O’AHU, HAWAII, NOVEMBER 2015
Just 24 miles outside of Honolulu sits Kualoa Ranch, a 4,000-acre private reserve on the windward side of O’ahu. A series of winding green valleys surrounded by mist-shrouded peaks and plunging waterfalls, it’s a place of staggering natural beauty. Unsurprisingly, the Ranch has been visited by many major movie and TV productions and provided the lush backdrop for Jurassic Park’s famous Gallimimus stampede.
Today, however, Kualoa Ranch has been transformed into its most thrilling cinematic setting to date. As rain lashes down, a parade of soldiers and civilians moves cautiously through what appears to be a gigantic boneyard. Their apprehension is understandable… because these are not regular bones. Among the collection of scattered remains are enormous ribs and the canted head of a triceratops. At the centre of it all, so giant a cow could easily pass through its eye-socket, sits the skull of a giant ape.
With gusts of sulfuric smoke blasting out of vents hidden in the surrounding rocks, it is a landscape both fantastical and hellish – a perfect first glimpse into the domain of a ferocious, 100-foot myth.
This is the set of Kong: Skull Island, the action epic that will bring one of the most iconic movie monsters of all time stomping back to screens in 2017, accompanied by a heavy-hitting cast led by Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson and John C Reilly.
But don’t expect to see Kong scaling the Empire State Building. While previous Kong films have only visited his otherworldly habitat as a prelude to the big showdown in New York, with this one, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and the producing team behind 2014’s Godzilla are carving out a whole new mythology, one that unfolds entirely within this primordial Eden – where Kong is King and humanity does not belong.
Within the stormy, savagely beautiful terrain of Kualoa Ranch, it’s not that far of a leap to imagine colossal creatures descending from the surrounding cliffs. That tangible reality, says Vogt-Roberts, is the linchpin of an ambitious six-month shoot that will sweep cast and crew across three continents.
“I’m an outdoorsy guy,” smiles the Detroit native. “So, to me, it was incredibly important to shoot the film practically, on environments the actors can interact with, as opposed to putting them on a green screen stage. We’re bringing Kong to life at a whole new scale in this movie, so it’s critical that his world feels tactile, real and absolutely alive.”
Following a string of award-winning short films and the independent hit The Kings of Summer, Kong: Skull Island is by far the biggest movie Vogt-Roberts has ever made. “You can’t fabricate a giant 30-foot skull on an indie film,” he attests. “This is mind’s eye, childhood dream stuff!”
But the young filmmaker does not take on a cinematic legacy lightly. “With the technology available to us today, we have an opportunity to honour all the qualities of this character that have resonated across time while delivering a brand new Kong for this generation,” he says. “That’s why our Kong will be the biggest ever brought to the screen. There’s a weight and gravity to him that communicates, on a very instinctive level, that here is something greater than ourselves. I want people to feel what it’s like to look up and see something conscious and ferocious and 100-feet tall looming over you.”
A diverse line-up of characters are gingerly picking their way through the skeleton-strewn wasteland. John Goodman plays Bill Randa, the head of Monarch and nominal leader of the mission; Samuel L. Jackson is Lt. Colonel Packard, a battle-hardened Vietnam vet leading the airborne survey of the island; Tom Hiddleston plays a former SAS tracker Randa tracked down in Saigon named Captain James Conrad; and Brie Larson’s Mason Weaver is a self-described “anti-war” photographer who muscled her way into the mission out of curiosity about its true purpose.
But while Kong is the biggest, he’s far from the most vicious thing here. “There are other, even more terrifying creatures on the island, and this is a boneyard of these creatures’ victims,” confides Goodman, taking in the gigantic, all-too-real bones nearly glowing in the misty air. “It’s pretty unbelievable what they developed, with the smoke machines and all kinds of crunchy stuff to walk on. I hope they aren’t human bones,” he jokes, “but they sure look like ‘em.”
The actors are called back to set and we watch the tense sequence play out. At first it looks like the visitors might pass through the boneyard without incident, but just as they emerge from the mandibles of the giant ape-skull, all hell breaks loose. A visceral, combustive battle sequence plays out as the visitors fend off an ambush by a legion of creatures, some dive-bombing them from the air. And while the actors put up a credible fight, their attackers, like Kong himself, will be added later via CGI.
Samuel L Jackson echoes his director on the benefits of filming in this environment. “I have a pretty vivid imagination, so I can imagine a lot of things that would naturally be out here. Trudging across rough terrain and feeling the tropical heat definitely helps add a reality to it, physically and visually, for all of us.”
Though he was actually one of the stars of Jurassic Park, the actor never got to Kualoa Ranch during filming. “Just when I was getting ready to start, a hurricane hit and destroyed all the sets. I was supposed to get chased through the jungle by a raptor, but I never got the chance. That’s how it ended up with just my arm hanging on a wall.”
Needless to say, he’s relishing the experience now. “I like being in warm places,” he grins. “One of the things about this project that appealed to me was the idea of going to all these beautiful places when it’s winter all over America. It really is a blessing and a privilege to able to go out every day and pretend to be something else, and to have as much fun as you possibly can while you’re doing it.”
For the cast and crew, the adventure spans not only the dense, vibrant jungles of Kualoa Ranch and the Waikane Valley’s Ohulehule Forest Conservancy, but Honolulu’s historic Chinatown district, which the art department transformed into bustling 1970s Saigon.
It has also taken them into Hawaii’s skies, says Hiddleston: “Brie and I went with the second unit in a formation of Hueys. We were flying over this volcanic valley and the Pacific in a stunt helicopter being piloted by Fred North, who did the loop-the-loop in Spectre. It was completely open, without any doors, and we were both leaning out, but fully strapped in so we were safe. To get to do that and call it a job is really amazing.”
But as adrenaline-pumping as these moments have been, it is just the beginning for the makers of Kong: Skull Island. To achieve the full scope and scale they are after, cast and crew have two more continents to visit. “We scoured the globe to find environments that we could put up on the screen and make audiences think, ‘Wow, where is that?’” says Vogt-Roberts. “And as beautiful as Hawaii is, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
Hiddleston on why he loved filming in Vietnam and Australia overleaf…