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 be-tween 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 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.
Opening today, "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, 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."
"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, Mexico, 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."
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 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 resume 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 Almodovar, Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu).
"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.
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."
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