Interview: Guillermo del Toro from the Set Of Pacific Rim

Back in March 2012, very few people knew much about Guillermo del Toro’s upcoming project Pacific Rim except that it involved giant monsters, giant robots (or, shall we say, “mechs”) and the director of such great horror and action (and sometimes horror/action) classics as the Hellboy movies, Blade II, Pan’s Labyrinth, Mimic and more. It would also be Del Toro’s first movie as a director in five years having spent that time developing other movies like The Hobbit and At the Mountains of Madness - both of which didn’t pan out.

Peter Jackson and H.P. Lovecraft’s loss is our gain, because the idea of Guillermo making a giant monster movie is almost literally every giant monster movie fanboy’s wettest dream since Guillermo has been involved with some of the coolest and craziest horror movies released in the past 20 years. (Not many people have realized or mentioned this, but 2013 also marks the 20th Anniversary of his feature directorial debut, the Spanish vampire movie Cronos.) has spoken to Guillermo dozens of times over the past six years, and various members of have talked to Guillermo at least five maybe six times since last March about a variety of projects including Rise of the Guardians and Mama.

Even so, for this interview, you should imagine going back in time 15 months when Guillermo was on set making the movie, 87 days into the production, and he would basically break away from shooting whenever he could to come over and talk to us. The great thing about this particular set visit interview (unlike others) was that it was literally just me from Shock/CS and one other outlet so roughly 50% of the questions below were our own – the other half came from Don Kaye of Parallel Universe – and the two of us were also the first reporters on set in the week of reporter visits so many of these questions, GdT was answering for the very first time.

Enjoy the interview and make sure to go back and read the FULL SET REPORT over on afterwards.

Shock: What time did your day start this morning? Six?
Guillermo del Toro: No, normally four. Four thirty. I’m putting a lot – 16 to 18 hours minimum.

Shock: Wow.
GdT: And then after the hiatus I’ve been seven days a week.

Shock: What is it like for you after five years to call “action”for the first time?
The reality is Hellboy was 2008 and you immediately fall into it, you know. And the fact is that aside from everything else during those four years I prepped three movies. I prepped The Hobbit and I prepped Mountains of Madness.  So I scouted, came up with technical solutions – they were really a great boot camp to this and then in a way they were both huge productions which they were like almost a training exercise to grow into the size of this production. I wouldn’t say that that time was misspent–I was very happy I had the time to do them.

Shock: What’s interesting to me about this is that you have a lot of ideas of your own and you’re always developing those ideas and your versions of things, but this was a script that originally came from someone else…
Not really. We started developing it from scratch. Travis came up with the pitch and I came in right at that point, at inception. I started developing it at the same time, so I was able to a.) have ideas from inception and b.) do several drafts myself. The moment I heard the pitch I immediately saw the movie but I was doing “Mountains” so I originally said to Jon Jashni and Thomas [Tull of Legendary Pictures] “I’ll come in as producer and if I can and if you guys wait, I will direct it. We started developing the visual bible right away, we started developing the screenplay, storyline. Came up with character ideas. Came up with this, came up with that. And I had worked with Travis before on “Carnival Row” so I actually knew him when he didn’t have a car so I drove him around. He didn’t understand that you can’t NOT have a car in L.A, so I used to give him a ride home, back, take him, drop him at a comic book store, blah, blah, blah.

Shock: So you were involved with him while he was writing the screenplay on the early stages.
From the beginning.

Shock: So when “Madness”stalled, you realized you could direct this and it was ready to go?
It was really the more involved I got into “Pacific Rim,” the more I really loved the visuals and characters and the universe we were creating and the world. When “Mountains” didn’t happen – it didn’t happen on a Friday. The plug got pulled on a Friday, Monday I was fully on board on “Pacific Rim.” Literally over the weekend. Thomas lives very close by to me and we had the final meetings over the weekend and on Monday we were on.

Shock: What is it about the Kaiju genre that’s personal to you? You’ve explored so many different kinds of monsters so what is it about these types of monsters that wanted you to get so involved with this?
What I love about the Kaiju – when I was a kid is that a monster can be a relatively open symbol. You can have the monster as a victim like Frankenstein or the monster as an expression of the id like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. For me, what was fascinating, I grew up on the Kaiju genre in Mexico. For whatever reason, my earliest memories of cinema are Hammer Films, Kaiju, Universal and Mexican horror movies. Those are my inception things, you know. And I remember them representing for me raw power. They were like forces of nature. They were neither morally bound by social standards. They were just like a hurricane or an earthquake or an atomic explosion. They were simply sheer brute force, and that always gave me a sense of scale and it lifts them beyond any social concern, and they become adventure movies. When I was a kid and you used to see explorers in space or you used to see explorers in the Himalayas, or “The Man Who Would Be King” where people were facing insurmountable odds. I thought the Kaiju were very much representative of that.

Shock: Robots are definitely new territory for you because you’ve explored monsters and magic and the supernatural but robots are more technology-based and somewhat more real world. Can you talk about developing the robots and their interaction with humans?
Well, to me what is attractive is when the technology is tactile. When you can really see the machine. I’m very much a machine guy. I love clockwork, I love pistons and robots and the robots in “Hellboy II” are clockwork but these are not that at all. These guys are absolutely modern technology but they are still made of pistons and they are made of relays and motors and engines, so there’s a lot of “Mecha- fetishism”for me. I am very much a machine fetishist. What I’ve been able to do on like “Hellboy II” when I did the Elemental – I love big scale creatures.

Shock: I remember that and it’s funny because I was there on set when you were destroying another street.
(laughs) My second major city. I really was instantly attracted to it. I just felt drawn into it because how easy I saw sort of a group of pilots that were not… I relate it to World War II and the heroism in World War II. There’s a lot of the language of that type of machines that go into the interior of the robots, so we are making them of now but a lot of the language of the battles is very violent and very palpable like when you see a tank battle in a World War II movie where you see the guys going through the terrain, getting hit by the salvo. There’s a lot of language that I took from submarine movies. I wanted to make it not a movie about super high-tech that is remote and polished but about battle machines that are huge but ultimately concentrate on the guys inside.

Shock: What’s the tone of the movie like? When I think of the Kaiju I think of like the first Godzilla or the first Rodan or “War of the Gargantuas.” Those are very dark movies.
One of my favorites.

Shock: And then you get into the later ones where they’re defending the Earth and it gets a little bit more kid oriented. What’s the tone you’re trying to strike here?
I really wanted to take very much not the point of view of a jingoistic army language and jingoistic pride. I wanted to take humanity at its lowest point and at their strongest. I treated the characters and the drama and melodrama of the characters to feel very much emotionally relatable. The battles are very visceral. Both the Kaiju and the robots get damaged in a way that is not just acrobatics. It really becomes intense and you’re there and visceral to really get you to go, “Oh my God, this…” You should think who’s gonna win, so I make it hopefully a very immediate and very immersive experience. One of the decisions I took early on is with the exception of a few set pieces, I took the decision that I wanted to have the cities evacuated during the fights so that the scale of the fights would always be Kaiju versus robot and not the have people say, “What’s going to happen to the people running on the ground?” That was one of the early, early decisions, and that allows you to concentrate on the creature and the fight, so you are not thinking about the school bus that is half a block away or the horde of 300 people that you don’t really know that are about to be crushed. It becomes an incredibly beautiful sandbox to let these huge things go at.

Shock: Is this more somber in tone than your other movies?
No, I wouldn’t use the word “somber” because I want it to be an adventure movie so it’s not about somber. It’s about I would say “visceral.” I think the word that represents it for me is visceral and immediate.

Shock: This leads well into my next question because with the actors you’ve cast, there are a lot of human stories playing out and then you have the Kaiju-Jaeger battles in the computer. It’s interesting to be shooting the human stuff on these huge sets and doing the giant monster battles in the computers, but I was wondering about the integration of those two very different things. What’s the percentage of time on the characters vs. the giant doomsday battles?
Oh, there’s a huge care put into having the right balance, because to me what is interesting about a movie like this is I need to care about the people and I need to care about the story and I need to care about the world before anything else. Part of that was knowing that I could cast the way I could cast. I didn’t want to be hampered by having to rewrite for a star or two stars or three stars. I was able to concentrate and give everybody equal screentime and make sure that I got actors that were a.) serious and solid about their craft and b.) could cater to character. I was not just hiring bodies, so we wrote the characters with enough of a depth and biography and melodrama that they would have something to play, but I then cast the movie with actors that if there was any flaw in that they would go “Wait.”One of the things that happened since I started shooting – every time they take a look at the footage, they are looking at mostly human stories. The thing that get as feedback is how great it is to see this and be engrossed by that, knowing that on top of that you’re gonna have that. I mean I think to me the robots and the monsters are the motion, physically but emotionally the motion comes from the characters.

Shock: Did you think of having Ron Perlman to play the part of Hannibal Chau right away?
Yeah, from the start I really saw him as Hannibal Chau. I really saw him immediately in writing it and I knew that he was a guy from Brooklyn that just had created this persona, so I immediately saw him.

Shock: I want to ask about giving the Kaiju personalities because that’s one of the reasons people love those Japanese movies, because the monsters do have personalities. This one you’re going to be doing in CG with ILM. I was a little disappointed that you don’t have Doug Jones on set dressed up in costume as the Kaiju fighting someone in a robot costume, so can you talk about bringing emotion and personality to the monsters?
I was not in favor of motion capture for the Kaijus or the robots because I think that with the Kaijus I wanted the anatomy to not be human. We kept a lot of the ideas of the bipedal Kaiju but I wanted the legs to be proportionate to the monster. One of the things I like very much is that in the Kaiju genre, the first part of the personage is the way that Kaiju looks. It tells you what it does. You see it and the embodiment of the personality of the Kaiju is its exterior first of all. If a Kaiju is meant to be a knife, he should look like a knife or should look like an axe or should look like a battering ram or should look like so on so forth. So that was the first part, and then the idea is to through the action give them intelligence or give them brute force. There are Kaijus in the movie that are pure, sheer… like a battering ram. And there are others that are incredibly astute and they are smart and they are cunning, and ILM I think through the years have always been able to bring characters to life more than about anything else. They’ve been responsible for so many great characters that are CG, you know?

Shock: We also saw some art involving the Precursors (see the set visit) so I’m wondering how much of that we get into in the movie How much we learn along with the characters about why the Kaiju are here on earth, why that rift is open, what the Precursors want, and all that stuff?
Well, I think that I wanted very much the movie to slowly have revelations, that you open very frankly, very openly, very broadly. You go like Kaiju versus robot and then little by little you learn to define the world the Kaijus come from and what the intention was. You get very clearly what they are and what their intentions are, but then I wanted to just show them fully once, so that people can still could be shocked and surprised by seeing the whole world that the Kaijus come from and the technology they use and how it is shown visually was a big deal for us. I think people are gonna be awfully surprised. Of all the projects I’ve been involved with in the last decade, this is a project that I’ve been purposely completely quiet about, because I don’t think people imagine a.) the scale or b.) the scope and the tone of the movie. I think the less I say before the release the better. You know what I’m saying? I think when the time will come and you see the visual material it will hit you much more strongly. (Note: Boy he was right about that one!)

Shock: We saw that in the production offices. We came into this one not knowing almost anything except the premise and that you were directing it and that’s it.
I think it helps not knowing. Don’t you think? I think the whole movie, when people think, “Oh well, he did this or he did that.” But the movie’s all about scale. The whole point of the movie is scale. It’s how little things can defeat huge odds, but I’m glad you didn’t much and you were able to see it.

At this point, we had been taking with Guillermo for roughly 20 minutes and he had to run off to go direct his movie so we headed off to talk to some of his crew over the next few hours. After that, we returned to set to watch more filming, and next thing we know, Guillermo was walking back towards us to talk to us some more. And then we talked to him for roughly 20 minutes MORE, so you can read that in Part 2 by clicking on Page 2.