Ryuhei Kitamura was one of Japan’s most innovative directors when he was asked by Toho to helm the studio’s 50th anniversary Godzilla film in 2004, Godzilla: Final Wars. Mr. Kitamura accepted the offer and directed what remains one of the most seen Godzilla movies of the entire franchise. While it divides some fans, there is no mistaking that Godzilla: Final Wars brought an exciting, international flavor to the series that has been lacking in the years prior. In August 2018, Mr. Kitamura sat down with Brett Homenick to discuss his work on Godzilla: Final Wars, as well as his most recent film, the violent thriller Downrange (2017).
Brett Homenick: Let’s start at the beginning for Godzilla: Final Wars. How did you get offered the job?
Ryuhei Kitamura: That was back in, I think, 2003, right after I did the movie Azumi for Toho, which was my first studio movie. The producer, Shogo Tomiyama, wanted to meet me. We met, and at the very first meeting, he said, “Are you interested in getting in the Godzilla ring?” So I was like, “Wow, are you serious?” (laughs) “Throw me into the Godzilla ring?” If you’re a Japanese filmmaker, that’s an honor. That was the year they decided that the next year was going to be the 50th anniversary, and they were going to stop making Godzilla movies for a while.
Wow, 50th anniversary Godzilla. Until they make the next one, which of course they did, they are going to call it the last Godzilla. How can I say no? So I said, “Happy to.” So that was the very beginning, right after the release of Azumi.
BH: In the media at the time, there was a lot of talk that you were a fan of the ‘70s Godzilla films. Is that true, or was that just publicity?
RK: No, it’s true. I was a very big fan of the ‘70s Godzilla movies, like Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla. If I had to choose, that’s probably my favorite.
BH: Obviously, you said that Toho offered you the position right away, but were you ever aware of any other directors who were talked about? There were rumors at the time that Shusuke Kaneko might be offered the position. Did you ever hear any talk about other directors?
RK: No, not really. I just went into the meeting. He asked if I was interested, and I said yes. That’s it.
BH: At the time, was there any discussion about what they had planned after they decided to resurrect Godzilla in the future, or were they not even thinking about that yet at that point?
RK: They were determined to just finish it for a while. No future plans.
BH: Let’s talk about the original script as it was written by Mr. Tomiyama and Mr. (Wataru) Mimura. When you read the script, what were your initial thoughts about it? What did you like? What didn’t you like?
RK: I don’t remember that much. First, we began with the synopsis, which was basically Godzilla versus everybody. Some (of the characters were) the Xiliens, this new breed of hybrid human. That was all there. We started talking about it. Mimura-san wrote the first draft, I believe.
So I thought that this script needs some new blood, as well. So I brought in this talented writer who also wrote Azumi, Isao Kiriyama. So I introduced Kiriyama-san to Tomiyama-san, and he hired him. So Kiriyama wrote a new draft. We were going back and forth. In the end, I think Kiriyama took over the shooting script. While we were developing it, we were just (laying) out what’s going to happen here. Basically, it was me, Kiriyama, Mimura-san, and Tomiyama-san – the four of us. We were the ones working on the script.
BH: So even after the original script was written, Mimura-san and Tomiyama-san were still collaborating with you and Mr. Kiriyama.
RK: Of course. We knew how important and big the franchise is, and Mimura-san and Tomiyama-san know more about the franchise than Kiriyama and I. We always collaborated, and we discussed everything. That’s how we did it.
BH: What would you say that you and Mr. Kiriyama brought to the script? What were the changes, and what were the ideas that you brought?
RK: In a way, we made it kind of more like a Hollywood movie, I think. Maybe it’s not exactly like that, but like the Hollywood structure – character arcs, three acts.
So that’s the big difference after Kiriyama joined the project. We made it stronger about the character Captain Gordon, which (became) the driving force of the movie, because he’s the one who comes up with the crazy idea, “These fucking alien are throwing the monster all over the world. So I’m going to wake up the biggest weapon.” All those kinds of elements came from us.
BH: Was Captain Gordon already in the script, or was that a character you and Mr. Kiriyama created?
RK: Some kind of captain was in the original idea, I think, but it wasn’t as strong as that.
BH: Was it your decision to make it a Western person and specifically Don Frye, or was that already in the script that he was an American captain?
RK: I don’t think so. But as we were developing all the ideas and story and everything, Kiriyama-san wanted to make it big – more international. I agreed, so I said, “Then why don’t we make it much bigger, and make the entire planet the battlefield?” Tomiyama-san agreed. So naturally we started thinking about an international cast. Originally, I think we went for Jean Reno because (Akira) Takarada-san told us that when he met Jean Reno, who was in the Roland Emmerich Godzilla, they talked about (wanting) to work together. So we went for Jean Reno. (laughs) I don’t know if he was busy or too expensive, or he wasn’t interested. I don’t know. I’m about to do a movie with Jean Reno – now. (laughs) So I’m going to find out if I meet him. So Jean Reno didn’t work out.
So then we went to, I think, Christopher Lambert because Highlander is a movie that changed my life. Again, I don’t know why – it’s very complicated to get a Hollywood cast, anyway. So it didn’t work out. Then the next one was Don Johnson. But the price he asked for was very expensive.
Then at the same time, I was a huge MMA/wrestling/boxing fan, so I was going to the matches all the time. Don Frye was a big star in Japan. The way he walks into the ring, and the way when they call his name, and he turns, I was like, “This guy can act!” That was 2003, 2004 – the golden age of mixed martial arts in Japan. It was huge – K-1, Pride, and everything. So I pitched the idea to Tomiyama-san: “Why don’t we just get those fighters? I know that they can (act) because they know how to show themselves. They have this aura which is sometimes much bigger than many of the actors.” So we started talking to those fighters.
One time, I even had a dinner with Mark Coleman because he was huge in Pride. Then I had a chance to meet Don Frye. We met in a yakiniku restaurant in Naka-Meguro. I don’t know; I guess something clicked between us. Don asked me, “Hey, Ryuhei-san, why do you think I can act?” “Come on, the way you fight, and the way you walk into the ring, I know you can do it.” (laughs) “I have faith in you. I have zero doubt that you can act.” He was very touched by that, and he said, “I really want to do this.” So that’s how he entered the ring.
BH: Just to backtrack a little bit with Jean Reno, it turned out that Takarada-san and Jean Reno had known each other a little bit or had met each other?
RK: When Jean Reno came with Godzilla from America to Japan, I’m sure somebody wanted Takarada-san to meet Jean Reno – star from Japan, star from America. So they had a brief conversation, obviously. I’m pretty sure it was just a conversation between them. “One day, let’s work together in the Godzilla movies.” (laughs) We took it seriously. But it didn’t work out. I don’t know why.
BH: Was the title Godzilla: Final Wars already in place when you came on, or was that maybe something you created or Mr. Kiriyama?
RK: No, that came from Toho, but it wasn’t there. It was decided at the very last minute. There were some other titles; I don’t remember what.
BH: There was one rumored at the time called “The Godzilla.” I don’t know if that might ring any bells.
RK: Not that. More kind of like a ‘70s-feel title. At the very, very last minute – maybe even right before we started shooting – Tomiyama-san came, and he said, “What about Godzilla: Final Wars?” “I love it! That says everything.” So I don’t know if it was Tomiyama-san’s idea or some PR people from Toho, but that came from Toho.
BH: Let’s talk about the other casting. We’ve talked about Don Frye, but the lead is Masahiro Matsuoka, and we also have Kane Kosugi. We have the classic stars: (Kumi) Mizuno, Takarada-san, etc. Let’s talk about the casting of these parts. How much of it was your decision, and how much of it was Toho’s decision to get these parts?
RK: It was all our decision. None of them was like Toho was pushing me, or I was pushing somebody. I had a very good relationship with Tomiyama-san from the beginning till the end. So we discussed everything – the casting director, Tomiyama-san, and I. Casting Masahiro Matsuoka, who is a superstar in Japan, was kind of like my first statement that this Godzilla will be something very different. We have to have someone like that. Masahiro Matsuoka is obviously from the super group called TOKIO from the Johnny’s company. Those guys have been trained to dance and sing and do all kinds of action since they were, like, 10. They’re elite! (laughs)
He had the guts to do it. Even though you have the guts, shooting action scenes is very hard. One wrong step, and you get injured. So unless I’m very comfortable, and I know that I could count on this guy, I don’t want to push my actor to do something very dangerous. And he was the one I could count on. So when we got Matsuoka, that was a big thing. This got, I think, attention from everybody in Japan: “Oh, this time, they’re trying to do a very different Godzilla. They cast this young director who’s only done one studio movie, Azumi, to direct, and they cast Matsouka, the Johnny’s superstar. They call this Godzilla: Final Wars, and it’s Godzilla versus a whole lot of monsters. ” So that was the tactic we – me and Tomiyama-san – were thinking. “Let’s try to do something different.”
Then we got Rei Kikukawa and all those pretty girls. Then we started to surround it with our favorite actors. The roles for Mizuno-san, Takarada-san, Sahara-san, we had it in our minds. Because this is the finale of the Godzilla franchise, how can we ignore those superstars? So those three names, we were thinking from the very beginning. We just had to figure out which one. I don’t even remember that the character that Takarada-san played was there like that from the beginning. Because we were thinking of Takarada-san, I made the character like that, which was a very big character. And he has some gun action in the end. As a fan, I just wanted to do that – not just doing this tribute thing. No, no, they have to get in the action, and they have to fight the aliens.
BH: So a lot of that was specifically written for Mr. Takarada.
RK: Yes, and Ms. Mizuno, as well – Sahara-san, too. We knew that. “OK, so let’s make these characters for those three legendary actors and start from there.” So, of course, my style is, I want to make it bigger. So they were great. At Takarada-san’s age, he’s already a living legend. A lot of the time, when we work with those legendary actors, they don’t want to do anything. “I’m too old. Make it look like Marlon Brando from The Godfather.”
But I was like, “No, no. Takarada-san, I want you to shoot the gun; I want you to fight.” (laughs) Even Mizuno-san! She said, “I’ve never done those squibs.” I was like, “Really?! You’re a veteran, and you’ve done tons of movies. Isn’t it great to have another first time, still, after all your glorious career? All right, I’ll put you with a squib.” (laughs) They were so excited, and they were happy. So I had a great time working with them.
So almost all the characters were there. I don’t even remember how many drafts we rewrote the script. We kept on rewriting the script, and even after I started shooting, Kiriyama was there on the set with me. He’s watching the monitor and the performance with me. Every time I came up with an idea, I’d tell Kiriyama, “Why don’t we do this in that scene?” Or, “Let’s change this.” We basically were rewriting the script as we were shooting. So I don’t remember how many drafts we had.
But my style is always, yes, we have the characters, then we cast. Once the cast is onboard, I try to make this character fit this actor. Even if I had a chance to remake Godzilla: Final Wars, I can’t think of anybody else who could play Captain Gordon. That was written for Don Frye. Same thing with Takarada-san – same thing with Matsuoka and everybody. I loved my entire cast.
BH: Let’s also talk about some of the extras who were cast, specifically in the New York City scene. One of the most popular scenes or funniest scenes is with the cop and the pimp or the gangster in New York City. Of course, the language had to be dubbed over because of that. Could you talk about the process?
RK: (laughs) I’m glad to hear that you or some other fans like that scene! That scene was very (much from) me and Kiriyama’s world. Once we decided that we were going to make this a worldwide movie, of course the monsters show up all over the world. So we just threw in a bunch of funny ideas. That New York part was one of my favorites. We actually shot that part in Sydney, Australia. That was actually the first day of shooting Godzilla: Final Wars. I still want to revive this scene, but there was another scene that these crazy punk brothers get eaten by (Zilla). That scene was much longer than that. We wrote, shot, and edited much more of the drama about this crazy punk and his kind of (slow) brother. (laughs)
The mohawk (one) is the big bro, and the bigger one is the (slow) brother. We wrote a very funny scene that was (like) a very typical American movie. The small but clever brother is always talking and tries to teach things to his (slow) brother. They are walking the streets, and the little brother is like, “Hey, bro, we should get the hell out of here because everybody is running around, and Godzilla…” He says, “No, no, no, this is the opportunity, bro! When everybody runs, we stay! And look at this – Lamborghini Diablo!” (laughs) That’s what they try to steal; that’s when this big monster comes. So they try to run. (laughs) That scene was very funny, but the movie was getting too long, anyway, so I had to choose; I had to take it down.
So I went to Sydney, and we were picking which cities we wanted to shoot. So I thought about Paris, New York, and China. I said, “Well, why don’t we go to Sydney, which is kind of like my second home now?” I lived there, and I studied filmmaking there. Only in the world of Godzilla is it an honorable thing that your town is going to be destroyed by Godzilla, right? So I went to Australia, and even though it was a giant-budget movie, we had to pick and select. So we came up with the idea of, “Why don’t we just shoot the New York scene in Sydney, as well?” So that was Day One. That was May 30, 2004, which was my birthday. I still remember when we were shooting in the middle of the night, the New York scene, they had a birthday cake for me. That was a very happy Day One. What more can you expect than on your birthday – you’re shooting the biggest Godzilla movie, and the crew and the cast celebrate.
So I was there for only two or three days. We basically had four different units for Godzilla – my unit, of course the man-in-suit unit, an overseas unit, and some second unit. So I left my overseas unit to take care of that Sydney scene. I went back to Japan, and we started shooting in Japan. So I did a lot of casting sessions, and I found those two guys for the cop and the gangster, and the two guys for the crazy brothers. I just loved it. Actually, the black guy who played the gangster became one of my very good friends. He lives in L.A. now. After that movie, he decided to go to Hollywood. So that was a very good experience.
BH: What sort of order was given from Toho to tone down the language? I know it had to be redubbed, so what happened with that situation?
RK: I had to go with my common sense, basically. Yes, we overdubbed it, but even if you watch the English version, they don’t say the f-word or anything. I knew what I was making. My other movies like Versus or Azumi – yes, I’m the kind of guy who splatters blood all over, but I knew that this was not that kind of movie. This has to be a PG or G kind of movie. There was no real pressure from Toho; I just knew it.
BH: Now let’s move on to Zilla and the use of the American Godzilla. Was Zilla already a part of that, or was that something you collaborated on?
RK: It was not, but Tomiyama-san told me that we could use the Hollywood Godzilla. So I was like, “Oh, is it OK? We can use it?” “We are 100% OK.” Then that’s the thing that everybody wants to see – Japan versus America – so why don’t we do it? I really wish now I would have made that scene much longer. But again, I had to pick and choose all kinds of things. So I just made the decision that if I cannot do a full round, let’s just end it quick so that at least it gets a big laugh. So I made it like that.
BH: So you never had any intentions at the time to make it something serious. It was always meant to be a punch line once you decided that you had to keep things kind of short.
RK: Yes, because obviously, with that many monsters, we cannot really show everything like full-round fights. I had to pick and choose. I still don’t know why I made that Ebirah shrimp monster scene that long – which I still love. That’s one of my favorite scenes of my own work. You don’t do that in Japanese movies – that amount of fire and explosions and those insane stunts. I love the scene, but why a shrimp?! I don’t know why. (laughs) I don’t know why we made that decision. That was something I’ve never seen in the previous Godzilla movies – or even after. You don’t really see that kind of fight. That was what I really wanted to do. That is a scene I still love to watch.
BH: That segues into another question, which is about the sheer number of monsters. Generally speaking, what other difficulties did you have in terms of working with so many monsters?
RK: Not really difficulties, but it was hard just because it’s big – how much screen time and what kind of a fight each monster has. That was very hard. I still know that a lot of Japanese were complaining about why there was no Jet Jaguar. I cannot satisfy everybody’s request – come on, guys! (laughs) Jet Jaguar didn’t really fit into the world of Final Wars. It just doesn’t really fit into the story. If you have Jet Jaguar, you don’t really need this kind of hybrid-human soldiers. Come on! (laughs)
So again, I don’t know why Ebirah survived that. I remember that me and Kiriyama, Mimura-san, and Tomiyama-san – all of us with the Godzilla toys – and spread them all over the table. We were like, “How about this and that?” “Well, that’s kind of similar.” We spent hours and hours, and somehow we ended up with that lineup.
BH: That was literally the process – you had toys on a table?
RK: Yeah. “What about that, and that?” (laughs) I really wanted King Caesar from the beginning because that’s like my favorite. “King Caesar and Hedorah have to be in!” Of course, Rodan and Angilas – those are the very famous ones. So I still don’t know why Ebirah was in that mix! (laughs) I don’t remember that anybody – me or Tomiyama-san or Mimura-san or Kiriyama – was pushing that. It’s just a giant shrimp, right? Why I made that scene the most dynamic scene of the entire movie, I still don’t know. But Gigan – that’s my favorite, too. I remember King Caesar, Gigan, Minya, and Hedorah – those four were my top choices. “We gotta have these, no matter what.”
BH: So, from the beginning, your vision for Minya was to be the heart of the story? Tell me about that process and what you saw for Minya.
RK: Minya wasn’t part of the synopsis or the early script – I don’t remember. I just felt like we need that heart and soul for the movie because we knew this was more like a ‘70s Godzilla fun movie, which we were trying to make. We were not planning to do a reboot of the original Godzilla, which had that strong message. But still, I felt like we need to send out a message in our own way.
We’re not going to do a dark and serious version like the original one because it has to be a fun movie. Still, we have to have that. So when I thought about that, it was a very important part of the movie. So I came up with this idea of the human boy and the Godzilla baby, basically, and their kind of connection and friendship. They are the ones who stop it in the end. That was very big for me. Godzilla is not really just about the monsters and the fight; it has to have the message.
I just had to find a way to send out the message in my own way. So when I came up with this, I was like, “We should have Minya.” I think we all agreed. I’m very proud of that. To me, I think that was a very brave and smart decision to decide to bring back Minya. That was far from the movies I’d been making! (laughs) No, no, no, I’m not that kind of director. I really want this human, heart-and-soul element in the movie, and Minya was the one.
So those for monsters – Minya, Gigan, King Caesar, and Hedorah – those were my choices.
BH: The way that the message was interpreted by most American fans is an anti-violence message. Is that the message you wanted to convey?
RK: Exactly, yes.
BH: Also, you have the Hitchcock cameo, as the radio DJ. Was that just a Hitchcock type of thing?
RK: No, that was my cinematographer’s idea – Takumi Furuya . Because we had so many shooting days and so many cameos, anyway, we were starting to run out of money and ideas. Even for tiny roles, we had very special people. There’s this couple in white watching this news footage. That’s the guy from Sky High, my movie. (laughs) And the girl is another very famous person in Japan. Even for just one shot, we were casting famous people, celebrities. So we were basically running out of ideas, then my cameraman said, “Why don’t you just do it?” I go, “Oh, that saves some money and time.” (laughs)
I was playing the DJ, and the other guy was playing that Xilien-influenced rock star. That is the guy that was the kid from Azumi. So I know him very well. Yes, we were making a very big movie, but in the end, it was a very friends-and-family kind of thing.
BH: Talk about Hollywood influence – we have Keith Emerson writing the music, and also Kyle Cooper doing the opening titles. Let’s talk about working with them and bringing them on.
RK: I’m just a huge, huge fan of Emerson, Lake & Palmer. I think Keith Emerson and Emerson, Lake & Palmer are the biggest influences on my life – more than filmmakers. I was listening to their albums like crazy since I was like 13. The first album I listen to was this one called Pictures at an Exhibition by Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Pictures at an Exhibition is a classical piece, and they were the very first one to turn it into rock music. So I was like, “How could they turn this orchestra thing into rock music?” And they did in this unbelievable, most imaginative way.
That’s why it was very high-impact on my life. “Wow, these guys see music in a very different dimension, and they are adding something very new and transformative.” That style is kind of what I was doing with Godzilla. When Tomiyama-san brought me onboard, I really wanted to have a new look for the Godzilla franchise.
So naturally, when we were thinking about who was going to be the composer, I didn’t want to go with the typical composer who had been doing the Godzilla movies. “Who is the perfect person to do it?” I just said in a meeting, “What about Keith Emerson?” Everybody was like, “That’s awesome. You’re talking about Emerson, Lake & Palmer.” So I said, “Why? This is Godzilla. This is the pride of Japan. This is the 50th anniversary, and Keith Emerson did this animated movie called Harmageddon. So some Japanese producer got him 20 years ago. Why can’t we get him now?” So we tracked him down, and he agreed to do it.
So, first, I met him in his studio in Santa Monica, and that was like my dream-come-true moment. I’d been his biggest fan. I had all his albums, and I had hundreds of bootlegs. Seriously, I’m a hardcore fan of Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Keith Emerson. So the first time I met him in person, he was playing the music he wrote for Godzilla. That music was a very beautiful piece of music, but it was very adult, grownup kind of music. The first thing I said to Keith was like, “Keith, this is beautiful music, but this is not what I want. I really want you to go back when you were writing Tarkus, Karn Evil 9. I really need your aggressive side.” That’s a brave thing to say to your god. But when it comes to movie-making, my philosophy is always straightforward and honest. So that’s what I said.
I basically said no to what he was doing. Then we started talking. “I really need this pumping-up-your-blood, this building-up and dramatic, energetic music.” So I started to describe: “Keith, do you remember that movie Rocky II?” He was like, “I’ve seen it, but I don’t really remember it.” “You know that, in Rocky II, Adrian doesn’t want Rocky to fight anymore because he could die. But Rocky has to retry, so he’s been training. Then Adrian got sick, and she’s in the hospital. There is this scene that Rocky goes to meet his wife, and he said, ‘I’m so sorry,’ or something like that. ‘I’m not going to do this.’ Then Adrian says, ‘Rocky, win.’ That’s when you hear the bell. Then you cut to a sunrise shot of Stallone doing one-arm pushups. That’s what I’m talking about! I really need that dramatic buildup!” He got it.
So the next piece he sent me was my favorite piece of the music, which is the music I used when Gotengo launches after Captain Gordon says, “This is Operation: Final Wars.” Very Emerson, Lake & Palmer-ish. So he sent me that music, and I was blown away. I said, “This is what I’m talking about.” Then he sent me the grand finale music, which I love. It’s impossible to make a perfect movie because you have to deal with millions of reasons when you’re making a movie. So if I ever make a movie that I feel is perfect, then I’m going to retire because I know that I cannot do anything better than that. So there are a lot of things that you regret: “Why did I do that? I wish I could rewind the time and do something different.”
Then there are a lot of things that you are proud of yourself. Every single movie is like that, but I’m very proud to have brought back Keith Emerson to the front lines and asked him to compose that very Emerson, Lake & Palmer kind of music. So I’m very proud of that, and we became very good friends. We became almost like brothers. He was living in Santa Monica; I was living in L.A. So sad that he passed away a couple of years ago. But I’m still proud of myself: “Yes, you finally did it!” (laughs) It was the golden age of Keith Emerson, so that was very interesting.
So now we had the music, and I just came up with this idea, “This is the grand finale of the Godzilla franchise – I really want to show the history of Godzilla’s greatest hits in the first couple of minutes.” So I came up with the idea, “Why don’t we just ask Kyle Cooper to do this?” Again, everybody thought I was crazy. But the thing was, I had the connection with Hideo Kojima, the legendary video game creator. We worked together on Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes, so we were kind of like brothers. So I asked Kojima-san, “Can you just introduce me to Kyle Cooper?” This is not Metal Gear Solid; this is not a big-budget Hollywood movie. It is super big-budget in Japan, but compared to a Hollywood movie, it is nothing. But still, this is Godzilla. So I had a feeling he might say yes.
So Kojima-san introduced me to Kyle Cooper, and he said yes. So I went to his house, and I basically said, “Can you just do the greatest hits – three minutes – of Godzilla history? Fifty years of history in like three minutes – greatest hits.” And he did it. I loved it. Again, probably only I have it, but there was a longer version. But I had to cut out 30 seconds. I was like, “Tomiyama-san, this is Kyle Cooper!” He was like, “I know, I know. But the movie is already too long, and this 30 seconds or minute” – I don’t remember – “is very important.” At the last minute, I had to switch it to the shorter version, which is still great. But I have the longer version, which I prefer. (laughs) One day! (laughs)
BH: In the end, when you were editing it, let’s talk about that process. Putting the movie together, what was that like?
RK: That was chaotic, obviously. (laughs) Like I said, it was almost like four units shooting all over the world. I love every single moment, but again, we wanted to squeeze it into a two-hour movie, but it was almost impossible. Still, we knew that we could not make this into a two-and-a-half-hour movie or three-hour movie. So we had to somehow squeeze everything into it. The editor was Shuichi Kakesu, and he’s the guy who edited Versus, Azumi, and almost every one of my movies. So he knew my style, and he’s a veteran film editor. Yes, it is a long movie, but I don’t want the audience to feel that the movie is long. Just keep them going, going, going, nonstop, and that’s what we did.
That was before previz. VFX effects weren’t that sophisticated in Japan 14 years ago. So we had to deal with a bunch of, “What is this?” “The spaceship will be here and there.” So we had to guess what was coming in. It took us two or three months to edit. We were editing, and every single day, a new CG shot was coming in, and we’d replace it. Then we’d look at it again: “If we do this, then we have to do this.” It was a fun process after all; you were making a Godzilla movie, so that was a very fun moment.
BH: At the end was the Hollywood premiere. So what memories do you have about going to Hollywood for the premiere of Godzilla: Final Wars?
RK: That was just real fun. So I invited all my friends and family. I don’t say “once in a lifetime,” but once in a lifetime is a Godzilla movie, and you don’t have that many opportunities to be at the Chinese Theatre. And Godzilla was putting his handprint or footprint (on the Walk of Fame). So that was a once-in-a-lifetime situation. So I invited all my friends and family, and we had a blast that day. It was so much fun. We got a big standing ovation at the Chinese Theatre. I still remember the premiere was a red-carpet premiere, the ceremony of the Walk of Fame, all was a blast.
Then we had the after-party. Then we went back to our hotel. It was a long day. We had the press all morning, then the ceremony, the premiere, and the after-party. It was 1:00 a.m. or 2:00 a.m. Then we went back to our hotel. Matsuoka and Rei Kikukawa – we were like, “Aren’t you guys hungry?” We didn’t even have time to eat at the after-party! “Yeah, boss, I’m very hungry.” “All right, I’m going to go get food for you.” So I drove, and I went to Yoshinoya. (laughs) So I bought takeout beef bowls, and we went back to the hotel. Me, Matsuoka, and Rei Kikukawa were eating – that was a fun memory! Really? The end of this glorious day is Yoshinoya beef bowls? You know what – this is the best. I’m like, “This is so good!” So that was a fun day.
BH: What are your thoughts about Final Wars as a film and as an experience?
RK: Both were great. I’m proud of what I did. I don’t know how to make the perfect movie, so if I started all over again now, there are a lot of things that I would do differently. There are some regrets, and there are some parts I’m proud of. But overall, I’m very proud of what I did on that movie.
As a Japanese filmmaker, everybody wants to do it. Somehow, Toho and Tomiyama-san gave me the chance to do it – this young Japanese director who’d only done one studio movie. They were taking chances, and they got me onboard. I had so much making that movie. We were not only shooting at Toho Studios in Tokyo, we went to Fukushima, and we went to Kobe. So every time we went to the countryside, I took out my cast to have dinner and do crazy karaoke. That was fun.
I think it was in Fukushima when we were shooting that big Ebirah fight scene, we were doing those insane explosions and stunts in the daytime, and at night, I took Rei and Matsuoka out, and we went to have dinner with some crew and other cast. Then we went to karaoke. We were just singing and dancing all night. That was a fun memory.
So I’m very proud. I was in Montreal last month premiering my new movie. Last year, I was in Toronto premiering my movie. So I travel all over the world, and I meet a lot of people in America. I’m surprised – and I’m very touched and honored – at how worldwide audiences and fans love Godzilla: Final Wars. I often feel maybe this is my most popular movie worldwide. In Japan, (it’s) probably Lupin the 3rd, Azumi, Sky High, or that kind of movie. But when you look at the world, I’m still surprised. “Wow, there’s tons of fans all over the world who still love Godzilla: Final Wars, and people tell me that this is their favorite Godzilla movie.” That gives me energy.
BH: What can you tell us about Downrange?
RK: Downrange is going to come out September 15 in Japan. This is the movie I did after Lupin the 3rd, which was another big franchise. (laughs)
Luckily, it was a big hit, which was a big relief. But I wasn’t really interested in staying in Japan and doing “Lupin the 3rd Part II.” My main battlefield is Hollywood. So three days after Lupin was a big hit, I jumped on an airplane and went back to L.A. Everybody was like, “You’re going back to L.A.?! You’re a star now!” If I wanted to stay in Japan, I would have done that after Godzilla: Final Wars. “No, no, Hollywood is a much more brutal place than the Japanese film industry, and life is not easy there, but that’s where I belong.” So I went back.
Then I found another shocking truth because Lupin the 3rd took almost two and a half years of my life. Hollywood is a place that every single day super-talented people from all over the world come to. Everybody goes to Hollywood, and 99% gives up in the end. But everybody comes. So what happened was, after Lupin the 3rd took two and a half years of my life – it was a big hit in Japan, and I was kind of like a star director in Japan – but in Hollywood, people forget about it. “Oh, you just did something in Japan, so I thought you went back to Japan.” “No, no, no, I still live here.” It’s almost like watching the movie Days of Thunder. The race was going on, and I was in the pit for too long. So that was the situation I was in. “This is like a Days of Thunder situation. I have to get back in the race immediately!”
I spent several years to establish my relationships and connections in Hollywood, the brutal world, and it was all gone. People started to forget about me. So I was back in the race, but setting up a movie in Hollywood is so tough. It just takes a hell of a lot of time. So after a year, I was so frustrated, and I said, “You know what – I started my career doing this independent movie called Versus.” Still, Versus is like a legend. It has a huge fan base all over the world. Everywhere I go, people ask me, “When are you going to do ‘Versus 2’?”
“So you know what – I feel like I have to prove myself one more time. So instead of just waiting for the studio, the big producer, finally gathering a cast and money, why don’t I just do this indie-style, guerilla filmmaking, which I’m very good at?” So I just did it. I basically shot this movie in 20 days in L.A. with a very unknown cast and my friends. That’s what I did.
The movie was selected at Toronto’s Midnight Madness last year, and we had a blast. It was the biggest success of my career and the biggest reaction from the audience, and we sold it all over the world. Japan is one of the few remaining places.
It’s a super-low-budget indie movie, but I know how to do that because that’s where I came from. So I’m very proud of this movie. We premiered at Toronto, the European premiere was at the Sitges, the Asian premiere was at the Busan. So we went to all these big film festivals all over the world, and we’re getting a lot of great quotes from all over the world. All of the fans and critics are saying this is the best movie since Versus, which I kind of agree. So I’m very proud of this movie.