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Interview: ‘Godzilla’ Screenwriter Max Borenstein
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Adam Frazier   |  @   |  
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Godzilla: Awakening cover header

Hey geeks, FamousMonster here! I recently had the opportunity to speak with Max Borenstein, screenwriter of Gareth Edwards‘ upcoming Godzilla film, as well as a graphic novel tie-in, Godzilla: Awakening.

Borenstein wrote, edited, directed, and starred in the 2003 film Swordswallowers and Thin Men while a senior at Yale University. The film starred Peter Cellini, Zoe Kazan, Fran Kranz, and Graham Norris and won Best Feature and Best Screenplay at the New York Independent Film Festival.

What Is Life Worth?, Borenstein’s 2008 screenplay based on Kenneth Feinberg’s memoir, was honored with inclusion on The Black List, an annual list compiled by Hollywood executives of their favorite unproduced screenplays. His 2009 script Jimi, commissioned by Legendary Pictures and based on the life of guitarist Jimi Hendrix, was also included on The Black List.

Borenstein’s script for Legendary Pictures’ Seventh Son, inspired by Joseph Delaney’s young adult dark fantasy novel, The Spook’s Apprentice, is scheduled to be released on February 6, 2015. Godzilla, which comes to theaters on May 16, 2014, will be his first major motion picture screenplay to hit the screen.

Max Borenstein

Geeks of Doom: So, how did you get involved with Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla?

Max Borenstein: I had worked with Legendary Pictures previously – writing screenplays for Jimi and Seventh Son. I had a really good experience doing that – I loved working for them, so when they mentioned they had the rights to Godzilla and asked me if I would be interested, I jumped at the chance.

Gareth Edwards had just come aboard and I got really excited because I had seen Monsters and thought it was so great and so refreshing in the way that it was able to take the giant monster film genre and use it as a way to tell a very intimate, human story. Hiring Gareth spoke to what Legendary was willing to do with the Godzilla franchise, and the risks they might be willing to take to tell a great Godzilla story that was fresh and exciting and not just exploitative.

I went back and did a bit of digging and refreshed myself on the Godzilla franchise, which I hadn’t watched in probably 10 years. When I was in high school, I went through most of the first series (the Shōwa period) and the second series (the Heisei era), but I had never seen the Millennium series stuff and I had never seen the original Japanese cut of the first film (Gojira).

Watching that was a revelation because it’s such a harrowing allegory for the predominant fear of the moment – the nuclear fear. It felt like a great example of what one could strive for tonally in adapting a Godzilla film today – a film that would deal with a different theme and different fears, but feel as resonant and be as viscerally engaging as that first film.

GoD: What makes for a great Godzilla film and what elements did you want to incorporate into your take?

MB: I have a fondness for all the Godzilla films. The kind of Godzilla film that I was attracted to as a kid, however, is not the kind of movie I would necessarily be interested in making now. I love the campy Godzilla films from the ’60s and ’70s – though I do understand why they don’t resonate with as wide an audience as the more serious Godzilla films.

Personally, the movie I was interested in – and the movie Gareth was interested in making – would be serious in tone. Not self-serious in the sense that it would be overly serious to the point of not being fun, but serious in the sense that it takes seriously what this character and what this franchise is capable of representing. And I think – going back to that first film – the Godzilla franchise does this incredible job at representing something that is truly harrowing and truly terrifying.

Godzilla is a vessel for the fears and anxieties of humanity. Over the years, Godzilla has become a different vessel for different fears. In the ’60s the films were a little campier because they were dealing with alien invasion fears. There were the environmental fears in the ’70s, with films like Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, and later films dealt with fears of bio-engineering and advanced technology.

You end up saying, “looking at the world we live in now: what strikes right at the heart at what we’re afraid of? And what makes us feel powerless in the face of it?” That’s what all Godzilla films have in common – it’s the common denominator – that Godzilla represents a force of nature that is beyond mankind’s control.

So whenever we become arrogant and believe we are in control of the world around us through our technology – that force reminds us of our powerlessness. In the same way that real things in our world remind of us our powerlessness – natural disasters do that – so those were the kind of thoughts that inspired us. The thing that unites the best Godzilla movies is this attempt to strike at the heart of something that feels universal and terrifying about the human experience. The first one did it – many Godzilla films do it – and that’s what we were aiming to do with our film.

GoD: What challenges did you face in developing a script that would not only excite mainstream audiences as a blockbuster, but also respect the source material and please Godzilla purists?

MB: Thinking deeply about what it is that unifies the best Godzilla movies is where we started. If you respect that, then you’re bound to make the best movie you can, and that’s going to be a movie that – hopefully – every audience will be able to enjoy and fans will be able to appreciate as well because it has this inherent respect for what Godzilla represents.

The idea that there is a “Godzilla purist,” however, is actually kind of a false idea – because there is no one Godzilla. If you look over the course of all the Godzilla films that have been made, Godzilla doesn’t remain constant in any of them – whether it be in how he looks or how he acts, it’s always a different interpretation, and that’s what’s so interesting and so exciting about the character.

What’s so fascinating is that Ishirō Honda made a lot of those films – the same creative team was involved in so many of those films and still they reinvented Godzilla time and again in different ways and different iterations. I think they did it because they saw the power of what this character was – as being something that was representative of larger things.

To say there’s one pure version of Godzilla is really a falsehood – everyone has a different Godzilla and there is no one Godzilla for anyone, really. So the best way to respect that – in my opinion – is to try to suss out a common denominator. To me, that comes down to this idea of representing a power beyond our control – something that is beyond our reach.

That common denominator is what you need to respect – and you can do it in a serious way or a more lighthearted way and it can still be good. In our case we decided to approach it from a serious standpoint, but I think a lighthearted Godzilla film can still be great as long as it respects that kind of core component of the character.

GoD: You also co-wrote the Godzilla: Awakening graphic novel. How did the idea for that prequel come to be, and what was the biggest difference in writing that over the screenplay?

MB: The idea at the heart of the graphic novel is an idea that derives from backstory I had invented and played with in the film. It kind of pokes its head into the film in a minor but pivotal way – but I had a lot more I wanted to say about it that wouldn’t fit within the context of the film.

When Legendary approached me about expanding the universe into a graphic novel, I got very excited because my mind immediately leapt to this kernel of an idea as something I could expand upon. There are some great differences in writing a graphic novel and a screenplay – one big one is the compression of time you’re able to achieve narratively.

It was exciting to discover the way panels on a page can tell a story in a completely different manner than a film. There’s a page in the book where we tell epochs of Godzilla’s history on a single page, from the dawn of man through the nuclear age. I think that page is something you can’t really do in a movie. The closest you can come is what Darren Aronofsky did in Noah or what Terrence Malick did in Tree of Life, where you have these extensive time lapses – but that has a very different feel than what we achieved in the book.

GoD: Looking at the roster of classic Toho monsters, which creature is your favorite and which would you most like to see in a potential sequel?

MB: [Laughter] I’m going to decline to answer that specifically, but I would say I have a great fondness for all of them. The important thing, if we’re lucky enough to make a sequel, would be to find a monster – whether it be from from the canon of the Toho films or a new one – that is able to exist within the tone and grounded reality that we have established for this particular Godzilla universe.

I think there’s a way to do that with many – if not all – of the Toho monsters. And certainly there are other possibilities with new monsters, but that would have to be the guiding principle: what would work best within the tone we’ve established and feel organic.

GoD: What was your reaction to seeing Gareth’s Godzilla move and roar on-screen for the first time? How satisfying is it as a screenwriter to see your work brought to life on such an epic scale?

MB: I mean, it’s unbelievable every time. I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with this project for three years really, basically since Gareth came aboard – and to see it take shape as all the incredibly talented people who spend their lives mastering their crafts to bring it to life, it’s just incredible.

From the actors – we have such an unbelievable cast – to the remarkable visual effects artists and concept artists, Gareth is there as Generalissimo, gathering the troops and making sure everyone is adhering to the same vision. It’s such a kick to watch it unfold on the screen. Every time I see it, it sends chills down my spine.

GoD: Thanks so much for taking some time out to talk with me today, Max. I’m a huge Godzilla fan, and I’m beyond excited to see the new film.

MB: It’s been my pleasure – and I’m equally excited for you to see it!

Godzilla: Awakening is an 80-page story, set decades before the film, that is co-written by Max Borenstein (screenwriter of the new Godzilla) and Greg Borenstein. The graphic novel hits shelves on May 7.

Delve into an incredible mystery, generations in the making. At the dawn of the atomic age, humanity awakens life forms beyond imagination, unleashing monumental forces of nature. This explosive, larger-than-life adventure is the perfect way for fans to glimpse the new Godzilla before seeing the film in theaters.

Godzilla: Awakening is illustrated by Eric Battle (X-Men, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman), Yvel Guichet (Pacific Rim: Tales from Year Zero, Superboy Annual, End of Nations), Alan Quah (Rage, The Vampire Diaries, Anywhere) and Lee Loughridge (Batman Adventures, Arkham Asylum: Living Hell, Marvel Zombies Return), and features cover art by Arthur Adams (Godzilla, Fantastic Four, Hulk, Uncanny X-Men).

Preview Pages [click for larger view]

Godzilla: Awakening cover by Arthur Adams Godzilla: Awakening page 02 Godzilla: Awakening page 03

Directed by Gareth Edwards (Monsters) and written by Max Borenstein, Godzilla stomps and roars its way into theaters on May 16, 2014 from Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures.

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