On the rare occasion Zach Shields is spotted at an adult swingers club, it’s probably because the comedian Thomas Middleditch convinced him to go. While Shields might pass for a male model with his icy blue eyes and chiseled jawline (the result of lots of gum-chewing, he says), he’s made his career behind the camera, most recently as the writer of the mega-blockbuster Godzilla: King of the Monsters. And as the writer stereotype goes, he’s kind of on the shy side. “I was scared of getting picked on [as a kid,] and the weird part is, people weren’t picking on me already. I was just so scared that it might happen that I decided I should get really tough.” Shields turned to boxing, and then modeling, which brought him to a gay pride parade—where he was tasked to wear a tiny pair of underwear and wave inside a martini glass.
As a coping mechanism for his insecurities, Shields turned to his imagination. His enduring fascination with the supernatural—as exhibited by his band Dead Man’s Bones with none other than Ryan Gosling—eventually led him to conjure up hits like Craggio, Krampus, and, of course, Godzilla. Interview listened in as Shields caught up with his good friend Middleditch. The pair discussed the origins of their relationship on the set of Godzilla (spoiler: it involved an adult swingers club), ghost musicals, and being really, really, ridiculously good-looking. — NICOLETTE MURO
THOMAS MIDDLEDITCH: Hey, Zach. Where are you right now in the world?
ZACH SHIELDS: In Sardinia, walking in the hills.
MIDDLEDITCH: Jesus. Now don’t fuck this up, okay? Let’s start from the beginning—well, I guess as it pertains to Godzilla.
SHIELDS: Is this about Godzilla?
MIDDLEDITCH: This is anything. You’re a bit of a Renaissance man. You’re a boxer, you’re a musician, you’re a Hollywood writer, you’re a dancer. How do you juggle where to inject your energy into all these things, and what gives you the coal in your furnace?
SHIELDS: I probably do so many things because I try to succeed, and then I usually come up a little bit short, so I find something else to get mediocre at. I started boxing [as a kid] because I was scared, which is probably why I did a lot of things. I picked the toughest gym in Rochester to do that.
MIDDLEDITCH: I don’t know if I would survive in the toughest gym in Rochester, either.
SHIELDS: One day I was walking to the gym, because my school was down the street, and I heard people yelling at me. The go-to was “white faggot.” Next thing I knew I was bleeding from my head. And someone had thrown a rock at me. I thought there would be a bunch of tough guys standing on the corner or something, but it was children.
MIDDLEDITCH: We met when we were in Atlanta for Godzilla, and I remember thinking, and I said it right to your face, “You’re the writer? You’re too handsome to be a Hollywood writer.” And then I was pretty much smitten.
SHIELDS: I was a little bit shy, and I also wanted to seem like a professional. I felt as if I couldn’t walk on and be a 12-year-old kid and geek out over the fact that I was on a giant movie. But one day, we were walking back from set together, towards the trailers, and we started talking. You remember that?
MIDDLEDITCH: It got real, real fast.
SHIELDS: And that talk lead us to a pretty good adventure. Thomas, you want to talk about that night?
MIDDLEDITCH: Oh, the night. I’m in Atlanta. There’s my wife and your girlfriend, Kelli. We all had a double date, and we went to this fun little place in Atlanta called Trapeze, which is a known adult swingers club. The first night that we’re all bonding, we saw each other naked. We didn’t do anything, but we certainly witnessed what a swingers club on Sunday night at like 1AM is like. It’s pretty sparse, let me tell you that.
SHIELDS: It was also Sunday brunch. We walked in, it was BYOB, and all the liquor stores were closed, so we had nothing to drink. And we walked into the smell of maple syrup and sausages. There was a guy serving himself from a breakfast buffet next to the stripper pole. He was serving up hot cakes.
SHIELDS: That was our first double date, and now, look at us go. Real talk: Godzilla came to be because my writing partner, Michael Dougherty has been a Godzilla fan since he was probably three years old. To me, it felt like selling an amusement more than telling a story. Like when you go to Disneyland and they have the lines, and the lines are the preparation for the ride. And it’s all this build up for the roller coaster that you go on. And I feel like that’s what it was like to write it.
MIDDLEDITCH: With a big monster movie, there’s lots of action and special effects and all kinds of crazy stuff, but it’s usually the humans that are just passively watching it, and maybe with a scared expression. Was that the problem number one when you and Micheal were writing it?
SHIELDS: It’s a big problem. Because Godzilla’s over 300 feet tall, and people aren’t. You can’t even put a person in the same frame as Godzilla, usually. That’s a difficult thing to do. It was a big challenge, and I think that besides that, obviously, it’s part of the franchise, and with that comes a lot of responsibilities. It was probably the toughest mental exercise of my life.
MIDDLEDITCH: You’re in Sardinia now. Hike those mountains knowing that Godzilla was number one in the US and number one internationally. And goddammit we crushed everybody, just like the beast that he is. What types of projects are your mind spinning to next?
SHIELDS: I think I’m going to take a break from music for a while. I think I would like to direct a movie. Something on a more intimate scale than Godzilla. I have an idea that I’m working on, but I don’t really want to talk about it yet, because you give the power away when you talk about it.
MIDDLEDITCH: You’ve had projects since?
SHIELDS: Dead Man’s Bones, for me, came out of a great friendship, in my life. We started writing a story that would be something of a ghost musical, where there’s two worlds. There’s the living world and the dead world. And this group of kids, in Halloween costumes, are the border patrol between the two. And one day they go on strike, and then our two worlds collide. And out of that come all these different stories. And those stories ended up being our songs and our record.
MIDDLEDITCH: Hey, now that’s a movie.
SHIELDS : I could say more about it, but I shouldn’t. I had another duo with Maize LaRue, a kid in a kid’s choir. We did Night Things.
MIDDLEDITCH: You chewed massive amounts of gum as a child to have a good jawline, is this true? If so, what was that like, and does it work?
SHIELDS: A lot of this story is about being afraid to get made fun of, Thomas. I saw handsome guys and handsome guys had strong jaws. I wanted to be a handsome guy. I’ve seen people lift weights to get strong muscles, but how do you lift weights for your jaw? You got to chew gum. You got to chew that gum every day, all day long, and I think it worked.
MIDDLEDITCH: Here’s the thing, you’re scared of not being a handsome guy with a great jawline and you are a handsome guy with a great jawline.
SHIELDS: No, Thomas, I’m like the inside.
MIDDLEDITCH: You’re like a 10 out of 10 hottie.
SHIELDS: I’m talking about the inside, you know?
MIDDLEDITCH: Oh I know, insecurity is rampant with all humans.
MIDDLEDITCH: Here’s another question: we’re trapped in a building, there’s 20 bad guys with guns, I turn to you, I say, “Zach, I’m scared. What are we going to do?”
SHIELDS: I would say, “That’s not helpful, Thomas. There are bad guys outside trying to kill us. I need you with me. You’re dead weight. Pick up the slack, chew some gum, and let’s get at it.” Does that work?
MIDDLEDITCH: That’s the next scene in the next movie, for sure.
SHIELDS: Can I redo that answer? I would comfort you.
MIDDLEDITCH: No, no, I want the tough guy answer.
SHIELDS: I’d say, “Oh, you’re scared, Thomas? Guess what? I’m scared. And guess what? They’re all scared, too. Every single 20 of them. You know how scared they are?” They’re scared out of their minds.
MIDDLEDITCH: Okay, you had a bunch of character-making moments. You’re on the cover of a Harley Quinn romance novel, okay? Clearly in your young years you did some modeling. What was the early modeling world like?
SHIELDS: I was living in Toronto and I was going to school and it was the only job I could get. I’d take off my shirt for money a lot and I was working a lot of bars, handing out drinks. Or, sometimes, people would take pictures of me, with or without my shirt—which sounds creepy, when I say it that way.
MIDDLEDITCH: The way you’re phrasing it, I want to like wrap you in a blanket and say like, “Shhh, don’t worry you don’t have to tell anybody.”
SHIELDS: I felt used. One time I had to fly to Montreal for a photo shoot, and I showed up—and I was very short to be a model—and the guy was like, “Where’s the rest of you?” And I was like, “What? This is it.” The guy who ran the modeling agency would call me Frodo because I was short and had curly hair. I did look like a hobbit.
MIDDLEDITCH: A hot little hobbit.
SHIELDS: Thanks, Thomas. It was the gay pride parade and they told me they wanted me to be in a float. They offered me $500, and $500 for 20 minutes work is a lot of money to a college student. So I said yes. There was a man there holding a tiny pair of underwear, standing around three martini glasses. There were five other really buff guys standing around on the float. Then he made the strong men lift me up into the martini glass, where there were knee pads so I could kneel on it and wave to the 1.5 million people that had gathered to watch the parade. The guy was trailing behind the float, screaming at me, “You better dance. I’m not paying you unless you dance.”
MIDDLEDITCH: You shift the lens on this story, just a degree, and it turns from something to laugh at to something to be like, buddy, you should tell your therapist about this one.
SHIELDS: I never did.
MIDDLEDITCH: Keep going. Oh boy.
SHIELDS: Then I got held down and these people poured liquor on me. But my bosses were really sweet. The night ended up with the sun rising again, and me in a 50-year-old woman’s basement apartment, with her six cats, and she showed me her sock puppet video she made, telling me about how my life has meaning, that I’m not just a piece of meat.
MIDDLEDITCH: I wonder if we can coagulate some of these experiences into some young, aspirational man or woman who might be reading this interview. When I hear all your stuff, I see a man who said yes to a lot of stuff, who wanted to experience life and then eventually squirted out through his various forms of art. Music, writing, whatever. Is that how you see saying yes to all these experiences? Do you log them in a database, or are you really a carpe diem kind of cat?
SHIELDS: When I was younger, it was much easier just to say yes to any new experience that came because I was so afraid of being judged. I feel like it opened a lot of opportunities for me to explore strange corners of a world that I wouldn’t have come into normally. And out of that, I got a lot of stories that fed my imagination and my life in a big way. I always found refuge in my imagination as a kid.
MIDDLEDITCH: I’ll build you the Zach Shields special. I’m going to host a party, a vegan barbecue. And then, for no reason, you’ll be there in a giant martini glass welcoming people as they come up to my giant fucking patio.
SHIELDS: Whatever you want, man.
MIDDLEDITCH: One of the things I find really fascinating is your passion for dance. Dance is movement, boxing is movement. That’s all connected. But one is explicitly violent and a combat sport and the other one is a sheer expression. What’s your connection to dance all about?
SHIELDS: Imagination and dance and music, these things are my way of connecting to other people. I personally feel closer enmeshed in the rest of society. Dance, for me, is part of that bigger picture. I was working my way to being a professional boxer, in my late 20s, and then I had an injury and I couldn’t box anymore, so I started dancing. It’s a very inclusive and inviting environment. That’s more the childhood that I think I wanted.
MIDDLEDITCH: It’s never too late to conquer your fears. You do a lot of fear-conquering. Most people, including myself, go, “yeah, that doesn’t sound like a good idea.”
SHIELDS: What are you talking about? You fly airplanes.
MIDDLEDITCH: I wasn’t scared of it. I knew I had to do it, baby.
SHIELDS: That’s a hero’s answer, Thomas. I find you are somebody that faces their fears, and you’re an inspiration to me. You on a hit TV series or something? What are you, an improv actor of the year? What are you?
MIDDLEDITCH: You must be referring to season six of Silicon Valley on HBO and “Middleditch and Schwartz,” the two-man touring improv show, coming to a city near you. We talked about Godzilla and that it’s the number one domestic and international movie of the last weekend?
SHIELDS: People are scared of big things. Probably because it’s something that we can’t control. Everybody, in some ways, feels like a victim of their circumstance. We’re in nature’s strong arms. But we confuse the two.
MIDDLEDITCH: You know what I think, Zach? Humanity wants some kind of retribution for our guilty conscious. Deep down, we, as a species, are kind of bad. And a monster, or a big asteroid, or something, coming and paying us back for all of our bad deeds, is something that we want to see as some sort of penance pornography. In movie form. I think that might be a hidden little appeal.
SHIELDS: Hey, I thought I had nailed it, but I think maybe you’re on to something. We are the worst.