News Column

"Pacific Rim" plays up director's biggest obsessions

July 12, 2013


July 12--The gargantuan monsters come from beneath the sea, wading ashore like rustproof metallic horrors to annihilate cities.

In response, the human inhabitants have invented 10-foot-tall robots to battle the sea monsters.

This is the basis for "Pacific Rim," the latest monsters-vs.-humans blockbuster. The film opens in theaters today.

It's all been dreamed up by director Guillermo del Toro, a man who has been obsessed with monsters since his childhood in Guadalajara, Mexico. His films have ranged from the Spanish dark fantasy "Pan's Labyrinth" (2006) to mainstream American action movies such as "Hellboy" (2004).

Films like the latter have netted him fanboys galore. Now "Pacific Rim" has moved him into ultra-big-budget territory.

"It's the biggest game I've ever played," del Toro said earlier this month as he sat in the offices of Industrial Light and Magic, off Gorgas Avenue in San Francisco. This magical place has been a part of Lucasfilm for 30 years, and it's where all the special effects for "Pacific Rim" were created.

Just down the hall is the original model of E.T. Hanging above are storm troopers from "Star Wars" and a plane from the flop "Hudson Hawk." Hundreds of posters, one from every film that contained an ILM effect, line the walls.

It doesn't exactly feel like home to del Toro, because "Pacific Rim" was actually filmed -- the live parts, at least -- in Toronto. But ILM employees are quick to tell you that every digital movement in the movie was supervised, approved and given birth by the director.

"Don't call it 'computer animation,' " del Toro cautioned. "That would be like saying painting is brush work. It's more complex than that. I actually think the ocean and the waves were another character. I learned that the most difficult thing for computers to do is water. And then we had to worry about things like, how long does it take a giant robot to fall? We found it would take six times longer than a person. We cheated and made it faster."

Del Toro is a warm and logical man of 48 years who is eager to share his movie adventures. His obsession with monsters was formed in what he described as small, run-down Mexican theaters that smelled of urine.

"When I was 8 years old, I ran away from home, just for the afternoon, and took a bus to the other side of town to see 'The War of the Gargantuas.' It was what we call in Mexico a 'brick cinema' because they give you a brick to smash the rats that are in the theater. Someone threw a glass of pee on me from the balcony -- but nothing could stop me from staying and seeing that movie. That's how much I loved those monster movies."

The director sees monsters as symbols of power, "whether for good or bad." He is obsessed with fairy tales "because most of them are about prostitution in one way or another. People sell out. The main warning is never to go in the woods alone. Think about it."

Del Toro sees himself as a counterpart to Raleigh Becket, the young hero of "Pacific Rim" played by budding star Charlie Hunnam.

"He is a pilot who hasn't been in combat for five years, and I am a movie director who hasn't made a movie in five years. We are both out to prove ourselves," del Toro said.

The director had been set to helm the three "Hobbit" movies but pulled out after numerous delays. He was thrilled to be doing an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness" until the project was dropped. "It was tough," del Toro said, "for the studio to do an R-rated movie with a tough ending and no love story."

The newly opened schedule allowed him to direct "Pacific Rim," which del Toro had planned only as a writing and production stint.

"Since 'Pan's Labyrinth,' it seems that I'm news," he said. "For the past five years every time I didn't do a movie, it was news. It amazed me because I felt bored not working.

"This, though, is bigger than anything before. It's like being the head of an army. Whether or not it finds an audience, it is still my favorite movie-making experience so far."

The script was written by him with Travis Beacham, an alumnus of the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. They both talk about the robots and monsters as if they were personal acquaintances: Knifehead, Axehead, Bladehead, Onibaba, Leatherback. One can easily guess that if the movie catches on, these will be best-selling action figures on the toy shelf.

"I was determined it should be a PG-13, not an R, because I wanted children to see it," del Toro said. "We had to change a few things. A lot of things changed. We began filming it in 3-D and then abandoned that, only to end up converting it to 3-D. It's the right kind of movie for 3-D. The hardest thing to do is to keep it simple."

Del Toro now lives in California, and no matter what the fate of the $180 million "Pacific Rim," he has a dozen movie projects planned, including a new version of Kurt Vonnegut's novel "Slaughterhouse-Five."

But del Toro is most eager about his own remake of "Frankenstein," which he says will "finally get it right."

There's that familiar theme again.

"Some people like puppies and children," del Toro said. "I like monsters and robots. They are fascinating."

Mal Vincent, 757-446-2347,


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