Interview with Russell Blackford (2018)
|The following is a Wikizilla-exclusive interview.
Interview with Russell Blackford, writer of Kong Reborn, a 2005 sequel to the 1932 novelization of the 1933 film King Kong. Instances of The Boy Who Cried Godzilla's real name have been censored and are noted in bold with an asterisk.
Boy: Hello. I am a representative of wikizilla.org, an online encyclopedia covering all things giant monsters. I was wondering if you would be willing to answer a few questions regarding your novel Kong Reborn. I hope to hear from you soon. - Best Wishes, The Boy*.
RB: Sure, The Boy* – if you want to send me the questions, I’ll do my best.
Boy: Thank you so much for your time. First off I should say that I really enjoyed reading your book, and I think it's an interesting take on the Kong story. So, as a starting point, how did this all happen? How were you chosen for the position, if at all? What inspired you to clone Kong?
RB: Thanks, The Boy* – I’m glad you like the book, and that sort of feedback is much appreciated. To answer your question...
It’s a bit complicated. I’d been working with the author and publisher Byron Preiss and his team for a few years when Byron asked me to try my hand at the Kong book. During those years, I’d written a trilogy of original novels for the Terminator franchise, collectively entitled Terminator 2: The New John Connor Chronicles, published by Byron’s ibooks imprint (nothing to do with what the term “ibooks” is likely to convey now, well over a decade later). The Terminator books seemed to be fairly well received – even if some fans were confused by my use of multiple alternative timelines – and I’d established my credibility as a competent, reliable writer of media tie-in material. Byron offered me the opportunity to write a book about cloning Kong in the present day, based on a pre-existing idea on which a couple of other people had already done work in developing a proposal, an outline, and some draft chapters.
I can’t claim credit for the idea of cloning Kong, but I immediately saw that it could provide the basis for a wonderful novel, and I grabbed the opportunity to develop and write it under contract to ibooks. I should add: Kong is such an iconic figure in our culture that I felt a certain responsibility to do him justice, perhaps even more than the pressure to get it right that I felt when writing the characters of John Connor and Sarah Connor for the Terminator franchise.
Boy: I was wondering if the cloning concept had been borrowed from the 2000 TV series Kong: The Animated Series, which featured a clone of Kong. During my read through, I wondered if your lampooning the idea of using human DNA in the Kong clone was a jab at that project. In either event, I think it's an amusing coincidence, if not an allusion.
Now for the fun part. I'd like to know why it is that you made the Gorilla gigans species extant as opposed to extinct. I may just be biased, as much of other Kong media portrays him as the last of his kind, but it did make me wonder why, if there was a stable population of other "Kongs" why he would live alone in Skull Mountain outside of the green cathedral. Is there any reason for his isolation? In addition to that, may I just say how much I love that you did not retcon the Meat-Eater into a Tyrannosaurus, it's a bit of a pet peeve of mine that it's almost always called a T-rex, despite Cooper and O'Brien's disagreement on the topic, and the screenplay and novelization only ever calling it the "Meat-Eater". Can you tell me anything about that decision?
RB: TBH, I wasn’t even aware of the 2000 TV series – or if I was it was very vaguely – and if anything I had Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park and its sequels (the books and the movies) in mind. I was trying to catch something of the tone and style of a Michael Crichton thriller and I was reading a lot of Crichton’s work back then, not to imitate any of its stylistic moves consciously but in the hope that it might sort of rub off on my own style and pacing. It doesn’t hurt that I’d always been a fan of Crichton’s work and the craft that went it into it, and I can never understand when I see people rubbish Crichton as an author. He was superb at what he did. The bit about human DNA really reflects my broader knowledge of the issues that come up in bioethical debates (not long before I wrote this book, I did a Masters degree in bioethics at Monash University, and my interest in these issues shows through in other ways, such as the discussions of genetically modified crops and so on).
I can’t give you a truly satisfying answer about the continued existence of a population of giant gorillas and how the original Kong related to them. A lot about Skull Island, in any rendition (the original movie, later movies, my version, any version you like...) doesn’t really make paleontological, geological, or ecological sense. But it was basic to the plot of Kong Reborn that the new Kong would be returned to his natural habitat, Skull Island, when he obviously didn’t fit in New York City and was desperately unhappy there. That implied that the island had an environment suitable for his kind. Part of the challenge was coming up with a deep-time history for the island that sounded as if it might make scientific sense if you read it quickly enough, even though, for one thing, an island that size would never support the profusion of mega-mega-fauna depicted and implied, and even though trying to make geological sense of it (and trying to work out how the various species got there at different times and became isolated) was mind-boggling. I was quite pleased with some of the fast talking that I put in the book about all that, even though it would never stand up to much scrutiny from someone who wanted to be literal minded.
This leads to your question about the island’s gigantic carnosaurs. My attempt to give Skull Island a superficially acceptable history quickly ruled out mixing dinosaurs from different geologic periods, such as Stegosaurs from the Jurassic and a Tyrannosaurus rex from the Cretaceous. The creatures encountered had to have evolved in synch, descended from a single time – with later additions that had come to the island at various points, such as mammals including human beings. I was working on this 15 years ago, and I can’t now recall the details of how I sorted it all out, but I took the line that none of the island’s creatures could have been specific, named dinosaurs straight from the Cretaceous period. The dinosaurs had been isolated before the Cretaceous and had continued to evolve.
Whatever exactly that giant Meat-Eater was, in my head-space it could not have been a literal T-Rex.
Boy: I agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment. A fantasy island from before we understood T-Rexes were not just scaly kangaroos can't really hold up to a scientific investigation without some creative liberties.
Although with that being said, I am curious about your Skull Island creatures. The giant birds I felt were a nice touch not usually seen in Kong media. However, are the Scavenger Ravens intended to be the same creatures that are briefly seen on the Meat-Eater's carcass in the film? Beyond that, can you say anything more on what went into your designs of the plants and animals found on the island? Perhaps some creature sizes or measurements if any are available? Your world is relatively unique among the various Skull Island "pantheons" in that there is little, if any, accompanying artwork, and any creature measurements are only found in the work itself.
In either event, were there any aspects of the book you had to cut out for time or pacing constraints?
RB: First, the book went through a process of development and editing, but I don’t recall anything that I had in my head about Kong or the island being cut (or left unwritten) because of the sorts of constraints you mention. The harder part to get right, and keep interesting, was the train of events in New York before the main characters go to Skull Island and the pace gathers markedly.
As you say, there are no maps or drawings, and nor have I maintained data on the sizes of animals. I kept much of it vague enough for the reader’s own imagination to play a part. In the upshot, you do have to rely on the descriptions in the book itself to get the idea. I wanted to capture as much as possible of the look, feel, and tone of the 1933 film, however, so there are connecting details such as the giant birds that you mentioned. On the other hand, I didn’t want to be bound by a rule that the visual depictions in the film were absolutely accurate as representations of what the various animals on the island “really” looked like. That was partly because I didn’t want to be beholden to certain early-twentieth-century artistic impressions of particular prehistoric beasts. In my own head canon, what appears on the film screen is not entirely the objective reality of what Carl Denham, Ann Darrow, and the others actually encountered; the creatures as shown to us in the film may be a bit distorted (perhaps by how the characters in the film “saw” them, bringing their own backgrounds and expectations to what they saw, or perhaps by the cinematic interpretation to us of what they saw – take your pick!).
That said, I thought carefully about the distances and sizes of objects and animals, including the size of Kong himself as he was growing. As I’m sure you know, Kong is far bigger in some scenes of the film than others, if you try to calculate his size based on that of the human beings (usually Ann) with whom he’s interacting. There were good technical reasons why the filmmakers did that, but they didn’t have to affect me. I made the very large insects and spiders on the island smaller than I might have – if I were doing it all again, I might make them even larger, and to hell with it, but at the time I was thinking about what might be realistic sizes for such creatures to be functional.
Related to this, I sketched maps of Skull Island for myself, but they were crude and they no longer exist; they were just on stray sheets of paper that were thrown out when they’d served their immediate purpose. I tried to be meticulous about the location of the island and about its size, shape, and general topography. More specifically, I tried to ensure that the sequence of events on the island was defensible in terms of who was where at what point and how long various events were taking as the story unfolded. As far as I was concerned, the reader didn’t need to see my working for this, but I wanted to be clear in my own mind that the time sequence fitted together, and I certainly wanted it all to seem plausible and “solid” to readers. How often do we see large, unexplained time jumps in plots, or certain events portrayed as taking place simultaneously when that is clearly not possible? I was keen to avoid that jarring sort of experience.
Boy: I really admire those sentiments. You clearly put a lot of thought into this, and I'd say it shows. However, I also have some questions surrounding the New York portions of the story, namely the fate of poor Matthilde. If I am to be honest, I'd say that I found it a bit disappointing for her to have had so much buildup as Kong's new "Mother" for her to be dropped as a character after his birth. Were there any reasons for this? What happened to her after Kong was born?
RB: Not every character in a novel can have a story arc that really pays off for the reader, but you’re right that Matthilde perhaps deserved one. She’s shown as a very amiable and smart gorilla, with an almost human personality. At one point, if I recall, she even has a sip of celebratory Champagne. There wasn’t really any role for her as the narrative unfolded, and she would have been out of place on Skull Island. I assume she went back to being a much-loved and pampered citizen within the lab complex, as she’d been before the researchers chose her to become Kong’s mother – providing her womb, cytoplasm, and mitochondrial DNA. I enjoyed her as a character, and her interactions with the humans around her emphasize what magnificent, intelligent animals gorillas are.
Boy: Yes. I agree wholeheartedly. But I'm afraid I may be running out of questions unless you could say a bit on Jack's parents, and why his father was on such apparently poor terms with Carl. I like that you had Carl and Ann remain close after the Skull Island debacle, but how did Jack's father take this? I understand that a deal of this is meant for the imagination, as it's not really important to the story, but I guess I'd like to know a bit about Carl's post-Kong life, and perhaps if he ended up marrying your continuity's Hilda Petersen of Son of Kong fame. (Probably not, but I'd like to think so).
RB: I can’t tell you much about Jack’s parents, since Jack’s grandfather, Carl Denham, seems to have made a much bigger impression on him – at least from what we learn in the book. Readers can use their imaginations, to the extent that the text allows, but from my viewpoint nothing is canon except the original script for King Kong, which was worked on by many hands, the 1932 novelization of it by Delos W. Lovelace, and what we see on the screen in the 1933 film itself. It would not be possible to reconcile anything in sequels, remakes, or spin-offs with the events described in Kong Reborn. I assume that Ann Darrow probably married Jack Driscoll, and that Jack Denham was named after him. Ann probably doted on little Jack when he was a child – at any rate, she was involved in telling him stories about the island.
It does become clear in Kong Reborn that Carl ran into great problems with lawsuits: why wouldn’t he when he’d brought a giant monster back to New York City, and it had escaped and terrorized the place with resulting loss of life and massive destruction of property? In my mind, Jack’s father would have wanted nothing to do with Kong, or with island adventures, and the like, though there’d be no shutting up Carl when he wanted to reminisce. Jack is very much a throwback to his grandfather, who would have seemed to him like a romantic adventurer. Jack has something of the same adventurous, rebellious, even reckless spirit, as we see from the beginning when he steals samples of Kong’s genetic material, though Jack also understands the darker, greedy or opportunistic, side of his grandfather’s actions.
Characters’ backstories provide a way of adding additional depth to their personalities, as we see how they came to be as they are. They can clarify and add new perspectives, though they can’t be allowed to take over and detract from the action.
Roxanne Blaine also gets a good backstory, and it adds to a character who starts off as something of a nemesis to Jack and his team, though there proves to be a lot more to her. Her bonding with the new Kong is impressive, she certainly knows how to upstage Jack when needed, and she generally comes across as this hyper-competent woman – almost James Bondian in her preparation for anything life throws at her. I probably enjoyed her as much as anyone else in the book. Roxanne is very different from poor Ann, who was simply terrified during her interactions with Kong, though he was protective of her, obviously loved her in his way, and would never have deliberately hurt her. (I enjoyed Naomi Watts’s braver, smarter version of Ann Darrow in the 2005 film directed by Peter Jackson, though this had nothing to do with my book, which was written from 2003 to mid-2005 and appeared before the film was released.)
Boy: I also found Roxanne to be far more intriguing in her dynamic with her respective Jack than Ann with hers. At any rate it's been great getting to talk to you, and I really can't thank you enough for giving me this opportunity. It was very interesting to hear a bit more about what went on behind the scenes, and I thank you heartily for agreeing to this.
RB: Thanks for approaching me – I enjoyed this exchange.