“Every movie is its own beast.” Max Borenstein on Kong: Skull Island
Max Borenstein on bringing giant-scale movies down to earth, how great actors elevate a screenplay, and making the audience care about your monsters.
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 Island screenplay. (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.
Speaking with Creative Screenwriting, 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.
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.
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.
Perhaps the most entertaining character in the film is Marlow (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.
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.
Featured image: Kong: Skull Island. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Enterta – © 2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.