Talking "Kong: Skull Island"
This Friday movie fans from around the world will once again step into the universe of cinema’s most enduring monster, King Kong, with the long-anticipated release of Kong: Skull Island. And make no mistake, this is a fresh and adventurous approach to the story of the towering primate who once scaled New York’s Empire State Building.
As the second of Legendary Entertainment’s four announced films (co-produced and distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures) in what has been dubbed the MonsterVerse franchise—following 2014’s box office blockbuster Godzilla—members of the all-star cast including Golden Globe winner Tom Hiddleston, Academy Award winner Brie Larson, Oscar/Golden Globe nominee Samuel L. Jackson and Golden Globe winner John Goodman, along with director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and one of the movie's writers Max Borenstein (with Dan Gilroy and Derek Connolly), recently faced the media to discuss the film, the characters, the legacy of their rather large colleague, as well as a hint of what is to come over the next few years.
Max Borenstein: The idea from the beginning was to get away from the very traditional things in the Kong movies: the damsel-in-distress thing which is a bit uncomfortable and old-fashioned. You’re there because an international group of people representing modern humanity has discovered something that is strange and uncanny and all these people are coming here to study it. Part of the challenge was that King Kong, initially, was this sort of “Beauty and the Beast” story, so how do we do it in a way that respects the fundamentals of this thing that’s misunderstood.
Max Borenstein: I love Apocalypse Now—it’s one of my favorite movies—so I said, “What about [it being] a ‘journey up-river movie’?” The initial idea was that the beginning of the movie was going to be in the ‘60s during the Vietnam War and then you cut forward to the present day and the movie takes place in the present day. But Thomas [producer Thomas Tull], who is very much a science-driven thinker who likes to think plausibly, asked, “How do you plausibly explain how an island couldn’t have been discovered until today?” So we took that original idea and set it before the original Kong, during World War I. Then after Jordan [director Jordan Vogt-Roberts] met with Thomas about directing the movie, he comes out and says, “Let’s actually do it in the ‘70s, not go to the present and not go to the deep past.” It’s funny, because that aspect was the first thought before we over-thought our way out of it, which is so typical, but Jordan said, “No, the music [of that era] is cool. It looks cool, it feels cool. Let’s do it.”
Tom Hiddleston: It’s set in 1973 and I think it’s a really fascinating time in history because of the development of modern technology when satellite photography was first mapping the earth in a new way and that the world we inhabit is much smaller than previously conceived of in the human mind. And I think the foreign policies of western democracies were changing and there was a huge social justice movement. The ‘60s had completely changed how people saw their lives and their habits and their identities and I think that’s a very exciting prism to put this story into.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: When I came on the film the first thing I wanted to do was not have him be a giant quad-ped and not have him be a giant 25-foot silverback gorilla. I wanted him to be a movie monster. A classic movie monster. I wanted him to be a bi-ped. I wanted him to walk with the nobility of a god, with a regal nature. I wanted him to have these morose qualities. I wanted it to be a throwback to the 1933 film, but, in terms of design, I wanted him to be a movie monster and a god and I wanted him to move fast. He moves more in line with a Japanese anime at times. I wanted to, of course, pay honor to what came before, I mean this is the first Kong where his fur is brown. In the 1933 film his fur was brown but you didn’t know it because it was a black-and-white film. I wanted something iconic, fearsome and god-like.
Describe Your Character
Brie Larson: [Playing a different kind of Kong heroine] was one of the reasons that I did this. To turn this allegory on its head a little bit and to respond to the fact that we’re in a different time right now and I think we’re ready to see a different kind of female hero. What’s interesting about [Mason] Weaver is that, yes, she’s strong and she’s tough but she’s sensitive and that’s her strength. She’s using her heart and her humanity to actually save all of them in the end and it doesn’t take all of this running around and brute force and explosions and guns. It actually just took having the simplest connection and that’s what saved their lives, and I think that’s an incredible message. For me, I believe that just seeing women be strong and tough is not answering the question of what a female hero looks like. I think that women have their own set of skills that are worth exploring and seeing on screen. I feel like it’s just too easy to say, “Oh, we’ll just change the name of this male character to a female and have her do all the same things that a male does.” I don’t believe that. I think there’s something else. I think there’s more to women than that and Mason is a great example of that. How do women lead, and how is that different and unique?
Samuel L. Jackson: I worked with these military advisors on a couple of films and representing soldiers in an honest and earnest way is really important, because of what they do and the sacrifices they make. So when you’re in certain formations and doing certain things, I don’t want to look stupid to the people who have done that job. You might get push-back because people are thinking of what’s going to look great in the cinema, but the [advisors] who have really done the job are looking at you and [shaking their head], so I’ll say, “No, we can’t do that.” That’s important to me.
This is sort of my homage to Gregory Peck as Ahab with King Kong as the white whale, but [Packard] is also someone who does have a heart and loves his men, and who becomes unhinged because of the improbability and the impossibility of the task. He does believe, whole-heartedly, that while there have always been things on this planet that are bigger and stronger and faster than Man, we have one thing they don’t have. We have ingenuity. We came up with spears, we came up with bow-and-arrows, we came up with bullets, we came up with bombs, so there’s a way we can win. And it was up to me to buy into that thinking and sell it, and hopefully that’s what I did.
Max Borenstein: It’s interesting because we often think of the Vietnam War from a really, really narrow perspective in that it was the first modern war in that there was no clear good-and-bad. So Sam’s character is at the very core of the movie because [in Vietnam] nothing seems to mean anything to him anymore. Then you land on this island where this giant monster destroys so many of your men and suddenly it’s clear again: this thing is the bad guy. It’s black-and-white again. That’s bad, I’m good, and we’re going to destroy that thing. Of course the story is that, it’s not clear.
John Goodman: The more I worked on the guy [his character Bill Randa], the less I liked him [laughs].
Tom Hiddleston: Thomas and Jordan and everybody at Legendary included me in developing the character, which was really thrilling. I wanted him to be someone who starts off in a world-weary place and his experiences on the island give him a new humility in the face of the wonder and power of the natural world, which is what I think Kong represents.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts: Tom is one of the most committed actors I have ever known or worked with. He genuinely wants things to be great and like myself is a perfectionist. Tom and I used to joke around on the set where if I wanted to do another take and he’d say, “We got it,” I’d say, “It’s only forever.” Or if he wanted to do [another take] and I wanted to move on to something else, he’d say, “It’s only forever” [laughs]. He not only cares about that movie in general, but he medium and the art as a whole. He has that burning flame in him that forces him to do this and he cares about the history of it. There aren’t a lot of actors who care about the art form and film history. It’s a great thing to have a cast like that. I was very, very honored and fortunate.
Tom Hiddleston: Sam is just a very fine actor and a consummate professional. He and I worked together on The Avengers so we already have a rapport and mutual respect. When you go toe-to-toe with an actor like Sam, it’s like playing tennis with Novak Djokovic [laughs]. He’s a creature of the theatre as much as I am, so to have some of those scenes where we had the dialogue to sink our teeth into—that’s really exciting.
Life Imitating Art
Brie Larson: [Playing a photojournalist] I was taking a lot of photos as a way to stay connected and keep my mind active [during downtime on the set], so my camera bag got pretty heavy by the end because I wanted it to be legit, so I had all my extra lenses and all the film and all this stuff in my bag. I had wardrobe sew in all these extra pockets in case people were wondering, “How is she getting all these infinite rolls of film?” Anyway, so I was taking all these photos and then I realized I couldn’t just take the film to get developed because these are all top secret, behind-the-scenes photos [laughs]. So I reached out to Legendary and Warner Bros. and said, “What if I take all these actual photos as this character and you won’t see any of our crew. They’ll be real photos [from my character] and they were into it. So I would send them the rolls of film and they had their own top secret lab that was developing them. I got emotional when I saw my photos all blown up in the press room earlier.
A Physical Movie
Brie Larson: It was like running through an obstacle course for ten hours a day every day. There’s a lot of movement in this film. I think there was just one scene where we were standing still talking. You see a scene that’s maybe 30 seconds in the movie, but that means it was a whole day of us climbing up that hill or running through that boneyard. It was really taxing on the body in a way that I had never experienced before. I’ve experienced mental drain, but I had never gotten to that point where you were really pushing yourself to the limit [physically] and it’s amazing what your body can do. Legendary [Films] got me a trainer and I just started training. I had trained before when I did Room, but it was a different kind of training. For Room, it was just about trying to get myself wiry and small. For this, it was more about bulking up.
Acting With Unseen Monsters
Brie Larson: You have really different conversations with your director than you do in other films where you’re playing off another person. With this, you’re starting with a complete unknown. So when a creature pops up, you have to go, “What does it look like? What do its eyes look like? Does it look like it’s going to eat me or does it look like it’s going to be nice to me? How close is it to me? How tall is it? What kind of animal can we describe it like? It’s just all of these unknowns that you’re not used to dealing with because it’s all imaginary. It’s not like we had video of it to see, so you just have to be on the same page. It was green screen, so my experience with Kong was a tape-mark [laughs].
John Goodman: It’s something I’ve been doing since I wasn't a professional actor, back to plays in the church basement where you had to use your imagination. You know, how much water’s in its mouth? What’s it smell like? How bad’s it gonna hurt when he steps on me? [laughs]. It’s fun.
Samuel L. Jackson: We asked questions all the time and sometimes we got good answers and sometimes not so good. Questions like, “How big is it?” “Where is it?” or “How fast is it?” [laughs], and you’d get varying answers depending on who you asked. That person would say one thing, the special effects person would tell you one thing and you ask the visual effects guy and he’ll tell you another thing. And if I can go face-to-face with nothing between me and the antagonist, then that’s what it should be and that’s how I felt and that’s what I would want to see if I was sitting there watching the movie. I think about that a lot; I think of myself as an audience member in terms of what’s the most dynamic thing that will make this particular scene work. That’s me and Kong face-to-face with nothing between us but air and opportunity.
The most difficult thing to shoot—CGI-wise—was the last scene where [Kong] comes out of the lake and falls right there in front of us. As I said, there were many times we asked the question about “how big is he,” and, for a scene like this, someone has to have a logical answer because we’re all standing there by his head. He’s not dead and he’s breathing, and if I walk up on him my clothes should move because he’s breathing hard, but maybe people haven’t thought that out.
Filming in Vietnam
Tom Hiddleston: Vietnam is absolutely breathtaking. I had never been to that part of the world before and it is an area of such natural beauty. The landscape of Vietnam became the central visual template for what Skull Island should look like and the Vietnamese people were so kind and hospitable and welcoming. We were shooting in and around Hanoi and Ninh Binh and Phong Nha. The lakes of Ninh Binh and the valleys of Phong Nha are completely unique landscapes.
Samuel L. Jackson: Vietnam was great, it was very majestic. When we got out to the real countryside where you see the handprints on the mountainside, you could see why an invading force would have a problem winning any kind of conflict in that place. If you weren’t born there and didn’t have a spiritual connection to the land there, you wouldn’t be able to handle that terrain. There were some locations where we had people go out and make sure there weren’t still any live ordnance out there because people are still stepping on mines or exploding bombs that didn’t explode during the Vietnam War.
John Goodman: I loved it. It was totally exotic to me. We were camped out in downtown Hanoi and the hotel was very westernized, but getting out and taking in the smells, the food, the people. It was just unbelieveable. To go to work we’d have to take water shuttles that women would paddle with their feet. When we were out by the lake house, it was just beautiful.
Brie Larson: The food was sooooo good. It’s totally fine to eat street food there. Everybody needs to go to Vietnam because you eat anything you want there and it’s perfectly fine. It’s all about the freshness of the ingredients, so they can’t have things go bad because it’s all about that purity of flavor. Once I figured that out I was eating anything I could possibly get my hands on. I loved bánh mì and I had pha every morning.
The Kong Legacy
John Goodman: I had a Revell model of King Kong growing up. I saw the first one [1933’s King Kong], which was iconic to me, and I saw Mighty Joe Young [from 1949] which was by the same people. That was the coolest.
Samuel L. Jackson: I've always loved King Kong, Godzilla, whatever was there to chase you and make you afraid was great. I’m still doing films that I went to see as a kid or wished I could have been in.
Tom Hiddleston: I’ve loved King Kong since I was a child, so to be in an iteration of the Kong myth is so exciting to me. I think children are very excited by nature and animals, and the idea of Kong is just very exciting; he’s a big monkey [laughs]. For a child, I think that’s just a cool idea. I loved adventure movies growing up. I loved movies where people went on adventures to an unknown land and a new territory. I think there’s something right in the center of storytelling that people love about that. In the civilized world we all live in I think we’re all curious to know how we’d get-on on an undiscovered island untouched by man and I think stories like this play into that curiosity.
Looking Towards the Future
Max Borenstein: A lot of people are putting their heads together on these movies and you like to think about the larger arc. You’re not thinking beat-by-beat in terms of the micro, you’re thinking, "How are we going to set this up in a plausible and credible way where we can eventually get Godzilla and Kong in the same room?" [laughs]. "Monarch" is the key and the whole idea of that in the Godzilla movie was to facilitate this larger universe and that these monsters have always existed and some people have known aspects of it, but it has been largely kept quiet. It’s given us enough leeway as connective tissue to be able to do these other things. The thing about Kong is that he’s a primate which makes him more relatable than Godzilla; he’s human-like, [but we] also make him at a scale where he could eventually interact with Godzilla in this same universe.
Kong: Skull Island blasts into theaters this Friday, and for the latest news check out Keeping Up with Kong.