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Godzilla 1998: The monster-sized struggle to remake Japan's Kaiju in America

Godzilla Film: Godzilla (USA/JP 1998)   Director: Roland Emmerich 18 May 1998   **WARNING** This Photograph is for editorial use only and is the copyright of TRISTAR PICTURES and/or the Photographer assigned by the Film or Production Company and can only be reproduced by publications in conjunction with the promotion of the above Film. A Mandatory Credit To TRISTAR PICTURES is required. The Photographer should also be credited when known. No commercial use can be granted without written authority from the Film Company.
Godzilla in the 1998 film. (Tristar/Alamy)

'The Coen Brothers’ Present Godzilla'. 'Tim Burton’s Godzilla'. 'Godzilla, from the director of Speed'.

Incredibly, all three of these were once a Hollywood possibility in the mid-90s, before Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin followed up Independence Day with their much-maligned 1998 take on the iconic Japanese monster.

But 25 years on, just how and why did the Stargate filmmakers’ finally get over the line? Trust us, it’s way more complicated than you might imagine.

Godzilla rises

Radioactive monster Godzilla stomps through a city and eats a commuter train in a scene from 'Godzilla, King of the Monsters!,' directed by Ishiro Honda and Terry O. Morse, 1956. The film is actually a reedited version of the 1954 film 'Gojira,' directed by Honda, with several new scenes added which were directed by Morse. (Photo by Embassy Pictures/Courtesy of Getty Images)
Godzilla stomps teats a commuter train in a scene from 'Godzilla, King of the Monsters!,' directed by Ishiro Honda and Terry O. Morse, 1956. (Embassy Pictures/Courtesy of Getty Images)

While Godzilla has been a mainstay of East Asian cinema since his first cinematic appearance in 1954, if you grew up in the West in the 1970s and 1980s, then it’s likely you only came across the giant lizard late night on BBC2 or later Channel 4.

Read more: Jan de Bont interview: The man who shot the Nineties from 'Flatliners' to 'Twister'

Either that or in cartoon form in the Hanna-Barbera animated series that began in 1978. As you might imagine, aiming what was a comment about the might of America and the destructive power of nuclear weapons at children meant that much of the original allegory was lost.

“When they start telling you in Standards and Practices, ‘Don’t shoot any flame at anybody, don’t step on any buildings or cars’, then pretty soon, they’ve taken away all the stuff he represents,” said Joseph Barbera.

“That became the problem, to maintain a feeling of Godzilla and at the same time cut down everything he did.”

Eventually, it was the American producer Henry G Saperstein — producer of the dubbed versions of the suitmation flicks for a US market — who finally convinced Toho, the Japanese creators of Godzilla, that it needed to do a proper Hollywood version. He admits it took him ten years of pleading.

Read more: Writer of 1998's Godzilla reveals what went wrong

Special effects had moved on to the point where centring a film around a giant radioactive monster without it looking cheesy wasn’t out of the question. And the movie industry had started to warm to the idea of intellectual property (IP)-focused franchises.

Get it right and a Godzilla series could run and run. TriStar Pictures, part of Sony, paid for the rights to an initial trilogy. It was not money well-spent.

Finding a director - take one

Special Effects Scene Film: Godzilla (USA/JP 1998)   Director: Roland Emmerich 18 May 1998   **WARNING** This Photograph is for editorial use only and is the copyright of TRISTAR PICTURES and/or the Photographer assigned by the Film or Production Company and can only be reproduced by publications in conjunction with the promotion of the above Film. A Mandatory Credit To TRISTAR PICTURES is required. The Photographer should also be credited when known. No commercial use can be granted without written authority from the Film Company.
A special effects scene being filmed for 1998's Godzilla. (Tristar/Alamy)

The American Godzilla was going to be a big deal and that required a big-name director. Tim Burton was considered by the producers, as were James Cameron, the Coen Bros. (though the failure of The Hudsucker Proxy put the kibosh on that idea), Terry Gilliam, Gremlins’ helmer Joe Dante, Sam Raimi and Barry Sonnenfeld.

All the while, screenwriters approached included Predator creators’ Jim and John Thomas, as well as British horror author Clive Barker (Hellraiser). However, the job of writing the script was given to Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who had written Aladdin for Disney and were now big deals around town.

“In our draft, Godzilla fought a second monster and kicked his ass,” Rossio said later. “We realized that Godzilla was the hero and even if people were afraid of him in the beginning, they wanted to root for him in the end.”

Jan De Bont (centre) giving direction to Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt on the set of Twister. (Warner Bros.)
Jan De Bont (centre) giving direction to Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt on the set of Twister. (Warner Bros.)

The development process was ongoing and no director signed on the dotted line until a little movie called Speed came out in 1995. A gigantic sleeper hit, its director was a well-known cinematographer called Jan de Bont.

Suddenly, de Bont became the frontrunner for Godzilla – and he was keen.

“I loved what Godzilla was in Japan,” de Bont told Yahoo UK in 2022. “I love that it wasn’t so perfect. That’s why those movies were successful, the [Japanese ones]. The acting is slightly over the top. It was very smartly done.”

The script

Matthew Broderick Film: Godzilla (USA/JP 1998) Characters: Dr. Niko Tatopoulos  Director: Roland Emmerich 18 May 1998   **WARNING** This Photograph is for editorial use only and is the copyright of TRISTAR PICTURES and/or the Photographer assigned by the Film or Production Company and can only be reproduced by publications in conjunction with the promotion of the above Film. A Mandatory Credit To TRISTAR PICTURES is required. The Photographer should also be credited when known. No commercial use can be granted without written authority from the Film Company.
Matthew Broderick in 1998's Godzilla. (Alamy/Tristar)

De Bont liked Elliott and Rossio’s script, which had Godzilla face off against a monster called the Gryphon. The pair originally wanted him to fight one of the character’s legendary foes King Ghidorah (a kind of triple-headed dragon), but Sony’s contract with Toho forbade it. TriStar also briefly flirted with trying to shoehorn in some kind of Godzooky-style sidekick, but it was quickly rejected by the filmmakers.

“They wanted us to create a helper monster for Godzilla they could spin off and serialise,” said Rossio. “From our point of view, this was always a non-starter.”

Quiz: How well do you know disaster movies?

Jan de Bont flew to Japan to receive the official sign-off and pre-production ratcheted up a notch. The director wanted Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt to play the heroes (they would of course star in his next film Twister) and serious work began on bringing Godzilla himself to life.

Although Jurassic Park had revolutionised CGI, de Bont was actually interested in pursuing the method that had made the Japanese movies so unique.

“It was a guy in a suit!” he said. “It was so great. The movements, there was something human about it.” It was ironic, considering one of the reasons Burton had been overlooked was because of the fear he might make it too campy (the Batman director almost came on board again when the franchise was rebooted in 2014).

Godzilla Godzilla King of the monsters 1954 Real  Ishiro Honda et Terry O Morse Haruo Nakajima. Collection Christophel © Toho company / Jewell entreprises Inc
Haruo Nakajima as Godzilla in 1954's Godzilla: King of the Monsters. (Christophel/Toho company/Jewell enterprises Inc/Alamy)

De Bont met with the two men who had donned the Godzilla suit for Toho, Haruo Nakajima and Kenpachiro Satsuma, to learn how they did it. Nakajima, in particular, was a judo black belt and had choreographed many of his own scenes.

Reporting back to his production team, de Bont started looking at how to do it with motion capture.

“Because the guy was in the suit, the motions were very different to what a dinosaur would do and that was very attractive to me,” he said. “That it was something really different.”

“The men in the suit have some very endearing qualities that you kind of lose with CGI,” he added to journalist Keith Aiken. “When people are using actor to play the monster and then later translating the actor’s feelings to the monster you have a much better chance of doing that. And that’s kind of what we planned as well.”

Studio troubles

Producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters attend Entertainment Industy Education First Kickoff on April 15, 1991 at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)
Peter Guber and Jon Peters in 1991. (Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

What the director wasn’t aware of however, was what was going on behind the scenes at Sony. The company had gambled a fortune bringing producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters on as studio heads and money was tight (read Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters’ book to get the whole incredible story). As Godzilla’s budget crept up and up, desire to make it seemed to go down and down.

While de Bont’s budget would seem like peanuts compared to something like Marvel now, the studio pushed back against it and ultimately, de Bont left the project.

Read more: Twister remake in development

“We had a really good script and everybody loved it,” the director told us. “[But] the reason they got rid of me is because they said my budget was higher than Roland Emmerich. I said that’s impossible because they’re going to use the same effects people as I do and they’re going to charge exactly the same.”

They also threw out the majority of Rossio and Elliott’s script and brought in British writer Don MacPherson.

With the director’s chair still vacant, a young David Fincher tried to land the gig.

On the set of Alien 3, directed by David Fincher. (Photo by Rolf Konow/Sygma/Corbis via Getty Images)
David Fincher on the set of 1992's Alien 3. (Getty Images)

“He made a pitch to direct it,” MacPherson told Sci-Fi Japan, “set in Chicago for some reason. I think the studio were intrigued, but dubious about going with Fincher’s ideas.”

The film fell to the back of the queue for a while, before executives started getting wind of a film called Independence Day. Its creators Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin had already had a mid-range hit with Stargate in 1994 and had apparently always been on the studio’s list to direct Godzilla.

Two months before Independence Day hit cinemas, Emmerich and Devlin signed on the dotted line to write, produce and direct.

The legacy of Godzilla 1998

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A Godzilla fan camping outside a cinema for the opening of the 1998 movie. (Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Twenty-five years later, barely anyone remembers much about the actual 1998 movie, save for the fact it was a huge disappointment.

Devlin himself didn’t think much of his own script, while Haruo Nakajima and Kenpachiro Satsuma criticised the creature’s look, which had been re-imagined by designer Patrick Tatopoulos.

There actually was some ‘man in suit’ work, with stuntman Kurt Carley wearing stilts beneath an animatronic head.

Monster Climbs Builder Film: Godzilla (USA/JP 1998)   Director: Roland Emmerich 18 May 1998   **WARNING** This Photograph is for editorial use only and is the copyright of TRISTAR PICTURES and/or the Photographer assigned by the Film or Production Company and can only be reproduced by publications in conjunction with the promotion of the above Film. A Mandatory Credit To TRISTAR PICTURES is required. The Photographer should also be credited when known. No commercial use can be granted without written authority from the Film Company.
Godzilla 1998. (Alamy/Tristar)

TriStar’s plan for sequels were quickly forgotten, although Emmerich and Devlin did develop a follow-up for a while with writer Tab Murphy. There was an animated series too in 1998 (with a lead character called Nick Tatapoulos in an obvious nod to the designer). In fact, the studio didn’t let their option on the property drop until 2003.

By 2014, when Legendary Pictures scooped up the rights and signed Gareth Edwards (pre-Star Wars: Rogue One) to direct the reboot, the key was to distance themselves from anything that had come before, at least on American soil.

GODZILLA, GODZILLA, 2014
A still from Gareth Edward's 2014 Godzilla. (Alamy)

“Our plan was to produce the Godzilla that we, as fans, would want to see,” said Godzilla producer Thomas Tull in 2010, in a not-so-sly dig at the previous effort. They brought on Andy Serkis to help create the central monster, which was performed as motion capture by TJ Storm.

In another slight to Emmerich and Devlin’s take, Tull added, “Toho had given us their blessing to re-envision the character, but it was equally important to us as well as Toho that Godzilla look like Godzilla.”

Read more: How Rocky influenced Godzilla vs Kong

The movie was a hit and has spawned the universe of sequels Sony always dreamed about.

Still, it remains a road not travelled that audiences didn’t get to see a truly iconoclastic director take on what is probably Japan’s most famous cinematic export, that infamous kaiju.

Perhaps David Fincher might yet be convinced…

Godzilla is streaming on NOW with a Sky Cinema Membership.

Watch the trailer for Gareth Edwards' new film The Creator