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Monstrous Undertaking: Screenwriter Max Borenstein Says His Kong: Skull Island Script "Is Its Own Beast"

Monstrous Undertaking: Screenwriter Max Borenstein Says His Kong: Skull Island Script "Is Its Own Beast"

First Draft

One of the challenges of writing a film like Godzilla or Kong: Skull Island is finding the right balance between the human characters and their conflicts and the gigantic beasts. Can you talk about finding that balance?

That’s always a huge challenge of writing any of movie with non-human IP. But especially so in the cases of Godzilla and Kong because the creatures are so big. Literally, their scale is so large.

Actually, in traditional King Kong movies the scale is easier, because while Kong is larger and scarier than the people, he’s still small enough that can interact with people and even fall in love with a human woman. She can also feel empathy and love for him.

That’s something you just can’t do when the scale of the creature is so large, which is around 300 feet in this film. It becomes like a building falling in love with a person, or a person falling in love with an ant.

However, you still have awe and wonder, and you end up dealing with themes like nature and the environment, which is something else that has a scale that outsizes us. But it becomes challenging to keep your heroes involved in a way that gives them agency in the action when at the end of the day Godzilla or Kong could just kill twelve people with the flick of a fingernail. [Laughs]

In this film, there is a large ensemble of people who each offer their own perspective. Because of the nature of the design, they’re probably underdeveloped individually. But hopefully as a mass they represent a group of individuals, and their relationships with this thing that represents the wonder and the unknowable, uncontrollable aspect of nature.

Plus, you need plenty of people to kill off over the course of the film!

You need people to die! [Laughs] Ideally, the actors do a great job of getting us to care about them, so we invest in these characters and care a little bit when they get chewed up.

Tom Hiddleston as James Conrad and Brie Larson as Mason Weaver in Kong: Skull Island

Speaking of the actors, decades ago characters like Kong and Godzilla were depicted by miniatures or people in costumes, whereas now extraordinary actors like Terry Notary bring these characters to life via motion capture. Does that influence your writing of a character like Kong?

I suppose it does. I didn’t write movies before relatively sophisticated CGI, so I imagine I’ve been spoiled by the ability to write anything into a script.

An example is the scene where Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson’s characters encounter Kong at the peak of the mountain. We hadn’t had a moment of real connection between these characters and Kong, so I wrote this quiet scene where he appears and it’s terrifying and wondrous. Ultimately, it’s a quiet moment of connection. But so much of it is Kong’s face and his expression.

They did magnificent things with models in the original and did achieve expression. But the subtlety and nuance that you’re able to get nowadays, by having motion capture and great actors perform that role, allows you to have a scene like that instead of just the spectacle of a giant ape head without the expressiveness of that face. That’s what makes the scene.

Kong (Toby Kebbell) in Kong: Skull Island

Perhaps the most entertaining character in the film is Marlow, played by John C. Reilly, a World War II pilot who crashed on Skull Island and has lived there for almost 30 years. How did that character develop?

He’s a character that evolved during the process. There was a character by that name and a character who was similar to that in the early scripts I wrote, but he was not the same character. John Gatins invented that particular character subsequent to my first draft, and I got to work a lot on him when I came back in. He really brings so much life to film, and while he’s good on the page, John C. Reilly is so great at embodying that role.

For example, I wrote a line when we were trying to figure out how to name the other creatures. And it’s always cringeworthy when creatures like this are given names, because how the hell would they get names? Who has the presence of mind to come up with a name as you’re getting slaughtered? [Laughs] It feels silly.

But toys need to be made, and therefore they need names. So we finally decided upon the name “skull crawler,” and then it needed to be said in the movie. But it was so awkward to do.

Then there was this moment of inspiration where we said, “Marlow can say, ‘Well, I call them skull crawlers,’ and they ask why, and he says, ‘Because it sounds neat!’” That was a funny line that I remember being proud of.

But then seeing what John C. Reilly did with it was so much better. Because he says, “I thought it sounded neat, but I’ve never heard it out loud before. I haven’t really talked in thirty years so it sounds stupid, but in my head it sounded good.”

To me that is such a writer thing because everything sounds great when you write it, but when you say it out loud it’s not always the same. It was such a great ad-lib that brings so much life to the scene at a moment that it could feel ridiculous. Instead, he gives a wink and a nod to the ridiculousness, but you feel his humanity in that.

It makes that character that much more loveable. That’s an example of when screenwriters try to do everything we can to dimensionalize these characters and give them life, but ultimately what a great actor does is take what you’ve done and imbue it with something more. That’s exciting to see, and I always laugh at that moment in the movie. It’s a moment that’s about this great actor putting himself in those shoes.

John C. Reilly as Hank Marlow in Kong: Skull Island. Photograph by Vince Valitutti

You are the first American writer to write both a Godzilla and a King Kong film. What is the difference between writing the characters of King Kong and Godzilla?

Godzilla is not really anthropomorphic, and does not have a very expressive face. He doesn’t smile, except in some of the cheesier movies, and certainly not in ours. It’s very difficult to ascribe human-like emotions or motives to Godzilla.

To me, the greatest achievement of our Godzilla movie is that by the end of the film people are rooting for Godzilla although throughout the film Godzilla feels like a force of nature, that’s so much larger than us and so beyond us, that we don’t have any direct understanding of our investment in it.

By the end, we shifted to his point-of-view. And when he blows his blue flame down the throat of the other creature—a creature we never empathized with in any way—we’re empathizing with Godzilla.

That’s the thing about the movie that I’m most proud of, and I think Gareth [Edwards, director of Godzilla] did an amazing job pulling that off. I think that’s what sets up our Godzilla franchise in a way that the second Godzilla movie can pick up on to begin to make Godzilla a more relatable, emphatic figure. But it needed that groundwork because you don’t immediately invest emotionally in something that looks like a giant dragon or lizard.

On the other hand, you do invest immediately in a primate. We care about primates because we are primates, and we especially relate to Kong because he has more humanlike facial expressivity and emotions than actual gorillas.

Even though Kong is at a different scale than we are, when you see him glowering or grimacing, we get it and we care. It’s the reason why people cared so much more about Harambe than they cared about other animals that get slaughtered.

Fundamentally, we also care because there seems to be none other like him. And we read loneliness out of that because we imagine what it would be like for us to be in his position. In that respect, it’s much easier to write Kong than Godzilla. MM

Kong: Skull Island opened in theaters March 10, 2017, courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment. 

This article originally appeared on the website Creative Screenwriting. Creative Screenwriting is “the best magazine for screenwriters” (The Los Angeles Times), publishing daily interviews and craft articles from the foremost writers in film and TV.

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