It goes without saying that Roland Emmerich‘s attempt to turn Godzilla into a Hollywood franchise was a disaster. While I firmly believe that the movie is quite entertaining as a silly monster romp, it’s a terrible Godzilla film. Prior to making his botched blockbuster, Emmerich even admitted that he wasn’t a fan of the original Toho movies — it’s hardly surprising, then, that he failed to understand what makes Godzilla, well, Godzilla.
Having seen how Emmerich’s Godzilla turned out, it’s even sadder to know that TriStar Pictures (a subsidiary of Sony Pictures Entertainment) had approached some talented folks to bring the project to life before they moved forward with Emmerich and Dean Devlin‘s film.
Upon signing a deal with Toho in October 1992 to make their American Godzilla movie, the studio solicited a number of exciting writers and directors — including Tim Burton and Predator screenwriters Jim Thomas and John Thomas — to pitch story concepts for their planned film.
One of the most interesting candidates to pitch an idea, however, was Clive Barker, the British author of fantastical fiction whose previous filmmaking endeavors included writing and directing the horror classic Hellraiser. Little is known about Barker’s Godzilla treatment, but the scattered bits of information that can be found suggest that the film would have been apocalyptic and topical for its time.
According to Sci-Fi Japan, the film would have taken place in New York City, 1999 in the lead up to the new millennium. Several theologians and psychics predicted that the world would end in the year 2000, so it’s highly likely that Barker’s story would have presented the creature in its original destructive form.
Unfortunately, Sony executives rejected Barker’s ideas as they didn’t correspond with the studio’s vision. As noted in Steve Ryfle’s superb Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of the “Big G”, Barker’s idea was too dark. Of course, that’s hardly surprising considering that most of Barker’s ideas are twisted. I have no doubt in my mind that his take on a Godzilla movie would have been something terrifying and original.
The project finally gained some momentum when Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio were hired to write a script. The pair wanted to create a serious science fiction thriller that would mystify the audience. The monster would have been scary but ultimately a defender of Earth who fought an alien creature called Gryphon. Furthermore, Godzilla’s origins and powers were more aligned with Toho’s monster.
The main human character, meanwhile, would have been a female scientist out to put an end to Godzilla because the creature killed her husband. In the original Toho movies, Godzilla was a threat in some movies and a hero in others. In this one, he would have been a little bit of both. That’s a fascinating concept that sounds way more interesting than the mindless giant iguana caper we got in the end.
The film’s original producers, Cary Woods and Robert Fried, were happy with the script and set out to find a director. Funnily enough, Emmerich was one of the first filmmakers they approached during the early stages. However, he turned the project down because he thought Godzilla was a silly property.
Burton was also considered since he had a string of successful movies to his name and was an evident fan of the Toho franchise after paying homage to it in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Another fan of the franchise who was touted for the gig was Joe Dante, but the director wasn’t enthused about the project as he felt the monster’s cinematic legacy was well-worn at that point.
Elsewhere, James Cameron, Ridley Scott, Terry Gilliam, Sam Raimi, Barry Sonnenfeld, Robert Zemeckis, Joe Johnston, and the Coen Brothers were also considered. In the end, though, the reins were handed to Jan de Bont, an up-and-coming director who was hot after the success of Speed.
De Bont was a fan of the pre-existing script, but he worked with Elliot and Rossio to implement some of his own ideas. He still wanted the film to embrace Godzilla’s serious elements, but with added comedic aspects and realistic special effects sequences thrown in for good measure.
Speaking with Fangoria magazine, he said:
“I’m not going to make it less funny — there’s going to be a lot of humor in this movie — but it must be amazing to see a monster that big, 250-feet tall, and looks real.”
The progress wasn’t to last, though. With Sony worried about costs and plagued by indecisiveness, the studio wasn’t too eager to finance such an expensive production (which would have cost an estimated $150 million to make). Unable to reach a compromise with the director, the powers that be parted ways with de Bont and Godzilla was put on hiatus.
As highlighted by the Sci-Fi Japan article, de Bonk believed that the budgetary arguments were just a front for the studio’s desire to completely reinvent Godzilla in order to appeal to a general worldwide audience. That said, in 1995, screenwriter Don MacPherson was hired to cut out some of the expensive special effects sequences and pad out the story with human drama. Maybe it was about costs more than anything? In the end, his efforts were largely ignored since the project remained stuck in development hell.
It wasn’t until 1996 that things started to finally fall into place. The studio had managed to convince Emmerich and Devlin to come aboard and give the story a makeover. While some ideas from Elliot and Rosso’s script were retained, Emmerich and his partner abandoned their ideas for the most part and subsequently delivered the movie that hit theaters in the summer of 1998.
There’s no telling how de Bont’s Godzilla would have turned out if the studio supported the film that he wanted to make. Maybe it would have been a poorly executed attempt at a good idea. Perhaps it would have been one of the greatest monster movies ever made. All I know is this: he wanted to make a movie that respected Godzilla’s heritage, but with an epic Hollywood sheen. I’m sure most of us would rather have seen that movie than Emmerich’s version.