Guillermo del Toro is a geek. It’s not a insult, or an attempt to discredit the creepy, often surreal horror movies (Pan’s Labyrinth) and pulpy superhero movies (the Hellboy films) he makes; the 48-year-old Mexican filmmaker is the first to proudly admit that he’s a card-carrying member of the Comic-Con nation. In fact, it’s his childlike enthusiasm over the thought of Shogun Warrior–like robots fighting skyscraper-sized monsters that makes him the perfect person to mount a kaiju eiga (those Japanese flicks that gave us Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra) for a modern audience. A labor of love and gloriously nerdy obsessions, Pacific Rim imagines a future in which major metropolitan cities are regularly attacked by raging giant creatures. Thankfully, the government has constructed an arsenal of equally huge rock-’em-sock-’em humanoids, piloted by hot shots like Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam) and designed to kick mondo monster ass. Time Out New York Film editor David Fear talked to Del Toro over the phone right before the writer-director’s sci-fi action movie hit theaters. (Read our review.)
The fact that you call your monsters kaiju suggests you’re a big fan of the Japanese big-monster movie genre. Did you watch a lot of these movies growing up in Mexico?
Guillermo del Toro: A lot of them, yeah! If you grew up in Mexico around the time that I did, you basically got a Ph.D. in Japanese pop culture from the ’60s. You’d go see these kaiju eiga like The War of the Gargantuans at a theater, then you could see the Ultra Q and Ultraman series and early anime on TV. When I meet people from Japan that are my age, they all sort of flip a little bit: “Wait, how have you seen all this stuff? How do you even know about Wolf Boy Ken?!?” [Laughs] But yeah, anything with a monster in it, I loved it. I still do.
Is that part of the reason you keep gravitating back to monster movies as a filmmaker? Is it an attempt to recapture that initial fascination you had with fantasy and pop culture as kid?
Guillermo del Toro: Definitely, yeah. I’m part of the monster-youth generation; I actually own a house that’s filled from top to bottom with my monster-movie memorabilia collection, and there’s stuff there that I’ve had since I was a little kid. Horror and sci-fi nurtured me growing up, and I’m always interested in premises that have to deal with the monsters of my childhood.
Whether you’re talking about the Universal horror films or the Godzilla movies…they’re all pageantry. Even though so much of horror is about withholding—it’s the thing that lurks in the shadows, the thing can only be whispered about!—the point is to show the monster. So many horror films are almost like shrines to their creatures. When I make these movies, I’m not just doing it with affection. I’m doing it with a sense of real devotion. My religion is the fantastic.
This project didn’t originate with you; at what point did you come aboard?
Guillermo del Toro: It was in what you might call the pitch-and-outline stage. We had a treatment that was a few pages long when [screenwriter] Travis [Beacham] and I started writing together, and worked on the script for about a year. There were a number of elements that I’d always wanted to see in a kajiu movie—what would a kaiju birth look like? what does an attack look like from a child’s perspective?—that I tried to work in. I approached it as much as a fan of the genre as a filmmaker. It’s really a love poem to giant robots and giant monsters.
It was high time both of them got a very expensive love poem, Guillermo.
Guillermo del Toro: [Laughs] We’re laughing about this, but it’s true! I hope audiences feel the same sort of affection for these robot pilots and these monsters that I do by the end of the film. That was one way we wanted to sort of counteract the usual summer blockbuster notions; the other was to make the female pilot, Mako (played by Babel’s Rinko Kikuchi), an equal to Charlie Hunnam’s character instead of just a romantic interest. Whether the two of them end up with each other or not is practically irrelevant; she’s her own character.
That fight scene between the two of them may still qualify as the best sex scene to show up in any movie this summer, even if they are both fully clothed.
Guillermo del Toro: That’s exactly how I shot it—like a sex scene. That scene was all about two people having an intimate connection after beating the crap out of each other. Basically, it’s the story of my life. And how I met my wife. [Laughs]
How closely involved were you with the look of these monsters? There’s a very Lovecraftian feel to these creatures, and given that you spent a long time working on an adaptation of a Lovecraft story (At the Mountains of Madness) that ended up falling apart, I’d assume that some of that film’s designs ended up in Pacific Rim.
Guillermo del Toro: There may be a few of those designs in there, but I mean…when I direct a movie, I have to have input on every single visual aspect—from the buttons on someone’s lapel to the hugest set. So yeah, it’s all coming from the same place. I worked with a design team in my garage for many, many months; we’d have meetings six, seven times a day. I’ve always thought of visuals in a movie as being just as important as the storytelling. There is no separation between form and content for me. I’ve always said I don’t want to make eye-candy; I want to make eye protein. [Laughs]
I’d heard that you were told that you could cast anyone you wanted…that’s a pretty huge leap of faith for a studio to take with a summer blockbuster movie with a multimillion dollar budget that’s not based on a proven property, don’t you think?
Guillermo del Toro: It totally is, I agree. [Production company] Legendary Pictures told me from the outset, “Look, as far as we’re concerned, the star of the movie is the world you’re going to create: the monsters, the robots, the cities under attack. Cast anyone you want.” You never get that kind of freedom, ever! So I cast actors I really wanted to work with: Not just Charlie and Rinko, but Idris Elba, Charlie Day, Ron Perlman, Burn Gorman. And and if this movie proves nothing else, it’s that I watch way too much TV. [Laughs]
You have what seems like half of the FX network in your movie.
Guillermo del Toro: And half of BBC America’s regulars actors as well!
If anyone else would have written a character like Charlie Day’s nerdy scientist-cum-kaiju groupie in a movie, it’d seem like the filmmaker would be mocking the whole Comic-Con fanboy mentality.
Guillermo del Toro: “Wow, is that a kaiju cuticle in mint condition?” Yeah, that character is a collector and a statistics-quoting fanboy, definitely, but there’s zero mockery there. I not only have a great affinity for that culture; I am part of it. These are my people. Plus, look at him: He’s got the leather jacket and the tattoos, and acts like a rock star. He’s the kaiju hipster geek! [Laughs]
You’ve been quoted as saying that “Rarely has a movie meant more to me personally than this one.” Can you clarify that?
Guillermo del Toro: Well… [Long pause] This movie came into my life at an odd point, after working for a decade on At the Mountains of Madness and not seeing that come together, and then leaving The Hobbit after two years of working on that and not getting to make it. It was a very difficult moment for me, and then all of a sudden, I’m allowed this enormous amount of freedom in making a movie that feels tailor-made for my sensibilities and I have all this support around me. So it’s not just that I had a lot riding on it professionally, it’s also that I needed to know I could still have fun doing these movies…that I could still feel like a kid taking a robot and a dinosaur out of his toy box and playing with them, you know. Granted, this is that on a much bigger scale, but…yeah, this is as personal as it gets.
I was curious if, having endured those two movies falling apart, you felt that you had something to prove to the industry in terms of being able to get a movie made. But it sounds more like you had to prove something to yourself.
Guillermo del Toro: It was the matter of proving to myself that I still wanted to do it, that I could be a 48-year-old filmmaker who could let the 12-year-old boy inside him run free. Look, I really don’t fit into the European notion of a “serious” filmmaker, I don’t fit in with the indie folks, and I don’t really fit the mold of a typical Hollywood director. I don’t belong anywhere; I’m just a really freaky guy. [Laughs] So I don’t have an industry to prove myself to, when you think about it. But I did need to see if I could access that feeling of sheer joy I used to get when I was making a movie again. And I found that here. That kid is still in there.
Pacific Rim opens July 12.