REDESIGNING A LEGEND! William Stout on the Godzilla That Never Was!

With William Stout in Los Angeles in May 2009. Photo © Brett Homenick.

William Stout, one of the world’s leading dinosaur and wildlife artists, was tapped in the early 1980s by director Steve Miner to storyboard his proposed film “Godzilla: King of the Monsters in 3-D.” His credits in the sci-fi/fantasy genre include Conan the Barbarian (1982), Invaders from Mars (1986), Men in Black (1997), and Disney’s Dinosaur (2000). Mr. Stout discussed his work on the proposed 3-D Godzilla film with Brett Homenick in a 2005 interview.

Brett Homenick: What led to your interest in dinosaurs?

William Stout: When I was three years old, my parents took me to the drive-in to see my first movie. It was a re-release of the 1933 King Kong. I think it did damage at a genetic level. It’s still my favorite movie of all time. I’ve seen it over 100 times. I went to the 50th anniversary recreation of the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre premiere of the film. I got photographed clutched in Kong’s hand and met Fay Wray. I am a Kong nut and, of course, a dinosaur nut. Shortly after seeing King Kong for the first time I saw the “Rites of Spring” sequence in Walt Disney’s Fantasia. I’ve been dinosaur crazy ever since.

BH: When did you discover your artistic talents?

WS: At a very early age. I used to love to draw cartoons. They got a big reaction from my parents, so I continued to draw them. Eventually, as I got better, it became a great non-threatening way to get noticed by my peers as well.

BH: Would you consider yourself a Godzilla fan?

WS: I know this will sound like blasphemy, but no, not really. Don’t get me wrong; I’m interested in that genre, but I just don’t go much out of my way to pursue those films. Steve Miner screened the Japanese version of the first film for us. We were shocked at how slow it was. I loved Takashi Shimura, though — great actor. I’ve seen all of his Kurosawa films.

BH: How did you get involved in the 3-D Godzilla project?

WS: I was initially hired by (3-D project director) Steve Miner to do presentation art for the film. I was known for that at the time in the film business. Presentation art is artwork that is shown to investors or the studio to get them excited about the project and to show them your intended visual direction.

BH: What did you think of the script when you read it?

WS: I was blown away. I thought it was brilliant. I usually don’t like attempts to remake classic films. This was much smarter. Instead of remaking a classic film, Steve Miner’s idea was to take a classic idea and monster from a film with an okay execution of that idea and monster and totally surprise the movie audience expecting to see just another cheesy Godzilla movie with a Spielbergian script approach and state-of-the-art special effects. Brilliant!

BH: How did you prepare for the project?

WS: Research, research, research. I watched Godzilla films, I studied contemporary military weapons and vehicles, and I gathered everything I could visually on San Francisco, oil rigs, and other elements of the film.

BH: How did you want to recreate Godzilla?

WS: I wanted Godzilla to be real — much more real than the Japanese Godzilla. No guy in a suit. This was an animal, a real prehistoric animal. Godzilla, of course, was huge. Something that big living in the sea would be its own swimming ecosystem. There would be all kinds of sea creatures growing and living on its scaly armored skin.

BH: Essentially, what went into your work, storyboarding the film?

WS: After I painted the first presentation painting and got to know Steve Miner, Steve discovered I did storyboards, as well. He hired me to board the film’s effects which, if you read the script, appear in about 90% of the film’s scenes. Steve wanted large panel storyboards. I drew them with a fair amount of detail. I showed what I was doing to Mentor Huebner, one of the all time great storyboard artists (North by Northwest, Blade Runner, etc.). He said, “You know what you’re doing here with all of this attention to detail in your storyboards — you’re designing the film. You should ask about being the production designer.” I did. Steve did some background checks on me and then offered me that title on the film. It made me the youngest production designer in film history.

BH: Were you careful not to change the image of Godzilla too drastically?

WS: Yes, I thought that it was important not to deviate too much from the classic Godzilla design. It was, after all, Godzilla. The fans would expect to see Godzilla — not just another dinosaur.

BH: What was your working relationship with Steve Miner like?

WS: Great. Steve really trusted me and my filmmaking instincts. He gave me a lot of rope. I took scenes and storyboarded them on paper the way I would if I had been directing the film. I even chose music and put together a scratch track tape to go along with the viewing of my boards! Because of this, if our Godzilla had been a hit, Steve wanted me to direct a remake of Rodan as our next project.

BH: What sort of ideas did you have for the city destruction scenes?

WS: We — Steve, Fred (Dekker, 3-D project screenwriter),  and I — thought it was crucial that Godzilla destroy the major landmarks of San Francisco. If not, then why use San Francisco? We started with a spectacular destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge and ended with Godzilla’s death on Alcatraz.

BH: I’ve read you enlisted Jonny Quest creator Doug Wildey to assist you with the storyboards. Is this true? What other artists contributed?

WS: I hired my studio mate Dave Stevens to help me with the storyboards so that we could speed up production. Dave suggested bringing in Doug Wildey, an old animation and comic book friend of his and the model and inspiration for Peevy in Dave’s Rocketeer comics. Doug was an old hand at storyboarding; I learned a lot from Doug. I asked Alex Toth to join us, but he declined, saying that Godzilla was not his cup of tea.

BH: Did you come up with any ideas that were either dropped because of budget constraints or objections from Steve Miner, Fred Dekker, or anyone else?

WS: I pretty much followed Fred’s script, just elaborating some here and there. Why mess with a great script? We eventually had to drop the idea of doing the film in 3-D for budgetary reasons.

BH: Any interesting stories you can tell about working on it?

WS: We had a dream crew. Dinosaur sculptor par excellence Stephen Czerkas sculpted and made our initial Godzilla stop-motion animation model; special makeup effects wizard Rick Baker was signed on to do a large robotic head of Godzilla for us, and the great David Allen was going to be our lead stop-motion animator. You have to remember that this was all pre-CG. Incredible!

BH: Why was the 3-D Godzilla film never made?

WS: Our Godzilla movie was the right project at the wrong time. Four big expensive blockbusters had just been released (Heaven’s Gate amongst them), and all of them had bombed. The studios immediately became gun-shy about putting money into big budget films. Plus, they had no faith in Steve. They didn’t think he could pull off something this big, this classy, and this sophisticated. You can’t really blame them too much. His only direction credits at the time were the Friday the 13th movies. He later showed he could handle anything, but that was later.

BH: What did you think of the experience?

WS: It was incredible, exciting — a really great time to be working in the business. And it proved to me I had it in me to production design a film.

BH: What did you think of the TriStar Godzilla (1998) film?

WS: I found it highly enjoyable, especially the part with the little Godzillas. Good cast, too — I love Matthew Broderick, a fine actor. My only major complaint was the repetition of certain special effects, like Godzilla’s tail taking out a row of windows. Repeating effects is a big film no-no. Once the audience has seen it, they’ve seen it. Don’t do it again.

BH: Any closing comments?

WS: I’d still love to make this movie. The script really holds up and, as I stated, Steve has shown he can direct anything. I still think this film as we envisioned it would be a — pardon the term — monster hit!

For more information on William Stout, please visit http://www.williamstout.com.

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