Godzilla director Gareth Edwards on why nature scares us

PIP CUMMINGS
Last updated 05:00 19/05/2014
Godzilla

A MAN OF FEW WORDS: Director Gareth Edwards with star Bryan Cranston.

Godzilla 2014

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Godzilla director Gareth Edwards is in a New York hotel, looking a little crumpled and feeling a little "paranoid". His possessions are boxed up, he has no idea where he will live next and a press embargo means he is anxiously waiting on the critical responses to his film. Such is the surprisingly unglamorous life of blockbuster movie-making.

Still, he wouldn't have it any other way. "As daunting as it was, what was more scary was being the guy who turned it down and spending the rest of my life thinking there was this golden opportunity and I didn't do it," he reflects.

The mild-mannered British filmmaker had only previously helmed one movie; the low-budget Monsters (2010), which he wrote, directed and shot as well as producing its visual effects on his laptop.

After its success, Edwards went to Los Angeles for two weeks and had meetings with 100 people. The most promising was with production company Legendary, whose slate includes several Batman and Superman movies, Clash of the Titans and The Hangover comedy franchise.

In spite of Edwards' more "indie" sensibilities, something felt right and four months later - just as the self-deprecating director was thinking "Oh, I got that wrong", he was offered Godzilla.

While the original 1954 monster had been a way for Japanese filmmakers to represent the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by nuclear weapons, subsequent iterations of the gargantuan reptile - 28 in all - had become "campy and silly".

The most recent, a 1998 American remake that rendered Godzilla unrecognisable, soured the relationship with fans and instilled caution in Japan's Toho studios, which own the rights to the character.

Edwards wanted to restore some of the moral complexity of the original film, creating a nail-biting thriller and a cautionary tale with monsters that taps our fears and represents our failings.

"I just wanted to make a type of film I grew up with," Edwards says. "The films I was inspired by were the early Spielberg movies, and [those by directors] James Cameron and Ridley Scott."

Edwards' commitment to character-driven storytelling helped attract a stellar cast, including Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche and Elizabeth Olsen.

Japanese actor Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai, Inception) lends gravitas in the role of Dr Serizawa; a nod to the 1950s original, which features a character of the same name. Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass) signed on to play the film's heroic lead, in large part because of the director. "[Edwards] brings realism - that raw naturalistic feel," Taylor-Johnson says. "And emotion - heart and soul."

While Godzilla's US$160 million (NZ$185 million) budget allows for awe-inspiring effects, Edwards instilled some constraints. "There's such a temptation to show everything and I went against that because I felt it was more interesting," he says. "You use your imagination a little bit more, get a bit more scared.''

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Like a giant, scaly fan dancer, the monster teases with only partial glimpses until well into the movie. "If you look at films like Jaws, or great monster movies like Alien, Jurassic Park, or King Kong, the thing they all have in common is it's an hour before you see the main creature," observes Edwards. "As a result, when you do see it, it has more impact."

When he finally does appear, Godzilla is so enormous, it begs the question how has he gone undetected for so long. "We took a liberty," says Edwards of the gills they added to the otherwise unmistakable creature, to indicate he's been roaming the ocean floor for decades.

At 107 metres tall, Edwards' Godzilla is the largest in the character's 60-year history; at least twice the size of the original monster. Edwards says a prehistoric human anxiety - that we are under threat from predators - has simply been scaled up to match the environment we live in now.

"We can't get rid of that inner fear because it's in our DNA," he says. "So we live in these high-rise buildings, with this fear, and the fear becomes high-rise. It shouldn't work, it should be absurd; these movies should not work at all. But they do and I think it's because it taps into this expectation that nature is going to come and destroy what we've created or kill the people we love. And I think that will never go away."

A man of few words

Aaron Taylor-Johnson might be billed as the hero of director Gareth Edwards' Godzilla, but his natural instinct is to step away from the limelight and redirect attention to his monstrous CGI co-star. ''He's the face on all the posters,'' he quips.

Although Taylor-Johnson convincingly plays the part of a bomb-diffusing US Navy lieutenant - including bulking up and altering his posture to create a more intimidating profile - in person he comes across as shy.

Softly spoken and hesitant, the rigours of film promotion appear to be a mild form of torture for the rising star. Although Taylor-Johnson, 23, has been acting since he was six, it was his 2009 portrayal of a young John Lennon in Nowhere Boy that set his course, both professionally and personally.

He and artist-turned-director Sam Taylor-Wood fell in love on set, moved in together, had two children and married in 2012. She is 23 years his senior and already had two daughters from her first marriage.

It was also the role that demonstrated Taylor-Johnson's ability to communicate a lot with a little; skills on which he drew when confronted with Godzilla's austere script. ''His character didn't have a lot of dialogue,'' says Edwards. ''It was all through his reactions and behaviour. There was a lot of visual storytelling, so you had to feel like there was a lot going on inside.''

As for the transition from independent film to blockbusters, Taylor-Johnson was reassured by Edwards' treatment of the more serious themes of the film and his ''humble, modest way'' as a director.

His character's concerns - fighting a 160-metre giant aside - also sit surprisingly close to his own. ''I'm 23, I've got four kids, I'm married,'' he says. ''To find [a role] that's actually around my age range that I can relate to is kind of rare.''

Godzilla is out now

- FFX Aus

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