Jaegers beating Kaiju. Kaiju beating Jaegers. That’s all a movie needs, right? All red-blooded humans should start frothing at the mouth at the sight of piloted robots and otherworldly monsters throwing down, but without their own red blood pumping through metallic veins, the CGI is only spectacle to keep your eyes busy.
Enter screenwriter Travis Beacham and the unique solution for injecting heart into Pacific Rim. Needing something that injected a bit of humanity into those massive Jaegers, the film employs a concept called “drifting” that should stifle anyone trying to compare Guillermo del Toro‘s latest sci-fi epic to Transformers. Beacham’s concept is not only one of the reasons the movie got made, it’s one of the reasons the script was ever written at all.
I recently got to speak with the writer, who had a lot to say about the work that went into making Pacific Rim more than a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em action fest:
This is a silly question after seeing the movie, but at any point did you limit your imagination when writing Pacific Rim?
Not really. As a writer, you can easily get stuck in the trap of, “Is this doable? Are people going to pay to make this?” I think you have to bury that. You just gotta try the best you can, and if it’s good and people like it, it’ll get made. With special effects nowadays, you can basically do anything. If somebody likes something enough, they’re going to find a way to get it made. When you’re in the early stages of coming up with an idea, you just have to let it tell the idea tell you what it is.
At what point did you realize people were going to get behind it?
Well, I always wanted to do a giant robot/monster movie, but that’s not really a story idea at all. I knew I had a movie idea when it took two pilots to drive the Jaeger, because that puts people and their relationships at the core of the battle. It gives the battle a human context where there’s no ancillary plotline happening aside all the action; it’s intimately involved with how the action works.
The idea that it takes two to drive it is when I saw it’s a movie that can be about something. That’s when I really, really started having faith in the idea.
There’s a standout scene where you show the danger of drifting. Without spoiling it for the readers, was that a scene you kept going over and over again to get it right?
The scene with Mako?
I love that scene. Initially the scene wasn’t that complicated at all. The very first version of it she was watching it from a distance, but it was Guillermo who said, “Let’s put her right up to the monster’s feet.” I think it plays out so beautifully. There was so much conversation over what the drifts look like and how we were going to see that as an audience. I think it plays out so seamlessly, when it shows her strapped in, the camera goes over, the lights go down, the ash starts falling, and then you see her step forward into this memory.
I just love that, but a lot of the choreography of how that plays I owe to Guillermo. He choreographed that scene very, very meticulously.
So how did you choreograph the action on the page?
I try to be as descriptive as I can, but, for me, there’s something hard about writing action scenes. It’s taking place so fast on the screen, but it’s taking up so much of space on the page. “Well, he grabs him by his throat and flips him over his other shoulder right into this thing,” can be very boring to write and read. It’s always a challenge writing action. I tend to be more descriptive than less descriptive, though. I’m always trying to be more economical, but that’s always a gravitational pull I feel.
In directing this, Guillermo has thought them doing things I don’t think I could’ve imagined doing. He goes to town on those actions scenes, and I think they’re very, very well put together. Describing the monsters and the robots, I knew there was going to be professional designers on this, and I wanted them to have fun and a lot of freedom in designing. I tried not to be too descriptive there, but to give a feel about the monsters. I didn’t want to say, “It’s green! It has this many legs!” I just wanted to give a sense whether it was fast, slow, repititilian, and other generalities.
In terms of building a world, it’s interesting how you speed through the Kaiju coming to Earth. Was there ever a more traditional version where they didn’t show up until the end of act one?
No. My thinking was, if this is a movie with giant robots, it’s going to take us a while to build those robots, right? I always knew if we started with the first monster, we’d be eating up a lot of time explaining how they get to this robot thing before we even get to the pilots.
I really like the “drop in” in sci-fi movies, like Blade Runner, where you’re on the ground running. The story takes places in the world and this world is an endless story. It was, “Who do I want to follow? Where does their story start?” The world will just be the world outside the movie. I really like when people tell stories that way.
You’re also not telling an atypical hero’s journey story from Raleigh’s (Charlie Hunnam) perspective. At what point did you know this was a universal ensemble piece?
I think there are representations of different relationships and different takes in this world. It’s an ensemble, in that its character based and grounded in their problems. It’s not expositional in the sense of, “Well, we need the president.” [Laughs] Even though it’s an ensemble, we tried to keep it with the individual people and not have exposition drive the ensemble.
I imagine, especially with science fiction, that the need for exposition is tough.
I think it’s tough to deal with in notes and studios. Studio people tend to want more exposition than I want to give. As a viewer, you’re so used to the tropes. You know how zombies work, so you don’t need a long scene explaining how they work. That always takes me out of it, because you’re waiting for a point in the movie where you don’t know what they’re going to say. It’s far better when you’re interested and go, “Wait, what was that?” I like it when you fight to keep up and always want to ask more questions, and that drives people’s excitement rather than fulfilling the answers to their questions one after the other.
Obviously del Toro is someone who can pack a frame with plenty of background details, so having seen the movie a few times yourself, are there any easter eggs people should lookout for?
I can’t think of any specifically in the movie, as far as easter eggs go. I can say there is a pretty big clue in the graphic novel as to what a sequel might be about, but it’s not something you would necessarily notice. There is one page and one character that might let you know where the mythology is going.
Pacific Rim opens in theaters July 12th.