Interview: Max Borenstein, Writer of Godzilla and Legendary’s Prequel Graphic Novel

Next week, Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. will be debuting their reboot of the classic Toho kaiju, Godzilla. SuperHeroHype recently got the opportunity to speak with Max Borenstein, the screenwriter for the film and co-writer of the prequel graphic novel titled Godzilla: Awakening. We asked Borenstein about working on the film, his memories of Godzilla, and how the comic relates to the big screen tale.

SuperHeroHype: How did this all start out for you? How did you get the job of writing the Godzilla reboot?

Max Borenstein: Well, I had done a bunch of work for Legendary on various different projects, and really had great experiences working with them, and when they told me they had the rights to do a Godzilla movie from Toho and that they had attached Gareth Edwards to direct the film, I was incredible intrigued. Both because Godzilla is an iconic kind of character that I had been familiar with as a kid and loved as a kid, and also because I had seen Gareth’s film Monsters which is just exceptional in a very particular way, because it takes a genre movie, a monster movie, and uses it as a way to tell a very human and grounded story. I thought ‘Well, if this is the guy they see fit to entrust their Godzilla to, then it’s in the right hands, and that’s the kind of movie I’d like to be involved in.”

So I went back and watched the original Japanese cut of the very first film, the 1954 film, which I had never seen, I’d only seen the American version and a bunch of other subsequent “Godzilla” movies. So in watching that, in preparation to sort of see if I had any interesting ideas or to see if I was interested in working on the project, I got so excited by it. I’m sure you’ve seen it, it’s this harrowing, very serious allegory for our nuclear annihilation, nine years in the wake of the atomic bombs in Japan. Closer to them than we are now to 9/11. It has that kind of immediacy and so that got me really excited so I thought here’s an example of how we can reinvent this character in a way that might feel fresh and equally resonant in the here and now. So I went in for the first conversation with Gareth and the producers, armed with that kind of idea and take and enthusiasm, and it turned out they were really exactly on the same page, so that’s really how it began.

Borenstein: It’s funny, I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I’ve tried to think about specifically, what the first movie was I saw, I don’t remember, but the way I got into it was when the “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” came out I was in middle school and I remember watching it kind of mystified, not getting it. I didn’t like it in the way that other people did. I thought it was weird and intriguing and campy and I liked that, so I said “Where the hell did this come from?” So I did a little digging and went to the video store, and rented some early Godzilla films. I know I saw the original, I don’t know if that was the first I saw but I never saw the Japanese cut. I just started watching them going in sequence for what they had at the Tower Video through the first series and then in the second series, and probably not getting all the way through the second series although subsequently I’ve caught up. Then eventually as one does at that age, just fell into other stuff. That was where Godzilla lay in my psyche as something I remember falling in love with in this weirdly fascinated alien way as a kid, but sort of left it there and that’s why when this was brought up I was not thinking of it initially as a fan, I was thinking “What can we do with that that’s going to feel really new and fresh?” That’s why seeing the Japanese cut was so exciting, because that was the answer, it was right there, they’d done it in the very first film. They’d given us something that was timeless and fresh, and the thing about the campier films is that they’re fun in a certain way but camp by definition is something that’s very stuck in its moments, and that first film is very timeless and that was something the adult me was really most interested in trying to aim for in a new film. I think it’s also something that has the best chance of resonating with a wide swath of people who are coming in with a predilection for monster movies.

SHH: So at what point in scripting the film do they come to you and say, “Hey, do you want to do this prequel graphic novel as well?” or was that something thought up from the beginning?

Borenstein: It wasn’t, though I should say this, it probably was, I’m sure it was by Legendary and particularly by Thomas Tull, who is the Grand Poobah over there. I don’t know if you’ve had the pleasure, but he’s awesome and passionate about all the movies they make and in particular about Godzilla. So I’m certain that that was somewhere in the back of their minds that at some point when the moment was right that was something to do because they have their comic division. I was approached, I can’t remember exactly when, but it was somewhere while the film was being shot. So once the lion’s share of the work was done on my part with the screenplay, they called and asked ‘Would you be interested in writing a graphic novel in some way that expanded the universe?” And immediately my mind went to some of the back stories that I had thought about but not always had a chance to include in the movie, that sort of served as my own kind of knowledge of these characters and of these organizations involved, but that didn’t always make it onto the page and onto the screen and so I immediately said “Yes please!” and thought of the story told in the graphic novel as being a perfect place to go.

Borenstein: Well, I think there are more similarities than differences in terms of the larger questions of storytelling, which is to say trying to tell a coherent narrative with visual ideas and in as compressed an idea as possible. That, while not the same in execution, your mind goes to the same kind of places and it’s just a bit of a learning curve to train yourself to find different solutions to the same technical questions of how you’re going to execute a certain scene. The difference is more alive really in the technical aspect of like these two media, for example, the compression of narrative in a comic book is so extreme. So you have a page with several panels with what might happen over the course of ten minutes in a film, and really, my experience of it, I think in a sense a comic book is more like an episode of television and a graphic novel like what we’ve done is a bit more like a season than it is like a film. Structurally in a film it’s very difficult. You have to be very strategic about where you put, for example, a big time jump or when you introduce a new character. It’s really awkward to introduce a new character too late in the film if that person is really important and hasn’t been properly set up. Whereas in a comic book or in a graphic novel you kind of have a more of a sense of chapters so therefore it’s okay to introduce someone into the sixth chapter that you’ve never met or talked about, since you’re along for a serialized ride, even though you might be consuming it all at once.

That stuff is very different and is an interesting learning curve that I’ve only embarked upon. I wrote this with my cousin Greg (Borenstein), whose really brilliant and who is in his day job an academic and an artist and a technologist at the MIT media lab, and a writer of many things but never before of a graphic novel, although he and I had been collaborating on one when this sort of popped onto my radar and that’s when I immediately said this would be a great thing to work on with Greg, because we’ve developed a short hand. So that was how that came about.

SHH: Now when I was reading the graphic novel I noticed more than one reference that seemed like more of an Easter egg to the larger Godzilla mythology. Is that something you strived to do for the movie or is that something you didn’t get to do for the movie so you thought, “Well I better put it in this comic for the fans?”

Borenstein: Well, give me an example of what you mean [laughs].

SHH: Well there was the spelling of “Monster Island.”

Borenstein: Right.

SHH: That was one, and then Dr. Serizawa was in it.

Borenstein: Well, I think in the case of the “Monster Island” pun that was us having a bit of fun and it wasn’t that we couldn’t put that in the film, it was more a matter of our own affection for that idea, and thought it would be a fun way to slip it into the graphic novel. The movie has Easter eggs of its own, which I won’t spoil for you. But the inclusion of Dr. Serizawa, the Serizawa in the comic book is not the Serizawa from the 1954 Godzilla film. It is the Dr. Serizawa who is the father of the Dr. Serizawa who is in the film that we made. Maybe they’re cousins. The name is obviously an homage, but the comic book exists on the same continuum as our film, which is not by any means a direct sequel to the original, it’s not in the same time line, but I think the relationship is, it’s a reboot, but it’s tonally akin to that first film. 

SHH: Godzilla has been interpreted in a lot of different ways throughout his big screen history, be it the allegory for nuclear war or something else. So what made you decide to go with Godzilla as this sort of protector in the graphic novel?

Borenstein: I’m not sure he’s explicitly a protector so much as he is a balancing agent. 

SHH: Yeah, that’s a better way of putting it.

I think what’s so interesting about that is that he becomes a vessel containing this multitude of different ideas, but the common denominator is this idea of a force that is so much more powerful than we are, that is beyond our human control, and so the common denominator of every Godzilla is humanity’s arrogance in our belief that we control our surroundings, control our destiny, control the world around us. Whether it be by intelligence, technology, faith, you name it, and when that false confidence bucks up against the reality, which is that we are but insects in this universe and even in this world. We are not the most powerful thing in this world. Now that’s obviously very explicit in a film like Godzilla where you’ve got a giant monster who comes in and smashes our cities and says “You are not the most powerful thing in this world.” That’s certainly, I think, a truth that’s very fundamental to the human experience. We always, every generation, believe we are in control, it’s human nature, and every generation is always constantly proved wrong. 

This day and age I think what resonated with me, and one thing that Gareth and I seized on and talked a lot about in early days, was that we live in an age seemingly of the cataclysmic natural disaster. The natural disaster that is not necessarily entirely naturally, that often times is exacerbated by climate change or on the other end by the levees that we built poorly or the nuclear plants we built in the wrong place, always with the arrogance that nothing would happen and then of course we’re always proved wrong. These things seem to be happening in the real world in a way that is absolutely terrifying, so Godzilla struck me as a perfect embodiment of that, so that became part of the root of what we were going to pour into this vessel.

SHH: I could be wrong because I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I think the graphic novel gives the reader maybe a better idea of what to expect from the actual movie, so do you think it would be more beneficial for readers to read it after they see the movie or should they read it before they see the movie so they have an idea of what this interpretation is?

Borenstein: I think it can go either way to be honest. There are no spoilers in the graphic novel per se, by any means, it would give you sort of an expanded take of some of the back story of an organization you’re going to see featured in the film, characters you may see featured in the film, and a sense of Godzilla and how we interpreted this character. It’s by no means required reading to go into the film and I don’t think it would spoil the experience of the film in anyway, if anything it would just enhance it. I think it really depends on how fresh someone wants to be going into the film. I’m someone who doesn’t mind coming in with some extra back story knowledge, but often times I’ll go see a movie and then after, hopefully liking it, I’ll go seek the external tangential materials. I think the graphic novel will hopefully play whatever role its consumer wants it to play, but it definitely won’t step on the movie’s toes.

Featuring art by by Eric Battle (X-Men, Green Lantern), Yvel Guichet (Pacific Rim: Tales from Year Zero), Alan Quah (Rage) and Lee Loughridge (Arkham Asylum: Living Hell, Marvel Zombies Return)​ Godzilla: Awakening is available now and you can check out a preview below! Godzilla opens in 2D, 3D, and IMAX theaters on May 16th.