It’s all been building up to this. Godzilla (2014), Kong: Skull Island (2017) and Godzilla: The King of Monsters (2019) all served as undercards to the main event, this week’s titan smackdown Godzilla vs. Kong.
But for director Adam Wingard — the fourth filmmaker to steer the so-called MonsterVerse in as many films — his relationship with one of those titans dates much further back. In 2013, shortly after the release of his breakout film, the cult slasher flick You’re Next, the now-38-year-old Tennessee native was recruited by another director who famously got his start in horror, Peter Jackson, to make a follow-up to Jackson’s 2005 hit King Kong.
“It was just going to be called Skull Island … this was when [the rights to King Kong] were still at Universal,” Wingard recalled in a recent interview with Yahoo Entertainment. “And we were on board to do that movie. It was going to be a modern-day kind of thing, very different from what Kong: Skull Island ended up being.” But in 2015, the producers at Legendary Pictures, key holders to the MonsterVerse, moved the project from Universal to Warner Bros. “So that project went away, and I went away with it.”
Wingard went back to directing genre films — The Guest (2014), Blair Witch (2016) and Death Note (2017) — before being lured back into Legendary’s fold for the blockbuster-scaled Godzilla vs. Kong, a gig he still credits Jackson for more than a decade after being tapped for Kong duty by the Lord of the Rings Oscar winner. “Peter Jackson giving me his kind of vote of confidence in terms of directing one of these films was probably what really did it,” Wingard said.
Of course, Wingard had to bring the goods from the get-go, and though he didn’t seek guidance from Jackson, he did pick the brains of his three predecessors in the MonsterVerse, Gareth Edwards (Godzilla), Jordan Vogt-Roberts (Skull Island) and Michael Dougherty (King of the Monsters).
“I had the advantage that all those directors didn't, looking at those three movies, which all had very different approaches,” Wingard said. “And I was able to kind of say, ‘OK, I liked the tone, for instance, of parts of Kong: Skull Island. And then I liked Gareth Edwards’s commitment to realism with his Godzilla movie. … And then the thing I liked about Dougherty’s King of Monsters movie was his sort of like larger-than-life conspiracy tone that he had [with] all the crazy Monarch stuff. I loved his approach to all that.”
Set five years after King of the Monsters, Wingard’s film sets in motion the inevitable clash of classic kaiju. Godzilla suddenly emerges from the sea and attacks the nefarious Apex Cybernetics corporation in coastal Pensacola, Fla., while Kong, now fully grown but saddened, is a lonely shell of himself living under the careful eye of Monarch on a heavily secured Skull Island. Something primal is drawing the two behemoths together for supremacy over Earth's monsters. As usual, there is a cadre of humans dangerously close to the crossfire, and GvK offers the most enticing ensemble yet, including Millie Bobby Brown (who, along with Kyle Chandler, are the only returning cast members from previous installments), Brian Tyree Henry and Julian Dennison as a trio of activists suspicious of Apex’s intent, Rebecca Hall as a Jane Goodall-like “Kong whisperer,” and the scene-stealing young deaf actress Kaylee Hottle as a girl who shares a special bond with the great gorilla.
The human characters, criticized over the past three movies for being shoehorned into the monster mashes, are a marked improvement this time around, but as the title implies, the film is ultimately all about the heavyweight contenders.
First Wingard had to worry about their appearances. Kong gets aged up: 1973 the last time we saw him, and the director likens the ape’s evolution to that of another tough Hollywood icon. In Skull Island, Kong was “like Clint Eastwood from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly era,” the director said. “And I saw my version being Clint Eastwood from Unforgiven. You know, he's the gunfighter without the gunfight. He’s grizzled, he’s tired, he's got a longer beard and all these kinds of things. He bulkier, too. He’s kind of bulked up a little bit more, pro wrestling-style, so that he can hold his own with with Godzilla.”
Wingard had the opportunity to update Godzilla, but declined. “I wanted this to feel like it was the real match-up of Godzilla and King Kong. We’ve already gotten a new Kong film, so he’s established. We’ve gotten two Godzilla movies. And so I didn’t want to change them up too much because I wanted it to feel like this was a legitimate fight. It wasn’t two new characters fighting each other. I have always made this comparison. I’m not cutting down this movie at all. But when they did Batman v Superman that was the first time we had seen Ben Affleck as Batman. Not to say that that’s good or bad, but the fact is it was a new Batman. So it was kind of hard for me to jump in and say, ‘This is the ultimate Batman versus Superman,’ because I'm still learning who this version of Batman is. And so with our movie, I wanted this to be Godzilla and Kong. You can't just start there. That’s what’s so cool about the MonsterVerse: this is the culmination of the buildup of those movies. They’ve been established, this version, and now we get to let them fight.”
And even CGI monster fights need careful, detailed choreography.
“I thought a lot about pro wrestling and I thought a lot about Rocky movies, specifically the first Rocky movie and the [Rocky IV],” Wingard says in crafting the film’s titan brawls. “We also looked back at a lot of the original Godzilla movies when we were trying to find different things for the monsters to do.”
In terms of its wrestling influences, Wingard likens one scene you’ve probably seen in the trailers — when Kong jumps from the top of a building onto Godzilla — “a very much a classic kind of wrestling move from the top belt and just jumping and slamming somebody down.”
If Wingard was a hot commodity when first tapped by Jackson to make a Kong sequel, and then still when re-enlisted by Legendary for this week’s marquee battle, his stock only continues to surge. In February it was announced that he will co-write and direct a sequel (not a reboot) to the blockbusterv 1997 action film Face/Off, and this week it was announced that he’ll also be directing a movie version of the ’80s animated series Thundercats.
“This is really what my career has been leading up to,” Wingard says. “I got into movies to be making big sci-fi films. Those were my main inspirations in terms of what made me want to be a filmmaker in the first place. So [Godzilla vs. Kong], this is the big event, not just for the MonsterVerse, but for my entire career.”
Godzilla vs. Kong releases Wednesday in theaters and on HBO Max.
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