TORONTO – How do you know you’re on a Guillermo Del Toro set?
Seeing Ron Perlman dressed in full character as Hannibal Chau, who runs the black market for kaiju parts, is a pretty good hint.
At this point, Perlman and Del Toro seem almost like brothers, guys who know each other so well that there’s not a lot of need to explain things back and forth. When Del Toro hires Perlman, he knows exactly what he’s getting, and when Del Toro calls, Perlman knows he’s going to have something fun to dig into.
When we caught up with Perlman on the set of “Pacific Rim,” he was in his trailer, unwinding between set-ups. He had on part of his Chau costume, and he was in a great, relaxed mood. I’ve worked with Ron in our second “Masters Of Horror” episode, “Pro-Life,” and one of the things I learned spending time with him is that he has a no-nonsense attitude about the career he’s chosen and he tells great stories.
He told us that his character in the film is actually a fan of the way the world has changed, and that he has no interest in seeing the war end. “He has arranged with the powers that be to get the rights to all kaiju, all of the parts, so he can process them and then sell them on the black market to the people who are willing to pay for these various very exotic collectible trophies. You can only imagine he deals in a world of very eccentric, very rich people, and he has everything that it takes to function and profit as a result of, you know, destruction and chaos, turmoil and loss. He’s a typical war profiteer, a very hedonistic guy, very materialistic guy, very into adorning himself and showing off the benefits to success.”
Ron seemed very pleased with the description, and someone asked how much he likes the character. “Oh, I don”t like him. Did I sound like I liked him?”
That’s Ron for you. He isn’t concerned with playing characters he likes. He’d rather just play characters that are interesting, that let him play things he hasn’t played before, and Chau is certainly a new role for him. Asked about how he and Del Toro built the character, Ron said, “I think when this character was kind of invented in the first draft… this is prior to Guillermo making his own contribution to the direction of how this project was gonna ultimately be executed… I don”t think it was intended for a Caucasian. I think it was intended for an Asian actor. And when Guillermo came on board, as only Guillermo can, he said, ‘Well, we”ve got a full of shit guy here, and we could even make it more full of shit by making him a Jew from Brooklyn.’ He takes on this quasi-Asian persona and then, you know, revels in the idea of sharing what a cool thing it was to invent himself in this way. So there we have the newly reconstituted ‘from the brilliant mind of Guillermo del Toro’ Hannibal Chau, of which I have become the beneficiary.”
He continued, “Right off the bat we knew we were going to be going for somebody who was larger than life in his appetites, in his behavior, in his approach to just living. You know, he surrounds himself with hundreds in this secret lair where he does all this kaiju processing in Hong Kong, and he surrounds himself with hundreds and hundreds of staff members to do his bidding, some of who are, you know, kind of unsavory gang street types. Some of them are just workers. I”m sure he pays all of them nothing. He is probably, at the risk of overstatement, the single most colorful character in the entire piece. Because everybody”s, you know, got their nose to the grindstone here trying to figure out how to deal with this enemy, and only Hannibal is celebrating the presence of this enemy and living large off of this strange twist of circumstance.”
I love when Ron really gets rolling, and he didn’t need any prompting by us to continue. “By the time I came to shoot this part, which was only about two weeks ago, they had already shot 85 percent of the film. So I”m coming in at the very end, and it”s a long slog. It”s like a seven month shoot. And we have had a ball because there”s no rules or regulations to Hannibal Chau. We had a notion that he was going to be a certain kind of way, very entertaining, this larger than life kind of thing. But it has been probably the most fun collaboration between Guillermo and myself, because he”s very different than either Guillermo or I thought he was gonna be when I arrived on set. It happened because I would do something and he would say, ‘That sucks. Try this.’ And then suddenly by the end of the day we had the character and, I don”t know, I hope he stays in the movie because he could be completely unacceptable. He”s so over the top that, you know, Guillermo will present my performance in a hermetically sealed film can and say, ‘No one in the world is going to see this except you and your twisted family.’ I fully expect that. And that”s fine with me. I had a ball.”
Asked if Hannibal ends up involved in any of the film’s action scenes, the 63-year-old-and-still-formidable Perlman said, “Yeah, there are things that he does upon the arrival of this Newt character played by Charlie Day that indicates that of all the gangsters that he surrounds himself with, he was the original. There was a time when he was just taking care of himself. He wasn”t always, you know, this head of this corporation. You know, he built himself up to who he is now. He handles a knife in the movie quite adeptly, and he”s got these sort of remnants of scuffles that he”s had that he survived. Whereas if he wasn”t quite as handy, he might not have. That”s just, you know, the backstory that I built for myself. None of it is actually expressed in the film.”
Ron went on to talk more about that part of the process. “That”s everything. I”m not on the screen very much in this movie, and actually it”s harder when you”re building a character that has to reveal who he is in a short amount of time than when you have the whole film. So it”s more imperative that you create a persona for yourself that, you know, is kind of like putting on a set of clothing. You”re not fully dressed until you”re fully dressed. So it”s kind of like, for your own edification and enjoyment, the more specific you can create a backstory for the character, the more you have to pull from as the camera”s rolling.”
One of the things that Guillermo tries to do on his films, as much as possible, is build the environments. Sure, he ends up using a fair amount of CG to add details to the world, but it’s important to him that he have a real physical space he can photograph, and Ron talked about why that matters. “These are probably as elaborate as any movie sets in the history of… and I don”t think I”m overstating the case… but that”s been a benchmark of all of the big studio movies Guillermo”s made. I”m used to working on sets on ‘Blade II’ and on both ‘Hellboy’ movies that are awe-inspiring. I almost feel like they should be at Universal’s tours, you know. They could be an attraction at a film studio amusement park. I spent 20 minutes on ‘Hellboy II’ walking on this new set. We walked around just taking pictures, and I was incredibly entertained with the amount of detail that no one would see but that we knew was there. That”s just the way Guillermo does it. He”s had a lot of resources on this film, so everything is on the greatest scale it could possibly be on. Because this is futuristic and because you”re seeing a version of Hong Kong or a version of these cities that the film takes place in, that is some indeterminate moment down the road, he”s had a chance to put flights of fancy into real places. When you walk on these sets, you”re transported into this very specific world that he”s created in his mind that carries through no matter where you are or what the situation is. It”s not now. It”s not contemporary. It”s this futuristic world, so it has an air of the fantastical and it immediately forces you to come to it. It doesn”t come to you.”
Someone commented that it must be different on this film because of the budget, but Ron waved the thought off. “No, because, you know, when he was doing a movie for a million two, which was the first movie I ever did with him, the imagination was every bit as magnanimous as it is now. The only thing that changes are the resources, and if he doesn”t have resources, he manages to still make sumptuous images on the screen that are filled with textures and levels that most audience members are never gonna see. They”ll see them and they”ll know that they”re there but there are metaphors that are on each of his frames that even I don”t know exist. I have to watch the special commentary at the end of the movies, where he”s explaining, you know, ‘Over here in the far corner of the thing is a Coptic cross which has to do with something over here.’ Only he knows those things are there but they”re placed there specifically to go back and to refer to and say, ‘Well, this is what the poem of this moment was meant to be.’ So everything is poetic in his world. Nothing is random. Nothing is there just to look pretty.”
Everyone who knows Guillermo has, at some point, probably done a Guillermo impression, and Ron was asked who does the best Guillermo impression. He didn’t even have to answer. He just fixed the reporter with a look, and finally they said, “So you’re the best.”
Smiling, Ron said, “I mean, just to give a little bit of an example but I was doing Guillermo one time and Lorenza, his wife, said, ‘Yes, dear?’ That”s not true. I”ll deny that.”
Most of Ron’s scenes in the film are with Charlie Day, and he was asked about how they collaborated on the moments they share. “It”s like a collision in a way because, you know, he”s this very kind of small kind of nerdy guy, and I”m this like big kind of like carnival barker who”s completely, you know, living in a world that has nothing to do with reality. Whereas, he”s into the minutiae and he”s into the details and he”s into, you know, these scientific imperatives and everything. Then there”s the fact that he”s about five foot four and I”m about six foot four, and, you know, when they put the shoes on and everything like that, it”s almost like we need to take the show on the road. I look at him and me on screen together before we actually even open our mouths, and it”s a sight gag. Then that plays out in the dynamic of the thing. Once he reveals why he comes to me, saying he”s gonna eradicate this creature from the face of the Earth, you know…”
Someone interjected, “He”s taking away your livelihood there.”
Ron agreed with a growl. “He”s threatening my livelihood. Fortunately Hannibal looks at him and says, ‘You don”t have what it takes, kid, so you”re not a threat to me at all. But I”m gonna belt you and I”m gonna give you what you need. You know, you go off into your little scientific world, I”ll see you down the road.’ But there”s a tension between them because Charlie”s intention is to take away my livelihood.” He went on to talk about how much he enjoyed working with Day as an acting partner in the film. “It”s terrific because he does come from a world of comedy. And comedians, I find, work from the gut, rather than from the head. They know what works. They know what”s funny. Comedy is very result-oriented, very disciplined. There”s not a whole lot of analysis. There is a lot of let”s try this, let”s see, I”ve got a feeling about how this moment should play. It”s terrific because I”m kind of working the same way as Hannibal, so we”re both out there, and sometimes the arrival of a scene goes through a lot of different gyrations, you know, ninety percent of which we have to throw out because they just are wrong. But we”re constantly trying stuff like a comic might do when he”s trying out material to see what elicits a response. It”s been really, really fun, every moment that I have in the movie with Charlie.”
I think one of the great things about being a filmmaker is that you become the very first audience for each of these moments, and we asked Perlman how Guillermo is as an audience. “You know, the first few moments when we were staking out the joint, he was not a good audience. And then he started to become amused once we started listening to him. At that point, he turned into the best audience. Because, you know, there”s nothing like listening to him in video village getting a joke he just thought of. It”s pretty immediate.” Ron went on to say, “He”s a fun, fun, fun guy to work for. Because if it”s not working, he manages to tell you very directly without really hurting your feelings. And if it is working he loves, loves, loves the shit out of you and shows you so much approval. It”s really fun, and it”s very lighthearted. His sets have always been very lighthearted, from ‘Cronos’ all the way to the present, no matter how small or big they are.”
He continued, discussing how Guillermo has developed over the years. “I”ve watched him evolve as an actor”s director and I say this having done over a hundred films with a lot of different filmmakers, but 98 percent of the filmmakers that I work with don”t say anything to an actor about performance. They just hope that you know what to do. Another one percent say things that are bad. You have to actually forget what they just fucking said. Then there”s a very tiny percentage of directors that actually have trained themselves to think like an actor does, which means in a very kind of behavioral sort of idiosyncratic way where you do a little bit of a strange gesture but it”s sort of represents a bigger psychology which gives you a stronger point of view about, you know, how a moment”s supposed to be played. And, you know, moments can be played in a million different ways. As long as they”re true, they all work. As long as there”s truth. But the whole exercise here is finding something that suits both the filmmaker, because he is concerned about the whole piece, and the actor who”s doing piecemeal work and concerned about one character at a time. The joy of it is arriving at something that works for both the actor and the director. With Guillermo, he wasn”t much of an actor”s director when I first worked with him, but I”ve watched him become more and more specific and give me directions that have completely changed the trajectory and made it so much better and more interesting than what I was originally thinking. That”s like water in the Sahara. That”s really hard to come by.”
Ron said it’s not about him having a special shorthand with Guillermo. “I”ve seen him do it with other actors as well. It really started on the ‘Hellboy’ movies. He was giving me things to do that I hadn”t thought of, and the minute I heard them I went, ‘Oh my God, that”s fantastic.’ And then suddenly my whole point of view changed, and then I started watching him do it with the other actors in the scenes. And I said, ‘He”s really thinking this way now.’ And, you know, it”s not just for any one particular character. It”s for everybody. And trust me when I tell you, it”s very rare and very helpful in his case, because he really is good when it comes to behavior that”s entertaining and interesting to watch, you know, rather than saying, ‘Oh, I needed for this to go louder, faster and funnier.’ Which is, a lot of times, all the direction you”re gonna get.”
Asked to elaborate on the process of building a character when working with Guillermo, Perlman said, “He started sending me little emails, giving me little clues months and months ago. ‘Watch this movie. Watch this moment. Watch this.’ He was sort of training me to be this carnival barker, this larger than life, completely full of shit, everything I say is a lie and a bill of goods. I”m just selling the world a bill of goods. That”s kind of the mindset I showed up with, and then I asked if he would sketch what Hannibal physically looks like, and he sketched something very similar to what you”re seeing now. He kind of looked like a croupier out of Bat Masterson, you know, in a horrifically low budget parallel universe to Las Vegas in 1865.”
Ron took out the shoes that he wears in the role, and when you see the final film, you’ll see quite a bit of those shoes. “These are just the ones I work in, but the real ones are actually made of 14 karat gold. Hannibal has these gold shoes and he has these gold teeth. They don”t serve any purpose other than decorative. He”s adorned himself in a way that”s completely full of shit as well, but that shows his net worth.”
Ron described some of the things that Guillermo told him to watch to prepare for the film. “He and I are both big fans of Burt Lancaster, and he knows that I worship at the feet of Burt Lancaster. I actually turned Guillermo on to ‘Elmer Gantry.’ He hadn”t seen ‘Elmer Gantry’ when we first met. He turned me on to a lot of movies. From that point on he got, you know, my perspective. The reason why I love Burt so much is because he just is one of these guys that put it all out there, and he was like a guy”s guy, you know, a kind of guy you really wanted to go have a beer with. So he said this is the movie where we start channeling Burt. I was telling you about when we were failing… you know, when we couldn”t quite get the character. I just basically was doing Hannibal as if I was Burt Lancaster. And he said, ‘Okay, now we got that. Now let”s throw that away and make him your own.’ That”s why it was a kind of a cool evolution because it wasn”t immediate. It didn”t happen right off the bat automatically. In some movies you show up to and they start printing immediately. This took a while to find something.”
Not every film allows you the time and the freedom to find the character as you’re shooting, and Perlman knows that it’s a gift when it happens. “You”re on the set, and in a movie this size, there are about 150 human beings around, and still he”s created an environment where you don”t mind failing. You don”t mind looking silly or stupid because it”s okay. We”re here, this is our laboratory, and we”re here to find something interesting together. So, yeah, you know, that”s not a given. That”s an extra added little gift working with this guy.”
As always, a conversation with Ron Perlman seems to go by too quickly. You’ll see the results of all his work with Del Toro very soon, and I think it’s safe to say that Hannibal Chau is another great example of the alchemy that exists between these two artists.
“Pacific Rim” opens everywhere July 12.