How GODZILLA VS. KONG Will Bring the Iconic Monsters to Life

There were a lot of uncertainties headed to the Australia set of Godzilla vs. Kong. It was March 2019, two months before Godzilla: King of the Monsters‘ release. And here we were, a group of film journalists about to visit the set of its sequel. Outside of a few pretty obvious observations—namely, that Godzilla would survive King of the Monsters—we knew little about the first film’s plot. All we knew was that it would somehow pave the way for an epic fight between two of cinema’s most legendary monsters: Godzilla and King Kong.

We learned quite a bit on set that day. And even more when we spoke with director Adam Wingard on Zoom almost two years later. But what stands out best in my memory is the root of the story. The whole reason for pitting two giant creatures against one another in the first place. The Legendary MonsterVerse is an epic world, yes, but also an intimate one. Godzilla vs. Kong, above all else, is a story about two misunderstood beings.

King Kong aims a punch at Godzilla atop a naval fleet in a scene from Godzilla vs. Kong.Warner Bros. Pictures / Legendary Pictures

Godzilla and Kong as characters

“For me […] one of the most important things going into this film was treating Godzilla and King Kong like actual characters,” Wingard said. “They have personalities and they have definitive things that they will and won’t do, and so it was always trying to bring that out first and foremost.”

On set, producer Alex Garcia called Godzilla a “misunderstood hero” who’s fighting for humanity. Likewise, he noted that Kong is a lonely figure, hoping to find another like him, and learning there really aren’t any. The film follows his emotional journey.

So yes, Godzilla vs. Kong pits the two against one another, as the title implies. But it also explores who they are as individuals and what leads to such a conflict.

Nobody technically “plays” Godzilla or Kong in this film. But that doesn’t mean their facial features and personalities aren’t utilized for emotional effect.

“Kong, for instance, is almost like a human conduit,” Wingard explained. “We can actually cut to Kong in this movie without having to cut back to the human characters for relatively large chunks of the film. Because we can experience things through him. He’s emotive […] and the way he experiences things is relatable. It allows us to be able to just treat him just like any other character, and the humans are always going to back that up.”

Shun Oguri sits upon a purple set in a behind the scenes shot from Godzilla vs. Kong.Vince Valitutti / Warner Bros. Pictures / Legendary Pictures

The APEX and Monarch of it all

As you might have noticed in the trailers, there’s a mysterious new company involved in the Godzilla vs. Kong plot called APEX. Garcia referred to it as “an extreme version of Amazon or Apple.” What does that mean? The main thing we gleaned from the set visit is that the company might have something to do with Godzilla’s recent erratic behavior. Which again plays into the characterization of the creature. Is he being controlled by outside elements, or acting based on free will?

There’s also Monarch, the scientific organization introduced in Legendary’s MonsterVerse. Monarch carries out expeditions to hunt and study massive unidentified terrestrial organisms (also known as MUTOs). In Godzilla vs. Kong, Monarch is spending a lot of money creating entries into Hollow Earth—the hollow core at the center of the planet. This is where some monsters—possibly including Godzilla—are believed to come from. (King Kong’s home, Skull Island, is an entry point to the Hollow Earth.)

APEX and Monarch are the human components of the story that ultimately assist in guiding the central conflict between Godzilla and Kong.

“The movie itself […] is split into two kind of concurrent storylines, you know, which you could kind of organize as Team Godzilla [and] Team Kong,” Wingard explained “Godzilla’s being led by Millie Bobby Brown and Brian Tyree Henry. Whereas Team Kong is on the other side of the world being led by Alexander Skarsgård and Rebecca Hall. Each one of the human’s stories kind of really punches up what the monsters are going through.”

Godzilla swims through the ocean approaching a boat where King Kong stands in a scene from Godzilla vs. Kong.Warner Bros. Pictures / Legendary Pictures

Incorporating the setting 

Bringing out the characterization of Godzilla and Kong meant going back. Way back. To prepare for filming, Wingard and production designer Tom Hammock watched every Godzilla and King Kong movie to date. This didn’t just give the crew an appreciation for the lore. It also helped them figure out the visual look of the whole project. Everything from incorporating locations into the plot to accurately conveying scale not only makes the film look interesting, but tells us things about Godzilla and Kong, too.

“We took the city and where the third act takes place and [we designed it] so that it’s very recognizable, but slightly futuristic,” Hammock explained of the film’s Hong Kong battle. “[And] so that it feels a little bit more like a jungle, because Kong’s always going to be at a disadvantage. We wanted to give him height. Skyscrapers were like trees he can climb.”

“While [Kong] is swinging, Godzilla is trying to knock him down with his extraordinary atomic breath,” added Owen Patterson, another production designer on the film. “And we thought while that’s happening, Kong can be swinging from building-to-building, like parkour, almost.”

Patterson added that they also adjusted the size of real Hong Kong locations to create this effect. Bending set pieces and utilizing their core structures to communicate the character’s behavior makes the creatures feel all the more realized.

But that big Hong Kong showdown wasn’t the only challenging aspect. Hammock spoke to a huge water sequence in the film, also spotted in the trailer.

“We watched some water movies […] just to try to understand the technicalities,” Hammock explained. “Once you understand the technicalities, how can you be artistic within those massive constraints that come with actors holding their breath?”

Garcia also discussed the water sequence, saying it was one of the first ideas Wingard brought to the table. He compared Godzilla to a shark at the beginning of the scene, the spikes on his back rising through the water like a great white fin. Water is one of the places we really haven’t seen Godzilla or Kong interact with before. So it provided new opportunities for iconic images of these major cinematic beasts. And also to see how their interactions could embody new locations.

Director Adam Wingard on the set of Godzilla vs. Kong.

Vince Valitutti / Warner Bros. Pictures / Legendary Pictures

Who will win?

We picked up on certain things around set that the internet has also been buzzing about since the Godzilla vs. Kong trailer dropped. (We, too, were curious about certain mechanized versions of characters, spotted in drawn up plans— and perhaps plain sight—in the clips.) There was plenty of concept art alluding to other possible Titans that could appear in the film, and a few set pieces that teed up exciting stuff going down at APEX headquarters. Things that could shake up what we think we know about this film.

But, out of respect for Wingard, as well as the audience, I’ll avoid getting too detailed about all of that right now. “I just want people to have as pure of an experience as they can, and it’s just… If you’re reading about it, it’s just going to be less exciting than actually seeing it,” Wingard explained over Zoom. And I have to agree.

Godzilla vs. Kong will surely be loaded with surprises galore. The sets were epic and beautiful. But again, it’s the care for these legendary creatures that stood out. King Kong first appeared onscreen in 1933. Godzilla first appeared onscreen in 1954. Now, it’s 2021 and they’re as relevant and cared for as ever—perhaps even more than ever.

Yet, we can’t ignore the whole “versus” part of that title. This is a big matchup, where there’s clearly an intended winner in the end. We have no idea how that’ll shake out, but when we asked Wingard if he had a favorite, he had a great answer.

“Favorite’s a strong word,” he explained. “But I will say that I definitely knew who I wanted to win right off the bat. I remember in second grade there was a friend of mine who had a definitive idea of who he thought would win in a fight, Godzilla or King Kong. And I remember being on the playground and arguing with him about it. I felt like he was totally wrong, by the way. And so, in a weird roundabout way, this movie is like the most like ridiculous way of winning a fight with a friend of yours in second grade. But now I finally have the last word.”

Editor’s Note: Nerdist is a subsidiary of Legendary Digital Networks. 

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