Guillermo del Toro and giant monsters are a match made in heaven. This month that match finally makes its way to the big screen, as his long-awaited kaiju-versus-mechs movie, Pacific Rim, explodes into theaters. It’s his biggest movie, his most expensive film, but in some ways it’s his most personal - del Toro grew up immersed in and obsessed with both giant monsters and giant robots. He still has the sketches he made as a child, designing a giant robot that would be not just his friend but also his home.
That love for big monsters and big mechs saturates every frame of the film. It’s a movie whose final dedication - to monster masters Ray Harryhausen and Ishirō Honda - is almost redundant because their spirit lives on throughout. If there was any doubt that del Toro - who has already brought us a litany of classic modern monsters ranging from The Faun in Pan’s Labyrinth to every denizen of the spectacular Troll Market in Hellboy II: The Golden Army - was following in their footsteps, Pacific Rim puts that to rest.
Del Toro was putting the finishing touches on the film when he graciously took time out of schedule to talk with BIRTH. MOVIES. DEATH about his love of kaiju and robots, and it didn’t take long for the whole thing to turn into a big geekout.
People don’t tend to realize this, but Godzilla is a really serious movie.
The version I saw as a kid was the Raymond Burr version, which was not tonally cohesive and a bit of a mess, but it has one of the greatest monsters of all time. When you see the original cut, the Japanese version, it’s a really somber movie. It’s very bleak and one of the most existential kaiju movies. It’s a very dark coping mechanism, almost, with the fact that around a decade before the bombs had dropped, and how world-altering that had been for an entire country. That coping mechanism is articulated in a way that is deeply personal and cannot be appreciated all over the way it was appreciated in Japanese culture. It was a game changer. Kaiju became part of the cultural landscape in a way that yunkai had been in medieval Japan.
The Japanese didn’t invent giant monsters. We had King Kong, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, all of which came before Godzilla. But Godzilla changed so much for them, and kaiju became very much its own genre. Why do you think Japan responded to the giant monster thing?
King Kong sets off a lot of the rules that will find their way into a lot of kaiju movies. You’re going to have a landmark building in a city getting attacked by kaiju, or at least used in the marketing materials. You’re going to have an element of almost primal mythology associated with that creature, so that it becomes elemental. But precisely because of the trauma of the atomic explosions less than a decade before is where it became rooted in more than myth. They were rooting it in the psyche of a country in a way that is incredibly moving and human and deep. I think King Kong had a beautiful sort of adventure feel - you can trace the roots of King Kong to adventure pulp, adventure novels, the fascination that America has with the exotic wilds of Africa and large primates that begins in the 1890s and continues well into the birth of cinema - but all of that has an exoticism to it. There’s no healing of a trauma, there’s no deep connection to the healing of a psyche of a country - where Godzilla and the kaiju do have that.
Where in your psyche do your kaiju come from?
It’s coming from such a primal place for me as a guy who grew up with them. The kaiju I was trying to build was trying to reproduce the feeling you had as a kid watching things that big clashing on the screen. When you’re a kid watching War of the Gargantuas, it’s like watching two mountains go at it. Or a cyclone versus a hurricane. It’s a primal spectacle. It’s coming from awe for me, and a place of love.
Travis Beacham, the screenwriter of Pacific Rim, has said he almost feels pedantic because sometimes he wants to correct people that the movie does not have robots, it has human-piloted mechs. There’s a difference between those two things, isn’t there?
I’m not semantically that fixated because ultimately whatever people want to call them... but the reality is that they’re the largest mechanical suits to do violence in the world. A robot can have a personality, like Robbie or Iron Giant or Maria, because they have the autonomy of thought. They process situations, they make decisions, they offer solutions. Jaegers don’t. Their personality is that of the pilots and the country that made them. Jaegers per se don’t have that personality.
When we talk about Pacific Rim we go right to the kaiju movies, but maybe the giant mech films are less represented. What are the mech movies you looked at or that influenced you over the years?
To me the preparation for Pacific Rim was my entire childhood watching these movies. I’m old enough - I’m 48 - so when I was a kid the big rage on TV was Gigantor, Tetsujin 28. Tetsujin 28 was a huge influence on me. As a kid your biggest fantasy is to have a giant robot of your own that you can control. I grew up on Japanese shows - Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy, Eiji Tsuburaya’s Ultraman and Ultra Q, I grew up with a series almost no one has seen in America called Captain Ultra - and the things I admire about Japanese animation and the Japanese science fiction is that the battles were really hardcore. The mecha and the kaiju did get sorely damaged. They got sliced in half, they were almost surgically split, the mechs lost an arm, lost a leg. That was a very visceral experience to me. I had the preparation and then I rewatched those movies as a young adult and as a teenager, but I made the serious decision to not revisit them for Pacific Rim. Let’s operate from a place that has a real and intimate knowledge of these things but not imitate them - let’s just go at it.
You’ve become known as maybe the biggest defender of monsters in cinema. Do you feel like you’re turning your back on the monsters by making them the bad guys this time around?
I think when you’re a genuine kaiju fan it doesn’t matter what side they’re on. These movies operate almost like a wrestling match, and you get the good kaiju and the bad kaiju and the kaijin, like in Frankenstain Conquers the World, fighting Baragon. When Baragon fights the Frankenstein Creature you can root for the good guy, but you love - LOVE - Baragon. You are absolutely rooting for the bad kaiju all the time. You may be rooting for a good wrestler, but he’s usually less interesting than the bad wrestler.
My love of monsters - I’ve done my share of trying to approach them from a different moral point of view, so I don’t have anything to prove there. I’ll go back to that one day. But the kaiju, it’s not that they’re good or bad, they’re hard-wired to just destroy things. It’s like when you watch a force of nature or a scorpion you’re not thinking ‘This scorpion is good or bad,’ he’s going to sting you because that’s just how scorpions are.
Tornadoes are just tornadoes. They’re not picking and choosing what to destroy.
There is no moral moment of decision for a tornado. The tornado doesn’t think, ‘Hmmm, I’ll go for the gas station rather than the orphanage.’ There is no moral superstructure that you can impose on a kaiju.
One of the things about loving monsters, whether they be the creations of Ray Harryhausen or of Jack Pierce at Universal, it doesn’t matter if the monsters are good or bad in the movie. The most famous monsters Harryhausen ever made were the heavies, and you love them even more.
This magazine is really geared towards hardcore film fans. Is there a kaiju film you love that you wish more people had seen?
It’s not a kaiju film, but there’s a very interesting movie that Ishirō Honda did that was based on William Hope Hodgson story called The Voice in the Night. The film is called Matango, and I think in America it was called Matango the Mushroom People. Hodgson’s story was influenced by Lovecraft, and I really recommend people seek it out because it is an incredibly weird clash of Lovecraftian lore with one of the greatest Japanese fantasy filmmakers of all time.
Pacific Rim is dedicated to Ray Harryhausen and Honda. It’s very respectfully dedicated to them because they’re the masters.
What is it about Harryhausen’s monsters that made them so great? Was there something you can identify or can it be explained?
The reason I dedicatded the movie to Honda and Harryhausen is because I think both of them have something in common, which is you can see they love their creations. They’re high on their own supply, which is something I completely share. I can make a spooky creature like The Pale Man, but you can always tell when someone who designed the monster knows and loves monsters, and when somebody grew up with that imagination. You can say that through the eyes of what they were creating, because it was so precious to them. That’s what it is - the monsters were precious.
This interview originally appeared in issue 1 of BIRTH. MOVIES. DEATH, the new print magazine available at Alamo Drafthouse theaters. To read the issue online, click here.