TORONTO – We’re in China.
Well, technically, we’re in Hong Kong by way of Toronto, standing on a soundstage that has been transformed into a city street that appears to have been wildly smashed to pieces, but when you’re in the middle of it looking around, it’s pretty convincing. We’re in China, and the giant monsters were evidently here right before us.
It’s March of 2012, and there is a small group of us who are visiting the set for Guillermo Del Toro’s monsters vs. robots epic as the film nears the home stretch on what was, all things considered, a relatively quick shoot. Most of the stuff involving the Jaeger pilots was shot earlier in production because there is so much CGI that they’re going to have to do to those scenes that they needed the lead time. On the day we visit, we’re watching Charlie Day and Ron Perlman working together, which seems like a good deal to me.
The Pinewood Toronto Studios is a great facility, and it’s funny that I’m running two set reports this week, one from each of the Pinewoods. We were met at the front door of the building where “Pacific Rim” had its production offices by Ian Gibson, Guillermo’s badass assistant. And believe me… I’ve been in Los Angeles long enough to know when someone’s assistant is of the particularly badass variety, and Gibson is one of those guys. The right match to Guillermo, and a great host for the first half of the day.
We began with a sizzle reel. I read one of the early drafts of the script by Travis Beacham, and one of the things I was told before coming to the set was that even reading the script wouldn’t really clue me in to what they were doing. I know why. It’s because what I see when I read a script is not necessarily what Guillermo Del Toro sees when he reads a script.
Guillermo’s imagination is so big and so visual that the easiest way to set the stage for a set visit is to show us what sort of work they’ve been doing on the film so far. By now, you’ve seen more in the trailers and the featurettes than we did that day, so you have some idea how we felt. At that point, ILM was still very early in the process, but we saw a test they did that was incredibly convincing, featuring both a giant monster and one of the Jaegers. It was just enough to set a tone, and then they took us into the art department.
There is no room that is more fun to visit than the art department of a Guillermo Del Toro film in full swing. If there was a job that consisted of just drawing new crazy-ass monsters every day, I think Guillermo would have that job, and he would be the happiest man alive. He always puts together these great teams of artists, and then he encourages them to try anything and everything. On this film, they set up a series of bake-offs, where they would take all the designs generated in a week and pit them against each other, so that little by little, the strongest designs ended up rising to the top.
And when you’re talking about “the top” in a room full of guys like Francisco Ruiz Velasco and Wayne Barlowe and TyRuben Ellingson and Guy Davis and Oscar Chichoni and Hugo Martin and Doug Williams and Stephen Schirle… that’s about as “top” as it gets. That’s a crazy batting line-up. Throw in the Toronto crew like David Meng and Raul Monge and Rob McCallum, and you’re looking at a murderer’s row, all dedicated to realizing the vision of the cackling Mexican madman at the middle of this hurricane, Guillermo.
When Guillermo and his team cut loose, they tap into all sorts of crazy styles and sizes and details, and Japanese monster movies are only one of the many influences all mixed up in there. There’s a lot of real-world influence, Spanish surrealism, crazy nature photography… Guillermo’s so art-literate and he devours so much of it that the final expression is run through so many different filters that it comes out new. When he finally lands on something, there is a really lovely sense of aesthetic taste that marks it as his.
Looking at the art on the walls of that room, the palette alone looked like nothing else coming out this year. He’s painting in a more expressive and in some ways extreme way that movies like “Dick Tracy” or “300.” If someone walks out of “Pacific Rim” talking about reality instead of the movie’s reality, then it’s just plain missed the mark for that person. This is world-building. When you step into the world of “Pacific Rim,” you’re buying in for the whole thing. The run-down end-of-WWII aesthetic to things, the way each country’s Jaegers have an identity, the monster animations that totally eschew the “realism” of performance capture to depend on pure animation… there are so many things going on here that all have to work if the world’s going to come to life on the screen.
As we were talking about the designs, Guillermo said the ILM team on the film was being headed by John Knoll and Hal Hickel. That is, put simply, the A-team for the company. Those guys are titans. They are remarkable at what they do, and when you take guys like that and hand them something like this that has to be done at a certain price and on a certain schedule and still somehow give us an experience we haven’t had before… well, you hope for something special.
Guillermo talked to us about how when he was a kid, he would draw these ornate cutaway diagrams of giant monsters that had people somehow living inside them, using the chambers of the body as rooms. He would do the same thing with giant robots. He imagined these things as sort of ambulatory dollhouses, giving the rooms all sorts of inspired functions. For him to be given a world to populate with the kaiju and the Jaegers is like him finding his destiny.
The film also seems to have a strong undercurrent of “brilliant outsider who has been prevented from doing his job for a while shows up ready to kick some ass and then KICKS SOME ASS,” and it would be very easy to see Guillermo as that person. He has had some time away from features, and not by choice, so there is a bit of a sort of act-of-faith fervor to the filmmaking here. Listening to him talk about the design and rewrite phase of this film, he sounded both very happy and also like he was still not sure it was really happening, half expecting it to get shut down for reasons beyond his control. Every decision he made during that time seemed reasonable and well-advised and creatively interesting, and the films just didn’t happen. When you see directors announce six or seven films that they’re developing, this is why. You always want to have something that is nearly ready to go so that if everything else goes to hell, you’ve got something to fall back on.
In Guillermo’s case, “At The Mountains Of Madness” was the “should have been” that almost was, a film that got shut down just as it was about to get on its feet. I hope the film eventually happens. There is a lot of work that’s already been done that deserves not to just vanish to some shelf somewhere forever. Because Universal blinked, Guillermo found himself out of work on a Friday afternoon. And on Monday, he was back at work with “Pacific Rim” and a deal to make the film. This is a case of him wanting something at the same time that Legendary wanted a certain something, and those wants lined up perfectly and now here we are, and Guillermo’s actually on a soundstage in Toronto that has been smashed to shit by a 250 foot monster.
We saw one wall in the art department that was nothing but Jaegers. Details of how they work and the inside of them. Size experiments at different scales. Lots of designs that aren’t in the film, and then the final hero designs that did get picked. Another wall was nothing but Kaiju, all the same sorts of details, but obviously wetter and grosser and weirder. It’s amazing to see how thought out and examined every corner of the world appears to be, and a testament to just how much work the art department generated. There was so much to be designed and thought out and created that it’s amazing anyone had time to talk to us while we were there. They had over 100 sets to build and just over that many days to shoot, which is a ridiculous pace to try and hit. The sets they built weren’t small, either. In fact, one of them may be one of the coolest physical builds I’ve ever seen on a set.
The control room for the Jaegers is not just a set where you walk in and do a scene and walk back out. It is a torture chamber in which Guillermo Del Toro thrashes his actors while firing sparks and water at them at random. It is an amazing physical build that was housed on one of the stages at Pinewood, and when we got to explore it, I was amazed by how solid it was, how real everything seemed to be. Legacy Effects handled much of the environmental elements of that set, the pieces that the actors were strapped into and then the controls that made the set come to life. Guillermo wanted to shoot them doing something very physical to show that it’s not easy to be a Jaeger pilot. There is real effort behind it, blood and sweat and tears, and it takes a toll on them. Guillermo knew he couldn’t get that out of an actor standing in front of a green screen with everything to be added later, and he tried to create spaces that felt real for the actors, especially when they’re driving the Jaegers.
We saw a stage that was being prepared for one of the last things being shot, a scene that comes closer to the start of the film involving a Kaiju and a Jaeger running into each other out at sea with a small fishing boat stuck in the middle. Guillermo mentioned a similar image in “War Of The Gargantuas,” and he tells us how much water is going to have to be pumped into the set, and it sounds like the sort of thing that would be the big effects highlight of some other film, and here, it’s just one small part of a much larger sequence.
On the main set that was in use that day, there were signs everywhere that a horrifying attack had happened, and people are doing what they can to deal with it. I had time to walk around, and what really sells it is how deep the details go. There is a bit of graffiti that I see a few places on the set and I ask what it means. I’m told is is the symbol of the Wei Clan, the team of triplets who pilot the Chinese Jaeger, Crimson Typhoon. The graffiti is a sign of support and unity behind the team, which has done a very good job as the film begins. They’re part of the big action sequence in the middle of the film, and so is this set.
“Hong Kong, from beginning to end, is the biggest thing I’ve ever done,” Guillermo says at one point. He know what he wants to see, he knows how to do it, but it’s a matter of putting all those images in the can, one after another, and in Guillermo’s case, meticulously. He wants to create a 25 minute sequence that not only thrills and features amazing epic scale performance work from ILM, but that also expresses character.
Much of what I saw that day I can’t describe because of what a big spoiler it is. I’ll say this much: there is nothing weirder than watching someone shoot a scene where humans react to a giant monster and there is no giant monster there for any of us to see. In this scene, Newt Geiszler (Charlie Day) is trying to acquire something very specific from black-market-kaiju-parts-expert Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman), and their business takes them out to the streets where a monster attack has just finished happening and they think everything is okay.
This being a monster movie, I suspect peace and quiet isn’t on the agenda for very long in the film. Something very bad happens, and (to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum) then comes the running and the screaming. And later, months from now on some hard drives in San Francisco, the monsters.
Since there are no giant monsters or giant robots on set, I’m left to look at things like the blue blood that seems to be splashed everywhere, or the twisted street sign for “Tull Road” that’s now half-melted and bent and burnt. It looks like a hole was smashed into the street to reveal a large underground room, a place to ride out kaiju attacks on the city.
Considering the way the street has been peeled back, it does not look like it was a very good hiding place at all.
As we watch, both Day and Perlman play scenes with the not-quite-sure-what-it-is, and all we ever see are some greenscreen boxes. Ron throws a knife that sticks in whatever it is at one point, and it’s just a greenscreen he keeps throwing the knife into, surprisingly accurate each time.
It’s a sequence that takes much of the afternoon and into the night, and Guillermo is amazing in terms of how he spends his energy on the set. He’s very demonstrative. He’s never laying back and taking it easy during a shoot. We see him walking through shots with his cinematographer, Guillermo Navarro, and he’s running around making sure there’s enough blue monster blood splashed over everything and he’s watching Charlie Day scramble across the ground, curling into a ball and hoping he’s not crushed or eaten, and his energy never flags.
When Guillermo offers someone a job on a film, he asks them, “Do you want to come and play with us?” And when you see him in his element, as he definitely was on “Pacific Rim,” that’s exactly what comes through. He’s playing. He’s free and he’s playing the biggest game of monsters and robots ever.
If it’s half as much fun on the screen as it was for these people to put it all together, it will be a tremendous experience.
I’ll have more from my time on the “Pacific Rim” set, including our chat with Del Toro, in the days ahead.
“Pacific Rim” opens in theaters July 12, 2013.