R. J. Kizer, born and raised in the New York City area, attended New York University Film School, from which he graduated in 1976. Following graduation, Mr. Kizer moved to Los Angeles in 1978. In May 1979, he began working at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. There he met Tony Randel and pursued a career in film editing. Mr. Kizer subsequently earned a few directing and screenwriting jobs. One of his best known films as a director is the American version of Godzilla 1985 (1984). Mr. Kizer currently works as a sound editor, primarily at 20th Century Fox. In 2007, Mr. Kizer discussed his directing the American scenes of Godzilla 1985 with Brett Homenick.
Brett Homenick: How’d you get involved with Godzilla 1985
R.J. Kizer: Very simply, I got a phone call from Tony Randel one day, asking me to meet him for breakfast at a restaurant. I think it was a Saturday morning. We got together, we sat down, ordered our breakfast, and then he just leaned across the table and said words to the effect of, “I’m giving you the opportunity to become immortal.” He continued with, “I’d like you to direct the American scenes for Godzilla 1985.” How could I say no? But as I got involved with it, I saw that the operations for creating the American version of Godzilla 1985 were already well under way.
When I came on board, Michael Spence, the film editor, had already done a cut. He and Tony Randel had already gone through the Japanese version and eliminated certain scenes and made holes where they thought the American scenes should go. The script for the American scenes had already been written. So my job title sounds far more impressive than in fact it was. Godzilla 1985 was more like being a TV series director. On a television series, the director is often coming into a show that is already ongoing. There’s a production staff that already exists, there’s a crew that already exists, there’s a style, a way of doing things that already exists. The director is like a guest conductor, coming in to just put a little bit of personal flavor into the performance, but don’t change any of the notes.
BH: Are you aware of some of the initial plans that were being discussed when you were first brought on to the project, some of the ideas about how the movie should be Americanized?
RK: Not really. When I came on board, everything was well under way. Essentially the script for the American scenes that I recall reading was very tongue-in-cheek, very light-hearted. Tony told me that they were actively pursuing Leslie Nielsen to play the part that was eventually played by Raymond Burr. Of course, in the early script Nielsen was not going to be “Steve Martin,” the reporter, from the original American version of Godzilla. I think he was some sort of American super-scientist or something like that. It was all a riff on the type of roles that Leslie Nielsen was at that time famous for from the Airplane! movies and the Police Squad! TV show — the very dry, Jack Webb-like delivery of nonsensical lines. So everything was written in this very tongue-in-cheek (style) with hints of Dr. Strangelove, especially the parts dealing with the Pentagon.
The script contained very grandiose plans, from a production standpoint. There was a sequence of the general riding in a helicopter, landing on a heliport, being met by a squad of Marines, and escorted down into the War Room. We had all these very ambitious things and lots of plans of getting stock footage of fighter jets and bombers scrambling and pilots racing into their cockpits. Tony had already initiated dealings with the U.S. Air Force to obtain government footage of such things. But he wasn’t getting any results. I remembered watching a TV program that used a lot of the same type of footage. It was called First Strike, and it was aired on PBS in 1979. It was a dramatization of what would it be like if we went to a full Red Alert.
Anyway, I tracked down the production company, and I remember contacting them. They said, “No, all that footage is controlled by the Air Force.” So we contacted the Air Force and tried to get permission to use that material. Well, we just got caught in a huge bureaucratic loop. For approval of these sorts of things, the Pentagon works on a time frame of months, and we only had one month. They were taking way too long to get back to us, and we just could not wait. So we very quickly abandoned trying to get the material. We had a firm deadline. Godzilla 1985 was going to open in August, and we were already in July.
Tony came in one day and said, “We got Raymond Burr.” That started to change everything because now the tongue-in-cheek approach in the script had to be altered to accommodate Mr. Burr. That’s where Straw Weisman left the project. He sort of said, “Well, go on, do whatever you want. I’ve got too much other stuff to do.”
BH: So Straw Weisman was only involved when it was tongue-in-cheek.
RK: For the most part, yes. He had written the script and turned it over. He would check in every now and then, “How are things going?” He had other business at New World, so he was around the office. But once Burr was signed on, Tony said to me, “We have to rewrite a couple of the speeches for the Burr character.” (I never learned what prompted this. Maybe Tony had spoken with Burr’s representatives. Or maybe Tony felt on his own that the script needed to be rewritten for Mr. Burr.) I remember talking to Tony and saying, “Well, maybe it should go more like X, Y, and Z.” He said, “Well, why don’t you write it up?” “Why don’t I call Straw?” He said, “No, no, why don’t you just write it up, and then show it to Straw, and he’ll write it up.” So I wrote a draft, and Tony sent it to Straw. Straw called back and said, “Well, why don’t you guys just go ahead and finish it.” That was the last we saw of him. I got the clear impression that he was a little disappointed with how things were going, and he decided to absent himself.
BH: You talked about Straw Weisman, who was one of the writers, but the other writer is Lisa Tomei. Did she write the serious version of the film?
RK: No, she wrote the English version for the Japanese part of the film. She was the one sitting down with a translation of the Japanese picture and then reworking that translation into a form that New World and Tony wanted it to do, which led to some comic things when we actually came down to doing the dubbing of it. For example, we would get to a place in the reel, and I would look at the line that she had written for the character. We would all look up at the screen, and measure the spot and say, “Well, we have twice as many words as the character is visually speaking on the screen.”
So we were doing quite a bit of quick improvisational rewriting while we were doing this ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement) session. I would say to the voice actor, “Okay, here’s what you’re trying to say. Let’s figure out a way to say that with the amount of space that we’ve got available to us.” At that point, we didn’t have any option of recutting or changing anything. We had to make everything fit from the time the mouth opened to the time the mouth closed.
A big challenge with the dubbing was how different Japanese and English are from each other. It seems that there are a lot of words in Japanese that end with an open mouth. So we would have all these shots where the Japanese character would finish their line, but their mouth would be wide open. We would have in our English script a word that was a closed-mouth word, like a “-tion“ or an “-ing“ or something. Clearly, the sound didn’t make any sense with what we were seeing on the screen. So we were trying to figure out how to phrase the line so that the sound would make sense with the image.
I just remember there was one line where the written version was, “So you’re saying we can’t drop the bomb.” But the Japanese character had his mouth wide open at the end of the line. So I had the American actor say, “So you’re saying we can’t drop the bomb, huh?!”
BH: (laughs) I know what line that was.
RK: No matter what we were doing with the regular English line, it just looked absurd in the picture. So finally we did that. We said, “Well, at least it makes sense with what we’re seeing, so we’ll let that go.” It became a running joke. It was like, “So every line we should end with ‘huh’?” Well, it certainly seems to fit the image, but now we’ve introduced another level of comedy — unintentional comedy — into this thing.
By the way, many people say, “Oh, they put ‘Sayonara sucker!’ in there when the pilot is firing at Godzilla in the Tokyo Bay.” I know some fans have said, “Oh, why did they put that in there?” Why not? It was just too good of an opportunity to not do.
BH: Do you have any memories of what happened in the preproduction meetings with Raymond Burr or the other actors or just anybody else?
RK: There were only two meetings that I had with the actors prior to shooting, besides casting. Let me back up. There was a marathon casting session. As soon as I came on the show, immediately — and I mean the very next day — I was in a casting session. Danny Goldman was hired to do the casting for us. So we had these very long sessions. We had two or three days, just all day long, bringing in actors and reading them for different parts. We were videotaping the auditions. We would read three actors together, each playing a different officer in the War Room.
So we had all these tapes, and we had all these notes that we had made. We came up with this index card thing of writing down who our favorites were in different readings and then tripling them up and saying, “Okay, is this visually a good tripling of these people, physically? Do they make sense together? Do they give enough variety? Are we going to be able to tell one apart from the other one?” Also, we auditioned lots of children to play the part of the little boy. I remember that.
Now once we decided on Warren Kemmerling to play the general, he wanted to have a meeting with me. I think we met at Nickodell’s restaurant, which was right outside Paramount Studios. Nickodell’s is no longer there, by the way. We were sitting at the bar. He ordered some kind of a hard liquor drink, and I ordered a beer. He just raised his eyebrow and said, “That’s all you’re drinkin’?!” I thought to myself, “Oh, man. He’s gonna be one of these guys. Okay.” The gist of the meeting was that he was another one who took issue with the light-hearted tone of a lot of the scenes, and did not want to do it. “I could be the hard, crusty, no-nonsense general, but I’m not gonna do this. I’m not gonna do that. I’m not gonna say this, and I’m not gonna say that.”
So I went back to Tony to give a report on our meeting. He said, “Well, yeah, maybe he’s right.” That’s why the poor lieutenant got stuck with all the stupid lines. “Okay, we’ll take that line away from that character. Who else can say that?” “Well, the lieutenant.” “All right, he’s gonna be the fall guy. He‘s gonna be the dumb one in the group.” So poor Travis (Swords) got stuck with all the dumb lines.
The second meeting was right before we shot. The day before the first day of photography was when Burr came down to Los Angeles. (I think he was living up in Northern California.) He wanted to have dinner with me, to discuss the scenes and everything. So I met him at the Mondrian Hotel on Sunset Boulevard. That’s where he stayed. We had dinner at the restaurant there at the Mondrian Hotel. By “we” I mean Mr. Burr, myself, and Mr. Burr’s business partner.
I remember knocking on his hotel room door, and he opened the door, fixed his eyes on me, and said, “Godzilla is an allegory for the dilemma and madness of nuclear bombs in this world, and that is not something I will laugh at.” I said, “Yes, sir!” He let me into his hotel suite, whereupon he immediately expressed his displeasure with his character’s final speech. Before I could offer an explanation, he reads me his own re-write of the speech. There was no question about it — it was much, much better than what he had. When I said to him that we would definitely use his version, he relaxed, his business partner relaxed, and then we went to dinner.
We basically had a long-ranging discussion about his career in Hollywood. I was pumping him with questions about working on Rear Window with Alfred Hitchcock and some of the Westerns and other movies that he did in the early ’50s. I asked him if he thought that his portrayal of the prosecuting attorney in the George Stevens film A Place in the Sun led to his being cast as Perry Mason for the TV series. He said, “Well, it’s very possible that that’s what happened. They never told me, but it‘s very possible.” I talked to him about his playing Pope John XXIII in a TV movie, and he told me about going to the Vatican and the one time he did meet Pope John XXIII.
Anyway, we had this long-ranging conversation. Throughout the dinner he kept ordering bottles of white wine for the table, and I kept drinking the wine, just sipping at it because I was thirsty, trying to talk to him and discuss the part. When I finally got home that night, I realized, “Oh, my God, I am drunk!” When I woke up the next morning to go to the set, I was still drunk. I mean, I didn’t have a hangover; I was still drunk.
RK: I went to Lee Berger (the first assistant director) first thing on the set and explained my dilemma to him. He said, “What do you want? You want hot coffee?” I said, “Just give me hot, hot tea with nothing in it and just keep it coming.” So he just had a production assistant constantly bringing me cups of hot tea while we were shooting on the first morning. That’s probably why I don’t have a great memory of the first day!
RK: But I remember in the dinner meeting with Raymond Burr that I asked him a lot about the original Godzilla movie that he was in. You see, when Tony first gave me the job, I immediately went out and rented Godzilla King of the Monsters to watch it again because I had not seen it since I was a kid back in New York on WOR-TV’s “Million Dollar Movie.” So I got the tape, and I’m watching the film when I realize, “Oh, my gosh, this is not just some mere insert of Raymond Burr every now and then into the show. They re-shot almost half the film!” Due to my film editing experience, I can see that some shots were grainier than others.
Furthermore, I can see that those shots were from the original Japanese version, and that the less grainy shots would have to be from the American shoot. So they must have gotten just about every Japanese-American actor that was around in L.A. at that time and very cleverly worked out ways of using over-the-shoulders and cut-aways and POVs from the Japanese version, then shooting all these scenes with the American actors and reshaping the story. As I’m watching this film, I was stunned, and I said, “Oh, my God, this is far more ambitious than what we’re trying to do.” So I asked Raymond Burr about that. He said, “My part was all done in one 24-hour period.” Then he said, “We’re not going to do that again because back then, my agent made a deal with that production company, saying one day’s work, and they just kept me there for 24 hours until we had it all done.” Burr then said, “Now, young man, today, on this one, we’re working one day — that’s one eight-hour day — and not one minute more.” So I knew I had to work everything out to get all of his angles shot in eight hours. That was my task.
Now, I already knew that we were only going to have Mr. Burr for one day. I just thought that I would have maybe 10 or 11 hours for that day. Nevertheless, I already had a plan for how to get this task accomplished. When I was first told that we would have to film all of Burr’s material in one day, I remembered something from my childhood — reading an article in TV Guide about Fred MacMurray. When he was doing the My Three Sons TV series, he had a stipulation in his contract that they would write a number of episodes ahead of time, and then he would come in and, for several days, they would just shoot his part in all those shows, and then he would go away.
The article described how the producers and directors would have to figure out ahead of time, “Okay, here’s what the blocking’s going to be, we need a close-up, we need a three-shot, we need a two-shot of MacMurray.” They would just do all that stuff first, and then go back later on and shoot the other side of the angles. So that was my modus operandi for working with Raymond Burr on Godzilla ’85. I simply sat down and started going through the script and working out sketches and saying, “Okay, if we’re going to look here to here to here to here, which shots have Raymond Burr in it?” Then I would put a color code onto each one, indicating which shots were for the first day, and which shots were for the second and third day. In planning all that, I got to use all my knowledge from film editing. For example, maybe you put a piece of furniture in the foreground when you’re shooting Burr on one location, and when you do the reverse angle, you make sure you get that same piece of furniture in the foreground of that reverse shot so the two images get tied together. We did a lot of shots that way.
For example, we had that scene with the little boy which we shot in a house out at Malibu. That was on day three of the shoot, but Raymond Burr we only had for day one. So we had to build a wall on the soundstage that would match that the house location. I filmed Burr standing in the doorway in the fake wall on the soundstage. Behind the camera, we had a flashing red light, like a police car light, illuminating the wall. When we shot the reverse in Malibu, we had a U.S. government car with a flashing light bar on its roof visible through the window.
In addition, I was faced with a completely unexpected problem. Remember, my background was as a film editor. I had not worked on a real movie set, and I was not familiar with the rules governing a movie set. So we were setting up our first shot, and I said, “We’ll have a typewriter on the desk.” Well, there’s a manufacturer’s logo on the typewriter. Everyone started asking me, “Do we have the legal clearance to show the logo on the typewriter?” The shot was to start on a close-up of the typewriter. There it was, right in the dead center, the name of the manufacturer of the typewriter. I think it was a Royal. Well, no one knew if it was fair use or not, so to be on the safe side, we pried the logo off. Now the typewriter was a battered, old typewriter. We lost about 15 minutes on the first shot trying to deal with the damn typewriter!
Oh, another thing about that first shot. When I watched Godzilla King of the Monsters, I was struck by the route the Steve Martin character traveled to arrive in Tokyo. So I asked the props master to make up a dummy book cover with that route as the title and with Steve Martin as the author. I figured that would be a nice little reference for the fans.
BH: What is the significance of that dragon that he holds?
RK: I don’t remember. I think the idea was that it was a memento from his first trip to Tokyo and his first encounter with Godzilla. It was like some little thing that he picked up in Tokyo that, because it’s a dragon, it was supposed to indicate this psychic link between him and Godzilla, that somehow he is the only human being that has a sense of what Godzilla is about, what he wants, what he’s trying to do. That was the idea. I don’t think it particularly came across very well, but that was the idea.
BH What was it like to work with Travis Swords and James Hess and Warren Kemmerling on the set of the film?
RK: On the set, James and Travis were absolute professionals. They were very pleasant to be with, very cooperative. Every now and then they might have a suggestion about, “Well, should I say it like this, or should I say it like that?” They were just very, very professional to work with and very pleasant to work with, very cooperative.
Warren was a bit of a prima donna. He would kind of like, “Well, I think I ought to do this,” “Well, if I say this, then he ought to do this,” and “Maybe I should stand here!” He had this habit of always trying to get the last word in, even if it was not scripted. Usually, we had Raymond Burr’s character speak the last line in the scene. But Warren would always throw in a tag line after it — always, always.
I remember the script supervisor came over to me and said, “He’s adding these lines. Should I keep track of that?” I just told her, “No, don’t worry because we’re going to cut it. We’re going to cut it out; don‘t worry about it.” I think even Tony came to me and said, “What should we do?” I said, “Just let it go. As long as he leaves a space between Burr’s line and his line, we can edit it out. Let’s not pick a fight with the guy. Let him be happy. He’ll do that, and we‘ll move on.” Of all the people, he was the one who was a bit of a thorn in my side. But all things considered, it was not destructive. It didn’t really interfere. It was just an idiosyncrasy more than anything else. He was an actor trying to beef up his part. That just comes with the territory.
Did I mention we were shooting at Raleigh Studios? We shot two days at Raleigh, which is across the street from Paramount. First day was with Raymond Burr and everybody, second day was everybody minus Raymond Burr, finishing up all the scenes. Then the third day, we were supposed to spend a split day (half day, half night) shooting out at Malibu. We had daylight shots we wanted to do outside the house, but because the camera truck got lost, and didn’t arrive until close to sunset, we had to abandon those. We had to content ourselves with doing the interior shots inside the house, which for all intents and purposes could have been shot on the Raleigh shooting stage for how it looked in the final film. But there you go.
BH: What was Raymond Burr like on the set of the film?
RK: He was very, very professional. He was on time, he came in ready to work, and went right to work. But I do remember he would look at me askance whenever the camera was going below eye level. Clearly a touch of vanity in that, “You’re not going to be featuring my big stomach or anything, are you?” I was saying, “No, no, it’s just the point of view of your grandson. He’s looking up from the floor at you, and we need to just get a slight angle. We need to get the camera down a little bit to suggest that that is in fact the grandson’s point of view of you.” He muttered, “Well, all right.” But he clearly was unhappy. I think that was the only time he ever bristled at what we were doing. For everything else, he was just very solid, very professional.
He insisted on working with teleprompters. Not only would he work with a teleprompter, but we had to use teleprompters from this one particular company and use a teleprompter operator who was this one particular guy as part of the deal. We had to employ that company, those prompters, and he would have four or five scattered about the set. This was something he had learned to do on Perry Mason. At first I was nervous about this because I’m thinking, “Oh, my God, are we going to be seeing this guy reading cue cards?”
But he had a way of placing the teleprompters around the set that made sense with the natural eye line he would have in playing the scene. So wherever his eye was, there was a teleprompter just off that he could quickly see. He was very good at doing it and making it seem as though he was speaking from memory. But it did mess up one of my shots. When Burr arrived at the War Room, I wanted the camera to be on the officers and then whip pan over to reveal him. The cameraman turned to me and said, “We’re gonna see all the teleprompters.” So we were having to refine my shot plan on the fly because of that. That was a bit off-putting.
I remember we had to have a big RV on the studio lot for him. That would be his dressing room. He was in the process of finalizing the arrangements for the first of the Perry Mason TV movies that they started doing in the late ‘80s. Every moment he had, he would go back to the RV, and he had a whole production office in there. They were calling actors and booking stages in Toronto and pulling together all the deals because apparently, in a few days, they were going to go up to Canada and start shooting this thing. So his RV was a hive of activity, I remember, on that day.
Also, we had to hire his stand-in. There was a guy named Lee (Miller), who he said had been his stand-in for many, many years, so that would be his double. We used him to do our pre-light and check our framing and all that stuff, and then we would summon Mr. Burr. I think there are a couple of shots where we used Lee for over-the-shoulders. We definitely used him on the second day.
Yeah, it was interesting dealing with someone of Raymond Burr’s stature. Suddenly, we had a whole series of requirements that we did not expect and had to meet.
BH: Well, one of the most notable aspects about the film is all the Dr. Pepper placements.
RK: Yeah, that was a deal New World had made early on. They were constantly after me saying, “Well, can we get Dr. Pepper in this scene?” I promised them I would have it in the picture, but I also promised myself that I would try to minimize it. For example, we had a scene in a corridor, supposedly down in the bowels of the Pentagon. My plan was to have Travis and Warren Kemmerling walking rapidly, at a full clip, and that they would be rattling out their lines, back and forth, back and forth, 1930s-style.
Now we only had this one stretch of corridor, maybe thirty feet long. But I figured that we would have them come around the one corner, brush past camera, and exit. Then we would redress the corridor, and they’d come around the other corner, do the next few lines, brush past camera, and exit. We would do that enough times to get through the all the dialogue, and once edited together, it would seem like they were just going around this endlessly angled series of corridors until they got to the War Room. I was going to put the Dr. Pepper machine at the end of one of the corridors, just like in any office building there is a set of vending machines. That would be one Dr. Pepper reference.
But then Warren got on the set, and he was not into doing his dialogue rapidly. Warren loved to savor his dialogue, and so my original plan withered and died. The scene instead became: Take two steps, stop, talk, take two steps, stop, talk, take two steps, stop, talk — and all the while in the background is the Dr. Pepper machine. In my original idea, you only would have seen the Dr. Pepper machine for a few seconds and then it would be gone. Instead, we wound up with this very long shot where there it is, just screaming its presence in the background.
But that wasn’t enough. They wanted a shot with one of the main characters drinking a Dr. Pepper. So I figured, Travis is the natural one to do that. He’s our fall guy. So he’ll be the one drinking from Dr. Pepper at the top of one of the shots. But the promotional people wanted Raymond Burr. Well, I had already sounded out Burr about doing that, and he just fixed me with the most withering glare, so I just dropped it. Towards the end of the first day, the head of promotions came over to me and said, “Can we at least take a picture of Raymond Burr holding up a Dr. Pepper?” I said, “Tell you what. You go ask him. If he says yes to you, then you’ve got it.” But the promo guy wouldn’t do it. He kept asking me to ask Burr. I replied, “I already asked him, and I’m not gonna go back to that. I‘m just trying to get through the shoot.”
BH: Well, actually, that brings up an interesting question: Did Travis react in any way to being the fall guy of the film?
RK: He knew what was going on. I mean, he would make jokes about it. He says, “Oh, yeah, I’m the stupid lieutenant who doesn’t seem to have a brain in his head.” We would say, “Well, yeah, Travis, you’re the lieutenant! You’re the low man on the totem pole in the hierarchy.” When we did the casting, we worked it out that the colonel would be the solid, competent one, the general would be the idiosyncratic, crusty old man, and the lieutenant would be the eager puppy dog, trying to please but frequently getting it wrong.
I remember talking to James Hess and saying, “You actually have a bit of an unrewarding part because there isn’t a lot of color that you can add to your character.” He smiled and said, “Well, that’s okay, it’s similar to what I used to do with Jack Webb on that TV series I was in, Project UFO.” (That was a TV series about the Air Force unit that investigated UFO sightings.) He smiled and shrugged, “Well, that’s what I do. I get hired for TV commercials to play doctors and authoritative pharmaceutical spokespeople.” So he seemed okay with it. After all, he only had play that character for two days. It’s not like he had to do it for three months. Travis was kind of the same way. He grumbled, good-naturedly, about it a couple of times, but that was the role he was hired to play, and he played it well.
I did run into Travis years later. He was a producer of this low-budget film that I was helping a friend of mine do ADR on. There we were, on the ADR stage together, and we didn’t recognize each other at first. Then about halfway through the session, we suddenly looked and pointed at each other and said, “Godzilla ’85, right?!” He shook his head, “Boy, the drubbing I’ve gotten from being that dumb character!” I said, “Yeah, I’m sorry, Travis. I’m sorry.”
For the film, there was a wonderful dumb joke I wanted the general to do. But Warren refused to do it, and I was so unhappy about that. I had this one scene where I wanted to have the general pouring himself a cup of coffee. Now, true, a general probably would not pour himself a cup of coffee. A general would have a subordinate officer get him a cup of coffee. But I reasoned, “Well, what the heck! You‘re in a small War Room. Everybody’s busy. There’s the coffee station. You go over; you pour yourself a cup of coffee.” What I wanted the general to do was to pour himself a cup of coffee, then start pouring sugar into the coffee.
He’s stirring the sugar in, he’s stirring the sugar in, and while the lieutenant or the colonel — I think it was the colonel — was making his report, the general would keep pouring in sugar and stirring it in, and keep pouring and keep pouring and keep pouring and keep pouring. Finally, at the end, the general would take a sip and grimace like it’s way too sweet. He then puts the coffee down, adds another spoon of sugar, stirs it in, and now the coffee’s just right. Now that’s an old joke from a Warner Bros. Daffy Duck cartoon from the ‘40s, which I always loved. Anyway, Warren just would not do it. He’s said, “It’s demeaning! A general wouldn’t do this! He would have a subordinate officer. He would never do that! It makes the general look ridiculous!” “Okay, fine, Warren, we won’t do it.” But there you go.
Admittedly, by this time the tongue-in-cheek aspect of project had already started to evaporate. But I still felt we needed to put in a few light-hearted moments, or else we would be too dull.
In the days immediately prior to shoot, I was aware that the tone of project was becoming more serious. Not only in terms of the script, but also in how the crew was treating the project. Partly that was, I think, the influence of having Raymond Burr playing the part. It wasn’t anything that he said. It was just having him there made us dim down a lot of the tongue-in-cheek parts that were part of the original concept of how we were going to be doing it.
For example, there’s the homeless guy in the Japanese film who gets trampled by Godzilla at one point. We were trying to come up with a shot that would connect to that action and punctuate it. The idea was: After he screamed, and the screen went black for a moment, we were going to try to get a sense of the foot of Godzilla going away, and then we would zoom in on the bloodied hand of the homeless man lying in the rubble. On his hand would be a wristwatch with its crystal cracked, and the hands of the clock fixed at the time when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Neat idea, but our attempt at the shot didn’t work. We didn’t have the resources to really make it play, so we wound up taking it out.
As you know, we used a lot of Chris Young music from Def-Con 4. That was a decision Tony Randel made very early on. I remember him telling me about that when I came onboard. He also told me that he had some footage from The Philadelphia Experiment that we were going to use. We were going to build three walls with the War Room on the soundstage, and then the fourth wall would be the stock footage from Philadelphia Experiment of this high-tech view screen and computer displays and all this stuff going on. The plan was to insert footage into the screen on this so-called fourth wall, as if that was what our characters in the War Room would be looking at. I remember the decision was made early on that we would put footage from the first Godzilla movie in there.
So we contacted Toho, who had offices in Century City at the time, and they sent over a print of the first Godzilla movie, but this was the Japanese version, not the American version. There we were, sitting in a screening room watching this version of Godzilla that none of us had ever seen before. Back in 1985, that version had never been shown in America. It was not available on home video. So we’re watching the original Godzilla film, and I was just struck by how powerful the film was. I felt it was such a shame that it had never been released in the United States.
BH: One question I wanted to ask about was the editing that happened, particularly with regard to the Soviet scenes.
RK: Yeah, the famous Soviet…
BH: (laughs) I’ve heard conflicting stories about this. I’ve heard that the owners of New World were conservatives politically, and they didn’t want to have any portrayal of the Soviets be positive, but I’ve also heard it said that no, they were just an exploitation company, and it had nothing to do with politics. So what really happened with that?
RK: It’s more the latter than the former. First, I saw the cut of the film that Tony and Michael Spence had done. There, the Russian officer pushes the button to launch the nuclear missile. Then when I saw the original Japanese cut of the film, I saw that the Russian was trying to prevent the missile from exploding in Tokyo. So I asked Tony, “Why are we making the Russians the bad guys?” Tony said, “Ah, come on. They’re the Russians. Of course they’re the bad guys! We’ve gotta have some bad guys in this thing.” I suspect that’s all it was. It was just: How do we “up” the danger? How do we increase the threat?
As for the Kuppin and Sloan conservative political angle, I think that actually came from a subsequent conversation I had with Tony after we had finished Godzilla ‘85. I remember having a conversation about a future project, and Tony telling me, “That kind of idea won’t fly at this company.” I said, “Why not?” He said, “Well, look at the films we’re doing: Hanoi Hilton, Last Plane Out, Def-Con 4. This is a company that leans a little more to the right than other companies do. It‘s the nature of our bosses.” Which is strange because in those days Robert Rehme was head of New World, in charge of production. Recently Tony reminded me that Rehme was a big shot in the Democratic Party, so I don’t know. Remember, this was the summer of 1985. Reagan was in the first year of his second term, the Soviet Union was still the Evil Empire, and the Reykjavik arms control summit wouldn’t happen for another year.
There was no indication of front office interference while we were working on Godzilla ’85. The impression I got was that this was a foreign film pick-up that someone in the company said, “Let’s tweak it for the American audiences. You’ve got $200,000, you’ve got a month and a half, go do it.” So we were very below-the-radar at the company. We were all just a bunch of young guys that had a fond childhood memory of watching the original Godzilla, and here we got a chance to work on another Godzilla film and do something similar. It was work for about five weeks, and that’s that.
BH: What did you think of the final film after you guys completed it?
RK: Frankly, I was disappointed, but only because I had in my mind what I had wanted to do, and what happens so frequently in a low-budget situation is that what you want to do and what you actually get are often two very different things.
I watched it in New York City when it opened because right after I finished Godzilla ’85, I had an editing job there. Anyway, I went into the theater. I remember the vibration that I felt from the audience. They were expecting this film to have a really cool-looking Godzilla. It was almost as if there was this expectation that because of the Star Wars movies and all the heavy visual-effects movies that had been coming out of the American studios that somehow this same technology was going to be applied to Godzilla. But when the audience realized it’s still the guy in the rubber suit kicking over miniature buildings, you could just feel the air being let out. It was like, “Ohhh.”
In fact, I had the same reaction when I saw the videotape of the original Japanese version. The set-up was good, but then there were so many elements that just didn’t quite look right, such as the giant louse in the ship earlier on. You can almost see the wires holding up the louse. Because they scaled the monster up so much — I think they wanted to make Godzilla look impressive against modern-day downtown Tokyo — it meant that the cars and the tanks and all the little vehicles down in the street are much tinier. It’s much harder to photograph a miniature at that tiny scale and make it look real. It undercut the visual effects of the picture so much. That was disappointing.
I remember at the time when I came on that Tony was really proud of the fact that in the course of their editing that they got the first appearance of Godzilla to happen much earlier in our cut than in the Japanese cut. I remember him being particularly proud of that. It’s good structural storytelling: Have your villain make an appearance as early as possible.
I also remember we were all puzzled by one subplot in the Japanese film. We called it “The Towering Inferno” subplot. It’s where the heroes are trapped inside the skyscraper, and they’re trying to figure out how to get down. In the Japanese film, they spend an awful lot of time up in that skyscraper, trying to figure out how to get down. The whole story seems to come to an abrupt end, and we’re going into this whole other, weird subplot that’s about how dangerous high-rise office buildings are. But once the heroes get down, that story’s abandoned, and now we’re back to the Godzilla story. It was clear that was a subplot we were going to do our best to minimize because it just stopped the story cold.
The Super X airplane that fires the cadmium missiles at Godzilla — I remember we were all sitting there looking at the shot as it appeared, and we said, “You know, it kind of looks like one of those fold-up vacuum cleaners.” We all wished it looked a little sleeker, but oh well.
BH: Do you have any closing comments that you’d like to make about the film?
RK: Well, one very strong memory was, we were doing the second day of shooting at Raleigh Studios, and on the next soundstage over was a Japanese film crew, and they were shooting a commercial for TDK audiotape with Stevie Wonder for Japanese television. They heard that we were shooting Godzilla over on our stage, so at their lunch break, all these Japanese crew people came over to our stage. They, of course, told us what they were doing, so on our lunch break, all our crew went over to their stage to watch Stevie Wonder! So we had a little bit of cross-cultural education going on there.
I also remember when we showed the final answer print to the representatives from Toho, the gentleman stood up and said, “It is more commercial than our version.” He bowed and left. I thought he was very diplomatic.