In partnership with Creative Screenwriting and ScreenCraft, “First Draft” is a series on everything to do with screenwriting.
Few images in American cinema are as iconic as Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World, perched at the top of the Empire State Building in the groundbreaking King Kong (1933).
The giant ape, brainchild of pioneering film producer Merian C. Cooper, has appeared on cinema screens in various films since over the last eighty years. And the latest return to theaters for the terrifying, yet emotionally complex beast is Legendary Pictures’ Kong: Skull Island.
Kong: Skull Island isn’t a remake of the classic King Kong story. Instead, it is a new adventure that brings Kong into Legendary’s “MonsterVerse.” It is set shortly after the Vietnam War, when a group of soldiers accompanies a team of Project Monarch scientists to the mysterious uncharted Skull Island.
On the island, the humans encounter beasts of extraordinary size—but none larger or more threatening than Kong. And though U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) intends to kill Kong, others in the group—including tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson)—realize that their survival is predicated on Kong’s help.
Screenwriter Max Borenstein was one of four writers who worked on the Kong: Skull Islandscreenplay. (The others were Dan Gilroy, Derek Connolly, and John Gatins, who received “Story by” credit). Borenstein was brought on the project after he wrote the screenplay for 2014’s Godzilla, and he is also co-writing the 2019 Godzilla sequel, Godzilla: King of the Monsters. After which Legendary intends to then lead the franchise to a Godzilla vs. Kong movie the following year.
Before his experience with large-scale movie monsters, Borenstein wrote and directed the 2003 “life after college” indie Swordswallowers and Thin Men, and following that saw two of his unproduced scripts land on The Black List. He also created the television series Minority Report, which was based on the 2002 Steven Spielberg film.
In this interview, Borenstein reveals how he became Legendary’s go-to writer for giant monsters, how Kong: Skull Island changed over the long development process, how great actors elevate a screenplay, and why it’s much easier for a screenwriter to write for Kong than for Godzilla.
Your reputation as a screenwriter was built on character-driven features that were relatively small in size. How did that lead you to Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island?
You mean it’s not a natural progression? [Laughs] That’s still a good part of what I do and where my heart lies. The first scripts that made my reputation were ones that were more personal and had to do with my own experience in the world. The scale was of things I understood well, which I think is commonly where your voice shines for most screenwriters starting out.
But when you’re fortunate enough to get hired by big studios, the movies that they make these days tend to be IP driven. In my case, I wrote a screenplay that was based on a dramatic true story about Jimi Hendrix for Legendary. As someone who loves music, it was something that was in my wheelhouse. They responded well to it, and they also had a Godzilla project.
Godzilla was a big concept with a lot of action and excitement, but what’s always difficult is finding a tone and a journey that feels original and grounded in some way. Sometimes it makes sense for a studio to plug screenwriters who do smaller, dramatic pieces into movies that are of giant scale. What they’d like to do is bring those giant-scale movies down to earth a little.
You’re obviously very involved with what’s been dubbed Legendary’s MonsterVerse. Did you have any special affinity for movies like King Kong or Godzilla while growing up?
I loved all movies when I was growing up. I loved the original King Kong, but I hadn’t seen the original Godzilla until more recently, though that was long before I wrote the Godzilla movie. Toho movies were my favorite, but it was the Kurosawa movies that I loved. I was not the kid who was obsessed with big monster movies. I was a real movie snob. My favorite filmmakers were Kurosawa, Fellini, and Welles, and I expanded my tastes from there.
I think when you’re a kid it’s fun to be a snob, and like things that not that many other people who are your age like!
There are several names credited for this screenplay, which is common with films of this size. What was your role in the writing process of Kong: Skull Island?
I was the first writer and I was also the last writer. It was definitely collaborative in terms of what’s on the screen, though none of us worked together. There are pieces of my work in there as well as the work of the other two writers and John Gatins, who was credited for story. Everybody had a really good hand in it.
These big movies are a process. Often there are a lot of writers who end up working on it because they take so long and people move from project to project. In my case, it was interesting because I was involved in the very beginning and the genesis of the project prior to the director coming on, then I was off the movie, did some other stuff, and came back before the movie went into production. I was able to see the things that stayed the same, and was able to dig into the things that had changed.
It’s part of the craft of the working Hollywood writer that’s different than the craft of writing a screenplay on your own. Every movie is its own beast, but movies of this scale tend to be collaborative experiences where screenwriters come and go. You feel a certain amount of ownership, but it’s not your baby in that way.
Kong is one of the most recognizable icons of cinema. Is there anything you specifically wanted to do in Kong: Skull Island that hasn’t been done with Kong before?
The beginning of this project was when we were in post on Godzilla. Producer Thomas Tull asked me if I was interested in doing a King Kong movie that would ultimately lead to Kong colliding with Godzilla.
I thought about it, and I felt like the “Beauty and the Beast” King Kong-type film had been done a lot recently. That wouldn’t work as a lead-in for a movie universe where giant monsters had been existing unnoticed. For one thing, Kong dies at the end of that story. For another, there’s an archaic tint to the old Kong movies in terms of the treatment of the natives and the damsel in distress which isn’t contemporary in its tone.
What popped into my head for the paradigm of the movie was Apocalypse Now. That’s obviously a war movie, but I liked the idea of people moving upriver to face a misunderstood force that they think of as a villain, but ultimately they come to realize is much more complicated.
I pitched the idea of a movie that was going to begin during the Vietnam War and then jump ahead to the present day. The reaction I got was, “That sounds great, but how could it be that an island could be undiscovered this long in the second half of the 20th century?” That was felt to be a logical hole.
So I went back and set the film before the first King Kong movie in 1917 during World War I, but it was the same Apocalypse Now concept. We then redeveloped it again into a present-day story.
So we had these two versions, but we didn’t have a director yet. Jordan Vogt-Roberts was scheduled to come for a meeting, and he and I had lunch to get to know each other. He wanted to know how we could make a Kong movie fresh, and he was intrigued by my Apocalypse Now take and went in to meet about it. He not only pitched them the Apocalypse Now version, but also pitched setting it just immediately after Vietnam and keeping it there.
They liked the idea, and that’s the direction the movie took from there. It took a strange, circuitous route back to being the initial impulse by thinking our way through the logic concerns.