This interview contains spoilers for Pacific Rim. They're sprinkled throughout. If you're interested in reading a very non-spoilery interview with Guillermo del Toro about the movie, click here to read one we ran a couple of weeks back.
I talked to Guillermo one last time about the movie at the San Francisco press junket. I had been talking to him about the movie for a long, long time - in private, on the record, on the set, on the sets of other movies he was producing. Pacific Rim had been boiling up for years, and now it was finally being unleashed. I had seen it twice when we did this interview, and the second viewing really crystalized the movie for me. I sat down with him very excited about the movie, and very ready to get talking about it. Then he noticed I was wearing a Rolling Thunder t-shirt, and we started talking about that instead. The next sentence is Guillermo:
[Rolling Thunder producer] Larry Gordon told me a story about when they were doing this movie and William Devane met Tommy Lee Jones, and he said to Larry Gordon, ‘Fuck! This guy! This guy IS what I’m trying to play! He’s a real hardass.’
Every time I’ve shown a woman this movie they walk out and say ‘I had no idea Tommy Lee Jones was so hot.’
I always fantasize about Tommy Lee Jones playing the part Wililam Devane got. Larry Gordon said the first time they showed the movie the audience almost lynched them. The first time they tested the movie the audience went upstairs and broke down the door at the projectionist’s booth and ordered him to stop projecting.
Was that the end of the movie?
When they put the hand in the garbage disposal. One of the guys complaining said, ‘Yesterday we saw the greatest movie ever made, Star Wars, and now we’ve seen the worst!’ Rolling Thunder is so great.
Speaking of Star Wars that is the touchstone movie for me with Pacific Rim. They’re both big, world-building movies, they’re both about the feeling of awe you get as a moviegoer. I’ve seen Pacific Rim twice and the second time around I kept thinking ‘That would be a great 3 inch Hasbro figure.’ When Raleigh is working on the wall and he has that backpack - that’s such a perfect design for an action figure.
With unspooling action!
That world building - how early does it begin?
I was writing the introduction to Frames, the Star Wars book that is going to come out in an affordable presentation in a couple of months, and I was verbalizing the things that were big lessons from Star Wars for me. One is start the story in the middle. That’s a big lesson. Don’t show the origin, just come in. You want to do a prologue? I did a live action version of the crawl.
The other thing is make everything look used. Make it look lived in, damaged, dented. It’s something that went away after Lucas did it on Star Wars. Scott did it on Blade Runner to the nth degree.
The world creation in the movie was extensive. We needed to do everything, from Raleigh’s ID to the ration cards to the graphics in the factory to the graphics in the Shatterdome. We went to NASA to photograph the hangars, to photograph the crawler, to record one of the launches of the rockets. We researched WWII machinery to build the robots. We wanted them to look like built things. We weren’t geeking out and saying ‘Let’s reference this robot or this monster,’ we were trying to create something that tied to the real world.
Only on the second viewing did I realize that Striker Eureka has that bulldog logo on its chest. How do you decide what details get the focus and what details get to be in the background?
Most of the time what I do - and I did this very, very much in the Troll Market in Hellboy 2 - is I leave it there in the background. If you watch it, it’s there, but I think it informs the feel that it’s real. I’ll tell you, one of the most minute constructions in the movie is the Hong Kong street. We went to Hong Kong for nine days and photographed every sign on the streets. Most of the time when a Western movie reconstructs Chinese language or signs they just put them there and say whatever, but we were so careful to make it feel like Hong Kong a few years from now but all correct. If you show it to a Chinese speaking person they will look at it and go, ‘The names of the stores are accurate.’ The attention to detail goes not only into the fantasy world but the real world. We build everything with the same care.
The Shatterdome is the size of eight football stadiums. We had to do it in eight different iterations of a set. We shot the actors on huge sets for each part of the Shatterdome, and we had them walk for eight different days for that walk and talk where Stacker is showing Raleigh the Shatterdome. It was the largest stage in North America and still it was not big enough.
One of the lessons in Star Wars was to start in the middle. This feels like the conclusion to a really grand story. How did the studio feel about that? It’s all prequels and origin stories and year one stories at the movies these days.
One of the great advantages is that when I came in Legendary was already in love with the pitch that Travis Beacham had, that was about eight pages long. I came in and I pitched them my craziest ideas to see if we were on the same page. The first thing I said was, ‘We need two pilots. They need to Drift together to control the robot instead of one pilot, because it gives us stories to follow.’ They said ok. The next one, which is a spoiler, I said, ‘I want a pregnant kaiju. I want them to go inside the stomach and find the baby and the baby comes out with the umbilical cord around its neck, because that’s how I was born. I want the baby to be like me, and then the baby strangles itself with the cord.’ Stuff that normally... but they were like ‘Great, great, we love it!’
I told them I didn’t want to make the movie when we were winning, I wanted to make the movie about when we were losing. And they were all aboard.
We are stuck in a movie phase where our heroes are accidental heroes, or heroes by destiny and not through any quality they possess.
This is old fashioned.
This is definitely old fashioned. Can you talk about that, the kind of heroism you wanted to have in this movie?
I really wanted it to be a very complicated movie that played very simple. I wanted to make an adventure movie where the sentiments of the characters are there, but they’re not the main obstacle to overcome. I told Charlie Hunnam when he came on, ‘I know actors like complex characters, but Raleigh has very few moving parts.’ He’s really a guy who wants to do good, he’s just afraid to trust someone else and have them die on him because he’ll feel it, like he did when his brother went. You better put spoilers here! But I said, that’s him. When he finds somebody he trusts he’s ready to be good. He’s not Hamlet, wondering if he can do it. I said to Rinko, ‘The two characters need to trust each other.’ You literally see Rinko lose her heart when she’s a child - she has a red object - and then the blue memory stains her hair. She’s carrying it with her. Then when they come together they become one inside the robot.
It’s a simple, earnest heroism. It’s not jingoistic, it’s not ideological, it’s purely humanistic. It’s about the world saving the world. I really needed characters who have good cores. Even the asshole in the movie, the guy you’re meant to hate, he’s a good guy.
Every human in the movie is a good guy. Even - spoiler - the one character in the movie who does get eaten by a kaiju, you still like him too. He’s not a horrible guy, he’s just himself.
I guess this is another spoiler, but you don’t end on a kiss. Why?
When I was working on the movie we had three or four different versions of the relationship between Charlie and Rinko because I wanted to see if I could make a story about two people liking each other without having to end in a kiss. So when I shot the ending we shot three versions. I’ve never done this before, but instinctively I thought we should do three versions. We did one version where they kiss and it almost felt weird. They’re good friends, they’re pals, good colleagues.
It’s weird because she’s stepping into a place vacated by his brother, which indicates a tight but perhaps not fully sexualized relationship.
It’s the only time I”ve done this, doing three versions.
So you had the kiss, no kiss and what was the third version?
Basically just a huge exhale like ‘We made it.’ But the thing that stayed in the movie is the hint that there may be a love story one day, but it’s not there yet.
Can you talk about aiming the tone in such a way that it really appeals to the 13 year old mindset?
Everything that went into this movie, all the detail, all the craft of not only myself but everybody in my crew - Guillermo Navarro, ILM, Carol Spier, Andrew Neskoromny, a lot of really talented people - the engine of the story is a 12 year old kid telling us what to do with a toy robot and a toy dinosaur in the sandbox. When people say what was most complicated about the movie, I’m not trying to be zen when I say it was to keep it simple. You do have the staples of the genre - the scientists, the leader with a secret, the pilot that is untested - all those staples are there. That’s what makes it a genre movie. You try to not lose the simplicity but also make it interesting.
You also have the staples of anime. Cliff Collins, Jr walked right out of an anime. The bulldog. Herc Hansen - what a name from an anime.
Travis is truly a genius at world creation and naming. He came up with Jaeger and kaiju. We shared robot names - I put half, he put half - but Hercules Hansen? That’s a fucking name! Stacker Pentecost. He had something weird for Raleigh, I changed it to Raleigh Becket. It was originally Raleigh Antrobus. What a fucking name! It sounded like a suppository.
Another way this movie bucks the current trends is that it isn’t relentlessly grim and violent. I know someone who wouldn’t take her kid to see Man of Steel because it was so violent, but you’ve made a movie people can take their kids to see.
I don’t know if people will trust. Once they see it, they’ll know, but I don’t know if we’ll get them early enough. But the movie is a family movie. It is a movie for kids, in many ways. So many movies this summer are really violent and they’re being advertised as PG-13, family friendly. Will that be a problem? Que sera sera. As a filmmaker my biggest reward is having made the movie. The fate is the fate. God knows Hellboy 2 came out a week before The Dark Knight. Devil’s Backbone was unleashed in 12 theaters in the whole country. I hope people do discover it. It’s a movie you need to see on the biggest screen in theaters and with kids.