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Exclusive Interview: Director Steven S. DeKnight continues the monster mash with “PACIFIC RIM UPRISING”

Tuesday, March 20, 2018 | Exclusive, Interviews

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

The hideous behemoths known as Kaiju are mounting another attack on Earth, and the human-made robotic warriors known as Jaegers may or may not be ready for them in PACIFIC RIM UPRISING, the sequel to Guillermo del Toro’s monster epic. RUE MORGUE got an exclusive sit-down with Steven S. DeKnight, who assumed the director’s chair on UPRISING.

A veteran of fantastic/action television like SPARTACUS, ANGEL and DAREDEVIL, DeKnight also scripted PACIFIC RIM UPRISING with Emily Carmichael (who was recently signed to script JURASSIC WORLD 3), Kira Snyder (TV’s THE HANDMAID’S TALE) and T.S. Nowlin (the MAZE RUNNER movies). With del Toro on board as a producer, UPRISING (opening this Thursday night from Universal Pictures and Legendary Pictures) takes place a decade after its predecessor and stars John Boyega of the STAR WARS films as Jake Pentecost, whose father Stacker gave his life to stop the previous Kaiju menace. He winds up helping instruct a new group of Jaeger pilots-in-training, preparing for any potential return of the interdimensional creatures—though the threat may come from within our own forces as well. Boasting knockout battles between the titanic opponents, UPRISING also stars Scott Eastwood, Jing Tian (KONG: SKULL ISLAND), newcomer Cailee Spaeny and RIM returnees Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day and Burn Gorman.

PACIFIC RIM UPRISING went through a number of writers, including del Toro himself, Jon Spaihts and Derek Connolly. How did you and your co-scripters come up with the final draft?

Well, first, I went back and watched the original quite a few times, and talked to Legendary about what they were looking for. Then I came up with the idea of part of the movie being about these cadets, the next generation of Jaeger pilots. And then we started putting the pieces together. I had some notions about the action scenes, the relationship between Burn Gorman and Charlie Day’s characters, and then I took a page from the TV playbook and put together a writers’ room for a couple of weeks, with some great people from features and TV. We had Nicole Perlman, who co-wrote GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, Kira and Emily were part of it, and there were a couple more. We sat for an intense two weeks, took my broad-strokes notions and tried to beat them out into a complete story.

You’ve collaborated with Sam Raimi, Joss Whedon and Guillermo del Toro—an amazing group of filmmakers. How would you compare their individual approaches to fantasy and horror?

Oh boy, I could spend all day talking about that! I think the easiest thing for me to talk about is what they have in common, which is a focus on story. Each one of them feels that that’s what’s important. Everything else is window dressing—a lot of times it’s beautiful window dressing, especially with a movie like this where you have giant Jaegers fighting giant Kaiju. But at the end of the day, if you don’t have the story, if you don’t have the characters, it becomes a bit empty. That’s what I loved about working with all of them—Guillermo especially.

Guillermo, more than anyone I’ve ever met, has an incredible sense of storytelling through visual style, since he comes from an art background. You look at any book that has reproductions of his famous notebooks—I mean, he is such a master of visual storytelling. Trying to capture even the slightest sliver of that is a dream—usually an impossible dream. I think for anyone—and that’s one of the reasons we made UPRISING a little different visually—trying to copy his style is a losing battle. There’s only one Guillermo del Toro.

To that point, the original had a very dark, rainy veneer, and UPRISING has a more bright, sunlit look. What led to the decision to change the visual scheme?

We wanted to give the fans something familiar, but different—still with the Kaiju battling Jaegers, but not dark, not rainy. The whole movie isn’t set during the day, there’s particularly one big action setpiece that’s at night, but we wanted to visually mix it up a bit. Which is a bit of a nail-biter, because it’s infinitely more difficult for the visual effects team to pull off that kind of scale during the day, in the bright sunlight. But we wanted to roll those dice and give it a slightly different flavor.

Did it help that the effects R&D had already been done on the Jaegers and the Kaiju for the first PACIFIC RIM?

Yes and no. We had reference points, but we had a different visual effects company, so there was still a lot of R&D and tests—a lot of movement tests. We didn’t want to lose the weight of the Jaegers and the Kaiju, even though these are more advanced Jaegers this time around, since it’s been 10 years and they’ve upgraded everything, rebuilt them from scratch. So there were many, many days sitting in a review room watching Jaegers walk, Jaegers run, Jaegers punch, and the same thing with the Kaiju, to really fine-tune them.

What was the inspiration behind the creature designs this time?

In this film, they’ve evolved—or more accurately, since they’re bio-weapons made by aliens from an alternate universe, they’ve also been upgraded; they’ve been redesigned. The beings on the other side of the Breach learned a lesson from the last time they attacked, so they’ve upgraded their “weapons” as well.

After your many years in TV, where budgets for genre projects can be limited, was it fun jumping into the much bigger playground of this feature?

It was. But it’s kind of like they always say that the amount of work you have to do will fill up the amount of time you have—it’s the same thing with budget. The amount of money you have will fill up what you need to do with it very quickly. UPRISING is much, much bigger and much more involved than anything I’ve done before; I could shoot a couple of seasons of TV for what it cost. I quickly came to understand why movies like this cost so much: the amount of time it takes, the size of the stages, shooting internationally and the sheer volume of visual effects. That’s not just the creatures and the Jaegers; there are so many other effects—holograms, set extensions and things you don’t even see. There’s a lot of magic and a lot of blood and sweat that go into a movie of this scale.

When you get involved with a franchise film like UPRISING, how much of a concern is world-building for the potential next movie?

You always have to be cognizant of that. With UPRISING, first and foremost, we wanted to concentrate on making this movie the best we could. It’s an interesting thing where it’s not like THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, which left on a cliffhanger. On this one, whether or not there’s a third one will depend on the audience reaction and the box office. So I wanted to make sure that UPRISING had a definitive ending, so in case there wasn’t another movie, the audience wouldn’t be left with “Well, wait a minute, what happens next?”, but still have it end so it’s very much open for the next installment. And we’ve talked a little about that—what the next movie would be. I would love to come back for the third one.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM, IndieWire.com, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.