The names (Stacker Pentecost, Newton Geizler) are baroque and the terms (jaeger, kaiju) are confounding. But the idea behind this weekend's Pacific Rim is a fairly straightforward one — giant monsters fight giant robots. Boom. Done. You either get it or you don't. It's Del Toro's first movie behind the camera since 2008's Hellboy II. In that time, he was attached to two big-budget projects that both failed to pan out (the Tom Cruise–starring At the Mountains of Madness and The Hobbit — which was taken over by Peter Jackson after Del Toro put more than a year of work into it). Regardless, he got to do his blockbuster, for Pacific Rim is easily the biggest movie he's ever worked on. Vulture spoke to Del Toro about robots, blockbusters, and his famous director friends.
This movie is as simple a concept as can be. It’s something that could spring from the mind of an 11-year-old. Were these monster movies part of your childhood?
It was. I’m old enough — I’m 48 — that I was actually there on opening weekend for a few kaiju [big monster] movies. I remember distinctly being there on opening for War of the Gargantuas and a few of the late Godzillas. And the rest I saw on TV or at Sunday matinees, which in Mexico lasted for like four movies. [Laughs.] You went to the theater at ten in the morning. You went from ten to twelve, twelve to two, two to four, and then at four, the main releases started. I’m old enough that I was there when Gigantor, which is what you called it in America, was starting. And Gigantor became essential part of my childhood imagination.
Did you have any of those big toy robots?
I had the Mexican knockoffs. The great thing about living in Mexico is that you can have an orange Godzilla and a green Gigantor.
Did you keep any of them?
I kept them for quite a bit, and then I sold them to my younger brother when I was 15, along with my other toys when I was in dire need of date money.
I feel like I often see you through the perspective of men in their thirties and forties — the guys who often talk to you and write about you. But this movie seems like it's engineered specifically for kids.
I was trying with Pacific Rim for something for a young audience. I’m hoping that they’ll experience something that is not dystopian, something that is not cynical. Something that is not overwrought and incredibly dark. But something light and fun and a little bit crazy and designed with a lot of care. Because I think kids can immediately know when something has a design sensibility behind it that is real, and they latch on to that. My daughters and I love to watch Adventure Time. And there is an idiosyncrasy to it, but there’s also an authenticity to the design and to how organic everything is. When people think about kids, they sometimes think about them as if they were less sophisticated. Quite the contrary: They are visually as sophisticated, if not more so, than adults.
I saw Pacific Rim in 3-D. And we’re in this phase right now where everything is either shot in 3-D or converted. And so many movies do it poorly. What do you think it’s best used for?
I think our movie has very pleasing 3-D. In the moments that count, you get a sense of depth under water, a sense of special reality. My favorite use of 3-D is depth. I think that 3-D is unique at conveying the depth of the world and space. But a lot of people sometimes use it to make things fly into a theater. Or to be floating almost in an unnatural way out of the screen.
Do you think that something like using 3-D to enhance a sense of depth is too subtle for the average viewer to pick up on?
I don’t think it’s important for the average person to discuss it or say, "Wow, that was great 3-D depth." What is important for the storytelling, for the filmmaker, is to use it or any other element. And we do. If people pick it up and say, "Wow, that was a great score," or "that was great cinematography," that’s nice. But if they don’t pick up on it, that’s fine. You’re still doing your best to do a great score and shoot great cinematography.
This movie’s fairly trim compared to other movies this summer. Why are blockbusters as long as they are these days?
I don’t know. All I know is that as an audience member, my ass meter starts ringing its fire alarm after two hours. If you’re going for a great burger or a great pizza, you hope you don’t have to wait for two hours as if you were at French Laundry in Napa. It’s the same with a movie, I think. At least when you’re thinking about an audience that is young — chronologically or at heart — you want to keep the movie at or under two hours.
We ran a piece recently about Man of Steel, and how it has become the go-to third act thing in big summer movies to destroy cities. Is that something you think about, trying to balance this grand destructive scale with a sense of human stakes?
I think the thing that is going to surprise a lot of people about Pacific Rim is the thing that I hope surprised some people about the Hellboy movies. It has a good sense of humor. It has a very, very sweet nature. I said from the beginning, I’m going to destroy buildings and cars, but I’m not gonna see people being taken or destroyed because I don’t want the audience to ever abandon the idea that this can’t be fun.
You’re good friends with your fellow countrymen and directors Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro Iñárritu. I’ve read that you helped with one key plot point near the ending of Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También. Have either of them helped with any of your movies?
Alejandro famously came over one night on Pan’s Labyrinth and took fifteen minutes out of the movie. And they both came to see my cut of Pacific Rim. Alejandro took about ten minutes out of it with me. Alfonso also took a few minutes out but mostly gave ideas on editing — move this, move that. I watched [Cuarón’s] Gravity recently and came up with a few visual gags and helped him edit a few minutes out.
You were initially supposed to direct the Hobbit films. We’ve all seen the teaser for the second one, which has a glimpse of Smaug, the dragon that you were so excited to work on. Do you know if any of your dragon designs are going to be in that movie?
I haven’t seen the second movie. I haven’t seen the first movie, so I don’t know. I’ve been busy making my own movies. [Laughs.]