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Godzilla vs. Kong was ‘the culmination of a life’s work’ for director Adam Wingard

From Star Wars to anime to Back to the Future: The Ride, his latest film is the director’s every obsession rolled into one

Godzilla and King Kong square off on an aircraft carrier in Godzilla vs. Kong Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures
Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

Though technically a sequel to both 2017’s Kong: Skull Island and 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Godzilla vs. Kong feels more in line with what video essayist Patrick Willems calls the modern breed of “gonzo blockbusters.” Like Mad Max: Fury Road, Aquaman, Mortal Engines, and the criminally overlooked Jupiter Ascending, the latest — and possibly final — installment of Warner Bros. and Legendary’s “Monsterverse” series is a celebration of everything modern technology has to offer the imagination.

Director Adam Wingard, giving absolutely no fucks, imbues Godzilla and King Kong with both the colossal force needed to decimate entire cities and an emotional rage that makes the creatures just as relatable as the humans running for cover. The battles are excessive, cunning, and full of twists aimed to impress Wrestlemania devotees. And nothing seems overthought: Wingard went out and made a big-ass brawl in the spirit of Japan’s own man-in-suit sequels of the 1960s. It’s a simple, weird pleasure.

For Wingard, who cut his teeth in the indie horror scene before incrementally scaling his way up to the franchise world, Godzilla vs. Kong is a dream come true. Years spent processing Star Wars movies, anime, and even theme park rides prepared him for how to play — all he needed was a toy box. With Godzilla vs. Kong now out in theaters and on HBO Max, Polygon sat down with the director to talk about how this movie emerged from his love of high-velocity entertainment.

[Ed. note: This story contains minor spoilers for Godzilla vs. Kong. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]

Polygon: How did you rethink the franchise for the fourth movie? Godzilla vs. Kong is a sequel that feels like its own thing.

Adam Wingard: That’s what attracted me to the Monsterverse in general. I really respected the fact that Legendary allows each one of the filmmakers that come on to do their “blockbuster auteur” thing. To use a word like that sounds extreme, but I felt like the directors really shine. I love stylization within movies — that’s what really attracts me to want to watch a film. I’m more attracted to seeing a movie if I think the director is going to do something really interesting, and I love tracking directors’ works. And so I knew going into this that this was an opportunity for not just me to put them, like, Adam Wingard spin on the Monsterverse, but to make the most Adam Wingard film that I could possibly make.

This was like the culmination of a life’s work. I got into film because of the Star Wars films and the Alien movies and big spectacle, sci-fi pictures. And here I am finally, after all these years, working my way up, and I had an opportunity to kind of throw my hat in the ring in that regard. So it was the first time I’ve ever been able to do a film that was from the starting place about pure imagination. That was my approach from the get-go: let’s let the style and the voice of this movie come out as much as possible. Obviously, it’s a sequel and all those things, but you can still put your personality into something like that.

Godzilla roars with his atomic breath Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

I know you love Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, which saw him return to the world of Alien in the most highfalutin, go-for-broke way imaginable. Did Prometheus cross your mind when you started imagining Godzilla vs. Kong?

I’m so glad you brought up Prometheus. I’m so happy to talk about Prometheus. It’s such an absurd film. It’s one of the only movies I’ve ever seen that can be both considered a failure and a success at the same time. It is a gorgeous movie. It is bonkers. It is absolutely entertaining. And it’s unpredictable the first time you watch it ... honestly, the first three times you’re still like, “Wait, what’s going on?” I’m sure that was referenced — my production designer really likes that film as well.

A movie like this doesn’t feel possible even 10 years ago. Like Prometheus, Godzilla vs. Kong has a sense of bombastic, fearless freedom to be exactly what it wants to be. In this case, a giant cartoon with the spirit of the Japanese Godzilla sequels. Were you looking at animation and anime as a source of inspiration?

You can actually look at the trends in superhero movies as a signifier in terms of what you’re talking about. I was just watching Zack Snyder’s Justice League the other day, and if you look at even all the Marvel movies ... nobody would have ever tried to translate the look of these characters as literally as they do now.

Twenty years ago, there was always this feeling of like, “OK, we’re going to do a superhero film, we have to try to ground it in a way.” So you even look at the first X-Men movies, the Bryan Singer ones, everybody’s just wearing cool black outfits. Nowadays, everybody’s wearing pretty much what they’re wearing in the comics, very colorful skin-tight things that on the surface feel very cartoony. We’re so kind of acclimated to it that we just go with it now.

That’s where these monster films are, too. You look at Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla movie: that film was a total palate cleanser to 1998 Godzilla. We needed something to shake us out of it and bring us back into and make us believe it again. And so he took this extremely realistic, grounded approach, and it worked — it made us believe in Godzilla again. But at the end of the day, you can’t do that over and over again. We can’t try to bring this kind of somber vibe to all these movies. And so it was important to allow people in on the fun at a certain point.

I have a lot of influences in anime. The more obvious ones in this movie are the way that we approach the HEAV, the antigravity vehicles. When they fire missiles off, we tried to always make those look like the missiles in Macross Plus or Robotech, where it’s like 1000 missiles. And anime came up a lot, just the style and the color of it.

A HEAV shuttle flies around Hong Kong as Godzilla and Kong fight Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Did you look to animation when choreographing Godzilla and Kong? There aren’t a ton of real-life references for a kaiju battle, I imagine.

The big Hong Kong backdrop at the end of the film was obviously very inspired by Neo Tokyo in Akira. It’s interesting, I remember specifically a couple of moments in pre-vis that were even more anime, and they got scaled back a little bit because once you start putting it into reality, some things go a step too far. Like for instance, there’s one shot in the movie where Godzilla fires his nuclear breath at Kong, Kong blocks with the axe and it pushes him backwards. And the way that we originally showed it was a close-up on Kong’s feet as they skid through the frame. It was such an anime kind of moment. But once we started building that into more of a reality, it was just a step too far. But the DNA is always in there.

How did King Kong wind up wielding a big fucking axe?

It actually started out in the script phase — there was just a mention in the script that Kong finds a scepter in Hollow Earth. That got my imagination running. And so the scepter slowly developed into an axe because I thought it was an opportunity for me to use this thing that Kong finds in Hollow Earth as a way to give him some sort of advantage in the fight with Godzilla. And so I thought, What would be in Hollow Earth? The idea that there was a weapon that had a Godzilla spike scale wedged into it was just something I came up with as a cool aesthetic idea. That developed into the fight scenes. A couple of months later, it actually worked itself into the script as sort of being the most important thing in the film.

What’s great about working with Legendary is that they really push the directors to explore all ideas that they can in the concept phase, in the animation, pre-vis phase. Even beyond what’s in the script, if you have ideas, you should explore them because you don’t know where they’re gonna take you. There are a lot of things like that, but the most extreme version of that is the axe because it actually became the plot of the movie at a certain point.

There’s a moment during the Hong Kong fight in which the HEAV is zipping through the battle, and even at home, it had real Back to the Future: The Ride energy. I think we often overlook theme park direction and design as legitimate art — were you inspired by rides?

Back to the Future: The Ride was a huge reference point for me! That was such an incredible experience for me as a kid going to Universal Studios and seeing that ride. I still remember the King Kong ride, where you’re on the tram, but the Back to the Future: The Ride was the most impressive thing that I saw as a kid. My VFX supervisor had never been on that ride. Fortunately, the video of the ride exists. The special effects don’t really hold up. I remember them looking incredible in the theater, but now you see them and you realize, “a lot of this is actually old school effects.” But yeah, I showed it to him and said, “I want it to feel like this.”