Godzilla vs. Kong: The making of a monster hit

Godzilla vs. Kong
(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

This feature first appeared in the March 2021 issue of Total Film magazine, featuring Godzilla vs. Kong on the cover. Pick up a hard issue here.

When Total Film catches up with Godzilla vs. Kong director Adam Wingard in February 2021, his long-awaited crossover grudge-match movie is "100 percent done". All he has left to do is sign off IMAX and Dolby Vision 3D versions. 

This film has been a long time coming, and not just because it’s the culmination of a MonsterVerse arc that began with 2014’s Godzilla reboot, and continued through 2017’s Kong: Skull Island and 2019’s Godzilla sequel, King of the Monsters. After a couple of release-date postponements, Godzilla vs. Kong is almost upon us, with a US release in March, where it’ll land on cinema screens as well as streaming for HBO Max subscribers. 

For Wingard, this post-production phase hasn’t been too badly disrupted by the pandemic that’s obliterated cinema schedules. "We had our first test screening at the end of February [2020] that went really great," he recalls. "So it was good that we got a test screening in before the pandemic hit, because it really gave us the confidence of: 'OK, everything’s landing.' Even though the test screening didn’t have all the finished VFX and stuff, the fact it went really well and was positive, it really gave us a lot of energy to push through to the end."

With the film due to land after 12 months of Covid-19 misery, Wingard is confident that Godzilla vs. Kong will hit differently in this brave new world. "I knew we made a film that was for the audiences – for adults and for kids – and that it’s a total crowd-pleaser from start to finish," he beams. "It’s basically non-stop action at a certain point. But I didn’t realize that there’s a kind of new element that’s been floating around."

Godzilla vs Kong

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

After a tumultuous year, politically and otherwise, Wingard sees the concept as having "struck a subconscious chord with people... Not to compare the world to my big monster movie about a giant radioactive lizard and an oversized ape smacking each other on an aircraft carrier. But there are weird, little similarities in terms of why I think people are gravitating towards it. We’ve been kind of fighting with each other, and, to a certain degree, there’s a catharsis to watching these heroes kind of battle it out. We get to just stand off to the side, and honestly just have fun with it. Politics are out the door. This isn’t a serious thing. It’s like: let’s watch these fucking monsters beat each other down, and have a fucking good time doing it, because we haven’t been having fun."

Essential viewing doesn’t quite cover it. Frankly, it sounds more like something that the health service should be calling you up about to ensure you get your allotted dose. Wingard’s childlike enthusiasm for the film is infectious, and reassuring – at every turn he’s keen to stress that the film will be fun, which is just what this tentpole clash of Titans needs to be. It weaves together threads from King of the Monsters – in which Godzilla reasserted himself as the planet’s protector, and the alpha among a bunch of newly emerged Titans – and the Vietnam-era Skull Island, which introduced a bigger Kong than we’d ever seen on screen before. This crossover clash begins with Kong en route to a new home, when Godzilla unexpectedly turns aggressor and goes on the attack. Quite what’s behind his change in personality remains to be seen, though Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), is on a mission to find out what’s up with Big G.

As Wingard points out, Godzilla vs. Kong is basically the first major blockbuster to come out that wasn’t widely advertised before the pandemic. It adds to the sense of occasion that wasn’t exactly in short supply to begin with: this will be the first time the two iconic monsters have shared the screen in almost six decades, since King Kong vs. Godzilla in 1962. Bouts like this don’t come around every day...

Out of your skull...

Godzilla vs. Kong

(Image credit: Warner Bros)

Jump back to the pre-pandemic days of March 2019, and Total Film’s at
the Village Roadshow Studios in Queensland, Australia, being shown around a particularly spectacular set on Soundstage 8. Nothing gives you that child’s-eye view on the movie quite like the full-scale set we witness. It’s a Ghidorah skull (last seen in the end-credits sting of King of the Monsters), wired up with tech and spouting countless tubes filled with flashing lights. A fully operational two-storey set, the dragon-like skull is approximately 20ft tall and 60ft long, and can be filmed from any angle. Inside, there are screens, monitors, buttons, and some nefarious-looking tech. It’s impossible not to be awed as you approach it. Underneath it, the dark floors are constantly buffed to a mirror-like shine.

"I remember that [production company] Legendary were so proud of it," says Wingard of the set. "They were saying that it was the coolest set they’d had on any of the movies. Maybe they were just trying to blow smoke up my ass, but, you know, that one was really fun to shoot on."

Today, a scene’s being filmed featuring Brown’s Madison, and franchise newcomers Julian Dennison and Brian Tyree Henry as Josh and Bernie. Things clearly aren’t going well for them right now, and it’s not long until oleaginous businessman Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir) appears and starts monologuing. Simmons is the head honcho at a mysterious company, Apex – a tech giant with a vested interest in Earth’s Titan problem. Apex’s run-in with Monarch – the series’ secret monster- studying coalition – will be a secondary rivalry/clash in Godzilla vs. Kong, after that of the title characters.

"I am an entrepreneur and a billionaire who uses money to help humanity be better, and stay safe," explains Bichir of his character between takes. "I’m a visionary and I use my money for that. Sometimes things don’t go my way, but... I try." Shortly after, we’re joined by Japanese actor Shun Oguri, who plays Ren. "He’s the son of Dr. Serizawa, played by Ken Watanabe," he explains via a translator. "He is a tech engineer/scientist for Apex."

Godzilla vs. Kong

(Image credit: Warner Bros)

Later, Brown and Dennison come over for a chat between setups. The Stranger Things star has her hair pulled tightly back and sports a blue utility jacket; the Hunt For The Wilderpeople breakout is rocking long hair and a Judas Priest t-shirt. "We’re the ultimate squad," says Brown of the pair’s relationship with Henry’s Bernie. "He’s also just the best babysitter."

"Who’s the baby he’d be sitting?" quips Dennison, deadpan.

Following on from the loss of her mother in the previous film, Madison has "become more independent," says Brown. "She has taken the time to study more on what her mother believed in, and she is still massively focused on Godzilla’s whereabouts."

"Josh is this quirky, shy, kind of nerd," says Dennison. "He goes along on this journey, and is kind of almost thrown into this world, because of the people around him."

"I love their relationship, because it is such a grounded, platonic friendship between a boy and a girl, which is sometimes rare to see on screen," adds Brown. "They are honest with each other, and they have great banter." As Total Film can attest, that banter continues off-screen too.

Of his whistleblower character, Brian Tyree Henry says, "Bernie is the guy you go to for every fact about Apex Industries, regardless if it’s something you want to hear or not. He is a truth seeker and will go the distance to make sure his theories are justified, even if that means he has to put himself in danger. The greater good is what truly matters to him."

And on his dynamic with Brown and Dennison, Henry says that the trio are "not just 'a squad' but 'THEE SQUAD'! This pairing reminds me so much of the buddy adventures of the ’80s in a way. Like, The Goonies. The unlikeliest pair of people coming together to defeat an entire system seeking to destroy mankind! You can’t beat that!"


Godzilla in Godzilla and Lance Reddick in John Wick

(Image credit: Warner Bros/Lionsgate)

Why Lance Reddick was cut from Godzilla vs. Kong

They’re all as awed with the set as Total Film is. "That set was really cool and so detailed to the point where even some of Ghidorah’s teeth were mimicked and carved to a T," Brown later tells us. "I loved that set!"

Henry can barely contain his excitement thinking back to it. "The skull was so dope!" he beams. "I mean, we must’ve climbed all over that thing! We used it as a slide. The mouth had the best acoustics, so Millie and I sang in it. The floor to the skull was also very reflective, so we had to wear booties and it was a constant skate park for the shoot. To see it up close was truly breathtaking."

Another key member of the human cast not on set today is Rebecca Hall. When we catch up later, she describes her character, Dr. Ilene Andrews as "a kind of anthropological linguist" who works for Monarch. "I’m sort of the Jane Goodall of Kong!" she laughs. "I’ve been on the Kong team for a long time. We’re looking after him, and studying him, and trying to work out a way to communicate with him."

Ilene’s adopted daughter, Jia (played by Kaylee Hottle), is an orphan originally from Skull Island, who has a close bond with the ginormous ape. Also in their orbit is Alexander Skarsgård’s Nathan Lind, a Monarch geologist. "Nathan is someone who Ilene works with, and, I suppose, has a slightly sort of combative relationship with, because her interests really revolve around looking after Kong and looking after her daughter – and there’s often conflict around that," explains Hall.

The other major human character in the ensemble is Maya Simmons (presumably a relative of Bichir’s Walter), played by Eiza González. "I would describe Maya as a strong-willed, outspoken... a big entrepreneur woman," González tells Total Film. "She is the top executive for Apex, and she has quite an authority... She’s really strong and smart, and knows what she’s doing." She’ll cross paths with Ilene and Nathan, as the titular Titans head on their collision course. "She comes and joins [the story] to add some interesting dynamics between the characters of Alexander Skarsgård and Rebecca Hall," adds González.

The Hobbs and Shaw and Baby Driver actor has seen the finished film by the time she chats to Total Film, and is full of praise for how the human storylines dovetail with the overarching kaiju clash. "I sometimes feel that I watch these movies and it feels like two completely different stories," she explains. "And this feels very organic and synchronized with the main characters. It just feels like one big cast..."

Which brings us to the titular stars themselves...

Monster Ruck

Godzilla vs. Kong

(Image credit: Warner Bros)

While Godzilla and Kong are two cast members we don’t get to sit down with for this feature, Wingard’s enthusiasm for them is skyscraper-scale. Kong, who was an adolescent in Skull Island in the ’70s has aged somewhat since we last saw him (and increased in size, making him a more even match with this iteration of Godzilla). "Obviously Kong looks a bit different than he did in the last film," explains Wingard. "He’s grown. This is quite a few years after Skull Island. This was an opportunity for me to give Kong more of a grizzled look, and give him a big beard. And just give him more of a wrestler weight to him, and physique."

Wingard has an interesting filmic analogy for the giant ape. "I see him as not just an animal," he says. "He’s the gunfighter without the gunfight. He’s this over-the-hill action hero who is not in a great place in his life. The way I always look at my version of Kong... in Kong: Skull Island, in the ’70s, he’s basically Clint Eastwood in The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. In my version, this is Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven. He’s at the end of his rope. He’s not having a great time. But when action calls, he’s always still ready to step up and take it on!"

The director also gets to play with a different type of Godzilla than we’ve seen on film in this MonsterVerse. "I like how Godzilla’s a character who’s a pendulum in terms of his personality," he says. "He swings back and forth between being a heel and the good guy. I was really excited that I got to do the first Legendary Godzilla where he’s kind of seen as the heel of the movie. And so by proxy, Kong is going to feel a bit more like the hero. I think that fans of both of them will be able to cheer them on equally. Both are given equal weight in the film, in their own ways."

One appeal of the project for Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest) was that the MonsterVerse movies each have their own style and tone. "I felt like out of all the ‘verse’ movies that there are out there, it just felt like these always had such unique director visions attached to them. And in a lot of ways, this movie is a culmination of all my films. It’s almost like the most ‘Adam Wingard’ movie that exists. It’s got everything: the neon; the ’80s tone; the music."

The idea of Kong being chased through a neon city-scape by an atomic-blast-breathing Godzilla, was the visual that first popped into Wingard’s head when he heard about the project, and you can glimpse that Hong Kong showdown to the right. Wingard insists that this film was not strongly influenced by the slightly muted critical and box-office reception of King of the Monsters. "I know with that film, they got a lot of complaints about the darkness of the monsters and some of the lighting and stuff," says Wingard. "But that was not really something that affected us because we were already going in the direction of the late afternoon, sunlit battle. There were maybe a couple of shots here and there where we erred on the side of, ‘Well, let’s just not go quite as shadowy here.’ At the end of the day, it’s like, ‘The people spoke, and they want to see the monsters, and so we’re going to give it to them.’ I think there was sort of a misinterpretation that all the rain effects and the dark effects were trying to hide bad special effects or something, or save money. But that’s not the case at all, because those things all cost even more money to do!"

When it comes to choreographing inventive and original atomic-lizard vs. mega-ape smackdown, "the fact that Godzilla and Kong have such unique fighting styles themselves... automatically creates such a different environment for the action scenes." So when they fight on an aircraft carrier at sea, for example, Godzilla’s at a distinct advantage because of his affinity with the water.

"The setting in itself dictated so many avenues of interest that the fight could go in," continues Wingard. "Because immediately, the fight is about Godzilla having the upper hand. He’s already got the upper hand because he’s an unstoppable, radioactive monster. But, you know, him in the water, that is not Kong’s specialty. That informed, right off the bat, a lot of the things that I think we could do and have fun with. And I think it’s important with a movie like this that there are real stakes, and you’re utilizing the environment around the characters."

Wingard also points out how putting the actors in peril at the same time as the monsters helps the audience to invest in the carnage. "If the monsters are in danger of drowning, then the humans should be in danger of drowning," he says. "I think it helps you be able to empathize, really, with what’s going on, on a 300ft scale and 6ft-and-under scale. Or in the case of Alexander Skarsgård, like 6'5"!"

Given how widespread the Titan presence on Earth was revealed to be in King of the Monsters, expect to see more than just the title creatures on the rampage. "We’ve got all kinds of really great monsters in this," boasts Wingard. "Some brand-new ones. There’s tonnes of surprises, and, you know, plenty of stuff for people to obsess over. And hopefully some really good toys will come out at the mall!" Once again you can feel Wingard connecting with his inner kid.

Child in his eyes...

Godzilla vs. Kong

(Image credit: Warner Bros)

The director calls his ability to tap into what his younger self would’ve enjoyed as his directing superpower. "Directing a movie like Godzilla vs. Kong, you have to be able to be in touch with what excited you about films like this when you were a kid," he explains. "If I had a special power as a filmmaker, it’s being able to rewind time, and say, 'OK, how would I have experienced this when I was 16 years old?' – which was the pinnacle of my film excitement in some ways. I hit it there, and that’s the dragon I’ve been chasing ever since," he laughs.

And for Wingard, this concept is strongly rooted in his childhood, tracing all the way back to a schoolyard argument, and it’s a key reason why he promises that the title bout will offer a definitive winner, rather than copping out. "Absolutely" he assures us. "I felt like I would have walked away from the movie at any point if I was pushed in a corner where there wasn’t going to be a definitive winner to it. Part of the reason I wanted to direct this film in the first place is because I wanted to win an argument that I had with my friend back in second grade where we were arguing who would win in a fight: Godzilla or King Kong? I knew who I thought should win, 100 percent. And I thought my friend was 100 percent wrong. So flash-forward 30 years, and here I am. This is the pettiest directing gig that I’ve ever taken, because it’s to win a fight with a second-grader!"

Wingard calls it "the easiest part of making the movie" because his opinion on the matter hasn’t changed from start to finish. "I knew who was going to win, and I never backed away from that whatsoever."

The joy Wingard experienced with the movie was thrown for a loop when the bombshell announcement came that Warner Bros. would release all of its 2021 slate in cinemas and on streaming service HBO Max. He calls the experience "an emotional whirlwind... because obviously, it’s the biggest film I’ve ever made, literally! So I never, for a second, doubted that this was going to be a major theatrical, big, big-screen experience."

But he turned around on the idea when the trailer dropped online. "I was not expecting the reaction that we got," he marvels. That morning, he sat down with his coffee and started watching trailer-reaction videos.

"People were just flipping out and losing their minds. In some of these, they were flipping out as if they were watching a Star Wars trailer, but they’re watching the Godzilla Vs. Kong trailer on their phone and reacting to it. And I’m kind of like, at the end of the day, this movie’s going to get a reaction from people, no matter what avenue they’re going to see it. Do I want them to see it in a theatre? Absolutely. That’s what I made it for. But at the end of the day... we can all talk about how important cinema is, and the theatrical experience is. But you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is. If our film has to be the first one to do it, I’m ready to do it, because that’s what people need. And this is a great film for that because it’s such a crowd-pleasing, fun movie. It’s just a ‘turn your brain off, and have a blast for two hours’ kind of thing." And whose inner kid doesn’t need that right now?

Enjoyed our feature? Then make sure to subscribe to Total Film and never miss another world-exclusive interview again. For more from Adam Wingard, check out our breakdown of the Godzilla vs. Kong post-credits with the director. Godzilla vs Kong is out now on-demand in the UK and on HBO Max in the US.

Matt Maytum
Editor, Total Film

I'm the Editor at Total Film magazine, overseeing the running of the mag, and generally obsessing over all things Nolan, Kubrick and Pixar. Over the past decade I've worked in various roles for TF online and in print, including at GamesRadar+, and you can often hear me nattering on the Inside Total Film podcast. Bucket-list-ticking career highlights have included reporting from the set of Tenet and Avengers: Infinity War, as well as covering Comic-Con, TIFF and the Sundance Film Festival.