Over the last month, there has been a lot of discussion about the place of directors in the studio megafranchise machine, following the dismissal of Phil Lord and Chris Miller from Young Han Solo. The trend in recent years has been for filmmakers with independent and/or anarchic backgrounds to be placed at the helms of gargantuan projects with hundreds of millions of dollars riding on them, leading many to ponder how much these auteurs can bring the idiosyncratic qualities that presumably inspired their hiring in the first place.
It’s a question that Adam Wingard is in a particularly appropriate place to answer. Having previously shepherded such modestly scaled features as You’re Next, The Guest and Blair Witch, he was selected earlier this year to helm Godzilla vs. Kong, the culmination of Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures’ massively budgeted MonsterVerse cycle, set for release in 2020. “It’s funny—the day I had my first meeting scheduled with Terry Rossio, the writer on Godzilla vs. Kong, was the day it was announced that Lord and Miller got fired, so that was kind of an eye-opening moment,” Wingard says. “I mean, you hear—especially within the industry—a lot of rumors about directors who have silently been replaced, or the movies have been reshot by other directors because the producers were unhappy with them, and things like that. But firing them was a completely different situation.
“Ultimately, I don’t think it affects me that much,” he continues. “The most important thing when you’re making this type of film is that it’s not about pushing against authority; it’s about everybody getting on the same page. When you’re doing anything that involves a lot of money, it should not be an ‘us vs. them’ kind of thing, and as soon as you start treating it that way, it becomes that way. But as long as you’re open to ideas when they come—and sometimes they’re good and sometimes you have to push back—it’s just about being able to communicate.”
Wingard has already been part of such a collaborative effort when he directed another Americanization of a Japanese favorite: Netflix’s Death Note, the adaptation of the widely admired manga that premieres in August. “On Death Note, which had many producers and a lot of oversight on it, I felt like I was 100 percent able to make the movie I wanted to make,” he states. “The reason for that was because I was able to communicate with everybody involved, and we were all making the same film, you know? That’s the most important factor.”
Right now, Wingard is in the very early stages of his Godzilla vs. Kong work, having only put Death Note to bed earlier this month, “so I’m just now kind of coming up for air.” He has met a couple of times with Rossio (who, with frequent writing partner Ted Elliott, wrote a version of Godzilla for Jan De Bont to direct in the early ’90s, before that incarnation was kiboshed and Roland Emmerich took over), and adds, “I might go visit the set of Godzilla: King of the Monsters soon, just to get a feel for what’s going on there, and some more first-hand experience looking at how bigger movies are made. But right now, I’m just really script-oriented.”
He also sheds some light on the Godzilla vs. Kong scripting process, which involved a “writers’ room” consisting of Patrick McKay, J.D. Payne, Lindsey Beer, Cat Vasko, T.S. Nowlin, Jack Paglen and J. Michael Straczynski. “Terry ran the writers’ room,” Wingard explains, “so he’s the personification of it, and everything we’re working on is first and foremost based on the outline they created there. We’re going in very great detail through all the characters, the arcs they have, how they relate to one another, and most importantly how they relate to the monsters, and how the monsters relate to them or reflect them. We’re also going beat by beat on the outline, because I have things that I want to add.
“So once again, it’s a discussion, and about feeling out how to make it as strong as possible, so that when Terry goes to write the screenplay, he has a definitive breakdown of what to include. He’s not the type of guy who wants to be handed a bunch of problems to solve, you know? He wants to be able to have a good creative flow based on an outline that works.”
In the midst of his two J-fantasy adaptations, another Asian reboot Wingard was attached to, I Saw the Devil (based on Kim Jee-woon’s graphically violent serial-killer saga), has fallen by the wayside for the moment. “That’s up in the air right now,” he says. “When Godzilla vs. Kong came up, it was kind of an offer-I-couldn’t-refuse situation, so I’ll be doing that for at least two and a half years. We’ll see what happens at the end of it.”