JAPAN AND ITS SPECIAL EFFECTS! Oscar Winner Richard Edlund on His Interest in the Land of the Rising Sun and Godzilla!

Academy Award-winning visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund. Photo © Richard Edlund.

Richard Edlund is a four-time Academy Award winner (winning for Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Return of the Jedi) who helped revolutionize the area of visual effects in moviemaking. Mr. Edlund’s extensive effects credits include such blockbusters as: Poltergeist (1982), Ghostbusters (1984), Die Hard (1988), Batman Returns (1992), and Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), among many others. Not only is he one of Hollywood’s most important visual effects pioneers, he is also a Godzilla fan. In 2010, Brett Homenick spoke with Mr. Edlund about his interest in Godzilla and Japan, along with his involvement in the Japanese co-production Solar Crisis (1990), in the interview that follows.

Brett Homenick: How did you come to Japan for the first time?

Richard Edlund: Well, I joined the Navy. It was actually the base swimming pool that changed my life. When I was in Pensacola at the Naval Photographic School after boot camp, as I was a pretty accomplished photographer before I joined the Navy, I was soon at the top of the class. One day I went to the swimming pool and fell asleep in the sun. When I woke up I had a terrible sunburn on my back. It took me several minutes to stand up right, or I’d pass out. I had already made friends with Chief Warrant Officer Conger who took pity on me, and let me sit in his office and read his advanced film books for at least a week while I healed. Because I didn’t want to get stuck with shore duty in Corpus Christi or someplace like that, I put in for a carrier, and my fellow photo-mates all thought I was nuts. But I said, “Well, at least I’ll be traveling.”

So at the end of the course, I had done real well in school, and when they passed out the duty assignments, I was to report for duty in Japan, which was the ultimate plum. I believe it all started with the sunburn, since Conger turned out to be in charge of doling out duty assignments. Being something of an esthete, when I got to Japan, I was enraptured by the artfulness of the surrounds and the depth of this strange new culture. So that’s how I wound up over there, stationed at the Fleet Air Photo Lab in Atsugi, the main air base of Japan, for about 27 months. By the time I left, I was pretty good speaking and reading basic Japanese.

BH: According to John Fasano, you’re a big Godzilla fan, or at least you’re familiar with the series. I’m just wondering how you discovered Godzilla.

RE: How could you not discover Godzilla? I mean, it was on TV late at night, for the most part here. I think I may have first seen Godzilla in Japan, in Japanese with Raymond Burr’s part dubbed in Japanese. Also, there used to be the Toho La Brea Theater, which went out of business about 25 years ago—it’s now a Korean church. They used to run the Godzilla movies, and of course I always loved Kurosawa’s films and those by several other Japanese directors. I’ve been to Japan over the years about 70 times. I haven’t counted my destination stamps lately, but I’m on my fourth passport. At one point I counted 61 Narita stamps So I’ve been over there many, many times, mainly to the Tokyo area, but I’ve also been to Kamakura, Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Ise, Nagoya, and Nagasaki.  Because I became a Japanophile as a young man, I began to collect books about Japan, various Japanese art and many fine woodblock prints. Yoshitoshi is my favorite artist.

BH: Well, out of all the Godzilla films or the other Toho science fiction films that you may have seen, do you have any particular favorites?

RE: Well, I kind of like the old Raymond Burr ones, the early first and second ones, I think. I mean, they’re so corny. The miniature girls in the little purse. (laughs) I mean, they’re really fun! Then Mothra, I think. “Mo-su-ra, Mo-su-ra.” At one point, when I went over to Japan, I was invited by Toho out to the studio lot and saw the little stages where they had shot Godzilla in. They had mud floors.

I was actually suggesting to Toho executives—this was about two or three years before Emmerich did that horrible Godzilla movie—“What you really need to do is do a high-budget Hollywood Godzilla movie. This is really a most valuable Japanese movie commodity, and the time has come to get some Western stars and do a big-budget Godzilla movie.” Unfortunately, the movie that was made killed Godzilla in a way.

I met the guy who actually was Godzilla who wore the suit, who stomped through Tokyo.

BH: Oh, Haruo Nakajima?

RE: Nakajima, yeah. So we were awed by each other’s backgrounds, right? (laughs) So anyway, I was treated like a god at Toho because I had done Star Wars. But I was a fan of Godzilla, Ultraman—those kind of low-budget, figure-out-how-to-do-it-on-the-cheap movies. Actually, a lot of those were really ingenious and worked pretty well. I met the son of the man that started the whole Godzilla thing.

BH: Tsuburaya?

RE: Tsuburaya, hai! (laughs) I met Tsuburaya-san one day when I was staying at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. I think I pitched him as well, “Why don’t you make a large-budget Godzilla movie?”

Then there was another guy who had a script who wanted to do a Godzilla movie in America.

BH: Jan De Bont?

RE: No. It should have been him. It was before that. It was ‘83, I think.

BH: Oh, yes, Steve Miner, I think.

RE: That’s it. But I didn’t think his script was very good. Not that any of the Godzilla scripts were great. In the original Godzilla, the Plexiglas see-through bomb prop that they created, which was sunk down in the ocean to neutralize the monster, was actually a mockup of how the atomic bomb worked. It had two hemispheres filled with the isotopes, and they basically slammed them together using a gun. The real bomb worked by slamming these two interior hemispheres together, using a dynamite charge, and the energy of them smacking together like that caused critical mass and the nuclear fission that exploded. So that was kind interesting that they used the hated concept of Fat (Man). It’s a strange allegorical choice that was made.

Like King Kong, by the end of the movie, Godzilla had become a sorrowful character that, well, you were feeling sorry for the big guy.

BH: According to John (Fasano), when I spoke to him not too long ago, he told me an interesting bit of trivia. I believe while you were filming Empire Strikes Back, you kept a Mechagodzilla toy…

RE: Oh, yeah! No, that was on Star Wars. “Mecha” was riding on top of the camera all through shooting the miniatures for Star Wars. Basically, the camera was under-slung from the end of the boom—there was a platform there, and then from that platform hung the camera. Mecha was on top.

I had designed a head for the camera which kept the lens at the vertex of the pan, tilt and roll axes. It looked like a big Trojan helmet. I reasoned that by under-swinging the camera, it would give me the maximum flexibility to rig the complicated shots that were required for the movie. I could even shoot many, many shots upside-down and even in reverse because it was easier to set things up that way and more facile to light and avoid lens flares. That was partially the philosophy for shooting Star Wars.

BH: Do you remember where you got the Mechagodzilla toy? Was it in Japan?

RE: Let me think. I probably did get it at the huge toy store called Kiddy Rando (Kiddy Land) in Tokyo. Omotesando is kind of like a shopping area. At one end of it, you had all the Elvis impersonators and the teenaged girls in their little bobby socks and short skirts and what they would normally wear when they’re nine to 11. This is going back over 30 years. Now you’ve got the guys with the spiked jackets and then, of course, the extreme goths. But anyway, there’s the toy store Kiddy Rando, and I used to go over there. I bought a Godzilla cigarette lighter which I just gave to my pal—you could light your cigarette with the little mini Godzilla who breathes fire.

BH: Well, you talked about visiting Toho a little bit. As I understand it, you also visited the set of Gunhed when they were filming that around ‘88, ‘89. Do you have any memories of visiting the set of Gunhed during that time?

RE: I don’t remember that, but I very well might have. Around that time, I did a movie called Crisis nijugojunen (a.k.a. Crisis 2050). You know about that one, right?

BH: Yes, Solar Crisis.

RE: I produced that.

BH: How did you get involved in that?

RE: I had done a theme park project for NHK, a ride film. So I became friends with some of the people from NHK. Back then, I was well-known in Japan. When I did Empire Strikes Back, I was interviewed copiously in Tokyo. Every magazine and TV station was over there, shooting and interviewing me. So I became pretty well-known in Tokyo. People would come up to me on the street or at the airport and ask questions. I would try to answer in my rusty Japanese.

So I knew (Takeshi) Kawata-san. He was a writer who wrote documentaries for NHK. He had dreamt up a cockamamie story of a trip to the Sun, which won the contest for an idea for a feature film. First of all, they asked me if I would do the visual effects for it. I thought, sure. Then a group took me to a beer hall in Tokyo. (Morris) Morishima said: “I have a question for you.” “Would you like to produce the movie?” I said, “Yeah, maybe I will.”

The man who put the money up for the movie always wanted to produce a Hollywood movie. He was in his 80s. He had built, after the war, a humongous publishing empire called Gakken. Gakken is kind of like a cross between National Geographic and Encyclopedia Britannica. For example, they publish many, many magazines, 13 of which are from kindergarten through grade 12. They have a magazine for every year of school. All the kids in Japan have grown up with Gakken magazines. They publish textbooks, scientific works, even very expensive limited edition art books, on woodblock prints, for example. It’s sort of like how Sony started out making rice cookers, and look what it has become. Well, Gakken started out small, too. Now it’s housed in a huge building in Tokyo, and the son and grandson have taken over the business.

Anyway, our financier loved this 1971 movie Vanishing Point, and through the law firm that was representing them—I was friendly with their lawyer—I told them, “Under no circumstances let them hire (Richard) Sarafian as the director because with him I won’t ever be able to get a star in this movie, and it’ll surely tank!” Then they kind of cuckolded me in a way. They went ahead and hired Sarafian. I guess the movie was actually pretty good. He’s not without talent, but the thing is that he had done very little, and he was mainly an actor. He was really heavy; he was about 150 pounds overweight. So I got stuck with this guy, who then got his son to write the screenplay. This was a nightmare. But actually, it has great effects!

BH: It does.

RE: Have you seen it?

BH: Yeah, I saw it about 10 years ago.

RE: The effects are great in it, and I just actually sold a lot of the miniatures recently. I kept all those miniatures in a warehouse, and I got tired of paying $1300 a month to store all this stuff, so I decided to put it on sale. Even the big space station, which weighed about 500 pounds and was in three different big cases, sold for pretty good money. Syd Mead designed the spaceship. It was high-class work throughout. Jack Palance and Chuck Heston were in it. I got those guys. But Tim—trying to remember the star’s name.

BH: Matheson.

RE: Tim Matheson. Nice guy, but he was not going to open the picture. He was in…

BH: Animal House.

RE: Animal House, you got it. So anyway, that was that. It was fun doing it. The other thing is, what they did is, they announced the movie as having a $60 million budget in Tokyo. Since Time magazine was there, I was really nervous about that because when you announce that kind of a budget, everybody expects that they’re going to have their posses along with them. So everybody thought we were ripping them off.

I think the effects came in at a pretty good number at that time. It was about $12 million for the effects for the movie. So that was a pretty big number for effects, but it wasn’t $60 million for the movie. I think the production came in at something like $12 million—12 or 13, all in, except for the visual effects.

BH: Overall, what did you think of the final result of Solar Crisis? Were you happy with it?

RE: Well, I was happy with it, visually. Russell Carpenter shot it. He’s an incredibly talented cinematographer. I saw his reel, and I said, “Look no further. This guy is great!” George Jenson production-designed it. I think he did a wonderful job. He worked with me on 2010. He had basically worked as an illustrator, but he really had a good aesthetic sense. So if you look at the movie, I think the movie looks like a fairly big-budgeted movie. If we had some decent stars in it and a decent director… So that was the big disappointment.

BH: Well, you touched on it a little bit earlier, but what were your thoughts on Godzilla (1998)?

RE: Oh, I thought it was awful. I think Roland Emmerich has got a sense of the mega-big and too-much-is-not enough kinds of attitude towards moviemaking, which doesn’t rub me in the right way. So I was very disappointed in that. To redesign Godzilla on top of that, he had a lot of gall. Godzilla, for better or for worse, even if he’s kind of a big clumsy-looking guy with a bunch of spikes sticking out of his back, is in everybody’s memory in numerous generations, a couple of generations before and a couple afterwards. Some of those things you shouldn’t mess around with. You should just leave them like they are.

BH: Do you have any closing comments about Godzilla or just anything else you’d like to say just to wrap everything up?

RE: He’s a cinematic legend that everybody in the world knows about. Godzilla rules! Many, many people were disappointed by the movie that was made 12 years ago. I hope he gets properly resurrected on the international stage.

Special thanks to John Fasano, Mika Fowler, and Crystal Ro for their assistance.




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