(This is the second part of my lunch interview with Guillermo del Toro and Travis Beacham. The first part can be found here.)
PACIFIC RIM may be a testament to the world-building brilliance of Guillermo del Toro, but there would be no world to build without screenwriter Travis Beacham. He's the one who thought it would be fun to write a kaiju/mecha hybrid, to add an inter-dimensional threat ala H.P. Lovecraft, and to make his steel behemoths ("jaegers") the outgrowth of the flesh-and-blood characters piloting them. Beacham hatched the idea of "the drift": the neurological harmony required for two humans to operate a jaeger together. This is the key emotional component of the film; it's what separates PACIFIC RIM from the kaiju flicks we gorged on in our youth. And it's what inspired a master builder like del Toro to exert every ounce of his creative powers on what should be an enduring, endlessly imaginative sci-fi/fantasy franchise.
Beacham made a name for himself years ago with his spec script A KILLING ON CARNIVAL ROW, a decidedly adult noir fantasy that drew the interest of visionary filmmakers like Neil Jordan, Tarsem and, of course, del Toro. Like del Toro's adaptation of Lovecraft's AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS (which was shut down by Universal days before the commencement of principal photography), it's an R-rated genre picture that will require a great deal of risk from a major studio. Basically, it's the kind of thing that doesn't sniff a greenlight unless you've got a blockbuster or two on your filmography: thus, for Beacham and del Toro, PACIFIC RIM is a labor of love gamble for the opportunity to make other labors of love.
This isn't the way of things in Hollywood, which could be why so many in the industry seem to be delighting in PACIFIC RIM's much-publicized tracking struggles. You've got to turn a trick or two before you earn the right to blow a corporation's benevolently bestowed largesse. Make a video game movie, adapt an inanely derivative YA novel, wear them heels out on a two-hour advertisement for an a toyline that already generates hundreds of millions of dollars in profit. You don't get to create your own mythology because people far less talented and more desperate than you can't do it!
This sniping is doubly curious because del Toro and Beacham are utterly devoid of swagger. They're not calling people out; as should be abundantly clear in both parts of this interview, they're just incredibly eager to share their movie with thrill-seeking audiences. They're good guys, and they got to make a film inspired only by their lifelong love for cinema. They win.
Del Toro hangs around for the first part of this interview before being called away for another obligation. After that, it's all Beacham!
Beaks: Travis, you said you wanted to be a paleontologist. Is PACIFIC RIM a natural outgrowth of that inclination?
Beacham: Yeah. It seems counterintuitive, like a mathematician versus a poet, but the paleontology was all about giant monsters for me.
Del Toro: Travis has a really great knack, in my opinion. We've worked on two projects together, PACIFIC RIM and A KILLING ON CARNIVAL ROW, and he has an uncanny gift with two things: one is names. Naming characters and things in the world - like "Jaegers", "Stacker Pentecost", "Mako Mori", "Shatterdome" - that just sound cool. And world creation. With Travis, in a few pages you realize, in a paleontology way, he figures out an entire world from finding a few bones at the beginning.
Beacham: Thank you. I'm honored to hear that.
Del Toro: You have horrible breath though.
Beacham: (Laughing) Thank you.
Del Toro: (To Beaks) That's not true.
Beaks: How did that collaboration work? From where Travis started to where you jumped in?
Del Toro: He came to Bleak House right away.
Beacham: I remember walking in, and Wayne Barlowe was painting Knifehead in the study. It was the first kaiju I'd seen from the movie, and I was just blown away.
Del Toro: A lot of people don't realize that by the time AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS collapsed, we had been months and months in prep on PACIFIC RIM. We had already written several drafts of the script. We both wrote biographies for the characters. We agreed on a storyline, and then Travis took a first crack at the script. From then on, we did it together most of the time.
Beacham: A lot of back-and-forth. I think what made it really fun was that usually when you come in to something like this, everybody's trying to do something different; everybody has a different idea. What's really benefitted this from the beginning is that everybody is driving toward the same end thematically and tonally.
Del Toro: You didn't get the studio going, "Oh, we didn't know this was the movie you wanted to make" - which often happens, where you have to be constantly arguing and bartering. With Legendary, from the beginning it was like "That's the movie we want to make." But Travis wrote a lot more kinky stuff for the movie that was more adult; that ended up being in the graphic novel part of it. But I really believe that, tonally, we wanted to keep it in, for lack of a better analogy, Ray Harryhausen territory, where if you see a nipple in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, it's accidental. (Laughs)
Beaks: Travis, I asked Guillermo earlier about his favorite kaiju and robot movies. What are your touchstones?
Beacham: My earliest memory I think of anything was a Godzilla movie. I think it would have to be [GODZILLA 1985].
Del Toro: My god, he is young. Repulsively young.
Beacham: (Laughing) But it could've been DESTROY ALL MONSTERS.
Del Toro: That's one of my favorites. The more monsters, the happier I am. Like a Harryhausen movie, or one where every monster you want is there.
Beacham: That movie is lousy with monsters. I remember GODZILLA VS. MEGALON, too, where it's the beetle with the drill hands. I ate that stuff up.
Del Toro: Were you an ULTRAMAN guy?
Beacham: Yeah. I actually got into ULTRAMAN through the video games first, before I realized they were based on something. You remember how they had those fighting Ultraman video games? That's how I got into it. Then I started watching the show. Their kaiju look so weird.
Del Toro: They're the weirdest kaiju ever. My favorite is a kaiju called Pigmon, who has this tragic innocence to him. (Laughs) He looks like a little lost child.
Beaks: That's one thing about kaiju: you often feel sympathy for them. Guillermo, you're great at getting us to feel sympathy for monsters, but here, aside from their occasional tortured screams, they're not at all sympathetic.
Del Toro: I think the biggest lesson in a kaiju movie is that you sometimes fall for the bad kaiju. As a kid, when Godzilla fought Ghidorah, I liked Ghidorah more. I was rooting for Ghidorah. It doesn't really matter if the kaiju is good or bad, because, as I say, there's no such thing as a good or bad tornado. You love them because they're big, and you love them because they're crazy looking.
Beaks: What about escalation in terms of the kaiju?
Del Toro: Travis came up with the categories. Can you talk about that?
Beacham: Yeah. In thinking about them as tornadoes or earthquakes or hurricanes, where there's this category system, like an F5 tornado, I thought it would be interesting to create a category system for the kaiju that not only provided a dramatic scale - in that they're getting bigger and bigger - but that you also understood them as a force of nature.
Del Toro: You wrote that beautiful speech about when you see a hurricane...
Beacham: You see a hurricane coming, you usually can't do anything about it. You just have to get out of the way. When you're in a jaeger, you can stand against it.
Del Toro: You can fight it.
Beacham: I was really thinking "What seems fun about this? What moves me about the idea of a person driving this giant robot?" And that really hit me. It's because you can do something superhuman about it.
Del Toro: About things you normally couldn't.
Beaks: Where did the "cancel the apocalypse" line come from?
Del Toro: That was Travis's line. The speech had a mixture of fathers, but the final line, the memorable line, that's completely Travis's.
Beacham: I think initially it was a totally different character.
Del Toro: And it was in a completely different situation. It was in a war room situation; it was the Chinese general saying "We are canceling the apocalypse." But what I wanted to do was a HENRY V speech. "We band of brothers..." I basically thought, "Well, this is the time to firm up what this movie is about. That we have chosen to believe in each other." And it was a really tricky scene to shoot. I come in, and Idris says, "I don't want to do the speech like a speech." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "I want to do it like I'm talking like I'm thinking." And I said, "Look, let's make a deal. I will not print until the crew applauds. I won't tell them anything, you won't tell them anything, but I won't print until the crew applauds." So we did, like, ten takes, and finally he did the take that is in the movie, and the whole crew at the end spontaneously applauded. And I said, "Print!"
Beacham: The line comes from a really earnest place for me. I wasn't just trying to write a kickass line. I didn't even think about it. I notice people talking about the end of the world with the financial crisis. In 2012, there was this sort of fetishistic resignation that things were going to fall apart. I really didn't like that attitude. So I came at it from a really humanistic perspective. It's like, "We get to say when this ends. It's not going to be forced on us."
Del Toro: There's an effortless, non-jingoistic heroism in PACIFIC RIM that is purely humanistic. It's not "If you join an army, you will win." It's "If you actually defect from an army and join the resistance, you may win." Pentecost has a uniform, and he is bound to politicians, and like every politician they are building walls, happily - which is especially relevant to me right now. And then Pentecost goes, "Screw it. We don't need them. Let's do it ourselves." And he sells the rights to kaiju parts to a black market dealer, and he doesn't wear the uniform anymore.
(Guillermo is informed that he has to head off to another interview, so I abruptly segue to one non-PACIFIC RIM question.)
Beaks: Here's my obligatory AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS question. I'm going to keep bugging you about this until you make it.
Del Toro: God bless Don Murphy and Susan Montford. On my death bed, if I haven't done MOUNTAINS, I will be asking for oxygen, and Don will say, "Not until you do MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS." (Laughs) He really is relentless, and god bless him for that. I can tell you this about Don as a friend and a producer: whenever I'm down and resigned to give up, he goes, "We're going to do it. No matter how, we're going to do it."
(And with that, Guillermo del Toro disappears. Now it's just me, Beacham and his delicious-looking grilled cheese sandwich.)
Beaks: When Guillermo says you wrote some kinkier material for PACIFIC RIM, would I be correct in assuming that's primarily the anime influence?
Beacham: Not explicitly, but I think I've always been a fan of that sort of thing, and internalized the conventions of it. I noticed on Twitter someone was talking about reading the graphic novel, and he said, "Oh, you need love to drive [the jaeger]. That's so anime!" That made sense to me. But in creating it, I wasn't thinking, "What's the most anime way to drive this robot?" As a fan of that kind of thing, all the conventions and tone were really internal for me.
Beaks: When Guillermo came onboard, how did you feel about moving away from the more adult stuff?
Beacham: It was easy, because, like I said, everyone who came onboard and got involved with it was shooting for the same core goal. That was a really fortuitous alignment of the stars, because, like he said, it usually doesn't work like that; usually, everyone's trying to make a different movie. Knowing that [Guillermo] comes at it so earnestly in his enthusiasm, and his reference points are so genuine, and that he wanted it to be about the same stuff I wanted it to be about, it made it much, much easier to deal with any new ideas or new wrinkles that were brought to the process.
Beaks: Building this world as a writer, how did you manage to not get carried away all the cool stuff on the periphery? How do you govern those impulses.
Beacham: I don't, really. (Laughs) Part of what I like to do is... you create way, way more than you know that you're going to use. The benefit of having a story that takes place in the real world is that you don't have to invent the real world. It exists. As we're sitting here in San Francisco, there's a China on the other side of the world, and you don't have to make up the politics there just for some casual reference in a conversation we may have. But in a constructed world in the genre environment, you have to create far more than is in the story. Maybe you'll reference it in conversation, maybe you won't, but the fact that you thought of it, and the fact that you devoted some attention to it, will inform the confidence with which you're telling the story. Just as someone telling a story in the real world has that real-world confidence; they don't have to explain, like, how the metro works.
Beaks: Given that you've created more than you've used, how far ahead have you thought with the PACIFIC RIM story?
Beacham: Pretty far ahead. And not just ahead, but behind, too. Even with the graphic novel, which is sort of a prequel to the movie, by the time it ends and the movie begins there's like five years of story that we haven't covered. In thinking about what a sequel might look like, or what subsequent stories might look like, that's not so much informed by finance or corporate concerns, but just as the fact that both Guillermo and I happen to be fans of the world. When you tell a story like this or see a story like this, you wonder what happens after the credits are over. You want to keep following the people; you're in love with them, and you're in love with the world and you want to explore it some more. In thinking about the sequel, we've had ideas that have been brewing for a long time.
Beaks: One thing Guillermo touched on before you got here was the idea that this film is an ensemble. We have up to ten different characters jockeying for screen time. Was that always your concept of the story?
Beacham: Yeah, and I think it comes from doing a movie that's about people coming together. When you have a movie that has big stars in it... like Will Smith does a great job in I AM LEGEND, and it's a magnetic performance, but he's always Will Smith. That's not his fault. That's not anyone's fault. He's the center of it, and he's a movie star. But when you see something like JURASSIC PARK, Sam Neill is Alan Grant. It's built around this whole idea of an ensemble, where you can have people playing characters instead of a heroic type. That, I think, was always really appealing. I don't see it as a superhero movie necessarily, but as a movie about an ensemble of characters with their own flaws and things that they have to deal with, and how that all tangles and comes together.
Beaks: Did you have a favorite character to write for?
Beacham: I really liked Mako. Mako was probably my favorite in the beginning. I love the scene in the movie where she just kicks Raleigh's ass. She's such a small person, but it's a believable fight scene. The way she holds her stick, the way she moves on the floor, it looks trained; it's not just some stunt guy doing flips over her as she's flailing about. That speaks to what her character always was to me, this deceptively strong individual that's very quiet. She doesn't share her feelings as eagerly as Raleigh does, but it's bubbling under the surface. Whereas Raleigh's loss is kind of this open wound, Mako's is this hardened scar from her childhood.
Beaks: I love the scientists, and the way they're portrayed as live-action cartoon characters. They're straight out of an anime. Charlie's voice is that classic, high-pitched nerdy scientist that we've heard in countless cartoons. Did you write them that way?
Beacham: No actually. In the first draft, they were both one character. It was this character named Newt Gottlieb, who was still kind of desperate, but slightly less neurotic. But over the course of workshopping the script, it got split into two characters, and they became this great odd couple. They both play their parts so eccentrically when you meet them, but it works so well. I'm not quite sure that I understand why it works so well, but I think the brilliance of their acting, and the interpretation they brought to it, as eccentric as they are, they're somehow still believable. I liked the level of invention that they brought to it.
(Getting the wrap-it-up signal from the publicist.)
Beaks: What's the status of A KILLING ON CARNIVAL ROW?
Beacham: There's always rumors of stuff happening with it, but I'm not going to believe anything until the cameras are rolling. Guillermo's still a huge fan of it, and talks about it all the time. It's got enough enthusiasm behind it, and enough people who really like it that I think one day it's going to be a movie. It's just a matter of the stars aligning. It's not a family movie, but it is expensive. It requires a lot of meticulous world construction, and a lot of either practical or CGI special effects. I don't think that means it's impossible to make. I think that makes it hard to make, but a lot of hard-to-make movies have become movies. I have faith that, in the end, it'll see the light of day somehow.
Legendary is in the unique position in that they have the resources to take risks, which I think has really benefitted PACIFIC RIM. They were open to putting something out in the world. When I grew up in the '80s, you had these sort of original action-adventure/sci-fi movies all the time: GHOSTBUSTERS, E.T., BACK TO THE FUTURE... all of this stuff constantly. It breaks my heart that you don't really see that anymore. I hope that we're entering a new phase. We certainly can't be more reliant on stuff from other mediums. There's only one direction to go in.
If that's a direction you'd like to support, you can cancel the anonymously-crafted blockbusters by going to see PACIFIC RIM this weekend. This is how we take the power out of the meddlesome hands of the execs. Send a message to the studios that a great filmmaker with a vision knows his vision better than a bean counter.