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This is a column written on the basis of a dare, a personal challenge issued to me, keeper of the Kong Files. "If your mission is to write about all things Kong," wrote the anonymous petitioner, "let's see you do a piece of King Kong Lives. An interesting piece."

I swallowed hard at the mention of what has to be one of the worst Kong-related films ever made (foreign or domestic) but resolved to come through in the clutch.

Here then, is Part One of a two part (!) look at Dino DeLaurentiis's 1986 sequel to his 1976 Kong remake -- undertaken with the condition that I am free to engage in self-indulgent, self-serving digressions. In return for the reader's indulgence I will resolve to get both parts posted in under a week.

So we begin. True Story. Honest.

It was a couple years ago and I was visiting the in-laws on a long weekend in Minnesota. Since I was deep into working on what was then called "Skull Island", the Joe DeVito book that eventually became "Kong, King of Skull Island", I had to spend much of the weekend hunched over a laptop.

I was, frankly, nearly burned out. I'd pitched "Skull Island" all over the place. Joe had been working on art and an elaborate, detailed back story for years before I'd met him, coming tantalizingly close to publication on a couple of occasions. Now we were working together to get the thing off the ground once and for all, suffering the usual diet of rejections and dismissals along the way. Unfortunately, we were very seldom the beneficiaries of a merciful "quick no." Instead, editors at publishing houses that shall remain nameless would string us along for weeks and months - asking for additional character summaries, sample chapters, story treatments, another synopsis, etc. all along the way - before finally passing on the project. This was before the general public knew that Peter Jackson's remake was on the horizon: "People don't know who King Kong is. Thanks anyway."

It was getting to be absolutely grueling. If it was tough for me, you can imagine how hard it was for Joe, who had done an incredible amount of work on the story and art -- years worth - - before I came into the picture. The framework he already had in place was impressive, but, as any writer will tell you, nailing down details of character and plot into a cohesive narrative thread is very difficult. "Skull Island" was designed to be a sequel and prequel to King Kong (as manifested in the 1933 film) - that's a lot of territory to cover. Joe had worked out pages and pages of explanatory back story on the Skull Island culture, chock full of mass exoduses, forgotten technologies, subterranean passages, evolving flora and fauna, warring philosophies, religious undercurrents, ancient citadels, political intrigue. How do you get all that across while telling a good adventure story? (Ask Brad Strickland, as he was able to do it very well in "Kong: King of Skull Island".)

I went at the "Skull Island" tale from quite a different angle than Joe and Brad eventually did. In many of my plots - I did countless variations that still live on my Mac - the four central characters that travel back to Skull Island in 1958 are Vincent Denham (paleontologist son of showman Carl, and thus subject to ridicule by his academic peers), Susan Driscoll (daughter of the deceased Jack and Ann Driscoll, she is able to secure a boat for a journey to the island and has found an old pirate's logbook among her parents' possessions, and therefore comes along for the trip; think Kate Hudson), a none-too-likable "Kong conspiracy theorist" named Frank Overton (who seeks to prove that Skull Island actually exists), and William "Stacks" Stackner, an older, rugged and well-traveled "field man" who works with Denham at the Museum of Natural History in New York (sort of a proto-Indiana Jones who serves as Vincent's temporary father figure). Since my version stays in the vault I can spill these beans: the event that brings the protagonists together is Ann Driscoll's funeral; we learn that Jack and Ann's flight away from Kong's lair was aided by the accidental discovery of underground passages with pictograph-scrawled walls (one of many secrets kept from Denham by the two lovers); and it becomes clear that Captain Engelhorn avenged his decimated crew, marooning mortally injured Carl Denham on Skull Island when the regretful showman sails back in an attempt to clear his conscious by returning Kong's body (watch Englehorn's interactions with Denham in the '33 film and tell me he doesn't have a bad taste in his mouth!) Thus, Vincent discovers on Skull Island both Kong's body (eerily partially preserved within the still-sealed hold of the beached Venture; imagine popping the hatch and shining a flashlight on that) and his father's grave; two betrayed, toppled giants who died far away from home. And, naturally, "Stacks" meets his demise in noble fashion late in the story.

Illustration by Joe DeVito,
from "Kong: King of Skull Island

One of my favorite little exchanges is between Vincent Denham, halfconscious and recuperating from injuries suffered while coming ashore on Skull Island, and Storyteller, the very old, very mystic islander who is caring for him. At one point Joe proposed that Vincent should be a Jesuit seminarian (though still studying paleontology) experiencing a crisis of faith. This is from one of my story treatments:

"You called for your father, Vincent Denham. You also cried out the name of Kong," she says. She is a native of the island and tells him to call her Storyteller; she is the living collective memory of the people of Skull Island.   

Vincent sees that he is now wearing his rosary around his neck; Storyteller has evidently placed it there. He sees that Storyteller wears a very ornate necklace of her own that is unmistakably the one he saw sketched in the pirate logbook.

"Does your amulet give you comfort? Who is the suffering man depicted?" asks the Storyteller.

Vincent speaks haltingly. "He is Christ, the living sacrifice. He is the focus of our worship."

"You kill your deity. You kill our deity. For the luvva Mike," she snorts derisively.

Vincent flinches and repeats. "For the luvva Mike?" He recovers himself. "What of your necklace…?" he asks.

"For the luvva Mike, I am the living sacrifice as well."

Or, more specifically, "the sacrifice that lived"; of course, the ornate necklace in question is reserved for female offerings to Kong, and we later learn that Storyteller picked up the snappy thirties-era slang from Carl Denham himself.

Another digression: I planned to propose that Joe create two double-gatefold paintings of the Skull Island wall -- one circa 1930 and the other circa Skull Island's much-earlier "golden age" -- that appear in different sections of the book. You could "open" the gates from the center to reveal a stunning four panels/pages-wide "vista view" (like Merian Cooper's Cinerama!) of the native village as it looked in both eras. During the older "golden era," you see the many sophisticated dwellings and utility structures Joe had meticulously thought through and designed, and even ingenious use of a developed shoreline; the scene tells you volumes about how the people of Skull Island lived without having to resort to a word of prose. The 1930-era view of the exact same vista depicts the "backslide" of the culture and its state when Denham landed there. The wall itself is crudely patched and maintained; in the village you see where formerly handsome colonnades and ingenious water pumps, for instance, are now mere shadows of their earlier form and are crudely repurposed; the shoreline has eroded, shrinking the usable space; the jungle is slowly "swallowing up" everything with roots, vines and creepers; and depictions of Kong replace those of the earlier deity "Gaw." It's the kind of storytelling device that only Joe DeVito could have pulled off because his years-in-the-making vision of Skull Island and its history is developed to the extent that he'd leave no stone unturned. (I also thought we could go really crazy and do a third double-gatefold treatment of the wall and village circa 1958: busted gate crudely repaired; village still bearing scars of Kong's rampage; strange alterations to the various Kong totems reflecting the natives' disorientation after his capture, etc. Cost be damned!)

So, anyway, on this particular weekend I was, as they say, blocked. Mental constipation; nothing was coming. All the typical fears began burrowing into my psyche. I was beginning to believe the naysayers: maybe no one cares about King Kong as a character. I had apprehensions regarding my family's fiscal health: this was turning into quite an expensive project and I was neglecting workaday paying gigs to keep the "Skull Island" plates spinning. And, of course, I didn't want to drop the ball, creatively speaking, and have Joe and I become responsible for something that didn't live up to all that is good and classic about King Kong.

I had visions, specifically, of missteps like DeLaurentiis's King Kong and King Kong Lives.

So, as I often do when thus stymied, I took my little portable office to the local Border's book store and haunted the "Writers and Writing" aisle. As a writer with no "co-workers" with whom to commiserate, I often find it soothing to read about other people struggling to pin their ideas to paper, or get no-nonsense, often outrageous advice from gritty veterans who seem to live on different planets. (To paraphrase one of my favorite such passages about "the writer's life": "I arise at four a.m. and get to my desk in my third-story study, wheat toast and tea in hand, by 4:10. I begin writing immediately, breaking at seven a.m. to breakfast with my family and read the day's paper before returning to work at eight with more toast and tea. At ten I begin to edit the morning's work, usually three pages or so. At noon I meet my son for lunch consisting of soup and a bagel at a diner we like downtown. Then, it's off to do my errands….". How genteel - sounds like some sort of writer's fairyland.)

A slim volume called "The War of Art" by Steven Pressfield called out to me. The subtitle was especially effective: "Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles." I grabbed a seat and dug in. The book consists of single-page meditations on various aspects of the creative life, concentrating principally on recognizing and overcoming what the author calls "Resistance." Resistance is anything that stands between you and consummation of your creative or constructive goals. It can manifest itself as fear, procrastination, rationalization, loneliness, self-medication, self-doubt, lack of discipline - the list is dreadfully long, and these factors are arrayed against you when you face that empty computer screen or blank canvas. Resistance can reside in overt distractions; right now, for instance, there's a guy firing nails into my office window frame and his boombox is blaring that overproduced modern country music that I find especially noxious. At the same time, a less obvious but equally deadly form of Resistance is threatening my concentration as I drift to the issue of just exactly how I'll manage to pay for the array of overdue home repairs we're having done this week.

I was completely hooked after three minutes; this Pressfield guy knew what he was talking about -- a genius. Nearly every page of this great book is quotable, but one particularly insightful passage hit me where I live:


Resistance is directly proportional to love. If you're feeling massive Resistance, the good news is, it means there's tremendous love there too. If you didn't love the project that is terrifying you, you wouldn't feel anything. The opposite of love isn't hate; it's indifference.

The more resistance you experience, the more important the unmanifested art/project/enterprise is to you - and the more gratification you will feel when you finally do it.

So I'm working on a Kong project -- if that ain't love, what is? "The War of Art" had me hook, line and sinker. I found a comfortable seat and dove in.

Then things got weird. This is from page 71:

The first professional writing job I ever had, after seventeen years of trying, was on a movie called King Kong Lives.

Say what? WHAT?!?! I think I may have said that - or made some kind of noise -- out loud; I remember people turning to look at me. Mouth agape, I read on:

I and my partner-at-the-time, Ron Shusett (a brilliant writer and producer who also did Alien and Total Recall) hammered out the screenplay for Dino DeLaurentiis.

Ah -- a tale of artists betrayed by directors and producers. They probably wrote something great and saw it bastardized onscreen.


We loved it; we were sure we had a hit. Even after we'd seen the finished film, we were certain it was a blockbuster.

Even after they'd seen the finished film!

We invited everyone we knew to the premiere, even rented out the joint next door for a post-triumph blowout. Get there early, we warned our friends, the place'll be mobbed.

Nobody showed. There was only one guy in the line beside our guests and he was muttering something about spare change. In the theater, our friends endured the movie in mute stupefaction. When the lights came up, they fled like cockroaches into the night.

Next day came the review in Variety: "… Ronald Shusett and Steven Pressfield; we hope these are not their real names, for their parents sake." When the first week's grosses came in, the flick barely registered. Still I clung to hope. Maybe it's only tanking in urban areas, maybe it's playing better in the suburbs. I motored to an Edge City multiplex. A youth manned the popcorn booth. "How's King Kong Lives?" I asked. He flashed thumbs down. "Miss it, man. It sucks."

Astounding! What are the odds?

I should make something clear before continuing to excoriate King Kong Lives: Mr. Pressfield recovered nicely from the debacle and went on to write, among other things, "The Legend of Bagger Vance" and an acclaimed series of historical novels set in ancient Greece, the latest of which is "The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great.". For his part, co-writer Ronald Shusett had co-written Alien before working on King Kong Lives, and then went on to write Total Recall and contribute the rest of the Alien series as well as other hugely successful films.

This only makes the oddity that is King Kong Lives that much more mystifying. If you've seen the movie you have to wonder what the heck happened. It is bad, really appalling - yet the guys who wrote it are anything but hacks (having just started Pressfield's "The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great", I can say without reservation that the guy is brilliant).

I re-watched King Kong Lives and my memory of its awfulness was confirmed. Terrible. I'll save the specifics for Part Two, but it seemed to me that many of the film's set pieces were designed in service to the economic necessity of re-using props from 1976; my theory was that the writers were given a list of items that were available (giant head and shoulders of Kong, huge mechanical hand, giant corpse, full size legs and feet, etc) and needed to write scenes that utilized them (there's a scene showing Kong buried to his shoulders, for instance, tormented by hillbillies). Much of the action takes place in wooded areas, eliminating the need for complex miniatures. Now that I knew who one of the writers was (and located his website) I could hear his recollection of what had to be a strange experience.

So I contacted him immediately.

Coming in Part Two: King Kong Lives.

(Writer John Michlig's online article KING KONG: LOST AND FOUND can be seen at He's currently working with filmmaker James Mansfield on a documentary entitled EIGHTH WONDER: THE AMAZING TRUE STORY OF CARL DENHAM AND THE BEAST-GOD OF SKULL ISLAND, the startling details of which he promises to share in the very near future.)

THE KONG FILES and contents are © 2004-2006 John Michlig and written for, subsidary of The One Ring®, Inc.

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King Kong Lives

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