Legendary’s MonsterVerse has featured multiple directors and a myriad of creatures since its launch in 2014, but one person has been along for the ride on every movie in the franchise: Max Borenstein, whose most recent credit is as a writer on this month’s titanic culmination, Godzilla vs. Kong.
We spoke with Borenstein about his involvement with the franchise on each movie, how he writes big monster fight sequences (“It’s not, ‘They fight on the water. Fill in the blanks.’”), how Legendary differs from Marvel Studios, and incorporating human drama in a movie where a lot of people just want to see giant monsters destroying stuff.
Max Borenstein Interview
I want to ask you a process question: how do you write monster fights in your screenplays?
Well, it’s just like you’d write a dialogue scene, honestly. I think in this case, part of the process is devising with the director and concept artists and creative team what the basic shape or venue of the fight would be. So the idea of a fight between Godzilla and Kong on the water, for example, on a fleet of ships. That idea might exist, or come into being. Then in terms of the ins and outs and moment to moment, it’s, “OK, who are our human characters? How are they going to be in jeopardy? And how do we go beat by beat out of the frying pan and into the fire for them, and for Godzilla and Kong?” If it were a dialogue scene, you’d be thinking about what the agenda of each character is, things are paying off and escalating. It’s very much the same way. It’s not, “They fight on the water. Fill in the blanks.” It’s, “Suddenly, there’s a sound from the distance. A siren. Heads turn.” Collaboratively with everyone, you’re deciding what that is and then you’re trying to dramatize moment to moment, and then there’s a feedback loop.
But really as a writer, that’s what you’re doing. You’re generating all of it. “The ship’s going to invert and they trapped themselves in, but now the water is coming up, so he has to swim to the ceiling in order to pull the switch.” Or “they’re going to drop the depth charges and that’s going to hopefully help Kong, and if Kong gets help, then he can help them.” All of those beats are devised, written, and ultimately executed. To be honest, that’s the majority of the writing on a movie like this, is figuring out what those sequences are like and how you’re connecting and leapfrogging between them in the most elegant or efficient way, and trying to retain some semblance of logic between it. But ultimately you’re really trying to serve the spectacle and the emotion attached to that.
I spoke with Adam Wingard and he told me about how Terry Rossio formed a writers’ room and that Adam and Terry ended up breaking a lot of this movie’s story on notecards early in the process. At what point did you enter the mix?
Yeah, so I’ve been involved in this franchise from the beginning and in each one, in a different way. So with Godzilla, I kind of came in at that phase with Gareth Edwards and we kind of rebuilt it from the ground up, and then I was sort of on that movie more or less throughout production and post. On Kong: Skull Island, that started while Godzilla was in post. So I wrote the first couple of drafts, and then when [director] Jordan [Vogt-Roberts] came in, I went off and did a television show and came back before they went into production and took some of the work they’d done in the interim and a lot of the work I had done and kind of reassembled it. And I was on that movie through production and then in post as well. Then Godzilla 2, I wrote the first draft and then left. I was kind of in the mix, in the family, staying abreast of what was going on, but it took off in a very different direction, keeping some of the story elements.
Then with Godzilla vs. Kong, it was a little different than all of them. I got to be the guy that was brought in closer to production, and it was like, “Here are the bones we have. This is working, this isn’t working.” And being someone who knew the franchise and knew all the people and likes them all and works well with them, was able to come in and help them start to assemble those bones into the skeleton that there is, and then was sort of able to stay involved during production and in post, because there are certain things that continue to evolve and shape during that. So those guys really devised what was the basic backbone of the story, and I was able to come in in a more of script doctor-y way to help massage and make that stuff work on this one.
Adam was telling me a little about the post process and that you guys only had five days of pickups on this movie, and you really had to be surgical in terms of the decisions made to form that connective tissue. Were you a part of that process?
Yeah, I was involved in helping watch cuts and decide, or at least give my two cents in terms of what might be helpful. There’s a great creative team there at Legendary that I’ve worked with over the course of all these films that is very hands-on. They give each filmmaker a lot of latitude, a lot more than other franchises, which I think is one of the cool distinctive things about the MonsterVerse. Marvel is so curated in a brilliant way, where they basically, there is a distinctive quality to a Taika [Waititi] movie – you can sense it’s him – but still, it’s very much all part of the Marvel universe. With this, it’s looser. It is all part of the universe, but Gareth’s movie is very Gareth, Jordan’s movie is very Jordan, and Mike’s movie is very Mike, and Adam’s movie is very Adam. They’re give the opportunity to really play and have the keys, essentially. As a writer, it’s my job in these movies to come in and help them service that.
I know a lot of the Marvel movies use pre-viz for big scenes even before the scripts are written. How does it work with the MonsterVerse? Does the studio have ideas for scenes or big moments ahead of time?
To some extent. I think it’s more the director and the concept team and all of that. The studio is certainly supportive of it and has its own ideas, but it’s less like a Kevin Feige at Marvel, because he knows that world and is the showrunner, in a sense, of the Marvel universe. This is much more – I think Legendary takes the role of patrons, almost. They’re like the Medicis giving money to Leonardo and Michelangelo and saying, “Run with it. Yeah, we want The Last Supper, but you do your thing.” It’s more like that.
Obviously you’ve worked on all of these movies. Are you the go-to guy on set when it comes to mythology or questions about if things fit into the larger picture? Or if anyone is wondering, “Can Monarch do this?”
(laughs) Well, I’ve certainly been the guy who’s been able to stick around and be helpful with that, and I think it’s been an evolving, gestating thing, but yeah, I was certainly, they used me sometimes for that. They know it as well as anybody, the guys at Legendary. They’re very hands-on and involved in stewarding that kind of stuff. But I’ve considered myself really fortunate to be able to stay with the franchise in different ways. It’s tracked with a whole section of my own career, going from the young writer who wrote the first new draft with a new director coming in and was desperate to stay involved, and at one point I got replaced by a much more senior writer, but then I came back. So Godzilla was a different thing in that way. [And on Godzilla vs. Kong], I got to be the guy who got brought in to help be a stable hand toward the end, which was fun. It was like being a senior in high school instead of a freshman. But I’ve kind of matured and grown with this franchise in a lot of ways, and it’s a part of my life in a great way.
Can you tell me about the Game of Thrones show you were developing? What would that have been about?
I don’t know if I’m allowed. I wish I could. I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes and say too much about it. But it’s something that, hopefully, maybe one day it will see the light of day. I’m doing another show for HBO right now, and I love those guys. I trust all the great things they’re going to do with that franchise. So we’ll see. I’m certainly really passionate about it, and I could – but I shouldn’t – talk about it. (laughs)
Fair enough. What’s the latest on your Space Mountain movie? Any updates on that front?
That’s a great question. That was a hopeful thing and it was years ago, before Disney bought Star Wars. At the time, anyway, it was like, “OK, well they seem to have a space movie and a space franchise right now.” But actually, there is – they may. I’ve heard rumblings that they may be thinking about doing something in that space, so I don’t know.
Now with Disney+, it seems like there’s more room.
It seems like they must, right? It’s one of my favorite rides. It always has been. So we’ll see.
I think I have time for one more question. What is the challenge of incorporating human drama in a story like Godzilla vs. Kong, in which arguably a significant number of people are only there to see giant monsters smash things?
It’s funny, I’ve kind of discovered it recently – like I said, I kind of matured and grew along with this franchise and learned a thing or two. One of the challenges is scale. In a superhero movie, your superheroes are also human beings who have families and problems and things, and that’s why you can connect. Whereas here, your monsters are not human, and not only are they not human, but they’re so big and out of our scale, that they don’t really interact with human beings in a plausible way very much at all. They crush the things we’re in, but they’re much more like a natural disaster: they’re so much bigger than us. So we invent ways of having people have agency, but some of those can verge on cheesy, like controlling a monster that can fight them, right? It can work, but it tends to detract or even compete with the creatures themselves. And so what I’ve learned over the course of this, and it’s been a learning curve, is that I think the best human characters in these movies are supporting characters, if you treat them like supporting characters.
If you imagine Mission: Impossible, Ethan Hunt is your star. There should be no human being in a Godzilla or a Kong movie who tries to compete with an Ethan Hunt. That’s Kong or Godzilla. That’s their role. They’re the star of the movie. That said, if you look at Kong: Skull Island, one of my favorite characters in the franchise is the character John C. Reilly played. The reason why he’s great is because he’s not the star of the movie, he’s a character role. He’s a supporting role, and there’s humor, there’s emotion, there’s pathos – he’s not trying to compete, plot-wise, with Kong. But what he’s doing is he’s an investment for us. He’s not trying to be the leading man, he’s being a supporting character, and it’s lovable. I think we’ve done that in Godzilla vs. Kong as well. There’s a number of characters, even the ones who seem – like Alex Skarsgard, who seems like a leading man, he isn’t really. He’s quirky and he has his own agenda, and he’s really kind of a supporting character. I think by leaning into that in this film, and by leaning into the idea that Godzilla and Kong are the stars of the movie, it allows for the human beings to not feel like annoying detractions, or distractions from those stars. Instead, they become fun supporting characters.
Godzilla vs. Kong hits HBO Max and U.S. theaters on March 31, 2021.
/Film – ‘Slash Film: ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ Writer Max Borenstein on How He Writes Monster Fights, the Status of His Space Mountain Movie, and More [Interview]’
Author: Ben Pearson
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March 29, 2021