Pacific Rim Uprising and the Challenges of the Sequel

Steven S. DeKnight explains making the second movie different, what Guillermo del Toro told him and more.

Released in 2013, director Guillermo del Toro’s ode to Japanese kaiju movies, Pacific Rim, did not quite hit with American audiences the way it did with viewers around the world: it made just $102 million in North America, while earning over $300 million internationally, including a robust $114 million in China alone. That eventually made it worth the while of Legendary Pictures, the company behind the monsters-vs-robots spectacle, to get behind the idea of a sequel.

The development process was long, however, and del Toro eventually moved out of the director’s chair and into a producing role. That paved the way for Steven S. DeKnight to make his feature directorial debut on the sequel. An experienced writer, producer and director in TV on shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dollhouse, and Smallville, while also creating and producing Spartacus and being the showrunner on the first season of the Marvel/Netflix series Daredevil, DeKnight was ready to jump into directing feature films — with his first being about as big a project as he could handle.

Set 10 years after the first incursion of giant monsters into our world from another dimension was repelled by the fleet of giant, psychically-controlled robots known as Jaegers, Pacific Rim Uprising stars John Boyega as a once-promising Jaeger pilot who left that life behind but is pulled back by signs that another invasion is imminent. Den of Geek spoke with DeKnight about how he got involved with the film, what he wanted to differently from Del Toro’s original, and his thoughts on making more Pacific Rim movies if this one is a success.

Den of Geek: Did you come to this as a writer initially, or was directing always part of the deal?

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Steven DeKnight: No. I was working with (producer) Mary Parent. I had written a thriller called The Dead and The Dying, which was kind of a Hitchcockian psychological thriller. Three people in a house, literally three people in a house. We had set it up with Paramount, and we were in the process of trying to get the movie up and running, casting and everything.

Paramount was great to me, love those guys, but then Mary calls me up one day and says, “You know what? Maybe this wasn’t meant to be your directorial debut.” I thought, “Oh shit, Mary Parent’s pulling out of my movie. Now what do I do?” Then she followed up with, “What do you think about Pacific Rim 2?” I’m like, “That’s a little bit bigger than three people in a house, but I loved the first one.” I’ve been a huge Guillermo del Toro fan ever since Cronos. I’ve seen all of his movies multiple times, own them all on DVD. Have all of the books about his movies and his process and (his house/museum) Bleak House.

Really, for me, it was just a bigger version of what I’d been doing in television, with action and visual effects and all of that stuff. I grew up loving Ultraman and Space Giants, and the man-in-suit movies. For me, I’d always planned on doing a movie like this in like 10 years, after I had done my little movie, my medium movie, and then hopefully con somebody into giving me a big movie. This kind of just happened all at once. I signed on as director and co-writer. We had very little time, because we were in a crunch because of the release date and actors’ schedules. I put together a writer’s room, TV style, with half TV writers, half film writers. For two weeks, we took my five page outline and beat it out into a full story. I came to it as director/writer, kind of really quickly on the fly.

This all happened after Guillermo moved on…

Guillermo had to step away. I didn’t know until much later, but he said, “I’ve got this small, personal movie I’ve been trying to make for years. Now it’s going, but unfortunately they have to shoot Pacific Rim at the same time. I’ve got to step away.” I didn’t know it was The Shape of Water. Fantastic decision on Guillermo’s part, and I knew it tore his heart out not to come back, because he loves this franchise. He followed his heart and it really, really paid off.

Did you consult with him along the way?

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Guillermo’s fantastic. I pitched him what I was thinking. He really liked it, had some great ideas that really helped shape the feel and tone of the movie. He said, “Look, I’m going to be busy prepping and directing my movie, but anything you need, reach out. I will always make time to help you.” Then he added, “But otherwise, I’m going to stay out of your hair. Make this your movie. I want this to be your movie.” He didn’t want it to be just a copy of the first movie, which was great, to say that to another filmmaker, to just pass the baton and say, “Take it and run.” He’s such a wonderful man.

Is it that big a difference between going from a TV show or small movie to a big movie? Is it still coming down to kind of the same basic ingredients?

Nuts and bolts, absolutely. It’s just bigger and longer. The longest I ever shot in TV, I think, was 16 days on Daredevil, for the finale of Season One. For this, it was like an 80-plus day shoot. It was much, much longer. That kind of marathon. Also, you shoot all over the world. We shot in Australia, China, a little bit in Iceland, Los Angeles. It was really everywhere, which you really don’t get a chance to do in TV.

The other difference is in TV, you have your creative struggles, but the showrunner/creator is pretty much the producer and the writer. You generally get, 99% of your vision is on screen. With movies, because they are so massively expensive, it has to be a real collaborative process. You have to really be able to work with producer notes and studio notes and your actor notes, and really kind of help shepherd that whole thing in a much more grand fashion than you do in television.

The other thing you mentioned was the writer’s room, which started in TV but which I think a lot of franchises are using now. What do you think are the benefits of that for feature films?

It’s such a huge benefit. I had the structure for the movie. I had a beginning, a middle, and end, and a lot of little bits, but there was so much to flesh out. When you bring in a bunch of very creative, talented writers, they start throwing out things that you’ve never considered. This movie would not be the movie it is without their voices. There were so many great ideas that were incorporated, and great moments. I think using that TV model of a writer’s room is fantastic.

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It can be daunting if you’re not used to running a writer’s room. You want to get the best people, and the best people are very opinionated and very strong in their opinions. You can get run over if you don’t know how to manage and discard the things that don’t fit, and also at the same time, be open to the things that you may not like at first, but then you realize it’s the best thing for the movie. I was involved in the Transformers think tank writer’s room. I think it’s a brilliant thing that movies are doing. TV has become such a powerhouse of storytelling, to take a page from that and apply it to the movies is fantastic, and I hope it continues. I certainly would work that way on any big feature.

You mentioned all the places you shot this movie, which was your favorite?

I was in Sydney the longest, I was in Sydney with prep and shooting about six months. I’m very fond of that. I really loved China, it was my first time there and they were wonderful. I just had such a blast there. Iceland, I was only there briefly, but fantastic crew, lovely to work there. But Sydney holds a special place in my heart, because I lived there literally. I just transplanted myself there for six months. It was lovely. I mean I could walk to the Opera House every day from where I was staying. It was a wonderful experience.

One thing we see right away is that this movie looks different from the first one. The colors are brighter. A lot more of it takes place in daytime. Can you talk about making that creative choice? What were other ways that you wanted to put your own vision on the film, while making sure that people knew it was also part of that same series?

One of the biggest things I wanted was not to try to imitate Guillermo. I firmly believe he is a visual genius, that there’s no other director out there that could match what he does visually. He has such a depth and richness to his eye. It would have been a fool’s errand to try to replicate that without him. I also didn’t want to give the audience the exact same thing from the first movie. I wanted Jaegers, I wanted the Drift, I wanted kaiju, I wanted all those elements from the first movie, but we didn’t want to just repeat the first movie.

We didn’t want to have the battles at night or in the rain or underwater. Quite frankly, Guillermo put an exclamation point on that, in his first movie, it was so gorgeously done. We wanted most of the action to take place during the day, which is much more difficult with visual effects, since you see everything, but (FX house) Double Negative really threw their back into it, to make that work. Since it’s 10 years later, we have the elbow room to make the world feel a little bit different. We’re not just retreading the amazing work that was done in the first movie, to give it that bit of a different feel.

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I’m a child of the ’80s really with movies, the late ’70s all the way through the ’80s. My influences back then were very strongly Spielbergian, and I think you get a little sense of that here and there in the movie. I wanted that kind of character banter, but with heart, to really push the characters along.

You have a big and diverse cast. But I have to ask, no Ron Perlman?

We tried to get Ron in for a bit. The schedules didn’t work out, and we ultimately ended up cutting that bit, once we couldn’t get him (see more about that scene here). I love Ron Perlman. I would have loved to have worked with his character in this movie. The film was so jam-packed that it added like an extra layer. I’m hoping if we get a chance to do a third movie, I’ve got a Hannibal Chau idea, so I would love to see him come back.

Diversity’s more important than ever these days, but it’s actually organic to your story, because you’re talking about the world coming together.

That’s one of the things that really attracted me to this. It’s something that I thought Guillermo set up so brilliantly, is that it is an international idea. It is countries all around the Pacific Rim, all around the world, coming together to fight the monsters. I always love a really diverse cast. It’s what I did with Spartacus. It’s what I did for a show called Incursion that I was developing for Starz.

In this, it was baked into the DNA. It never feels weird, like, “Why are we going to China?” (Because) it’s on the Pacific Rim. “Why do we have so many characters from so many different places?” Because the world is fighting for this. That was a big appeal to me, especially when you make a movie this size, you want it to appeal internationally, and it was just natural.

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You mentioned that you do have an idea for a third one. Do you feel like you have some ownership on this now and are ready to keep going if you can?

More rental than ownership. When I was developing Uprising, I was jotting down a bunch of ideas and notes about a possible third movie. At one point, I think I was in pre-production in Sydney, and I typed them all up and sent them to Legendary (Pictures) to say, “Look, this is where I would take it.” They seemed to like the idea. Hopefully, we’ll get a chance to do a third one, if the audience shows up for this one, and hopefully I’ll be involved.

Even if I’m not, I’m the first one to buy a ticket. I love the franchise. I think it’s so much fun and there’s so many different ways you could go with it. My idea was always to end the third movie by expanding the universe into a Star Wars/Star Trek style universe, where you could have standalones or you could follow the canon. Just make it big and fun.

Do you still look in on Daredevil?

I just watch it when it’s on Netflix. I watch all the Marvel shows. Loved my time with them. When I signed on to do Daredevil, I had already set up the movie with Mary Perrin, my little thriller. Mary and I put that on hold so I could help out Jeph Loeb and Drew Goddard over on Daredevil. The reason I didn’t go back to Season Two, is because I was doing this other movie. I love the people there, I love what they’re doing with the Netflix series. I would love to go back and do something else for the Marvel/Netflix world, whether it’s Daredevil or something completely different. I love those guys, I love the show.

Pacific Rim: Uprising is out in theaters this Friday (March 23).

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