Godzilla was written in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico — Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s favourite screenwriting ground. The first draft was started in late October 1996, and was completed in December the 19th of the same year. Since the beginning, the script was entirely different from Terry Elliott and Ted Rossio’s — with only a small number of common traits. Among the most notable, there are the main setting (Manhattan) and the manner Godzilla is labeled as such: the creature is named after a mythological sea dragon by a survivor of one of its attacks — a Japanese fisherman. “Gojira… Gojira… Gojira,” he utters in the film. Due to these slight similarities, Elliott and Rossio still mantained a screenwriting credit for the film.
Emmerich and Devlin’s basic concept was to reinvent Godzilla for a modern audience. Despite the several creative licenses the film would take, however, the origin of the atomic beast would certainly pay homage to the original 1954 film. Emmerich said in the Making of book: “we wanted to stay true to the essence of why Godzilla was created in the first place, which had to do with a lot of people’s fears of what was going on with weapons and radiation. You have to remember how the first Godzilla was created. The original was made in Japan shortly after World War II, and the devastation caused by the two nuclear bombs was obviously in the minds of the Japanese people. So, we kept that theme going. We really wanted to honor where it came from and yet start anew.” He then added that “I didn’t want to remake the original Godzilla. We took part of the basic storyline, in that the creature is created by radiation and becomes a big challenge. But that’s all we took. Then we thought, what would we do today with a Monster Movie and a story like that.”
The original Godzilla was an unspecified prehistoric reptile, an animal adapted to both terrestrial and marine life — mutated by the american nuclear tests in the Bikini atoll, which were held from 1946 to 1957. The most infamous test was Castle Bravo, held March the 1st, 1954 — the year of Godzilla — the most powerful atomic bomb of the time. In the Showa series, the second Godzilla mantained this origin — but as time progressed, the character’s origins were eventually changed: in the Heisei series, Godzilla Vs. King Ghidorah portrays the second Godzilla (whilst keeping the original as it was) as a Dinosaur — a Godzillasaurus, literally — mutated by the nuclear radiation of a Russian submarine in the 70s, after the creature was frozen and transported deep within the ocean by the futurians.
In Emmerich’s film, Godzilla’s origins were again altered slightly, whilst still mantaining the fundamental connection with nuclear weapons. Emmerich’s idea conceived the first appearence of Godzilla in the world, with no attacks prior to the events of portrayed in the film. Since the film would be set in contemporary 1998, the specific nuclear weapons responsible for the creature’s mutation would obviously have to be changed, also to remain culturally significant. The screenwriting duo eventually selected recent tests conducted in the French Polynesia: spanning from 1966 to 1996, over 193 atomic bombs were detonated in the Mururoa and Fangataufa atolls, causing an enormous radioactive fallout, and even an increase in cancer cases in the nearest inhabited islands. The tests were in fact stopped after several protests. The American Godzilla is thus an unspecified reptile, mutated beyond recognition by the radiation released by the continuous bomb tests. In a further attempt to reference recent nuclear disasters, Nick Tatopoulos also visits Chernobyl — whose infamous disaster happened in 1986.
Throughout the entirety of the film series before the American remake, the character of Godzilla underwent many personality changes. Starting from a beastly and destructive incarnation in the original film — a living embodiment of the nuclear bomb — the Monster progressively became a hero figure during the Showa series. In 1984, Godzilla marked a return to the roots for the character — who demonstrates raw, animalistic behaviour throughout the film. Once again, the Heisei series saw a change of personality — with Godzilla slowly becoming an anti-hero character.
As reimagined, Godzilla would return to a more beast-like personality. Emmerich commented: “Godzilla behaves like a trapped animal trying to survive and the scariness comes from the sheer fact that you have to deal with a huge animal that is unpredictable. He’s doing what he has to do. In a way, he is created by us, in that we influence nature, we create something that doesn’t exist in nature and nature strikes back.” Able to portray a more agile Monster with advanced digital technology, Emmerich and Devlin decided to make Godzilla a “fast and lethal” predator, in contrast with precedent incarnations of the character (an idea already conceived by Ricardo Delgado’s design for the Elliott and Rossio script). In addition, the Monster would be exceptionally intelligent for an animal, able to ambush its opponents and use their weapons against them, as demonstrated when it leads the torpedoes directed at it towards one of the military submarines. “It learns from its mistakes,” Emmerich said. In one of the drafts, Godzilla also literally mimicked the shape of a building — a concept later dropped for the final film — or changed color hues like a chameleon, something only visually implied in the film.
Early concept art by Patrick Tatopoulos shows Godzilla using the trademark bright blue-colored atomic breath. Although initially considered, this concept was dropped in favor of a vapour-like blast of pressurized air — called “power breath” in the script — that sometimes ignites in a fiery flow. It is used thrice in the film, and twice to a massive effect.
For the first time we SEE the infamous POWER BREATH of
Godzilla. With amazing FORCE the smoke, canisters, cars
and anything that isn’t nailed down SAILS BACKWARDS from
the intense pressure.
-Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, Godzilla, first draft
A major inclusion in the film was represented by the nest and the baby Godzillas, another idea conceptually inspired by the Japanese films. In Son of Godzilla, an egg hatches revealing a baby Godzilla — called Minilla — which makes several other appearences in the Showa series. A similar character is introduced in the Heisei Godzilla Vs. MechaGodzilla, where baby Godzilla is born (the character appears in all the subsequent Heisei entries, labeled as baby Godzilla, little Godzilla and Godzilla Junior; it eventually becomes the new Godzilla after his father’s death in Godzilla Vs. Destroyah). The appearence of both characters was never fully explained. In the japanese version of the Heisei Godzilla Vs. MechaGodzilla, the egg the baby Godzilla hatches from is said to be 65 million years old and “reanimated” by radiation; Godzilla thus effectively acted as an adoptive parent. The Monster was always referred to as a male, and claimed to be male by the filmmakers — with the exception of Haruo Nakajima, the original suit performer, who was quoted once as saying that the second Showa Godzilla was, in fact, female. The new film would thus include the idea that Godzilla is able to reproduce by itself, without the need for a partner (the filmmakers happily joke on the concept with a line in the film: “where’s the fun in that?”). The film simply labels it as “asexual reproduction” in the words of its own protagonist, with no further explanation given (although due to the structural advancement of a vertebrate, Godzilla probably reproduces by transgender parthenogenesis or hermaphroditism).
The characters of the film were sometimes written with specific actors in mind, or following certain genre archetypes. The main character is, in fact, a scientist studying Godzilla — a trait common to some of the Japanese films. Nick Tatopoulos was named after creature designer Patrick Tatopoulos, as a homage to how his concepts reignited Emmerich and Devlin’s interest in the project. A recurring joke in the film portrays the constant misspelling of the Greek last name — a trait inspired by the film’s own American crew, which “kept misspelling [Patrick’s] last name,” said visual effects supervisor Karen Goulekas. The label of ‘the worm guy’ was inspired by the author of a biology book read by Devlin.
The character of Philippe was the one to receive the most changes. In the original draft, he was named Raymond, and was an actual insurance investigator. Devlin recalled: “when we started writing the script, we thought, who gets most upset when buildings are destroyed? Well, the insurance companies do. So, we thought it would be interesting to have this french insurance investigator trying to find out the cause of all this damage.” As the script drafts progressed, Raymond the insurance investigator became Philippe the secret agent, simply disguised as an insurance man. Philippe is also a patriot, and is characterized by his nostalgia for his home country, implied in dialogue and visually.
Many of the characters were cosmetically changed following the actors’ own personalities and ideas infused into the corresponding role. Victor ‘Animal’ Palotti, the reporter (another character archetype already seen in the series) became more reckless and his personality shifted slightly, with a more pronounced sarcastic side. He is “[friends with Audrey] because they are both ambitious journalists.” Nick’s fianceé, Audrey Timmonds, is “striving to get ahead in journalism, to prove herself. She will do anything to get the story,” according to performer Maria Pitillo. The film portrays her character arc, initially a very influenceable girl, as well as determined and dedicated (to the point of stealing secret video tapes). Eventually, she becomes desperate to be forgiven by the lost fiancé in the second act — at which point she risks her life to reach that objective. In the end, she is also finally able to overcome her harassing boss — Caiman, another character cosmetically changed from first draft to final script — by resigning.
The military side of the character ensemble was represented by Colonel Hicks and Sergeant O’Neal. The former was not supposed to be “the typical shouting commander” and instead a very humane character. “You immediately feel that this guy is under tremendous pressure,” Devlin said. O’Neal is instead a soldier obviously caught imprepared in front of such an enormous situation. “I just really saw the character in terms of the military,” actor Doug Savant said, also in regards to the character’s relationship with Nick Tatopoulos. “He only knows how to deal with things in terms of rank, so he never knew quite how Matthew’s character fit in to that scheme. Nick’s not someone O’Neal would necessarily respect, but he’s the guy O’Neal needs for answers. O’Neal is just dying to have a way to control the situation and he’s looking for reassurance from Nick, who constantly gives him none, so he’s absolutely frustrated with Nick.”
Other relatively minor characters include Nick’s team — Elsie Chapman, a scientist “whose brilliance, in part, compensates for a lack of social grace,” and Mendel Craven, originally named Clive Craven. “They changed it to Mendel because that’s Dean [Devlin]’s nickname for me,” performer Malcolm Danare said. Also included in the film were Mayor Ebert and his assistant Siskel, clear parodies of the critic duo Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel (to the point where they use the duo’s signature “thumbs-up” and “thumbs-down”).
Structurally, the film followed the formula of the first Godzilla. Emmerich said: “The first movie didn’t immediately reveal Godzilla. You saw the results of Godzilla. There were sinking ships, trampled-over villages and it’s all outside Tokyo and it’s very suspenseful.” Several of the first sequences in the remake also paid homage to the original film, namely the ship attack and the discovery of the creature’s enormous footprints. In regards to the tone, it was estabilished as mostly serious, with a vein of humour typical of the duo’s precedent films. The film was mostly set in rainy days to add further atmosphere and mystery around the Monster. This peculiarity of the film was inspired by the first concept art pieces by Patrick Tatopoulos, which portrayed Godzilla in rain and mist. This “gothic look,” as defined by both the designer and the director, was mantained for the film. At one point, it was also suggested to feature a connection between the creature and the rain — making the latter stop as Godzilla dies at the end of the film. The idea was eventually discarded. One of the themes of the film was also how the size of Godzilla played a an obvious role in the events of the film — the famous tagline “Size Does Matter” played on this aspect of the film. “When you try to capture an animal and hunt it down, if it is small, it is easy. But this is a big animal; every footstep is 140 feet and he runs about 200 mph.” As a matter of fact, some of the destruction caused by the creature is only due to its sheer size; not always is a height of 50 meters convenient, as demonstrated during the climactic taxi chase and the creature’s death — allowed to happen only because it was trapped in the Brooklyn bridge.
The final draft was completed shortly before production began, in early 1997. Several changes from the first draft to the final film were mostly confined to changes in dialogue, names, artillery and places. The climactic taxi chase, for example, ends in the George Washington bridge, as opposed to the Brooklyn bridge in the final film. As already mentioned, ideas from the actors were sometimes inserted. Cut scenes also include some dialogue further developing Nick and Audrey’s past; a scene where a corpse drops in front of Nick as the scientist investigates inside the destroyed fish tanker; Godzilla destroying the Jumbo TRON billboard; notably, during the first bait sequence, the military tries to use toxic gas to asphyxiate the creature, to no avail — something not seen in the film. Godzilla in the final film was also made notably more resilient and powerful — running towards gunfire and being less subject to wounds. References to wounds and scars were mostly removed, with the final Godzilla only leaving a single drop of blood during the first chase scene, and being fatally injured by twelve missiles at the end of the film. The nest scene was also postponed: in the final film, it begins after Godzilla is apparently taken down by the torpedoes, whereas in the script the team finds the nest as Godzilla dives in the Hudson river.