Director Guillermo del Toro: Too many summer movies are "about one race, one credo, and one country saving the world"

"Pacific Rim" director Guillermo del Toro tells Salon why he doesn't like most action films

Published July 10, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

Guillermo Del Toro           (AP/Chris Pizzello)
Guillermo Del Toro (AP/Chris Pizzello)

Kanye West doesn't generally have much in common with the sci-fi and fantasy crowd. It takes a director like Guillermo del Toro to make even the most self-consciously cool public figure of his generation go all fanboy. After early test screenings indicated that sci-fi fans loved "Pacific Rim," del Toro's latest feature, West joined the chorus, noting that the robot movie was "easily one of my favorite movies of all time," and "not another 'Robot' movie. Guillermo del Toro is a master."

Del Toro is likely getting accustomed to that sort of praise. The director, who began his career with the horror films "Cronos" and "Mimic," has lately been seen as something of a visionary in the genre-film space, creating movies that, to paraphrase Yeezy, are more than cookie-cutter superhero or vampire or fairy-tale-in-1940s-Europe types. His "Hellboy" films, for instance, have a visual grandeur quite unlike the cut-and-paste CGI effects so familiar from every other comic-book movie; his baroque "Blade II" earned more praise than its subject matter or sequel status might have suggested (a typical review said the film was "ghastly yet wonderful"); his recent attempt to branch into the realm of history was the Oscar-winning and critically beloved "Pan's Labyrinth," blending fantasy with Franco-era human drama.

The director hasn't had a film released since 2008, when "Hellboy: The Golden Army" came out; a series of films didn't quite pan out, including the "Hobbit" franchise, which Peter Jackson took over, and an adaptation of the work of H.P. Lovecraft. "Pacific Rim," to be released July 12, is the culmination of years of untapped creative energy organized around an innocent, almost childlike fantasy story: An international battalion of robots, the Jaegers, are dispatched to fight alien monsters, the Kaiju, entering our dimension from the briny deep. To this pulp-novel premise, del Toro brings political resonance (the humans, having initially beaten back the Kaiju, grow bellicose, arrogant and idle for years), a striking visual imagination, and an interest in loopy, outsize characters.

Among them is a comic relief character played by Charlie Day of the gleefully nihilistic TV series "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." Day's casting seems at first blush an odd fit -- and the actor himself was surprised to get called in -- but del Toro turns out to be a fan of "Always Sunny." "He’s seen every episode and can quote it," said Day, who ended up allowing del Toro to cameo on the show. "He was very excited. He wanted to make his own googly eye and contact lens, and he even wanted to try to improvise a little, and we even kept his improvisation in the cut."

The idea that del Toro is a quasi-mystic jack of all trades is one that keeps coming up when speaking to his actors. Ron Perlman, who plays a steampunk-y kingpin in Hong Kong in "Pacific Rim," has known del Toro since the director was working on his first feature, released in 1993. "His aesthetic is identical to the one that was firmly entrenched in him when I first met him," said Perlman. "In all of these things that he was drawing in his little notebook, I see the workings of, like, a Leonardo daVinci of the 20th and 21st century. He’s an engineer, he’s an artist. He’s got this incredible imagination. He invents things that don’t exist in nature and then he finds ways to make them real, so he’s a perfect fit for cinema."

Working within the constraints del Toro establishes -- an immensely detailed world, built by hand rather than imposed with CGI -- can be a challenge, albeit a pleasant one, for actors: "Guillermo throws you into the deep end of the pool right away," said Day. "He throws you into the deep end and usually there’s no water in the pool. He doesn’t mind roughing you up right away. He didn’t leave much up to my imagination. When you walk up to the set of a Guillermo del Toro movie, it’s gonna be one of the most elaborate and beautiful sets you’ve ever been on, and it’s gonna be filled with incredible detail."

Salon spoke to del Toro about those details -- how he constructs a world before the CGI monsters come in -- and about the directors he admires and the state of the action film in a time defined by militaristic-bordering-on-jingoistic superhero flicks.

The movie focused more on depictions of fighting and a little less on the effects that these alien attacks had on society. Was that a conscious choice?

Well, we’re trying to show you sort of a compelling construction of the world – we show how they changed it, both in the opening and in the little details along the line, but I focused completely on what I called, like, the night slasher adventure. When I was a kid, I used to love adventure movies, and it’s a genre that seems to be not existing anymore. All you get are these sort of pro-war movies where everything is super-military and everything looks really polished and cool, and I wanted to make a very textured, very colorful, a little bit visually crazy adventure film. So we concentrated on that. But we created a pretty cool change in the world that is viewed in the opening and the background.

It’s interesting that you talked about how some films feel almost like war propaganda in a way, because this film – it depicts the war as really gruesome and difficult, and also it’s fantasy. It’s about monsters.

And what I wanted, even more so, we wanted to knock you off any of the sort of pro-war stuff. We made them the resistance – we showed them in the beginning, when they’re on their feet, when they’re a little cocky, when they’re all winning, and the movie picks up seven years later, and we are losing. We are losing completely, and everything is rusty and decayed and dinged, and the paint is peeling, and nobody believes in the Jaegers anymore. And what I wanted was to make them more resistant and not refer to them in terms of the military – I call them rangers, I call him a marshal, I talk about “riding the Jaeger.” So I wanted to have sort of a western feel to it. And Raleigh Becket is basically a gunslinger, you know? To put them more in sort of the perennial adventure mode than to go the other way.

The other sort of big summer movies often feel to me like it’s about one race, one credo and one country saving the world, and I wanted to make it about the world saving the world, no matter what skin color you have, what race you have, what belief you have – everybody in the movie saves the world, and we created a very equal structure where Charlie Day’s scientist has the same weight that Charlie Hunnam’s character has or Idris Elba’s or Rinko Kinkuchi, you know?

Why do you think it is that so many big action movies are about war or evoke images of war, especially those from recent history? What about that is appealing to people?

I don't know. It’s not appealing to me, and I’m – I suppose they conform more to the ideas that people feel comfortable with, thinking about superior firepower as the path to success. But I thought what we wanted to do and what I thought we could do is to show a great world response and to show that you need Charlie Day’s geeky ingenuity as much as you need the fighting skills of Charlie Hunnam’s character. Or go back to the idea of self-sacrifice. I really wanted to do that and to move away, even visually, from the palette of textures and colors normally associated with a summer blockbuster.

You’re such a CGI and special effects master. But do you think the audience can ever get tired of special effects, or the way that they’re used in a way that has no resemblance to the actual, physical world?

Well, I try to texture mine very differently. I try to give them real weight, and I try to give them a very, very particular look. Things have real volume. And I built in a lot of design mistakes in the plates – for example, I splash water in the lens, I scratch the lens, I give a bad operational moment in the camera so it seems a little messed-up. So I try for them not to look like a demo for the FX company. I try to integrate them into narratives. And even more, we create many moments in the film that are obscured entirely by an explosion of water or a blinding flash of light.

So I think that the fundamental mistake for me in showing a special effects shot -- and we carefully avoid it in this film --  is that normally, every FX shot looks like a cool shot. You go out the window, the character’s drinking some wine. You go out the window, you go around the block, into the next tower, out of the tower, into an airplane passing by, and you’re in the lap of a passenger in first class. And all you’re telling them is "cool shot, is that real?"

So the way we played out the language of the FX shots of “Pacific Rim” was to cut back to the same angle – this is camera A, this is Camera B. I worked out the way we would really shoot this. I would say to them, “Tell them how we shoot this. Are we putting this on a boat, is it a speedboat, who’s operating it, is it half-hilt, is there a helicopter?” We figure out the dynamics, and then if the water affected the boat in the shot, I would move the shot away from the fighter and the guy and the robot.

So I think as long as you do your best, and take some acting, they are OK. They were born with the history of the cinema, and they go hand-in-hand, so I don’t think they are a blemish. They are a great tool that sometimes gets used not for creative purpose, but as a shortcut for creativity. But in the case of our work in “Pacific Rim,” every single shot is as directed by me and as laid out by me and my team as if it was a real, live-action moment, and that makes a difference, I think.

I like imagining you going to see a movie. Does it make it less fun for you, going to see a movie that you didn’t make, because you know so much about it and because you have such a strong sense of aesthetics?

No, you know, when I go and see – for example, when I see a James Cameron movie, I am as taken as anybody else, because I think it’s breathtaking what he does with that, or Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9,” which I saw for the first time in New Zealand. I knew it was gonna be a watershed film, and I was very moved by it. So I say no. I just admire when I can see people making an extra effort. When I saw miniatures being used in the first “Lord of the Rings,” I was so happy to see it – we use miniatures in “Pacific Rim.” In the construction shots, we built real miniatures. And I think -- we built a lot of real sets, more than normal in a movie like this. We built so much. We built entire blocks of Hong Kong with a strong resemblance of Hong Kong physically. So when I see a filmmaker not just using as a shortcut, but doing it smartly, I still get very moved.

It’s interesting, because a lot of the things you mentioned were original properties and not just adaptations of comic books, which seems to be a rarer and rarer thing these days.

Yeah, you know, I agree, and we were making an effort to build something that was fresh, that had no movie stars, and I hope people embrace it so we can keep going with this operation. I, for one, am looking forward to “Elysium” by Neill, and basically anything that comes out being original, but also that is still sustained by a vision, rather than just marketing, you know?

By Daniel D'Addario

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Charlie Day Charlie Hunnam Guillermo Del Toro Idris Elba Pacific Rim Rinko Kikuchi Ron Perlman