Guillermo del Toro edges toward greater success with ‘Pacific Rim’

June 29, 2013 | 5:00 a.m.
Guillermo del Toro is "compulsive," he says, and his work could pay off with "Pacific Rim," his first film as director after five years and two unmade projects. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Guillermo del Toro is “compulsive,” he says, and his work could pay off with “Pacific Rim,” his first film as director after five years and two unmade projects. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Guillermo del Toro had just come from a darkened Burbank auditorium when he arrived at the Warner Bros. lot to lead a conference call of visual-effects technicians finalizing the extensive CG sequences for his new film “Pacific Rim.” He’d spent the first hour of a winter afternoon using a red laser pointer to indicate precisely where he’d like the 3-D effects to be amplified in specific scenes as towering robots known as Jaegers soldiered silently across the ocean floor on the big screen.

Now, seated in front of a computer monitor, it was time to perfect some of the hand-to-hand combat sequences between the movie’s lumbering giants and the alien beasties known as kaiju that serve as the bad guys in the ambitious, $180-million film. In one shot, he requested that the otherworldly creature adopt more of a boxer’s stance; in another, he wanted the monster to convulse as it shot a death ray out of its maw. “Can we have him coughing up like acid reflux?” Del Toro asked.

Clad in a faded black hoodie, Del Toro provided his own sound effects as the heroic Jaeger Gipsy Danger smashed a kaiju’s head with two metal fists — monosyllables straight out of the old Adam West “Batman” TV show, “Bam. Boosh. Oof.” — seeming far more like a gleeful 10-year-old boy playing an expensive game of “Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots” than a 48-year-old bilingual Oscar nominee laboring over a project that could propel him to an entirely new level of success.

MORE: RSVP for our free ‘Pacific Rim’ screening with Guillermo del Toro

Opening July 12, “Pacific Rim” is set in a near future in which a shifting of tectonic plates has unlocked the portal to another world. Kaiju — the name and the genre come from the strain of Japanese B-movie cinema sired by Toho’s original “Godzilla” — pour through the rift, and before long coastal cities have been destroyed. To fight back, the military creates the Jaeger program, which entails the construction of 25-story robots operated by two pilots who control the machine through a psychic bond. It’s the closest thing to live-action anime Hollywood has produced.

“I really wanted to make a movie that had an incredibly airy and light feel,” Del Toro said the other day, reflecting on the film he had just finished. “This is not a super-brooding, super-dark, cynical summer movie. I wanted very much to do a movie that is aiming for a young audience. Adults can be, God willing, entertained by the big, beautiful, sophisticated visuals and the action and all that, but my real hope is that this movie allows for a new generation of kaiju and robot kids that fall in love with giant monsters.”

Charlie Hunnam, left, as Raleigh Becket and Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori in "Pacific Rim." (Warner Bros.)

The United States' Gipsy Danger in a scene from "Pacific Rim." Gipsy Danger is a Jaeger, one of the fighting robots invented by humans to defeat an alien kaiju onslaught. (Warner Bros.)

Idris Elba as Stacker Pentecost, left, and Charlie Hunnam as Raleigh Becket in "Pacific Rim." (Warner Bros.)

Rob Kazinsky as Chuck Hansen, left, and Idris Elba as Stacker Pentecost in "Pacific Rim." (Warner Bros.)

Max Martini as Herc Hansen, left, Idris Elba as Stacker Pentecost, and Clifton Collins as Ops Tendo Choi in "Pacific Rim." (Warner Bros.)

Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori, left, Idris Elba as Stacker Pentecost, and Charlie Hunnam as Raleigh Becket in "Pacific Rim." (Warner Bros.)

Robert Maillet as Lt. S. Kaidanovsky and Heather Doerksen as Lt. A. Kaidanovsky in "Pacific Rim." (Warner Bros.)

China's Jaeger Crimson Typhoon, left, and Russia's Jaeger Cherno Alpha in a scene from "Pacific Rim." (Warner Bros.)

Charlie Hunnam as Raleigh Becket, left, and Mana Ashida as young Mako in "Pacific Rim." (Warner Bros.)

The United States' Jaeger Gipsy Danger, left, and Australia's Jaeger Striker Eureka in a scene from "Pacific Rim." (Warner Bros.)

Rob Kazinsky as Chuck Hansen, left, and Charlie Hunnam as Raleigh Becket in "Pacific Rim." (Kerry Hayes / Warner Bros.)

Charlie Hunnam, left, as Raleigh Becket and Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori in "Pacific Rim." (Kerry Hayes / Warner Bros.)

Max Martini as Herc Hansen, left, and Rob Kazinsky as Chuck Hansen in "Pacific Rim." (Kerry Hayes / Warner Bros.)

Max Martini as Herc Hansen, left, and Rob Kazinsky as Chuck Hansen in "Pacific Rim." (Kerry Hayes / Warner Bros.)

Charlie Hunnam, left, as Raleigh Becket and Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori in "Pacific Rim." (Kerry Hayes / Warner Bros.)

Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori, left, and Idris Elba as Stacker Pentecost in "Pacific Rim." (Kerry Hayes / Warner Bros.)

Idris Elba as Stacker Pentecost, left, Max Martini as Herc Hansen, Clifton Collins Jr. as Ops Tendo Choi and Rob Kazinsky as Chuck Hansen in "Pacific Rim." (Kerry Hayes / Warner Bros.)

Charles Luu, Lance Luu and Mark Luu play the Wei Tang triplets in "Pacific Rim." (Kerry Hayes / Warner Bros.)

Ron Perlman as Hannibal Chau, left, and Charlie Day as Dr. Newton Geiszler in "Pacific Rim." (Kerry Hayes / Warner Bros.)

“Pacific Rim” might be many things — the most expensive movie Del Toro has ever made, a glorious homage to the Japanese pop culture he adored as a child in Guadalajara, the first film in what Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. are hoping will be an outsized franchise. What it isn’t, though, is a sure thing.

At a time when the major studios continue to rely on sequels and superheroes, “Pacific Rim” thunders into a crowded season as a wholly original big-budget sci-fi spectacle movie. If it works, the movie holds the potential to chart a new career path for Del Toro, who in the last two decades has cultivated an ardent following making uncompromising movies in English and Spanish that embrace genre strictures and simultaneously rise above them. He’s probably one of the few people working in cinema today who can hold forth with equal authority on comic books and Kierkegaard.

“He’s got this unbelievable facility to have really, really big ideas pouring out of him at all times,” said actor Ron Perlman, who first worked with Del Toro on his 1993 debut “Cronos.” “He’s an incredibly special man.”

A personal project

Written by Del Toro and Travis Beacham, “Pacific Rim” features an ensemble cast led by Charlie Hunnam (“Sons of Anarchy”), Idris Elba, Charlie Day, Rinko Kikuchi, Robert Kazinsky, Max Martini and Burn Gorman, with Perlman showing up in a smaller turn as the outrageously monikered Hannibal Chau, a black-market dealer of kaiju anatomy who resembles a futuristic glam-rock pimp.

Yet it’s “Pacific Rim’s” concept and director that stand out as its biggest stars.

“Guillermo absolutely lives and breathes this stuff,” Hunnam said. “I knew that it was going to be so much more than just giant robots and monsters — what he’s interested in is the world they inhabit. That’s what excited me, the prospect of this multidimensional, gritty, nuanced world that he was going to create around this very large premise.”

Moviegoers familiar with Del Toro’s body of work know that it does exist in a world of its own, with the 2006 fairy tale “Pan’s Labyrinth” perhaps best exemplifying his wild and devious imagination. The film, which won three of the six Academy Awards it was nominated for, centers on a young girl in Fascist Spain who escapes from everyday life with her mother and her brutal stepfather into a fantastic but dangerous realm populated by unusual-looking monsters and rendered in moody blue and gold tones.

It’s one of three Spanish-language movies Del Toro has made: “Cronos” located the classic vampire mythology to a modern middle-class home in Mexico, and “The Devil’s Backbone” set a ghost story in a remote orphanage in rural Spain. His English-language résumé includes 1997’s giant insect movie “Mimic” — a famously fraught production — and three comic-book adaptations: the vampire sequel “Blade II,” “Hellboy” and “Hellboy II: The Golden Army.”

What the films share is an affection for idiosyncrasy often expressed with humor and a singular, painterly palette. Even in his most commercial projects, there’s always a trace of the art house (Del Toro has long-standing relationships with such auteurs as Pedro Almodóvar, Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu).

Director Guillermo del Toro. (Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)

Guillermo del Toro says he cried when “At the Mountains of Madness” fell through. (Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)

“I always love to take things that are very popular and treat them in a way that is very different than they are treated normally,” Del Toro said. “Like ‘Hellboy.’ Say what you may, but it’s a very, very strange superhero movie. Not every superhero movie has a fish guy and a demon guy drinking a six-pack and singing Barry Manilow. In the same way, I think ‘Pacific Rim’ brings a stable of characters — the scientist, the leader, the pilot, the black-market guy — but gives it its own slightly deranged twist.”

He came to direct “Pacific Rim” only after two other efforts fell apart. First, he had set out to direct a two-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” which ultimately became a trilogy helmed by Peter Jackson. Then there was his long-held passion project, a big-budget adaptation of “At the Mountains of Madness” by H.P. Lovecraft. The story of a scientific expedition to Antarctica that uncovers ancient life-forms collapsed after Universal declined to finance the film, a $150-million R-rated 3-D horror epic.

“When it happened, this has never happened to me, but I actually cried that weekend a lot,” Del Toro said. “I don’t want to sound like a puny soul, but I really was devastated. I was weeping for the movie.”

Within days, he’d signed on to direct “Pacific Rim,” which he’d previously agreed to produce and co-write. He shot the film almost entirely on eight soundstages at Pinewood Toronto Studios; the scale of the production was massive. “We built parts of the robots, and the only thing that would fit in the largest stage in North America was the feet,” he said.

For a portion of the 103-day shoot, Del Toro worked six-day weeks, acting as his own second-unit director. “I wanted ‘Pacific Rim’ to be on budget and on time because it was basically for me a big moment to show myself that I didn’t get rusty, I didn’t get complacent,” he said.

Guillermo del Toro works with actor Charlie Hunnam on the set of "Pacific Rim," a $180-million original science-fiction action adventure. (Kerry Hayes / Warner Bros.)

Guillermo del Toro works with actor Charlie Hunnam on the set of “Pacific Rim,” a $180-million original science-fiction action adventure. (Kerry Hayes / Warner Bros.)

The pace he maintained impressed Hunnam, who plays gifted Jaeger pilot Raleigh Becket. “I work incredibly hard and truly never felt like I had come across anybody who was as obsessive as I am about trying to get it right,” Hunnam said. “Then I met Guillermo and he just exceeded me I would say threefold.”

“A director is compulsive,” said Del Toro. “We are compulsive. I wake up earlier than anyone in the crew and stay longer than anyone in the crew. I visit the sets on Sundays; I edit at lunchtime every day. I edit on the weekends. It’s difficult for my family; for me it’s ideal…. I find it difficult to have a normal social life.”

Active imagination

“Normal” isn’t really a word that applies to much in Del Toro’s life, with the possible exception of his home life — he lives in the Valley with his wife, Lorenza, a former movie makeup artist, and their two teenage daughters. But he also maintains a neighboring property titled Bleak House that contains a mammoth collection of movie memorabilia, occult artifacts and personal mementos. He’s accorded hero status at pop-culture gatherings such as San Diego’s Comic-Con International, where he annually plays the gregarious raconteur to rapt crowds who dote on him as the ultimate fanboy made good.

Del Toro is remarkably easy to like. In one-on-one conversation, he’s serene and thoughtful, with a tendency to pepper his language with exuberant bursts of profanity. His creative drive appears boundless — though his seemingly endless to-do list has provoked detractors to complain online that he announces more projects than he could ever hope to complete in a lifetime.

Right now, for example, there’s an FX show, “The Strain,” based on a trilogy of vampire books that Del Toro wrote with Chuck Hogan, taking shape. He’s awaiting a decision from HBO about a show based on Naoki Urasawa’s “Monster” manga series. He’s writing a collection of short fiction called “Phantom Limbs,” he’s written a script for a feature based on the comic book “Justice League Dark,” and there’s already talk about a possible “Pacific Rim” sequel.

"Pacific Rim" director Guillermo del Toro is photographed at the mixing stage at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, Calif., on June 17, 2103. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

“Pacific Rim” director Guillermo del Toro is photographed at the mixing stage at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, Calif., on June 17, 2103. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Even if “Pacific Rim” manages to win Del Toro the sizable mainstream following that’s largely eluded him — giant robots certainly have been kind to “Transformers” director Michael Bay — the filmmaker said that he’s unlikely to dramatically alter his approach. “I will never make a movie just to make a movie,” he said. “Never.”

Rather, he would use any newfound influence to advocate for more unorthodox projects — like his version of “Pinocchio” set in pre-Fascist Italy. He’s already set to direct “Crimson Peak,” an R-rated period ghost story starring Mia Wasikowska and Benedict Cumberbatch that he describes as “an honest, earnest, adult gothic romance.”

It’s about as far afield as one can get from giant robots and monsters.

“I find that every time I overthink things like that about career, things go in unexpected ways,” Del Toro said. “It’s like a pinball machine really, a career. Or a slow-motion accident. You don’t know what happened until it’s over. In the meantime you bounce off the steering wheel, your teeth break, you bounce to the cushion and your neck doesn’t break, God willing. And how you come out of the career, or how you come out of that accident, you don’t know until the end.”

– Gina McIntyre | @LATherocomplex

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Comments


One Response to Guillermo del Toro edges toward greater success with ‘Pacific Rim’

  1. Aix says:

    Woah. No mention of Chastain regarding Crimson Peak? Has she dropped out? Goodness! I hope not, Chastain and Cumberbatch looks to be a powerful duo. Also, Wasikowska seems to fit the theme of the movie more than Stone. Great pick there.

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