- This article originally appeared at EON Magazine -
Destroying the cities of the world so you don't have to... Godzilla Co-Writer and Producer discusses his big summer behemoth and the fight to keep him a secret
There have been few heirs to the George Lucas/Steven Spielberg science-fiction throne over the years. Sure, James Cameron has made his own imprint within the genre, but new sci-fi kids on the block Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich come the closest having found a way to re-invigorate the genre while still playing to its inherent strengths. This team's partnership (which has Devlin as a co-writer and producer and Emmerich as a co-writer and director) began humbly enough when Devlin acted for Emmerich in Moon 44 . Their first head-on collaboration was Universal Soldier , but it was the unique blend of Egyptian mythology mixed with sci-fi in 1994's sleeper hit Stargate that put their careers on the Hollywood maps.
The summer of 1996 blockbuster Independence Day solidified their status as global crowd-pleasers and the duo are hoping to work similar mojo on this summer's monster epic Godzilla . The key of course is making movies that they want to see, not what Hollywood thinks people want to see and that philosophy has served them well. Of course you can't please everyone all of the time and Godzilla has received its share of slings and arrows from the press (something that usually happens when anyone achieves a certain level of success in this business).
The main gripe the press is using: Why are they keeping the look of Godzilla a secret? Certainly in an age where movie trailers give away the entire three-act structure of a movie in less than four minutes, the element of surprise has become a rather extinct concept. Still, Emmerich and Devlin have persevered and have successfully kept everyone in the dark as to what they will see on May 20th when they head out to the local Cineplex's. Three weeks before Godzilla's release, Devlin sat down with EON to discuss bringing Godzilla to the big screen, the troubles with trying to keep its titular creation a secret and the lessons in patience one has to endure to keep rumors about the film from getting out of hand.
How close now are you to being done with Godzilla ?
Dean Devlin: Four Reels have been completed and now we're just working on the back four reels. They're at the printer's being printed and as they get finished they're going to be sent off to the theaters. And the only way to get the film done in time is we have to do it in two phases. Normally you do it all at once, but we're so last minute we decided to print half the film as soon as it was ready and as soon as the other half is ready we'll send that. You have to use all kind of crazy techniques when you're under the gun. We've made it. Our special effects are finished, we've made all of our deadlines and we're slightly ahead and the picture will be in the theaters in three weeks.
What's your running time on the movie?
Devlin: Ironically the same as Independence Day , two hours and twenty minutes with end credits.
Godzilla is a big movie, but then again it has to be. How do you keep yourself in check so you don't get caught up the "big event movie" mentality that afflicts so many films.
Devlin: Unfortunately it always has to go back to the movie. Something I say ad nauseum, but I believe it is that these kinds of things can either become an exploitation of a movie or an extension of the movie. They become an extension when you always keep your focus on "what is the movie and why is the movie worth me seeing it." And that's why I'm proud of all the additional things we've done, it's kept focus on the film rather than on how many coffee cups we're selling and stuff like that. Sure we're doing all those things and I think you have to when you make a movie that costs this much money. You have a responsibility to try and earn that money back to the people who were kind enough to give it to you to make such a big film, but it's all in how you do it. I think George Lucas does it brilliantly. Nothing is more merchandised and sold but you can tell his eye has been on it. You can tell it was done with a sense of "we have to maintain a level of quality."
There's been a lot of press about keeping the look of the new Godzilla secret, but what people forget is you did the same thing with the alien within an alien in Independence Day .
Devlin: We got really lucky. People got so excited about discovering the armored guy, they stopped looking so we were able to keep the other guy secret.
This time though people are acting differently thinking there's some other ulterior reason why you're being so secretive.
Devlin: There's a kind of a movie tradition of keeping something a secret. You can go back even farther to the first Alien movie and Jaws even. And it's not that you're trying to keep something secret or "oh, it's going to be so great." What it is, is that very often when you're creating a character you want to debut that character in a context. Anyone who has worked with special effects knows that if you go tonight and take Star Wars and turn off the sound, it's half the movie it was. What makes that opening shot is that gigantic rumble and this thing shows up and it keeps going? You take that sound out and it's really half a shot. And so when we thought of Godzilla which has to be this incredible creature, you don't want someone to see it for the first time as a crayon drawing in a magazine. That doesn't represent it at all. And we knew it would be judged out of context if it were handled that way. So we feel "listen, if you don't like the new Godzilla , at least don't like it in context." But if you see a pencil drawing of something and say "oh, well that's not Godzilla ," you don't know yet. You haven't seen it.
Your creature designer Patrick Tatapoulos had an interesting theory. He said that the people who are dead-set against you remaking Godzilla would also tear into the re-design if they saw it earlier just to tear it down because it's not the classic look of the Japanese Godzilla's. But if people go see it opening day and the mainstream likes the movie, they won't listen to the grumbling from the die-hard fans.
Devlin: I think it's very much like Batman . If you remember, there was a lot of negative buzz before it opened. People were going "How can Michael Keaton be Batman , there is no Robin. It's not really Batman if there is no Robin." There was all this incredible negative stuff which all vanished once people saw the film. In fact not only was the final movie true to Batman , it was more true to Batman in essence because it captured the spirit of the original comics. And what I think people will find when they see the final version of Godzilla is that yes, it's incredibly different but it is probably more true to the original vision of the first movie than any of the other 21 sequels.
Did Godzilla end up being one of these "round the clock" post-production jobs to get it done in time for its release date?
Devlin: Luckily we didn't have to sacrifice and it worked out just great because everybody dug their heels in and gave a Herculean effort. There are literally thousands of artists and craftsman who worked on this film. Nearly down to the last one of them, they went beyond anything they've done before and it made it work. Ideally, you would want another six months to finish this film. It all worked out. We didn't have to cut out one shot. We didn't have to accept one shot we weren't happy with. Usually you get into this thing, you're accepting maybe ten, twenty, thirty shots you would otherwise say "naaaaa." In this case we didn't have to. They really pulled it together. I am especially proud of Centropolis Effects. Sony Pictures Imageworks did a way terrific job. They did a fantastic job. Vision Arts that worked on us on Independence Day and Digiscope also were fantastic and had to crank up at end and did it. It was scary but it all came together at the last second.
A few months ago you were a bit hesitant about having a test screening. Did you finally decide on having one?
Devlin: No, we couldn't. The first time we're going to be able to screen what is the finished picture will be the weekend before the premiere. We literally don't have a finished picture we can screen for anyone yet.
The problem with that as you've said before, is that by not having a test screening, you can't always double-check yourself when it comes to plot points and certain clarification problems that test audiences often provide.
Devlin: I always prefer to do test screenings and it would have been great to do it on this, but it simply wasn't possible. The one thing that is interesting, usually on our pictures, is that Roland and I are in disagreement about four or five things in a movie and the test screenings usually are the arbiter on how we work it out. This is the first time in all the time we've been working together where there is literally not one thing on screen we both don't feel good about. So it's a different experience. I'm not quite as worried as I have been in the past. And now that we're starting to show parts of it, you just get the feeling it's working.
Did anyone see the film outside of the people working on it?
Devlin: I did get to show the film to a few people and not in the best form. I showed it to some people who are very big critics of Roland's work and mine. They are friends but they're highly critical. They came over and they said they thought that Godzilla was a much better film than Independence Day and I was shocked. I said, "why do you feel that way." They said, "because the characters were more interesting." I don't think we wrote better characters. I think this particular grouping of actors [Matthew Broderick, Jean Reno, Maria Patillo, Hank Azaria] brought such interesting stuff to the parts that weren't really written, that it made them quite compelling. I think people are going to be surprised. Even though it's not a character movie, it's not that type of story, I think they're going to be surprised at how interesting the characters are and what great little twists and turns it takes.
I think the best counter-marketing against the backlash of not showing Godzilla are all these great advance billboards that have went up hinting at how tall, wide and big Godzilla is.
Devlin: That came out of Sony's marketing and especially Bob Levin. It's a very ambitious thing because normally on a movie you produce one billboard and you reproduce it. This, you have to make new billboards almost every time you put one up because they're usually relating to something in the environment. I think it's great because it brings the focus back on the movie rather than simply hyping it. It's trying to give the people a real sense of Godzilla . For instance if you just see a picture of an overgrown lizard, it doesn't tell you who Godzilla is. But if you can look in your real life and see how long a bus is and it says that's how long his foot is, suddenly you start to go, I'm starting to see how big he is. And if it's next to the statue of liberty and it says it's as tall as the statue of liberty, it starts to give you a real sense of the creature, actually more if you had just seen a picture or drawing of it.
The other thing that has been happening with the movie is the intense Internet buzz as well as the mainstream press leaking the film's major plot points. I think a few weeks ago the Los Angeles times ran a piece about a rumor regarding a key plot point in the film and so did Entertainment Weekly.
Devlin: This is the amazing thing that has kind of happened here because when you make a movie like this, you get accused of over-hyping, but we're not generating any of these articles and it seems like anything is a story today. Can you imagine if next week they ran an article saying, "In the second half of Armageddon the comet actually hits the earth."? They wouldn't do that. That's not a story. It's not story to reveal plot, but with us apparently it is. I joke that the headline tomorrow will be "Roland Emmerich moves bowel." It just seems to be at a ludicrous stage and it's strange because I don't think that it's the kind of stuff people want to be seeing out there or maybe I'm wrong. I wouldn't have wanted to read the article that said "Jaye Davidson: a man, go see Crying Game ."
I think some of it has to do with Independence Day being so successful. I think it's just you and Roland's turn to get beat up by the press for making successful movies.
Devlin: I think it has to do with that. When you have a movie like Independence Day that did so well and everyone is sitting there waiting and hoping we'll fall on our face. I feel a little bit like the parent just before Christmas. I know what's wrapped in the gift. All the hype that's happened, we go so beyond that. I'm so not worried about over-hyping this film because it's so better than people think it's going to be. I think people are going to be really surprised when they see it and I think the number one comment you will hear from most people is that it's better than they thought it would be. There is a real interesting post-up on the Godzilla website bulletin board. Someone posted recently: "Today is going to be my last time I go on the Godzilla bulletin board until after I see the movie because everybody keeps jumping on rumors and everybody keeps talking about it and I don't want anything else to be spoiled. I'm looking forward to the movie too much. While I've enjoyed the bulletin board and enjoyed all your friendship, you won't be hearing from me until after the 20th of May." And he signed it, "thanks for all the fish." I thought that was real great.
That message board has been the bane of your existence. It seems you're always trying to deal with these rumors and then you have all these people trying to post Godzilla images or images they think are Godzilla that you have to contain.
Devlin: On the other hand though, it shows just how into it they are. Part of me finds it infuriating. It' s like being at a party with all of your friends and you like everyone in the party, but as you're trying to tell this joke, people keep trying to say the punchline and you're like, "wait, wait, wait, you're going to like the joke." I love the enthusiasm and I love that people are into these kind of details which is so beyond anything I would have expected but I really wish everybody would just let us tell the joke. If you don't like the joke, fine, but at least let us tell it.
At a certain point do you let Sony come up with all the merchandising for the movie or do you have a hand in it?
Devlin: Believe it or not, while there are 200 licenses, we actually tossed out a whole lot. We knew we had to do a lot because it was a big movie, but we also didn't want to make you completely sick about it. We didn't want people getting nauseous every time they heard Godzilla's name. And we also didn't want to have products we didn't like. We were pretty careful about that.
You have one of those dreaded "inspired by" soundtracks. How did that come about?
Devlin: This was a different one and it's different because on Independence Day we didn't do that. I'm not in favor of the "songs inspired by" idea, but as we started working on this I kept getting phone calls from rock bands wanting to be involved. Credible bands. And I suddenly started to realize Godzilla was bigger than this movie and all the movies. This was one that deserved the most to have an "inspired by" because Godzilla has inspired artists. So I changed my mind about it. I said " I'm going to talk to some bands who will be the right bands generationally here and what we want to do with them." We met with them and basically said "it's not about the movie it's about what Godzilla means to you. Give us any song and it can be an anti-Godzilla song. This is not just about hyping up the movie." In fact there is one very anti-Godzilla song on the album. I won't say which one, but it will be easy to figure it out.
If it's songs "inspired by" does that mean any of these songs are going to appear in the movie?
Devlin: Eight of them are in the film, but they weren't recorded to be in the film. We set out to do this simply as, "let's do this album that represents how these artists feel about Godzilla ." And I liked the tunes so much and I played them for Roland that we just said "that one would be great in this scene and that one would be great in that scene." They are all source cues and in the end titles so they will be playing on a radio in a room or naturally.
Explain what this huge deal you just made with Sony Pictures entails in delivering "big event movies."
Devlin: What John Calley has done is he's set us up as a mini-studio to hopefully become for them one day down the line, their Amblin. It's a real vote of confidence from the studio in that they're basically trusting us to bring them tent-pole movies.
That's a lot of pressure.
Devlin: It's a lot of pressure, but it's the kind of movies we want to make. Again, I know I've talked about this kind of thing before. I believe that if you don't want to make commercial films, but you're doing it to further your career, you will ultimately make cynical and crappy movies. If those are the films you really enjoy and those are the actual films you get out of bed to go see then it's the best way to do things. That's all Roland and I really want to do. It wasn't "okay, we'll do Godzilla , then we can do Schindler's List next year."
It takes you two years to do a movie, how will this new deal be structured to accompany that?
Devlin: We're going to try to do more than that. We're going to accelerate. Part of the reason why it takes us so long, is we usually spend six to eight months trying to set up a movie between all the negotiating and stuff. The best part of this deal, at least for the next three years, we don't even have to talk about a deal again. Our deal is set.
Do they have approval on what you do?
Devlin: No, they are partners in it. We're really against these deals where they allow you to do whatever movie you want. What happens is, if the studio doesn't get excited about it, they're doing something half-assed because they don't really have their hearts in it. So we always believed that you want your partners as excited about it as you are. The deal is set up in a way that motivates all of us. It's good for them to say yes to our movies and good for us. Our plan is to take a two-week vacation after Godzilla is finished. We're going to do promotion for the movie around the world and as soon as we're back, we start writing the next one. We want to shoot it this December for the next Fourth of July. And Roland's plan, which is something he's never done, is he's going to shoot the next movie right after he finishes shooting that movie. So he's going to shoot two movies back to back, which he's never done before. I'm hoping to direct my first film at the end of next year and we're in talks with a lot of other filmmakers we're real big fans of to get them to come and make films with us. Our hope is to really expand how many films we can turn out a year. Not right away, but hopefully down the line we can make two or three films a year.
Doing back-to-back films, does that mean one movie might be a sequel or is it just two original movies back-to-back?
Devlin: I can't tell you much about the first of these two, but the idea is we're going to write them both at the same time. Roland will shoot the first one and I will actually do the post as he preps the next one. Then we will try to split up a little bit to divide and conquer, but we're hoping to have a summer film out next year and the following year.
Are they big event movies, or are they smaller?
Devlin: The next film is an "event" film but also not trying to top Independence Day and Godzilla . We're actually kind of going the other way, it's more of a thriller. It's still an event movie and more in the size range of Air Force One , but probably a little bit bigger than that in terms of scope. It's a genre thriller.
The other one?
Devlin: That one then we're going after the big thing again.
Even though you've learned a lot about the directing process from Roland, does it make you nervous directing?
Devlin: I'm terrified about directing. I am absolutely terrified. My plan originally was to start with a smaller film and get my feet wet. Roland actually took me aside and said "Dean, there are maybe fifteen people in all of Hollywood who know how to make this kind of movie at this size. You should do that." So he's actually talked me into it. I'm trying an event film of my own.
Did you ever get to direct an episode of Visitor?
Devlin: I never got to. Just at the point I was going to, we went to war with the network and I was physically restrained from doing it because they had me in meetings every day.
Can you explain how this war between 20th Century Fox and you and Roland happened?
Devlin: At the moment it doesn't look like we'll be doing any films for them.
Did any of the stuff you were developing come with you?
Devlin: Supertanker is at FOX. At some point I will see if I can get it back from them in turnaround.. Obviously Fantastic Voyage is a library project so they won't even do a co-production on that. Yeah, it was a sad demise of what was a very good partnership.
What was the turning point?
Devlin: I can't really put a finger on it. Maybe it was our fault. All I know is things went bad after the movie and the Visitor experience was a complete nightmare one in which really soured me. And as other things went badly, they were magnified because of the experience on the Visitor.
Are they still going to go ahead with ID4 ?
Devlin: I really hope they don't. I think if they did, it will be very cynical thing for them to do. Part of the reason we didn't want to do a sequel, is we didn't want to do a cynical film. All of our discussions with them are that it was a valuable property to the studio and they didn't want to cheapen it. They wanted to make a deal for a sequel, but they weren't in any rush to make one until we really busted a story and a script. At least everything they said to us indicated that they wanted to do it right and my hope is they are going to continue with that philosophy and not move forward with it.
Any thoughts on the Universal Soldier sequels?
Devlin: Someone sent me the posters for Universal Soldier 2 and 3. Number 2 apparently stars Gary Busey and Number 3 stars Burt Reynolds and I'm like "what?" Every movie Roland and I have done has turned into a franchise, but not for us.
This deal with Sony you have, does that give you more control over the franchise aspect of the pictures you do?
Devlin: We said, let's have the ability to do this stuff together or not at all. It's sad with all these other projects out there we've done. It's like you're watching your children grow up to be drug addicts.
Have you had second thoughts on the Stargate tv series? It seems to be gaining a bit of a following?
Devlin: It may have gotten better, but I don't know. Obviously I never watched anything after the first three. I don't have second thoughts because they've prevented us from finishing the story. They've killed one of the main characters in the first show that was vital to part 2 and 3 of the movies Roland and I wanted to make. And to me, to add full frontal nudity and have these little lizard things come out of people's bellies and to not have them speak in another language is ridiculous. So suddenly it's like old Star Trek where everyone speaks in the same language. Stargate killed its parents. Can you imagine if someone was doing a Star Wars television series and George Lucas wasn't involved? Even if it turned out to be good, you would be like "hey man, that's Lucas. That's his thing."
How do you feel about the Universal Soldier stuff?
Devlin: It was a bit of a bummer. On the other hand, I don't know what we would have done or if we would have done something. Again it's something you come up with and pull together and the next thing you know someone has done something to it. And by the way, this can't happen in other countries. In France, they are not allowed to do that. There are certain artist right's issues in Europe we should really have here. People don't think of commercial movies as being art but they are in a different way.
How different is Godzilla from ID4 ?
Devlin: I think if you're expecting ID4 , you're going to be really disappointed because it's a very different kind of movie. This is really like a monster movie. It doesn't have the big giant breadth of character that Independence Day had. And it really is about Godzilla . Godzilla is the star of the movie. Roland had a completely different take on how to make this movie than he did with Independence Day . On Independence Day we figured out every effects shot before we even finished writing it. Everything was planned to use this technique, that technique and those techniques. But in Godzilla was simply shot as if Godzilla were a real actor on the set. Meaning if Roland wanted to shoot it with a hand-held camera he would. If he wanted to have a guy running with a steadicam he would. Even if the effects guys were saying, "there's no reason for us to do an effect that way" we did and Roland would say "I'm going to shoot it this way if he were really here and you guys have to figure out how to make it work." And it was a scary thing to do because it meant inventing technology's that had not been perfected yet and trying to do things that only ILM has done and trying to do things that some people have never done. It terrified us. Again, everybody rose to the occasion. So, you will see very often in sequences in this movie, it is shot almost documentary style with a very free moving camera. We didn't use any motion control camera at all in the movie for the live action stuff and we put Godzilla into the real thing. It was amazing. I think it makes you believe a 200-foot lizard is running around New York City.
What kind of destruction happens in the movie?
Devlin: It's less than Independence Day . I think the thing that has always been fun about Godzilla is he's not out trying to destroy things, he's just so big and unwieldy, and when he starts moving things get knocked over. In essence, Godzilla is like this gigantic infant. Actually he has a sweet disposition, but if you let the baby loose in a China shop, everything is going to break.
Once this movie opens are we going to see Godzilla everywhere or you going to try and still limit the release of the image?
Devlin: If I had my choice, I would try to control it. The problem is, the frenzy is so big now, I know people are going to go into the theater with Digital cameras and it will be all over the internet the next day. So rather than let poor quality shots of Godzilla go everywhere, we have now in the last month spent a great deal of energy, producing high-quality, good images of Godzilla for stills and we are going to release those in the first several weeks after the movie has opened. There will be a bunch the week after that. And it's also when people look at the picture of the old Godzilla . They just don't look at a picture and go, "oh that's Godzilla ." They think of all the movies they saw. It's like looking at a picture of a movie star. It brings back all the memories associated with that picture, but if I just show you picture of an actor you've never seen before you're like, "yeah it's a guy, he's white-bread" and you're like "No that's Kevin Costner." That's why when we debut the creature, there needs to be some context so when you see the picture, you go "yeah and that scene where he's chased by forty-five helicopters down 5th Avenue that was unbelievable." Hey, wait a minute, I just gave you something.
Do you have any final thoughts on all the attention being put on you and Roland over the past few months? You're at a great point in your career. How do you feel about this and are you ever overwhelmed by it?
Devlin: What Roland likes to say is he's a half-wit and I'm a half-wit, but together we somehow make up one wit. As long as we never forget that, we'll be just fine.