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An incredibly spoilery conversation with Godzilla: King of Monsters director Mike Dougherty

Here’s why the Monsterverse got its own Thanos

Warner Bros. Pictures

The mainstream reaction to 2014’s Godzilla was mixed: Gareth Edwards’ Americanized reboot was artful, yet lacking in the sublime pleasures of monsters smashing the crap out of each other.

This month’s Godzilla: King of Monsters swings the pendulum to the other extreme, wrangling Toho’s legendary cast of kaiju, and adding newly designed creatures to the mix, to stage an all-out brawl. The spectacle arrives with a second promise from Legendary Entertainment: a third “Monsterverse” film, Godzilla vs. King Kong, due out next March. Between Godzilla warding off Rodan, King Ghidorah, and a fleet of new beasties, along with the entire semble straight up obliterating Boston, King of Monsters also finds time to tee up the return of the colossal primate, previous seen in Kong: Skull Island.

The orchestrator of the madness is director Mike Dougherty (Trick ’r Treat, Krampus) who chatted with Polygon about every wild choice he made in order to bring Godzilla’s controlled chaos to life.

Polygon: How much of a response was King of Monsters to audience reactions from the first Godzilla?

Mike Dougherty: I really enjoyed what Gareth did with the first film. I thought it was a very brave choice to make it more of a slow-burn monster movie. Personally, I feel like the slow-burn genre film is, sadly, dying out. Even though so many of our classics — Jaws, Alien, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby — are slow burn films, the audience attention spans is getting shorter and shorter, so it was just a very bold decision to take that path and to hold back on the creature. I loved that and I understand that some people had issues with it, but you know, maybe it means that their attention span is need to be recalibrated a little. They should listen to some classical music and slow life down more. But I get it!

I think that even if there weren’t criticisms about the lack of Godzilla screen time with that film, we still would have taken the path that we took with this one. Even if you do a slow burn movie and it’s well received, you kind of only get a chance to do that once. Once you have established your monster, you need to up the ante a little bit in the next one. I used Wrath of Khan, T2, and Aliens as really good references of second chapters that built upon what was established in the first film to create a sequel that ideally is considered just as good, if not better, than the first entry.

No matter what happened, because we were introducing three new iconic Toho monsters into the ring, I think we still would’ve gone with the more visceral, fast pace that we did.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Your movie delivers classic monsters into the fold, but also establishes new creatures and designs. What was your approach to expanding the world in that respect? Did I see a giant mammoth?

Dougherty: I really loved the idea that this film would sort of establish the notion that Monarch has found a lot of these creatures hibernating under the planet. That after the events of 2014 and their studies on Skull Island, Monarch smartly realized that the Earth was littered with these hibernating beasts and had become very good at locating them, thankfully before they woke up. Something I love about the original Toho movies is that’s what exists. Those movies essentially are saying that we live in a world populated by sleeping monsters underneath our feet. So that was my way of teeing up that ticking time bomb. For a little while it was up in the air as to whether or not we’d be able to license some additional Toho creatures to fill out those brackets.

Lo and behold, Toho is very smart. They’re great at business and they put a price tag on every single one of their creatures. If you want to license King Caesar or Mechagodzilla or any of them, you’ve got to pay up. They’ve got a fee. So, ultimately, we chose, at least for the new creatures that we’re depicting on screen, to add new and original creatures.

Again, that falls in line with the long tradition of Toho monster movies. They’re always adding new monsters as part of the appeal. Every movie is going to introduce a new opponent for [Godzilla] to face. So it was a privilege to kind of get to exercise those muscles and take off the shackles and design new creatures that would still feel at home with the existing roster of monsters.

The one you described as a mammoth is called Behemoth and he’s one of the few other mammals. It was important to me that we add a mammal to the mix because so many of the other Toho creatures tend to be reptiles, insects or some sort of hybrid of the two. I wanted a good companion mammal for Kong, and I’ve been fascinated with ice age wildlife for a very long time, and woolly mammoths in particular, but I didn’t want to just make it a literal giant mammoth. If you actually study his anatomy, you’ll see that he’s sort of a hybrid of mammoth, a giant sloth and even some primate features.

How did you land on turning Vera Farmiga’s character Emma into ... Thanos?

Dougherty: Emma was sort of born out of a very dark corner of my own mind. When I was a kid in grade school, when I would get teased, which happened now and then (I was like the little short half-Asian kid in a very white Catholic school) I used to sort of fantasize and imagine that Godzilla and the other monsters would show up and teach my school a lesson. So I’ve always had this weird, dark fantasy of populating the world with giant monsters just to see what would happen.

Because honestly, maybe human beings shouldn’t be at the top of the food chain. Maybe there needs to be a species above us that sort of keeps us in line, you know? And keeps our population in check, because look what happens without that.

So I tried to come up with some logic, some character that would embrace that philosophy, but also one that can be painted in shades of gray, that wasn’t a mustache twirling villain that wanted to do it just to see the world burn, or was doing it for some sort of bizarre financial profit or anything like that. But a very complicated and conflicted antagonist.

I don’t even like referring to her as a villain, to be honest. I think Ghidorah is most definitely the “villain,” but I find that Emma, and even Jonah, as much as they go to very great extremes to accomplish their mission, their intentions are good, and very much debatable as to whether or not they are effective.

Daniel McFadden

Did you always know that King Ghidorah would come from space?

Dougherty: I knew from the beginning that his origin should be off planet. There was a little bit more to the scene where they discover his name and his origin, where it was sort of debated whether he was from space or whether he was created by man.

So originally in that scene it was sort of more open ended, the idea that they still weren’t 100 percent sure what the records they discovered were pointing to, but ultimately, we decided to sort of plant our flag in the extraterrestrial concept because I think that’s the concept that most Godzilla fans love and embrace. The notion that he is extraterrestrial means that he could be potentially be more disruptive to our ecosystem.

Was the “hollow Earth” civilization that prays at Godzilla’s altar new to the mythology, or was it an inversion of something you found going back to the Toho films?

If you do go back and look at the entire library, there are sort of occasional references to lost civilizations. I mean, Mothra’s followers are a perfect example, and so are Kong’s followers. Mothra’s egg tends to be housed in a mysterious temple surrounded by a singing and dancing troupe that’s always trying to get her to hatch.

So these creatures have a long history of being perceived as gods and deities. So it made sense to me that the Alpha of the group himself would also have a history, a deeper connection, to some ancient civilization that figured out how to spark and maintain a sort of symbiotic relationship with him, probably for their own protection. The same way that there are small fish that swim underneath a shark, or the tiny bird that pecks insects off elephants or rhinoceroses, human beings would be the tiny animals that seek protection under a much larger animal that simply puts up with their presence.

Millie Bobby Brown and director Mike Dougherty on set
Daniel McFadden/Warner Bros. Pictures

This not a question, but the best part of the movie is when Godzilla burps.

Dougherty: I’ll pass that onto the animator who did that. A big reason Godzilla has this mysterious draw, this mysterious appeal, is that he does have human traits and elements and I think that’s a lingering aspect of the fact that the Japanese executed him within man-in-suit process for decades. There were very humanistic expressions and body language that made us identify him a little bit more than we would have had he been executed with stop motion, let’s say.

So it was important to me to really embellish that and embrace that concept. Both the animators and the performance capture artists that we worked with became a fun team and were always pushing to add another close-up, add a squint of an eye, add a slight head tilt, anything to convey that Godzilla has a surprisingly large emotional range that we can connect to.

How involved were you with next year’s Godzilla vs. King Kong?

Dougherty: Zach Shields, my writing partner, and I did somebody rewrites on the script while we were in [post-production].

How did you approach building up to that in this movie? The credits explicitly tee up the sequel.

Dougherty: Obviously, we knew that the project was happening, so we just wanted to lay some track in this film. Mention Kong waiting in the wings, as it were. Make sure that Skull Island was mentioned.

I would’ve done it whether they were doing Kong versus Godzilla or not. I love playing in cinematic universes. As a fan of the original Toho cinematic universe and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I think it’s fun for fans to hear these little shoutouts, and discover these little Easter eggs that hint at a much larger and deeper world.