PACIFIC RIM’s Guillermo del Toro on Remaking Classic Japanese Monster Movies

CineMovie sits down with PACIFIC RIM director Guillermo del Toro to talk about his favorite Japanese movies, his fear of zombies and politicians, and why he tortured the actors in the monster movie.

PACIFIC RIM is one of the few original tentpole movies this summer (July 12) and director Guillermo del Toro, a fan Japanese Kaiju films, was the perfect filmmaker to helm the monster movie.   In our Q&A with the Mexican director, he mentions War of the Gargantuas as one of his favorite Japanese movies. As a fan of that movie as well, CineMovie asked him if he would consider remaking the classic. The director of Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth says he would not take on a remake, but there is certainly “DNA” of the movie in PACIFIC RIM.  

Sitting down with the PACIFIC RIM helmer in San Francisco and writer Travis Beacham, the two also discuss how the movie came about and why del Toro tortured the cast in the Conn-pods, a set built on a giant hydraulic gimbal which would rattle the actors back and forth, imitating the action inside the giant robots called Jaegers.  In our interview with Charlie Hunnam who plays a robot pilot, he complained the constant dumping of water, sparks and the tight, uncomfortable suits made for a miserable time on set.  Del Toro addresses his complaints and his reasoning for going for practical effects over CGI.

In the Q&A below, del Toro also reveals what movie monster scares him the most and why he thinks of himself as edible.

Guillermo Del Toro:  Good afternoon.

ALL:  Good afternoon

Q: So, Charlie said that you put him through hell.

GDT: Charlie Day or Hunnam?

Q: Hunnam.

Pacific-Rim-movie-image-450GDT: I put them both through hell.

Q: How did you come up with the idea of using the Conn-pod and why?

GDT: Well I really didn't want actors reacting to digital effects and reacting to or pretending that they're, you know the sort of old TV show “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” when they go to the right and at the same time go to the left. I wanted them to really, really have an impact on the fight and I felt that the only way to do that was to attach them to a real machine because I like analog. I like things to be analog and I thought it's great if we give people something visual to say “oh that's how they do it,” then you don't have to explain that much, you know? I didn't want it to be sterile or un-involving, I wanted it to be very violent. I didn't know what it would entitle but once we started testing, we knew we needed to take huge precautions. I can tell you that as hard as it was, it could have been much harder. We had safety wires everywhere. We had safeties on all of the electricity, we had them on a harness carrying their weight, we had the machine on a harness… we took every precaution. Now, that was the hardest thing to shoot because I seriously felt very bad for them, and they smelled very bad (everyone laughs)

GDT: I tell you this, a man's privates after 12 hours in a hot suit is not a thing you want to be near. Every day we have to wash those suits with pressure hoses, they were like ‘Charlie, thank you, thank you!’

Pacific-Rim-monsterQ: You actually designed all of the Kaiju looks?

GDT: When we started to flesh out the pitch document that Travis generated first, Travis went to my man cave which is a giant mansion full of crazy crap. I locked him in one room and then in my garage I have a design room that accommodates 8-10 artists, and I had all the artists in my garage and I was in another room writing all of my own stuff that we were co-writing. Every day, 5-6 times a day every 3 hours or every hour, I would go and give Travis what I'd written and he would give me what he'd written and I would check on the artists. We designed it there in my garage. Every kaiju, every robot, every Jaeger was designed in my house.

Travis Beacham: It was really fun to have it as a resource too while you writing because there's a real dialog between the design process and the writing process, and usually it doesn't work like that. Usually you have a script and then independently stuff is designed. But I really liked it working that way and being able to communicate with the artists, it was really educational.

Q:  Did you do any specific kind of work with the audio?

GDT: I mean we had a huge design pattern on the audio. We designed it for 7.1 and for Atmos. We had hundreds and hundreds of tracks and most of the lines on the helmets needed to be dubbed, because the helmets don't let the recording happen that well. So every line on there we needed to dub and every line where the wind is too strong or the rain is too strong you need to dub. But we have one of the most intensive mixes we've ever done, and if you see it in Atmos, I don't know if when we played it for you it was in Atmos, we use 360 of the whole theatre.

Q: Can I ask you about the Chinese brother, who is the only one who has 3 arms because it is the new brother and it looks like like he's having the same, so you cast them first and then designed the robot, or did you design the robot to be 3 and then find them casually?

GDT: No we actually have in the screenplay original they were 8. It was a crazy number. Then we found out that we couldn't find 8 identical arms. Then I said well, let's find 4, and we couldn't find 4, then we found 3 and I said okay we'll do it with 3. Then we did the 3 arms.

Q: The reason why it has to be Chinese, is that just because it's happening in Hong Kong or is that actually just randomly?

GDT: No, I wanted the main battle of the movie to be in Hong Kong. I thought about which port in the whole world would say “we're going to stay open no matter what,” and I thought Hong Kong. I thought they would have the 2 greatest Jaegers,.The idea of the 3, I wanted somewhat for the Chinese Jaeger to have more pilots than the normal, you know?

TB:  Also as a backdrop you know Hong Kong was always really interesting because it's such a beautiful city. When you see disaster movies like this, you're so used to seeing every American city be stomped over so many times and it's like, it's not bad until it happens to New York.

GDT: New York has a record. If it's worth defending, it has to be New York.

Q: At some part of it were you really shooting Hong Kong? Was anything actually real?

GDT: We went to Hong Kong for about 8 days and we photographed everything. We photographed the signs on the street, we photographed the signs in the shops. I wanted the Hong Kong signs to be perfectly accurate. Sometimes in American movies you see Chinese signing that doesn't make sense and we checked them 3-4 times with Chinese designers that the font was the right font for the stores. That the names like Golden Lockie Meat Shop or whatever, the names were really auspicious names. Out of the research those 8 days in Hong Kong came the fight in the docks. We went to the docks and I said “let's do a fight here” because I love this! Then a ship went by and I said “let's use that ship as a baseball b at.”

Q: (laughs)

GDT: Then we were on a helicopter, going through the buildings filming and I love the sky, the night sky with all the color and I said “this is exactly where, this street, that street,” and what happens is then we shot another day of just one plane going to an island, the shutter dome which is a real island in Hong Kong, and I laid out the whole fight on the day. So geographically it makes sense where they enter and how they go. Originally I wanted to hit Kowloon but I said no we're going to do it in Hong Kong. It's laid out properly, we don't cheat. The bridge is there, the docks are there, the city is there exactly, we laid it out.

Q: Guillermo we've long known of your love for the old Japanese horror films and Travis I have to assume too...

TB: Oh yeah!

GDT: He doesn't look like a geek but he is.

Q: Everybody today has only mentioned Godzilla. My favourite was “The Mysterians.” Could you tell me about any of your favourite films, other than Godzilla, from back then?

TB:  I didn't get to see them in the theatres like Guillermo did, mostly VHS, but I really like Ultra-Man because it has a Chinese setting which I thought was really interesting, this very specific Japanese genre blended with Hong Kong martial arts action I thought was interesting. I really like Ultra-Man, we were just talking about how those are some of the weirdest looking kaiju's that you ever see really.

GDT: My favourite is “Pigman.” Ultra-man has a great kaiju pigman. It's a very moving, sort of sad little kaiju. My favourite movies are actually two that are not the most famous ones. Sentimentally, my favorites are “Frankenstein Conquers the World,” and “War of the Gargantuas,” because they have a lot of pathos and they made me weep. When the creature of Frankenstein is in love with the girl I was like “awww I wish she paid attention to him,” (everyone laughs). But I know them all and I live in a house where one entire section of the house is just dedicated to kaiju.

Q: How about a remake of the Gangantuans? I love that film too.

GDT: I love that film, I would like not to do remakes but the opening with the ship is sort of the DNA of the Gargantuas.

Q: I've always wanted to ask you, as a child and even now as an adult, which monster do you fear the most and why?

GDT: Fear? I fear politicians (everyone laughs). I think the worst monsters in the world have nice suits. I don't fear monsters. The only monster I kind of fear, because I think of myself as a morsel, is zombies. I dream of zombies chasing me on a rooftop constantly. Then sharks. I find myself edible.

Pacific-Rim-Charlie-Hunnam-Rinko-movie-imageQ: Can we talk about why you casted Rinko and Mana Ashida? The producer just told us you found Mana Ashida, so how did you find her and why did you pick them?

GDT: I wanted very much to make this movie a summer movie that is not operating by the rules of a summer movie. I wanted to make a movie where you can believe Idris Elba is the leader of the resistance and is not just a secondary character that dies in the first ten minutes. I wanted to do a movie where you have a female pilot, a young female Japanese pilot that is not a sexy girl giggling or turning into a guy every time a fight is needed. I wanted a character that had the essential strength of being a woman and not have to become a guy to fight. She was very strong, but at the same time understandable as a character that had a really good reason to have a fear of being in the Jaeger, that can tell Raleigh it’s not obedience but respect. I needed somebody that could play this from a real emotional point. Then I needed a remarkable girl to play her as a young kid. We auditioned girls in London, Los Angeles, New York and Japan for the part that Mana played and I've done so many movies with child actors, I think most of my movies as producer or as director involve child actors. The ratio is always the same: one hundred crappy ones for a great one.

TB: She's miraculous.

GDT: There's one hundred bad auditions and then Mana comes in and I'm like “oh my god she's amazing!” She is one of the most amazing actors I've ever worked with.

TB: I think what's really interesting about her performance is that it's two sides of the same coin that is the character of Mako.

GDT: She lives in her.

TB: Yeah, you see Mana as an avatar almost of the anxiety that you never really see Rinko express totally outwardly which I think is really great.

GDT: What I wanted and funny enough if you ever see the movie again you'll realize that it's not just bullshit. Every big scene in the movie has a dramatic point. The first one is loss, the second one allows you to understand Rinko that flies right to the kaiju, you understand her from that moment on. The third one the big battle is the one where the guy that lost a partner regains a partner, and the final one is where that guy can finally say “I'm not going to allow anyone else to die while I'm in the Jaeger.” So all of them have a purpose and they're not just cool action.

Pacific_Rim_banner_3Q: Each of the Jaegers have such specific characteristics and have a personality of their own, for the both of you which one is your favorite Jaeger and which other Jaeger would you want to fight?

TB: I am a huge fan of Gypsy Danger. I think that she's so metaphorical for the loss that our pilots are feeling. She's broken. Her two pilots are broken. It's so hard to capture that feeling of nostalgia and iconography that isn't based on anything. I think somehow with the design of Gypsy, she's not from anything that you've seen, but you look at her and it's instantly nostalgic and familiar. As to which Jaeger would I like to fight? Wow, hopefully one of the ones that lost I guess (everyone laughs)

Q: If you could go on the bridge and read minds with someone the way the pilots were doing, who would you do that with?

GDT: Ron Pearlman (everyone laughs)

Q: He said Charlie Day.

GDT: F*** him.

Q: And you? (referencing Travis Beacham)

TB: Guillermo (everyone laughs)

GDT: Ah, my buddy!

Q: Can you talk about using CGI versus miniatures? Did you want to go back and use miniatures for example?

GDT: We used miniatures.

Q: How did you use the CGI to enhance it?

GDT: I've been doing special effects since I was a kid. I did them professionally for over a decade. I know every tool. I'm familiar with every tool and comfortable with every tool. I can use the latest or I can use the oldest technique and I think that the misconception is that there are good ones and bad ones. I think that digital effects are as great and as valid as any of the others. The tragedy is to use them as a shortcut creatively and as an end all, like “the solution has to be a digital effect,” no. We use miniatures.  We use incredibly elaborate physical effects in the movie. Not only are there pilots shaking, but the boat is in a gigantic gimbal.  The street where Mana is was rigged with hydraulics. The whole street: the pavement, the lampposts; the cars, the sidewalk, everything. Every time the kaiju took a step, the whole street jumped every time and she reacted to that because the whole set jumped. The easiest thing is to just shake the camera and put in a digital effect. I think that you just have to not be lazy, and anything you need comes from a real need. We built one hundred physical sets in this movie, and completely overtook Pinewood Studios in Toronto and spilled over into two more studios. Normally in a movie like this they don't build, they just put in digital effects. I think that doesn't inform your actors. Your actors end up saying “what am I looking at? What am I supposed to feel about this place? What does it look like?” We did two things. Whenever there was a green screen, we would have a tablet with a program with the design that joined it with the trackers on the set. We would show them the set virtually in the tablet. We would say “if you look that way that's a Jaeger over there, that's the door,” they would look off and see the shatter dome, they would turn around. They would never have to look at a tennis ball and not know what they are looking at, you know?
PACIFIC RIM opens July 12, 2013.

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