20 Years Of ZILLA: Part 1 - The TriStar Godzilla



This Memorial Day marks the 20th anniversary of Tri-Star's 1998 GODZILLA remake. Ever since, TriStar's Godzilla has made quite the recognition as "the worst incarnation of Godzilla in history." The movie was so bad, in fact, that fans nicknamed it G.I.N.O (Godzilla In Name Only) and later renamed to just Zilla for the 2004 movie, Godzilla: Final Wars. So why care about this particular movie if it is bad? Despite getting a really bad reputation because of the Godzilla name, the monster itself has gained more of a following of fans beyond just the 1998 movie it appeared in. In my review, I already gave the gist of the movie's backstory. So I suggest checking that out as well. What I want to do is expand it more in detail on how the movie came to be and why this monster grew from being the most hated to being one of the popular underdog monsters. The info and pictures I found are from Scifi Japan's website where they did a 4 part article called GODZILLA Unmade. The four part article is very detailed, but I am giving you the main rundown of it all. If you still want to read more of this, there are links down below that covers it all in much greater detail. In my 20 Years Of ZILLA, I am going to separate them into three parts. Part 1 will give details about what went wrong from 1992 to 1998, part 2 will be a review on the animated series, and part 3 will be about Zilla's future appearances in movies and other media. I hope you enjoy.


On October 29, 1992, Variety broke the news that TriStar and TOHO had just signed a deal for Godzilla. When TriStar acquired the rights, TOHO Co. already rebooted the series with Godzilla 1984. Releasing the movie in 1985 in America as The Return Of Godzilla, this gave more than enough time to get western audiences to know the monster. In 1993, Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio signed on to write the screenplay for GODZILLA, but looking for a director was a big challenge. Producers Cary Woods and Robert Fried found that Godzilla was a much tougher sell than it looked as many directors expressed no interest in making the film. The President of TriStar at the time, Chris Lee, recommended Roland Emmerich to direct the film after they made their first American film, Universal Soldier. Chris Lee kept expressing the idea to Emmerich and Emmerich turned down the offer acknowledging that he was never a Godzilla fan in the first place.


"I was never a big Godzilla fan. They were just weekend matinees you saw as a kid, like Hercules films and the really bad Italian westerns." - Roland Emmerich

Emmerich's partner and producer, Dean Devlin, really expressed his interest on the project, but after talks back and forth between Devlin and Emmerich they turned down the offer. After being turned down only two directors expressed interest in making GODZILLA, Tim Burton and Jan De Bont. 


Tim Burton had directed a number of big hit films such as Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985), Beetlejuice (1988), Edward Scissorhands (1990), and the two blockbuster movies, Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) as well as produced The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). As a Godzilla fan, he even gave Godzilla and King Ghidorah a comedic cameo appearance in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure where Pee-Wee crashes in a movie studio where a Godzilla movie was being made and accidentally runs over Godzilla. Burton pitched his idea for a Godzilla movie to Terry Rossio, but there were concerns over how he would handle the movie. Rossio expressed his worry that Burton might intentionally have made it too campy or a guy in a suit. Talks with Burton stalled and he moved on to other projects.


After searching and being turned down by almost every director, Jan De Bont signs on to make GODZILLA after expressing his interest not only as a director, but also a fan of the film series. The news spread to all of the directors that turned down the project by surprise.


"In Hollywood, when you pass up on a project and then a really big director says yes to it, you immediately go 'ohhh, noooo!' We thought we had really screwed up." - Dean Devlin

After Jan De Bont got the approval from TOHO Co. and Sony Pictures on his idea for GODZILLA, he immediately starts work on the pre-production. The idea for the movie was similar to the 2014 remake where Godzilla was an ancient creature that exist solely in protecting the planet from an invading monster called the Gryphon. By 1993, TOHO planned to end their Godzilla series to make way for TriStar's film. After hearing about the release date being pushed back, TOHO quickly greenlit two more Godzilla movies to properly end the series.


During the time GODZILLA was in pre-production, Sony Corporation was under investigation for fraud after Sony Pictures took a $3.2 billion write-off in November. This was based on financial losses and overspending that included a staggering $520 million in unfinished movie projects. For misleading shareholders, the Securities and Exchange Commission charged Sony with a $1 million fine. With the sense of doom over at Sony Pictures, one producer said that the executives were paralyzed by indecision with nobody green lighting any films. According to Peter Bart from Variety the decision-makers at Sony were coming up with excuses not to make movies. For Chris Lee, now an executive vice president at TriStar, this was a sign that there was going to be trouble for De Bont's GODZILLA.


The production department estimated that Jan De Bont's GODZILLA would cost $140-180 million after the studio immediately refused to spend more than $100 million on the movie. Representatives from Sony voiced their budget concerns in public, saying that some scenes need to be trimmed or reworked to cut costs.


"Studios always have issues with the budget. I recall the line producer taking a page from our script, holding it up and saying, 'This is a six million dollar page.' It was a section of the final battle between Godzilla and the Gryphon, in and around The World Trade Centers in New York... The budget issues were realistic. Remember, this was just as CGI was emerging as a viable technology. I think Jurassic Park has something like twelve minutes, total... We wrote an epic Godzilla story." - Terry Rossio

When interviewed by SciFi Japan author, Keith Aiken, Jan De Bont argued that the budget issue was all just a smokescreen by Sony to push for a "less Japanese" take on the monster. One they felt would appeal to a wider audience. He told Sony that they still need to keep the character and that the audience would not go for an Americanized version.


"They were extremely worried that the American audience wouldn't go for Godzilla. I said, 'I think they wont go for it if you Americanize it. That would be the worst thing you can do to Godzilla'...you have to get people to like him and appreciate what he's all about. And what they wanted to do almost immediately change the story...have more fights, more characters that have nothing to do with Godzilla, big fights with other creatures." - Jan De Bont


Before leaving the project to work on Twister, De Bont showed concept art, creature models, and storyboards to sway the studio executives. "We showed the models to them and they loved it," De Bont continues, "but they still didn't understand anything of Godzilla. They wanted a different type of Godzilla that more references a T-rex. I never wanted that; they were just trying to please very young audiences that only knew comic book characters. They had no clue what worked...With all those icons out there, why do they work? Because people recognize them the way they are, not what they could be." 


After De Bont left the project, Sony ultimately scrapped the project and began retooling the movie. By spring of 1995, Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio finished rewriting the final script for GODZILLA, but British screenwriter, Don Macpherson, was brought in to rewrite Elliot's and Rossio's screenplay. Macpherson did rewrites for ALIEN 3 at a time when the movie was also in "development hell" for years. 


"Basically the budget for the original script was something like $120 million - already much too expensive for what the studio saw as basically a monster movie. De Bont had done tests and was insisting that they go entirely digital with the effects. The problem was that, in this version of the movie, it was ALL effects...they (Sony) wanted ideally to get the budget down to about $80 million, still very high for that time period." - Don Macpherson

Sony wasted no time in searching for a new director for GODZILLA. Chris Lee asked Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich again to make the film. This time, Devlin and Emmerich were becoming the big names of Hollywood filmmakers after releasing StarGate (1994), which the movie's budget was $55 million, and their new upcoming alien invasion movie, Independence Day, making a big buzz in the media. Lee was turned down several times before he could get a yes from them. 


"We were on our promotion tour for Independence Day and we were talking about some other ideas that didn't pan out. We wanted to do an asteroid movie, but when we learned about Deep Impact and Armageddon we backed away. And then one day in Paris, I looked over and saw Roland sketching on his pad. They were Godzilla sketches. And I know when Roland starts sketching, he's got the fever." - Dean Devlin

Even though Chris Lee was thrilled about Emmerich's and Devlin's interest in making GODZILLA, he was not the person that can decide to green-light the film. Lee offered a "step-deal" instead. A step-deal was an agreement where Emmerich and Devlin are paid to make GODZILLA in a step by step process until a new studio head takes over Sony Pictures to make the final call. Once the deal was announced on May 2, 1996, Devlin and Emmerich decided to familiarize themselves with the character by watching the original 1954 movie. They were stunned by the seriousness and the craftsmanship that was put into the movie, but when it was time to watch the sequels they were more than displeased.


"It's just the same movie over and over again. They always had another monster in it, and I never get anything out of two monsters fighting. For reasons I can't explain myself, kids all over the world kept watching these movies, in cassettes and matinees." - Roland Emmerich

Despite not being Godzilla fans, Devlin told the press that they were big Godzilla fans to downplay the criticism. When it was finally time to design the star monster, it was a big leap of faith. Roland Emmerich explains that TOHO wanted Godzilla to look like Godzilla because they own the trademark, but the director did not show any interest towards the original design believing that it didn't make sense and disliked TriStar's Godzilla design as well.


"I saw the creature that they (TriStar) designed for. Jan De Bont created a Godzilla that was very close to the original, but it wasn't right because today we wouldn't do it like that...We are living in a time when people have seen Jurassic Park and The Lost World and we don't have the same kind of limitations that the Japanese had when they made their Godzilla." - Roland Emmerich

From design aspect, they took note that the new Godzilla design needed to be slimmer and faster compared to the previous designs being too slow and bulky. To make sure their design overhaul of Godzilla came to fruition, Emmerich and Devlin turned to production designer, Patrick Tatopoulos. After agreeing to design the new Godzilla, Emmerich faxed the list of rules to Tatopoulos TOHO had regarding to Godzilla's appearance, but never received the message. 


"The original Godzilla was one of the first movies I saw as a kid. It may well be the reason I got in this business. When Roland asked me if I wanted to design the new Godzilla, how long did you think it took me to say yes?...On Godzilla, I think there was a lot of pressure based on the fact that the concept was to create the lead character of the movie...Obviously, there was psychological pressure...The only challenge was not to make this creature look like a T-rex or a gigantic dinosaur because we have seen this in Jurassic Park and even more in The Lost World when the T-rex runs through the street." - Patrick Tatopoulos

By May 1996, Devlin and Emmerich met with Tatopoulos to look at the design sketches for Godzilla. By this time, Devlin and Emmerich were already losing interest in the project due to "event fatigue" and growing concerns that TOHO would disapprove of the new design until they saw the sketches.


"When Roland and I saw the drawings we just looked at each other and said, 'That's it... that's our next picture.' We had a very talented designer in Patrick and I thought he nailed it on the first try. I never wanted to change it." - Dean Devlin

In September 1996, Emmerich and Tatopoulos flew to Tokyo to meet with the studio executives, Isao Matsuoka, Shogo Tomiyama, and Koichi Kawakita, at TOHO to reveal the design for approval. Emmerich admitted that the start of the meeting felt awkward. The reveal of the design to the studio execs was met with gasps followed by silence. The execs stared at it for a couple minutes before asking Emmerich and Tatopoulos to come back the next day.


"After designing my last Godzilla, the one that wound up in the movie, I felt very secure and I believed we had something great. But the day I sat in front of the Japanese I thought, 'what have I done? Am I crazy? They're not going to go for it." - Patrick Tatopoulos

That night, Tomiyama met with Godzilla co-creator, Tomoyuki Tanaka. At that time, Tanaka's health was failing and he couldn't attend the meeting. Tomiyama brought him up to speed and showed Tanaka the pictures of the design telling him not to make any changes. Tanaka found himself at a loss and the only impression Tanaka got from Tatopoulos's design was that it looked like Carl Lewis with long legs and that it can run fast. Tanaka would pass away in April 1997 before the principle photography for the TriStar GODZILLA began.


"So the next day, we got in at ten in the morning and the head of TOHO started speaking to us about how different we had made the character, that we'd taken such a far step away from the old one, but their last sentence was, 'We feel you've kept the spirit of Godzilla. The sense of the character is still there; when we look at him, it's Godzilla and nothing else. So we're giving you the green light.'" - Patrick Tatopoulos

With the approval from TOHO, Emmerich and Devlin would move on to the next step in filmmaking, writing the screenplay. They decided to keep parts of the original screenplay such as Godzilla being born from nuclear radiation and attacking New York City, but they went with a whole other approach to the monster by making him more animal than monster. By making Godzilla an animal and not a monster, this would make Godzilla more vulnerable to mankind's weaponry and even taking away the trademark ability, Godzilla's atomic breath.


TOHO pleaded with Devlin and Emmerich to consider adding the trademark ability, but they disagreed with Godzilla's creators saying there was no scientific rationale for Godzilla to have such a powerful weapon. Instead, Godzilla's atomic breath would be replaced with a new "power breath" that Godzilla can use to just blow objects away like a gust of wind. With all of Godzilla's powers and attributes stripped away, the only threat Godzilla would make for mankind was to rapidly spawn more Godzillas. When news broke out about Godzilla's atomic breath being replaced by gust of air, fans were not happy and showed their displeasure with phone calls, letters, and emails to Sony and Centropolis. At first, co-producer Peter Winther, disregarded concerns from fans saying the audience really want Devlin's/Emmerich's new vision of Godzilla, which required drastic changes to the monster. Because of the back lash, Devlin and Emmerich agreed to make last minute changes anyways to please the fans of the original.


With months leading up to the release date, TriStar's marketing went with the "do not show Godzilla" approach with nearly 300 companies signing on. While the marketing went well leaving audiences clueless what this new Godzilla looked like, fans found this to be concerning and were not prepared after images of the merchandising artwork leaked online. Reactions from fans were met with extreme negativity towards the changes of the monster's look. This would prompt Dean Devlin to do some damage control by putting out a statement saying the images were fakes. The companies, Tiger Electronics and Fruit of the Loom, had their licenses revoked for leaking the images. 


Even though they announced the leaks to be fake, fans were met with disappointment that the design that was leaked was the real deal when the movie was released on May 20, 1998. It was not just fans that were disappointed with the movie as word of mouth from critics and the general audience as well was met with harsh criticism. Everybody criticized GODZILLA for blatantly copying movies like Jurassic Park and even made fun of Godzilla's design looking like Jay Leno because of the monsters giant chin. From this fans would go on calling this version as "GINO" (Godzilla In Name Only) as a way to distance the TriStar version from TOHO's Godzilla. Other criticisms were met with a bad story, terrible acting, and horrible attempts at humor. To add more salt to the open wound, Sony predicted that the movie would make $74 million on the first weekend only to find out that it only made $55 million.


The original production budget estimated at $65 million. By the end of production, the movie's total budget was $150 million, $30-$50 million more than what Jan De Bont originally asked for. Despite this, TriStar listed the budget at $136 million. Adding the production budget in with the marketing campaign costing $80 million, GODZILLA would need to at least make $240 million in the domestic box office in order to be successful. GODZILLA met with a total $136 million domestically, falling short on the movie's success. GODZILLA was able to make back the money through the global box-office sales, but it was barely enough to plan a sequel, which didn't pass the screen writing stage. Even though it never got a sequel, this would not be the end for this giant, fish eating iguana.


TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 2 ––––>


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