The Badass Interview: PACIFIC RIM Screenwriter Travis Beacham

The man behind the Jaegers and the kaiju speaks about the origins of PACIFIC RIM, working with Guillermo del Toro and saving the world!

The junket for Pacific Rim happened in San Francisco right in the middle of Pride Week just days after the Supreme Court knocked down DOMA and California's Prop 8. As I sat with screenwriter Travis Beacham in a hotel room 12 stories up, the Pride Parade - loud and proud - wound its way down the street below. The tape of this interview is filled with the sounds of joyous celebration.

While Pacific Rim doesn't have anything to do with sexuality, it felt right to do this interview with that backdrop. In a blockbuster movie world that's cynical and dark, Pacific Rim stands apart as a movie with a tremendous optimism for humanity, a movie that says no matter how tough it gets - and it gets tough in Pacific Rim - we, as humans, can come out the other side better. The people cheering on Market Street below were living reminders of that thesis. We can work together to make things better. 

The only work of Beacham's that you've probably seen is Clash of the Titans, but don't judge him on that. He first burst into Hollywood with a spec script called A Killing on Carnival Row, a dark fantasy movie about a serial killer targeting fairies. Guillermo del Toro was attached for a while, but as often happens with Guillermo's projects it never came together (talking at the junket Beacham says he expects the movie to eventually get made, but he's not holding his breath). But another original Beacham script, Pacific Rim, did get some traction.

At the junket Beacham was wearing the 'geek gets dressed up' outfit - a sport jacket over a black t-shirt (a Comics Code Authority logo shirt in this case) - and if Pacific Rim wasn't enough to convince me that the screenwriter was a huge nerd, meeting him surely did the trick. We're the same species, more or less. After watching the parade for a minute, soaking up the historical impact of what we were watching, Beacham and I got down to it.

I want to walk through the development of the movie. I know the script existed before Guillermo got involved - where did it begin?

I always liked the whole giant monster/giant robot subgenre or oeuvre or whatever. It started off as me wanting to do a movie like that, but that in and of itself isn’t a movie idea. It’s like me saying I want to do a zombie movie or a space movie. I didn’t really have any story at all until I realized it took two pilots to drive the Jaeger. That’s the thing that let it be about people, and that gave the battles context. You didn’t have to graft a human story onto these action bits, it’s at the core of the action bits. It’s what made the action bits work. It was what made the robots work.

Once I had that seed the story very quickly started to come together. You ask, ‘Who are they? What are their relationships?’ It’s all seamlessly important in the action scenes. That’s when it started coming together, but I sat on it for a long time because there was always something else going on, and it wasn’t based on anything so there was always the question of who we would take it to. I think it was about three years before I really started talking to people about it. Legendary was the first to see it, and they gobbled it up quick. And thank god they did, because the process with them really, really was very different from any development process that I’ve ever had.

How different was your first draft from what we see on screen now?

Pretty different, in terms of what happens. Some characters have been taken out, some characters have been added in. Newt and Gottlieb - Charlie Day and Burn Gorman’s characters - used to be one character and he was split into two. A lot of little changes like that, that accumulate into other changes. What I think is special about this movie as opposed to other experiences I’ve had is that tonally and thematically the soul of the movie and the DNA of the movie says exactly what the first script says. It says the same things. When I watch it, even with the changes, it feels like my kid, even though it has changed since however long ago.

One of the great things about the movie is the sense of world building. It’s so deep. How much of that has stayed the same? Has the mythology stayed the same?

Basically. The world is the world I was writing about to begin with. Little of that has changed. From the beginning I had the idea that the Jaegers began with a guy watching [a kaiju attack] on the news and he sees his kid playing with robot toys in front of the TV. When you watch zombie movies and people say, ‘What’s going on? What are we going to do?’ it’s like they live in a world where they’ve never seen zombie movies. I thought it would be fun if this took place in a world where people have seen giant monster movies.

That was never part of the screenplay, and we never had a chance to dramatize it, but it was always a part of the mythology and we had a chance to put it in the graphic novel. That sort of speaks to the entire universe, and the entire plan for it. In building this world we came up with way more stuff than we could ever use in one movie, but it’s all story matter that will come out one way or another.

Watching Pacific Rim one of the things you walk out with is the sense of, ‘Aw man, I wanted to see more of that! I wanted to see more of that character! I wanted to learn about that guy in the background!’ So there is more background and story for this stuff? Like the Russian pilots - they show up for a couple of minutes, but they’re so specific and cool. You want to know more about these guys.

Absolutely. The level of detail in the bible is really incredible. Every Jaeger [in the history of the Kaiju War] is named. Every battle that takes place is specified, as is the Jaegers that fought and the names of the kaiju they were fighting and who won. It’s all in a timeline. There’s tons of very specific stuff, and stories that both me and Guillermo are itching to get more of.

What is it like working with Guillermo del Toro? You had this movie going before he came on, and I know he brings his own ideas and visions. Can you just say to him, ‘Guillermo, that idea doesn’t work?’

Definitely. He’s always open to discussion. When I was first working with him on Killing on Carnival Row I was coming out of film school and I was a big fan of his and I was intimidated. The first few meetings everything he said I just sort of dumbly nodded along. But I grew to find out that he’s the sort of creative type who is always throwing out ideas. He doesn’t expect all of them to work, or everyone to like them, he likes the creative back and forth. He likes the process. By the time we got together on Pacific Rim I had gotten used to him where I could talk to him on that level, and I felt comfortable exchanging ideas.

Practically speaking it’s all back and forth. It’s not us sitting back to back with laptops open. I go off and write something and then he goes off and writes something and then I go off and do something with it. It worked because we both wanted to make the same movie, thematically, and we both wanted it to be about the same thing. So that was pushing us to a common end.

There’s a great thing about Pacific Rim in that the heroism on display is really old fashioned. These characters have things that happened and backstories and complexities, but they’re not fighting to get revenge on the guy who killed their dad. They’re fighting to save the world. How important was it to you to have that old fashioned heroism?

So important. It goes back to the line ‘We’re canceling the apocalypse,’ which sounds like a stereotypically badass line, but I wasn’t trying to write a macho line. I was thinking about everyone talking about the 2012 predictions and the financial crisis and all that stuff, and I think we as a culture have an almost fetishistic resignation to the end times. It’s almost like we’re looking forward to saying ‘I told you so.’ I always found that unappealing, and I wanted this movie to be about no, we say when it’s over. We’re people. We can change the world. We get to say when we’re done. That’s what I wanted the movie to be about - not any one country or one flag, just all people coming together. Coming together and saying, ‘We’re going to do something about this. And if it’s crazy? To hell with it, we’ve accomplished crazy things before.’