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Thursday, March 20, 2014

In Search of Godzilla & Unraveling The Film’s Secrets

From Shock Till You Drop

The weak and the wounded rest on slabs of broken concrete in the fading sun. Around them, others are sifting through the rubble while armed soldiers train their vigilant eyes on any signs of danger.  Godzilla has been here and this writer has been tasked to track his movements, get a good look at the creature and report back with my findings.

This outdoor scene of carnage – a piece of smoldering, destroyed building littered with civilians and soldiers – speaks volumes about Godzilla’s strength. I’m told Godzilla is massive. Production designer Owen Paterson (of The Matrix trilogy) says he’s nearly 400 feet tall, bigger than any incarnation of Godzilla yet.

This is the juicy intel I’m looking for. To get it, I have to push away from this scene and move onward. After all, anticipation is high since Godzilla – a total reboot of the 1954 film from Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures opening May 16th – has been a long time coming. It has been a genuine passion project for Gareth Edwards who took on the job shortly after impressing genre fans and those in Hollywood with his DIY creature feature Monsters.

On that 2010 indie effort, the UK filmmaker wore multiple hats: Director, writer, cinematographer, production designer and visual effects. And in his hands Monsters transcended expectations and was a tight, captivating character drama that just so happened to have towering squid-like monsters rampaging across Mexico’s landscape.

Edwards was a perfect fit to welcome Godzilla – the subject of over 25 films and a walking destroyer representing the grim aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – back onto American soil and perhaps represent old and new global fears.

Here in Vancouver, Canada, Edwards is using multiple stages and locations as Godzilla’s stomping ground. The aforementioned green screen stage is just a small fraction of the production’s presence here in the Great White North. The…

Godzilla War Room

…is where its at. In this room on the second floor neighboring a sound stage (which we’ll get to later), the entire film is depicted in an array of concept drawings, mood photos and color palettes, location photographs and more.

Shades of Godzilla 1954 come through in conceptual art of the Marshall Islands (one piece reads “Bikini Atoll Village”). Paterson says of the creature’s atomic origins, “Gareth's story, I think for absolute followers of the story, [has] enough accuracy in the heritage of it. The message is the same, but the mechanism is slightly different.”

I’m told to expect a radioactive Godzilla and to expect a Godzilla with atomic breath. “It's always been a core element of Godzilla, it's an element here,” confirms executive producer Alex Garcia.

Further along the wall we see images of a mushroom cloud, a nuclear plant (“MUTO base”) and a jungle scenario (“Rumble in the Jungle”). The latter scene is executed in a series of images, such as a giant submarine propeller seemingly suspended from the trees and a mound of goo that, according to the art, is called a “saliva pile.”

Looking at the scene transitions from wall to wall, I’m basically witnessing how wide-reaching Godzilla’s story is. Says Paterson, “We set up firstly in the Philippines and then in Japan, there's that path. Then Godzilla is in Hawaii, and we actually film Hawaii for Hawaii, and we film Hawaii for the Philippines, or the jungle at least.”

A piece of art giving me a great look at Godzilla (Mission accomplished!) on the tarmac of a Hawaiian airport catches my eye. There’s also some major action apparently taking place in San Francisco’s Chinatown. It’s amid this batch of imagery I get a glimpse of another creature to be found in the film, but no one on this production is willing to talk much about unidentified monster. We come to learn this creature is referred to as a MUTO. Some folks on the crew refer to a MUTO in the plural sense: “The MUTOs.” Are there more than one?

Story-wise, it’s hard to pin down exactly everything that’s going on based on this 360-degree tapestry surrounding me, but I’m assured the plot of Godzilla is new and will not draw any inspiration from the previous films other than the original. This is purely Edwards’ interpretation of the legend.

Garcia notes, “A big theme of the film [is] overhanging nature and hubris. [There’s] also a heavy theme of family and getting past difficult events. What we all really responded to about Gareth's vision for the movie is that it really has an emotional core. It is all about this family and how they get splintered. Then they attempt to come back through the craziness of this journey.”

“It's very Close Encounters of the Third Kind if you had to pick a touchstone,” producer Mary Parent adds. “It looks very different from when you go back and actually look at Close Encounters, but it has a ‘70s vibe. There's a Black Hawk Down aspect to it, when you get dropped into this stuff, but it's all so incredibly visceral because it's all so real. There's nothing campy or heightened, it's as though this really happening. Gareth has done a really good job of making you believe that this could happen and if it were to happen how people would react and behave and what those set pieces would look like.”

And with that, it’s out of the war room for me and into…


…where I’m given a taste of the set pieces Parent was talking about in an editing suite. The first is a scene that has made it into the trailers: “The HALO jump.”

Scene #2 takes place along a train track where a group of soldiers are escorting what appear to be a few warheads (this is pre-viz, mind you, nothing is fully rendered) through a forest. They come to a bridge and on the river below, burning wreckage floats by. A red-bellied creature destroys the track ahead of the soldiers and playfully knocks one of the train cars over. This creature certainly doesn’t give off a Godzilla vibe and there seems to be more than one. Is this a MUTO?

For more answers, it’s time to head down to…

Soundstage #1

An epic cave has been created. My guide said this once served as the set for Godzilla’s Chinatown sequence. But now it is something ancient. Something…with a giant ribcage sticking out of the ground. Time once claimed this skeleton, but now it has been unearthed. Over in…

Soundstage #2

I find stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, suited up head-to-toe in radiation suits. No protective gear over their heads, however. They’re filming a scene in which their characters – father and son, Joe and Ford Brody – gently walk through a dilapidated house. Once the Brody home (my guide says they were evacuated from it 15 years prior in the story’s timeline), vines and weeds have now taken up residence, climbing over shelves and toys.

A terrarium is a kid’s room features a sticker on the glass. It reads “Mothra.” A cute little Easter Egg for the fans. But that’s not all. On the wall of this room there’s a poster featuring two Kaiju fighting.

“[Joe] has believed in something. [Ford] thought his father was crazy,” Garcia says, hinting at more of the plot and its conspiracy-driven angle. “There's a moment where [Ford] realizes that his father was actually right all along. You'll see in the scene that we're shooting today is actually when father and son return to that house that has been taken back by time, and it's just the beginning of the descent into the hell of their journey.”

And this seems like an apropos moment to end my journey. But this set report isn't over, I've got interviews with director Gareth Edwards and Bryan Cranston to share so click the links below to learn even more about the massive undertaking that is bringing Godzilla to life.
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