GODZILLA’S FIRST HOLLYWOOD MAKEOVER! Writer-Director Roland Emmerich on Reimagining Japan’s Greatest Monster!

Director Roland Emmerich (left) poses with producer Dean Devlin during Godzilla’s publicity tour. Photo © 1998, TriStar Pictures, Inc.

Roland Emmerich is one of the most successful directors in film history. Having directed such blockbusters as Stargate (1994), Independence Day (1996), The Patriot (2000), The Day after Tomorrow (2004), and White House Down (2013), few filmmakers have entertained as many audiences around the world as Roland Emmerich. In 1996, Mr. Emmerich signed on as the director of TriStar’s Godzilla (1998), a film which proved to be a box-office sensation around the world but met with controversy among longtime Godzilla fans. In 2008, Mr. Emmerich spoke with Brett Homenick via telephone about Godzilla in this exclusive interview.

Brett Homenick: The first question that I have is, how did you get involved with Godzilla?

Roland Emmerich: Well, it’s a long story! (laughs) I was approached by Sony Pictures. At the time, it was Mark Canton, and they floated Godzilla by me. I knew that Jan de Bont had worked on it, and at our first discussion, I said, “What did Jan do?” They gave me the script — a very good script, but it didn’t particularly interest me because it was like two monsters fighting each other, and pretty much the humans just watch. I said,
“Well, it’s not very engaging for me,” and kind of left it at that.

Then maybe four or five months later, John Calley took over, and approached me again about Godzilla and said, “Well, what would you do?” Then I said, “I don’t really know. I have to think about it.” (laughs) So I thought about it, and then I said I would like to totally reinvent it because, historically, Godzilla was actually a Ray Harryhausen (type of) movie, which was very successful in Japan.

There was (stop-)motion animation, and they wanted to do the same, but they couldn’t do stop(-motion) animation, so they invented the suit for the stunt man. Because of that, Godzilla was a little bit heavy in the bottom. (laughs) So I said, “I wouldn’t consider that look. I would just reinvent it like they would do it today.” They said, “Well, the Japanese will never go for that.” Then I said, “Okay, fine, fine.” (laughs)

So then a couple of months went by, Independence Day came out and was a big, big hit. So the Toho people approached me and said they would love to talk to me about Godzilla. That’s when I said, “Well . . . we could spend some money and invent one.” Pretty much six weeks or so go by, and Patrick Tatopoulos and I reinvented Godzilla, and did not have many high hopes that they would go for it. (laughs) Then I went to Japan for the Tokyo (International) Film Fest where Independence Day was being shown, and then I had a meeting with the whole upper echelon of Toho — crazy people in suits. (laughs) It was scary.

It was Chris Lee, who was the head of TriStar at the time, Patrick Tatopoulos, and me who unveiled the new Godzilla there. And there was a shocked silence. (laughs) Then they said, “Okay, let’s look at this thing from all sides.” The head of Toho was a very nice gentleman (and) said, “I have to think about it.” They’d let me know the next day. To all of our surprise, they said yes. (laughs) Then I had to make the movie.

BH: (laughs) Well, were you actually interested in making this film, or was it just another project, would you say?

RE: No, I would say I was interested. I mean, it’s really, really strange. I make a lot of movies, and probably Godzilla had the worst critics. It’s really weird because I think it’s a much better movie than the critics saw it, though.

BH: I agree with you. I think in time more people will come to appreciate it once the haze of all the controversy goes away.

RE: We cast the wrong girl, but she’s not that bad. This movie is called Godzilla; it’s not called “Maria Pitillo.”

BH: (laughs) Legend has it that you and Dean Devlin spent some time in Mexico, I believe it was, watching Godzilla films, and then after a while, you just stopped because you just felt the films were essentially the same films. But the question that I wanted to ask was, did any of the Godzilla films that you watched really stand out in your mind? Were you impressed?

RE: Well, the first one. The first one is very impressive because it has a good message,
pretty much like an ecological message — if we keep doing nuclear testing that brings bad consequences, nature strikes back, and Godzilla is a symbol for that.

That’s why I actually only like the first one. All the others I only watched to know what they did afterwards, and I gave up after like four or five. I just gave up. I’m just a big fan of the old one, that first one. It’s the original, and ours was like a reinterpretation of that movie in modern terms. But that’s why we had the opening sequence of the atomic explosions and the lizards. Godzilla stands for nature’s revenge, what we have done to this Earth.

BH: When you were writing the screenplay with Dean Devlin, did you have any initial ideas that you were thinking about incorporating, but you had to get rid of for one reason or another?

RE: No, not really. We pretty much sat down, like we always do, and just said, “Okay, so this is the story.” We have a rough idea, and it’s a very playful process, just kicking ideas around. Then slowly something sticks, and we go from there. Then you put all the pieces in, and all of a sudden a film story is there. It’s really kind of a magical process, I have to say. I don’t even want to analyze it that much because I can’t always explain the system.

BH: Let’s talk about the casting a little bit. For the main role that Matthew Broderick played, were you thinking about casting any other actors, or was it always keyed in for Matthew (Broderick)?

RE: No. This has also a story. The first actor I wanted to have for Stargate was Matthew Broderick, but he was unavailable. We were digging around with the agency for a while, and then it was clear he could not do it. Then we went down the list. So when
Godzilla came around, Dean and I immediately said, “Let’s ask Matthew beforehand if he’s interested.” So we asked him beforehand if he’s interested. He said yes, and then we wrote it for him.

BH: Also, could you mention or talk a little bit about some of the other actors that you worked with, such as Jean Reno, Harry Shearer, Hank Azaria?

RE: Well, in the casting process, there was always a French component because the French were the ones who did the most testing in the Fiji Islands. Anyhow, so there was
always a French character. Then we just looked at all the French characters. We liked Jean Reno the best, and it was a real thrill for me to work with him. I’m a big admirer of his, really big admirer, and so it was cool. The rest was just casting.

April Webster was our casting director; she’s casting a movie for me right now. She came up with all the suggestions. I think Dean is a big fan of The Simpsons. (laughs) You can see that! (laughs) And I tell you, this was a real fun set; we had so much fun. We were laughing so much on this movie because Hank Azaria is an incredible imitator, and Matthew, too. So they were outdoing each other, imitating other actors.

BH: Ah! Very cool!

RE: Yeah, it’s very cool.

BH: What about Maria Pitillo? You mentioned her a little bit, but did you want to say a little bit more about her casting or what she was like to work with on the film?

RE: Well, she’s the nicest girl, and I think she’s very talented. Somebody can come into the room and hit me over the head. I really, really liked her, and we had a couple of other actresses, but she just won us (over). We were only looking at, I think, four or five actresses.

BH: Now why don’t you talk a little bit about the Mayor Ebert character because I know that did cause a little bit of controversy, but what led to that character being put into the film?

RE: Well, we have of a tradition. (laughs) It started actually with Stargate. We didn’t like the marketing of Stargate because they just didn’t get the movie. So there was a marketing director called Mr. Nimziki.

So when we wrote Independence Day, we had a character also called Nimziki. The President of the United States says to him at one point, “Mr. Nimziki, you’re fired,” just for the heck of it, right?

BH: (laughs)

RE: Then we had to do something like this in Godzilla, too. We came up with the Ebert thing because they were giving us two thumbs down for Independence Day. (laughs) So we said, “Okay, two thumbs up for the Ebert (character)!” (laughs) The idea was born, and then we got actors which were brave enough to play them.

BH: (laughs) Another thing I wanted to address sort of along similar lines was, there’s a rumor going around — and hopefully you can clear this up — that you cast the driver of one of the vehicles, who I guess is Godzilla’s first victim, to look like J.D. Lees, who’s the editor of G-Fan magazine. At the time, he was critical of some of the changes that were being made to Godzilla. Is there any truth to that rumor?

RE: No, no. (laughs) I’m hearing that for the first time. What was that? So say that again.

BH: He was the driver of the car when Godzilla first surfaces in Manhattan. You get to see his face, and he actually does look quite a bit like J.D. Lees, who’s the editor of the magazine.

RE: Yeah, no. It’s really a coincidence. (laughs) People, I think, are reading too much into that!

BH: It’s on the Internet Movie Database as one of the trivia points (of Godzilla), just so you know.

RE: Well, the Internet Movie Database is a dangerous thing.

BH: (laughs)

RE: No, no, honest to God, what they say about my projects, I mean, it’s just ridiculous sometimes. It’s just ridiculous.

BH: Well, I’m glad you’re able to clear that one up. My next question is, what sort of direction did you give the actors for their reaction shots? Do you remember specifically what kind of direction you would give the actors?

RE: For Godzilla, we did animation for the first time. We did some sort of pre-vises. It’s where the actor sees a little bit of how it will look. Then we have concept drawings, and you talk about it. You just explain what Godzilla is doing, and then the actor has to react to it.

Actors are quite good at this because they, most of the time, start in the theater, and in the theater there’s nothing real there, either, so they have to use their imagination and then kind of act accordingly.

BH: Do you have any memories of shooting in Madison Square Garden?

RE: Well, Madison Square Garden was not really Madison Square Garden; it was a sound stage in the Sony lot.

It was all a set, and I tell you, it’s like Madison Square Garden. The interior of the stadium looked exactly like that, but all the hallways (don’t) look at all like that! (laughs) We made that up. I mean, when you go to Madison Square Garden, (you’ll be) really disappointed.

BH: (laughs) Well, do you have any other interesting stories from the set that you’d like to tell, just anything that stands out?

RE: This was a long time ago. I shot this movie (in) ‘97. It’s more than 10 years ago now. No, not really. (laughs) I only (want) to say, hopefully, one day people will realize this actually is quite a good movie.

BH: One of my last questions is, there were plans for doing a Godzilla sequel. Could you talk a little bit about some of what was being talk about?

RE: Well, Dean and I were always saying, “Okay, let’s do a sequel,” but it was seen as a flop, which it wasn’t. I think Sony kicked around plans of a sequel, but I think (nothing) came off. I’m doing a different movie right now for Sony.

BH: In closing, is there anything that you’d like me to include, or is there anything that you’d like to say to Godzilla fans who might be reading this?

RE: Well, I really had fun making that movie. It’s always hard to rate your films, but I would say Godzilla, I really like. The look of Godzilla and the look of the images in particular, I think is really, really well done.

A big thanks to Kirstin Winkler and Centropolis Entertainment for all their help in making this interview possible.

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