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Weekly Alibi Monster-Baiting

An interview with the cast and crew of "Godzilla."

By Devin D. O'Leary

JUNE 1, 1998: 

In case you missed the cover stories, the teasing commercials, the Taco Bell tie-ins and the monstrous Madison Square Garden premiere last Monday, then it's time you were told--Godzilla is back.

Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, the hit-making producer/director team behind the box-office record-breaker Independence Day, have just unleashed their big-budget take on Japan's most beloved homewrecker. This summer's release of Godzilla marks the Toho titan's first American-made film. Having racked up more screen appearances than James Bond, Godzilla now finds himself crushing New York City under his scaly tootsies and sharing the screen with a cast of non-Asian actors (including Matthew Broderick, Maria Pitillo, Hank Azaria and Jean Reno).

So what made moviedom's hottest hitmakers turn to a genre marked by flying turtles, three-headed dragons and monstrous moths? Producer Dean Devlin, enthusiastic as a kid on Christmas morning, explains: "People never believe me when I talk about this, but I swear on my mother's life I'm giving you the truth here: Roland and I just make films that we dig. We never try and figure out what's going to be a hit or what other people are going to like. ... I swear to God, every movie we've done, all of our friends, all of our advisors said, 'You guys are blowing it! You're gonna ruin your careers.' When we went to do Stargate, every studio in Hollywood said, 'Science fiction is dead. Nobody sees science fiction.' When we went to do Independence Day, a lot of people were saying, 'My God, it's War of the Worlds. We've seen this a million times.' And when we went to do this, everybody was saying, 'Godzilla? What a strange gig. Why would you do it?'"

Taking a film series known primarily for its camp appeal and turning it into a (reported) $120 million sci-fi extravaganza took some convincing around Hollywood. And Tokyo. Roland Emmerich, the German-born directing half of the team, remembers: "We pitched it to the studio (TriStar Pictures), and they totally loved it. They also thought it was a big risk that Toho (Godzilla's owners in Japan) might not like. At that moment Dean got sick in Germany--ate too much sauerkraut or something--and was in the hospital. I had to go alone to Japan. I there met Patrick Tatopoulos, who designed the creature and did the drawings, and we showed it to the Toho people and they were pretty stunned and silent for a while."

The Toho executives eventually found their voice, gave the green light to designer Patrick Tatopoulos' Godzilla revamp and approved the script direction that Emmerich and Devlin wanted to take. After many arduous months of pre- production, and a CIA-like attempt to keep the project details under wraps, Devlin and Emmerich set out to find actors for Godzilla to stomp.

Two of the film's main roles were written with actors in mind. The role of Dr. Niko Tatopoulos (a nod to the team's savvy monster-maker) was created for Matthew Broderick, who is keenly aware of the uphill battle he faces with hardcore G-fans. "I guess you don't realize he really is sort of an icon, Godzilla. I'm realizing that more now than when we shot it, really. ... I had a real sort of nut job last night (at the movie's premiere). I walked by, and he said really quietly, 'You're Matthew Broderick. The new one's not gonna be any better than the old Godzilla. The- new- Godzilla's- no- better- than- the- old- Godzilla. The- new- Godzilla's- no- better- than- the- old- Godzilla.' He was like Rain Man."

Another role, that of a mysterious Frenchman named Phillipe Roaché, was written with another of the filmmakers' favorite actors in mind. French superstar Jean Reno didn't need to be talked into the role. "They call me, saying, 'We're going to write the script and we're going to write something for you. (It's) Godzilla.' I say, 'Ah, Bon! Godzilla. Bon.' This was just after Independence Day. The script was nice. Light. Humor. Action." And the most important element adds Reno, "Money." Even in the cultured land of brie and Proust, Reno was touched by the Big G's presence: "I have (the image) back in my mind. The beast coming out, the cables, the buildings." But he admits, "I know the name more than the films."

Gone (much to the chagrin of Godzilla purists) is the traditional man-in-a-rubber-suit. In his place is the high-tech '90s version of Godzilla--a computer-generated beast right out of Jurassic Park's wildest dreams. Of course, acting to a digitized image waiting to be added at a later date can pose a challenge to the actors. Two of Godzilla's stars, Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer, possessed a special skill, however--both lend their voice talent to "The Simpsons." Azaria says: "It came in handy, that skill, doing Godzilla. I'd never done this kind of work before, and my friends who had said, 'You know, it's very hard. There's nothing there. It freaks you out for the first couple of weeks.' But I realized the first day on the set that we do it every week--we record first, and they animate later--so we're always acting to nothing, if you will." Shearer concurs: "When you've done cartoon work and radio, your imagination is a little more honed than if you're just acting with real people and real furniture all the time."

The other actors simply had to make due. As the assistant director shouted out commands on a megaphone, the actors responded. Matthew Broderick likens it to working on a silent film: "I think that's a good analogy. ... I see movies about the old days: (shouting out) 'OK, now you're very upset! They've stolen your cattle!' This is a little like that: (shouting out) 'Godzilla notices you! Godzilla looks over your way! He bends over and stares closer! He nudges the car with his snout!' You're just sitting there listening with one ear, trying to make the appropriate awe or terror. Which are they after this time?" Coming up with the proper reaction to an imaginary Godzilla wasn't always easy, though. "We'd be looking at (Godzilla) and thinking, we're not really sure what he'll be doing. So I'd have my worried face on. And I would always just sort of look out of the corner of my eye--is Maria (Pitillo) more worried than me? Well, that's OK because I'm a man. I don't want to be more worried."

The film's employment of state-of-the-art computer effects did make the work easier for some. As Azaria sees it: "It's easy, because whatever you do, they'll justify. If you go like that (Azaria ducks), they'll just make something happen that justifies you doing that. But sometimes they tell you--you know, I'll go like this (duck), and then that (weave)--and they'll tell you, 'Don't react to that second thing because that's more money. You looked at two things, now we have to draw two things.' So you start increasing the budget with each flinch."

Maria Pitillo, currently showcased in the new NBC sitcom "House Rules," had her own troubles on the set, thanks largely to the fake rain to which the cast was constantly subjected. Pitillo categorized her three conditions on the set: "Wet-to-the-bone. Wet-with-a-wetsuit, so you were warm. And then there was just-damp-all-day-and-really-annoyed." Vicki Lewis, doing Godzilla duty on her off-time from NBC's "Newsradio," managed to escape some of the set's hardships: "I got out of some of the rain. But it's funny; what looks like a little bit of rain time (on screen) is actually days of rain time."

One of the main concerns in bringing Godzilla to American audiences after a 40-year run overseas was how serious to make it. "I think that what we tried to do was to not be campy, to not make fun of Godzilla movies," says Broderick. "It's not a parody by any means. We wanted to take it very seriously. But at the same time, you know, a big lizard destroying a city, you have to enjoy it a little bit. So there's some humor in it. It was probably smart to cast people who would bring that out."

Afterall, it's the campy elements of the old Godzilla that people remember most fondly. "Almost everybody has kitschy interest in this once it comes up," assesses Azaria. "When I first started shooting this, I went to meet Woody Allen for a part in his film last summer. I walked in and I was embarrassed after doing Godzilla--this is Woody Allen, you know! And he's like, 'So, Godzilla.' I'm like, 'Yeah. Yeah.' He's like, 'Me and Satchel have seem all of 'em. Should be great with the special effects now.' I figured if Woody Allen, the ultimate New Yorker, was looking forward to it, then everybody's gonna have some rooting to do."

Despite their desire to create a more "serious" Godzilla, filmmakers Devlin and Emmerich admit they're still more interested in having fun on the set than anything else. Lewis sums up the duo: "Immediately they give you the impression that they want to have a good time. They don't have any airs that they're making a Chekov adaptation; they're not doing Arthur Miller; they're doing what they love to do. They want people around them that are good-natured, that are going to be fun and have fun doing it."

"It's embarrassing to admit it, but we're such knuckleheads, the two of us," confesses Devlin. "We make movies that crack us up. And then we hope that maybe it cracks other people up too."


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