411 Movies Interviews: Godzilla Screenwriter Max Borenstein
Posted by Jeffrey Harris on 05.16.2014
411's Jeffrey Harris had an exclusive interview with the screenwriter of the new Godzilla reboot, Max Borenstein. See what Borenstein had to say about developing the rebirth of one of the greatest cinematic icons in history for the screen, expanding the universe of the film with the prequel comic Godzilla: Awakening, and more.
In a short time, the cinematic icon known as Godzilla will return to theaters in the long-awaited franchise reboot, the aptly titled Godzilla. The new film, a co-production between Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros., brings together the vision of director Gareth Edwards (Monsters) and writer Max Borenstein (Seventh Son, Swordswallowers and Thin Men), and is a reimagining of the kaiju icon for moviegoers around the world. Recently, 411mania.com got the chance to speak with Max Borenstein about the picture and also Borenstein's work on the new prequel comic, Godzilla: Awakening. Godzilla: Awakening is a new graphic novel that takes place before the events of the movie and sheds more light on the backstory and origin for the Godzilla creature, or as he's also referred, "Gojira." The story also reveals the backstory for the father of Ken Watanabe's character in the film, Dr. Ishiro Serizawa. Max Borenstein co-wrote the story with his cousin, Greg Borenstein, and he discussed the process of developing both the new movie and the new comic in our exclusive, one-on-one interview.
Jeffrey Harris: At what point were you brought into the Godzilla franchise?
Max Borenstein: I think it's almost three years now. I had done some work for Legendary on different films, and I love those guys. When they said they had the rights to do Godzilla and that they had attached Gareth Edwards to direct, I got incredibly excited. I had seen Monsters, Gareth's first film, and I had been blown away by, first of all, his technical ability and storytelling abilities as a director of – especially on an incredibly small budget – but really even more so of the way that he represented or utilized the giant monster genre in the service of this very human story. I thought it was exceptional and refreshing, so I was tremendously enthusiastic about the opportunity to kind of dive in and see if we were on the same page creatively. And it turned out we were, and it was really one of the most fulfilling and creative endeavors and partnerships of my career thus far.
Jeffrey Harris: In the Awakening prequel story, where did you see this story start to germinate? Was it during the process of writing the movie, or did you always have in mind a background story telling us about Serizawa's father and a little more of the backstory of the MUTO and Godzilla?
Max Borenstein: Yeah, well it's funny you should say that. You'll see in the film, and without giving too much away, the backstory of Serizawa's father – the idea that Serizawa's father had lived through the bombings in Japan was something that is present in the film and was a big plot point and a sort of character backstory point from early on in that character's conception. So, when Legendary approached me about the idea of doing a prequel graphic novel, they really left it open. They didn't – they said, "We want to do a graphic novel to expand the universe of the film. Would you be interested and did you have any ideas?" And I immediately leapt to that story or that idea of Serizawa and his father and his backstory, and that was the genesis of the story.
Jeffrey Harris: What really surprised me about the story was it really tells us a lot about the secrets of the origins of Godzilla and the MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms), or the "Shinomure" as they are also called by Serizawa's father. Were there any conversations about wanting to keep these secrets more under wraps and to give maintain more of a mystique for the creatures?
Max Borenstein: Well, actually that is not in fact the case. So we did keep it under wraps. The creatures in the graphic novel, the Shinomure, are not the same as in the film. Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism is the equivalent of the Unidentified Flying Object, of which there can be many. And there's a generic appellation applied to many creatures. So, the creatures that you see in the film are not in fact the same ones as in the graphic novel. But the organization founded to study such creatures is indeed in the film.
Jeffrey Harris: Are you also saying this Godzilla in the comic is different from the one in the film?
Max Borenstein: No, I'm not saying it's a different Godzilla in the film. The antagonist creatures [are different].
Jeffrey Harris: How did you like collaborating with your cousin Greg Borenstein on the Awakening comic?
Max Borenstein: It was wonderful. We had been collaborating on some stuff in our off hours of both of our day jobs as it were. Greg is an academic, a technologist at MIT Media Lab, and I've been working on movies. We had been collaborating on a personal little passion project, a comic book that we are still working on. Because we set it aside when this came up, it seemed like the perfect thing to collaborate on and do together. And so it was a really wonderful process. We aren't brothers, but we were raised like brothers. We're very close, but we had never really ... this is our first really published thing together. It was an interesting learning curve to undergo together. I've certainly written many screenplays, and there are similarities, but there are obviously really dramatic and crucial differences in the way of what the medium can do for you and what the limitations are and how those limitations can lend themselves to interesting, creative solutions. Having that learning process together was really great fun. And I hope we get a chance to do more of that.
Jeffrey Harris: Throughout cinematic history, Godzilla has always really had a really interesting relationship with mankind. He's been seen as both an enemy and a reluctant ally at times, and almost sometimes as a de-facto protector against a greater threat. In this story, Godzilla is established as an ancient, apex predator. He doesn't see humanity as prey or an enemy, yet. Will the actions of humanity in the movie change Godzilla's view of or relationship toward mankind?
Max Borenstein: Yeah. Well, I think you'll have to – I don't really want to spoil it, but certainly in the graphic novel, because we did the prequel and it takes place before the events of the film, we had certain creative limitations in terms of the extent to which we wanted Godzilla to make an appearance to the wide world publicly. And so his interactions with humanity up until that point, up until the end of the graphic novel, [were limited]. So even though at the end of the graphic novel, Godzilla has had interactions with a relatively limited number of people, the wider knowledge of Godzilla in the world is more or less kept under wraps. Obviously, that is not the case once our story gets going in the film. Without giving too much away, his relationship with humanity will become significantly more complicated over the course of the film than it is in the graphic novel, where to him human beings are just another blip he's now noticed on the surface of the Earth that he's never noticed before.
Jeffrey Harris: How ecstatic are you as a writer to explore these ideas and these relationships with Godzilla and how humanity sees him, and perhaps how a creature such as Godzilla sees them as well?
Max Borenstein: Very ecstatic. The exciting thing about Godzilla is that people ask, "What is Godzilla? Is he a hero? Is he a villain? Is he an antihero?" And for a while, those questions would stump me, which is weird, because I've done a lot of thinking about it. But I realize now that the reason I had such a hard time answering that question is because Godzilla is not one thing. Godzilla, over the course of a very long franchise with many iterations in comic books and in films, and in films of a very different stripe, Godzilla has been a vessel containing a multitude of different resonances, symbolisms, and fears. He started as an embodiment of our fear of the nuclear age, of nuclear annihilation. And gradually, he evolved in different ways, but not coherently. It's not one coherent evolution. It really is the case that everyone approaching Godzilla and approaching this character has done so from a standpoint of trying not to repeat what's been done before, but also trying to interpret him through the prism of what's going on the world around them. I think that's why you get, in the 60s, space Godzilla movies. You get environmental catastrophe themes at different points.
Jeffrey Harris: And the Godzilla victory dance for the kids.
Max Borenstein: Yeah, as culture shifts, you get campier versions and more serious things. And one of the great things about Godzilla – and one of the unusual things, and certainly that's the case with any long franchise, or with many; you know with [James] Bond you see many aspects of that; but Godzilla, instead of just being one person, is by virtue of what he is, is this sort of walking metaphor. And so, the exciting thing when approaching a project like a Godzilla movie is to look around the world and say, "OK. Here's this vessel. Here's this metaphor. What is it a metaphor of now? What's going to resonate now? What's going to feel fresh? What's going to resonate with people's fears? What's going to feel as viscerally terrifying today as nuclear annihilation did in 1954?"
Jeffrey Harris: Will Godzilla or Gojira be mentioned in the movie?
Max Borenstein: If Gojira is mentioned in the movie, it would be a really cool moment. So I don't want to spoil it.
Jeffrey Harris: For the comic, when you came up with "Moansta Island," did you feel really clever when you came up with that?
Max Borenstein: I don't know if we felt really clever, but we were having fun *laughs*.
Jeffrey Harris: I can only imagine, because when I read that, I laughed and thought, "That must've been a really fun day." That was really fun and clever.
Max Borenstein: *Laughs* Good. I'm glad you enjoyed it. It was a little Easter egg for real fans.
Jeffrey Harris: At the end of the comic, we see Serizawa kind of being brought into the fold and continuing his father's work. Does the movie pick up on that subplot at all?
Max Borenstein: I would say that the movie certainly has a callback at least to some aspect of Serizawa's father's backstory and experience.
Jeffrey Harris: I don't know how involved in the process you are, but over the course of the last year, what it's it like getting to see the marketing of this project evolve from the Oppenheimer voiceover teaser to what we just got yesterday with the international trailer and "Let them fight!" What is it like to see this come to life?
Max Borenstein: That was a fun one because when I wrote it, I remember really well thinking, "Oh. This is going to be a trailer line."
Jeffrey Harris: What is it like to write a line like that? Because when I see that, I get so giddy and excited. And when you see that shot of a creature flying toward Godzilla and you get this sense of monsters clashing and forces of nature that we cannot control; what does it feel like to write that line and then to see it come into being?
Max Borenstein: I mean I can only – I hear the enthusiasm in your voice, which I'm thrilled to hear. And if you can imagine that, at an epic scale, that's how it feels. I've been really fortunate in this process to be really, deeply involved at every level and at every stage from the genesis of what the story [was]. When I came aboard, Legendary had been trying to develop the film for a while. But it was really right when Gareth came aboard and we just sat down and looked at the blue sky and said, "What's the best Godzilla movie we can possibly make?" And that was the genesis. Legendary just said, "We just want a great movie." And so it was like, we just got to sit down like kids in a sandbox and ran around and hit a lot of dead ends. And then, every now and then you find something that starts to stick. And as you find things that feel good and you re-approach [them] the next day and [they] still feel good and then the next month and the next year, that's a line like, that kind of line where you go ... and that kind of moment, when you write it, you feel good. It gives you the same kind of goose bumps where you go, "Oh! That's going to be badass!" So then getting to see it come to life is as thrilling as you can imagine. It's surreal.
Jeffrey Harris: Provided this continues, do you have any ideas for a Godzilla sequel?
Max Borenstein: I'll just say, like I said, we sat in a sandbox tossing around ideas. And so along the way, that meant there are certain nuggets out there in reams of papers that maybe we'll get the privilege to dig back into and see what inspires.
Thank you to Max Borenstein for taking the time to speak with us. Godzilla: Awakening, from Legendary Comics, hits stands on May 7. Godzilla storms into theaters on May 16.