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‘Godzilla x Kong’ Director Adam Wingard Talks His Cat’s Influence on Godzilla and Lance Reddick’s Role in ‘The Guest 2’

You asked, and Adam Wingard listened.

Coming off of 2021’s Godzilla vs. Kong, the filmmaker was keenly aware that critics and audiences wanted even more focus on the MonsterVerse titans, so his sequel, Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire, features multiple long stretches of runtime that’s exclusively titans, namely Kong and his journey. The giant ape is the main character of Warners’ fifth MonsterVerse film, and Wingard was able to pull off this more titan-heavy story by keeping his cast of human characters to a helpful minimum.

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“In the development phase, my motto was ‘simplicity is key.’ And so I knew that if we created a smaller cast, we could create a more intimate story,” Wingard tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We can still spend time with [the human characters], and at the same time, we can spend more time with the monsters and not shortchange one or the other.”

The human drama ultimately benefits from its limited roster of characters including Monarch scientist Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), titan veterinarian Trapper (Dan Stevens), titan truther Bernie (Brian Tyree Henry) and the adopted Iwi daughter of Dr. Andrews, Jia (Kaylee Hottle). With Kong now residing in Hollow Earth and Godzilla keeping to himself on the surface, a distress signal soon rattles not only the two titans, but Jia as well. So the human characters, in conjunction with Monarch, follow Kong into Hollow Earth in order to get to the bottom of whatever is calling for help.

Before sensing that he’s being called to arms, Godzilla hibernates in the historic Colosseum in Rome, Italy, and Wingard went back and forth with his production designer, Tom Hammock, on how to portray the King of the Monsters’ slumber. And then he looked down at the floor of his workspace.

“My cat, Mischief, is my biggest inspiration in life, and as we were having this discussion with my production designer, my cat was curled up in a ball and sleeping in her circular little cat nest. And I thought, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be funny to see Godzilla laying in the Roman Colosseum exactly like this?’” Wingard says. “We then took a picture of her and sent it to the concept artists. So they made it happen based on Mischief, and there’s also photos of her throughout the movie as a little homage.”

Wingard and his feline inspiration are apparently in good company, as he recently discovered that another current Godzilla filmmaker took cues from their own beloved kitty cat.

“When I met the director of Godzilla Minus One, Takashi Yamazaki, it turns out that his cat was a major influence on him as well, in terms of his approach towards Godzilla and his mannerisms,” Wingard adds. “So if you’re a Godzilla director right now, cats are mind controlling us or something.”

Just over a year ago, Lance Reddick tragically passed away far too soon, and Wingard had previously collaborated with the beloved actor on his cult thriller, The Guest (2014), as well as Godzilla vs. Kong. Well, Wingard is now revealing that his long-gestating sequel to The Guest would’ve included Reddick even though his character, Major Carver, had already met his end by way of Stevens’ programmed soldier.

“I’ve been playing with a [The Guest 2] idea for some time with Simon Barrett, the writer of The Guest,” Wingard shares. “It’s unfortunate that Lance Reddick died last year. It was very sad, and I loved Lance. So I wish that we could have made [The Guest 2] happen in his lifetime, because we would’ve definitely carried him over into the film.”

Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Wingard also discusses his desire to complete a MonsterVerse trilogy, before offering an update on his “fucking awesome” Face/Off 2 script.

Well, considering the complicated nature of Godzilla vs. Kong’s March 2021 release, how confident were you at the time that you’d be sitting here today in support of another one? 

Well, that was a completely different time. The world was completely different and there were no guarantees at all about how that movie was going to perform in a Covid world. We were still in it, but we were coming out of it. Theaters were still only at 20 or 25 percent capacity, and at that time, we knew we were day-and-date [on streaming]. That was experimental, so we had no idea how that was going to go.

As a director, that was a crazy time because I was almost 40 years old and my entire career had been leading to that point. Here I was with my big Hollywood tentpole release and the world was completely falling apart, and we were releasing this thing in an experimental way. We also held back our advertising until very late for a big movie like that, and it was for all those reasons. The date kept shifting, and eventually we landed on late March, which is very similar to the date we have now.

But it was one of the best times of my life because once we put out that original trailer, we got something like 26 million views in 24 hours or something like that. It was insane. There was just such a desire to get back into the theaters and to have a front row seat, and as a filmmaker, that was just so exciting. I remember watching all these trailer reaction videos and people were so pumped up. They were just so excited that a big movie was being advertised again, and so to be a part of that was really a wild ride.

Godzilla and Kong in <em>Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire</em>
Godzilla and Kong in Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire

There’s always been a clamor around the previous films for non-stop titans, and when I spoke to you for Godzilla vs. Kong, you convinced me and my skepticism that it was doable. So now that The New Empire has taken a big step towards another film that’s nothing but titans, are you more convinced than ever that it can be done?

Absolutely, and I think that’s the reason why the MonsterVerse is so interesting to people and why it’s gaining momentum. As these films develop alongside VFX, there’s a sense that we’re not just continuing the story of the MonsterVerse, but we’re also able to be innovative within cinema itself. So I wanted to do something that was groundbreaking in the sense that it’s not often that you have an opportunity with a major tentpole big-budget film to do a good portion of the film with no dialogue and just be completely driven by visuals. And so this was the chance to do that, and the only reason I had the confidence to do it was because of my experience on Godzilla vs. Kong. I walked away from that having a really strong understanding of the strengths and the limitations of VFX and how far you could push it, and the couple sequences where we did drift into a more hyper-realistic, fully animated vibe and just followed Kong around gave me confidence.

So it’s a given that [The New Empire] is going to have monsters destroying cities and havoc and chaos and fighting and brawls and all that fun stuff that you associate with monster movie mayhem, but what I was excited about are the sequences between those moments. I wanted to see what a day in the life of Kong was like in Hollow Earth. How does he hunt? What does he do when he has a toothache and all those kinds of things? So that’s something that we really got to explore in a more intimate way.

Having a small cast of characters really elevated this movie. It not only gave us more time with the titans, but it also served the characters well by having them all together, as opposed to cross-cutting to a number of characters in various different places. Was a small cast a prerequisite for you?

I’m really glad you mentioned that because it was very important to me. In the development phase, my motto was “simplicity is key.” And so I knew that if we created a smaller cast, we could create a more intimate story. We can still spend time with them, and at the same time, we can spend more time with the monsters and not shortchange one or the other. What’s important about the human story in a film like this is that thematically it needs to reflect the monster’s journey as well. So if you look at the film just from a basic standpoint, you could say that Jia [Kaylee Hottle] on the human side and Kong on the monster side are both experiencing a very similar storyline, thematically. They’re both dealing with loneliness, isolation and trying to find their place in the world, and ultimately, they’re both searching for who their true family is. So the movie becomes an exploration of that, but like you said, simplifying things really allows you to dig into those moments. It’s not just about getting through the plot.

Director ADAM WINGARD, DAN STEVENS AND REBECCA HALL on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure GODZILLA x KONG: THE NEW EMPIRE, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Director Adam Wingard, Dan Stevens & Rebecca Hall on the set of Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire

While you were in post, Godzilla Minus One started making waves. Did you rush right out and see it? Or did you prefer to have tunnel vision? 

(Laughs.) Well, I saw it pretty early. Before it was released here, they set up a screening for me at Legendary, but I was immediately inspired by Minus One the second that I saw the trailer drop for it. We were about midway through post, and there’s a great shot in that trailer where Godzilla stomps down in a closeup and his feet are so heavy that he pushes up the ground in front of him. And I was so impressed with that shot that I ran into the office of my VFX supervisor, Alessandro Ongaro, because we had a similar shot in our film that we’d been working on for a while, but it didn’t have the right effect. Godzilla stomps down on this building that has this artwork of Godzilla spray-painted on the side, and it felt powerful in the sense that he’s collapsing a whole building, but it was missing something else. So I showed Alessandro this moment in the Minus One trailer and said, “That’s what we need to do.” So we paid homage to [Godzilla Minus One] immediately in the movie.

When the Top Gun: Maverick trailer was released, there’s that famous shot where Tom Cruise jolts forward as he flies off the aircraft carrier, and we had a similar shot in Godzilla vs. Kong. So when we saw that Tom Cruise version, I was like, “Guys, we have to start over because everybody knows what this looks like now. He really flew off that aircraft carrier.” So we actually reinvented our shot so that it had the same mechanics as that, and it’s interesting how you’re influenced by these movies that come out. Once somebody does it better, you can’t step back from there. You have to keep moving it forward even if you’re in the middle of production.

Rebecca Hall’s Dr. Ilene Andrews and Dan Stevens’ Trapper in <em>Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire</em>
Rebecca Hall’s Dr. Ilene Andrews and Dan Stevens’ Trapper in Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire

Actors often take inspiration from their directors, and Dan Stevens’ character in The New Empire and Millie Bobby Brown’s character in Godzilla vs. Kong both wore an assortment of bracelets that resemble the ones I’ve seen you wear in the past.

(Wingard laughs and holds up his wrist with an assortment of bracelets.)

Were you their muse as far as accessories go? 

I’m not sure whose idea those bracelets were; they might’ve even been Dan’s. But now that you mention it, the last movie has some insert shots in Millie Bobby Brown’s apartment, and because I used to wear even more bracelets, I actually threw a bunch of them into the shot [of the speaker that’s playing Bernie’s podcast]. We just needed more density to the props.

Maybe I’m not always aware of how people perceive me and those kinds of things, but I have a real interest in UFOs and conspiracy stuff. So, to a certain degree, a lot of inspiration from my personality also went into the Bernie character that Brian Tyree Henry plays. In [The New Empire], Brian actually requested to shave a line on the [left] side of his hair, and I didn’t really think much of it [at the time]. But what’s funny about it is that the whole time we were making Godzilla vs. Kong, I used to always shave a line exactly like that in my hair. So that would’ve been the last time Brian saw me, and I think he was making a reference to me. You’d have to ask him, as I’m not sure, but it’s funny that it only occurred to me a year and a half afterwards. (Laughs.) So I sometimes don’t have a lot of self-awareness.

Brian Tyree Henry’s Bernie in <em>Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire</em>
Brian Tyree Henry’s Bernie in Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire

And your own cat is to thank for the inspiration behind Godzilla’s catnaps in the Colosseum? 

My cat, Mischief, is my biggest inspiration in life, and when I met the director of Godzilla Minus One, Takashi Yamazaki, it turns out that his cat was a major influence on him as well, in terms of his approach towards Godzilla and his mannerisms. So if you’re a Godzilla director right now, cats are mind controlling us or something. (Laughs.) But, yeah, to design a sequence where Godzilla is hibernating, you’re always trying to juxtapose Godzilla against iconic backdrops that everybody knows. So we were trying to come up with a place where Godzilla could hibernate, and as we were having this discussion with my production designer [Tom Hammock], my cat was curled up in a ball and sleeping in her circular little cat nest. And I thought, “Wow, wouldn’t it be funny to see Godzilla laying in the Roman Colosseum exactly like this?” We then took a picture of her and sent it to the concept artists. So they made it happen based on Mischief, and there’s also photos of her throughout the movie as a little homage.

To my eye, the titan VFX made a major leap forward in between movies. Did VFX technology actually level up in just a few years time?

The workflow is always being streamlined, and when you don’t have to invent everything from scratch, you’re able to explore more of the technology. Things are definitely amping up quicker and quicker as time goes on, and even the more subtle innovations that you wouldn’t normally think about — such as being able to juxtapose more realistic textures from lenses and more realistic lighting — go such a long way.

At Weta, you’re working with artists who have been doing this for so long, and many of them have a lot of experience with characters who are ape-like or apes themselves. So they’re bringing all this knowledge, and while the technology is always moving forward, the real key to VFX is always the artist. They’re always the ones who bring it to life. I’m a very collaborative filmmaker, and I think the best filmmakers who work with VFX are very collaborative and very trusting and try to create an environment where you’re able to utilize everybody’s creativity. So many people bring so many different things, and a lot of making a film like this is done so in these little increments that take place over a long period of time. You’re always trying to siphon out everybody’s own specific creativity that they can bring into the personalities of the monsters and all the environments that we’re creating in this case.

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire
Kong in Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire

So we’ve reached the portion of the interview where I once again beg and plead for a sequel to The Guest. Did you and Dan spitball anything during your long days down under?

(Laughs.) A little bit, yeah. I’ve been playing with a [The Guest 2] idea for some time with Simon Barrett, the writer of The Guest. It’s unfortunate that Lance Reddick died last year. It was very sad, and I loved Lance. So I wish that we could have made [The Guest 2] happen in his lifetime, because we would’ve definitely carried him over into the film. [Writer’s Note: Reddick’s character, Major Carver, died in The Guest, so there are many implications to this statement.]

I did do one special thing for the fans as a tee up for a potential Guest series, not knowing when we will actually get around to it. [Writer’s Note: Wingard previously told THR that he’s considered a Guest sequel in the form of a movie or limited series.] We did a soundtrack, and one of those songs from The Guest II soundtrack ended up in Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire. I temped it into the movie, and it’s in the scene where the characters are walking towards the Hollow Earth vehicle in slow motion. So that’s actually a song from The Guest II soundtrack, but it wasn’t a ploy for me to try to sell Guest II soundtracks. (Laughs.) We just couldn’t beat it in the editorial, and so it ended up making it through the whole process.

Dan Stevens as David Collins in <em>The Guest</em>
Dan Stevens as David Collins in The Guest

I knew that cue caught my ear for a reason. 

(Laughs.)

I was also going to bring up the late great Lance Reddick, who was briefly in Godzilla vs. Kong as well. He told me and plenty of others a great story of how he started panicking at the first festival screening of The Guest, because people were laughing throughout the course of the film. He thought he had made a dramatic action movie, and he didn’t realize until afterwards that it was also a dark comedy to some degree.

I have to give Lance credit, because a lot of people wouldn’t admit publicly that they didn’t realize that they were in a comedy and that they were playing it seriously. I’ve heard him tell that story at Q&As as well.

When I made The Guest with Lance, I didn’t think we really got along that well during shooting. We weren’t seeing eye to eye, we were going in two different directions and I couldn’t quite place why. I thought, “Do our personalities just conflict? Does it not work?” And it turned out to be exactly what you said. It was only after the movie screened — and even a little bit of time after that — that he realized that the movie was supposed to be funny. So I guess I didn’t communicate that properly to him, or maybe I didn’t communicate it to him because I didn’t think that’s what he wanted to hear. And I don’t think he did at the time.

But it turned out that the reason why we weren’t seeing eye to eye was because we were literally making two different movies, and weirdly, it ended up working in the film’s favor. The character he played, Carver, didn’t know he was in a comedy. So it was important that his character take the situation deadly seriously. It’s almost like his character was coming from an ‘80s B-movie into our indie film, and the whole point of the film was to clash them together.

So it’s a funny story, and it’s just unfortunate that we couldn’t carry [a sequel] forward with him. I was really looking forward to working with him again. I got to work with him briefly in Godzilla vs. Kong, and that was nice because we were both making the same movie at that point. But I wanted to get back in there with him, and every movie I develop, I’m always like, “Ah, this character would’ve been perfect for Lance.”

I get the sense that you left it all on the field with The New Empire, and since you have no shortage of projects in development, does this conclude your time in the MonsterVerse? 

There’s always the seduction of making a trilogy out of it, and I think that there’s some untapped areas to go into. There’s also ways to continue to innovate the stylized approach to the MonsterVerse, and what’s great about the MonsterVerse is that it’s allowed so many different directors to approach it with their unique style and color palette. Obviously, I wouldn’t make this decision until we see how [The New Empire] performs at the box office, but I would definitely have some interest in doing another one of these. There’s a way to continue to innovate, and as a director, it would be exciting because I would take an even different approach next time. But regardless of that, yeah, there’s a whole lot of potential, and hopefully, there’s going to be demand.

A few years ago, I took great interest in the “peach pass” that you had just done at the time, so did you and Simon Barrett ever fully crack Face/Off 2

Yeah, pretty much. I don’t want to get too much into the weeds on the Face/Off thing, but yeah, I think the script is really fucking awesome. It is one of those things where you read it and you’re like, “Oh shit! This is a true sequel to Face/Off that I could have never dreamed of.”

***
Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire opens in theaters on March 29. 

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