonant there. Partly to set a tonal template for the film but not to step on the toes of the film or repeat ourselves. The film, without giving anything away, is going to deal with more contemporary thematic resonances, is the way in which this creature, this character, has embodied has many different themes and fears as there have been Godzilla films. The first one is Japan's fear of the atomic bombs, which morphs into general worldwide nuclear fears, morphs into fears or alien invasion, fears of bio-engineering , fears of environmental degradation, fears of natural disaster. Godzilla is a force beyond the control of mankind, he's a reminder of the way in which, despite our very able job of fooling ourselves into believing we have control over the world around us, we don't. He can represent anything that falls into that category, whether it's a meteor or a typhoon or a tsunami, or you name it.
Without spoiling the film, in this day and age, the nuclear threat, while still technically present, is not by any means as pervasive as in the 50s or 60s. That said, we as human beings still live in a world where we, more than ever, rely on our technology to protect us, theoretically, from the world around us. Yet we're constantly reminded, more than ever in the last ten or fifteen years, by nature that we are basically insects on the surface of the world, that there are forces beyond us, sometimes forces that we exacerbated and made worse by our own arrogance or indifference, in the environmental camp.
Basically, when a storm comes, there's nothing we can do, and there's nothing that our intelligence or technology can really do but hopefully be put to the service of trying to save lives. Godzilla is a great representative of that because ultimately, you can't beat Godzilla, you just have to figure out how to survive him and, hopefully, create a world in which you're not begging him to come up and rampage a city.
I want to thank Max once again for taking the time to talk with me. Godzilla: Awakening will be published on May 13th. Then, once he's awake, Godzilla will be in cinemas from May 16th.