(Note: The following introduction was written in 2006.)
Lee Berger earns his living making the impossible possible. As one of Hollywood’s leading visual effects producers at Rhythm & Hues Studios, he’s dazzled movie audiences over the years in some of the biggest blockbusters of recent memory. Having worked on such films as Titanic (1997), The Ring (2002), The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005), Mr. Berger has seen and done it all in the field of visual effects. As satisfying as those experiences were for him, none was more satisfying than his job as first assistant director of the American version of Godzilla 1985 (1984). In 2006, Mr. Berger shared many of his stories of the Americanization of Godzilla’s 30th anniversary production with Brett Homenick.
Brett Homenick: Just give me a little bit about your background, getting involved in the film industry, what got you interested, etc.
Lee Berger: I grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, watching television and seeing those movies not unlike Godzilla, and over the years was drawn to that. Went to the University of Maryland and graduated in 1976 with a degree in film. Worked at the White House for a couple of years as a news cameraman, and then moved to Los Angeles in the late ‘70s and started at the bottom. Got into production, and over the course of the years, became an assistant director — at that time, anyway. I had a friend of mine who was working on the production for Godzilla 1985, and he got me hired on the show as the first AD.
BH: That sort of segues into my next question. So your work on Godzilla 1985 brought you to New World then?
LB: Yeah, I had never worked for New World before. Godzilla 1985 was a movie that had been shot in Japanese, just like the original Godzilla. I think the original Godzilla you probably know more than I do. It was this Japanese film they asked an American team to do with Raymond Burr. They did the same thing 30 years later in Godzilla 1985. The original Godzilla was 1955.
For me, it was not a long shoot. Everything put together was about a week long. What happened was, we prepped it, shot it, and I think they only hired Raymond Burr for two days. I think they paid him like $1 million or something like that for two days of work. It wasn’t even a million dollars; it was like $50,000, but we had to do all the scenes in a very constrained period of time.
BH: Who was it who got you involved in the project?
LB: A friend of mine who I’d worked with in other capacities by the name of Steven Dubin. He was hired as the cinematographer, and he had worked with New World before. The producer was a guy named Tony Randel, and it was his job to go ahead and shoot these sequences for the movie so they could get it out very quickly because it was already 1985 when we were shooting the film.
The director was a guy named R. J. Kizer, who had not directed before, and he was mostly a post-production supervisor or an editor at that time. He directed it, and then I was the first AD. Raymond Burr was there for two days, and I forget the other actors, a group of character actors.
BH: Yeah, they were Warren Kemmerling, Travis Swords, and James Hess.
LB: Right, absolutely. It was great. We shot it at, I believe, Raleigh Studios in Los Angeles. They built these great sets for the project, and I think we had one location day that Raymond was not at. I think it was a two-day shoot altogether for all the sequences. He was great to work with. Growing up loving Godzilla, and then getting to work on the movie, was a great treat. It was one of the reasons one would go in the film business.
BH: Were you shown the original Japanese version of Godzilla 1985? If you weren’t, or even if you were, what other research did you do if any?
LB: I didn’t do any. The assistant director, my job was less creative and more logistical. So there was no prep in terms of seeing the movie. I never saw the movie or the scenes that it was cut into, really, until the movie came out, and I saw it in the theater.
LB: There’s a whole bunch of stuff where Raymond Burr is staring up at the screen, which they later composited onto the scenes from the real movie as if he was watching it on video, and he does his oration and his commentary. When we were shooting the film, I had no idea what he was looking at or what he was talking about because they only gave us the pages out of the screenplay that we were shooting. For most of the crew other than the director and the producer, perhaps, it was totally out of context to what was going on in the movie itself.
BH: So even the actors didn’t know what was going on. They were just reading the lines handed to them?
LB: Oh, absolutely. Maybe the actors had it explained to them a little bit, what was happening, but I think they were all just doing what they were telling them to do and acting in a vacuum, more or less.
BH: Now what essentially did your job as the first assistant director entail on this project?
LB: The job of an assistant director, although you would think it would be a creative job, is more of a producer on the set. It’s more logistical. So I set all the call times, and what time people had to be in makeup, what time they had to be on the set, when we would be done with certain shots. An assistant director is more like a traffic cop in terms of bringing the different departments together, making sure everybody gets time with the director to know what he wants. It’s really not creative at all. It’s more helping the director paint on his canvas per se.
BH: So you weren’t in charge of any shooting on this project. I know some assistant directors do some shooting.
LB: No. We had one unit. I was there with the director while we were trying to accomplish a certain amount of work in a very short amount of time. It was more about pushing that effort. Also, Mr. Burr at that stage in his career was not in the best of health. He tired easily, and yet we had a very arduous schedule. So it was more about keeping him comfortable and on track and doing that. But I wasn’t in charge of any of the shooting by myself. I was always with R. J. and Steve Dubin, the cinematographer.
BH: Well, speaking of Mr. Burr, what was he like to work with? Do you have any interesting stories or memories about him?
LB: Well, he was very cordial and very professional. But at that time in his career, he was rather heavyset. I remember one time we were talking about this one sequence. R. J., in talking with Mr. Burr about it, said, “Now I’d like you to stand over here and deliver this line, and then I want you to walk over here. You can do these two lines, and then come back over there.” Mr. Burr looked at him and said, “I can come in, and sit down, and deliver all my lines from this chair.” R. J., without batting an eyelash, said, “Perfect.”
LB: There was no way he was going to tell Raymond Burr what to do, and he was smart enough to know that. Raymond didn’t want to have to do all that walking, and you can see in the movie, he sat down a lot or is standing in the same place.
BH: Speaking of the other actors, what were they like to work with? Any memories of them?
LB: Everybody was very nice on the production. Again, it was a very short period of time that we were all together, and everybody had to work very quickly because we had a huge amount of material to go through in a very short period of time. So they were all very professional. A couple of them I’ve seen in other projects over the years. A couple of them not. I just remember it as a great experience. Part of it was great because it was so short. It was a great credit to have, and it was something I was always proud of.
BH: Oh, really?
LB: Oh, yeah, because it’s Godzilla 1985. It’s Godzilla, a man-in-a-suit movie. Like I said, growing up with that character, and getting to work on a Godzilla movie, that was a great thing. In my career, I’ve gotten to work on a lot of very interesting films, certainly. I worked on Batman Forever, so it was great to work on a Batman film. I’m working on Superman (Returns) right now, so I’ve been very fortunate.
BH: I’m not sure if you’d know the answer to this, but one thing that has been puzzling fans of this movie for years is the significance of that dragon effigy that Raymond Burr holds throughout the movie. Do you remember that, and do you remember the significance of that?
LB: I did know the significance of it, but I’ve forgotten it.
BH: (laughs) But there was a purpose to that?
LB: I used to know the significance of that dragon. You should call Steve Dubin, and maybe he’d know it. (I subsequently contacted Mr. Dubin about his working on the film, but he confided in me that he remembers nothing about the production! – BH)
BH: I’d love to talk to him. I’m looking forward to doing that.
LB: Yeah, I know. I saw him today, and I told him that I was going to be speaking to you, and he got a big chuckle out of that! He couldn’t believe it.
That movie was 21 years ago. We worked on it for a very short period of time, but I still have the poster up in my office. I only have two posters up in my office. You know what I do now, right? I’m the executive producer of Rhythm & Hues Studios, and we do visual effects for movies. So I’m not an assistant director anymore. But I only have two posters in my office: One is Godzilla 1985, and the other one is a Tim Conway/Don Knotts movie called The Private Eyes. I was the assistant prop man on that in 1980. In that sense, they both have significance for me, and it’s just ironic that you called. I’ve done longer jobs, I’ve done bigger movies, but none as fun to talk about as Godzilla 1985. Again, it was a great honor to work with Mr. Burr, also.
BH: Well, Godzilla still has a pretty sizable fan base in the U.S. Growing up, that movie was very influential. That and a few others are some of my favorite movies, period — not just Godzilla movies. I watched it the other night…
LB: You watched Godzilla 1985?
BH: Right, the American version, the other night just to prepare for this. Again, growing up, that was a favorite of mine, and it still holds up well today, I think.
LB: Yeah. Again, I thought the Japanese version was as slick as it could be for the technology at that time and what their budget was. There’s some funny bits in there. There’s a scene in 1985 where Godzilla crushes one of the guys, and they do a close-up on the watch.
LB: Do you know the significance of the time on the watch?
BH: It was when the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
LB: Right. I think they like to stick a lot of stuff in there like that.
BH: What did you think working with all the Dr. Pepper imagery in the movie? (laughs)
LB: Oh, we were used to it by then. Especially for low-budget films, the filmmakers are trying to get money from anybody to subsidize their investment. It goes on today. We knew about product placement, and that’s what that was.
BH: Were there any discussions about when to put the product placement in the movie, like, “Okay, they’ll walk down the hall, and we’ll put a soda machine behind them.”
LB: Absolutely. Some of the scenes were designed to make sure that that soda machine had a prominent view and giving advertisers their money’s worth.
BH: That’s fantastic.
LB: We definitely talked about it, and if my recollection serves me, that was all very, very deliberate.
BH: Overall, what was it like to work with R. J. Kizer and Tony Randel?
LB: They were great. Everybody was great on that show. Like I said, it was a short period of time, so if you didn’t like somebody, you really weren’t with them long enough to develop that dislike. They were all great; R. J. was great. I’ve not seen him since. I’ve seen his name in movies. He’d be the best one to interview. Tony Randel, the producer, was a very nice guy, and I’m not sure what happened to him. I never really worked for New World again after that. I did mostly commercials during that part of my career and then moved into visual effects in the late ‘80s.
BH: Do you have any other stories from the set that you might want to share, or did we pretty much cover everything?
LB: On that particular show, I think that’s most of the stories. My girlfriend at the time did assistant makeup, and really all she did was take care of Raymond, so she got to spend a lot of time with him. Mostly what he did was sweat.
LB: It was very hot under those lights back then, and we had to keep him as comfortable as possible. But that’s pretty much it. I think you should talk to Steve Dubin. He’d probably have other stories to supplement mine. Or talk to R. J. He’d be a great person to find.
BH: Overall, what did you think of the film when you saw it?
LB: I was thrilled with it, especially considering how much time and money we had. Again, Raymond Burr could read the phone book and could make it interesting. He had a great voice and a great presence and as great an actor as you were going to find. I thought the movie was good. I was very impressed with it — again, the Japanese version of it. Like I said, it was a great film for me and a great experience that I got to do it.
BH: Do you have any closing comments, like anything you’ve done elsewhere in your career?
LB: Like I say, I’ve done a lot of big visual effects films. We just finished Chronicles of Narnia. I’ve done all kinds of visual effects films, big pictures, and Godzilla 1985 was as satisfying as any of them, I must say.