Steven S. DeKnight Transitions from TV To Films with “Pacific Rim: Uprising” (Interview)

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PacRimUprising4Universal / Legendary

After getting attention as the showrunner on the first season of Marvel’s Daredevil and for creating the Spartacus franchise for Starz,  decided it was time to make his featuer film debut.

DeKnight’s decision to make , a sequel to Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 movie Pacific Rim, might seem like a foolhardy choice, if his sequel didn’t deliver. Fortunately, it does. (Also, if del Toro stuck around to make the sequel, he might never have won an Oscar for The Shape of Water.)

Uprising takes place ten years after the del Toro movie with the earth slowly getting back to normal and a Chinese corporation designing Jaegers (the giant robots) that can be fully automated using drone technology, avoiding the need for pilots. John Boyega plays Jake Pentecost, son of Idris Elba’s character from the first movie, who is brought into the Jaeger pilot training program along with a 15-year-old hacker named Amara (Cailee Spaeny), as the world is always preparing for the return of the giant monsters known as Kaiju to return.

Charlie Day and Burn Gorman return from the first movie, joined by Scott Eastwood (Fate of the Furious) and Jing Tian (The Great Wall).

The Tracking Board spoke on the phone with DeKnight a few weeks back for the following interview.

You literally would have to have made an absolutely terrible movie for me not to like this, because I’m such a fan of both giant robots and monsters.

Steven DeKnight: Well I’m glad I didn’t make a really bad movie. That’s awesome.

But Guillermo is a tough act to follow, and the vision he had with Travis Beacham, and it’s a big jump to go from directing, writing and producing for television and doing this as your first feature. What was the impetus to climb aboard?

You are correct in everything you just said. For me I had always wanted to work in features. I actually started out trying to break in as a feature writer, and then I fell into TV, and TV was so spectacularly good to me I just stayed in television. Over the past couple of years I got the feature itch again, so I actually wrote a small three-person thriller — literally three people in a house, a very Hitchcocky psychological thriller. I’d met Mary Parent the producers years ago. She’s running Legendary now. Before she was running Legendary I sent her the script, and she read it and really liked it, and we set it up at Paramount. That was supposed to be my directorial feature debut, this very small thriller, and we were going through the process of getting things all up and running and trying to cast it, and it was taking a while. She called me up one day, and said, “Yeah, maybe this isn’t meant to be your directorial debut.” And I thought, “Oh sh*t, my producer’s pulling out.  That’s not a good sign.” And then she followed it up by saying, “What do you think about Pacific Rim 2?” And I phoned her I said, “Well this is a little bit bigger than three people in a house.”

StevenSDeKnightPacRim2Getty Images

But I’ve always been a huge fan of Guillermo’s ever since Cronos, I’ve seen all of his movies, have all of his DVDs, all the books on the makings of his movies, and I loved Pacific Rim. I saw it the weekend it came out. Obviously, like you said, it’s extremely daunting following in Guillermo’s footsteps, and one of the first decisions that I made, that if I was going to try this was to not try to imitate Guillermo. In my opinion, there is no one like Guillermo out there among any directors. I’m a huge Spielberg fan, but Spielberg’s not Guillermo. Guillermo has such an incredible artistic eye. Every frame of his movies are like paintings. They have such depth and resonance.

For me to try to ape Guillermo, I think it would have come off exactly as that, trying to copy a master, and I didn’t want a cheap copy of a Rembrandt. So we set off in our own direction, and part of that was of course I went back and watched the first movie over and over. [Guillermo] did such a mesmerizingly brilliant of shooting those action scenes at night in the rain or underwater. One of the things we decided early on was to shoot most of this movie in the day with clear weather. And much harder to do on the visual effects level, but we didn’t want to repeat the first movie, and we also wanted to offer the audience something visually different than the first movie.

How long ago did Mary first come to you with the idea of directing this and was there already a script being developed or did you have to start from scratch and get it up and running pretty fast? 

I was literally hired two years ago, so it was very quick. Legendary had developed three different scripts over the years. They were all very interesting, and I drew some inspiration a little bit here, a little bit there, but we put together a completely new take on the sequel. I come from the TV world so the first thing I said was, “Look, we’re in a time crunch. I need a writers’ room for two weeks, and I need to hire a couple of writers to help write the script quickly.” So that’s exactly what I did. I approached it in a TV fashion, put together a fantastic team for two weeks. Half the room were TV writers, half the room were feature writers, and I had a five-page outline of the story, and then we just spent two weeks beating out all the details, and then we had three weeks to actually write the script, so it was incredibly fast.

It seems like the Hollywood studios are now looking at that TV model with the writers’ room to create their franchise films, and that’s really becoming more common these days.

Yes, and I could not be happier. I think it’s a fantastic idea. For years, if you were a feature person, and you went into TV, you were slumming it, but now it’s quite different. Many, many feature writers have gone into TV, and what they’re doing in TV now with storytelling and character is just absolutely phenomenal. I’m delighted that the studios are taking note and trying to capture some of that magic. I think putting a writers’ room together to help break a story for a movie is absolutely invaluable.

It used to be that writing a feature would generally be one guy in a room working on the screenplay for years and years, but it’s different with franchises and studios wanting to have a movie a year or every two years.

It really is, and it was hugely, hugely helpful. I never could have done this on my own on the script side.

Were you able to work with some of the same designers or visual FX people from the first movie in order to get the creatures in the same ballpark?

A lot of the people from the first movie just plain weren’t available. For a lot of our design work for Kaiju and especially the Jaegers, we had the team at ILM design them during our concept phase, which was a huge help. We always did it with an eye towards we wanted both the Jaegers and the Kaiju to be within the world, but with both of them it’s 10 years later, and the humans have advanced their designs, and the Precursors on the other side of the Breach have also advanced genetically engineering their Kaiju weapons. We wanted them to have a nod to the first movie, but move them forward.

I remember speaking with Travis around the time that the first movie came out, maybe a little later, but originally, the plan was to have the Jaegers travel into the Breach for the sequel. Why was that taken off the table? Did you just think it would be too much, too crazy to go to that other dimension?

A little too much for this one, but as you see, the plan set up at the end of this movie is to go through the Breach into the Precursor world for the next movie. This movie is part sequel, part reboot — it’s a little of both — so we felt like we wanted it to stay grounded in our world for this one to get the heart pumping again, and then hopefully, one of the ideas is to go through the Breach in the next movie.

It seemed like you did a lot more location filming on this movie rather than building most of it. I remember that Guillermo built a huge section of Hong Kong for the first movie.

Yeah, and again it was not wanting to exactly repeat the visual language of the first movie, but also, it was a product of time and budget. We were in a real preproduction crunch because of release date and actors’ schedules. I had about half the time that you usually have to prep a movie like this, so I had to choose it very, very carefully what I was going to build, and what I would just shoot on location. For example, I would’ve loved to have had built part of MegaTokyo for the finale, but there just wasn’t enough time, so we went for an augmented location–locations augmented with CGI.

PacRimUprising1Universal / Legendary

I’m assuming John Boyega had already been in The Force Awakens, but I was surprised by how funny and charming he was in this movie.  There was a pretty big gap between Attack the Block and his first Star Wars, and I’m surprised he hadn’t been cast in everything. Also, how’d you find Cailee Spaeny? She’s also really good in this. Had she done anything before?

With John, I think and hope after this movie, he is in everything. We really wanted that young roguish Harrison Ford type of character for Jake, and John just fit the bill. Cailee was a complete wild card surprise. We were in the last 48 hours of screen testing John with possible Amaras, and we had some really great actor actresses with a lot of experience. Our casting director Sarah Finn sent us an email saying, “Hey, I’ve got this girl from some small town in Missouri [who]did a self-tape. I think you should look at it.” And we looked at it, and we really liked it, but she had no credits, had never done a movie, but we brought her in, and put her with John, and they had an instant chemistry. We decided to take a chance on her, and I’m so glad we did. She was an amazing find. You always dream of finding an actor or an actress that nobody’s seen, giving them a chance and a part to shine.

I loved the first movie, but one thing I liked about the sequel was that I thought the characters were much better-developed, and the story was great, so hopefully you can do more of these.

I would love to. I love the world. And for me, coming from TV,  character and relationships, that’s my bread and butter — that’s what I really love. For a movie like this that has so much literally gigantic spectacle I think it’s so important to have characters, and relationships, that the audience can be invested in, because otherwise I think they start to lose interest no matter how spectacular the action is.

Obviously, you’ve directed a couple of episodes of the TV shows you’ve worked on. It’s very different directing a movie in the sense that it’s really a director’s medium whereas directing TV obviously you’re directly your own self so you have both- You have a lot more control, a lot more control there, but were you able to bring something from the TV side of directing to the movies, or something else like the writing from before?

Absolutely. I never could have tackled this without the directing in TV experience, or the show running experience in TV. It just taught me so many vital skills, time management being one of the biggest ones. In TV when you’re shooting an episode you can’t go over schedule because there’s another episode being shot right after yours is done. So being mindful of the clock, and having to adjust when problems come up. And problems always come up. You’ll plan the most spectacular camera angles, and crane moves, and then you get there on the day, and something happens, and you lose four hours, and then you gotta figure out what you’re actually gonna shoot ’cause you don’t have time to shoot what you were gonna shoot. So TV was an invaluable training ground for me.

Are you developing another show for Starz called Incursion, or is that something in development?

Yeah. I developed Incursion for Starz a few years ago. That, and am I ever going to do sequel to Spartacus are the two biggest questions I always get on Twitter. Incursion,  as I tell everybody is definitely not dead. I don’t know when I will get to it, but we wrote an entire first season, and did a bunch of concept work on it, and I hope in the next few years to get that in front of the screen. Now, thankfully since I’ve done a big movie, I’ll be able to direct the pilot.

Pacific Rim: Uprising opens everywhere this Friday, March 23 with previews on Thursday.

  | East Coast Editor
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