Pacific Rim: Uprising explodes into UK cinemas tomorrow, with the long-awaited follow-up to Guillermo del Toro’s original cult hit being steered to the big screen by first-time filmmaker Steven S DeKnight.
DeKnight, who earned his stripes on TV shows such as Angel, Spartacus and Daredevil, is a huge fan of the franchise del Toro created. In our open, honest, and wide-ranging interview, DeKnight discusses everything from Godzilla to gun control, inclusion riders to expanded universes, revealing for the first time why he was worried about having his lead actor John Boyega double-up as a producer on the project.
“When he first got hired on they said ‘John Boyega has said yes.’ and I was like ‘Ah, fantastic.’ Then they said ‘And he’s a producer’ and I’m like, ‘Oh – uh-oh.’ Because you never know what you’re going to get. I got the best case scenario,” DeKnight told Yahoo Movies UK.
“He just wanted a rollicking, fun, giant monster movie, so he wasn’t overbearing, he didn’t try to get his fingers in everything, any time he had a note, any time he said something, I thought ‘I’m going to listen to this, because you’re not throwing out comments every five minutes.’”
For more on DeKnight’s relationship with Boyega, including how they used action figures to block a major set-piece, keep reading. But before that, some backstory…
Yahoo Movies UK: This feels like a film from someone who grew up on Godzilla movies, is that fair to say?
Steven S DeKnight: Oh yes. When I was a kid, I’d rush home after school every day to catch reruns of Ultraman and Space Giants. And when I was a little, little kid – I’m dating myself here – I’d watch Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot.
I grew up going to the drive-in theatre. I grew up in a small town in New Jersey, and my dad would take me to see all the kung-fu movies, the westerns, the monster movies – I grew up watching the man in suit monster movies – the Godzillas, the Rodans, the Gameras, the Destroy All Monsters at the drive-in, then I would see them over and over again on TV. I love the genre. It’s in my DNA. Especially Ultraman, to this day I’m a huge lover of Ultraman.
You mention kung-fu movies, it felt like maybe there was a Flying Guillotine reference in there? Are you a Shaw Brothers fan?
[laughs] Huge! Master Of The Flying Guillotine is my favourite kung-fu movie. The first thing I ever directed was an episode of Angel, and if you watch carefully, I borrow a lot of shots from Master Of Flying Guillotine because I was such a huge fan of that movie.
And it definitely feels like someone who spend a lot of time at drive-ins – it moves so fast and, in drive-in culture, if there’s a boring bit, people honk their horns…
…So was this an attempt to get rid of as many boring bits as possible?
The Princess Bride approach? Yeah, when I first got hired on I sent Legendary over a five-page ‘DeKnight’s manifesto of what this movie should be’ and two of the top things I talked about was it had to be fun, and it shouldn’t be over two hours.
I always looked at this like a b-movie, and I say that lovingly, I love b-movies, I didn’t think it warranted a two-and-a-half hour CGI bloat. That’s the case in a lot of these movies these days – more is more.
I just wanted it to be fast, fun, and funny, with some emotional moments. More than anything I wanted to make a movie that I would have loved to have seen when I was growing up.
Frequently when directors attempt a blockbuster as their first film, even if they have experience in other areas, it can be very difficult – I’m thinking of David Fincher on Alien 3 and a few other examples, what was it about this project that made you feel that wouldn’t be an issue – were you worried about that?
Oh, of course I was worried. It’s funny you should mention David Fincher, because as I was going through the process, half the time I didn’t know if it was going to work. When you’re in the weeds, you don’t know if you’re making a hit movie or a disaster. But I kept saying, if this movie turns into a complete disaster, David Fincher recovered from Alien 3 and went on to do great things, so there’s hope.
Boy, I’m really thankful I had the TV experience because I could never have done this if I hadn’t gone through that. Every day I would question [myself] ‘Am I doing the right thing? Is this right? Is this coming together?’ Because there are so many pieces to a movie like this, and you never really know until you sit down in the editing room months later, if everything worked out, if the performances are there…
But, thankfully, coming up the TV ranks, where the focus is on character, story and performance, I felt very comfortable with the actors. I had such a great cast to work with. We would always shoot what was on the page until we were sure we had that, and then we’d do several takes where it’s like, ‘ Let’s see what happens, do your thing.’ We got some real gold out of that – both emotional moments and humorous moments.
Can you give us a specific example?
Yeah, one I really remember is in the beginning of the film, where John Boyega and Cailee Spaeny’s characters have been arrested, they’re in jail, and they have an argument.
The argument was completely scripted – we shot it a few times as scripted. Then I said, ‘Adlib the argument.’ We had two cameras running on both of them, and they just started going at it.
We did several takes of that, and the one you see in the movie was one full take of them just arguing with each other. It’s the kind of thing you can’t ever quite script right, it’s got to feel natural, and they were just so good at that.
There’s a thousand other little things in the movie. When John and Scott (Eastwood) are in the kitchen, and Lambert says ‘How many damn sprinkles do you need?’ and Jake says ‘Don’t mess with my damn toppings.’ That was an adlib that Scott and John came up with.
You always have to plan to shoot the script so you have it, but you have to relax enough to say ‘Okay, let’s mine for some gold.’
The film’s very dynamically shot, there’s some cool CGI tracking shots, but people don’t necessarily connect that stuff with the director – with Scorsese on Goodfellas, those kinds of movies, you feel the director is omnipresent, but on something like this, it’s almost like ‘Okay, now cut to what the visual effects team did’ – can you talk a little bit about your work with the visual effects team, and how it compares to your relationship to the DOP?
The visual effects supervisor and I, Peter Chang, we were connected at the hip throughout the whole movie, for me you have to have that relationship.
It was completely collaborative. We traded ideas and kept challenging each other to make it better. He was always there on set with me, so we made sure we were getting the framing we needed, and the shots we needed to support the visual effects, and I wanted to make sure the characters and the story were supporting what the visual effects were doing.
You could have the most spectacular, groundbreaking visual effects, but if you don’t care about the characters or the story, you’re not going to like the movie. It’ll be absolutely meaningless.
So there was a real dance, a real partnership with me and visual effects, and that included figuring out the camera moves, because Peter and I both wanted the movie – whether you’re in a CGI sequence, or a two-people talking sequence – to feel like the camera was moving in the same way and it had a very cohesive feel.
You’ve talked about creating an expanded universe, like Star Wars or Star Trek, it feels to me that if you sent soldiers into the Anteverse and took the fight to the Precursors, you could do pretty much anything you wanted with this property…
…How much potential do you think Pacific Rim has?
I think it has a huge amount of potential. I know that’s one of the reasons Legendary wanted to try a sequel, from the beginning they said ‘Look, we want you to expand the universe.’ This was the first step in not only expanding the mythology of Pacific Rim, which you see in the movie, but also trying to expand the audience base, because it has to bring in a bigger audience the second time around, or we’re not going to get a third time around.
Domestically, at least…
Yes, exactly. Thankfully… Look, domestic [American box office] numbers are always important, because it’s always in the press on Monday ‘This did this, it’s a disaster!’ But for movies of this size, the domestic box office is a feather in the cap, movies of this size do not live on domestic box office anymore.
They have to bring in a massive international box office because these movies are so expensive and complicated and the marketing is so expensive.
So, yeah, we really wanted to expand the mythology and expand the audience base, with the idea that Pacific Rim 3 will expand it even further, and I’ve set up an idea that the end of Pacific Rim 3 just blows everything wide open – you can go into main canon movies, standalone movies, offshoots, any direction.
Can you talk a little bit about John Boyega’s power in Hollywood? He’s having a fascinating career, he’s credited as a producer on this film – what’s it like working with an actor who’s also a producer? Because obviously producers have a lot of control and a lot of power…
Sure, I think John’s time in the sun is going to get even bigger and brighter. I’m really hoping this movie kicks him up to the next level that he deserves. When we were shooting, I was always going up to John and saying ‘You’re like a young Harrison Ford, you’re like a young Indiana Jones and Han Solo all rolled into one.’
Especially in that opening scene, it definitely had that vibe…
And that’s the vibe I wanted. He is so charming and personable. He can do action, comedy, drama, he can do it all. Which was really, really, really wonderful.
When he first got hired on they said ‘John Boyega has said yes.’ and I was like ‘Ah, fantastic.’ Then they said ‘And he’s a producer’ and I’m like, ‘Oh – uh-oh.’ Because you never know what you’re going to get.
I got the best case scenario.
He is, in his heart, a fanboy like you and I are, he just wanted a rollicking, fun, giant monster movie, so he wasn’t overbearing, he didn’t try to get his fingers in everything, any time he had a note, any time he said something, I thought ‘I’m going to listen to this, because you’re not throwing out comments every five minutes.’
He was really, really integral to the action sequences – especially in Tokyo. Peter and I had developed the big Tokyo finale, and we pitched it to John, and he said ‘This is all great, but we can make it better.’
So we laid out this huge table with a map of mega-Tokyo, and then John came over and we basically played with toys from the first movie for two days. We figured out, ‘What if he did this, what if he jumped over here?’ We had such a blast, and it made the whole sequence that much better.
The film’s diverse, and there’s been a lot of talk about inclusion riders in Hollywood recently, is that something you’d like to incorporate into how you put films together in the future?
Absolutely, absolutely. One of the things that really attracted me to this project was the premise that Guillermo del Toro and Travis Beacham had set up in the first one, which was the idea that it was the world coming together. I wanted to push that even further in this instalment. In this movie, the Jaegers don’t have nationalities – they’re the world’s Jaegers.
I also wanted to mix up who was piloting them, so you have a Brit with an American, and you have a Japanese kid with a Latin American girl – this idea that they’re all coming together, which was really, really important to me.
I think for a movie of this size to play, it has to have an international audience. Thankfully, with this franchise, I never felt, ‘Oh, I’ve got to jam in the Chinese character’ it’s built into the DNA of what they created in the first movie. It felt very, very natural.
And on the writing side, I tried to be as inclusive as possible. It’s one of the reasons I wanted at least one female writer, if not two, to work on this script. Different voices and different ways of looking at things, whether it’s race, or gender, or religion, only makes the product stronger in the end.
Netflix recently said it’s not going to adopt inclusion riders right now, you worked there on Daredevil, what’s stopping them, do you think, in terms of the set-up there?
I can’t speak to that at all. I can say that, especially on the writing side – and I experienced this before when I was trying to staff shows – you can only staff a show from the people that the agencies send you, which is very, very, very difficult. Because it’s still predominantly white males.
I think it’s changing, I’m seeing it more and more in the agencies, particularly in the last year or two, they’re really starting to make an effort. I don’t blame the agencies, because they were caught in this cycle of white male writers were earning the most and getting hired the most, so that’s who they would hire on as clients.
But it’s starting to finally break open, which I love, because I remember from when I was trying to staff TV shows, and I would beg the agencies, ‘Send me somebody other than a white male!’ And it’s not like I wouldn’t hire a white male, of course I will, I’ll hire the absolute best writer for the job, but I at least want the opportunity to hear other voices.
I love your Twitter, I was researching it leading up to this…
My political rants?
…I would like to talk about some political stuff. This week you admirably supported the kids staging walkouts over gun violence, and obviously Pacific Rim features young people wielding massive weapons – how do you feel about the politicians trying to connect violent films and videogames with those kinds of events?
Look at the research, that’s what I say. Whenever anyone on Twitter says ‘You’re a hypocrite, look at your violent TV work!’ I’m like, ‘You know, that stuff plays all over the world, why aren’t there mass shootings every week? You know why? Gun control!’
We get the same movies here, for example.
Exactly, it’s such an idiotic argument. It’s an argument pushed by the NRA and the gun manufacturers, just trying to find any scapegoat other than the actual smoking gun. It so frustrating.
I saw you retweet support for the UK over the Russian poisoning situation…
It’s really interesting to me that you’d do that when you’re on the precipice of your first movie, a big blockbuster, coming out – do you ever have second thoughts about what to tweet or retweet?
No, to me, there’s a right and there’s a wrong. You shouldn’t go to other countries poisoning people! I don’t want people to misconstrue what I’m saying ‘Oh, the Russians are bad!’ I’ve met many lovely Russians. I don’t care for the government, but I don’t care for my own government either.
I think as an artist you can’t balance box office with what’s right and wrong. There’s some things that are just clearly wrong. I would never back off from calling those things out because I’m worried people aren’t going to buy a ticket.
I’m a huge Angel fan, I love that show – you directed episodes of season four, which was a controversial season, Charisma Carpenter was fired and came out to say that she was unhappy about how she was treated at that time, what do you remember about that period?
The mechanisms of letting actors go was so above my paygrade at that point, I was just working in the trenches. All I can say about Charisma was that I loved working with her. She was in the first episode I ever did, she was eight months pregnant and she was such a trooper and so wonderful.
I can’t speak to why what happened, happened – certainly I wasn’t running the show, I was a cog in a magnificent wheel. My experience with her was wonderful, I have no idea what the issues were. It’s always hard.
I’ve been running shows where I decided to kill off an actor. I can’t think of ever having to do that because there was a problem, for me it was always story related, no matter how much I loved a character. In season one of Spartacus, the guy that played Varro, Jai Courtney, I loved Jai Courtney, he was wonderful, but he was built to be murdered, and murdered he was.
You’re a huge Superman fan, what would your Man Of Steel 2 pitch be?
Oh man, what would I do for Man Of Steel 2? There was an Action Comic, ‘What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way’ where Superman comes across a version of The Authority, and they have their own idea about imposing order on the world. It was such a fantastic story, that would be a great one.
The sky’s the limit with Superman. I love the big swings Snyder has taken – I think he gets a bad rap. But when you’re working on something as huge as Superman, that’s a crown jewel in the DC / Warner Brothers universe, I could say whatever I want, but it’s probably not what’s going to happen. There are so many pieces and voices in something like that.
But if I was approaching Superman, the character is so much about hope, he’s what we aspire to be, I’d love to bring that in even more.
Ava DuVernay has been announced as the director of New Gods…
… What do you think about that comic, and that decision?
Jack Kirby, come on! King Kirby, you can’t go wrong. I saw a thing on twitter today, someone saying Granny Goodness should be Kathy Bates, and I thought, ‘Yes! That is perfect!’
I’m so excited with the idea that they’re going to mine The New Gods as a movie. I think it’s a great direction for them to go in. If you look at Justice League, whether you loved it or hated it, it seems like, with Boom Tubes, they’re starting to set up that universe. Yeah, I’m very excited and I think Ava’s a fantastic choice.
You’ve said that you love genre stuff because it can play with metaphors, what’s Pacific Rim: Uprising saying to audiences?
It’s that classic science-fiction story about humanity coming together to fight a common enemy. It’s such a classic story, and Watchmen did it so well, Alan Moore put such a great spin on that.
In this time in the world where nationalism and xenophobia is on the rise, I really wanted to put out that positive message that people, no matter what their race, religion or the colour of their skin, they’re really coming together for the greater good, and that’s a reoccurring theme in this movie – we are stronger together.