Interview: KING KONG VS GODZILLA Screenwriter Paul Mason
Writer Discusses His Role in Americanizing the Japanese Monster Classic
Author: Allen Perkins
In the early 1960s, Toho was approached by American producer John Beck, who had permission from RKO Pictures to pitch a film treatment about King Kong battling another giant monster. Seeing the concept as the perfect vehicle to revive their own monster star, Godzilla, Toho came to an agreement with Beck in which Toho would produce the movie in exchange for all Asian rights while Beck would own the film rights for all English-speaking territories. Released in Japan on August 11, 1962 as part of Toho’s 30th anniversary celebration, KING KONG VS GODZILLA (キングコング対ゴジラ, Kingu Kongu tai Gojira) was a massive hit, selling more than 11 million tickets during its initial run.
In April 1963, John Beck sold his KING KONG VS GODZILLA rights to Universal Pictures, who commissioned the producer to create an English dubbed version before the studio took over the film. Beck turned to two young screenwriters named Paul Mason and Bruce Howard to Americanize KING KONG VS GODZILLA. The duo wrote the English script, oversaw editing the film and developing new US-shot scenes to be filmed by director Thomas Montgomery, and even lent their voices to the dubbing track, all for very little money… Mason and Howard had to split the $3,500 they were paid by Beck for several weeks’ work.
Universal opened KING KONG VS GODZILLA in New York on June 26, 1963. The film quickly proved a box office success at theaters across the United States, and then worldwide. It is now regarded as a cult favorite and stands as one of the most famous monster movies ever made. To celebrate that legacy, Bay Area Film Events will present a special 50th Anniversary theatrical screening of KING KONG VS GODZILLA this upcoming Saturday, June 16th in San Leandro, CA.
A half-century after KING KONG VS GODZILLA first played on movie screens, Allen Perkins spoke with Paul Mason about his part in the American cut of the film…
Allen Perkins: Could you please describe your early life; when and where you were born, what your parents were like?
Paul Mason: I was born in Chicago, Illinois. My parents were Russian immigrants. I went to Northwestern University, and then I came out here to Hollywood to seek my fame and fortune.
Allen Perkins: What fueled your interest in show business?
Paul Mason: I always enjoyed writing and seeing performances, musicals, theatre…
Allen Perkins: Did you have any experience in film or TV before working on KING KONG VS. GODZILLA?
Paul Mason: Yes. I initially wrote some comic cartoons — BEETLE BAILEY and SNUFFY SMITH for producer Al Brodax on ABC — and comedy routines with a dear friend of mine, Bruce Howard, who wrote KING KONG VS. GODZILLA with me and who just died recently [January 30, 2012].
So I had written some things for comics who were on TV and then I had written this screenplay ANGEL BABY for a friend. I had actually done a rewrite on that, I didn’t do the original draft. But I was still a very young writer at the time.
Allen Perkins: Working as a writer of an English version of a Japanese giant monster movie is certainly an odd credit. How did you become attached to the Americanization of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA?
Paul Mason: My friend who was an early agent and later became a producer, John Beck, had friends in both places [Toho and Universal]. He suggested that [Universal] keep an American version and the Japanese makers of the movie, Toho, would have Asian markets. So they divided up the territories. John asked me to do an original screenplay at that time, and I asked my partner Bruce Howard to do it with me.
In order to create more of an American feel, we created the concept of two newscasters — that was before the HUNTLEY-BRINKLEY REPORT — and they got to tell the story. So we created several new Caucasian characters, and we did about three days of shooting which we cut into the film. We recut it, and just wrote our own script and stuck whatever we wanted in the mouths of the characters, and then we dubbed it. In fact, I think my voice is in there on several occasions as is Bruce’s. We hired actors, we re-wrote it, we re-cut it, re-conformed it, and put it out. I know Sid Sheinberg, when he was president at Universal he said it was still one of their big hits if they put it out.
Allen Perkins: Prior to working on KING KONG VS. GODZILLA had you ever seen or heard of either of the eponymous characters?
Paul Mason: Yes. I had seen KING KONG; I thought it was great. And I had heard of Godzilla, although I had not seen any of the Godzilla movies.
Allen Perkins: Were you and Bruce ever shown a print of the original version of the film to get an idea of how to write your version. If not, what preparations did you make before writing it?
Paul Mason: Oh yes, we saw the original and we had discussions with John Beck, the producer, as to how we wanted to handle it and what we would do. First we did a draft, then we worked with the editor to strip away certain sequences and to recut others, and then we did the screenplay and then we filmed it.
Allen Perkins: Was the idea to include the newscast scenes in any way inspired by Raymond Burr’s role as a news reporter in the US version of the original GODZILLA?
Paul Mason: Well, of course we had seen that and we thought it was a good idea the way they cut in Raymond… in fact, when I was producing [Burr’s TV series] IRONSIDE we talked about it and had some laughs. But we knew we had to make an American version, so we came up with the idea of two commentators who we could cut to and use the action footage as sort of a narrative. And it seemed to work very well.
Allen Perkins: Did you and the rest of the crew ever consider simply dubbing the film and releasing it pretty much as-is? Or, conversely, did you ever consider trashing all the Japanese dramatic scenes and create a virtually new product?
Paul Mason: No. First, we knew we had to make it more American so we were guided by that. And secondly, there was a very limited amount of money we were given to spend so, as I said, we only did three days of shooting and we dubbed it in a week. That was about the maximum time and money we were going to get.
Allen Perkins: Were there any ideas you, Bruce or anyone else considered but never ended up in the US version?
Paul Mason: Usually, when you start something like this you throw around a lot of ideas. I don’t remember what we threw out, but I do know we thrashed around, and once we hit on the two commentators we felt pretty good about that. And we knew we had to confine our filming… we couldn’t go outside or do anything really big so everything we added was small.
Also, we respected greatly what the Japanese had done, especially in terms of their action footage and especially in terms of Godzilla. That was all great stuff, so we wanted to keep all of that. And mostly we moved around whatever helped us tell the story.
Allen Perkins: What are your thoughts about the Japanese Kong in relation to the original? Do you think it was a decent adaptation?
Paul Mason: Oh, it was great. They had great respect for Kong and the fight between the two was epic. It was really good.
What made me laugh, though… they wanted to duplicate the scene [from KING KONG] where Kong climbs the highest building in town. But in Japan, at that time, the highest building was the Diet Building, which was three stories so he just sat on it.
And I had seen the film so many times when I worked on it that when I went to Japan about ten years later I could recognize all the landmarks, including the Diet Building, which was kind of funny.
Allen Perkins: The original version of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA was a comedy and a satire of commercialism. The US version, however seems to be a straightforward sci-fi in the style of American monster movies of the ‘50s with a few gags here and there. Who’s decision was it to make it “less funny?”
Paul Mason: I don’t know, I wouldn’t say the Japanese ever intended it as a satire. I think they took their Godzilla very, very seriously. And I know when I was in Japan speaking to some of those people that Godzilla is one of their treasures. So I’m not so sure that they were all into satire.
I thought we made it more funny. We had lines like “he’s chicken” when Godzilla burns King Kong… I don’t think it was a matter of trying to make it more or less funny. It was a wonderful kind of sci-fi semi-comedic story of these two historic monsters.
Allen Perkins: To what degree did you write the film? In other words, did you write the new scenes while Howard wrote the dubbing or vice-versa or did you contribute only to the newly shot material?
Paul Mason: No, we wrote it all. We wrote the news scenes, then we wrote all the dialogue which is in the film — which sometimes was a loose translation of what the Japanese did — but sometimes it was just stuff we made up for our own story. We tried to keep it more linear.
Allen Perkins: What was probably the biggest challenge about working on this film?
Paul Mason: First, of course, creating the Americanization of it so that it could be sold in an American market, which was very important to John and to [the studio]. And then getting it done within the very limited budget. And then of course getting the voices, getting the people once we wrote the script, putting it all together… when I think of it, it was really quite a large task that we did for very little money.
Allen Perkins: Did KING KONG VS. GODZILLA in any way help you towards a successful career in the business?
Paul Mason: I think every job you do that anyone hears about helps you in your career so you just have to keep doing stuff.
Allen Perkins: You’ve had a long, successful career in film and TV. What are some of your favorite projects you’ve worked on since then? What celebrities have you run into along the way?
Paul Mason: I’ve been very fortunate [to work] with Bob Wagner, Raymond Burr, Rock Hudson… a lot of wonderful, talented people.
Lately I’ve been doing movies which take a lot longer. The stars are a little different, but in a sense they’re the same. We finished one with Richard Gere about a dog called Hachiko, and now I just got back from India where we finished a film with Ben Kingsley called A COMMON MAN which I think is going to be quite good. Richard Gere in HACHIKO was good but, again, so was the director, Lasse Hallstrom. There has just been a lot of wonderful and talented people in my life and I’m very glad for them.
Each project, TV series; they’re all fun. WELCOME BACK, KOTTER was great fun because it was a great hit and we got to launch John Travolta. CHICO AND THE MAN was a great hit and then a terrible tragedy when Freddie [Prinze] died… so each of these series and movies have their own life. I look forward to the next one.
Allen Perkins: Do you like KING KONG VS. GODZILLA? Do you consider it just another credit in your long filmography or does it mean something more to you? How do you feel about working on such a project?
Paul Mason: I remember KING KONG VS. GODZILLA fondly because Bruce and I really kind of did everything to get it together. And it was fun; we had a lot of fun with it.
At that time it was just another project. Later it became a cult classic, but at that time it was another monster picture even though King Kong and Godzilla were very well known, recognizable characters. No one knew it would become such a cult classic, including me.
Allen Perkins: Did you see the film during its original US release? How was it received by the public at large at the time, and how was it perceived inside the movie industry? Do you remember how others reacted to KING KONG VS. GODZILLA at the time?
Paul Mason: I saw it a couple of times and it was always received very well. Better, in fact, than we anticipated. People just really loved those characters.