Michael Dougherty on Godzilla: King of the Monsters, ScreenX, and his love for monster movies.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is smashing its way into movie theaters this weekend, and I was lucky enough to chat with writer/director Michael Dougherty about the film. As someone who grew up watching Godzilla films, Michael was so delighted to not only be part of this project but also pay homage to this beloved franchise. This is my full interview with Michael where he talked a lot not only about making this film but his overall love for film and the filmmaking process.
Mike Dougherty: Hey Scott.
Scott Menzel: Hey Michael. How are you?
Mike Dougherty: Good. How are you?
Scott Menzel: Not too bad. I feel like this had to be quite a challenge, not only because of the scale of the film, but also the level of fandom involved.
Mike Dougherty: Yes. It’s a bit of a double whammy to make a film this big, but also one that has a very long legacy that you have to live up to.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, I bet. It’s pretty fascinating, because, I’m sure you spoke with many people already about this but Godzilla, as well as a lot of the other monsters, are iconic because so many people grew up with them, myself included. I remember watching the original films with my mom when I was little, and she was always telling me there’s the guy in the suit, and he’s stepping on the toy cars, explaining, so I wasn’t too scared of it. Can you tell me a little bit about your experience with Godzilla, and when you were first introduced to the king of monsters?
Mike Dougherty: Yeah, I first met Godzilla back in ’78 or ’79. It was a combo package of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon on Saturday mornings, and then that would bleed straight into the classic films on Saturday afternoons. You know, it was the early days of cable television, so people were throwing everything they could out of their libraries onto TV, and so Saturdays became a very potent sort of Godzilla film school for me. That ritual went on for years, and then it was only re-enforced as home video came onto the scene, and then I could watch the movies whenever I wanted to. But I’ll never forget, as a kid you already have, or at least I already had, a very deep passion for dinosaurs and Ray Harryhausen movies, and seeing Godzilla movies only sort of compounded that fascination, but they also, I think because of the sort of man in suit process back then, like as a kid it seemed so much more tangible and accessible, because they did look like your toys. They looked like your playsets come to life. There’s something very child-like about Godzilla movies that I love, and so it just sort of sparked the imagination, and sort of planted the seed of, oh, wow. Well, maybe I can make one of these movies one day. These sets, these suits looked just like the toys I have in my toy chest.
Scott Menzel: I think there’s like this child-like sense of wonder with Godzilla, and like you, I had a very deep connection to dinosaurs growing up. I remember begging my mom and my dad to take me to the museum of natural history so I could just go there to see the fossils and get some toys of dinosaurs. I had posters and all that stuff too. I feel like it’s all over the world. Dinosaurs are just these iconic creatures that people just love. I mean, even today, I was just in Chicago, and I mean they have this big exhibit at their museum where it’s still about the T-Rex. There’s just this weird fascination with dinosaurs and the fact that Godzilla was one of the first iconic monsters right?
Mike Dougherty: No, well, there was Kong, but then there was The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and it was sort of those two that inspired Toho to create Godzilla, but that’s part of what I love about the giant monster genre is that it’s very much a collaborative effort between east and west. Godzilla didn’t just spring up completely out of the blue from Japan. They saw what America was doing with Kong, and our other sort of giant radioactive monsters, and so then they decided to create their own, and then he grew to become what he has. But yeah, in a lot of ways giant monsters have helped foster peace between former enemies.
Scott Menzel: It’s crazy to think about that. Random sidenote, I love Krampus and, of course, Trick ‘r Treat. You’re very well-known for those two movies. Krampus is probably one of my favorite horror-themed comedies released in the past few years.
Mike Dougherty: Thank you. I appreciate that.
Scott Menzel: You’re very welcome. So going from something that’s very small and contained to something that’s so large, what is that process like, jumping from smaller scaler projects to something so massive like this?
Mike Dougherty: I mean, as weird as it might sound, I don’t see that much of a difference, because even when I’m working on smaller scale monster movies, it’s still the same amount of stress, and pressure, and anxiety. There’s never enough time. You always want just a few more days for every single step of the process, and I’m still obsessing over every last detail of the creatures, whether it’s a four-foot tall puppet or 400-foot tall digital creature. It’s the same amount of love and intensity. I think with the smaller films, it’s a shorter duration, and Godzilla has been a three and a half year long marathon, so I had to pace myself a little bit more, and the stress definitely, the labor pains definitely last longer, but still you have to bring the same passion no matter how big or small it is.
Scott Menzel: The thing about Godzilla, and this I’m sure you’re aware of this, there was a lot of criticism around the 2014 film that there was not enough Godzilla. Every other review basically said, “there is not enough Godzilla.” That was literally all I remember hearing about that film. So when you come on board to do this one, how do you balance out the characters, their story arcs, and knowing how much is the right amount of characters vs. monsters. Like how do you make sure there’s a right balance between two, which a lot of fans criticized the 2014 film because of that?
Mike Dougherty: It’s tricky for me because I really loved what Gareth did in the original. It was a, frankly, courageous choice to take that slow burn approach, especially because I feel like that’s a dying art form. We don’t get any movies, at least major theatrical films, that take the slow burn approach. I don’t think you could make Jaws, Close Encounters, Alien, Rosemary’s Baby, or even The Exorcist today, and those are all perfect examples of slow burn genre films. They take their time, they hold back on the genre aspects, a lot of it is kept in smoke and shadow, and it builds a very specific kind of wonderful tension when you’re not being inundated by the genre elements when you are sort of slowly marinated in it. I thought Gareth did it very artistically and very precisely. That said, I get it. I get why audiences felt antsy. I get that they wanted more Godzilla, and it just kind of makes me sad that we have become a culture that isn’t willing to just go with the slow burn anymore. We aren’t willing to shift gears like we were in the ’70s and ’80s and enjoy that. The Thing is another perfect example of that. That movie takes its time and hides its creature as much as it shows it.
But times change, and you got to put that behind us, and so I said, okay, well if the first film did take the slow burn approach, naturally it makes sense to evolve, and now that Godzilla has gotten sort of the mysterious introduction out of the way, well, let’s use that to our benefit. Let’s take the path that Star Trek: Wrath of Khan, Aliens, and T2 did. Do you know what I mean? Where it’s like okay, we let you marinate in the suspense and tension and held him behind the curtain for a movie. We’re now going to swing the pendulum in the opposite way. We are going to now get to know Godzilla. We are going to get to see more of him. We are going to get to meet more of his friends, and so that’s fun. I’m lucky that Gareth set up the world and the mythology as well as he did because now we can take the gloves off.
Scott Menzel: I think you have made a film, and I hate saying this, but it is a fan boy’s wet dream. The way that you not only incorporate little bits of the history of Godzilla throughout but small things like when the theme song kicks in. You also do a great job of building up to the reveals of the monsters coming to life. I have to give you major kudos for that but also, because we live in a world now, where everything is beautiful in terms of visuals. Every Marvel movie looks like a work of art, and it’s so clean and so crisp, and everything like that, and there’s that gold standard, but what I loved about the look of your film is that it’s dark and gritty. The visuals are even more impressive in this one than the others. It’s literally like it’s got that gritty tone to it, which is something that I feel is so absent from most big films today. How did you go about creating that with your cinematographer?
Mike Dougherty: Well, I mean, first of all, thank you. It’s been a very long road with this movie, so to hear that people are embracing it like yourself, it genuinely means a lot, so thank you. And that not only that you like it, but you get it. You get the aesthetic that we were going for because my team and I worked very hard to create that, and it was a wonderful joint effort between Lawrence Sher, my cinematographer, obviously, Guillaume Rocheron, our visual effects supervisor, and Scott Chambliss, our production designer. I had a very specific look in mind, but again, it was still building upon what Gareth did in his film, and what Jordan did in Skull Island, because I loved the gritty realness, and scale and texture that Gareth brought for the first film, especially the way he embraced more limited camera, and what I mean by that is he didn’t have impossible CG cameras. Every shot felt like it was real. It felt like it could’ve been on a crane, it could’ve been handheld, on a dolly, what have you, there was never a moment where a CG camera was suddenly doing something impossible, which in my mind is effective for some films, but a film like this where you wanted to make it feel real, a limited camera sort of brings things back down to Earth and lets the fantastical element within the frame do the hard work.
But then Jordan came along and added a certain pop color pop of vibrancy, which I think fit his film because they were doing Skull Island, where you really want to show how lush and beautiful that environment is. It’s like returning to the Garden of Eden, so it made sense to bring in this vibrant color palette, and so I wanted to push things further. The goal going into this with both the character and the aesthetic of the film was to embrace the fantastical, to make the aesthetic and Godzilla himself biblical. The very simple way of saying it was we wanted to put the god back in Godzilla, and so with the character himself, and the other creatures, it was a matter of how do we portray these things not just as giant monsters, but as gods who will affect their environment and the ecosystems that are in simply by waking up and crawling out of bed, so embracing atmospherics, embracing the very specific kind of light sources, the bioluminescence that the creatures create, finding environments that would sort of help create atmospherics, so whether it’s Antarctica for their first fight, the jungle tropical settings for Mothra, or the volcano for Rodan, environments that reflected the characters themselves, the underwater environments for Godzilla, naturally.
Then we went back, and I love all the classic genre films of the ’80s, not just because they’re great stories, but they’re beautiful. I mean, you can watch Blade Runner, Alien, the Star Wars films, Carpenter’s movies with the sound off and just be taken in by the frames. They’re beautifully composed, there’s a wonderful texture, there’s a great use of shadow, and negative space, and light, and I don’t know if it’s because I’m old, or just old-fashioned, or both, but I feel like we’ve lost something along the way, whether it’s because we’re composing frames with iPhones in mind, or we’ve gotten so used to sort of the digital crispness that digital cameras provide, but it’s like I feel like we lost a certain amount of texture, shadow, and atmosphere behind, and so it was a concerted effort between my cohorts and me to just try and bring it back. Let’s bring back some of that grit and some of that grain.
Scott Menzel: Oh, it’s so true. I mean, you’re a 100% on the money. It’s like why when someone shoots a film on film nowadays; it’s such a big deal. Quentin Tarantino does it all the time, but also I’m thinking about Nolan when he did it for Dunkirk, when there was that release of that, or when they released Roma on film this past year. It sold out whenever they played it, because like you said, it’s so easy to kind of do the digital thing because we’ve become so accustomed to it, and what I love about, and just this conversation in general, is that I can tell, and I always love this the most, is when I talk to a filmmaker and I can tell that they’re in this craft because they absolutely love it, and just all the references that you brought up, all the filmmakers that you brought up, you can tell that you’re a film fan which is fantastic.
Mike Dougherty: Oh, thanks. Well, the other funny story about that is Larry Sher, the DP, was kind of a dark horse in the running for the job. If you looked at his body of work before this film, it did not exactly scream genre cinematographer. He had The Hangover movies, and some other projects under his belt, but it’s just not someone that would’ve come to mind naturally. I agreed to the meeting because I was looking at a lot of different possible candidates.
I had already done sort of a look book of what I had in mind for the film like a lot of filmmakers do this. You just take frames from movies that capture the vibe and the aesthetics of what you’re thinking, and so I had sort of that deck already, and then I sat down with Larry, and he came in very prepared. He said, he loved Godzilla, he loved the concept of working on the movie, and so he laid out a bunch of frames that he thought captured what he had in mind for the film, and so many of them were the same films and the same frames that I had in mind, and we’re talking obscure shots from things like Alien 3, which isn’t exactly considered the best of the trilogy, but it’s a beautiful looking film, but we’re talking like the most obscure frames from that film. Do you know what I mean? That I had in my deck, and he rolled in with his deck, and when I was flipping through it, I was like, “Did this guy hack my computer or what?” And so it was moments like that where I knew that we were on the same page, and we had the desire to sort of return to an era of filmmaking and aesthetics that is sadly just fading away. And I think if you look at his work in The Joker trailer, you can see it there, too.
Scott Menzel: So, I wanted to ask you about this, your film is being released in this ScreenX format, which I’m always fascinated by these new types of experiences in theaters. Can you talk a little bit about that, explain what that is?
Mike Dougherty: Yeah, funnily enough, I just came from the final QC check on the ScreenX format, and I love it. It’s not IMAX; it is not 3D. It is its own thing, and what they do is use the main center frame from your film that you would see in any standard theater, but then what they do is they add projectors to the wall, the side walls of the theater so that even your peripheral vision is filled with the film’s imagery for certain portions, especially the bigger set pieces, the action scenes. It creates a completely different surreal layer to the whole viewing experience where it feels like you’re really in it like you are immersed in this experience. You still want to focus on the center frame and just let the side walls sort of exist in the peripheral, but it adds a dimension that is very unique and perfect for this kind of a movie where its scale is obviously important, and it also creates an experience that you can’t match at home or on your iPad or iPhone. It adds a new reason to go back to the theater and watch something. When they showed it to me, I have to admit, I was very skeptical because it seemed gimmicky from the initial description of it, but having sat through the film, it’s up there. It’s up there with IMAX in terms of just a completely immersive experience.
Scott Menzel: Oh, cool. I love new experiences like that. I’m so heartbroken that they’ve gotten rid of the original IMAX screens, and how everything’s converted now. I hate that they did that because I remember going to the one in New York and the one in King of Prussia back east. But then AMC converted all the theaters, and I feel like they just don’t have the same experience, you know that where your movie premiered here in Los Angeles, I feel like they did the best job with the IMAX theater, which is the Chinese Theater here in Hollywood.
Mike Dougherty: Right. I mean, honestly, I think between IMAX, Dolby, 3D, ScreenX, all these new formats have definitely re-invigorated my love of going back to the theater, and especially with ScreenX, it felt the closest that I felt watching movies on the big screen as a kid.
Do you know what I mean? Where like as a kid because you’re tiny, any big screen makes you feel like you’re in it, but there’s something very specific about ScreenX that really just fills the movie not just to in your eyes, but in your mind.
Scott Menzel: I know you have to go, but where are there those theaters? Is there a list where I could look them up? Because I do want to re-visit this format because I’m so interested in seeing a film in that format.
Mike Dougherty: Well, I mean, it’s huge in South Korea from what I understand, because I think that’s where it originated from, but there are quite a few theaters popping up all around the country. The one that I visited here in LA is in Koreatown, but they’re popping up in more and more places. I told them, I said, “Listen, you guys should start re-visiting the classic films and go back and sort of retrofit this process into some of the beloved classics, because I would go re-visit those in ScreenX format in a heartbeat. ”
Scott Menzel: Yeah, I think a lot of the filmgoers would, too, especially those who really do love film and are so passionate about it. But I appreciate it. I know you only had to take 10 minutes of your time, we spoke for over 20, so I definitely appreciate it. I love your passion. I wish you the best of luck, and I look forward to talking to you again in the future.
Mike Dougherty: Thanks. You, too.
Scott Menzel: All right, man. Have a great one.