When Guillermo Del Toro first started work on Pacific Rim in the summer of 2011, it sounded like a pipe dream. A pretty nifty pipe dream, with giant robots and giant monsters slugging it out on a grand scale while a desperate group of scientists and pilots try to figure out how to save the world from the collateral damage, but ... well, it sounded awfully complicated.
Two years later, Pacific Rim is finally arriving in theatres - and the thing that distinguishes it from the Transformers movies (and Battleship, too) is its great big heart. This isn't a movie about software fighting software. It's about the glee of seeing a cheesy childhood fantasy realized in something like the real world.
Sitting down in Toronto a few days before embarking on a global publicity tour, Del Toro talks about monster-smashing, world-building and his abiding love for old-school special effects.
You've shown us giant monsters before - there's that sequence in Hellboy II where the movie just stops to watch a rampaging plant beast die - but now you're throwing in robots as well, massive fighting machines called Jaegers. Have you always been attracted to large-scale battle bots?
Well, I grew up with Gigantor and [its original Japanese version] Tetsujin 28. I don't know how to explain it, but there is a deeply rooted bond between kids and robots. Like, as a kid your biggest dream is to have a gigantic pet robot. I don't know what it is - if it's the avatar-ness of it, or if it's a vicarious joy, or if it's the myth of the golem. Something on that.
My take is that when we're kids, the robots are toys, and we're the giants protecting them. The fantasy reverses that, with the robots protecting us.
That's a good hypothesis. I think it's also the male equivalent to the relationship girls have with dolls. Girls have an intimate understanding of who [the dolls] are; they learn to recognize their own self in the doll. I think [boys] have that relationship with toy robots.
How did you find the right design for the various machines?
We designed in my house. I hired a group of people I trust, six artists, and I directed them through the course of six, seven months to design the robots. We wanted each robot to have a very distinct silhouette - like, the Russian robot looks like a robot with a nuclear reactor on top of its head. I wanted [hero bot] Gipsy Danger to feel like a cross between the Empire State building, the Chrysler building and John Wayne - it sort of had this gunslinger swagger. I mean, he has the Duke's proportions: he walks with his hips, and he really, really moves like a gunslinger. And then we had the Chinese robot, which looks like medieval armour with red lacquer. And then the Australian robot was designed to be like an old ATV, a 4x4, like a Land Rover. It looks really arrogant and really overbearing. And very masculine. It's the most testosterone-driven robot of them all.
Which makes sense, because in the film the Australians are insanely macho characters.
They have a hard time saying "I love you," you know. [laughing]
But they can do that through the drift - the psychic link between two Jaeger pilots that enables them to drive the robots but also lets them inside each other's minds and memories. In a movie with giant robots fighting giant monsters, that was the most science-fictional element of all.
We talked about it when we were shooting this, you could make a whole movie just about the drift. You could make actually a huge part of this movie about the drift. [laughing] But ultimately when we were balancing [the script], we said, "Look, if we're lucky enough to get a sequel, once it's understood, people can say ‘Oh, it's the drift.'" But right now, we were setting up such a huge world, we couldn't balance it.
There's an awful lot going on in Pacific Rim - character back stories, relationships, the possible extinction of the human race by giant monsters - but the movie feels so light.
The hardest thing to do in a movie is to make it feel nimble. I've been doing this for over 20 years, and I can tell you right now the hardest thing for a movie is for it to feel simple, to feel nimble. Pacific Rim, I wanted to be a movie that was not two hours 40 [minutes], it was not two hours 30 [minutes], dystopian; I wanted it to be a movie where you're not going "When the fuck is it gonna end?"
I want to ask about the monster design. Even though CG offers you limitless anatomical possibilities, you've very consciously gone for a recognizable sort type of creature. They're original creations, but they look like they could have fought Godzilla or Gamera in the 60s.
Early on, in the first week of designing, one of the few rules I gave the guys, I said, "Any kaiju we design needs to be able to be done with a man in a suit." Even the crustacean, which has many arms, you can do that too. You'd do the legs, you'd do the arms, and then the rest are puppeteers outside of the frame, whatever, but I wanted to honour the man in the suit very much. And then I dedicated the film to [stop-motion effects legend] Ray Harryhausen and [Godzilla director] Ishiro Honda.
Yeah, that was a lovely touch.
Harryhausen - we scanned him at Comic-Con, and we made three bronze statues, life size, from that. George Lucas has one, Peter Jackson has the second one and I have the third one. It's a life-size Ray.