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Together again, and still not getting along, in ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’

Adam Wingard talks about the challenges of directing a big-budget monster movie

Godzilla, left, and King Kong in "Godzilla vs. Kong."
Godzilla, left, and King Kong in "Godzilla vs. Kong."Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures

Over the past decade, fans of the 38-year-old director Adam Wingard have been closely following his work as he climbed up the horror ranks of Hollywood. Films of note in his résumé include the gory home-invasion slasher “You’re Next” (2011), the darkly comic but tension- and violence-filled mystery “The Guest” (2014), and the gruesome found-footage thriller “Blair Witch” (2016), a sequel to “The Blair Witch Project” (1999).

His newest, “Godzilla vs. Kong,” a reimagining of the often-goofy 1962 “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” marks Wingard’s shift from low-budget horror to big-budget monsters, and a move to a PG-13 rating. With a price tag ranging — depending on which guarded publicist you ask — somewhere between $165 million and $200 million, the film once again pits the two titans against each other, in a follow-up to their stand-alone titles “Kong: Skull Island” (2017) and “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” (2019).

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Heading the cast are Rebecca Hall, Alexander Skarsgard, Brian Tyree Henry, Millie Bobby Brown, Kyle Chandler, and Demián Bichir.

The biggest visual difference from the earlier film is the astounding creature effects and battles that lower Hong Kong’s real estate values in the new one, compared to the hokiness of “suitmation” — actors in rubber suits wreaking havoc — in the original. In terms of plot, the first one was about scientists getting the monsters together so they would destroy each other. This one is about keeping them apart.

“GvK” was originally set for a March 13, 2020, release. The pandemic caused that date to change, from Nov. 20 to May 21 of this year, then back to March 26. It’s now set to hit theaters and HBO Max simultaneously on March 31. Wingard initially wasn’t happy about viewers watching on TV sets but has come to terms with it; and is quite pleased that the finished film has a spirit of fun running through it. He spoke about it via Zoom from his home in Los Angeles.

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Adam Wingard with Rebecca Hall on the set of "Godzilla vs. Kong."
Adam Wingard with Rebecca Hall on the set of "Godzilla vs. Kong."Vince Valitutti

Q. How did this film come into your life?

A. It started in 2013. My movie “You’re Next” was about to come out, and I was just finishing “The Guest.” Somehow Peter Jackson had tracked down a copy of “You’re Next” and really liked it. He was interested in me directing a sequel to his “King Kong” (2005) that was going to be called “Skull Island.” Mary Parent, who produced my film, was going to be a producer on that one. But the rights changed hands, it went to a different studio, and it was taken away from Peter Jackson. So, I was off that project. But flash-forward many years later when they were getting ready to do this film. They were starting to talk to directors, and I happened to be the first one to have a meeting with Mary. I think that because I had a vote of confidence from Peter Jackson stuck in her head, and I already had some visuals in my head of Kong and Godzilla fighting, we had a casual talk, and it went from there.

Q. Is it true that you watched every Godzilla and King Kong movie before you started work on this one?

A. I watched the bulk of them, non-stop, in about three days. I actually started it when I was on vacation. That’s where I watched some of them. But when I got home, I really settled in and cranked through them all. I won’t lie, it was such a dense period, during some of the late-’80s and ’90s Godzilla films, I did doze off a couple of times. I watched most of the Kongs, but ended up not watching the sequel from the mid-’80s, and I didn’t watch “Son of Kong” (1933) because it didn’t have that great of a reputation and I was already running on empty. But that marathon was a great experience.

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Alexander Skarsgard, left, and Adam Wingard on the set of "Godzilla vs. Kong."
Alexander Skarsgard, left, and Adam Wingard on the set of "Godzilla vs. Kong."Vince Valitutti

Q. Do you recall the first time you saw “King Kong vs. Godzilla” as a kid?

A. Godzilla movies and King Kong movies were always on daytime TV, so I watched them pre-kindergarten. I remember being totally enamored by them, but they just kind of always existed in my reality, and I don’t remember watching any of them for the first time. It’s the same thing with the Zapruder film. It was only when I was an adult that I realized it was actually a guy getting shot. I never considered that because I saw it on TV all the time. Not to compare Godzilla and King Kong to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but I don’t remember the first time I saw it.

Q. “Godzilla vs. Kong” has amazingly realistic action sequences, but it also has an intriguing take on anthropomorphism, with both creatures displaying lots of human traits. Kong is seen sighing when he’s stuck in the unfamiliar coldness of Antarctica, and Godzilla has concern on his face when he’s thinking about what to do next in the final fight. Was that one of your goals?

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A. I’m a big fan of nonverbal communication between these monsters, and I tried to give the movie these points where you felt like you could see the wheels turning in the monsters’ brains. They’re communicating with eyesight. I have a cat named Mischief who sits by my patio window, there are raccoons in our backyard, and they’re the worst of enemies. The raccoons will come right up to the glass, and Mischief will stare them down. I’ve woken up in the middle of the night, and my cat’s sitting there, there’ll be a raccoon on the other side of the glass and they’re just staring at each other. I used that as an inspiration at one point in the movie, in a scene where Godzilla and King Kong are staring at each other from a distance.

Q. In terms of scope, this is a very big film. What was going through your head when you found out a lot of people might be watching it at home instead of in a cinema?

A. When that was first announced in December, I was really devastated. I mean if any movie is designed to be seen on the big screen it’s this one. It’s literally two of the biggest icons in movie history, facing off. At first, I was depressed because it wasn’t the way I wanted people to see the film. But when the trailer dropped, in January, right away people were posting reaction videos. They were watching my trailer on laptops, and filming their reactions to it. I started watching those, and I ended up having such a profound, exciting feeling from seeing those reactions, because they were just losing their minds. I thought, a lot of my favorite movies came out before I was born, and I still haven’t seen them in theaters. So, if you feel comfortable going to the theaters, that’s definitely the way to see this movie, but it’s not the only way to enjoy it. A good movie is a good movie, no matter where you see it. But we’ve been deprived of big popcorn movies for a year now, and it was time to put this one out. Nothing gives us a sense of normalcy better than a gigantic Hollywood spectacle.

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Interview has been edited and condensed. Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.