From the EW archives: A behind-the-scenes look at the making of 1998's Godzilla
The following is the cover story from the May 22, 1998 issue of EW.
Looking a bit like a ’90s version of Cecil B. DeMille, with biker boots and an enormous stogie substituting for jodhpurs and a megaphone, Godzilla director Roland Emmerich restlessly paces up and down Wall Street, watching 500 umbrella-clutching extras line up to become human hors d’oeuvres in a reptilian smorgasbord. As the cameras begin to roll, the high-strung Emmerich puffs on his cigar faster and faster like something out of Reefer Madness and yells, ”Cue Godzilla!”
Taxicabs jury-rigged with hydraulic pumps to make them bunny-hop in time with Godzilla’s approaching footsteps start bouncing like Mexican jumping beans, giving a hint of the fire-breathing lizard’s colossally harrowing size. THUD!!!…one mississippi, two mississippi, three mississippi…THUD!!!
As the extras jog down Wall Street, a tad too lackadaisically for a bunch of New Yorkers about to be squashed like overripe Crenshaw melons, Emmerich removes his cigar and screams: ”Run, you f—ers! It’s a giant f—ing lizard!!!”
Now, in fairness, it should be said that most days on the set of Sony’s $120 million riff on the undisputed King of the Monsters, the 41-year-old German expat and Event Movie auteur behind Independence Day runs a shiny, happy Up With People kind of ship. But when you’re lording over the most anticipated, preordained, overhyped blockbuster hopeful in a season of anticipated, preordained, overhyped hopefuls, it doesn’t matter if you’re the Dalai Lama — sometimes a gasket’s gonna blow.
Emmerich and his writer-producer partner Dean Devlin, 35, are only halfway through their film’s 13-day on-location joyride of destruction through Gotham’s top-tier tourist attractions — and so far there have already been a few too many moments of bad mojo. The first week in New Jersey saw a mini-tornado touch down; then an electrical storm put a kibosh on their visit to Central Park; and now on this May afternoon on Wall Street, in addition to those sluggish day players, two manholes have inexplicably blown seven feet into the air, stopping production for over an hour. Then there’s the pressure of living up to their own self-generated hype, which was kick-started long before the cameras started rolling.
For the past year, Emmerich and Devlin have bludgeoned every man, woman, and child with their annoyingly cryptic yet effective ”Size Does Matter” marketing blitz (costing a reported $50 million in the U.S. alone). Like toadstools popping up after a spring shower, new hints about the behemoth’s size, girth, turn-ons, and turnoffs are plastered somewhere new every day:
”He’s Taller Than the Statue of Liberty!”
”He’s Twice as Long as a 747 Jumbo Jet!”
”His Spleen Is the Size of Mickey Rooney!”
Heck, they’ve set it up so that if you don’t cough up the price of a ticket to see Godzilla on Memorial Day weekend, you’re some sort of Communist. And with Godzilla already booked on over 6,000 screens, it’s pretty much a no-brainer that the film’s first weekend grosses will be monstrous, possibly beating The Lost World‘s record $90.2 million opening. But will the movie’s legs be long enough to outrun the rest of the summer pack? This kind of question makes Devlin and Emmerich twitchy.
“When Independence Day came out, the three big movies that summer were supposed to be Twister, Mission: Impossible, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame — which was great as far as we were concerned,” says Devlin. “Now it’s almost a no-winner. We could make a movie that makes $300 million worldwide and people would say it’s a letdown.”
That’s exactly why there’s an air of panic on Wall Street today. When the cameras roll again, the newly motivated extras hysterically freak out on cue. Whether it’s out of fear of Godzilla or of another tongue-lashing from the director isn’t entirely clear. But either way, one of them gets a little too excited and drops his umbrella in front of the camera. Emmerich stops puffing once again and wearily rubs his eyes, announcing to no one in particular, “That was the worst take I’ve ever seen in my life!” Faces of cast and crew drop and Emmerich lets out an exhausted chuckle. Slowly, nervously, everyone starts laughing with him, not quite sure if it’s the right thing to do.
Two days after Emmerich’s agita with the extras, things are going much more swimmingly with the film’s star, Matthew Broderick. It’s midnight on a muggy evening in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, and for take after take, the actor formerly known as Ferris has no trouble mustering the appropriate expression of pants-wetting terror when his character, a brainiac biologist, first lays eyes on the 20-story beast.
Later, Devlin says, “Every film we’ve done we’ve wanted Matthew for.” Emmerich adds: “He would’ve been James Spader in StarGate and Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day, but he was unavailable. Before we wrote Godzilla, we met with him and said, ‘Don’t take anything else till you’ve read our script.'”
Right now, though, Broderick has to be wondering whether to take all of this as a compliment or some sort of cruel karmic gag. Clad in a waterlogged camouflage poncho, the actor’s in his fourth hour of getting drenched by a torrential downpour generated by a set of six-story-tall artificial-rain machines, which loom over his head, mockingly following his every move. Adding sopping-wet insult to injury is the fact that less than 24 hours earlier, Broderick tied the knot with his longtime girlfriend, actress Sarah Jessica Parker. The poor newlywed should be chilling on a chaise longue with a celebratory mai tai.
Those “I dos” may have come easily, but in talking about Godzilla, all Broderick seems able to offer is “I can’t.” Much like those enigmatic teasers for the film, the actor is cagey about revealing anything about Godzilla‘s plot: “All I can really say is I play a scientist, like a bug-ologist or something…what the hell am I? I forgot what I am…how embarrassing.”
Broderick may be sworn to silence, but this much about Godzilla we know without his help: Awakened by French nuclear testing in the South Pacific, the reptile rises from the sea, and he’s rather miffed. Only he’s not a he. Godzilla is pregnant and heads to the Big Apple to lay her eggs. Broderick is the egghead hot on her tail, along with Maria Pitillo (Bye Bye, Love) as his smoldering ex, a scoop-hungry TV reporter. Hank Azaria (The Birdcage) is her cameraman and Jean Reno (Mission: Impossible), a shady French insurance inspector who’s up to no good. As you can no doubt guess, since Godzilla is brought to us by the same guys who blew the White House to smithereens, New York and all its hallowed landmarks (Central Park, the Chrysler Building, Madison Square Garden, you name it) are all on the business end of a 200-foot ass whupping.
Hollywood’s Godzilla has been clomping through various stages of development for more than half a decade. But the lizard king was wreaking havoc long before Devlin or Emmerich was born. In 1954, nine years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was flying over the Bikini Islands (the site of American H-bomb testing) when he came up with his brainchild, Gojira. The name, a mix of gorilla (a nod to King Kong) and the Japanese word for whale, was ham-handedly translated Stateside into Godzilla.
A genetic freak mutated by radiation, the underwater beast rose from the sea to wreak havoc on Tokyo, symbolizing the postwar fear and anxiety of the Japanese. Of course, on a less heavy note, it was always pretty easy to see that beneath the fear and anxiety was a guy in a rubber suit. Godzilla went on to become Japanese studio Toho’s biggest cash cow — and it milked him for 22 installments in which he routinely kicked the stuffing out of his hometown (and grappled with a never-ending roster of kitschy wannabes like Mothra and the Smog Monster). In no time, those hilariously campy (but still pretty damn cool) films became a televised Saturday-afternoon rite of passage for generations of drooling teenage fanboys and girls.
Cut to 38 years after Godzilla’s debut. Two of those now-grown-up Saturday shut-ins (Devlin and Emmerich) had just completed the 1992 Dolph Lundgren-Jean-Claude Van Damme flick Universal Soldier when a two-page ad appeared in Variety. It showed a picture of the TriStar studio lot under an ominous, familiarly shaped shadow. It optimistically (and somewhat delusionally) trumpeted: “Godzilla: Coming Summer 1994.”
The idea of making a big-budget Tinseltown-sponsored Godzilla wasn’t exactly novel. In fact, one Hollywood producer had even pitched the harebrained idea of a Godzilla musical to the folks at Toho. (They passed.) Then, in 1993, producers Cary Woods and Rob Fried wooed Toho with a straightforward sci-fi premise gussied up with the latest special effects. Toho bit. Unfortunately, finding a studio to bankroll the pricey idea wasn’t quite as easy. “We pitched the idea to Columbia [a division of Sony Pictures] and they passed outright,” says Woods, who along with Fried, is now an executive producer of Godzilla. “Their response was, they felt it had the potential for camp.”
Woods, whose former boss Peter Guber had since become chief of Sony Pictures, went over everybody’s head and hopped a plane to Florida to pitch the rejected project to Guber himself. Within seconds, Woods says, “Peter got it; he saw the movie in his head. He was like, ‘Godzilla, the fire-breathing monster?! Yesss!'” Guber set the film up at Sony’s TriStar studio and announced it to the rest of the world with the Variety ad.
The first order of business was coming up with a story. Woods and Fried recruited screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (Aladdin), who whipped up one of those old-school grudge-match Godzilla story lines pitting the big guy against a flying-monster nemesis. Next up was corraling an A-list director. According to Woods and Fried, they and the studio considered Emmerich, James Cameron, Tim Burton, even the Coen brothers. “That was my idea,” admits Woods. “I had just seen The Hudsucker Proxy at Sundance and I thought they could give Godzilla a cool, young twist. Then when Hudsucker came out and did no business whatsoever, the studio wanted to put me in a straitjacket.”
The first offer went to Emmerich and Devlin — a choice no doubt made easier by the fact that StarGate, their follow-up to Universal Soldier, had just raked in $16 million during its opening weekend. But the team passed on the project over and over again, unable to get beyond what Devlin calls “the cheese factor.” Ultimately, Woods, Fried, and Sony scored a coup by signing Jan De Bont. “It was right after Speed had come out, so everybody in town wanted him,” says Columbia Pictures president Chris Lee. “He was the hot director.” Naturally, as soon as De Bont was on board, Devlin and Emmerich started kicking themselves. “In Hollywood, when you pass up a project and then a really big director says yes to it, you immediately go, ‘Ohhh, noooo!'” says Devlin. “We thought we really screwed up.”
Depending on whom you ask, De Bont’s estimated budget for Godzilla came in somewhere between $130 million and $145 million — a prohibitive sum for a studio that was sinking, at the time, under $3 billion of debt and where the words Last Action Hero were uttered at one’s own peril. Says Woods: “Everything was being looked at in a micro way. And with a $140 million budget for a movie with this many effects, everybody tacks on another 30 percent. So the studio was looking at a movie they thought was going to be $200 million.” Not surprisingly, Sony got cold feet and De Bont jumped over to Warner Bros. to make Twister. “It’s funny,” says Lee in retrospect, “because when we were developing Godzilla with Jan, he kept saying ‘I want Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton as the leads.'”
Godzilla sat in limbo for the next two years. Meanwhile, Lee kept bugging his pals Emmerich and Devlin, who at that point were busy making Independence Day. When they finished ID4, they started getting antsy about their next project and asked their sets-and-creatures designer, Patrick Tatopoulos, to hash out some sketches for a new, more natural and ’90s-looking Godzilla. Says Devlin, “When Roland and I saw the drawings we just looked at each other and said, ‘That’s it…. That’s our next picture.'”
But Devlin and Emmerich still had to run their new ‘zilla past Toho. Emmerich, Tatopoulos, and Lee traveled to Tokyo with a foot-high model. “We were terrified because it was like redesigning the Volkswagen or something — Godzilla is their Mickey Mouse,” says Lee. “There was this whole room of Toho people and at first they were totally silent. Then slowly they started oohing and aahing.”
When Devlin and Emmerich finally signed on to make Godzilla, Devlin told Daily Variety, “We’re going to try to do it for a shade under $90 million…because both Roland and I are dead set against these $100 million budgets.” The duo’s finished Godzilla clocks in at $120 million — just spitting distance, ironically, from De Bont’s previous, deal-breaking budget. Says Devlin: “Well, let’s put it this way, we spent a lot more money on this movie than we wanted to. I’m not proud of it. I’m not going to go running around bragging about it.”
Not that Sony’s putting up a stink. In fact, guessing that Godzilla will become a franchise of its very own on a par with Batman and Bond, it recently signed the duo to a three-year first-look deal. (The deal was made easier by the fact that Devlin and Emmerich, who at one point looked like they were going to set up shop at Fox to remake Fantastic Voyage, had soured on that studio after it canned their TV show The Visitor.) There are already plans for a second and third Godzilla chapter in the works. Says Sony’s Lee, “I consider their deal to basically be the cornerstone for this studio.”
At Devlin and Emmerich’s production office in Santa Monica, it’s two months before Godzilla‘s scheduled opening and there are roughly 150 computer-generated f/x shots out of 400 that still aren’t done. “It’s pretty tight,” laughs Emmerich. “Every day people ask me, ‘How can you finish this?’ But you always finish…we know we’ll finish something. It’s pretty insane because we’ll be editing until the last possible moment.” Adds Devlin, “We invited all our f/x artists to come to the premiere in New York, but we told them they had to bring the final shot with them.”
At the other end of the building from Devlin and Emmerich’s headquarters, the atmosphere isn’t quite as laid-back. This is the lair of Godzilla‘s f/x-perts. Inside this swarming hive of cubicles and offices, the only illumination comes from strings of Christmas lights, lava lamps, and weird fluorescent tchotchkes. Bleary-eyed, under-the-gun hipster computer geeks blast heavy metal and trip-hop, frantically scrambling to finish the film. Couches are used as beds. The inability to distinguish day from night gives the place the vibe of a Las Vegas casino.
At all times, the curious reporter is under the close watch of a publicist, who makes sure no secrets are revealed. As one of the f/x-perts walks him through a computer-generated shot, careful to show just an eye here and a foot there, an image flashes on screen of the Full Godzilla Monty. This is the ultimate security breach. The panicked publicist’s face turns beet red and she quickly kicks into crisis mode. The reporter is whisked out of the room, half euphoric from the high of successfully stealing a glimpse of Devlin and Emmerich’s forbidden fruit, and half terrified about the possibility of being interrogated in a dentist’s chair a la Marathon Man. After all, Devlin and his minions have cloaked nearly every facet of Godzilla in obsessive secrecy, while wielding an almost Nixonian no-leaks cudgel over the heads of hungry fans, movie exhibitors, and even the film’s licensees — sometimes justified, sometimes downright paranoid.
For example, in March, Devlin admitted in The Wall Street Journal that he had set up an Abscam-like sting operation targeting naughty licensees of Godzilla toys and tie-ins. Since they didn’t want anyone to sneak a peek at the lizard before Memorial Day, Devlin and Emmerich instead sent out fake drawings, each slightly different. The idea was that if any of the drawings wound up on the Internet or in print, they would be able to target the leaker and kick him off the Godzilla merchandise gravy train. And when one of those drawings (reportedly given to Fruit of the Loom, which would not comment for this story) turned up on the net late last year…well, let’s just say, don’t expect to see any “Size Does Matter” Underoos any time soon.
Another dustup occurred a few months back when Sony threatened to slap a lawsuit on DreamWorks after a trailer that the start-up studio had created for Small Soldiers was shown at Toy Fair. The computer-animated kiddie film’s trailer, which showed its stable of miniature army guys hog-tying a giant lizard with the tag line “Size Doesn’t Matter,” apparently hit too close to home for Sony. The legal reaction seems especially touchy considering that Sony’s very first Godzilla trailer showed the lizard’s enormous foot stomping a T. rex skeleton in a museum — a none-too-subtle reference to DreamWorks partner Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. DreamWorks never showed the Small Soldiers trailer again.
“It’s been a nightmare,” sighs Devlin, referring to all the fake Godzilla photos that have been posted on the Internet in the past year. “Luckily, everything on there has been the wrong stuff. The Fox network is doing a Godzilla rip-off movie called Gargantua [which aired May 19], and their story leaked out and people thought it was ours. They actually ended up causing disinformation for us by doing something incredibly cheesy. How unlike the Fox network; it’s such a classy organization. I’m surprised they didn’t do When Godzilla Attacks!”
The Godzilla sore-winner syndrome shows no signs of slowing down. Sony is now demanding that exhibitors hand over an unprecedented 80 percent of the opening-weekend grosses (instead of the usual 70 percent) to the studio. And Sony didn’t exactly endear Godzilla to the media when invitations to a press screening were sent out with a Soviet-era caveat: “All types of camera/recording equipment and all photography/recording of this performance are strictly prohibited. All bags will be searched and all persons will be subject to metal detection survey before entrance is granted.”
Despite such studio-generated jitters, just a few weeks before the film’s opening weekend, Matthew Broderick seems remarkably relaxed, at least as relaxed as any star can be while sitting in Manhattan’s Stage Deli and getting ambushed by a starstruck teen tourist group from Michigan.
After he has politely dispensed with them, he says that yes, he and Parker did finally manage to get away and celebrate their nuptials, although he won’t say whether he ever got to drink that mai tai.
Scanning the menu with its list of sandwiches named after celebrities, Broderick notices “The Matthew Broderick” (corned beef, turkey, and Swiss cheese). “Should I order it? That’d be a little tacky, don’t you think?” Asked if corned beef, turkey, and Swiss is really his nosh of choice, Broderick laughs, “Yeah, and Brooke Shields really eats chopped liver, turkey, and Swiss.”
He admits that it’s a little weird that while he is the star of Godzilla, he kind of isn’t. After all, the movie’s called Godzilla, not Brainiac Scientist. Still, after more than 20 movies, playing everything from a Clearasil-age computer hacker (WarGames) to a stoic Civil War officer (Glory), Broderick, with Godzilla, is likely to be anointed one of the least likely action heroes since…Jeff Goldblum. And he’s even got the action figure to prove it. “It’s very strapping, but his head doesn’t even look a little like me,” cracks Broderick. “They had him looking good for a while, but then I was like, ‘No, I think my chin’s a little different.’ Now I literally don’t know which one is mine. But I understand, they can’t make it look too much like me…they want it to sell.”
Broderick also understands the pitfalls of trying to squeeze a little bit of old-fashioned acting into a movie this size. “With these kinds of movies, after a while people are going to want the actors to stop talking and have the monster come back.”
Indeed, Sony’s hoping to bring the monster back again and again. Broderick admits he’s already signed on for Godzilla II and III, but won’t say a peep about what cities might be next on the King of the Monsters’ travel itinerary. “All I’ll say,” Broderick offers, as he finishes his turkey sandwich, “is that his toe is much bigger than this pickle.”