The release of a new "Godzilla" movie is never the best occasion to illustrate the importance of subtlety. Couple that with a few facts — this latest "Godzilla" is a Warner Bros. production with a budget far north of $100 million, released at the onset of summer, carrying expectations of more Godzilla to come — and you brace for quite the opposite. Because you know: You live in a binge culture, you always see the good parts in the trailer, you never expect to wait long for the big reveal anymore.
"Cynicism sets in. Audiences see gears spinning, so a film can come off less as a coherent work of storytelling and more as a corporate ploy."
Hear that, Marvel?
That's Max Borenstein, screenwriter of the new "Godzilla," and although he wasn't name-checking Marvel at all, and though one of the human gears behind the new movie might not seem like the most credible source on subtlety, this "Godzilla" is also an unlikely study in the art of the big reveal. True, you see Godzilla (briefly) in the trailers, and yes, there's nothing particularly subtle about his roar in the movie. But every decision that went into this reworking, Borenstein explained, was "grounded in the question of how do you get a wide audience to believe in a ridiculous premise: That a 350-foot lizard stomps out of the ocean."
A wise start was hiring British filmmaker Gareth Edwards to direct. His best-known movie, the well-regarded indie drama "Monsters" (2010), offered little of its monsters, to terrific, modest effect. In a phone interview from New York recently, Edwards explained the steps to performing such a delicate dance. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: Just after "Godzilla" started screening for critics, one of the few grumbles that everyone heard was that there wasn't enough Godzilla in this "Godzilla" — I assume you heard these complaints.?
A: Yeah. I think whatever you do, however you approach a film with history like this, you can't please everyone. All you can do is please yourself, and I grew up in the era before digital effects, when you couldn't show everything all the time, so a filmmaker hid their big creatures a while. "Jaws," "Alien," the aliens in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" — those are masterpieces and the reason I got into filmmaking. I'm 38. That's the blueprint for me. You're given an opportunity to do a film (like "Godzilla"), and from the very beginning you have to be thinking of "Jaws." And there was no conflict with the studio over showing more Godzilla.
Q: Did you expect some?
A: As a layman looking outside in, I guess I would expect pushback, yeah. But what's interesting, at least in terms of Warner and Legendary (the production company), making something different is what gives the film its value to them. They actually encouraged risks. I was never asked, "At what time do we finally see the monster?" Frankly, I was more afraid of throwing everything at the screen. Because audiences get CGI fatigue, and they can get bored. When I did "Monsters," I heard similar criticism, that there weren't enough monsters. I got annoyed to the point of watching "Jaws" with a stopwatch. The first time you see the shark is an hour in, and it's a fin. There's actually less than six minutes of shark in "Jaws," and that's one of the greatest movies ever made. It's also an important lesson for the digital age: It's so easy to be seduced by technology that you forget your job is to keep an audience hooked on a good story. That approach is not for everybody. But I don't know: With all the summer blockbusters we get, I just wanted this one to be different.
Q: Do you have techniques for holding back?
A: A few things. Watching "Godzilla," I found myself using distraction tactics. You want the audience to look in the complete opposite direction of where the problem is. Your eye is led to a particular place, only to find you are looking in the wrong place. Also, there's a scene where flares are set off (from a rooftop) over a flood. The flares rise until you see (Godzilla's leg). They're illuminating his leg, and he's huge.
Q: You suggest scale rather than the thing itself.
A: Right. But also there's a scene in an airport terminal. I always wanted to do a scene in an airport terminal. Something about (the windows) reminds me of looking at an aquarium. When I was promoting "Monsters" and traveling a lot, spending a lot of time in airport terminals, I was thinking of ideas for "Godzilla," and I just thought it would be a cool place to stage a fight, outside the window of a terminal. You have a limited view of what's going on outside, which leaves a lot to an imagination. Everyone says when you're making a film that the most important character is the hero, but more important is the audience. When I was in film school, I saw a poster for a horror film, and the tag line was: "There is nothing in the dark that isn't in the light. Except fear." Which is so true. Once you reveal the thing you're keeping under wraps, you lose the fear. Once you show your hand, you can't take it back. Then you're making an action film, I suppose.
Q: We don't get Godzilla until about an hour in.
A: Maybe 50 minutes.
Q: But could you have pushed it back even longer?
A: I don't know. There's a great horror film called "The Haunting," a classic (1963), based on the Shirley Jackson book. A friend told me, "It's great and it's scary, and you don't see anything," and I put it on, totally expecting rubbish. And it's the most tense film. You get real chills. And, yes, you see nothing. You can't help but learn from a work like that. I defend the camp of less is more. Done right, it's powerful, thoughtful stuff. You have the budget, you have effects. You can show the thing. But remember the fun of anticipation?