While protagonist James Conrad had to face the mammoth King Kong in Kong: Skull Island, the movie's star Tom Hiddleston was concerned about something much smaller in size instead.
For 10 days, the British actor and his co-stars had to wade through the swamps of Ninh Binh in Vietnam as part of the filming process.
“I was wearing half a wetsuit underneath my trousers. It was early March and it was quite cold – which was a challenge in itself – being submerged in this cold swamp water,” Hiddleston said, setting the scene in an interview in Los Angeles, California.
“And being the cold environment that it was, there was a little bug that wanted to crawl into a warmer space in my wetsuit,” Hiddleston shared, his face breaking into a wide grin, seeming to recall the moment with both embarrassment and fondness at the same time.
The 36-year-old actor was responding to a question on whether he had any dangerous encounters on set.
It’s a valid question seeing that Kong: Skull Island wasn’t shot in the comforts of a Hollywood studio, nor did it rely solely on the wonders of computer-generated imagery (CGI) to tell its story. Rather, the cast and crew members filmed in the great outdoors of Oahu in Hawaii, Gold Coast in Australia and various locations in Vietnam.
Kong: Skull Island is a new take on the King Kong franchise which, set in 1973, chronicles the adventures of a group of explorers surveying an uncharted island in the Pacific – Skull Island. There, nestled between never-before-seen species of flora and fauna lives the legendary monstrous ape, Kong.
While Hiddleston assured he felt relatively safe on set – except for that tiny critter which may have caused some mild discomfort, of course (yikes!) – co-stars Toby Kebbell and Jason Mitchell recalled having a stomach-churning experience once.
“When they were teaching us how to fly helicopters, they flew us like inches away from the rocks. I was like, ‘Is that how close we get to the rocks?’,” Kebbell recounted with amazement before letting out a chuckle.
Kebbell and Mitchell, who play helicopter pilots transporting the explorers to Skull Island, actually manned the helicopters themselves in the film.
“You just have to get over your fear because once you do, it becomes a huge video game, but in real life,” Mitchell said, adding they only had about a week to learn and obtain their licences.
Whether it’s wading through swamps for days in picturesque landscapes or steering helicopters, all these speak volumes to their commitment in making a film that’s as realistic and visually-compelling as possible.
A big part of that has to do with director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ devotion to giving audiences something they haven’t seen before.
“I feel like with 90% of the film today, you can take one set piece, cut it out from one movie and insert it in another movie and you would have no idea,” said Vogt-Roberts, who is making his major studio film directorial debut with Kong: Skull Island following his 2013 indie hit The King Of Summers.
“It’s always the same thing, which is why audiences aren’t engaged. For me, I want every creature or set piece to be something that can only exist in this film.”
The media got the chance to witness an early screening of the film and true enough, Skull Island, created with footage from the three filming locations and the magic of CGI, sucks viewers into a land that feels both real and otherworldly.
The main draw is undeniably the magnificent creatures that inhabit it – giant water buffaloes, sky-high spiders with bamboo-likelegs and of course, the colossal ape itself.
Kong stands at 30m tall and took some 300 technicians and a year and a half to perfect.
Kong, who is set to go against another iconic cinematic monster Godzilla in the upcoming 2020 Godzilla Vs Kong, has to be large enough to be a formidable opponent.
But screenwriter Max Borenstein stresses it was also important to be sensible in determining its size: “The island itself dictates how big he can get before it gets ridiculous, before he’s so big there can’t be any interaction between him and his environment.”
“The film is a big action-adventure spectacle but I always believe these adventure films are grounded by complex characters,” said Hiddleston, who signed on to the film for a chance to play a heroic character for the first time.
Indeed, there’s more than meets the eye to Hiddleston’s Conrad, a British tracker hired to help the team navigate the treacherous terrain of Skull Island.
“He takes the job for the money but I think his motivations are much deeper. His father never came back from World War II. So you have a man who lost his father in a war and he has dedicated his life to recovering lost soldiers.”
Another complex character is US Army Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard, who is hell-bent on taking down Kong. It is the tail end of the Vietnam War and the United States is leaving Vietnam, but Packard believes the war is still winnable. Tasked with escorting the explorers to Skull Island, those frustrations find their way there and he lets them out on Kong.
Samuel L. Jackson said personal experiences informed his portrayal of Packard. While he wasn’t drafted to serve in the Vietnam War, the effects of the war hit close to home. “Three months into my freshman year in college, I had a cousin who was my age and who I had grown up with, he got killed in Vietnam. So the Vietnam War was very real to me.”
Kong: Skull Island not only adopts a new storyline, it does away with some old tropes and stereotypes.
For starters, its leading lady Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) is a war photojournalist who forces her way into the expedition to Skull Island. She is worlds apart from the women of past King Kong films, played by Fay Wray, Jessica Lange and Naomi Watts, who are often portrayed as damsels in distress, screaming for their lives.
“I think we’re just ready to see different types of expressions and different kinds of people, not just women. We’re finally cracking through and seeing that maybe people are more complicated than the cliches we’ve previously established,” offered Larson, who won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Room last year.
Borenstein chimed in on the strong female role: “There was a long period of time where every movie had a love story and being the love interest was mainly the role of the female character. With this movie, that’s not the role of the female character, she’s a character in her own right, not the eye candy or love interest.”
As such, the focus isn’t really on the romance between its good-looking leads Conrad and Weaver, a rather unexpected move given its blockbuster appeal.
“It changes the way we perceive companionship and love ... it doesn’t have to be reduced to just a romantic relationship. You can really just not want your friend to die,” Larson commented.
This new iteration trades in love for something else – laughs. The film’s comic relief comes in the form of WWII Lieutenant Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly). Having been stranded on Skull Island for 28 years, Marlow is rather quirky, to say the least.
Director Vogt-Roberts shared the character’s humorous lines weren’t “on the page”. He explained: “I think improv is a tool, not necessarily to be funny, but to be true. I think a lot of these big action films feel very packaged and I wanted to use improv to make it feel true and authentic.”
While the film has found new ways to retell the story of King Kong, some may wonder if the mythic ape is still relevant today, over 80 years since the original 1933 King Kong?
Vogt-Roberts draws a parallel between his 1970s-set film and our world today.
“(Setting the film in the 1970s), it felt reasonable that there was still a time where we could discover an island or discover the unknown. The reason the (case of the missing plane) was such an enormous deal, beyond being such a terrible tragedy, is because we live in a time now where we think we control everything and have the world figured out.
“Like, ‘How can a plane go missing? It’s 2015.’ And suddenly we’re reminded of the fact that we don’t know everything.”