From the audience-pleasing Hellboy to the critically acclaimed Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro's movies are chock-full of mystical, often terrifying creatures. Now the Mexico-born director has made a big-budget entry in the genre that helped define his fascination with the monstrous: the Japanese kaiju films of the '60s.
Pacific Rim, out this weekend, is a rock-'em sock-'em robots-vs.-monsters epic in which human-piloted "Jaegers" defend the coasts against an apocalyptic invasion of kaiju, or strange beasts, from the sea. Del Toro talked to NPR's Audie Cornish about Japanese cinema and our complicated relationship with science and technology, the difference between straight-up monsters and good-guy kaiju, and the "one-brick cinemas" where he learned to appreciate the finer aspects of the B-movie experience.
On the sense of wonder kaiju movies inspired in his 7-year-old self
"The way they transported me, the way they made me feel in awe of these gigantic creatures strolling across the ocean, coming into the city — it's unlike any Western movie genre ever."
On "one-brick cinemas" in the Mexico of his childhood
"[Kaiju films] mostly didn't play in the A circuit, so I was going to B-circuit cinemas. ... In Mexico we call them a one-brick cinema, 'cause they used to give you a brick for the rats. ... That was the nickname the theaters had."
On why kaiju and chaos speak in a primal way to kids
"I think kaiju are sort of the revenge of kids — because we are born in a world we don't fit in, a world that is too big for us. And I think kaiju are then sort of the ultimate avengers of size. They make adults feel inadequate all over the world. There is always that fantasy — there's primal fantasy, certainly for a male child ... where you give them a robot and a dinosaur, and the instinct is just to have them fight. It's truly a primal thing."
On the value of unreality in a monster movie or a disaster epic
"There was an implicit code in watching these movies, even as a kid, where I knew they were miniature. They were miniature cities, miniature planes, miniature tanks. So there was no real-life impact to me. They became spectacles, almost ballets of elemental creatures — elementals of nature, going through this sort of destructive opera."
On why the Jaeger teams in Pacific Rim are an international force
"The aliens always have a map to a single city in the world — New York. Every alien invasion gets one map on the way here."
On the child heroes and parentless waifs in his films
"I happen to believe that family is the source of all the joy and all the horror in our lives — both. That's my starting point in every tale. I don't do it intentionally, but ... every deficiency we have in our social or personal behavior comes from a moment that is rooted in our childhood. And I love to explore the idea of either conquering that fear or dealing with it very pointedly.
"Mako, in Pacific Rim, brings that cycle to an end ... in that she's finally facing the very monsters that took everything from her. And I tried to make that moment almost like a fairy tale moment. In that scene she is almost like a little princess being rescued by a knight in shining armor, from a dragon. and there is a breath of almost poetic beauty to the scene."
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. Director Guillermo del Toro grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico. And if there's one thing he loved, it was Japanese monster movies.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAPANESE MOVIE)
CORNISH: The kaiju, the Japanese word for monsters, became an inspiration for the young Guillermo del Toro. And as an adult, he's made monsters his specialty. Del Toro's movies ranging from the "Hellboy" series to the critically acclaimed "Pan's Labyrinth" are filled with mystical, often very scary creatures. And now, he's finally made his very own big-budget kaiju film, a rock-'em-sock-'em epic in which human-powered robots fend off an apocalyptic invasion by kaiju from the sea.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PACIFIC RIM")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (as character) Come on. Let's do this together.
CORNISH: It's called "Pacific Rim." Guillermo del Toro joins me now from Los Angeles. Welcome to the program.
GUILLERMO DEL TORO: Very happy to be here.
CORNISH: So in your film "Pacific Rim," you've got your own kaiju, right, this - these kind of Godzilla-like monsters, and then these robot warriors, which are human-powered.
CORNISH: And they do battle in the sea. But take me back to your own childhood when you first embraced these films. I mean, can you describe the experience of going to a kaiju film that you loved?
TORO: Yes. I was born in '64, so I was actually able to attend opening weekend of many kaiju movies. I would almost always invariably go alone, and I would check the newspaper, find the theater, travel by bus and arrive at the theater. Some of them pretty disreputable. You know...
TORO: ...they were what, in Mexico, we call them a one-brick cinema because they used to give you a brick for the rats.
CORNISH: Wait, wait, a brick to hit the rats?
TORO: The rats...
TORO: ...that were running in the cinema.
CORNISH: This is a B-movie experience I haven't heard of.
TORO: It was - that was the nickname the theaters have. And I went to see these movies, and the way they transported me, the way they made me feel in awe of these gigantic creatures strolling across the ocean, coming into the city, it's unlike any Western movie genre ever. And moreover, there was an implicit code in watching these movies, even as a kid, where I knew they were miniatures. They were miniature cities, miniature planes, miniature tanks. So there was no real-life impact to me. They became spectacles, almost ballets of elemental creatures.
CORNISH: I was going to ask about that because those older films, I mean, it's almost kind of laughable looking at some of the special effects, right? It looks like a guy in a suit stomping on models.
TORO: Yes. Which is what it was.
CORNISH: Your movie does not look like that. I mean, your movie is big. It's scary, it's dark, and the streets look real.
TORO: Yes. We knew that we wanted to do a completely technically super-sophisticated approach at rendering this same spectacle, trying to evoke sort of the awe I felt at age 8 or 10 going to these movies. I think the kaiju are sort of the revenge of kids because we are born in a world that is too big for us. And I think kaijus are then sort of the ultimate avenger of size. You know, they make adults feel inadequate all over the world. And there is always that fantasy. There's a primal fantasy, certainly for a male kid, where you give them a robot and a dinosaur and the instinct is just to have them fight.
TORO: It's a truly primal thing. And, you know, when I think of summer movies and I think of how many, many times I go to a summer movie and I end up watching a movie with WASPy heroes always saying that firepower is the solution, I wanted to try to present family audiences with a deceitfully simple story that allows to twist all those conventions of the late 20th-century America where we seem to equate action with militaristic action.
CORNISH: It does seem like every other movie in the theaters these days is leveling an American city. I mean, whether that's "Superman" or "Iron Man" or "White House Down," it's a lot of kind of soulless destruction. I mean, is it really possible to do something different? I mean, it seems on its surface, quite frankly, very similar.
TORO: Yeah, it is and it isn't. You have to think that every time you are executing a musical piece, if you're doing a tango, the tempo of the tango has to be the same. So when you're executing a movie in this genre, you have to use certain staple characters, but you use them differently. And I'll give you examples. You know, when you are making a movie about a winning army with one country saving the world, you come in with a certain type of aesthetic that is sort of glossy, sexy, almost car-commercial aesthetics.
Every machine is fascistically gleaming and perfect, and I think there's a lot of hubris in that aesthetic, you know? When I approached "Pacific Rim," first decision aesthetically is to make it a movie that is very charged with saturated colors, set a lot of times at night in stormy seas and very sort of operatic oceans with exploding waves, corroded textures. The machines are all dented, used, painting is peeling.
CORNISH: And the heroes come from different countries, and there seems to be a kind of diversity there.
TORO: And that is far different than making a movie that has one single ideology and where the aliens always have a map to a single city in the world, New York.
TORO: It's like every alien invasion gets one map on the way here.
CORNISH: That's true. Every once in a while, they wander over to L.A., but I definitely get your point.
CORNISH: Now, there is this scene in the film in which the main character, Mako, this Japanese woman, she's having a flashback to a memory of being a scared young girl hiding from the kaiju in the streets of her city. And it seems like children, especially parentless ones, appear in your movies over and over again, you know, whether it's "Devil's Backbone," "Pan's Labyrinth," in a way, even "Cronos," one of your early films.
CORNISH: I mean, talk about why. What do we respond - what are we responding to when you have a child as your hero like this?
TORO: Well, I happen to believe that family is the source of all the joy and all the horror in our lives, you know, both. And my catalog or my imagination was formed when I was a kid, and that's my sort of starting point in every tale. I don't do it intentionally, but it's the moment of my greatest fears. And I think that that's true of almost every adult I know. Every deficiency we have in our social or personal behavior comes from a moment that is rooted in our childhood. And I love to explore the idea of either conquering that fear or dealing with it, you know, very pointedly. Mako, in "Pacific Rim," brings that cycle to an end in the movie.
CORNISH: In terms of overcoming her fears.
TORO: Overcoming her fear, you know, that she's finally facing the very monsters that took everything from her. And I tried to make that moment, if you see the film, again, is I try to make it almost like a fairy tale moment. And in that scene, she is basically like a little princess being rescued by a knight in shining armor from a dragon. And there is a breath of almost poetic beauty to the scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: Well, Guillermo del Toro, thank you so much for speaking with us.
TORO: Always a pleasure. Thank you.
CORNISH: Writer and director Guillermo del Toro. His latest film is "Pacific Rim."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.