WILMINGTON, N.C. — "A real gorilla doesn't have these detailed expressions," says Carlo Rambaldi, "but for the movie, you need this. It's acting."
King Kong, or, to be exact, the mechanical head that model maker Rambaldi has made of everyone's favorite rampaging ape, has just switched into his "ferocious" mode. All snarl and sharp teeth, the model looks appropriately scary, and the 20 or so technicians sandwiched into the small, hot sound stage in a corner of the DEG Film Studios (as in De Laurentiis Entertainment Group) are excited. As a jockey-sized actor dressed in an ape suit sits in front of a camera, four technicians operating levers that look like the gear shifts found in 18-wheeler trucks push and pull, tug and jerk, operating a mechanical system that allows Kong to achieve a variety of expressions. Want a snarl? Push some mouth levers here, a few nose and brow levers there, and you've got the look. How about "lust" or a healthy "sniff?" No problem: Rambaldi has worked out the glitches.
Creator of E.T. and winner of three Academy Awards (for "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," "Alien" and the 1976 remake of "King Kong"), Rambaldi is a key ingredient in the production of "King Kong Lives!," the DEG production currently filming here. Rambaldi was just in Rome to receive the Premio Alcide de Gasperi, Italy's highest civilian honor, and flew back to run mechanical and photo tests of the several Kong models that will be so crucial to the sequel's success.
Ten years after producer De Laurentiis promised that "When the monkey die, people gonna cry," King Kong will rise from the cinematic dead and tug at our heart strings again. Despite nearly unanimous critical pans, his remake of the 1933 classic grossed more than $70 million at the domestic box office and was a Kong-sized hit overseas. So it was obvious that Kong's appeal transcends cultures and generations--and hence this sequel, due at Christmas.
Fifty-three years after he first appeared on the screen, Kong has, in fact, passed beyond the realm of classic film character into the areas of folklore and mythology. The "Beauty and the Beast" sexual subtext of the Kong films has been the object of comment and speculation for decades, and Kong's final, valiant stand on top of the Empire State Building is one of the truly enduring moments in the history of the cinema.
More important, despite the destruction he wreaks, Kong is, like Frankenstein and the Wolfman, a monster with a heart: a tragically misunderstood being, a creature who strikes back only in defense. "You can love him because he's unspoiled," sums up Michael McClendon, a day player on the sequel. "It's something we would all like to go back to: that lost innocence."
In "Kong Lives!," the ape's story takes up where the remake left off: Kong, after being riddled with machine-gun bullets and falling from the top of New York's World Trade Center, is airlifted to a medical facility, where he is put on life-support systems.
Cut to 10 years later. Explorer Brian Kerwin (Sally Field's errant husband in "Murphy's Romance's"), trekking through the wilds of Borneo, discovers a female equivalent of Our Hero. Rushed to a Tennessee medical facility, Lady Kong's blood is used for transfusions during an operation performed by Linda Hamilton (the target of "The Terminator") in which Kong is fitted with a 10-ton Jarvik heart. After recovering, Kong, sniffing his lady equivalent's "aroma," helps her escape. They flee across the Tennessee wilderness, with the Army in panting pursuit.
The love birds are eventually recaptured, but not before Lady Kong has been impregnated. The film ends with the birth of Baby Kong. Another sequel seems inevitable.
"Kong is classic mythology," says Kerwin, "the monster that nobody understands. Everybody wants to watch the monster wreaking havoc, but the attractive part of the myth is that there's one person who's privy to the monster's affections, who understands him."
In the previous Kong films, that love interest was played by women: first Fay Wray, then Jessica Lange. But in the spirit of camp fun that the producers and director John Guillermin, who did the remake, hope to impart to this sequel, it is Kerwin who will be the object of Lady Kong's crush. With this in mind, Rambaldi has had to come up with three separate Kongs--male, female and baby--each with individualized features. It's these creations that will be the stars of the film, since, as the actors are quick to acknowledge, plot and humans are also-rans.
"The movie is about Kong, about special effects, about jeeps being blown up," says John Ashton, who plays the Army general responsible for Kong's capture (and is well-known to millions as Judge Reinhold's detective partner in "Beverly Hills Cop"). " 'I'd like to thank the academy for blowing up my jeep,' " he says, mimicking an Oscar acceptance speech, " 'and Kong for smashing me into the ground. . . .' Acting is simply secondary in a picture like this."