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Guillermo del Toro shot 'Pacific Rim' from the heart

'Rim' director takes care not to stomp on past while moving monster genre forward

Christopher Borrelli

July 17, 2013

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Guillermo del Toro is a human dream catcher, a fanboy's fanboy. At 48, the Mexico-born filmmaker is the subject of so much wishful thinking that if he were to actually make all of the upcoming movies that entertainment websites have linked to him, he would be working around the clock until he's at least 78: comic book movies, adaptations of theme-park rides, H.P. Lovecraft stories and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. classics, new takes on "Frankenstein" and "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," twists on "Pinocchio," haunted house pictures …

Of course, there's a reason: Since emerging in 1993 with a baroque Mexican horror movie named "Cronos," del Toro has become a kind of dark Spielberg-in-waiting, a director who speaks the language of many audiences, making comic book flicks ("Hellboy") and Academy Award-nominated fairy tales ("Pan's Labyrinth") alike, shepherding young directors (as executive producer of "Mama") and developing TV series ("The Strain," based on his best-selling vampire novels).

More important: He's visually nimble, his vocabulary as committed to the inner demons of Ingmar Bergman as it is to 1930s monsters of Universal Studios. Which is perhaps why, after spending a couple of years developing "The Hobbit" (with the intention of directing), he could pull a 180 and return with "Pacific Rim," a $180 million homage to Japanese monster ("kaiju") movies that speaks very fluid "Godzilla." We spoke recently by phone; an edited transcript follows.

Q: As expensive as this movie is, your monsters still have this rubbery, man-in-a-suit quality.

A: And from the get-go we wanted that. We wanted kaiju with fat rolls, a kaiju with a beer belly, kind of paunchy. I always thought of these movies as wrestling matches, so I wanted the physique of gigantic professional wrestlers. Also, every single kaiju, even the ones with many legs, I wanted to be sure we retained the man-in-a-suit proportions. I said to everyone, if someone made this movie in 1964, they could have built a costume for every monster here. That was a rule. There are also shots where we consciously pushed for the cities to look like miniatures. Actually, in a few shots there are actual miniatures mixed in.

Q: It would be easy to suck the life out of this with digital effects

A: It would. So the robots can't look like sexy new cars under florescent lights. To give it soul, everything needed to be dinged, scraped, peeling. The robots needed serious dents. It should all look used. Which is also why there are all these saturated colors and this dense layer of black that's almost like a velvety thing.

Q: Did you have a checklist of giant-monster movie touchstones?

A: Well, certain camera moves, definitely. The big hand coming down, which is one of the classics. Also, the shot of a kaiju at the end of the street and everyone running away, looking over their shoulders — another signature moment. But I really wanted to establish new moves: fights at the bottom of the ocean, in space. I wanted to establish that kaiju could not only smash a building but go through one. I wanted to include a handful of the beats that made sense to people who love kaiju films, but I wanted a lot of new stuff.

Q: A few of the beats are more subtle: the nutty scientist, the rugged Howard Hawks-ian hero.

A: And if you know your kaiju movies, there are always a race of extraterrestrials …

Q: Wearing wraparound shades.

A: Exactly. Our aliens have no sunglasses. The scientists are a combination of comic book geek and Buddy Holly. And as for Hawks: I did reference Westerns, adventure movies, those kind of outpost movies where men stand against something. A lot of the film language is straight from adventure movies. But a bigger reference for me was Zoltan Korda's (1942 adaptation of) "The Jungle Book," which was so colorful. I was blown away by that when I was a kid. The saturated colors were insane, so I wanted colors here to be crazy. The word I kept telling people during production was "operatic." Nothing clinical. Always expressive.

Q: Actually, another big difference between "Pacific Rim" and older Japanese monster movies is that you account for how this world, even consumer culture and religion, might react to monsters.

A: What I was going for was actually almost a World War II situation. Except, how would the world have changed years after these things arrived? There would be safety zones, they would try building walls to protect entire continents, cities would be evacuated, people would live on rations. You know that some people would see the kaiju as religious figures. I even made sure to explain what they do with kaiju poop.

Q: Have to ask: Since Legendary Pictures is the production company behind both "Pacific Rim" and next year's "Godzilla," if there's a "Pacific Rim 2," any plan to bring Godzilla into the mix?

A: There isn't. The only people who bring this up are fans. I don't know. I think it would be difficult. Who would you want to win between my guys and Godzilla? I love Godzilla and, frankly, I might want Godzilla.

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli