Fragile humans of Austin: We have seen Godzilla, and he is mighty.
Before SXSW began, film festival director Janet Pierson coyly hinted that there was something special lined up for Tuesday's archival special screening of 1954's Godzilla. And, no, it's not just that it was the only screening through the entire fest in 35mm.
Nor was it the presence of Gareth Edwards, director of 2010 SXSW microbudget marvel Monsters and director of the upcoming 2014 Godzilla for Warner Bros., Legendary Pictures and Toho.
Nope, it was the first full sequence from the film: A monstrously packed five minutes of full-on Kaiju madness.
We won't spoil all the details for you, but suffice it to say that a lot of the footage from the second trailer comes from this one tight five minute sequence. The image of Godzilla swimming under and dwarfing an aircraft carrier; Ken Watanabe staring on in abject horror; The massive beast's bulk causing a tsunami; And, yes, there is more than one monster, with a design that tips the hat more than a little to classic foes like Gigan.
Which made it all the more incongruous when Edwards – a mild-mannered, soft-spoken Englishman – sheepishly took to the stage. He admitted, there had been some speculation that the 1954 version was just a bluff, and this would be a screening of his completed work (or at least a near-completion version) but the soundtrack is still in process. If he had showed the current cut, with its temp track, it would have costs hundreds of thousands of dollars for the rights for one night only. Instead he thanked his composer Alexandre Desplat for running into the studio, assembling an orchestra, and quickly creating the original music for that one clip, just so Edwards could show one of his favorite sequences in front of an audience before the May 16 release date.
It's a strange homecoming for Edwards, who credits his career to the rapturous SX response to his debut feature, a no-name $25,000 indie. Now he has a multi-multi-million project with an A-list cast. Not that it was hard to get people to audition: As he explained, it doesn't take much prompting to find out that everyone is a secret Godzilla fan. "I spent the last two years of my life meeting people, talking about the film, and then when they walk away they go [whispers] 'I love Godzilla. Don't fuck it up.'"
But it wasn't just about getting name actors: It was getting the exact actors he wanted. "When I'm writing a story, you can't help but pick a fantasy of who you want to play these roles. For example, there's a main part in the story, and I couldn't help but picture Bryan Cranston. And it's not from Breaking Bad. I've seen a few episodes, but even in Malcolm in the Middle, I've always thought he's fantastic. And obviously that episode of Air Wolf from 1986."
Namedropping Walter White got a cheer, but the night's biggest applause was reserved for the first full appearance anywhere of the king of monsters himself. Massive, menacing, with elements that look to combine the classic early Gojira design with a snapping turtle. This Godzilla feels like a dinosaur with a nuclear reactor in its chest, glowing and rippling (plus the redesigned feet, stumpier like a sauropod, rather than long like a raptor, really work.)
That trademark roar is there too, more sonorous and terrifying than ever. Toho's original sound designers came across it by accident, rubbing leather gloves coated in resin across bass strings. After a lot of failed glove-resin-bass experiments, Edwards turned to Erik Aadahl ("who does sound design for Transformers on this end of the film spectrum, and The Tree of Life for Terrance Malick over here") who recreated it for modern sound systems with secret alchemy. "He won't tell me how he did it," Edwards said. "I keep asking him how he did it, but he's like, 'I'm going to tell you when the film's over, because if you know, it's going to spoil it for you, and you're always going to be thinking of it."
Unlike the endlessly controversial 1998 American version, this Godzilla really harkens back to the Toho classic. Edwards explained the design ethos: "Imagine that this is a real animal, and that 60 years ago, someone saw him off the coast of Japan, and they went running to Toho, and they tried to explain him. They drew him, and they made their movies and they made the guy-in-a-suit outfit. Hopefully, you'll see that this is a real animal, but you can still see how they arrived at this design."
More importantly, unlike the 1998 American version, this isn't product development by committee, but the film Edwards wanted to see. He said, "We just made this film so that we can sit in the cinema and have a little fan boy freakout, and it just so happens that, the way this business works, we get to release it to the world"
So what is it, host Jessica Chobot asked Edwards, that fascinates us so much about monsters? "That's the ultimate question," he said. "We'd asked that ourselves many times before making this film, and then you get quite profound about it. I genuinely think that, deep in our thousands and thousands and millions of years with nature, there's a chance that an animal's going to come and attack us or eat us or destroy our village or eat our food. It's deep in our DNA that the creature's going to come today or tomorrow. In the modern time, just this small period of time in the lifespan of humanity, we've built these massive cities and we've pushed nature out, but it's still very strong in us that the animal is going to come, and it's going to destroy everything we've built. Our caves have gone from these little huts and caves to 30 storey buildings, so our nightmares become 30 storeys as well."
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