A Mighty Interview - Part I
Mark F. Berry
As all King Kong fans know, there have been a lot of creations over the years designed to tie in to the beloved classic tale. Books, movies, TV shows - almost none of which did justice to the lasting quality of the original. Finally an addition to the Kong mythos has appeared that is truly worthy of the name, in the form of a new book by the multi-talented artist - and now author - Joe DeVito. It’s called Kong: King of Skull Island, and it is a melding of art and story that builds upon, and enriches, and expands the saga of Skull Island in wondrous ways. Enjoying this book, it is almost like a second “lost” Kong film, made by Cooper and Shoedsack and O’Brien themselves and just as great as the original, has been discovered in some long-forgotten film vault and brought to light for us to enjoy.
I had the distinct pleasure and privilege of sharing a table setup with Joe at the WonderFest convention in May, and he graciously embraced my idea of doing an interview for Prehistoric Times. So, let us all now return to Skull Island, with Joe DeVito as our guide!
Let me begin by saying that I enjoyed your book tremendously. It’s a gorgeous piece of work - both the text and the art ...
And I feel safe in assuming that it was a true labor of love ...
It absolutely was. In terms of fantasy and science fiction,King Kong was a cornerstone in my development - I was only about three or four when I saw King Kong for the first time! I had a very active imagination and, as you know, for people who like dinosaurs, they turn on that switch inside you that just mesmerizes. Even before seeing Kong, I was a dinosaur fanatic. I looked at every picture book I could find and since I was born in New Your city, I was also taken to the Museum of Natural History. Then suddenly, for the first time they were on a screen, as real as real could be to me. It was like something out of a dream and the black and white really added to it – it was all so marvelously atmospheric.
As is your book, which serves as both prequel and sequel to the original Kong tale ...
Yes, it’s a prequel/sequel to the story. What I set out to do was address all the questions about King Kong that had been rolling around in my head for more than thirty years. The classic, of course, is if the islanders built a wall big enough to keep Kong out, why did it have doors big enough to let him in? But there were many more mysteries than that. How could the wall be built in the first place – even the Egyptians did not have monsters to contend with, the pyramids were hard enough to erect as it was. And what happened to the civilization that built it, surely it could not have been the remnant tribe that lived in fear behind the wall – or was it some other civilization altogether? We all know dinos and mammals evolved together and that the dinos won out, so how could a giant mammal like Kong – a highly developed primate no less - be on an island dominated by dinosaurs? Was Kong just the Andre the Giant of the gorilla world, or was he something more, something different? Were there others and what else lived on that island that we never saw? The questions went on and on.
Obviously, in the original King Kong story, Kong dies at the end, so how do you go back and tell his story when he’s already dead and still maintain the connection with the original tale that occurs in the 1930’s? I had to come up with a storyline that would allow me to look back on the fact that he had fallen from the Empire State Building, and then somehow allow me to tell the story of what happened on Skull Island before Carl Denham ever arrived there. It was an interesting problem to solve.
How did your book project originally come about?
I was approached about 14 years ago to do an illustrated, “coffee table” book of the original King Kong. I was immediately intrigued because I’d been a Kong fan all of my life, but almost at the same time, other circumstances lined up to allow me to pursue a dream project. Suddenly, I had an opening to do anything that I wanted to do (in the sense of starting something – not financing from beginning to end). I already had King Kong on the brain because I’d been thinking about the coffee table book. To make it different, I had been entertaining the idea of illustrating everything that was not in the movie - scenes of taking him from the island to the ship, how they shackled him in the theater; the kind of images that would compliment what we had already seen. When the opportunity arose for me to do my own book - in other words, not be hired by somebody else to do theirs - what became self evident to me was to create an entirely unique story that answered a lifetime’s worth of Kong questions, and maybe even create a few more along the way.
How did you go about the daunting task of developing such a story?
Well, there were a couple of premises on which I began to built my story. First, as a boy, I always wanted to know what they did with Kong’s body. After seeing the movie as a little kid, I thought King Kong was real. He was so plausible, not like Godzilla who was several hundred feet tall (which I loved nonetheless but would not see until a few years later). Kong was the size of the dinosaurs whose bones I was already so familiar with and had seen up close. When I went to the museum of natural history I actually asked them, “Where is King Kong?” and they looked at me like I was crazy. I was a little boy, like five years old, and I said, “King Kong has to be here. If he fell off the Empire State Building and died just a few blocks away, this is where they would bring the bones!” That always kind of stuck with me - the idea of, “Whatever happened to his bones? How come I never got to see them when the museum is so full of dinosaurs?”
So, I started there, with something I always wanted to know when I was a boy - that was really the first seed of my story, find out what happened to Kong’s body. But how can it be plausible that anybody could lose King Kong?” He gets shot off the Empire State Building, and he’s 25 feet tall. I figured if I’m going to tell that kind of story, some time needed to pass to allow things to happen and memory of it to be manipulated. 25 years was a good amount of time, and it would allow the son of Carl Denham to grow up and be old enough to pursue the mystery.
And Vincent Denham grows up to be, quite appropriately, a paleontologist.
Eventually, yes, that is what I settled on. Among others, I thought it solved two key problems. First, he be extremely interested in dinosaurs and have a strong interest in going to Kong’s island. The second reason was - and this was essential to my plot dynamic – that as a paleontologist, he is also a man of science. For reasons I will touch on later, Vincent Denham needed to be portrayed as a man obsessively buried in his science.
My theory was that Kong could have passed into myth if I created the right set of circumstances. A given was that everything took place in the midst of the Depression. Technology then was not as it is today, and people had their own survival to think about. So it might be plausible if there was a concerted effort to get rid of Kong’s body and the accompanying evidence by powerful people (like the ones financing Denham and the politicians they paid off that were responsible for letting him into NYC) who tried to bury details and deflect responsibility by confiscating everything: photos, debris and the like. They would buy off the media and plant alternative stories, suppress and threaten people – that sort of thing. Since the Depression was followed by World War II, the Korean War, and then the Cold War in quick succession ... after about 25 years, you could begin to accept the idea that possibly it all could become relegated to the status of myth. And not only did Kong’s body disappear, but Carl Denham as well.
And by making Vincent a scientist, you also had the natural scientist’s skepticism working for you, which would make it more plausible that he had been able to convince himself that Kong’s rampage maybe didn’t happen.
Exactly. He wasn’t going to believe it unless he had absolute proof, and therefore that would compel him to go in search of Kong’s island – and his father. Therein is the underlying aspect of the story. What you said is right in the sense that he goes looking for real dinosaurs. If Kong’s story was true, that meant dinosaurs might still exist as well, and if he found them he’d be the most famous paleontologist in the world. But the subliminal reason he wants to go, the most important one, is that deep down inside he wants to find his father; and hopefully peace inside himself as well. Vincent was essentially orphaned early on and he is looking for answers.
So through a bit of good fortune he finds his old man’s original map, gets in touch with a veteran sailor named Jack Driscoll, and sets out.
That was the easy part of the story. The hard thing for me was coming up with a way to tie Vincent’s story in with the events on the island, to make them resonate and play off of eachother while providing the vehicle to tell the backstory of Kong. What would their common thread be? I kept thinking about Vincent ... he lost his parents very early on, he’s turned in on himself, he’s cut himself off from everybody and buried himself in his science in order to avoid dealing with his emotions because he is afraid of being hurt again. And then for whatever reason the thought popped into my mind, “He’s built a wall inside himself.” It hit me like a lightning bolt, “There’s your story!” I even echoed that in the book by painting a scene where the Wall is literally struck by a lightning bolt.
As Carl Denham tells the reporters in the movie, “That’s your story, boys!”
That was the ‘hook’ I was looking for - that the psychological wall inside Vincent is analogous with the physical wall on the island. That gave me the perfect way to tie the present story in with the story from the past. Vincent had turned in on himslef behind a self-imposed metaphorical wall, whereas on the island, the culture was atrophying and dying behind an actual wall. They both shared the same handicap: they both lived in fear. I began to regard the wall as a character in its own right and eventually referred to it as the Wall.
Now, speaking of the book’s premise, one thing that becomes noticeable right away is the fact that, in the world of your story, the events depicted in the film The Son of Kong never happened. And that was sort of an automatic decision, wasn’t it? Since the entire island sinks into the sea at the end of that movie ...
Yes, I needed to ignore The Son of Kong for the time being, not really confronting how I was going to approach the fact that The Son of Kong existed. I was just coming up with an idea on how to tell a story that I wanted to tell. Now, this was in the early conceptual stage and long before I knew anything about the rights quagmire around King Kong. Only after coming into contact with the family of Merian C. Cooper through their attorney, the late Charles FitzSimons, and a lot of joint research, did I finally come to the conclusion that the best way to go was to not touch the movie at all. The legal situation surrounding that is as big and hairy as King Kong is. The safest way to go was to base my story on the original novel.
And you’re referring to the original novel written by Delos W. Lovelace, published in 1932 and based on the preliminary screenplay ...
Correct. And that actually solved several problems, two of them very practical. One of them being that I could do it, and the second one being that I did not have to deal with The Son of Kong since it was a movie. You know, I always enjoyed The Son of Kong in and of itself - you would probably agree with me - because as a kid I always wanted to find out more about King Kong and that was the only movie that ever offered a glimpse. However, it was very unfulfilling as a true follow-up to King Kong. At least for me.
Yes ... the best part about it was just getting to see more facets of the Carl Denham character. Robert Armstrong obviously enjoyed playing that role ...
True. But as much fun as The Son of Kong was, we all know that it was rushed into production, it was done more for laughs, and the people that made it really weren’t that happy with it either, since they all knew it could’ve been done better. So basing my story on the novel eliminated the need, in practical terms, to deal with that. But it also achieved something else, that had a bit of poetry in it. The novel was actually published in 1932, whereas the movie came out in March of ‘33. So, the 25-year time period after ‘32 put me in 1957, which I found a very cool year to base my story in. One reason was an event of great importance to me (I was born!) and the other was a very relevant world-changing event. 1957 was the year they launched Sputnik, which introduced the age of satellite technology. That was a very symbolic thing for my story, because in a very short time the entire globe would be clinically mapped. Gone would be the charm of the long sea voyage to an uncharted island. The romance of such adventures would sadly drift into memory and be replaced by voyages into the infinite ocean of space.
Right. I’ve commented in some of my writings about the incredible difference in the size of the world from when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote The Lost World in 1912 to what we have now, less than a hundred years later.
As Tevye would say, “Well put!” So, all that being what it is, I thought 1957 was the perfect year to begin my book. Basing it on the novel became very natural. Especially since the main story in the novel and the one in the movie are virtually identical ...
Yes, they’re very close ...
Very similar overall. But there are a few interesting variations. The one memorable character that’s different is Charley, who’s the cook in the movie. The parallel character in the novel is called Lumpy, who’s not a cook but basically an older seaman. Another little alteration in the details is the name of Englehorn’s ship – it is called the Wanderer in the book instead of the Venture. Also, in the book the spider scene remains, which is kind of neat ...
Right, the dear, departed “spider-pit sequence.”
There are other scenes that are in the book that are not in the movie and visa-versa. For instance, in the book, Kong is actually attacked and chased - whereas in the movie every time we see him he’s beating the crap out of anything that gets in his way - in the book, he actually confronts a pair of Triceratops, and they put him on the run! He handles them in an intriguing way – more with intelligence than mano-a-mano (sp?). That’s why in the movie, when you see the famous log scene, the men aren’t just walking across the log to get to the other side, they’re all running like hell and looking behind them. What they don’t show is what’s chasing them, although I think in the movie they actually used the Styracosaurus that later appeared in Son of Kong.
Yes. Actually, starting out it was going to be an Arsinoitherium ...
I remember seeing pre-production art to that effect and a still of that as well...
And then later on it was changed to the Styracosaurus, and then eventually it ended up being nothing at all - that was shown, anyway.
Interestingly, many scenes in the novel are actually more closely related to the scenes portrayed in the pre-production art that was done for the movie than the scenes in the movie were. In the book they don’t have the segment where Kong beats the hell out of the train ...most fans will know that’s the last scene that was shot for the movie, to add a 14th reel. And in the book, as in the pre-production art, Kong is bound and chained in a stadium as opposed to inside a theatre. So, there are some intriguing differences.
Yes. Originally the Kong vs. Triceratops sequence was planned for the movie, but got axed in pre-production. As I recall, Kong was going to fight off the ceratopsians by hurling big chunks of peat at them ...
That does happen in the novel - giant slabs of asphalt, they call it. One Triceratops gets caught in quicksand, and then Kong pummels the other one. They’re pretty aggressive creatures. They portray them very similar to rhinos – powerful and brutish with belligerent tendencies.
Getting back to your book, you came up with the prequel/sequel structure and decided that would work well for you?
I finally had a reason to tie the past story of the island in with the present and Vincent’s personal dilemma. But I had to figure out a way to tell the story. For that, the character of the Storyteller became necessary (she was actually two or three characters at first). Vincent, who makes it to the island half dead, awakens to find himself in a dark cavern in the Storyteller’s presence.
Her story is about two ancient islanders, male and female, who refused to live in fear behind the Wall. They see the people that they know being sacrificed like animals to animals, and they say, “We’re not going to live like that.” They have the courage – unlike Vincent and the islanders - to break through the Wall. They want to find out what’s on the other side of it, find out who built it and how, and bring back what they find in order to save their own people. In the telling of the story we find strong parallels between the islanders behind the Wall and Vincent because their needs and fears are the same. The Wall plays a major role in the life of every character, from Vincent to the Storyteller, to the two islanders Ishara and Kublai, to Carl Denham, and even to King Kong himself.
And yet another layer of the story involves the character of Kara ...
She was the last character that was added, as a suggestion by the editor, actually. My original story had a lot of the present story at the beginning and the end, but the editor said, “You need to develop something that gives us more throughout the book, that deals with Vincent, so that we stay connected to his character.” And that was when Kara was created. She is a very powerful personality and she makes the Storyteller’s job ominously difficult. Now, not only does Vincent’s life depend on the telling of her story, but the very survival of the island’s culture and everyone in it as well.
I really liked how the Storyteller’s story sets up decisions to be made by both Vincent and Kara, as far as how they are going to choose to live their lives from that point forward ...
What I found challenging was weaving the fate of all the characters together, even though some of them lived a hundred years apart. Of course King Kong is the hub around which everything revolves (remember all of the above was to create a premise on which to tell the story of Kong himself and delve into the mysteries of Skull Island). It’s almost as if fate brought them all together; when Carl Denham arrived on that island, he unwittingly put a whole sequence of events into motion. Yes, it’s terrible a lot of the people got killed and Kong was taken from the island, but we discover that there is a far bigger picture involved and that Denham was just one spoke in the wheel. That was an important thread of the human aspect of the story, to basically say that nobody is perfect, we all stumble through life to some degree and make mistakes. It’s the way that we deal with our mistakes and those of others that determines whether we end up being happy or unhappy, or living or dying ourselves. Essentially, my primary concern was to tell a good action adventure story about King Kong, but one that had an interesting human element, too.
Well, this interview is for Prehistoric Times, so let’s talk dinosaurs!
The book, like Skull Island itself, is swarming with prehistoric life. You’ve got mosasaurs, pterosaurs, ceratopsians, sauropods, crocodilians, a terrific Archaeopteryx which is actually a really cool character in the book, and dromaeosaurs and tyrannosaurs and all sorts of things. But then there are also a few species that readers may not be familiar with, since they are original creations on your part. Was there a temptation to stay entirely with the traditional “old favorites,” or did you always have in mind to introduce some newcomers?
Both, actually. To answer the first part of your question, I came within inches of not only having only the old dinosaurs, but even portraying them as tail-draggers. I came up with a scientific scenario that would make that plausible. Whether it’s physiologically possible or not, I can’t say. I could not help thinking, wouldn’t it be cool if they get to this island with living dinosaurs, and they really do drag their tails, that all the images we grew up with were actually correct for the dinos on Kong’s island?
And stand upright ...
I was sorely tempted since I’m a huge fan of all the books and movies I grew up with in the 50’s and 60’s – and many others up through the present. There is a lot of nostalgia tied into it all and nothing is more powerful than that. But I finally decided the idea was just too far out there – I figured taking on a prequel/sequel to King Kong was scary enough! Still, it would have been fun...
Yes! I like my Brontosaurus lazing about in a muddy swamp, chewing on a water plant!
And the Burian Brachiosaurus walking in 40 foot deep lakes with just their heads above the water!
Breathing through their funny-placed nostrils!
The good old days! I had been working on my book before Jurassic Park came out. When it did and was a groundbreaking new dinosaur movie (something I always dreamed my story could be), I thought, well, the thing that was still different in my book is that the dinosaurs never died. They kept evolving for 65 million more years. Therefore, I could do anything I want, and create creatures nobody’s ever seen before.
When our interview continues in the next Prehistoric Times, Joe DeVito talks about his different concepts for the Skull Island dinosaurs, more about Kong’s origins, his homages to Ray Harryhausen and the other dino-influences of his youth, how he creates a painting, meeting the family of Merian C. Cooper, and much more!