Guillermo Del Toro is many things (an Oscar nominee, a Mexican Falstaff, a visual genius, a monster lover verging on the fetishistic, etc.), but one quality many people might not be aware of is that he’s a Toronto resident. For two years, he’s been making movie magic in Toronto while simultaneously supervising the productions of Mama and Pacific Rim and he’s primed to be here for two more with an HBO pilot and at least one more feature film lined up for local production.

However, this week is all about Pacific Rim, one of the biggest movies ever made in Toronto that pits giant monsters (or Kaiju) against giant robots (or Jaegers) in a worldwide city-stomping battle royale. It’s a pure childish fantasy, perfectly suited for summer blockbuster season and more in line with the populist half of the director’s varied monster-making filmography (Blade II, the Hellboy movies) than his art house horror fare (The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth). TORO recently got a chance to chat with bearded genre master, dipping into everything from directing for art vs. commerce, his 20-year collaboration with Ron Perlman, his deleted cameo in It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, and playing a werewolf in a Mexican Alka-Seltzer commercial.

When you’re working on a Hollywood blockbuster like this or Hellboy or Blade II, does it feel like you’re accessing a different part of your brain than on a smaller more personal project like Pan’s Labyrinth?

To a point. I think that it’s more like a different part of myself, the heart and the gut. I try to bring as much, if not more, craft because they are more complex movies technically. And visually, designing this movie and coding this movie with colours and textures requires 20, 30 times the investment of a smaller movie. We are all assholes at some point in the day. We’re not perfect. And as storytellers or artists we are the same way. I have a side to myself that would gladly discuss Chekov with you or Tarkovsky, Bergman, or great painters like Rothko and Renoir. We could spend all day discussing the history of art. But the other side of me grew up with Kaiju movies and anime and would gladly argue about Richard Corben vs. Bernie Wrightson. They are equal components of who I am. All I try to do with my movies is present who I am to an audience. The Pacific Rim side is as genuine as the other side, but the gut feeling is that I’m making a different type of movie. On Hellboy 1 or 2 or Pacific Rim, I’m preoccupied with giving them a good heart at the centre. I want them to be earnest and somewhat romantic movies in the sense that there is no post-modern irony at all. It’s a kid in love with the genre he’s using and in love with the characters and monsters that he’s creating. But that kid has a 48-year-old guy that has made movies for 20 years. So it’s a little schizophrenic, but still all a part of me. 

It’s wonderful how much of an international flavour the film has, not merely focusing on American cities and the military, like a certain other giant robot franchise. Was that important to you?

I wanted very much to bring a sense of the world saving the world. I didn’t want to make a movie that was pro army or pro war. I wanted very consciously to make an adventure film. So when I started the process, I told Legendary that I hate war and didn’t want to make a movie that glorifies it. We should say, “it’s horrible and this is what happened.” I also didn’t want to make a movie where we were winning. This is a movie where we are losing. I didn’t want to make a movie with an army at its height, but a resistance doing the final fight. I was very careful not to use captains, generals, admirals.  I wanted the nominal forces in the movie to harken back to Westerns like rangers and marshals. If you listen carefully, when they move they sound like cowboys with spurs. I wanted kids who watch the movie to get a set of values that is different than the normal blockbuster. Sometimes an aesthetic decision can be a political decision and I decided not to shoot it like a car commercial or an army recruitment film. I wanted to shoot it like an opera with super-saturated colours, crazy storms, rotting concrete, oxidized metal. Every creative choice was made to go in a different direction. And then, I didn’t want it to have one hero. If you notice, the movie has a plural weight. Almost every character has the same weight. We have a black leader, not a guy who is in the back of the ship and dies first. He is the real moral centre of the movie. You have a Japanese heroine who is not a sex object in a schoolgirl uniform. Every decision in the characterization was made to shift the usual template askew. Part of that was saying, this is a tragedy when it happens in San Francisco, but it’s also a tragedy if it happens in Australia or Hong Kong. I wanted it to be a world community that isn’t concerned about how America will save them. That’s usually how these movies work, “what will America do to save the day?!” This movie is more about, “what will we all do to save the day?” These are all little touches, but hopefully they add up to something larger. Even having male and female characters who have a central relationship that doesn’t turn into a love story. Creating it was almost like creating a riddle: “When is a summer movie not a summer blockbuster?”  Those decisions were all in play.

So why Hong Kong and not Thailand or Tokyo?

I wanted Hong Kong because visually I’m in love with that city. I wanted the nights to be Hong Kong nights with all the reds and purples and oranges. Every time I visit Hong Kong I’m so impressed how all the colourful streetlights light up the city and turn it into an incredible spectacle of light. When we were scouting Hong Kong, I scouted very carefully. We did it for five or six days. I went to the shipyard and thought a fight should happen then and then a oil tanker went by and I thought, “Yep, that should be a baseball bat.” [Laughs] So everything that I scouted in Hong Kong informed that for me. I needed a port city and one that wouldn’t close while we were shooting. All of that came into the decision. And we were very careful in creating it. We ran all of the text past translators to make sure that they were completely right down to the font. That goes for the city and also the Jaegers. All of the designs inside the robots were very carefully done so that you could map them out in a logical way. Even if no one notices all of those details are very important to making it feel real. If you pay attention to 90% of the details and let 10% go, you fail overall. It’s very important. And you know how I learned that? I learned it by fucking up. Because on Hellboy 1, I didn’t check one Russian piece of writing and it said the wrong thing. Then when it played in Russia they complained and I said, “never again.” So it comes from that. It didn’t come from somebody being wise, it came from somebody being stupid.

Ron Perlman was spectacular in this and it’s been 20 years that you two have been collaborating now. Did you write that part for him and at this point do you develop the character together?

I was writing another part for him initially. I wrote the Australian father for him, but then I realized that there would be so many scenes with him and Charlie Hunnam that it might start to feel like Sons Of Anarchy 2.0. So I decided to find another part and I created Hannibal Chau just for him. It was not in the initial treatment and was conceived as a very different character in the first draft. He’s a ham, so I promised to write him a really hammy part. I know at this stage how he talks and how he moves. I know how to write for him and I wrote it for him specifically for effect so that when he turns around the audience gets a big thrill. I knew what he could do with it and I knew that him and Charlie Day would be great together.

Did he keep the shoes?

[Laughs] I kept the shoe that survives and he got the other.

Speaking of Charlie Day, I’d heard you were part of the It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia Halloween special, but didn’t make the cut. What was your character?

I did a cameo as Papi McPoyle. So I was one of the McPoyles from the Appalachian mountains with a Mexican accent, which is very surprising [Laughs]. I wore contact lenses and prosthetics. I had false teeth and a beard and a wig with false fingernails. It was a blast.

So you finally got to play a monster.

I love playing monsters. I played monsters in TV and commercials when I was young in my make-up company. There’s still an Alka-Seltzer commercial out there from Mexico where I play a werewolf.


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