"We engaged ILM’s hearts and minds. We came in and offered them [a chance] to fulfill the three things we know about animators: they love monsters, they love robots, and they like Cheetos."
Guillermo del Toro is such a passionate, gregarious guy, he could pitch you a musical adaptation of The Fountainhead starring Mitt Romney with music by Skrillex and have you convinced it was the best idea in the history of cinema.
Fortunately when it came to making Pacific Rim, his tribute to Japanese kaiju movies ("and heavy metal"), he had less of a hard sell on his hands, especially when it came to the wizards at legendary visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic
"We engaged ILM’s hearts and minds," he says. "We came in and offered them [a chance] to fulfill the three things we know about animators: they love monsters, they love robots, and they like Cheetos."
Indeed, Del Toro's enthusiasm for the project seems to have infected the ILM team, so much so that multi-award-winning animation director Hal Hickel felt compelled to bring his toy Godzilla and Gundam to a video presentation of some of the film's effects; "I didn't have to bring them", he says, but there's something in Pacific Rim that - even after years working on the project - that appeals to his inner fan. "I dig the crazy energy this movie has, it's sort of childlike."
That's a perfect description of a film that, at first pass, might read as naive or underwritten, but on further reflection is the sort of adventure - from its daggy-yet-exciting theme by Ramin Djawadi and Tom Morello to, well, giant robots smashing the shit out of giant monsters - that somehow manages to instill a sense of pre-teen wonder in the viewer.
Del Toro knew he would have to walk a creative tightrope between homage and pastiche. "I wanted to make a movie made by fans, but not a ‘fan movie’," he explains. "I didn’t want it to be a collection of kaiju movie ‘best of’ moments. So [kaiju fans] are gonna see some stuff that is honouring the tradition, but also a lot of stuff that is my own take on that tradition."
His reverence for Japanese kaiju and robot films was a major drawcard for star Rinko Kikuchi, who plays the spirited Jaeger pilot Mako Mori. "Being a part of this movie is a dream come true; I grew up with a lot of monster movies, giant robot movies, as a kid, and also this role is like a superhero. I love this character," she says. "I hope the Japanese audiences will like this movie, because a Japanese girl is the superhero who has to save the world."
The director has nothing but praise for the Japanese actress. "I tell you, I think Rinko is an extraordinary actor, and I think she is very, very brave," he says, uncharacteristically serious. "I really found her to have a great strength and centre, and I wanted the character of Mako... When you say, normally, ‘There is a young, Japanese girl pilot’, you imagine a super-sexy, skimpy clad girl that has her t-shirt wet every five minutes, and is, you know..." he strikes a 'kawaii' pose and giggles. "I wanted very much to have a character that [was] on equal terms with Raleigh; that they didn’t have to have a love story, but instead have love and respect as colleagues. It was important for her to be strong, and be strong from a feminine core; I didn’t want her to be the girl that turns into [either] a sex object or a guy, which is the normal thing in action movies."
And this is far from a normal action movie. Pacific Rim's raison d'etre seems to be that it's a blockbuster apart; that while it might carry some of the hallmarks of summer cineplex fare - in particular, ear-shattering CGI battles - there's complexity lurking beneath the surface.
It was this offbeat take on an established genre that drew Legendary Entertainment to the project. Producer and Legendary founder Thomas Tull is sanguine about the fact that most studios are loath to get behind projects that don't involve existing 'product'. "Fortunately for us, since we both produce them and finance them, we can just decide that that’s what we want to do, and audiences will tell us whether or not it worked," he laughs. "Inception was like that. In this case, having Guillermo at the helm, and loving the subject matter, we just felt it was the right thing to do."
The opportunity to try something different was appealing to star Charlie Hunnam, whose performance as Jaeger pilot Raleigh Becket marks his first stint as a big screen leading man. "I think this landscape of cinema right now is not that original," he says. "It’s much easier for studios to make films that have a built-in audience, so it’s all remakes and adaptations - and now, a lot of remakes of adaptations! - and this is actually an original movie. And I think when you watch this film you get a sense that, not only is it original, it has a lot of integrity. There are only a few guys that have a genuine enough love of monsters and robots to make a film with this much passion."
He's on the money there: "passion" might as well be Del Toro's middle name, after all. "I don't make a movie thinking ‘I hope they nominate it for the Oscar this year!’ or ‘I hope it wins at the box office!’," Del Toro says. "I think that my responsibility can only be fiscal, meaning they give me money, I try to make it look like [it cost] twice that amount, and I deliver the movie on budget and on schedule. But beyond that, I gotta do what I want to do. Was it worth giving this movie three years of your life? The answer for me, for Pacific Rim, is absolutely, yes. Making a movie is like sex: you can’t fuck without a boner."
You can, however, make Pacific Rim without sex: Hunnam laughs uproariously when recalling a planned sequence, ditched early on, in which Mako and Raleigh would share a rather intimate neural link-up; "That didn't really work", he says, with pointed understatement, "because what was more important than the physicality of it was making a connection".
There's an artful quality to the way Del Toro and ILM have gone about creating the film, and that's reflected in ILM's approach to designing both the Jaegers and the kaiju. As digital model and creature supervisor Paul Giacoppo puts it, "There's no button that creates a kaiju; we have the same sculptural process as maquette creators."
So, despite the film's heavy VFX load ("It didn't make sense to shoot footage," Hickel says of the big stoushes between kaiju and Jaegers, "the battle scenes are 100% CGI"), the team approached the carnage creatively. Del Toro and visual effects supervisor John Knoll refer more than once to their computer-generated waves in one momentous battle scene as "Hokusai waves", after that artist's seminal The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.
Excitingly, given how obsessed Hollywood science fiction seems to have become in recent years with just-off-the-production-line spaceships, Pacific Rim also features the "used future" aesthetic that made films likeAlien and Blade Runner so compelling. That was one of the pet projects of visual effects art director Alex Jaeger (no relation to the giant mech suits in the film), to "build the story behind a lot of these characters". He and his team created multifaceted, battle-worn Jaegers that would "feel like they weren't all designed by one person; Guillermo really wanted to push the idea that this is something that has been used before".
While the Jaegers themselves might be wholly computer-generated, the "comm-pod" scenes - where the pilots engage in a neural bridge known as "the drift", then 'drive' the Jaeger from within the machine's head - were, more or less, real.
"Guillermo built the entire head [of the Jaeger], almost life-size," Kikuchi recalls. "It was like an amusement park ride: they would pour tonnes of water and [shoot] sparks on us, for hours. It was like a torture machine."
Del Toro seems only partly repentant for having put his stars through such a physical ordeal. "It’s been well publicised how brutal the machine with the pilots was," he laughs. "We had two of those compounds, one on one stage, one on the other, and they were rigged for two types of brutalisation: one was able to drop fast, forward and back, and the other was going side to side."
Kikuchi is matter of fact about how perilous the shooting process was. "It was not safe at all! If I lose my concentration, I can’t survive in the cockpit, so I always felt like ‘Wow, this is a real fight: I have to beat them up, I have to concentrate on this’. I became like a true pilot, you know? I have to survive, and I have to save the world!"
Lest you think the director is some sort of sadist, however, Kikuchi realises she has left one vital detail out of her production memories: "When I lost my concentration [in the pod], Guillermo would sing me the theme fromTotoro in Japanese. It was a great, great moment. He is so sweet."