SAN DIEGO - The first sign attendees had that Warner Bros. had something special planned for their Comic-Con 2012 panel came at the start of the event when the curtains at the front of the room rolled back, wider than normal, revealing two extra screens that extended out from the front screen, creating a sort of Cinerama effect, with both side panels featuring graphics designed to evoke the world of "Pacific Rim."
Of course, that wouldn't have been the first thought for many people in the room, since "Pacific Rim" is still a year away and before Saturday's presentation, very little was known about the film. Last year, Guillermo Del Toro came to tell fans that they could expect a movie about "giant f**king monsters against giant f**king robots," but since then, there's been almost nothing revealed in public.
I visited the set for the film, and at that point, I realized just what sort of scale Guillermo's trying for with the movie, and I was curious to see what sort of showing they'd make with 7000 people who walked in cold.
It's safe to say the response was enthusiastic.
Basically, the screens were set up to look like we were in the middle of the Jaeger headquarters. "What's a Jaeger?" you might ask. Well, in the world of "Pacific Rim," a Jaeger is a 250-foot tall robot that was built to battle an invasion of giant monsters that began when a rift opened off the coast of Japan in 2012. The film is set after years of the war have worn on, and every major country on Earth has built at least one Jaeger to help with the effort. The problem is that being a Jaeger pilot is a terrifically difficult gig. Each robot requires two operators, linked together by a neural network, and over time, it takes a toll on anyone who does it.
The film started as a pitch by Travis Beacham, and Legendary CEO Thomas Tull came out to explain how they got involved. I've had many opportunities to interact with Tull, and he's the real deal, a hedge fund genius who also happens to be a giant nerd for genre films. When he says that he loves giant monsters and giant robots, that's not lip service. That's the reason he decided to bring his very deep pockets to Hollywood in the first place.
"In order to make 'The Dark Knight,' you need Chris Nolan," he said, talking about how they liked the pitch when they first heard it. "We had to find the person who could bring 'Pacific Rim' to the screen. So let's call Guillermo Del Toro and thank god, we got him to say yes. Here to tell you more is my friend, and yes, it's as cool to hang out with him as you think it is. GUILLERMO DEL TORO!"
I won't even pretend to be objective here. Del Toro is one of my favorite people in this business, and not just because our taste seems almost eerily aligned in many things. It's because of the childlike enthusiasm he is able to muster every single day for a job that many people forget to enjoy. Del Toro loves making movies on a nuts and bolts level. Watching him work on a set, he is deliriously happy, and that joy spreads to everyone else on the productions.
He's also the most gleefully profane man I've ever met. As he took his seat onstage, he laughed and said, "Hola. I am shitting in my pants, really. I bought pants twice my size, though, so I'm okay."
As the laughter from the audience died down, he spoke sincerely about how frustrated he was after he left "The Hobbit" and then "At The Mountains Of Madness" fell apart. "This journey has been very important for me. It's a long road. You guys stood in line in hours. I stood in line for months. This is the beginning of 'Pacific Rim,' really, and preparing what we're going to show you was a journey. It's a journey that I embraced. It began with Jeff Robinov and Thomas Tull and Travis Beacham, and they saved my life. It was a big fat obscene Christmas gift that I needed desperately, and I have taken it apart and reassembled it until I believe it is perfect. I didn't want to make a war movie, but an adventure movie. I wanted this film to have a sense of grandeur. I wanted to create a sense of awe and scale. If you don't have that, everything is lost."
It's sort of miraculous that they would have footage ready at this point, since, as Guillermo pointed out, "Twelve weeks ago, we were still shooting the movie. We prepared footage for you specifically. It is extremely beautiful that we're here and that we have something unique for you, and after this, radio silence until the end of the year. If you motherf**kers have the James Bond camera glasses, don't use them."
Chris Hardwick, the panel moderator, told Guillermo, "I want to make love to your accent. Is that weird?"
Guillermo laughed and said, "Thank you. I'm really a Norwegian."
Cast members Charlie Hunnam, Charlie Day, Rinko Kikuchi, and Ron Perlman were all brought out to join Guillermo onstage, and the first questions asked of them was, "Is this your first Hall H experience?"
Day said he was pretty sure they had screened some episodes of "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia" in Hall H previously, and Hunnam said he's been coming down for a while now with "Sons Of Anarchy," while Perlman just seemed happy to be there. "It's a miracle I'm still invited to come down here. Every time I finish a movie, I go 'This is it. They're definitely going to keep me locked in a closet for the rest of my life.' Guillermo's standards must be plummeting, though, so here we are in Hall H."
Kikuchi was sort of adorable in her undisguised terror. "I'm so excited, and I'm so super, super nervous," she said in a thick accent. She's still working on mastering English, but she's far more comfortable now than she was when I interviewed her about "Babel" in 2007.
At that point, Del Toro introduced the footage, and Hall H went dark.
As the footage opens, two guys are walking along a beach, and it's snowing. They use a geiger counter to monitor readings off the beach. They find a little figurine of some sort buried in the sand and pick it up, and as they're looking at it, the geiger counter goes crazy because of something else, something they can't see yet.
As they look, a dying Jaeger comes walking out of the mist, towering over them, one arm missing. As it reaches land, it collapses, spent. There's such a great sense of size and mass to the thing, and as they look at it, awed by it, the presentation begins to hint at some of the massive mayhem that the movie has planned. There are shots on a bridge of something taking hold of the bridge, shaking it, snapping support cables. Jets come racing in around the thing, opening fire on it and barely phasing it.
Title cards between the shots of the crazy monster action and images of the Jaeger teams suiting up, getting into their control seats. "TO FIGHT MONSTERS…" one of them reads. "WE CREATED MONSTERS."
We see the Jaegers being wheeled out of the hangars where they're kept and maintained, and then we get a few shots of one of the Jaegers walking out to sea, in deeper and deeper water.
And as the Jaeger finds a bizarre knifeheaded monster out in the middle of the water and the two of them charge one another, we start to see shots of Idris Elba addressing the troops. "Today, at the edge of our help and the end of our time, we've chosen to believe in each other. Today, we face the monsters that are at our door. Today… WE ARE CANCELING THE APOCALYPSE."
And the last handful of shots just hint at how big and how physical these fights really are, giving just enough of a taste of the film that when the lights came up and the crowd went berserk, Hardwick started laughing. "I think 'hashtag holy shit' is the right response to what we just saw. Guillermo, how do you do that?"
Del Toro couldn't help but make a filthy joke about how what we saw was "just the tip," and then went on to talk about why he's able to get away with a film this unbridled and geeky on such a huge scale. "We went at this as fans. When you have the meeting with the head of the studio and they have Sideshow Collectibles on their shelves, you can riff about what you want the monsters and the robots to do." He knows that this isn't particularly new in terms of the basic idea, and explained that this had to be more than just another variation on something we already know. "We didn't want to homage two genres, but to create something new. I can promise you this… the places and the tenor and the tone of the battles is astounding, but what we wanted to forefront was the humanity. We created a world that would allow these things to exist, and emotionally, we wanted to see what it would be like to be there." He's so in touch with his own creative impulses that it feels like he's been warming up for this the entire time he's been making movies. "As a kid, I dreamed of being a pirate and an astronaut, and obviously also food. I wanted a movie that recreated the sensation of being an adventure movie where you are really there. I wanted people to feel like they were really there, facing down these things. I hired amazing designers, and they're all fans of monsters and robots, and we locked ourselves in a room and played until we created the world of this movie."
I particularly liked the philosophy that Del Toro explained about how you approach these giant-budget movies. "When you get a budget, you can do two things: you can get crazy or you can get lazy. I asked everyone to use creativity and passion and madness to solve problems and not just phone it in or spend to fix things."
Hardwick opened things up to the audience, and the first question was from a lifelong kaiju fan who seemed very excited. "Will we be seeing such iconic giant robot weapons as drills and rocket punches?"
Del Toro has a terrible poker face, and he started laughing. "We do have rocket punches." At that reveal, the guy started jumping up and down. "No drills, but we have amazing melee weapons and some artillery. Expect obscene robot porn. Robot on kaiju action, all you can stand."
The next question was along the same lines, asking if there would be different kinds of kaiju (giant monsters for the uninitiated) with different abilities. "Take a f**king guess," Del Toro replied. Laughing, he continued, "Of course. We have approximately nine kaijus and six or seven robots. Each has a unique identity and unique abilities. We designed about 40 of each, and then we had an 'American Idol' for them. Every time you think you're going to see a kaiju do something familiar, it does something else." The next question was a cheap joke about putting Tecate Light in a freezer in the robot's head, and Del Toro just brushed it off. "Anything you guys can imagine being represented will be there. There are some set pieces here that have never been seen on film."
Asked about his motivation for signing on to do the film, Hunnam said it was one thing in particular that got him onboard. "I didn't even read a script. I signed on sight unseen. There are probably two filmmakers in the world I'd take that leap of faith with, and Guillermo is absolutely one of them. He is a slave driver. I've never worked so hard in my life, and however hard I worked, he was working twice as hard. That was the first edited footage I've seen. Looks pretty good, huh?"
Another massive wave of applause came from the audience, and the next person up at the mic brought up the idea that each Jaeger takes two people to control it. "What would happen if there is only one person?"
Guillermo glanced over at Hunnam, who smiled innocently, before he answered. "That is actually answered in the film. We wanted to show what happens to one pilot, so we show that when a kaiju kills only one pilot, leaving the other pilot to drive the Jaeger to safety. You will see it."
Hardwick joked that if you lose the left brain, you end up with a Jaeger that likes doing pottery, and then the next audience question dealt with the massive amount of CGI that's required to make a film like this, asking if it's different for Guillermo since he likes using physical creations in his films. "I've used it before. 'Pan's' has plenty of CG. We just treat it as we would treat any other element in the film. If you noticed, in this footage, we tried to dirty up the camera and put some physical restrictions on how we showed things. I tried to root the camera so it can't just show anything or do anything. If you do that, the creatures become real."
Del Toro's working with ILM on this one, and he spoke about the way he's been handling things so far. "You approach it with the purity of animation, like Ray Harryhausen would approach it. No f**king motion-capture. We did it all key-frame. I need the robots to move with the sense of mechanical pieces in motion, gears and motors and pistons. If the monster is just standing and posing, it's no good. 'Why is he posing for a photo?' In martial arts movies, when you have eighteen guys who get their asses kicked by one guy because the seventeen just stand around. With these monsters, you talk to the animators and treat the resources with respect. You take the CG as an element, and you demand the best of yourself." He pointed out that it takes a mix of techniques to make it work, though, saying "We did a shitload of physical stuff in the movie. When you see everything on a city street bounce, all the cars and the pavement itself, it's going to look like CGI, but that's all something we did for real."
Asked about the variety of kaiju in the film, Del Toro said, "Sea monsters? You got it, man. Check. Three. We have flying monsters. We have sea monsters. We have monsters up the wazoo. That's a Mexican word. Wazoo."
The kid asking the question seemed to be asking if Del Toro was going to use any familiar creatures, but the way he asked was, "Any common monsters?"
"Only Ron Perlman," Del Toro shot back, getting a big laugh from Perlman. Del Toro went on to explain, "Everything was created specifically for the movie. We designed all the robots from the inside out. I used to draw the anatomy of the kaiju as a kid. We designed them like that, like physical entities with real bones and flesh and muscles. We have ILM trying things that have never happened with monsters before, and the animators have a great time, because they want to do this."
Even without being in the room, my kids have decided that "Pacific Rim" sounds like the greatest thing ever made, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the film is going to appeal to the monster-loving kids in audiences worldwide. We'll find out next year, and for those who weren't at San Diego, you can expect your first look at the film when the "Pacific Rim" trailer arrives on "The Hobbit" this Christmas.
"Pacific Rim" arrives in theaters July 12, 2013.