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Salt Lake City Weekly Monster Mash

Godzilla makers Emmerich and Devlin say they are just fun-loving knuckleheads.

By Mary Dickson

JUNE 1, 1998:  To listen to Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin tell it, they're just a couple of "knuckleheads" who want to have some fun. The film-making duo, who created Universal Soldier and Independence Day, are the masterminds behind the highly-publicized effects extravaganza, Godzilla, the $150 million update of the 1956 Japanese monster classic that had a man in a suit playing the King of the Monsters.

Director Emmerich and co-writer/producer Devlin, vying to have this summer's blockbuster, push the limits of all the latest '90s technology to create their 400-foot-long, 30-story, 500-ton fire-breathing lizard. The result is pretty much what you'd expect from a cheesy cult-classic updated with state of the art effects. But as the young film makers say, they weren't making an art film. It's just meant to be "a summer fun ride."

After constantly being asked what they'd do as a follow-up to their mega-hit Independence Day, the only thing that seemed "remotely in the ballpark," according to Devlin was to reinvent Godzilla. They saw it as chance to do "something bigger, wilder and more amazing than we'd ever attempted before."

In the $1 million original, Godzilla was a metaphor for the A-bomb—a gargantuan creature of destruction unleashed from the ocean depths by an American atomic bomb test at the Bikini atoll. In their version, Emmerich and Devlin have a sleaker, faster, decidedly more reptilian Godzilla unleashed from the watery depths by France's nuclear testing off the islands of French Polynesia. The monster thunders across oceans and continents before he begins his rampage through New York City, where a team of Americans and Frenchmen try to contain him.

The often tongue-in-cheek remake is quite tame considering all the mayhem and destruction the creature wreaks, destroying such landmarks as the Chrysler Building, the Met Life Building, the Flatiron Building, Madison Square Garden and the Brooklyn Bridge. Unlike Jurassic Park, you don't see people getting stomped, crunched, torn limb from limb, or even bleeding for that matter, which was an intentional decision on the part of the two young film makers. Their Godzilla is not a malevolent monster, he's just a confused and hungry animal, looking for something to eat and a place to multiply, which a biologist played by Matthew Broderick discovers after conducting a little blood test with five home pregnancy kits. Yes , this lizard is about to lays eggs (sequel alert!).

Godzilla takes Manhattan: The 1998 version features a sleeker, faster, decidedly more reptilian monster.

"We kept up his straight animal behavior. We kept asking, 'what would an animal do?'" Emmerich told critics at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, a landmark spared in the film. "In the original there was no motivation for him. We made him an animal who wanted to multiply."

Adds Devlin, "Godzilla was never trying to kill people, he's just unwieldy. That's partially the appeal of him. He's like a big, giant kid."

Their overgrown lizard does more damage with his swinging tale than his giant claws or jaws. It's the humans trying to contain him with heavy artillery and a woeful lack of target practice who wreak the most havoc. The bumbling mayor—named Ebert in a slight dig at the Chicago film critic—evacuates the city before the military pulls out its big guns, so there are few casualties and virtually no visible carnage.

"The world has really had enough violence," says Devlin. "The first movie Roland and I did (Universal Soldier) was pretty violent. When we sat down and watched it we were kind of embarrassed. We said, let's never do that again. These movies are meant to be fun, they're meant to be a hoot. You don't need to see body parts, you don't need to see blood. It isn't even effective anymore."

He recalls how horrified he was the first time he watched Sam Peckinpah's graphic depiction of a man being shot with machine guns in The Wild Bunch. "It was effective because it deglamorized violence, it showed it to you in all of its ugliness, and it shocked you. But after 5,000 slow motion bullet shots and a billion blood splatters, now it's desensitizing. It has no effect on you. And that's the worst thing a filmmaker can do is to desensitize you to things."

Emmerich agrees, "I don't like seeing gory stuff myself. Summer ride movies shouldn't have gore. It's OK if you're making an anti-war movie, but not this."

Who is the movie made for?

Jean Reno (left), Matthew Broderick (center) and director Roland Emmerich on the Godzilla set: "Summer ride movies shouldn't have gore," Emmerich says.

"Us," says Devlin, who grew up watching the old Godzilla movies on Saturday morning television. "We're such knuckleheads, we make movies that crack us up with goofy stuff to entertain us."

The two view themselves more as film fans than film makers and say they have more fun watching movies than making them. "We never lose perspective that we're a couple of knuckleheads who got lucky in Hollywood. When we finish a picture and get over the silliness of it, if we want to see a movie and it isn't playing, we make it. We're the only production company that doesn't have a development department. We leave the country, yell at each other, and after a couple of weeks, we have a movie."

"These guys really have a great time," says Arabella Field, who plays the wife of a cameraman. "They're so relaxed they're like kids playing with a giant set of Legos. They're good people who are masters of their genre. I don't think they're schlockmeisters. It's not like they're making art films. During filming, Roland would keep saying, "It's not serious. It's about a 30-story lizard."

Vickie Lewis, who plays a paleontologist, seconds that. "These guys immediately give the impression they want to have a good time, and they want people around them who have a good time. They love what they're doing."

Roland and Emmerich handpicked the film's leads, who, not surprisingly given their desire to have fun, are comic actors. Saturday Night Live alum Harry Shearer plays an obnoxious anchorman—an impersonation he has perfected in his comedy work.

Hank Azaria (the gay Guatemalan houseboy in Birdcage and, like Shearer, a voice of The Simpsons) plays a cameraman named Animal.

Matthew Broderick is cast as the youthful-looking biologist who works for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission studying radiation mutated worms at Chernobyl before the biggest radiation freak—Godzilla—appeared.

Devlin, who at 35 is still constantly carded, admits a fondness for characters looking young and not getting the respect they deserve. "It's the story of my life," he says.

Maria Pitillo, who looks like she just left a junior high sock hop, plays Broderick's love interest, an anchorman's assistant who wants to be a real reporter.

So, where do they go after Godzilla? Where else? The sequels. Sony has already optioned two of them, and Emmerich and Devlin, just a couple of guys always up for more fun and games, hope to be involved.

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