Max Borenstein is one of the leading voices behind Legendary’s MonsterVerse. He has been involved with the franchise since day one as the sole credited screenwriter on Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla reboot, a movie about experiencing the true fear and destruction of monsters turning a major city into their own personal playground. He went on to co-write the most stylized entry in the series, Kong: Skull Island, which introduces a new King Kong at a scale that audiences had never seen before. Next, Borenstein worked on Godzilla: King of the Monsters, expanding upon the world and its mythology.
With all that groundwork and set up completed, Borenstein, co-screenwriter Eric Pearson, and director Adam Wingard, along with their titular Titans, go wild with the culmination of the MonsterVerse film series: Godzilla vs. Kong. The main monster characters are freer than ever to take the spotlight and have their fun, knocking over skyscrapers like toothpicks — resulting in a death toll that would probably take years to add up. Godzilla and Kong are unrestrained and front and center this time while the humans, as Borenstein puts it, are “along for the ride.”
Ahead of the release of Godzilla vs. Kong, which sees the end of the MonsterVerse, we talked to the screenwriter about his more than eight years of work on the franchise. Here is our conversation in full:
Obviously, Godzilla vs. Kong is a two-hander, but Kong is very much the protagonist. Was that an early decision?
Yeah. The reason that’s the case is Kong is the most amphotropic of the two. Kong is a primate, and because he’s a primate and we’re primates, we can connect with Kong. Kong’s story is always the story that connects with individual people. He’s not just stomping cities. From Fay Wray on, he’s always connected with individuals. There’s an inherent empathetic quality to that character being misunderstood, the last survivor, and the anti-hero. As he’s swatting the planes out of the sky in the original, you are rooting for him. We shouldn’t be taking advantage of him, so he has that empathetic quality.
A part of the beauty of Godzilla is the mystery. He’s a force of nature. I mean, you can call him a lizard or dinosaur or whatever, but really, he’s unlike anything on Earth. He’s not a primate. As a character, his intentions over the course of many films have gone back and forth and up and down. In our conception, he’s more neutral and less understandable from our perspective. There are flashes of emotion, like when two animals are having a battle, but it’s not an emotion that means understanding. There is intelligence, but it’s not intelligence and consciousness in the way we comprehend.
As for Kong, he can connect with a child. In a natural way, Kong is going to be the empathy and engagement point, but Godzilla and his mystery, there are moments that I love with him realizing he’s not always the heavy. These two have a grudging, possible respect for each other, and that’s one of my favorite emotional achievements of the film.
Do you have rules for yourself when you write these characters? In your mind, is there anything that would be out of character?
When it comes to rules, I think it’s great to think about them not caring really about people. That’s a rule, right? Rules are meant to be broken. From the very first film with Gareth Edwards, we asked, “How can we conceive of a Godzilla that’s ours and new but of a part of the larger, multi-faceted franchise?” In our mind, Godzilla was a force of nature, almost like a natural disaster. An actual disaster we actually have today, like a superstorm because of bad decisions and mistakes made by the human population. They’re not entirely natural, so disasters that are so far beyond our ability to control. And that’s what Godzilla represents.
Yes, there is a consciousness and personality of sorts, but it’s almost as if he’s walking over a bunch of ants in a yard. It’s like when you’re walking in a backyard. You might decide against stepping on them if you see them, and that’s the rule of Godzilla in my mind. Now, in that same way, Godzilla can recognize a human not as an ant biting its leg.
The rule of Kong for me, in his engagement in humanity, is he connects with people the way primates do, sometimes with ambivalence. Kong has the capacity to love, though. He can engage and sacrifice himself that feels human. For Godzilla, it’s always a bit more antihero.
Gareth Edwards showed the horror of having your life and city destroyed, but Adam Wingard makes the destruction fun and very tongue-in-cheek. How did the tone of these movies evolve in your view?
I think that’s one thing that’s fun about this franchise, the MonsterVerse. There’s always a tremendous amount of thought and love from all the filmmakers and executives at Legendary, but the choice they made at Legendary that I really admire is, they decided to let every different filmmaker impose their lens on each of the characters. While they exist in the same world, they’re not overly determined like Marvel with a real brilliant showrunner brain behind it. They all feel of a piece. These are of a piece, but Legendary is going to hand the keys to an artist to envision it, so the tone can shift.
I think Gareth wanted the grounded prism, seeing what the human experience would be. Jordan with Kong, it was a bit more pop, video game influences, and cultural and musical influences with Vietnam movies and Apocalypse Now. With Michael Dougherty, it was a bit of a horror aesthetic. With Adam, a poppy, bright and, not just visually, but like you say, less grounded. Without sacrificing emotion or character, it’s seeking out a specific tone and owning it. It’s a franchise that uniquely reinvents itself every time. It’s fun to reinvent. My job is to craft the stories but ultimately work with these directors to realize their tonal vision.
Now, I’ve been involved in these films in different ways. With Godzilla, I came in and built it up from the ground up and stayed with the film, on and off, throughout production. With Kong, I was the first writer but then came back right before production. There are different points of influence with each movie. With Godzilla: King of the Monsters, I had written an earlier draft, but I was less involved.
In this case, it was cool, because I was involved initially in building the mythology to allow this to happen. Initially, [former Legendary CEO] Thomas Tull told me he wanted all of these movies to lead to Godzilla vs. Kong. It was the brainchild from the beginning, so it was always the aim. I was involved very early on in that. With this, I was involved before production, during production, and post. It’s been really fun, as a writer and craftsperson, to retain my involvement throughout this franchise in a bunch of different ways.
Speaking of craft, how do you depict the level of scale on the page for the final battle in Godzilla vs. Kong?
I love writing action. It’s especially fun when you write the action to laugh. You’re thinking about beats, setups, and payoffs, even if there’s no dialogue. Dialogue is similar to action, in that a cutting line or retort is a give and take similar to the action. There’s so much that goes into making those set-pieces with Adam’s ideas and concept artists’ ideas. Writing it, you’re taking those things, refining, and finding the beats that are advancing the narrative. I mean, you think about Spielberg’s action, it’s intense, additive, and you don’t need any dialogue. The dialogue is maybe a moment of levity that creates a breath. Really, though, you could watch it on mute and it’ll be brilliant and taut. We try to do the same thing. It’s not just “they fight and buildings come down.” Without directing it on the page, you’re trying to guide the audience on what it feels like to watch this and experience it. It’s one of the cool parts of the trade.
Always a tricky part of kaiju movies is writing human characters as entertaining to watch as the creatures. What have you learned over the course of these movies about balancing the humans and the creatures?
In a way, I think what I’ve learned is Godzilla and Kong are the stars of the film. They are the movie stars, so you cast around the movie stars. You don’t cast movie stars; you cast character actors. I mean, they are movie stars, but the way you write them, they are characters. One of the reasons why I think John C. Reilly in Kong: Skull Island is so wonderful is because he’s the consummate, brilliant character actor of our time. He’s embodying this charming, unique, and eccentric, almost Walter Huston kind of character. He’s a perfect compliment to Kong. He’s trying to be a human man leading hero, but he’s never going to be the hero with Kong as the hero. In writing these, I think it’s interesting to think about it that way.
What I learned is you want personalities to carry you through these stories. Whether they’re hateful or humorous, they should be character actor roles for the stars of the films. I think when these movies really acknowledge the stars of the movie are the monsters — and that’s why their names are on the billboard — then they never feel like they’re short-thrifting the people. The people will be in service of the monsters, and that’s cool.
This is why I appreciate that Demián Bichir’s performance is as big as Kong in this movie.
[Laughs] Totally. He’s a wonderful performer, but they should have fun with it. You can feel it. There’s no embarrassment about it. Everyone is along for the ride. They’re trying to have a great time and not looking down on it, but they’re also not taking themselves so seriously. They can be fun.
Godzilla vs. Kong arrives in theaters and on HBO Max on March 31st.