EXCLUSIVE: When Adam Wingard appears on a Zoom call to talk about his leap into event filmmaking with Godzilla vs. Kong that opens here Wednesday after a huge weekend in China, the director is donning a beard long enough that he could be a model on a cough drop box. “I haven’t found a good reason yet to cut it off, but I hope to relatively soon, as things go back to normal,” he says. “What better time to have grown this than now?” It might be a worry beard, but after all he has gone through in staging the mega-budget prize fight between the giant reptile and ape, things sure are looking up for Wingard. His movie will open in 3,000 locations — along with HBO Max — the largest theatrical offering since the pandemic brought the business to a screeching halt. Here he talks about, well, everything, including his desire to continue spreading the mythology built into Godzilla vs. Kong into another clash of these giant creatures.
DEADLINE: Let’s get right to the story we just broke, that you are going to make a big theatrical version of the ThunderCats animated TV series. What can you tell us?
WINGARD: ThunderCats is a dream project for me. When I was in high school, I was obsessed with it. You’d think at that point, I was a little too old, that my years of obsession with ThunderCats would be when I was six years old. My real obsession with ThunderCats came in high school, the pinnacle of me deciding I wanted to be a filmmaker, and pushing in that direction…I actually spent most of my 10th grade year, I completely blew it. I didn’t pay attention in school, made terrible grades. And the reason? I was writing my ThunderCats screenplay through my entire tenth grade year. And I was hand writing it. The screenplay itself ended up being 272 pages long. I still have it. It was one of those things where I would carry around my notebooks and talk about it. I didn’t even realize the kids in my class were making fun of me as they would ask me questions about my ThunderCats screenplay. It was only one day my friends asked me and I was excitedly telling him all these things about my ThunderCats screenplay. And I heard him turn around to some of the girls in the class, these were girls I had crushes on, and he’s making fun of me for writing ThunderCats! Because it was ridiculous. But that was the first moment where I had a though that maybe I would not be able to make the ThunderCats movie. I thought, am I crazy for obsessing over this, thinking it’s something you can just do? As it turns out, when you’re a kid in Alabama with no resources or connections to filmmaking, it is impossible to make a ThunderCats film. But flash forward, 20 years later and here we are. I’m in a place where Godzilla vs. Kong has gone well with Warner Bros. They love the movie, as we were wrapping it. I heard there was a ThunderCats script out there and it happened to be set up with some of my producers on Death Note. I asked them, I want to rewrite this script with my friend Simon Barrett. This is a huge passion thing for me. Nobody on this planet knows or has thought as much about ThunderCats as I have. They gave me the reins. I saw this as an opportunity to do a new type of fantasy sci-fi spectacle film that people have never seen before. It’s got a rich mythology; the characters are fantastic. The colors. I want to do a ThunderCats film that takes you back to that ‘80s aesthetic. I don’t want to reinvent the way they look; I want them to look like ThunderCats. I don’t want to do it live action, either. I don’t want it to look like Cats, I don’t want those kinds of issues — no disrespect to that director, whom I don’t mean to throw under the bus any more than everyone else has. I want to do a movie you’ve never seen before. A hybrid CGI film that has a hyper real look and somehow bridges the gap between cartoon and CGI. That’s the starting point, and Simon Barrett and I are getting into the script now.
DEADLINE: And that loser school friend is not invited to the premiere?
WINGARD: Sorry, bro.
DEADLINE: We recently broke your involvement in a new version of the John Woo John Travolta-Nicolas Cage film Face/Off. At first we heard remake but adjusted when you made it clear this is a sequel. What can you tell us?
WINGARD: I’m going to do the next available thing, quickly. Maybe that’s Face/Off 2. When I look at Face/Off, some people have said if you are going to follow that film, it’s about the operation, a sci-fi gimmick. To me, that’s now what it is. It’s part of it and is what makes it so unique and fun. But the story is really about the characters. Sean Archer and Castor Troy. The film is a follow-up to their story, and what it entails.
DEADLINE: Mixing humans and kaiju in Godzilla vs. Kong, it seems challenging to do much more with your humans than have them look up, with emotions like fear and concern on their faces. Everything comes down to these two creatures.
WINGARD: You’re right, everyone has to take a back seat to Godzilla vs. Kong. You look at all the advertising for the film, the posters, trailers and billboards. Who do you see on those billboards? You see Godzilla and you see Kong. You don’t see anyone else’s name. You don’t see my name; nobody knows I directed this movie. It’s all about the monsters, and that is the main, important thing. Maybe later, people will talk about the humans involved, but we all know that we’re here for Godzilla and Kong.
DEADLINE: It’s Hagler-Hearns, Tyson-Holyfield, Ali-Frazier — the fight we’ve waited to see.
WINGARD: It is the ultimate pop culture match of all time. You don’t get any bigger, literally, than Godzilla and Kong. This is the one kids talk about the most. The two greatest monster icons in existence. I remember having those arguments on the playground at school. Who would win in a fight, Godzilla or Kong? It’s amazing it has only happened once, since 1962. I’m so honored to be able to be the one to referee the ultimate matchup. That original film didn’t pick a winner; it was interpretational who won. That was a wrong I felt needed to be righted, since I was in second grade. This was a lifelong ambition and dream to come true.
DEADLINE: You’d done solid work in the contained horror genre to get here, to your first budget-busting VFX-driven tentpole. How did you get this job?
WINGARD: Here’s the truth about big budget cinema. It’s a process that is designed not to fail. You can come to this thing with no idea what you’re doing as a director, to a certain degree, and the thing’s going to get finished. Maybe it’ll be a pile of garbage not worth watching, but what I like about Legendary and their approach to the Monster-verse. They know that these monster films to a degree could be on autopilot, but they don’t want a generic monster movie. They want directors who have a blockbuster, auteur vision. They want somebody who’ll bring themselves to it and show us a new version of these characters. This is about the 36th movie for Godzilla. He’s made just a few more films than Elvis. So we’ve seen him in a lot of different environments, doing a lot of different things; he’s been good, he’s been bad. As a director, your first job on an aesthetic level is, how do we show these monsters doing things we’ve never seen before? Right away, I knew I wanted to see Godzilla and King Kong with neon futuristic synth wave lights reflecting off their fur and skin. Immediately, images of characters that I hadn’t seen started flooding into my mind, and I went from there.
DEADLINE: At the time you broke through making genre films, it was a great way to make a mark as a director. Budgets were modest, and the opening weekends often were huge. Were those films your passion, or was it always a path to play in a big sandbox?
WINGARD: My interest in filmmaking started with big sci-fi spectacles like Star Wars and the Alien movies. Those made me want to be a filmmaker. You can’t just start there, a guy from Marion, Alabama, a town in the middle of nowhere. So your inspirations evolve and shift into a more realistic look at what is achievable. Horror is a great place for filmmakers to start. You don’t need big name actors or a lot of money to do something that is still going to have an audience waiting for it. Horror fans don’t mind if a movie is cheap. All they care is, is it delivering on some visceral level? That could be spooky, violent, and there are all these different tropes you can play around with as a filmmaker. As I was at film school, it was horror and also experimental cinema that was important to me. I saw movies like Tokyo Fist, and Pi, these low budget movies that had a great director style. I was always interested in horror and genre, because it was something I could do, and I was interested in directors who made low budget movies that had such signature style that it propelled them forward, and people had an understanding of just who they were.
That’s where I cut my teeth. I made horror films that were experimental. If you look at my first film, Popsicle, that was a movie that is literally about a kid tripping out on Robitussin and seeing ghosts in his house. I’m doing every trick in the book I can think of. And that’s what first got my foot in the door, got me a manager and agent. For a couple years I did small things like that, and when I had an opportunity to do You’re Next, I realized I can’t just do this experimental thing with this massive budget. As in half a million dollars, which was like we’d won the lottery. We felt we had to make a film that showed we could use conventional filmmaking methods, and that we weren’t cutting corners by doing something experimental to beef up something which honestly we were doing because we just didn’t have the money to do otherwise. That’s when I started back to my path of why I wanted to be a filmmaker. I knew I wanted to do a big sci-fi blockbuster movie, that’s what I wanted to do. So this last decade was a journey to get here, and now I’ve finally arrived. Now I’m playing in the sandbox. I’m able to look at a film and approach it from pure animation; in the indie world, you have to consider the budget from page one of the script. We know what we can’t afford, and this is how we’re going to do it. When you’re making Godzilla vs. Kong, all that is out the window. Your starting point is, “How can we create things no one has seen before?” And the sky’s the limit.
DEADLINE: How did working on a shoestring help you here?
WINGARD: What’s fascinating about doing a massive-budget movie, all those indie filmmaking techniques still apply. You still have to be crafty; you still find yourself in a lot of scenarios where you shot all these scenes. Maybe some aren’t the right ones, but you’ve shot all this other footage and you can remix and switch that footage around to tell a different story than the one you set up because the film evolved to a different place and now you have a need that you didn’t know was going to exist. That comes from working from the seat of your pants on these indie films. When I was in Alabama, before I made my first features, there was this thing called The Birmingham Sidewalk Film Festival Scramble, 48 hour short film competitions. You had to write, edit, direct and turn in a film within 48 hours and that is the ultimate experience as an up and coming filmmaker to learn everything. It was so valuable to me, to just stop thinking, and just do it. You still have to do that with a big budget movie.
DEADLINE: An example?
WINGARD: Every day, no matter how big the film, there will be issues and problems you couldn’t have foreseen. To have that low budget experience was so helpful. I get asked why there is no post-credit scene in Godzilla vs. Kong. Truth is, during our main production we actually shot a post-credit scene. But we got to a point with the edit of the movie where we realized the movie ended at a certain point, but it wasn’t the right ending. It didn’t tie up all the loose ends in a satisfying right way. We weren’t budgeted to shoot anything else. I had this ah-ha moment where I realized we have this post credit scene and if we tweak it and give it a slightly different context, we can use all the same footage. It had a lot of scope; we were still in Australia and it had all the jungle stuff. We were able to take that footage and use it in a different context, an example of my indie brain turning and able to save the final bit of the movie. You watch the film and you’d have no idea it was shot for a different purpose.
DEADLINE: Your big mission is to get these fighters in the ring, but those touchstone pictures like Star Wars had more than that. What were your priorities in mixing humans with these creatures?
WINGARD: The biggest challenge doing a Kaiju movie is you have all these different protagonists, who are six foot and below except for Alexander Skarsgard, who is 6’7” and the only person I had to look up at as I’m 6’4”, and then you have 300 foot tall and above. That’s a huge size discrepancy. How do we emotionally connect the two? For me it was always, Godzilla and King Kong are the reason you’re there. The human story element always had to support the monster element. So we split the film into two sections, characters on Team Godzilla, spearheaded by Millie Bobby Brown and Brian Tyree Henry, and characters focused on Kong. That was Alexander Skarsgard, Rebecca Hall and Kaylee Hottle. Their entire focus is on that monster character. The humans elaborate and build up the monsters and push us more into the monsters. As a filmmaker and actors we are supporting the monsters and we all knew that we weren’t bigger than the monsters, metaphorically.
DEADLINE: You watched a lot of these, Godzilla and King Kong.
WINGARD: I watched every Godzilla movie, in chronological order, and then same with the King Kong movie which was beneficial because a lot of them I hadn’t seen since I was a kid and some I hadn’t seen at all or since I was a kid watching on daytime TV. It was beneficial; when you make a film like this you have to think like a kid. That’s always been my special power as a filmmaker and this was the first time I fully utilized it. There is a purity to your imagination and important to remember that. Too many people lose that.
DEADLINE: What did you take away from that mythological immersion that was most helpful in this movie?
WINGARD: Those original films range from serious to goofy. I knew I wanted my film to be on a similar trajectory. If we take Godzilla, the Gareth Edwards 2014 version, and use that as a proxy to the original Godzilla from 1954 or whenever that was, both are serious movies. Skull Island was a more comedic, fun and silly. Mike Dougherty’s movie Godzilla: King of the Monsters got into these Illuminati-like bases the humans have created. The movies have been getting more over the top and I love the trajectory and saw my movie as being more along the lines of Destroy All Monsters. Where everything is super colorful and psychedelic and there is a fun tone to it. The movie doesn’t take itself too seriously. That was the biggest lesson I learned from all the watching I did.
DEADLINE: Godzilla and Kong interrupt their fight to the death when they find a common enemy in Mechagodzilla. There is an Asian actor who controls that beast. Is that someone from a previous film?
WINGARD: Not directly. And if you look at those original films with Mechagodzilla, they have a convoluted storyline involving aliens. That wasn’t something I wanted in this movie, not that I didn’t enjoy the hell out of that in those films. It didn’t fit. It was important to me that if someone was going to be piloting Mechagodzilla, it ought to be a Japanese actor. This is where it originated.
DEADLINE: You scrapped your post-credit sequence that teases a next film. Do you want to direct the next film?
WINGARD: I would absolutely love to continue. The clear starting point we teed up, exploring hollow Earth, I think there is a lot more to do there. This is a pre-history of Planet Earth, where all the titans come from. We tee up some mystery in this film, things I want to see resolved and explored and pushed to the next level. If I have the opportunity, I know what I will do. It’s up to Warner Bros and Legendary, if they have an appetite.
DEADLINE: We are in an interesting pandemic moment where I’m not sure Warner Bros would have given Zack Snyder $70 million to recut a four-hour Justice League had it had to make its money at the box office. The original was a big disappointment. There is little pressure to perform, beyond the not-transparent way streamers tell you their films got a wide audience. You and the Legendary crew were very disappointed to be blindsided by a WarnerMedia decision to put its 2021 slate on HBO Max day-and-date. Now, you are positioned to be the filmmaker behind a box office rebound, based on how well the movie has earned in China. Christopher Nolan wanted to do that last summer, but nobody was ready to go back to theaters then. Explain the swirl of emotions for you between when you found out about the HBO Max thing, and now?
WINGARD: I went through a whole saga. If you’d asked me in December, it would have been a different answer. The day HBO Max surprised all of us, it was December 3, my birthday. Here I am, going out of town to celebrate, and I get a text from my agent, Dan Rabinow. Immediately incoming: announcement that all WarnerMedia titles are going to HBO Max. I was like, “What the hell?” I pull over, and that’s when the announcement came. Godzilla vs. Kong, all of the films are going to HBO Max same time as theaters.
DEADLINE: How did you feel?
WINGARD: Devastated. This was my first big movie, a big opportunity. More than that, this is a movie that is meant to be seen on the big screen. If any movie is that, it’s Godzilla vs. Kong. You want to fill up the size of the screen, this is the one to do it with. I was depressed, upset, sad. It took a while to work out the details. I couldn’t be mad at them given the circumstances, but I was happy when Christopher Nolan spoke up on behalf of the filmmakers. That meant a lot to me. It’s not like he was saying it specifically about Godzilla vs. Kong, but him speaking up felt like someone in our corner.
I’ve had a change of heart. Look at the pandemic. If studios don’t feel comfortable putting things out because they won’t make money through the theatrical experience, they’re just going to keep pushing movies. That’s not helping cinema either. If there are no movies, then moviegoing really will die. If the only way studios will feel comfortable is with this day and date thing, then that’s the temporary future and thank god Warner Bros has said this won’t happen in 2022. Hopefully they are going to keep their word.
The thing that turned me around was, I knew we would be first and we’d move up and that was scary. In mid-January our trailer dropped and until then nobody really had seen a frame of our film. When it hit, I was blown away. We hit record numbers on trailer views, fans were putting out reaction videos. Those saved my life, watching people filming themselves watching the trailer, and reacting to it. It was special because we’d been deprived of blockbuster cinema in 2020, and finally, people were getting their first look at the biggest craziest popcorn movie you could imagine. People were so excited, losing their minds, giggling, having a blast. It made me very emotional and I don’t cry much.
I thought, these people just need for movies to come out again. It means so much and if the only way certain people will see this is at home, so be it. The circumstances in the world now, who am I to complain? We’ve got to get these movies out there, and if that is the new norm, for now, OK. I don’t want the cinematic experience to ever go away, it’s the most sacred experience to me. The measurement for success is slightly altered, but I’m looking at a successful movie here, and that’s all I ever wanted in the first place.
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