There is no chance the Comic-Con crowd will have forgotten him, but Guillermo Del Toro’s last directorial effort was a Hellboy sequel released in 2008. In the four years since, he collaborated on the scripts for two installments of The Hobbit, but dropped out as director. Then his fully realized 3D adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s At The Mountains Of Madness got abruptly unplugged by Universal. Del Toro is back at Comic-Con after completing the robots vs monsters saga Pacific Rim financed by Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. While it won’t be released until July 12, 2013, Del Toro is at Hall H today to show footage at a Warner Bros panel that also includes The Hobbit. Some in the industry have seen the early visuals and said they are stunning and they predict Del Toro will make a stirring return that was informed by his setbacks.
DEADLINE: You are finally here with a movie you directed. Describe your road here.
DEL TORO: Two years in New Zealand on The Hobbit, a year in L.A. and Canada developing Mountains. Luckily, during the year of Mountains, I started on Pacific Rim and when people ask me why I have four or five things in development, here’s the answer. Paraphrasing John Lennon, a career is what happens when you’re making other plans. I once had a gap between Mimic and Devil’s Backbone of four years and haven’t had that long a gap until now. It is four years since Hellboy II. In 1998, my father was kidnapped for 72 days, I had to emigrate to Texas, and start over. I was recuperating from a bad experience on Mimic and luckily I found Pedro Almodovar, who basically supported me in doing Devil’s Backbone, which I consider my first movie in many ways. To me, this second four-year gap, finding Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni and Warners, was vital for me to continue. Pacific Rim has given me an injection of life that I very much needed. I am reinvigorated, and at the most basic existential level, I needed this. I needed to have as good as an experience as this was. I came back from The Hobbit and met the Legendary guys and the experience was life changing. Thomas wanted me to read Travis Beacham’s pitch they had for Pacific Rim and I instantly saw the world.
DEL TORO: This is a medium that requires large investment, and as a storyteller on this scale, there are only five guys who can write their own ticket; James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, Chris Nolan and Michael Bay. The rest of us, we can only do certain things and they are mostly linear. If you are good at doing a comedy, the industry and the audience sees you only doing that comedy. This was a huge opportunity for me to step beyond where I was. And it was huge for me because I am a such a fan of robots and Kaiju, since I was a kid.
DEADLINE: You mean those cheesy, dubbed Japanese monsters…
DEL TORO: Speak for yourself. How about those fantastic Japanese monster movies? When I was a real young kid, 10 or maybe younger, I wanted to see a movie called The War of the Gargantuas. It was opening and I knew it was designed originally to be a companions piece to Frankenstein Conquers the World. I had to see it and I took the bus to the other side of town, because a movie like that doesn’t open in the A or B circuit, it opened in the Z theaters. It was and old, rundown 2000 seat movie palace, and as I was sitting there enjoying the movie, somebody from the balcony throws a big empty glass…full of pee. It lands on my head. This is how much I love Kaiju; I finished the movie. And then I came out, with a There’s Something About Mary kind of hairdo, and I rode the bus back and nobody sat next to me. Japanese properties were probably cheap to acquire, so the theaters in Mexico were inundated with these films. I saw them all.
And it instantly came back to me with Pacific Rim. I pitched scenes to Thomas and Jon, and they said, you have to direct it. I said I can’t, I have Mountains. I came on as producer and in a month, we had done a teaser trailer we animated, we had had silhouettes for 40 robots and some of the monsters and we were doing clay models. I did the Bible for the movie, and found myself feeling, damn, what lucky director is going to play in this world with all these toys? Mountains looked like it was going to happen. Until what I call that Black Friday, and then it wasn’t. I called Thomas and said, I’ll come on board Monday, if you are willing to really ready to take the step into pre-production. And it happened so fast. I’ve never worked as hard on a movie, to hit the budget number. We came in under budget, and under schedule. Hellboy took 135 days, the sequel 132 days. We did this in 103 days.
DEADLINE: You got close on The Hobbit, closer on Mountains. From an outside perspective, it feels like you were at the altar twice, and each time the girl didn’t show up. How’d you feel?
DEL TORO: I don’t know if I would characterize it quite that way. I am a writer of at least the first Hobbit film. The one that really hurt most was Mountains, because it was really abrupt. It was devastating. We were scouting, on the border of Alaska, in the glaciers in a helicopter. And I get the call, you gotta come back for a meeting on Friday. I said, eh…why do we need to meet?
DEADLINE: After I wrote about the film being halted because the studio would not make a $150 million film and give you the right for it to be an R rated movie, numerous studio execs said they would have done the same thing, even though they wanted to see the movie. It’s hard to make your money back on a big budget R film. Do you regret not being more flexible?
DEL TORO: No. But you’re guilty of a lot of my problems, not on Mountains, but you were the one whose article said I was busy till 2015, when in my mind, I’m unemployed and go movie to movie.
DEADLINE: Well, that was an editor at my former workplace, Daily Variety, trying to be clever. But what you say is true. But should you have caved on the rating and been willing to do Mountains at PG-13?
DEL TORO: I don’t regret it. Look at Prometheus. There’s an R rated horror movie that doesn’t have big name stars. We had Tom Cruise, and Jim Cameron producing. But I completely understand why they did it and I can’t argue, I can’t say they were wrong and I was right to take that position. I could never have their job because I would approve Mountains and many others, but I understand. I’ve been here 20 years and I don’t go for the altar reference because I never go into these things feeling it’s unthinkable they might not happen. But it still hurt like a motherfucker. You’ve got hundreds of drawings, dozens of paintings, storyboarded sequences, animatics, ILM did a test that was phenomenal and proved to me that everything we wanted to do was actually possible. It hurts always for the director because there is a movie you see in your head, and you want people to see it.
[Del Toro’s manager Gary Ungar stops by our table to give him a carefully bubble wrapped package. He unfolds it, and it is a leather-bound brown journal, the pages filled with elaborate sketches of his Hellboy character. The pen and ink drawings look like paintings, and the handwritten notes beautifully scrawled in the filmmaker’s hand are so perfectly crafted that the book looks like a movie prop out of Indiana Jones or The Da Vinci Code].
DEL TORO: This was on loan to the Seattle Science Fiction Museum. It’s just my notebook on Hellboy and some different stuff. These are all my drawings, and I just got it back. I’m an obsessive compulsive, what can I say.
DEADLINE: Will you still make At The Mountains of Madness, especially if Pacific Rim puts you near the category of those five directors you mentioned who can write their own tickets on big buck films?
DEL TORO: I want to see Prometheus first [there are plot similarities]. To me, Pacific Rim is a catalyst for so many things. You learn your craft little by little, and you do it publicly. You make mistakes in front of an audience. Make a wrong casting or editorial decision, and it’s all out in the open, like crashing a car in slow motion, publicly. Everybody can see your head bounce, your spine snap, and they comment on every single fracture. You’re giving interviews, or reading opinions. “Look at the way his wrist snapped! He’s never going to walk again the way his spine just broke!” You learn your craft that way and it’s rare that you can calculate or control it. You get lucky sometimes. I desire to direct big crazy movies and small crazy movies, and on Pan’s Labyrinth I was able to do that with some degree of control. Pacific Rim is the first time I have been able to articulate something that is purely entertaining, big and bold in this large format. I was incredibly aware of every choice, both creatively and fiscally. I stayed under budget and wanted that to be part of the experience. To be as bold and big as possible, but within the parameters I had agreed to. The narrative comes first, but I was a producer on this as well.
DEADLINE: At Disney’s Comic-Con panel, early The Lone Ranger footage was stylish and impressive, but the first connotation of that film is budget struggles. Unless you’re making a sequel, it seems very hard to create new tent poles. How much has pressure increased when you are creating something completely new?
DEL TORO: When you are producer and director, you are basically making a vow to be able to whistle and keep the tune. I’m aware of how much each extra costs, that I have to give up two cars to get four extras for five days. I have to pre-plan so if I say a sequence will take three days, it takes three days. I had the partnership of guys who believed in creating something new. They were not asking for a re-launch or a sequel. Finding a partner like this who shares not only in the financials but fully in the creative dream is a blessing that doesn’t happen often. But as to your question, I don’t believe any experience is bad and I’m not trying to sound wide-eyed or naïve. I don’t know if I could have done Pacific Rim without having prepped The Hobbit and especially Mountains because we got so close. It was a warm up for prepping movies that size, fiscally and technically. My contact with ILM started on Mountains, all the creative heads that came into Pacific Rim were guys who wanted to do Mountains. They knew what I wanted to try, that it was a new way of trying effects. The core of my creative team of designers moved from Mountains on a Friday to Pacific Rim on Monday. That tough experience allowed me to do this. To me, it’s harder to recuperate from success than failure. You can get a little lost in analyzing your success too much. Our culture prepares you on how to overcome failure. Look down, soldier on, figure it out. No one tells you how to avoid the trappings of success. That you figure out by brutally going through experiences. You learn much more about who you are going through difficulty.
DEADLINE: What look were you after with Pacific Rim?
DEL TORO: I wanted to do a big adventure movie with saturated colors, operatic battle set pieces and saturated colors and richly textured. As a kid I loved the Korda adventure films and I used them for inspiration. I wanted to evoke the feeling I had as a kid when I dreamed of being a cowboy or a pirate or an astronaut. I didn’t want to make a war movie, and visually avoided all the trappings of that like the long lens, super polished blue steely images that looked like a recruitment video, and the winner aesthetics that immediately tell you that a select group saves the world. I wanted it to be all of us who saved the world. So when I wanted Charlie Hunnam, Charlie Day, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, and Ron Perlman, they got it. Sometimes you pitch that and watch the studio head glaze over and say, yeah, but we need these five names to make this work.
DEADLINE: Will you be involved in Legendary’s Godzilla remake?
DEL TORO: No, we made it a point so far not to discuss that. Our conversations are limited to this. We were planning a sequence on Pacific Rim and when I described it to Thomas Tull, there was a landmark involved and he said, that one is taken in Godzilla. You have to guarantee me you won’t stomp, burn or destroy X, because Godzilla’s already doing that.
DEADLINE: Will it be odd having The Hobbit on the same Comic-Con bill as Pacific Rim?
DEL TORO: No. I haven’t seen the footage, but The Hobbit decision took a long time to make. And when you make a decision like that, you don’t look back, at least I don’t. I really think the movie’s in the right hands. I want to see it and wish it the best of luck. For me, the one that hurt was Mountains because it was not one where I had time to absorb or think about. That year was a hard year. But there is a contraction of the industry and Mountains three years before would happened. With DVD and Blu-ray, they would have taken the bigger risk.
DEADLINE: Fans will look at Mountains the same way we look at Halo, and wonder what might have been had Neill Blomkamp done that as his debut film instead of District 9.
DEL TORO: You mention Halo. We developed that movie, with D.B. Weiss, one of the creators of Game of Thrones. We made a screenplay and nobody talks about it but it was amazing. I went to WETA, met with them to talk about designs, had a big meeting. And then I went and made Hellboy.
DEADLINE: So leaving was your choice?
DEL TORO: That one was my choice.
DEADLINE: It really feels like this is a game of choices and it’s understandable why it’s so hard to choreograph success, especially now, when studios don’t really know what to make except sequels.
DEL TORO: It has always been that way though, no? When you read the real tales of movie making, it has always been pretty turbulent. Always, a few guys can write their own ticket, whether it was Capra and Sturges, Howard Hawks. The names change, but it’s usually limited to the same number of guys. I was just saying to a studio executive the other day that in the best of circumstances, when you hire a director, you are hiring either a guy who has the touch with actors, is a world creator visually, and maybe a guy who brings a certain tone that make his films recognizable. Everything else is a crap shoot. And all the preconceptions that used to guide the movie business through the years, like reliance on stars, are basically gone.
DEADLINE: How are you with that?
DEL TORO: I think that’s thrilling. At the end of the day, if you have a worthy story to tell, you’re going to tell it. If you can only tell a story with a certain range of budget, then you should worry. It softens your tissue somehow. But if you can write a book, make a small or big budget film or tell your story in a graphic novel, then it is a very exciting time.
DEADLINE: You mentioned Michael Bay as one of the five guys. After John Carter and Battleship, I heard more than a few people say they had new found respect for Bay and the skill it takes to make these big popcorn pictures.
DEL TORO: A lot of people think erroneously that it gets easier with more money. It doesn’t, because you are steering a much bigger ship. Imagine you are the rudder of a small fishing boat. If you become the rudder of a trans-Atlantic oil tanker, it doesn’t get easier on the rudder, it’s more taxing. There’s a feeling that CGI writes itself and happens while the director is riding with a starlet on the PCH in a convertible, on the phone saying, how is the CGI going? It’s a specific logistical, almost military operation you have to be able to run.
DEADLINE: How helpful is it to be here at Comic-Con with a movie that’s not coming out until next summer?
DEL TORO: To me, Comic-Con has always been invaluable, it doesn’t matter what project, I want to be here. Spiritually, it’s a beautiful place for me, I truly love Comic-Con. I feel at home. Whether it’s Pacific Rim or Pan’s Labyrinth, I come here.
DEADLINE: It’s easy to be condescending and cynical, but the passion of this crowd is charming when you get to observe it up close.
DEL TORO: It’s more than that to me. It’s pretty easy to be reactionary, to be like a parent in the 50s seeing their kids with rock and roll. What are you doing in your room all day? You are doing nothing! Same with video games. But the craftsmanship that allows for that narrative interface with video games, it’s huge and transformative. It has transformed the storytelling of the visual medium. Cultural swings are defined by clashes. Counterculture clashed with narrative in the 70s and you got intense, thoughtful, hardcore movie making, and you have pop culture colliding with narrative and these are waves you ride.
DEADLINE: It’s hard to figure out this current wave.
DEL TORO: There’s a very interesting confluence where you have this very intense awareness of pop culture, to a point where essentially nothing is fringe that cannot be taken by a corporation and commercialized by it. That’s the bad aspect of it. At the same time, you are finding a lot of the young generation galvanized socially in a collective way, whether it’s hacking or taking on Wall Street. It’s a curious time. I, myself at 47, am more interesting in find what’s alive, what is the pulse, than mourning any loss.