Interview: Legendary Pictures CEO Thomas Tull on Monsters & Movies
by Alex Billington
May 15, 2014
Thomas Tull is a certified geek through-and-through, but is also the CEO of one of the best movie studios in all of Hollywood. Tull (seen above at Comic-Con previously) runs Legendary Pictures, the production company behind everything from Christopher Nolan's movies to Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim to Zack Snyder's movies to The Hangover series to The Town, Where the Wild Things Are, Watchmen, 300, Trick 'r Treat, and plenty other stellar genre movies. They just finished Gareth Edwards' Godzilla, which I sat down to talk with him about, and they're currently financing and working on Nolan's Interstellar, Jurassic World, Crimson Peak and Warcraft, too. Our interview covers everything from monsters to epic budgets.
I've been waiting to interview Tull for years, as I am a huge fan of Legendary and really believe the quality of work they produce is a notch above so many others. They make movies for fanboys, for geeks, for movie lovers just like me, and we hit it off. Tull said he's a regular (daily!) reader of our site. I could've spoken with him for hours, about everything from Interstellar to Batman, to filmmakers and budgets, but my focus this time was on Godzilla - which is an awesome movie. So without any further delay, here is the full transcript.
Congrats on all the big movements you've made with Legendary recently. You're entering a new era in a way. With Godzilla, how did this come about in the sense of - who said "now is the time to make a new Godzilla movie and it will work"? I ask this now in the context of 2014, as maybe this wasn't the case originally, but did Pacific Rim's performance scare you?
Thomas Tull: Not at all. A couple of thoughts. I am a lifelong Godzilla fan. And when Jon Jashni, who runs creative for us, came into my office… And he knows I'm a Godzilla fan, so he's like, "Guess what? We got the rights from Toho to make Godzilla." Completely different universe, obviously, from Pacific Rim. The other thing that I think bears a moment of thought on is that Pacific Rim, for something that we made up from scratch with [screenwriter] Travis [Beacham] and [director] Guillermo [del Toro] did more than Batman Begins, Superman Returns, X-Men, Star Trek, and Fast and the Furious.
In a global box office?
Tull: Yeah, global box office for a franchise. And way over-indexed for us on home video & merchandise. So it's hard to call a $411 million worldwide box office movie a failure. So we were proud of that, but it had absolutely no effect. That's the one thing that's a little bit different about Legendary than most places, is our stuff that we develop and produce, we are very hands-on, and we actually make the movies and produce the movies in many cases, but we also finance them. We're fiscally responsible as well as creatively responsible.
What I notice about Legendary is the way you make something not because it fits in the time but because you believe in it and you are passionate about what it is. Then you almost make it fit in the times.
Tull: That's an astute observation because I think you can get too caught up in this business. Take this the right way, but fan feedback, and running polls, and focus groups, because… For example, when Chris Nolan came up with Inception, if you focus group that, I mean what [would people make of it?]…
Sometimes, the whole point of doing something fresh and new and from a different perspective is to give you something maybe that hadn't occurred to audiences before. That's what's exciting. So you want to be in touch and you don't want to just ignore and say… Because we do want to make commercial movies, but we want to make things hopefully that are elevated and that we want to see as fans. We want to see things that are different. That was very important to us about Godzilla, that we get the tone right and that we not just make it this wanton destruction that after an hour you are completely numb to it. it was important for us, even in the marketing campaign, to signal to people that this is different.
How much was Toho involved? I ask because, while I love the concept of this movie with the focus on the characters, I wonder if there were other people saying "We need more of this" or "we need more of that." Who and what were the driving factors behind making this Godzilla movie into what it is?
Tull: It really is a small team, our team at Legendary, certainly along with Gareth. It's his film. And our writers, and principally with Max Borenstein. But it was all of us on the same page from the beginning. When I sat down with Gareth to really talk about this, there were a list of rules, so to speak. And some of them…if this comes out before the movie I don't want to spoil some things. But we wanted people to root for Godzilla. We wanted him to have the right look, the classic roar to be the way it was supposed to be. But we wanted it to sound visceral and real and so forth. And we wanted to really ground this and have you care about the human characters and have it be a mystery as to what was going on and try to be science plausible in a lot of areas.
I'm on the board of the San Diego Zoo as well as Carnegie Mellon University and we drew on a number of opinions and scientists regarding echolocation and geology and so forth. It was really important to us to deliver on this. So it was a small group at the beginning that just said, "This is the movie that we want to make." And Gareth did an amazing job of bringing that vision to life.
And everyone was onboard and said, "We love it. Let's make this…"
Tull: Yeah. And Toho was great about… There were things that they wanted to feel good about on the design side. But they were great about, I think, looking at our body of work and saying, "This sounds great. Go make it." They were terrific partners in that regard.
Does that kind of freedom… Is that kind of creative freedom important to the quality of your work and what you create, the freedom of, "Hey, go make what you guys believe in"?
Tull: Yeah. And I think also because it's, in many cases, either all or most of our money… I mean, you're not just doing this on other people's dime. So they know that that's important to you. But I think for us, on any of these worlds, whether it's the partnership we have with Blizzard on Warcraft and what Duncan Jones is working on, any of these things, if it's something you license, if you don't have the freedom to realize what you want to make, then we're not interested in doing it because it's really hard to be responsible for the outcome of something and to turn around…
Because audiences, if you said, "The Godzilla movie is not that good, but the lawyers did X, Y, and Z, so we couldn't…" Fans don't care about that. They just want to know is the movie good or not. So that's why we tell anybody from the beginning, even something which is the most special movie I have ever had the privilege of being involved in with 42. I'm talking to Mrs. Robinson and saying, "Look. You've got to trust us to do this or we can't do it." So that is important to us.
What exactly did you see in Gareth Edwards? What were the little bits that made you think, "This guy is going to do it" and he's going to bring you the movie you want to see?
Tull: I'd say it was the confluence of a couple things. I was blown away by Monsters. Then when I found out not only how much it cost, but how clever you would have to be in your choices. Not just like, "All right. He did the effects on his laptop," but the cinematic choices you would have to make to tell that story for a couple hundred thousand dollars to me were really intriguing. So we asked him to come in and meet with me. And we right away hit it off. He was just so smart about the way that he would talk about things and approach them. Not only was he a fan of Godzilla, but we geeked out about Amblin movies from Steven.
Then as we got closer to, "Okay, I'm really seriously thinking about asking him to direct this movie for us," we gave him some resources to make some pre-vis, to go through pre-vis, as well as some art, just to show us, "We talked about all this stuff. Let's see what you can do." Frankly, it absolutely blew me away. I said to him early, even before we started, I said, "You are going to have a great career." We've had the privilege of working with some of the best directors on the planet. I think he's got a real shot to become somebody very special.
I agree. Do you find that happening more often nowadays - that you'll meet a younger, new director that not many people know about and you're just like, "This guy has it and he's going to be the next thing. We should get him in now"? It seems like some studios like to wait it out with filmmakers…
Tull: You know, look. All we can do is trust our instincts. One of the things that's great is John Jashni that runs our creative group has this amazing young group of people: Jillian Scherer, Alex Garcia, Alex Hedland, and Sophia Sikora, who are out there and obsessed with this, like constantly looking and coming in and saying, "I saw this amazing small film," or, "I'm hearing about this."
I think that if you are going to really truly talk about being unique and bringing something fresh to bear, then you have to be willing to bet on what you really think and follow your instincts. It's not always going to work. But I'd rather be really excited about a choice and feel that you went for it and it didn't work than rather like "Yeah, I knew this was really the safest kind of 'phone it in' choice."
I don't feel like the safe choices are working as much nowadays. Maybe they used to and now people see through them, and they look at something like Godzilla and they think, "I may not know Gareth, but I want to know him and I want to see this because this looks so fresh."
Tull: Yeah. One of the things that's just completely different over the last decade, if not five years, the entertainment choices available today are infinite compared to what they were when I grew up, certainly, and even 10 years ago. Because I ask people this all the time—even if you see a trailer for something that you want to see, you're like, "I am interested in seeing this movie," and you are planning on going Friday night, and then somebody emails you a YouTube video and then you end up playing Xbox Live and playing Call of Duty with your friends, and then you are checking your social media networks and everything, and you are going on FirstShowing and all the other stuff. Before you know it, it's 11 o'clock, or your Netflix queue. You are not less interested in the movie. There's just so much to do.
So I think for us it's how do you cut above that clutter and create real urgency and say to people, "No, no. This is absolutely worth you taking the time to go and see this." And a movie like this, see it in a theater, see it in an IMAX theater, hopefully, and really immerse yourself.
That is your mission statement right there. And I think it shows in the quality of your work at Legendary. So, is Warcraft going to finally be the video game movie we've all been waiting 30 years to see? Being in the state of what you're saying with entertainment, especially with video games as one of those choices, is this going to finally turn out the way we all want it to?
Tull: There's a couple of things in that evolution. The first is that video games, by very definition, there used to be not a lot of story going on. It's hard to make a Pac-Man movie, right? Or Pong or anything else… And then these incredible artists and writers started to get more and more intricate with their stories and backstories in Mass Effect, and Gears of War, and Halo, and Warcraft. All of a sudden, there is a jumping off point.
I feel like comic books for a very long time… When I was growing up, comic book movies were kinda… that was what you did if you couldn't get anything else done. Then, all of a sudden, X-Men, and Sam Raimi, and Spider-Man changed all that. It suddenly became you could get somebody like Chris Nolan to be interested in doing The Dark Knight franchise.
And so, that's the longwinded version of saying what [Warcraft director] Duncan Jones, I think, brings to that [project] and what we're incredibly excited about to show the world. We took our time to make sure we got the right director, had the right story. And frankly, it's not just… We don't how to make a movie out of "Warcraft the Video Game". It's what Chris Metzen and all of the team at Blizzard have done, which is to make an entire mythology and a lore. There's a 100 books and novels. That's really what we're diving into. But we at Legendary would not have done this if we didn't feel like it could be great. We now owe it to show up and deliver. We're going to ask folks May 16th to render judgment on what we did with Godzilla and then they'll be able to see that next up.
Of course. Where do you see the future of cinema? First: what are your thoughts on high frame rates what Cameron and Jackson are doing? Second: does virtual reality really have a place in the future of cinema? Is it 3D for the rest of our lives? Where do we go from here?
Tull: I think what's exciting… So, first of all, in terms of frame rate and everything, if Jim Cameron likes it, hard to argue with.
True, but it's not accepted yet.
Tull: The amazing thing about technology now is it also breaks the barrier between people with true talent… you will get discovered. You can post something on YouTube and get our attention or get Hollywood's attention.
But the second thing, just in terms of the way things are shot, there are so many choices. I think that's the key to everything. You don't have to do things that are all in CGI. You can do a lot of things that Chris Nolan does or even that we did on Godzilla. There's a lot of practical stunts and effects in there. You have those choices available to you. Or you can make something as amazing as Avatar in that environment.
And then in terms of viewing it, I think choice is the key. You want to go see it in 2D? You should absolutely have that option available to you. I was an investor in Oculus Rift [the modern virtual reality system]. So I'm obviously a believer in the possibilities of what that is… What's exciting to me is these incredible storytellers having these new tools with which to say, "Can you take what's up here in your imagination and put it in any of these mediums?" I think it's an exciting time, over this next decade, to be a fan.
Yeah. Star Wars alone, but so many other things.
Tull: Yeah, absolutely.
Well, thank you.
Tull: Thank you so much. Great stuff on the website.
Thank you to Warner Bros and Legendary for arranging the interview. Godzilla hits theaters everywhere this weekend, May 16th, and is definitely worth seeing on the big screen (see my review). The King is back!