REWRITING GODZILLA! Lisa Tomei on Americanizing Godzilla 1985!

Screenwriter Lisa Tomei in a recent picture. Photo © Lisa Tomei.

Born and raised in New Jersey, Lisa Tomei is a Clio- and Emmy Award-winning visual effects artist whose credits span a broad range of media, including: commercials, broadcast promos, show opens, episodic television, and music videos. After earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts, Ms. Tomei entered the entertainment industry as a production assistant and ultimately became involved in VFX. In this area, some of her more recent film credits include Zodiac (2007), The Bucket List (2008), and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011). During this time in her career, Ms. Tomei worked primarily on high end commercials, developing and executing most of the ink animations for the Infiniti Shodo campaign. Eventually, Ms. Tomei left the world of VFX and returned to school to earn a master’s degree in clinical psychology. She now works as a psychotherapist in Ventura and Beverly Hills. In 1985, Ms. Tomei was hired to write the American adaptation of Godzilla 1985 (1984) for New World Pictures. She answered Brett Homenick’s questions about that experience in the 2009 interview that follows. 

Brett Homenick: How’d you get your start in the film industry?

Lisa Tomei: Not long before Godzilla (1985) was acquired by New World Pictures, Tony (Randel), my partner at the time, and I had collaborated on a spec movie. I had proven myself to the immediate creatives involved, but because of the investor’s concern with my limited experience, my involvement became a deal-breaker. I was let go during a shockingly rude dinner meeting, despite the fact that I had the best understanding of the plot and characters. That film, I was told by its director, suffered as a result, but I digress. The opportunity to work on the Godzilla script was partly a consolation prize.

BH: What led to your involvement in Godzilla 1985?

LT: Tony asked me to look at the script and see what I thought. I had been dabbling in screenwriting for about a year at this time. He must have felt I showed some promise, or maybe it was simple desperation. He had a project to deliver on a tight schedule. I know he believed I would do my level best to help.

BH: What were your initial thoughts when you were hired to write the English script for this film?

LT: The translated pages of the script were challenging to decipher, at best. My first few times through the film, I felt the story had no cohesion. Some interesting references, but mostly it seemed to be disconnected nonsense. Tall buildings, birds migrating — brief symbols with little or no connection to anything one could glean from the action, the subtitles, or the English translation of the script. I suspect that there were either better allusions or cultural cues for the Japanese in the original. Like poetry, it was too subtle for the American viewer. Things like the angry homeless man still escape me.

I understood my first task was to illuminate or even augment some of the original footage through dialogue. One of the ways I tried to do this was by involving Godzilla in the theory wherein dinosaurs are thought to be the ancestors of modern birds, which I happen to believe. The other approach I wanted to explore was the fact that dragons, fire-breathing dragons at that, have surfaced in the lore and art of virtually every major ancient culture — independently of each other. Coincidence? I think not. Irrespective of the fact that dinosaurs once walked the earth, I suspect there is a need in the human psyche to have a dragon to fear, and ultimately conquer.

BH: There have been conflicting stories about whether the Americanization of Godzilla 1985 was originally intended to be a parody but became a serious project once Raymond Burr signed on. Is there any truth to this story?

LT: For me, it was always serious. The Japanese were trying to make the Godzilla monster symbolic of the consequences of nuclear war, and I had no trouble seeing the importance of that.

BH: How much freedom did you have to include your own ideas into the Americanization?

LT: Initially I was on my own. Having said that, I must credit Tony for having the idea of creating the new scenes, lending a tie-in for American audiences. I saw the insertion of Raymond Burr scenes as an opportunity to explain much of what I felt was missing from the Japanese script. He was, in a sense, the other voice of the professor character, respectful and somewhat compassionate toward a product/victim of human error, much as global warming might be viewed in our day. The military stuff was more of a stretch for me. I think Tony was trying to get some production value out of some sets and prop assets to which he had access.

BH: How much did you work with Tony Randel and Straw Weisman in terms of developing the Americanization?

LT: I took direction from Tony initially, then eventually collaborated with Straw. The basic approach of presenting the old movie and incorporating the new characters and plot was roughed out by me. Tony had some ideas, primarily to make use of the War Room, but I had to come up with the structure and details. Straw finessed some of the dialogue, and wrote most of the funny bits.

BH: How was the story involving the American military brass created, and how did it evolve if at all?

LT: It was Tony’s idea to include military. I roughed in the scenes, named and gave each character a part, but I’m no war movie buff, so I welcomed input — it seemed everyone contributed to that part of the script. It’s been a very long time, but I seem to recall our director and possibly our editor participating in the banter and writing of that — very collaborative.

BH: Who wrote most of the jokes for Travis Swords’ character, the goofy major?

LT: Probably Straw.

BH: What about Raymond Burr’s character? Did he rewrite any of his dialogue?

LT: Yes, he did not approve of his soliloquy. The analogies/metaphoric references were from my work (not saying my version was perfect, and not naming names), but some of my writing for his character had been seriously tampered with (to make it more combative) before Burr saw it — and I thought it was out of character, too. That lovely, fiery head credit I have leaves me the blame as well as the credit!

BH: Do you remember any ideas that you or anyone else might have had that had to be dropped from the script for whatever reason?

LT: I don’t recall the whole parody debate. That must have happened before I was involved. I’m an avid environmentalist and was glad to take it in that direction.

BH: Could you describe what a typical day of writing the screenplay was like?

LT: In the beginning, it was very earnest. Me, alone in my apartment, trying hard not to disappoint. Later I would go into Raleigh Studios and spend the days with Straw acting out the execution of lines, laughing much of the time. (The Japanese language is very unlike ours. Their mouths move very fast by comparison and very abruptly. Dubbing well is virtually impossible, and so inherently funny. Additionally, Straw is a fairly funny guy.)

BH: Please describe what was involved in dubbing the film into English.

LT: I went as an observer, although I remember being told ahead of time that if my programming was flawed, I was toast. (I was the one who had logged in all the key-code for the dubbed lines, not normally among the writer’s duties.) Eventually we came to the parts where I (as a writer) had purposely taken advantage of every single time I could to clarify the underlying motif. When the professor’s mouth was off-screen, or his back was turned briefly, he got lines — a chance to say things we couldn’t fit in Japanese mouths. No one seemed to know how to execute this, and (R. J.) Kizer ended up putting me on the dubbing stage with the actors to show them how it worked. That was a blast!

BH: How much time did you have to write the script?

LT: I actually don’t recall. I worked long hours. My whole life was Godzilla throughout the duration.

BH: How many drafts of the script were written?

LT: Have no idea.

BH: After the script was completed, did you have any more involvement with the production?

LT: I programmed the ADR, attended the dubbing, and even hung out at the shoot with Burr.

BH: Do you have any other stories from the production of Godzilla 1985 that you’d like to tell?

LT: Tony and I walked into a theater — I think it was the Chinese — to see one of the first viewings of the trailer he had done with Nelson Lyon, a truly gifted writer from SNL (Saturday Night Live), and the audience loved it. That was really a thrill. It didn’t ruin the film, either, for which I give it real credit.

BH: What did you think of the film once it was finished?

LT: I was a little disappointed in my own work. The mouths were still out of sync, making the film seem funny at times when it wasn’t supposed to be. Again, I just have to say dubbing English into Japanese footage is easier said than done. Thankfully, the audience wanted it to be campy. On the other hand, seeing some of my original ideas executed on a big screen, even though they were not as I had seen them in my mind, was an amazing experience.

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