When describing his latest feature Pacific Rim, director Guillermo del Toro often uses the word “poem” – an odd term to apply, you might think, to a larger-than-life summer spectacle about big robots hitting big monsters. And yet, when you sit down in a darkened cinema and drink that spectacle in properly, the poetry and love for the material shines through in every scene: Pacific Rim is stuffed full of crunchy action, certainly, but there’s also an overriding sense of scale and awe.
That same passion for Japanese kaiju movies and mecha comes through when talking to del Toro, too, and as Pacific Rim opens in cinemas everywhere, it was our pleasure to chat to him about designing his robots and monsters, his personal style of filmmaking, a smattering of politics, and how it feels to be back in the director’s chair for the first time since 2008’s Hellboy II…
I genuinely enjoyed Pacific Rim, first of all. I was wondering if we could start by talking a little bit about monsters, and how you came up with a means of making them look unique to your film.
The first notion was to inform the ideas with the tradition of the kaiju eiga [Japanese giant monster films]. We tried to preserve, for example, the basic proportions of a man in a suit for the monsters. Even for the giant crustacean monster, you could execute that monster as a suit.
I asked my design team to just draw literally thousands and thousands of quick line drawings that were more silhouettes than detail, so they didn’t get bogged down in the textures. Then we looked at the shapes – we also did the same thing with the robots – we chose the shapes that were easy to read. In the traditional kaiju eiga, it’s easy to read the silhouettes – it’s one of the unique things about those kinds of monsters.
Then we wanted the kaiju to have a common element. I wanted to have some artificial marking, a trademark, that would unite them all. So I came up with the idea of the bioluminescent markings that almost looked like branding, like you would brand cattle, you know?
When detailing the monsters, I had the team reference real things, like in National Geographic, for example, the profile of a goblin shark, the skin of an elephant – but not reference, ever, other movie monsters. In the same way, I told them not to reference other movie robots when designing.
With the robots, I wanted them to stand on their own. I wanted them to reference World War II technology, nuclear reactors, submarines, all that type of stuff. At the end of the day, we did a sort of American Idol with both the robots and the kaiju, where we would start with thousands, and we would vote various robots and kaiju out, and little by little we’d end up with just the few that are in the movie – all by popular vote of the design crew. I was Simon Cowell. I was a little bit overbearing, and it was ultimately my call.
I detected a real sense of innocence and awe in Pacific Rim – a real absence of cynicism. But do you think that’s the common element in all your filmmaking?
Well, I wanted Pacific Rim to be a real earnest, loving poem to the kaiju and mecha genre. People ask me what the hardest thing to do is, because it’s a very technically challenging movie. But all the technical aspects of the movie were sort of second nature, because if you take a look again, Hellboy II was extremely complex, technically. But I kept saying that [Pacific Rim] is technically complex, but I want the movie to be simple. Not as a defect, but as a quality that allows me to keep my 12-year-old self in command of what the movie needs to do, which is to provoke awe and love for these creatures and robots.
There’s a certain throwback quality to the adventure, where we’re not dealing with the sophisticated mechanisms of good and evil that we’ve seen lately. In the last five years, almost every summer movie has had an almost existential quality to it. I wanted to keep the heroism in the movie, almost as a throwback to the adventure movies I saw in my youth. I wanted to have a humanism that was very unaffected, that ultimately celebrated a bunch of characters that were damaged, and were almost the systems rather than the heroes. Some of the visual language is closer to a dark, operatic fantasy, but the sophistication of that was encompassed by very simple human values. I was always in search of awe for the monsters.
That ties into something else I was going to ask: do you think that blockbusters are perhaps a bit too cynical now? There’s a bit too much soul-searching and darkness, perhaps?
Not at all. I think there’s a certain examination of the superhero myth that is really, really beautiful when it’s created by a genuinely creative filmmaker like Chris Nolan. Then it’s really genuine. It’s a little harder when you don’t feel the cohesiveness within somebody’s work.
To me, Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is of a piece with Memento, or The Following, or Insomnia, or even The Prestige – you can feel the same hand. Sometimes I feel that some of the conventions of other summer entertainment, the darkness, is an affectation that is not of a piece with the rest of the work of the person who made it.
I wanted to have the feeling that I still love in Hellboy and Hellboy II, which is that, ultimately, there’s a lack of post-modern irony in my work. I don’t look at my work and reflect on it in a post-modern way. I really get high on my own supply, so to speak, you know?
I really feel my love for Hellboy is an earnest one. It’s not a bad joke or an exercise in superhero lore. I admire the guy. And I think you can feel that.
I’m not reflecting on any other summer movie so much as I am honouring two things that are crucial: the kaiju and the mecha. Japan, unlike any other country in the world, I think, does not have any ambivalence against technology. Travis Beacham [Pacific Rim’s screenwriter] was very clear in that respect – he said, “Look, Japan loves its mecha. It doesn’t have the technological warning of Frankenstein.”
Technology is bad in every western fable. It’ll turn against you. The computer will be activated and trap the humans. There’s no hint of a warning in the mecha genre, and it’s joyful, almost mythologising of mechanical characters. These magnificent giant robots work on a mythical level.
Now, of the kaiju genre, you could say the same thing. The kaiju eiga were almost like a coping mechanism to deal with the consequences of World War II. Take Godzilla – from a narrative point of view, its origin was other giant beast movies, like King Kong or some of Ray Harryhausen’s work. The first Godzilla film was a very dark, deep piece of filmmaking – almost disturbing in a way. But the love the country and the kids felt for the creature literally evolved Godzilla into a national hero.
From that point on, whether you’re talking about [director Ishiro] Honda kaiju or Eiji Tsuburaya’s Ultraman or Ultra Seven, or many others, you come to realise that the kaiju became celebratory figures. They became greatly loved by Japan and its culture. They became outlandish and beautiful. So that’s where that impulse comes from.
As you say, Godzilla was like a coping mechanism – Japan repeating to itself the trauma of war. Do you think there’s a parallel there between kaiju films and modern blockbusters in America, where we’re seeing New York and other cities destroyed over and over again?
I would instinctively think so. I do not dare to get objective on something so recent. But it seems to me that there’s a notion that boundaries disappeared when we became a global village. We did so under the pretence that we would become more mature as a world, that we would become harmonised by it. But what you get is the threat of cyber-terrorism on the personal front – people constantly know that their properties, their entire finances, are vulnerable to invisible enemies.
Or the constant footage on TV of destruction – and not of a war in an alien land. This is not America watching footage from Europe or in Asia, where war is being enacted, but explosions on an American street, on American buildings. The collapse of a skyscraper, that’s absolutely had an unprecedented power in media.
More importantly, the moral boundaries are sort of excised. There is no clear way to deal with the origin of these tragedies. The fables we’re telling as a world need to be articulated in terms of absolutes somehow. What are we enthroning? The difficulties do not enthrone a jingoistic discourse of a single country and a single ideology against the foreign. We have to articulate, if possible, some form of humanism in the face of unimaginable odds.
That is part of my effort on Pacific Rim, in a way – to not make it about western characters in a particular army fighting gigantic monsters, [but] to link the kaiju’s origin either to consumerism or blindly devouring the Earth in terms of ecology. Either we’re partially responsible for terraforming the Earth through contamination, or we posit the idea that the race sending this massive force against us is a race with blind consumerism at its centre. It’s a race that devours everything and then moves onto the next planet and devours everything again. Every resource of the Earth.
I tried to articulate, not through one character, but through a choral structure, what it means to be human. Each of those characters represents one virtue of being human: ingenuity, bravery, leadership. Not just firepower and an ability to fight, but each character is necessary at the end to defeat the kaiju – this force that has evolved without morals or ethics. A force of nature, almost, like a tornado or a hurricane.
The one thing I tried to show, if you see the movie again, is that each of these characters articulates the need of trust. The scientists can only operate if they trust each other. The father distrusts the son, but they can only operate if they trust each other in the robot. The father and the daughter figures – the father doesn’t trust the youth and pain of his daughter to be able to pilot the Jaeger.
And very naturally, two pilots can evolve, but whoever they are, it’s articulated that you need to trust each other. You put two characters – Raleigh and Mako, who are incapable of trusting each other or themselves – in a robot, and force them to either come together or fall apart. That’s a very simple, humanistic message for me to put in a giant movie, that is without a doubt oriented towards a young audience – a younger audience than any of my other movies.
The reviews, so far, have been excellent. That must be a relief to you, especially since it’s been a while since you directed a movie. How have you felt about the reaction?
Every screening we’ve had in London or America, or Mexico last week, every screening has been so beautiful. It connects so strongly with an audience.
Look, I made a not very subtle metaphor in the movie. Raleigh has been out of a Jaeger for the same amount of time as I’ve been out of the directing chair! [Laughs] It wasn’t exactly subtle, but it was really important for me. I’m getting back in the Jaeger. I’ve been out of it as a director – I’ve been writing and producing and this and that, but directing is directing, and I felt very much for Raleigh.
I don’t look as good as Charlie Hunnam without my shirt [Laughs], but other than that, I understand Raleigh and that, ultimately, he’s a guy who’s preoccupied with doing the right thing, you know? And proving to himself that he’s ready to get back into the Jaeger.
Does the reception to Pacific Rim make At The Mountains Of Madness more likely, and perhaps Hellboy III as well?
I don’t know what will happen. I tell you, I’ve found out the hard way that however hard I try to plan what comes next, the world teaches me a lesson and sends me in another direction, so I try not to think that much. Right now, I have my next two movies, which are the pilot for The Strain for FX, and Crimson Peak, my feature for Legendary. I’m very, very happy that both of them are my first attempt at an adult genre picture since Mimic, really. And Mimic was such a terrifying ordeal, I think I’m ready to start doing something that feels adult and, hopefully disturbing to an international audience through films or projects in America.
Equally, if I finish my project, I want to do one of the smaller ones – any of the Spanish-language or foreign-language films. I’ll dedicate myself to that. So I don’t know, really, what I’ll do.
But I do love [Pacific Rim] with all my heart.
Just as Pan’s Labyrinth is the culmination of what I wanted to bring to a more intimate aspect of my work, this is finally a realisation of me trying to deliver spectacle. I think that I have finally delivered a spectacle on the scale and with all the skill that I can, because I was fully supported by Legendary and Warner Bros.
And the results are fantastic. Guillermo del Toro, thank you very much.
Pacific Rim is in theaters now!