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How do you direct 'Godzilla x Kong'? Adam Wingard took performance notes from his cat

LOS ANGELES - MARCH 14, 2024: Director Adam Wingard at IMAX Headquarters in Playa Vista on Thursday, March 14, 2024. (Emil Ravelo / For The Times)
Director Adam Wingard, photographed in Los Angeles in March. He describes "Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire" as his "mic-drop monster movie." (Emil Ravelo / For The Times)

Since making his MonsterVerse debut in 2017’s “Kong: Skull Island,” the title character has battled a sneaky squid, deadly lizard-like predators, the mighty Godzilla and even a high-tech mecha designed to take all these creatures out.

But in “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire” (in theaters today), the giant ape must face his most challenging foe yet: a toothache.

“These movies are always about taking things that are relatable and then scaling them up,” says director Adam Wingard, 41. “You’re looking for those things [that] would be fun to see on this wildly big scale that we’ve never seen” — like Kong scratching his butt while taking a shower in 2021’s “Godzilla vs. Kong.”

Kong’s struggle with debilitating tooth pain was inspired by Wingard’s own dental woes. While making his 2011 horror breakout “You’re Next,” the filmmaker was afflicted with a terrible pain that left dentists stumped for more than a year.

“I was looking for some catharsis of what I was dealing with,” says Wingard. “Having a scene where Kong is getting some dental work done felt like closure to me.”

Read more: Review: 'Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire' is monster math that becomes a headache

The fifth film in Legendary’s MonsterVerse franchise, “Godzilla x Kong” marks Wingard’s second romp in this cinematic universe. The director, who cut his teeth making genre indies, had long dreamed of helming a big tentpole movie.

“There’s nothing as a filmmaker that can prepare you for doing a movie with characters of six-foot scale and 300-foot scale working together and all the insane mechanics that go along with making a kaiju movie,” he says. “I knew that I wasn’t done with the series because I knew there were untapped reservoirs of potential in terms of what could be done with monsters.”

Drawing him back was not merely the opportunity to do bigger battles, but a chance to focus on what these monsters are doing between those bigger battles. (“Godzilla x Kong” has been teased as a team-up from the start, though audiences can be sure that it’s not all smooth sailing between the former adversaries.)

“What I wanted to do with this film more than anything was to put you in the perspective of the monsters,” says Wingard. “I wanted to do a film that was driven by nonverbal visual sequences.”

It's also a bonus for Wingard that he finally gets to experience the fanfare that comes with releasing a big-budget behemoth. Wingard's initial “Godzilla vs. Kong” arrived in 2021 when most theater chains had yet to reopen. Although the film bowed to record numbers for that time, there wasn’t a traditional red-carpet premiere, much of the press tour was virtual and the film was released simultaneously on the streaming service formerly known as HBO Max, a circumstance less than ideal to Wingard.

Read more: How the ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ team approached those spectacular kaiju fights

“These characters are literally the biggest characters in cinema history,” says the Tennessee-born director. “So the best way to experience them is going to be on the biggest screen possible.”

Surrounded during our interview by MonsterVerse paraphernalia, concept art, posters for Showa-era Godzilla films like 1968's “Destroy All Monsters” and even album covers from bands like Judas Priest and Megadeth, Wingard appears to be savoring every moment. Gracious and engaging, he reveals that he was nearly robbed of all of it. In 2021, while in the early stages of production on the film, Wingard was hit by a car running a red light as he was crossing the street.

“It was really one of those eye-opening things where, for the first time ever, I really understood that I was mortal,” says the director. “I really knew I might not get another chance to make another movie, period. So my approach to this movie, more than ever, [was] to go all out. I tried to make a mic-drop monster movie that encompassed all my influences, interests, down to the color palettes and all those kinds of things.”

A man seated in a theater throws up his popcorn.
Director Adam Wingard, photographed in Los Angeles in March. (Emil Ravelo / For The Times)
A man in black is seated in a movie theater.
(Emil Ravelo / For The Times)

The result is a movie that expands the mythos of the various kaiju creatures — called Titans in the MonsterVerse — and introduces a new, sinister villain. The visuals are impressive, as are the plentiful needle drops.

“Godzilla x Kong” arrives at a time when Godzilla is experiencing a bit of a renaissance. He's stomped his way onto television with the Apple TV+ series “Monarch: Legacy of Monsters,” while Japan’s “Godzilla Minus One” earned the long-running franchise its first Academy Award earlier this month.

“It’s a great time to be a Godzilla fan, for sure,” says Wingard.

This year also marks the 70th anniversary of Godzilla’s debut and Wingard is sensitive to that sociopolitical legacy born of real-world nuclear anxiety.

Read more: How 'Monarch: Legacy of Monsters' honored Godzilla's Japanese roots

“You don’t want to lose the roots of where these characters are created,” says Wingard. “I love how [recent] Japanese films [like ‘Shin Godzilla’ and ‘Minus One’] really focused on the reality of Godzilla — the metaphorical qualities of Godzilla and what he means to Japan.”

Wingard’s approach to the character has been to be true to what Godzilla meant to him as a kid — he was the good guy. And his inner 10-year-old was always in mind.

“In the MonsterVerse, Godzilla is very much like the white blood cell of planet Earth — he's here to protect it,” says Wingard. “The aim for me is to inspire future filmmakers, the kids who are going to watch this and see these monsters as characters. They’re going to understand what’s going on and they’re going to have their own interfacing of their imagination into it.”

Loving Godzilla isn't always easy, though. Compared with the shaggy, likable Kong, who, with the ability to emote, is a character audiences have always empathized with, Godzilla is “a little bit more complicated to pull off,” according to the filmmaker.

“A lot of my inspiration for his mannerisms comes from my cat, Mischief,” says Wingard. He points to a photo of a black cat next to an illustration of a sleeping Godzilla on a wall and adds: “Her lying in her cat nest was the inspiration for Godzilla in the Colosseum.”

There’s “something about the mannerisms of cats,” continues Wingard. “They have a personality, but they don't smile and frown. But you understand your cat without them emoting in a normal way and there's something about that that translates to Godzilla — that attitude that cats have.”

Wingard isn't the only “Godzilla” director to take cues from a feline. He tells me that “Godzilla Minus One” filmmaker Takashi Yamazaki, whom he’d met after a screening, was also inspired by his pet cat.

Now, after almost seven years of focusing on Godzilla and Kong, Wingard acknowledges that a part of him is interested in going back to his roots and developing a horror project. That said, he’d jump at the chance to make another MonsterVerse film if asked.

“I think that when you make two movies, there’s always an inclination toward a trilogy," he says, the inner 10-year-old very much in evidence. "We’ll just have to see.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.