Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire director talks drawing influences from the Showa era and '80s toys for the new sequel

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire
(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Adam Wingard is buzzing. The director is Zooming from São Paulo, Brazil, where he’s attending Comic Con – or CCXP, if you prefer. It’s just hours since the first trailer for Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire has dropped, and after months and months of blanket secrecy, there have been revelations of some super-cool shit, to use the technical term. Mini Kong! Badass red-ape titan Skar King! All-new images of Hollow Earth! Godzilla boasting a makeover colour scheme! Kong sporting a freaking bionic arm! And in the trailer’s climactic shot, Kong and Godzilla running side by side into battle like some supersized Batman and Robin cloaked in hair and scales. 


Total Film's Godzilla x Kong subscriber cover

(Image credit: Warner Bros/Legendary/Total Film)

This article originally appeared in Total Film issue 346. Subscribe here and never miss a magazine.

‘Yeah!’ grins Wingard, who challenges Kong in the hair stakes with his explosively unruly barnet and bushy, grey-streaked beard cascading down his chest. ‘For me, the starting point for this movie was that shot of them running into battle together. That was the very first image that I really had of this movie. That’s where you want to end up. It was like, “If we can make something that justifies this moment, then we know we’ve done it right.”’

Judging from the first trailer, and from Total Film’s chats with Wingard and his cast and crew, Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire is sure as hell going to justify its superheroic-monsters shot. The story begins just a little down the line from where 2021’s Godzilla vs. Kong concluded. Should you need reminding, that titanic smackdown of a movie, also directed by Wingard, ended with everyone’s two favourite kaiju coming to an uneasy truce. Sure, they’d spent most of the story beating one another to a pulp, but then they’d joined forces to take down Apex’s monstrous tech creation, Mechagodzilla. With the hard-earned victory came a grudging respect and an understanding: Kong would toddle off to rule the subterranean Hollow Earth, while Godzilla would glide back into the ocean knowing that the surface world was his dominion. ‘Godzilla kind of tells him, “All right, I’ll let you go this time. But I don’t want to see you around these parts again, and if I do, there’s going to be trouble,”’ says Wingard with a tug of his mighty beard.

So what disturbs the peace this time out? Well, Wingard and co. are loathe to go into plot details, but we do know that as Kong explores Hollow Earth to a far greater degree, he discovers that he’s not the King after all. Literally sitting on a throne at one point in the trailer, Skar King is bigger than Kong, leaner and more agile, his red fur the colour of blood and fury. And he seems to have an army of titanic primates at his bidding. He clearly rules his dominion by fear – just look at all those skulls littered around the gaff – and he’s not about to accept Kong rocking up to Hollow Earth.

So what else do we know? Well, we’ll see the return of Monarch’s scientist and linguist Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), her adopted daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle) and conspiracy theorist Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry), and they will spend all of their time together, after being split into Camp Kong and Camp Godzilla in the last movie. There are new characters played by Fala Chen, Alex Ferns and Rachel House, and Dan Stevens is along for the adventure in a co-lead capacity, as Trapper.

‘Essentially he’s a vet,’ says Stevens, who’s been looking to reteam with Wingard since they made The Guest together. ‘Not a military vet – a veterinarian. He’s a specialist in these creatures. Their inner workings. If you’ve got a sick titan, Trap is your guy. He’s brought in to give our man Kong a bit of a hand at the beginning of the movie, and then he finds himself along for the ride. He’s the sort of guy you want on a mission like this. He’s not fazed by much. Some of it is stuff he’s seen before, some of it is stuff none of us have ever seen before. He’s got this wonderful sense of awe. He’s a man of nature. He really feels at one with the cosmos, whether it’s above ground or in Hollow Earth.’

OK. Rewind. Is ‘giving a bit of a hand’ to Kong a teasing reference to that bionic arm glimpsed in the trailer? Wingard tugs at his beard. ‘It’s kind of hard to say too much more than that without spoiling anything, because he has one of my favourite intros of any character I’ve ever shot in my films. What I will say is I’d want to play with that [action figure] if I was a kid! And though Apex isn’t in this story in a literal way, we kind of hint that Monarch absorbed a lot of the Apex technology after the last film. The glove Kong is wearing, it’s somewhat insinuated that’s Apex technology.’

‘We meet Trapper being extremely up close with Kong,’ adds Stevens. ‘So for that sequence, they had a giant piece of Kong’s…’ He laughs. ‘I was going to say a giant piece of Kong’s anatomy, but that sounds really wrong. They had a real bit of Kong that I had to interact with. That was kind of wild.’ ‘The human storyline is all in one place this time,’ says Hall. ‘I really enjoyed getting to work with Brian Tyree Henry on this one, who I didn’t get to work with last time. Andrews recruits [his character] to help with something. And working with Dan is a blast for me, one of my favourite things to do. We were at college together.’

Stevens is laughing again. ‘We were friends, and then roommates after university, so we go way back. I hope viewers feel that. There’s a bit of history there, between our characters.’ Hall nods. ‘It’s an old friendship, though it’s alluded to there was possibly something else, at some point. But now they’re having an opportunity to work together.’ Doing what, exactly? Total Film is all for protecting key plot points to allow viewers to discover the spectacular surprises for themselves, but we need something. Anything.

‘It’s one big adventure. You’ll just have to wait and see,’ shrugs Stevens. ‘I can’t tell you much more,’ apologises Hall. Wingard, at least, offers a few crumbs. ‘This is very much a kitchen-sink Hollow Earth experience,’ he says. ‘We take you all over. You see all different types of environments, and lots of new creatures – and some familiar ones. At the same time, we still manage to get around a lot on the surface. We have scenes in Rio and Rome. The film still has this big, international feel. We cover a lot of ground.’

Monster Squad

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire

(Image credit: Legendary Pictures/Warner Bros.)

Adam Wingard is a horror nut who came to 2021’s Godzilla vs. Kong off a handful of genre movies – You’re Next, The Guest, Blair Witch and Death Note, plus segments of anthology films V/H/S, The ABCs of Death and V/H/S/2. When he took the reins of Godzilla vs. Kong, he was making the fourth film in the MonsterVerse, a series of films based on creatures created by Japan’s Toho Co. Ltd, produced by Legendary Pictures and co-produced and distributed by Warner Bros. It followed on from Godzilla (2014), Kong: Skull Island (2017) and Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), and there’s since been two TV entries, animated series Skull Island and live-action series Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, which both debuted in 2023. 

Now, you get the sense, Wingard’s making not just the fifth MonsterVerse movie and a direct sequel to Godzilla vs. Kong, but the monster movie he wants to see, with his own mighty pawprints all over it. Wingard has been a huge fan of movie monsters since he was a kid, and says of these giant CGI creations, ‘They’re toys, basically. I’m an adult being able to play with hundreds of millions of dollars.’ 

His primary influence on the Godzilla side of things are the movies from the Showa period (1954-1975), especially the 60s and 70s, when Godzilla was primarily the good guy fighting other beasts. They are colourful and camp, and Wingard fondly remembers watching movies like Mothra vs. Godzilla and Godzilla vs. Hedorah on daytime TV. The flavour of these films rather lend themselves to Wingard’s own love of a vivid palette – The Guest was soaked in garish hues, and who can forget the climactic scrap of Godzilla vs. Kong, as they tusselled amid neon skyscrapers in Hong Kong? Well, now he’s doubling down… 

‘Whenever I was talking to the visual artists, what I told them was, “I want the colour palette of this film to resemble the experience of what it was like to walk down a toy aisle in the 1980s, when you had ThunderCats, G.I. Joe and Transformers.” There was just this orgasmic feeling. So many colours and textures. That’s what I wanted to bring to this movie. This new, heightened reality. I wanted to find out: can you take that over-the-top toy-aisle experience, but then find a way to ground that into a reality?’ 

He grins. ‘Very specifically in the last film, I wanted Godzilla to have a continuity, to look the way that he had in King of the Monsters and the 2014 Godzilla. But then I didn’t get a chance at doing my version of Godzilla. So now I wanted to do different things with the spines, and try different colours. I didn’t want it to just be random; it’s part of the story. And similarly with Kong, I wanted to give him some sort of new look as well. We grew his beard out, and gave him a little bit more grey hair and stuff.’ 

The environments in Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire will really pop. For Hollow Earth, the production shot in Greenland, Iceland, Hawaii and Australia – breath-snatching landscapes that are juxtaposed to fashion ‘a totally weird fantasy landscape’, as Wingard puts it. Production designer Tom Hammock and his team (‘On You’re Next, we had five people; here, we had hundreds,’ he says) built more than 60 sets for the production, and stresses that real locations were utilised whenever possible. 

‘Hollow Earth is based on this living fossil jungle that still exists on Earth, in the far north of Australia, where it hits Papua New Guinea,’ he says. ‘The studio let us go to this place with leeches and snakes and constant rain and mud, and we built sets that could be carried into the jungle. Literally we shot where the road ends in northern Australia. In the last film we had the HEAV, the Hollow Earth Aerial Vehicle. In this one we updated it so it breaks apart into 14 pieces. We could crane it into a remote riverbed in the middle of the jungle and reassemble it. That way you can have characters exit the spaceship and walk fully around it then enter Hollow Earth. It was not easy!’ 

‘You know it’s an interesting day at work when there’s a snake handler,’ shudders Hall. ‘Someone was literally going through the woods to make sure it was clear of any deadly animals. We went to the Daintree Rainforest, which is one of the oldest rainforests on the planet. The leaves were straight out of dinosaur times. They had cassowaries, which are the closest relative to dinosaurs. They’re everywhere. They’re amazing-looking things – massive emu-like birds with blue heads, and they’re very violent during mating season. We were given a warning: “Don’t look them in the eye, because they will charge you.”’ Stevens takes up the story. ‘We were surrounded by cassowaries and crocodiles and pythons. I’ve never had a safety memo to an entire unit that was a crocodile safety memo…’

Wingard gives his beard a particularly hard tug, communicating concern. ‘It’s so scary when you’re out in the middle of nowhere, and people tell you these casual stories about: “Oh, yeah, some people went missing. A crocodile took them off, and they never saw them again.” You’re like, “That happened right over there? We’re shooting right over here.” But that’s the fun of it. Until somebody gets hurt, you’re all good.’ 

Spying an opportunity to wrangle some more story info, Total Film asks just how much of the movie takes place in cities, to 1) whisk the cast and crew to a safer environment, and 2) because you can’t have a Godzilla movie without trashing some tall buildings. Do the aforementioned Rio and Rome get a good stomping? ‘Absolutely,’ says Wingard. ‘You see Godzilla and Kong destroy major landmarks. That’s how Godzilla and King Kong pay homage to the greatest places on the planet, you know? You should only be so lucky to have your city destroyed by Godzilla.’ He ponders. ‘It’s still important to be able to do that kind of stuff because Hollow Earth is such an alien world. You still want to bring the kind of believability and scope to these monsters that you can only get whenever you take them to real cities, and juxtapose them against backdrops that we’re all familiar with. Seeing the monsters juxtaposed against the Pyramids, for instance, in Egypt, is something I’ve always wanted to see. We really get to go there on this one.’ 

Hammock is again keen to stress that reality plays a big part. You thought these MonsterVerse movies were all CGI? Think again. ‘We’re trying to follow in the footsteps of Bond or Mission: Impossible,’ he says. ‘On the last movie, for the huge finale [in Hong Kong], it wasn’t a computer-generated city until later in the sequence. So if we were going to do a close-up on Godzilla, we went up in a helicopter 500 feet and did the camera move around a point in the city, then put Godzilla in. That commitment continued on this film.’

Beasts in show

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

But now for the main event. Whoever you speak to on Godzilla x King: The New Empire, they’re in no doubt as to why punters spend good money to go to the cinema to see a kaiju movie. It even extends to the actors. Ask them about the importance of the human storyline, and they’ll give you an answer… then check themselves. 

‘Andrews has had a bit of a promotion within Monarch, so she has a bit more power, but something I love about Andrews is this real-world aspect of mum-ing alongside this incredibly big, powerful job – she’s balancing that with an almost-teenage daughter, and all that brings,’ starts Hall. Then she adds: ‘It’s heartfelt but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. We understand that the monsters having a big old battle is part of the fun.’ It’s a theme that Stevens takes up. ‘I do enjoy it when films like this are able to find character in among all these wild epic battles, but I’m under no illusions why people are coming to see these movies,’ he says. ‘They’re about two characters that are many times the size of me.’ 

It’s the reason that there have been 38 Godzilla movies since the atomic lizard first rose from the sea (and the trauma of WW2) to trash Tokyo in 1954, and why King Kong is still monkeying around 91 years and 10 movies after Willis H. O’Brien’s stunning stop-motion model scaled the Empire State Building in 1933. ‘Godzilla and Kong are these two iconic characters, so you owe it to the audience to give the best performances they’ve ever given,’ says Paul J. Franklin, the visual effects supervisor whose company, Double Negative (Dneg), worked on Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire along with Scanline, Weta, and various other smaller vendors (Franklin says close to 2,000 people contributed to the VFX). Franklin has worked on such films as The Da Vinci Code, First Man, Blade Runner 2049 and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, and won Oscars for Christopher Nolan movies Inception and Interstellar. ‘There’s a lot of weight riding on it,’ he continues. ‘We’re always trying to go one better, in putting them into the world, making them feel believable, the scale, but also the personality. I call it a creative arms race. We’re always in ascent towards the ultimate goal of complete photorealism.’ 

 Xavier Matia Bernasconi, also of Dneg, has a background at DreamWorks in animation, and was brought on by overall visual-effects supervisor Alessandro Ongaro to specifically fine-tune Kong and Godzilla (see interview on page 35). ‘Coming from animation,’ he says, ‘creatures are very cool, very complex. Kong is so human, and he has feelings, and he’s not just destroying everything, and he has this relationship with the little girl… Sometimes in visual effects, we focus too much on the technical side. We forget the story. We are at the service of the story.’ 

And Godzilla? ‘When he goes into a city and creates havoc and destruction, you need to sell that. Imagine the size of this foot stomping on the ground. You see a wave of debris rippling through. The nuances of colour. The tongue, the gums. We need to have those details. He’s a bit more rigid. Kong is very agile. Godzilla is more like [makes lumbering movement]. We have this big tail that goes around. I mean, my dog creates havoc just with his little tail. Imagine Godzilla! And then you have to ensure that the battles are exciting, dynamic, and really portray the scale.’ Ah, the battles. We can fathom from the trailer that Godzilla gets himself to Hollow Earth, and we can also presume that Skar King makes it to the surface. So what can Wingard tell us about this new fearsome foe? Given he won’t say a word about Mini Kong’s appearance in the trailer, and whether King Kong will adopt the baby titan and finally have the family he craves, he surely owes us a few insights? After all, previous MonsterVerse movies have rolled out classic Toho monsters like Mothra, Rodan, Mechagodzilla and King Ghidorah, but Skar King is an all-new creation. 

‘The trailer doesn’t tell us about why Skar King is this world-ending threat,’ he starts. ‘There’s a lot of mystery to be uncovered yet. It’s interesting, because, in general, these movies are always about the human threat – you know, that human beings are somehow responsible for a lot of the problems. Mechagodzilla is the pinnacle of that – we literally create anti-Godzilla to combat Godzilla, and then that’s just too much power for anyone to have. What’s interesting about this new film is that we go in a direction that I don’t think this series has ever seen before, which is that the Skar King is, in a way, the closest that that human threat has ever been juxtaposed onto a titan itself. The Skar King almost represents an upscaled version of the worst parts of humanity, just as Kong represents some of the best parts of humanity. I would say Skar King is the greatest threat that we’ve seen in these movies. It’s really going to take a full team together to bring it down because it’s too big for just one titan!’ 

Wingard is hyped now, swinging verbal haymakers as wildly as Kong trying to take down the Big G. on the aircraft carrier in the last movie. ‘We go bigger on this one,’ he promises. ‘This movie is high-octane. It’s non-stop. I can’t believe everything we’ve packed in. We’ve got some set-pieces, like…’ His eyes saucer. ‘But the most important thing – and I can’t stress this enough – is that this movie is doing something that no film has ever done before. We are breaking new ground with visual effects in terms of non-verbal storytelling. We have large sequences, almost eight minutes sometimes, where the film just follows the monsters, and the monsters are telling their own story. It really works. It’s not like you’re sitting there trying to figure out, “OK, what are they thinking? What are they doing?” These monsters are emotive.’ 

As is Wingard. His passion is palpable. ‘That is the movie I wanted to see when I was a kid. When you’re a kid, you barely even understand some of the human subplots. But when the monsters are fighting each other, you understand their alliances. You understand Godzilla and Mothra’s relationship. You understand Godzilla and Ghidorah’s relationship. Your imagination is interfacing with the movie. So I wanted to truly do a monster movie, and I wanted this to be my mic drop on the storytelling of monsters. Maybe I’ll do another one, or maybe not. But if I don’t, I wanted to make sure that I put everything in that I ever would want to see on screen.’

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire opens in cinemas on March 29. For more upcoming movies, check out our guide to 2024 movie release dates.

This article first appeared in Total Film issue 346 - buy a copy here.

Editor-at-Large, Total Film

Jamie Graham is the Editor-at-Large of Total Film magazine. You'll likely find them around these parts reviewing the biggest films on the planet and speaking to some of the biggest stars in the business – that's just what Jamie does. Jamie has also written for outlets like SFX and the Sunday Times Culture, and appeared on podcasts exploring the wondrous worlds of occult and horror.