Breaking down the blockbuster: how Godzilla reminds us that no story is ever too big to tell.
If you saw Godzilla over Memorial Day weekend, you know that the meat and potatoes of any monster movie is enormity.
That may seem like a weird idea, that at the core of a certain kind of film is simply an adjective—hugeness—like we’re defining a word by using the word itself. “A film about giants is gigantic!” We know: it doesn’t really get to the heart of the story.
What it does get to is the heart of every storyteller’s, well...biggest fear:
Some stories just feel too big to even attempt to tell, even when we know we must.
Except, as more than filmmakers, but as human beings who become regularly invested in all kinds of stories, the more we’re handed story as spectacle—it’s Summer Blockbuster Season after all—the more we expect spectacle to be the only way we can ever tell big stories about big ideas.
Look at one of the first blockbusters to make its mark in 2014: the aforementioned Godzilla, Gareth Edwards’ mega-budget ($160,000,000) remake of one of cinema’s most well-known characters and, since we’re talking about money, most lucrative commodities.
We know what you’re already thinking: that the worst way to allay any storyteller’s fear about the scary size of a story is to talk about one actually accompanied by the resources and manpower to match its scariness.
But what we do know is that size is intimidating, right? All that money, and special FX, and history. All those expectations. There’s no better excuse to not tell a story than to claim that as a storyteller you aren’t cut out to take on something that seems so big.
It’s kind of ironic, because the stories we relate to most, the stories we see as truly amazing, are those that take massive ideas about the human condition—poverty, war, love, peace, history, technology, art, etc. & etc.—and frame them in ways we can digest. In ways we can see on our own level, not from some bird’s eye perch.
Storytelling is most powerful when a story distills a broad, universal truth into something that can be understood (and, more importantly, shared) on an intimate level.
Even though it’s about a world-shaking event, Godzilla is really about one man and his family—the chaos that costs millions and millions of dollars is just a flashy backdrop.
So, despite all of the action-packed set-pieces, crumbling cityscapes, ridiculously huge mutant beasts, and enough of a budget to put half of the current population in the U.S. through college, Godzilla is something of a rarity: an enormous monster movie that reminds us that even the biggest stories can be told on a very small scale.
Care of the Godzilla remake, here are 3 things to remember when your story seems too big to tell.
1. Remember your myths.
It wasn’t too long ago that we explored the grand idea of mythology, and how myths are inherent to our humanity:
MYTHS ARE ABOUT SEEKING TRUTHS THAT WE ALL CAN SHARE, AND THEN BUILDING OUR WORLD AROUND THOSE TRUTHS.
Godzilla, in the spirit of all of its Japanese predecessors, is built like a myth: as humanity destroys itself through destroying the world it calls home—through, in this case, nuclear power and our irresponsible use of it—the world must take matters into its own hands and unleash an ancient power to restore balance.
That restorative power is, of course, Godzilla, and while as an audience we revel in all the computer-generated explosions and flashing lights and super-creative, super-detailed creature design, we are the whole time staying safe behind a grand metaphor—a metaphor which pretty clearly states, just as it did 60 years ago, that human beings, not some freak of nature or some alien monster or whatever, will be the authors of our own demise.
Godzilla reminds us that myths are metaphors, and so metaphors are a straightforward way to make a complex story more comprehensible. But more importantly, Godzilla, like pretty much every movie of its size, points us to Joseph Campbell’s whole idea of the monomyth, or hero’s journey:
Each one of our personal journeys, no matter the context, is not just an important story worth telling, but is a story that we all share: a story that will bring us together.
So, Godzilla isn’t really about Godzilla, it’s about main character Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a young father and Navy Lieutenant who finds himself caught up in the movie’s biggest events while trying to do only one thing: get home to his family.
Myths, after all, are made up of metaphors and archetypes, or devices and narratives that are imprinted in us almost biologically. So, while the story of the near end of the human race and the destruction of a whole civilization seems too unwieldy to be contained within one film, when this struggle is framed through one man’s journey—through one man’s relationship to those he loves—then even the fall of San Francisco doesn’t feel too big.
So, remember your myths: our most important truths are always too big to understand so easily.
It’s been storytelling’s job, since the beginning of time, to help us understand that which, by nature of our smallness, we cannot.
2. Remember your perspective.
Myths, as we’ve implied, play with perspective.
It may seem obvious, that to make your big story seem smaller you need to shift your perspective. But the idea of perspective mostly applies to motivation: why are you even telling this story at all?
Good question to ask of Godzilla, which is a remake—and not just a remake, but a remake of something that was already remade not too long ago, and that has a legion—a whole franchise—of movies behind it.
In fact, here we are smack dab in the middle of a culture and a film industry which seemingly celebrates the remake, that practically confesses, through every “new” movie to come out, that there are just no new ideas left.
Talk about another storyteller fear: every story has already been told—and better.
For Edwards, a remake not only allowed him to visit recent world events—especially the tsunami in Japan and the resulting devastation of the Fukushima power plant—through a much different lens, but to, contrarily, have fun with and honor a genre and type of movie that, he’s admitted, drew him energetically to filmmaking in the first place.
Monster movies, it could be said, first ignited Edwards’ passion for visual storytelling. He is telling a very broad story for very personal reasons.
No matter how many times an old story is told, there is one thing that will always make a story feel new again: your unique perspective.
When it comes to engaging with anyone—audience, fellow storytellers, whomever—perspective is what matters. Not expectations, and especially not spectacle.
Because people don’t engage with big truths, they engage with the minds that try to tackle such big truths. Every single story is worth telling, and can be told well, if the storyteller believes in that fact. People relate to people, not massive abstractions.
The key was not in trying to be as comprehensive as possible, but in making a commitment to one perspective: that of a young girl who saw something that greatly upset her and, even though she maybe didn't totally understand all of the implications of the problem, decided to make a difference.
And through that perspective, that voice, Stillmotion filtered the rest of the story: that of a family helping that young girl, that of a photographer having an epiphany, that of a man having an idea about what “fair trade” meant, that of the rigors of starting a beverage line, and so on. By focusing on one perspective, a narrative that seemed impossible to wrap one's head around breathed with a new sense of purpose.
After all, as a storyteller, your voice is your whole purpose. It’s the singular way you see and understand the world.
No story will ever be too big to tell when told through your one-and-only voice...just as long as you stay true to it.
3. Remember what matters.
Then, how do you stay true to your unique voice, especially when confronted with an idea that just feels like it’s too much to handle?
One way is to believe, as we’ve said before, that the most important piece of gear any filmmaker can have is not a camera or the latest in lens technology, but the beating heart behind the camera.
No matter the size or the breadth of the story, there always exists its tiny, but mighty, nucleus: the hyper-personal conflict of the family, or of the hero. Of the beating heart.
And through recognizing that core, any story can be relatable.
In Godzilla, as we’ve explained, the heart of the story is Ford, just some regular dude who, throughout, only has his family’s future on his mind—not that of the human race.
Another way to consider the heart of the story is to think about what matters for the storyteller: for the director, Gareth Edwards. By placing Ford’s wife and child at the heart of the film, his point seems almost too simple, that when the longevity of absolutely everything is threatened, the most important thing to preserve is what defines our togetherness—and for Edwards that’s the family. Amidst the huge wreckage of mankind, the family—one group of three relatively inconsequential, normal-sized people—is what matters.
Which just seems like another way of answering the question we posed earlier: why are you even telling the story at all?
Think of a wedding film—it explores the all-encompassing relationship of the bride and groom, not just the events of the wedding day.
It's more than difficult, seemingly impossible even, to portray the story of a couple's capital-"L" Love—an emotion so powerful it's ideally bound them forever together—in one 3- to 4-minute narrative.
How do you keep from giving up entirely right from the beginning?
By simply understanding what matters most for the couple—getting to know them, their backgrounds, and, ultimately, what keeps them in love with each other. Honing in on the journey that brought them together, that brought them to this one huge moment. It's like attempting to understand the context of a photograph: the before and after the instant captured.
By choosing to focus on the truly representative, symbolic, and important moments that illustrate the essence of the couple's story together, you can ignore the rest—wedding traditions that every couple would share, or aimless downtime that occurs at every large group event. The "rest" are the necessary things that even the couple wouldn't bother reminiscing about.
Remembering what matters with any story is about knowing why we tell stories at all: to bring us together, to connect us, at the most basic and necessary of human levels.
It may seem odd that one of the year’s biggest films would remind us about the most empirical of values as filmmakers.
But for us—and for all of its flaws—this is the success of Godzilla: despite its extreme scope, it never once loses focus on the core of its vision—that even the most epic of stories are always about the simplest ideals in each of our lives.
The stories that first explained your world, the voice that shapes your world, and the vital relationships that give you a place in that world: when you remember these, there will never be a story out of your reach.
Not that we recommend launching into your next story with the ambition tantamount to such a blockbuster. What we recommend is much smaller.
As a storyteller, keep in mind a sense of scale: your fear will always be bigger than the story you’re afraid you can’t tell.
We know that Godzilla isn’t the first Summer blockbuster to achieve everything we’ve stated above. Any big budget movie that’s impressed you from a storytelling perspective? Any you’re looking forward to? Let’s talk big movies in the little comments section below!