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Max Borenstein is an American screenwriter and director.

Early life

Max David Borenstein was born in Los Angeles.[1] Of his youth, he said: "I come from a family of storytellers. Eccentric, convivial, rambunctious intellectuals and show-folks without the concept of an inside voice. Writers, comics, old vaudevillians. In gatherings like that, stories were the currency – jokes, chestnuts, punny turns of phrase – that was how you won the room. So maybe this career path was not so much inspired as required to survive."[2]

Borenstein described himself as interested in film from an early age. An amateur film buff, his favorites were the works of Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, Woody Allen, and Orsen Wells - "above all others, Welles."[3] He only got interested in Godzilla films when he was in high school, but long before that he was interested in world cinema: "Toho movies were my favorite, but it was the Kurosawa movies that I loved. I was not the kid who was obsessed with big monster movies. I was a real movie snob. My favorite filmmakers were Kurosawa, Fellini, and Welles, and I expanded my tastes from there."[4]

As a high school freshman, Borenstein cold-called Oliver Stone's production company and asked if they needed a summer intern - neglecting to inform them that he was only 13 years old at the time, they told him to come in for an interview:

"It must have seemed delightfully absurd for them to discover in the waiting room not your normal film school grad, but some pimply 13-year-old with both proud parents flanked in tow...The hardball interview questions ran along the lines of 'What's your favorite movie?', but I suppose I handled myself capably enough because by the time it was over, I had a job. It would not be pretty, they warned me – mostly pouring coffee and making copies – but at least I could read some scripts on the side and learn the ropes. I was thrilled."

However, by the time Borenstein got home, the answering machine had a message left by Stone's office - who had just looked closer at his paperwork - saying they legally could not hire him as an intern due to child labor laws. A few days later, however, a package of screenplays arrived at his house, along with a note from the executive who interviewed him, which invited him to analyze them (write "coverage") along with an example. Borenstein came back in for a meeting the following week, which led to several subsequent meetings, and ultimately he was being mentored on writing his own screenplay, which went through about a dozen drafts that summer.[5]

After high school, Borenstein attended Yale University, majoring in English, and graduated in 2003. He remained greatly interested in film, however: in his senior year at Yale, he wrote, directed, and edited the indie film Swordswallowers and Thin Men, about a group of college seniors confronted with the awful realization that they will be graduating soon and have to face the real world. While not in the Yale film studies program, Borenstein commenced the film as an independent project on an $1,800 grant. The film was well-received, winning both Best Feature and Best Screenplay at New York Independent Film Festival 2003. It was also named Best First Feature of 203 by Los Angeles Times critic Kevin Thomas.[6]

Career

Early Career

Following the success of his indie film and graduation, Borenstein spent the next nine years actively working on screenplays for various studios, gradually working his way up the ranks. None of his scripts from this period ultimately went into production - however, his unproduced scripts frequently met with quite positive reception from the screenwriting community. His 2008 screenplay What is Life Worth?, based on the Kenneth Feinberg memoir of the same name, was honored on the "Black List" - an annual list compiled by surveying major movie studio executives, of unproduced screenplays they nonetheless considered to be the best (but which weren't made into films for various other reasons, such as budget, scheduling conflicts, etc.). Borenstein's unproduced 2009 screenplay Jimi, about musician Jimi Hendrix (on which he spent considerable time and energy) was also later honored on the Black List.

Borenstein continued to work on several screenplay projects which were ultimately not produced, but gaining experience in screenwriting and familiarity among the production circles of several major movie studios, particularly Legendary Pictures. In 2012, it was announced that Borenstein was hired by Disney to develop the space scifi/adventure film Paladin, which was later shelved. At the time, he was also in development on Legendary Pictures' The Seventh Son, adapted from Joseph Delaney's The Spook's Apprentice. Kit Harington was also being considered for it at the time, but eventually both dropped out of the project, and the final film failed at the box office. In 2013, New Regency came to Borenstein to write Mona, an adaptation of an upcoming novel by Dan Sehlberg - an international thriller involving cyber-warfare. Mona was also later shelved.[7]

Godzilla

Max Borenstein's big break into prominence came with Godzilla, the 2014 reboot of the Godzilla franchise by Legendary Pictures. Borenstein had been pitching scripts to Legendary, and during one meeting they mentioned that they had the rights to Godzilla and asked if he would be interested in writing the screenplay, and he "jumped at the chance". He was also encouraged that the studio had hired director Gareth Edwards for it: Borenstein was a big fan of Edwards due to his prior film Monsters, about giant aliens landing in the Mexican desert, and how it showed you can "Take the giant monster film genre and use it as a way to tell a very intimate, human story [and] not just exploitation."[8] Borenstein was actually not well-known for making large-scale action movie scripts at the time, but small-scale, critically respected character-driven dramas. Asked why he thought Legendary Pictures asked him to write Godzilla, Borenstein said he felt it was because they wanted the film to be serious and grounded, not just a special effects spectacle:

"Godzilla was a big concept with a lot of action and excitement, but what’s always difficult is finding a tone and a journey that feels original and grounded in some way. Sometimes it makes sense for a studio to plug screenwriters who do smaller, dramatic pieces into movies that are of giant scale. What they’d like to do is bring those giant-scale movies down to earth a little.[9]

At the time, Borenstein hadn't seen a Godzilla film in about ten years, though he had been quite interested in them as a teenager. As he explained, around 1995 when he was in high school, Power Rangers exploded in popularity, which got him interested in other "suitimation" genre works, so he rented a lot of old Godzilla movies, for the kistch and camp value. In his high school days, he saw most of the first series (Showa era) and the second series (Heisei era), but never saw the later rebooted Millenium series of the 1990s.[10] During that time, his favorites were the more campy Godzilla movies of the 1970s. However, going back to rewatch the whole film series as an adult, Borenstein was struck by how many of the earlier films actually had very dark and mature subtext and social commentary. Particularly, he had never seen the original Japanese cut of the first 1954 Godzilla film (Gojira) before - the American release drastically reworked and re-edited it, cutting out much of the specific social commentary about Japanese society still terrified about atomic warfare only nine years after the end of World War II:

"Watching [the Japanese version Gojira] was a revelation, because it's really more a harrowing allegory for the predominant fear of the moment - nuclear...Over the years, Godzilla has become a different vessel for different fears. In the ’60s the films were a little campier because they were dealing with alien invasion fears. There were the environmental fears in the ’70s, with films like 'Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster', and later films dealt with fears of bio-engineering and advanced technology...looking at the world we live in now: what strikes right at the heart at what we’re afraid of? And what makes us feel powerless in the face of it?” That’s what all Godzilla films have in common – it’s the common denominator – that Godzilla represents a force of nature that is beyond mankind’s control."[11]

Therefore, when writing Legendary Pictures' Godzilla (2014), Borenstein strove for a dark tone focusing on "fears that resonate" more than a fun, campy actin-adventure romp. In this case, fears of mankind's arrogance in thinking it has power over nature, when natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes are beyond human control, as well as mankind recklessly trying to harness the power of nature, i.e. atomic power (the Fukushima nuclear disaster, resulting from earthquake damage, was still in painful recent world memory, and the film has a giant monster attack a nuclear power plant). Borenstein didn't want to stray too far from the original Godzilla formula, citing his "inherent respect" for the source material - though at the same time, he pointed out that Godzilla has had so many different iterations over the decades that "it's hard to be a Godzilla purist when there have been so many versions."[12]

Borenstein stressed that he wanted the film to have grounded realism, and to have human characters the audience can be invested in - in some of the campier Godzilla films of the past, a complaint was that viewers would "fast forward through the human parts" to get to the giant monster action spectacles, and Borenstein wanted to avoid this by making the humans integral to the drama. Moreover, he pointed out that Godzilla is not an anthropomorphic character, so it is difficult for an audience to become emotinally attached to him during large action set-pieces, and thus human characters are required:

"That kind of thing has certainly been done in the franchise before, but given the grounded realism we were striving for with the tone of the story, we weren’t allowing that. So, we wanted to come up with a human story that would feel plausible and as though you were following almost an everyman, but not such an everyman that the person had no role to play and no impact on the story...Given Godzilla’s size and power—and given that it’s so extreme in comparison to humanity and in reality there’s nothing human beings can do to stop him, although we think we can, and we get ourselves into trouble believing that we can stop him and causing more problems—given all of that, you have to come up with a human story that feels emotional and compelling and has real stakes. It involves Godzilla, but it isn’t really an interaction, mano a mano, with Godzilla...That’s not what Godzilla is. He’s not King Kong. Godzilla doesn’t fall in love with people, and he doesn’t interact with people on an anthropomorphic level."[13]

Godzilla (2014) was a financial and criticial hit, and encouraged Legendary Pictures to continue with an ongoing shared-universe franchise stemming from the film.[14] Max Borenstein also worked on a tie-in prequel graphic noevl, Godzilla: Awakening, along with his cousin Greg Borenstein. Max noted how it was like writing a prequel to his original movie, across a long time scale, and how its use of flashbacks helped the narrative.[15]

Borenstein returned to collaborate on the screenplay for the next film in Legendary Pictures shared monster-verse, Kong: Skull Island (2017). Borenstein was one of four different screenwriters who worked on the movie - rather than feeling possessive, he felt the collaborative process helped make it a stronger film:

I was the first writer and I was also the last writer. It was definitely collaborative in terms of what’s on the screen, though none of us worked together. There are pieces of my work in there as well as the work of the other two writers and John Gatins, who was credited for story. Everybody had a really good hand in it. It’s part of the craft of the working Hollywood writer that’s different than the craft of writing a screenplay on your own. Every movie is its own beast, but movies of this scale tend to be collaborative experiences where screenwriters come and go. You feel a certain amount of ownership, but it’s not your baby in that way.[16]

The core idea of the movie still originated with Borenstein: setting it during the Vietnam War, tonally inspired by Apocalypse Now, with a team of explorers venturing deeper into Skull Island and finding King Kong. Kong: Skull Island was another financial and critical success, and ended with a hook promising future sequels with other Toho film Godzilla monsters - including Rodan, Mothra, and the feared Ghidorah. The sequel film Godzilla: King of the Monsters is set for a 2019 release, featuring these monsters, and Borenstein will again return to write the screenplay. Another sequel is also being planned to follow that, Godzila vs. Kong.

After Godzilla (2014), Max Borenstein briefly worked in television production as well, serving as showrunner on Fox's Minority Report TV series which ran for one season in 2015 (written as a sequel to the 2002 film of the same name, itself based on the 1956 short story by Philip K. Dick).

Game of Thrones prequel project

On May 4th, 2017, HBO announced that it had ordered pitch scripts for five separate Game of Thrones prequel projects, one of them by Max Borenstein as potential showrunner.[17]

HBO has said that, due to the massive logistics involved, it will probably only pick up one of these pitches to go into full production.

Filmography

  • Swordswallowers and Thin Men (2003) - writer, director, editor
  • Godzilla (2014) - screenwriter
  • Minority Report (2015 TV series) - showrunner
  • Kong: Skull Island (2017) - screenwriter
  • Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) - screenwriter

See also

References