“It's hard to build tension if you've given the ghost away early on,” Max Borenstein tells TheWrap in new edition of The Writers’ Room
“Godzilla” writer Max Borenstein and director Gareth Edwards reserved the beast for a big fight at the end, hoping to avert the failings of recent movies that have wasted their best assets early on.
And in the process they angered some film critics who feel there isn't enough Godzilla. Enough with Aaron-Taylor Johnson and his dreamy blue eyes; they want massive battles between primordial beasts that dwarf their human surroundings.
Borenstein defended the creative choice during a recent conversation with TheWrap, talking also the need to build more suspense in movies.
“Everyone is going to have a different opinion about it,” Borenstein said. “When you go into a movie and from the very beginning it's go go go with two monsters fighting, the only thing you have to look forward to is another fight. It's hard to build tension if you've given the ghost away early on.”
Borenstein is a fixture in the writer's room at Legendary Pictures, the studio that produced “Godzilla,” as well as last summer's “Pacific Rim.” He co-wrote “Seventh Son,” an adventure story starring Jeff Bridges that will open next year, and an unproduced Jimi Hendrix biopic.
Though Borenstein wrote intimate dramas at the start of his career, working with one of the biggest producers in Hollywood suits him just fine. He's been angling for a writing gig since the ninth grade. TheWrap spoke with Borenstein about where so many recent monsters movies failed, ‘Godzilla’ and a secret Legendary project.
Fear of the nuclear bomb spawned the first ‘Godzilla’ movie. Does that subject still resonate?
Not in the same way, but what does resonate is the common denominator of Godzilla movies. Godzilla becomes a vessel for the fear of something outside of our control.
The first film is an allegory for nuclear war. The next movie is about alien invasion; that was the subject of the moments in the 1960s. In the 1970s, it was about environmental catastrophe. In the 1990s, it was about bioengineering.
It's always the theme of the moment; there is always a human fear of some force beyond our control. Right now, that is natural disasters and a sense that no matter how advanced we become, the Internet won't protect us from sudden, cataclysmic disaster.
How does this movie depict that fear?
Our nuclear warheads, the single greatest destructive force we've ever managed to muster as a race, are doggie biscuits to these creatures. We are the tools of the things we think are our tools.
There has been a lot of debate about the amount of Godzilla in this movie. Did you consciously try to keep him in reserve?
It's a fine line. Everyone is going to have a different opinion about it. When you go into a movie and from the very beginning it's go, go, go with two monsters fighting and you see everything, the only thing the viewer has to look forward to is another fight.
It's hard to build tension if you've given the ghost away early on. A lot of my favorite films and a lot of Gareth's favorite films do suspense. That's a feature in all those great Spielberg movies; they use suspense to gradually build to your climax. Nowadays movies give more immediately.
Are there movies you think did it right, and other that did not?
Of course, but there's something to be said for all of those. It's a matter of tone. I loved “Pacific Rim,” but that movie wasn't aiming to reserve anything in terms of those battles. That wasn't the agenda.
We wanted to approach it from this particular tone, and that dictated a lot of our choices.
How did you get involved with ‘Godzilla'?
I'd done some work for Legendary already; I'd written this Jimi Hendrix script and they hired me to do some work on “Seventh Son.” They approached me saying they had the rights to do a new “Godzilla” and Gareth Edwards is attached to direct it. I was excited by that little marriage.
I loved “Monsters.” That movie was this grounded, interesting human story. It speaks to something cool. I went back and watched the original Japanese cut of “Godzilla.” I had only seen the Raymond Burr version. I thought, “how do you make a serious version of this campy thing” and then I realized they made a serious movie before they ever did the campy thing.
It was a grim allegory for nuclear war made in Japan closer to the blasts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Were you a big “Godzilla” fan growing up?
I'd been a fan of “Godzilla” films as a kid in early high school before the last American version was on the horizon. I remember watching “Power Rangers” when that phenomenon came through thinking, this is weird.
I went to the Tower Video store and rented Japanese movies and was attracted to the camp value. By the tie the American version came out in 1998 I was over that phase and didn't like that version. I'd moved on to other interests and obsessions.
I fell in love with movies growing up. I wanted to direct; that's all I knew there was. I had a collection of VHS tapes 600 strong. I found the number for Oliver Stone's production company and cold-called them. I asked if they had any summer internship openings and went in for an interview, which my dad had to drive me to.
I took this meeting and they said, “it's going to suck; you're going to pour coffee.” Then they read my age and realized I wasn't legally allowed to work there. They felt bad. Jonathan Kraus felt bad and gave me some scripts to read.
When was this?
So you didn't perfect the coffee pour?
I never did it! They gave me scripts instead and I met with Jonathan every few weeks. I never had to do the shitty work because I was too young to legally do so. He mentored me through writing my first screenplay, and in college I wrote and directed a feature-length film for zero money.
I came back to L.A. to write another script and right around that point it was optioned. I thought I'd take the writer/director route.
Do you still hope to direct?
I'm building towards that. If anything, writing has pumped me up. I love writing scripts I have no interest in directing. I have some things I'm working on to direct now.
Have you discussed these projects with Legendary?
It may be. Right now the thing I am working on is in its early stages. I am working on another project for Legendary that is top secret.
Jimi Hendrix seems a little off-tone for Legendary.
It's all about the passions of Thomas Tull, the Grand Poobah. He's passionate about Godzilla and he's also a huge rock and roll fan. He's a sports fan, which is why “42” had such a logical home there. I like genre movies, and I am most interested in characters I can sink my teeth into. I started off doing dramas, but then I found myself working on these bigger canvases.
How do you work drama into these grand tales?
It's challenging in any case, and it's very challenging in a movie like “Godzilla.” The scale of the creature dictates there is no anthropomorphic relationship to humanity.
Without that, your options become constrained and limited. You dig deep into the creative well to try and come up with human stories that will feel engaging and emotional. Coming up with set pieces is really fun, and that's the collaborative business of working with the director.
Did you always know Godzilla would be the hero?
He's an animal, but he's a noble beast. He's the king of monsters but like the last Samurai he's the last of his kind. He has a sophisticated intelligence, but not one we understand.