[Interview] Screenwriter Max Borenstein conjoins artistry and assured audacity in ‘GODZILLA VS. KONG’

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Screenwriter Max Borenstein has pulled off a monstrous feat. As part of a storytelling team on Legendary Pictures’ “Monsterverse,” he’s had a hand in crafting an epic, entertaining and enthralling reinvention of a beloved classic franchise, capturing awe-inducing wonder for a whole new generation. GODZILLA, KONG: SKULL ISLAND and GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (which he earned a story by credit on) all feature big battling behemoths duking it out for world dominance, laying waste to cities and their citizens. However, the latest chapter in the series GODZILLA VS. KONG contains its most audacious element yet: a metric ton of heart mixed with its ingenuity.

Was it clear from the jump how you wanted to work in homages and references to KING KONG VS. GODZILLA  and KONG?

My involvement with the franchise, starting with Godzilla, which was to reinvent that franchise for an American audience with Legendary Films. From there on, once we started to realize this was gonna work and be cool, the head of Legendary, Thomas Tull, who loves Godzilla films and loved KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, asked “Do you want to do a Kong film with the goal being to eventually do Godzilla versus Kong?”

I knew there was a KING KONG VS. GODZILLA film, but I had never seen it. We needed to get Kong big enough and then started engineering the whole franchise that way. The main goal to get this franchise to this place in a way that would feel organic and fun. In terms of the homages, the idea behind getting these two characters to face-off in a way that would be satisfying and we have investment in each of them and we’d be rooting for our two favorite boxers that we don’t want either one to lose.

What do these big showdowns look like on paper? I’d imagine it’s more than “Insert fight here.” What was the process collaborating with Adam (Wingard) to make sure character is at the forward of these fights and still looks cool?

I wish they would share more script of movies like this. The scripts that usually get shared are the ones that get touted and respected for Oscars and stuff – dramas. Here, you have dialogue on the page and action. The way we write these scenes – and I come from the world of drama and do that more than anything else – but the action scenes are written really the same. It’s talking about the objectives for these characters and the obstacles and the moment to moment escalations in the same way you would if you were writing an argument in WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? You’ve got these two different characters throwing jabs at each other. They’re not punches, but they might as well be. One person gets the upper hand and then it flips. It’s set-ups and pay-offs.

That’s the same way to do action scenes. They take shape where we come up with a larger scenario. Adam looks at concept artists and has his own vision and it kinda filters through. I came into this process where some set pieces and tentpoles had been put in place, like we’re gonna have Godzilla and Kong fight on the water amongst the ships. But then it was, “What specifically?” and we start to imagine it. Where are the people? Sometimes it’s on the creatures. What are the identifying moments where just as you think a character has the upper hand, the boat flips over and suddenly they’re under water in Godzilla’s terrain. So it’s, “What are the different ways we can use these characters and their specific actions to build a set piece and action piece that will have its own integral drama?” If you look at the page, you would read something that’s a lot like what we see, moment to moment to moment. It takes you on that experience in much the same way.

It would be great to have those pages out there to show folks, this is how to write an action scene.

It would be fun! As a young writer, it’s the kind of thing I would’ve loved to see.

Godzilla and Kong’s fight in Hong Kong seems more animalistic and scrappy than the first fight on the ship. Did you put yourself more in an animal mindset when writing how they fight?

Yeah. The great thing in the franchise is that they are animals. We’re treating them as… Godzilla’s not a primate, but a gigantic animal that’s so big and unhuman that it almost translates to being a force of nature. There’s an intelligence there, but it’s not an intelligence you can comprehend or connect with, or connects with us in a deeply empathetic way. He’s furious and unknowable.

Like a cat and a dog, they are ancient rivals. Kong, as a primate, is a bit more empathetic – you can connect and he has that connection point to a human being we understand early on. That’s the way to look at them. They have different personalities and the way that they’re going to interact would be similar. What would happen if you had a giant ape fighting with a velociraptor? There’s their personalities and instinct and this visceral quality to the way they absorb a blow and take these scrapes and get back up again.

Sequences in the HEAV crafts in the way the camera swirls around kaiju look and feel like they could potentially be theme park rides. Was that something that was ever considered or pitched to you?

I hadn’t heard that. Adam had such a strong, specific vision from the moment I became involved on this project. The aesthetic he was going for and the tonal references were very clear. He was really excited about the mission into Hollow Earth and what that would entail experientially – that it was drawing on this 2001-like feel and then that translated into the feel of the Hong Kong battle, really playing into the neon. He really brought to it a beautiful, specific vision that felt like it packaged the DNA of the entire franchise while at the same time, in a way each of the films has, really painting a new stamp on it.

Kaylee Hottle in GODZILLA VS. KONG, courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

What were some of the challenges building in the heart of the story with the relationship between Jia and Kong so we care about both AND have it retain the Toho films’ legacy with its ecological message?

Totally. The Jia relationship is very essential to that. When you lock into it, it felt like it unlocked a whole new trove of riches. Part of the challenges to these films are, “How do we interact with the creatures that makes the human beings have agency, and not just be running away, or reacting?” Jia was the perfect solution to that. The fact that she communicates with Kong in sign language and that others discover that. And then, the moment in the creative process that unlocked things, was that they then decide to initiate Kong to go to lead them into Hollow Earth.

There’s an emotional component to that. It’s not they’re dragging him there, but that they’re lying to him and asking Jia, who has a relationship with Kong that’s paternal-like, asking her to tell Kong there’s more like him down there, which they don’t know to be true. In that moment, you’re creating an emotional carrot for Kong and it’s complicated. It’s a screwed up thing to do for people to lie, but they’re doing it for the greater good. That little moment of them grappling if it’s okay for them to do it or not. It’s wrong, but it’s probably justified and it’s heartbreaking to see. I thought it put us in Kong’s shoes emotionally where you stop thinking about the logic and feel that journey. I want them feeling, “Oh no! They’re lying and manipulating Kong.” They’re not doing it in an evil, classically Kong gets dragged to New York City in chains, but doing it for the greater good. It would be nice for them to trust him more. I thought that was a nuanced emotional beat you were able to discover.

How have you matured as a writer working on these films over these past 7+ years, evolving these characters? What have these giant monsters taught you about yourself?

(laughs) I’ve matured as a writer in a trillion ways, because of this and in spite of this and in conjunction with this. One thing I think the characters teach all of us is how small we are. We live in the world right now where that feels like a lesson that’s been utterly drummed into us by current events. It’s been obliterating devastating over the course of a year and it often times becomes depressing. But in that smallness, in that magnificence, there’s a collective thing that’s beautiful.

These characters are so much larger than life and represent things that are bigger than us and out of control. But they also have this lesson of humanity coming together in its worst moments, being able to find a way to overcome our worst natures and improve and find a way toward healing and toward hope. When this happens, Godzilla and Kong, go from being scary to our last best hope to save the world. It’s an interesting way to think of the challenges we face; They can tear us apart and they can create horror, but they also are able to come together and not let our own failings get in the way – and they’re capable of incredible survival.

GODZILLA VS. KONG opens in select theaters and premieres on HBOMax on March 31 (in the United States).

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.