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TORONTO - How do you know you're on a Guillermo Del Toro set?
Seeing Ron Perlman dressed in full character as Hannibal Chau, who runs the black market for kaiju parts, is a pretty good hint.
At this point, Perlman and Del Toro seem almost like brothers, guys who know each other so well that there's not a lot of need to explain things back and forth. When Del Toro hires Perlman, he knows exactly what he's getting, and when Del Toro calls, Perlman knows he's going to have something fun to dig into.
When we caught up with Perlman on the set of "Pacific Rim," he was in his trailer, unwinding between set-ups. He had on part of his Chau costume, and he was in a great, relaxed mood. I've worked with Ron in our second "Masters Of Horror" episode, "Pro-Life," and one of the things I learned spending time with him is that he has a no-nonsense attitude about the career he's chosen and he tells great stories.
He told us that his character in the film is actually a fan of the way the world has changed, and that he has no interest in seeing the war end. "He has arranged with the powers that be to get the rights to all kaiju, all of the parts, so he can process them and then sell them on the black market to the people who are willing to pay for these various very exotic collectible trophies. You can only imagine he deals in a world of very eccentric, very rich people, and he has everything that it takes to function and profit as a result of, you know, destruction and chaos, turmoil and loss. He's a typical war profiteer, a very hedonistic guy, very materialistic guy, very into adorning himself and showing off the benefits to success."
Ron seemed very pleased with the description, and someone asked how much he likes the character. "Oh, I don’t like him. Did I sound like I liked him?"
That's Ron for you. He isn't concerned with playing characters he likes. He'd rather just play characters that are interesting, that let him play things he hasn't played before, and Chau is certainly a new role for him. Asked about how he and Del Toro built the character, Ron said, "I think when this character was kind of invented in the first draft… this is prior to Guillermo making his own contribution to the direction of how this project was gonna ultimately be executed… I don’t think it was intended for a Caucasian. I think it was intended for an Asian actor. And when Guillermo came on board, as only Guillermo can, he said, 'Well, we’ve got a full of shit guy here, and we could even make it more full of shit by making him a Jew from Brooklyn.' He takes on this quasi-Asian persona and then, you know, revels in the idea of sharing what a cool thing it was to invent himself in this way. So there we have the newly reconstituted 'from the brilliant mind of Guillermo del Toro' Hannibal Chau, of which I have become the beneficiary."
He continued, "Right off the bat we knew we were going to be going for somebody who was larger than life in his appetites, in his behavior, in his approach to just living. You know, he surrounds himself with hundreds in this secret lair where he does all this kaiju processing in Hong Kong, and he surrounds himself with hundreds and hundreds of staff members to do his bidding, some of who are, you know, kind of unsavory gang street types. Some of them are just workers. I’m sure he pays all of them nothing. He is probably, at the risk of overstatement, the single most colorful character in the entire piece. Because everybody’s, you know, got their nose to the grindstone here trying to figure out how to deal with this enemy, and only Hannibal is celebrating the presence of this enemy and living large off of this strange twist of circumstance."
I love when Ron really gets rolling, and he didn't need any prompting by us to continue. "By the time I came to shoot this part, which was only about two weeks ago, they had already shot 85 percent of the film. So I’m coming in at the very end, and it’s a long slog. It’s like a seven month shoot. And we have had a ball because there’s no rules or regulations to Hannibal Chau. We had a notion that he was going to be a certain kind of way, very entertaining, this larger than life kind of thing. But it has been probably the most fun collaboration between Guillermo and myself, because he’s very different than either Guillermo or I thought he was gonna be when I arrived on set. It happened because I would do something and he would say, 'That sucks. Try this.' And then suddenly by the end of the day we had the character and, I don’t know, I hope he stays in the movie because he could be completely unacceptable. He’s so over the top that, you know, Guillermo will present my performance in a hermetically sealed film can and say, 'No one in the world is going to see this except you and your twisted family.' I fully expect that. And that’s fine with me. I had a ball."
Asked if Hannibal ends up involved in any of the film's action scenes, the 63-year-old-and-still-formidable Perlman said, "Yeah, there are things that he does upon the arrival of this Newt character played by Charlie Day that indicates that of all the gangsters that he surrounds himself with, he was the original. There was a time when he was just taking care of himself. He wasn’t always, you know, this head of this corporation. You know, he built himself up to who he is now. He handles a knife in the movie quite adeptly, and he’s got these sort of remnants of scuffles that he’s had that he survived. Whereas if he wasn’t quite as handy, he might not have. That’s just, you know, the backstory that I built for myself. None of it is actually expressed in the film."
Ron went on to talk more about that part of the process. "That’s everything. I’m not on the screen very much in this movie, and actually it’s harder when you’re building a character that has to reveal who he is in a short amount of time than when you have the whole film. So it’s more imperative that you create a persona for yourself that, you know, is kind of like putting on a set of clothing. You’re not fully dressed until you’re fully dressed. So it’s kind of like, for your own edification and enjoyment, the more specific you can create a backstory for the character, the more you have to pull from as the camera’s rolling."
One of the things that Guillermo tries to do on his films, as much as possible, is build the environments. Sure, he ends up using a fair amount of CG to add details to the world, but it's important to him that he have a real physical space he can photograph, and Ron talked about why that matters. "These are probably as elaborate as any movie sets in the history of… and I don’t think I’m overstating the case… but that’s been a benchmark of all of the big studio movies Guillermo’s made. I’m used to working on sets on 'Blade II' and on both 'Hellboy' movies that are awe-inspiring. I almost feel like they should be at Universal's tours, you know. They could be an attraction at a film studio amusement park. I spent 20 minutes on 'Hellboy II' walking on this new set. We walked around just taking pictures, and I was incredibly entertained with the amount of detail that no one would see but that we knew was there. That’s just the way Guillermo does it. He’s had a lot of resources on this film, so everything is on the greatest scale it could possibly be on. Because this is futuristic and because you’re seeing a version of Hong Kong or a version of these cities that the film takes place in, that is some indeterminate moment down the road, he’s had a chance to put flights of fancy into real places. When you walk on these sets, you’re transported into this very specific world that he’s created in his mind that carries through no matter where you are or what the situation is. It’s not now. It’s not contemporary. It’s this futuristic world, so it has an air of the fantastical and it immediately forces you to come to it. It doesn’t come to you."
Someone commented that it must be different on this film because of the budget, but Ron waved the thought off. "No, because, you know, when he was doing a movie for a million two, which was the first movie I ever did with him, the imagination was every bit as magnanimous as it is now. The only thing that changes are the resources, and if he doesn’t have resources, he manages to still make sumptuous images on the screen that are filled with textures and levels that most audience members are never gonna see. They’ll see them and they’ll know that they’re there but there are metaphors that are on each of his frames that even I don’t know exist. I have to watch the special commentary at the end of the movies, where he’s explaining, you know, 'Over here in the far corner of the thing is a Coptic cross which has to do with something over here.' Only he knows those things are there but they’re placed there specifically to go back and to refer to and say, 'Well, this is what the poem of this moment was meant to be.' So everything is poetic in his world. Nothing is random. Nothing is there just to look pretty."
Everyone who knows Guillermo has, at some point, probably done a Guillermo impression, and Ron was asked who does the best Guillermo impression. He didn't even have to answer. He just fixed the reporter with a look, and finally they said, "So you're the best."
Smiling, Ron said, "I mean, just to give a little bit of an example but I was doing Guillermo one time and Lorenza, his wife, said, 'Yes, dear?' That’s not true. I’ll deny that."