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Steven S. DeKnight Interview: Pacific Rim Uprising

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SPOILERS for Pacific Rim Uprising

Pacific Rim Uprising director Steven S. DeKnight discusses making the followup to Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim and what's next in the franchise. DeKnight took the reins on Uprising when del Toro stepped away to work on his passion project, the now Oscar-winning The Shape of Water. The original Pacific Rim hit theaters in 2013 and though it wasn't a critical or a domestic box office hit, it inspired dedicated fans who were vocal about wanting a sequel.

Pacific Rim Uprising picks up some time after the events of Pacific Rim, with the characters living in a world free of Kaiju. John Boyega stars as Jake Pentecost, the son of Idris Elba's Pacific Rim character Stacker Pentecost, who is forced to reluctantly return to the Jaeger program and help the new recruits - including Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny), who built her own Jaeger from scrap. When a new danger emerges and threatens to put the Earth on the brink of destruction once again, the Jaeger pilots must team up to cancel the apocalypse - again.

Related: Screen Rant's Pacific Rim Uprising Review

We had a chance to talk to DeKnight about Pacific Rim Uprising ahead of the movie's home release. DeKnight discussed the process of developing the sequel to Pacific Rim, how his vision is different from (and similar to) del Toro's, as well as what's next for the filmmaker.

Screen Rant: What was the biggest challenge of coming into this franchise, for the second movie, and tackling the sequel to a film as beloved as Pacific Rim?

DeKnight: ...Time, really. A movie like this generally takes three years to make, but due to actors' schedules and release dates, we only had two years, instead of three. So losing that extra year was huge, particularly on the prep side. For a movie like this, it really helps to have everything dialed in exactly before you start shooting. Unfortunately with this, there just wasn’t that time that we all wanted because of the schedules. So, definitely time.

Add to that, I’m a huge Guillermo del Toro fan. I’ve followed his work since Cronos and one of the first things I realized when I sat down and talked to Guillermo is, look, there’s no way you can imitate Guillermo del Toro’s style. He is unique among all directors. I’m a huge [Steven] Spielberg fan, but Spielberg couldn’t do a Guillermo del Toro movie. It’s just that he has an artistic eye that is unique. You can look at one frame from a movie and know that it’s a Guillermo del Toro movie. His richness of color, his placement of subject to the camera - it’s astonishing. So, that was very daunting but really, the biggest challenge was time, or lack of time.

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SR: What would you say was the biggest lesson you learned while making this movie, then?

DeKnight: It held so many lessons. I don’t know if I would ever do another movie this big without more prep time. You always think, “We’ll just work harder and faster,” but that’s not the way it works. There’s only so much you can do. So a lot of it was prep and getting dialed in, but there were times were it was a little “seat of the pants,” which is more TV style, since time is always a huge issue with television. But I would definitely think twice before doing a movie this gigantic without a full prep.

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SR: I’ve noticed from previous interview with you and the cast members that there were a couple versions of the script: one with Charlie Hunnam, one without. What was the most important aspect of the movie you were adamant had to be kept throughout the script changes?

DeKnight: There were many things. Obviously, the standard building blocks of the Pacific Rim universe: The Drift, the idea of people from different cultures coming together and working toward a common good. I was very adamant about the Charlie Day, Burn Gorman relationship, which I thought was really a key element to this movie that carried over from the first movie. There was a horrible 48-hour beginning period when we were gearing up that looked like we were going to lose Charlie Day due to a scheduling problem, and so had to come up with ideas: “OK, so if we lose Charlie Day, what happens?” And it became everything from, Charlie’s ex-wife was the villain, to a zany idea were [Dr. Herman] Gottlieb has a twin brother, who was the evil twin. But thankfully we worked out Charlie’s schedule, because that’s something throughout all of the drafts that pretty much stayed consistent was the Newt/Gottlieb dynamic and storyline.

Related: Pacific Rim Uprising Almost Didn’t Include Newt

SR: I also wanted to ask about Charlie Hunnam’s character. I saw an interview where someone said that he was dead in an earlier version of the script, and in the movie it’s sort of more open-ended. So if he could return for a third movie do you have an idea of how it could be done?

DeKnight: Absolutely. A very clear idea. I love Charlie Hunnam. I sat down and talked to him early on in the process, before the script was finished and unfortunately - literally a Hollywood nightmare story - the day after I turned in the script it was announced he was doing Papillon that shot at the exact same time as we were shooting. I know that had been his passion project for years, so I’m glad he got to do it, but I was very disappointed that we lost him. We also had a fantastic script with him in it. Also, in that script, Herc Hansen [Max Martini] played a big role as well. He was actually Charlie Hunnam’s co-pilot in that version of the movie. So yeah, with Charlie Hunnam we have a very clear idea of how to bring him into the third movie. It’s interesting, we actually shot B footage were Mako [Rinko Kikuchi] talks about what happened, about how he died because he was exposed to this new form of radiation on the other side of the breach and she actually got sick and couldn’t pilot anymore, which explains why she’s not a pilot. But during the testing process that didn’t test very well, so we ended up pulling it out.

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SR: Going back to Charlie Day’s character for a moment: His whole storyline in this movie is wild. Can you talk about what the inspiration for that was?

DeKnight: Yeah, it’s interesting. I sat down with Charlie - again, we hadn’t finished the script yet - and I said, “Charlie, I’ve got this great idea. Just hear me out. It turns out that you kept drifting with the Kaiju brain and you become kind of like a drug addict. The Precursors got their hooks in you and are controlling you. You’re the real villain of the movie.” There’s a pause and he goes, “Yeah. Guillermo pitched that to me years ago.” I said, “What?!?” So apparently, Guillermo had the exact same idea, unbeknownst to me, and had pitched it to Charlie. So Charlie was completely on board immediately. He really loved the idea, where the drug took the character. There were some very challenging scenes. The one thing he was concerned about, he approached me - he didn’t want his turn to feel goofy. It was a real balancing act between keeping that charm and humor of Charlie Day alive in the new character and showing that he’s under the insidious control of the Precursors. Really, it was a little tricky. There was actually a scene that we cut out of the movie where Newt holograms into Gottlieb during the Tokyo attack and you see much more clearly that Newt is not in control of himself. But ultimately it hurt the flow and didn’t quite feel right, so we pulled it out.

SR: After you learned that Guillermo del Toro had a similar idea did you call him up and consult him on the movie at all?

DeKnight: [LAUGHS] I think Guillermo was prepping Shape of Water at that point. Guillermo and I had a bunch of talks early on, and then - anyone who’s spent five minute with Guillermo knows what a warm, wonderful, funny human being he is - he told me, “Look, I’m going off to shoot my passion project and I’m going to be busy with that, but if you ever need anything, please call. But otherwise, I’m going to stay out of your hair.” One of the great things he said to me early on was, “I want you to go make your Pacific Rim movie. Don’t try to make Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim. Go make your movie.” Which was a huge vote of confidence and a huge, huge help.

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SR: Speaking of Newt [Geiszler], he's key to whole arc of the Pacific Rim trilogy, so was it always the plan to use his character in the sequel to setup the third movie?

DeKnight: It was my plan, yes. Absolutely. There are like three other very different versions of this story that had been developed before I came on, and by that I mean there were three VERY different scripts that had a few of the same elements but really different story takes. None of those had the capturing Newt at the end and setting up going into the breach. But for me, it seemed like the natural evolution for this series was let’s not have humanity waiting around to get punched in the face again. Let’s have them go to the other side and try to end the war once and for all.

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SR: In terms of Mako’s [Mori] storyline, which you’ve mentioned in this interview, but I’ve also seen you tweet about it last month, where you said, “Her role in the movie was originally different.” Can you elaborate on that?

DeKnight: Yeah. You know, again, with a movie like this there are obviously a lot of voices and needs to be met. And a lot of testing. The basic story for Mako was the same, even when Raleigh [Charlie Hunnam] was the main hero, Mako still went down in the helicopter in Sydney. The thing that really changed, and I have to admit I don’t think for the better, was the connective support around that event slowly got chipped away for various reasons - mostly budget and time. Where the events itself, because the movie now moves so fast, is a bit of a blip and doesn’t land as fully as I would have liked. There were other scenes, some of them we never shot, some of them we shot and cut. There was a massive funeral scene, that’s now only mentioned in dialog, where they were carrying her coffin down through a row of Jaeger honor guards to take her to the cemetery. There’s some beautiful storyboards on that.

In addition to that, after her death, there were several more emotional scenes. There was a great scene between Jake [John Boyega] and Amara [Cailee Spaeny], it was actually on the catwalk, where Jake expresses that Mako put the wrong faith in him. That he didn’t belong here. So the whole point of her death wasn’t getting Jake to step up and be a hero. In the original version, her death was to make Jake realize that he was not a hero and he was on his way to leave the program. But through testing and everything the audience wasn’t really gravitating towards that, so we re-jiggled some stuff and snipped it out. For me it was a great regret because I loved that character. I loved Rinko [Kikuchi] and I don’t think ultimately her death had the weight that it deserved, through various creative decisions, some my own, some outside my control.

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Related: Pacific Rim Uprising Director Has Regrets About Mako's Arc

SR: You’ve said before you have a pretty good idea what Pacific Rim 3 will be about. Can you tease anything about that, or how far long along in the development process are you?

DeKnight: I am ZERO in the development process. [LAUGHS] When we were working on Pacific Rim Uprising, I was taking a lot of notes on what we would do for the third movie, if we had a third movie, and if I was involved I’d pass along a lot of those ideas during that time to the good people at Legendary. But whether or not there’s a third movie is completely above my pay grade. I haven’t heard anything. My own schedule is getting a little complicated, so even if there is [a third movie], I’m not sure I’d have the bandwidth to be involved. But yeah, there was a very clear idea for what the third movie was. Without giving too much away, I can say getting the band back together was a very large part of it.

Related: Uprising Director: Pacific Rim 3 Gets ‘The Band Back Together’

SR: That sounds awesome. Looking back at Pacific Rim Uprising now that it’s coming out on home release, is there anything you’d change?

DeKnight: Oh, I’m my own worse critic. I always look at everything [I do] with a very, very critical eye of how it could have been better. I think it will probably be years before I can look at it objectively. So yeah, there’s a thousand things I would change, large and small. There are things in the movie that will always bother me that no one will ever notice. And then there are things, like giving Mako’s death more weight, that I think people do notice. But yeah, of course, I don’t think in my entire career I've ever written, directed, produced anything that I thought was perfect. I always think you can learn and you can do better the second time around.

SR: What’s next for you?

DeKnight: Actually, it’ll be announced in the next couple of weeks, so I can’t say yet, but it’s going to be a combination of television and features. I deeply, deeply miss long-form story telling in television and I think some of the most exciting storytelling aspects of the business are being done in television, particularly in the mid-format 10-13 episodes, where you can really hand-craft what you’re doing. I got my start in TV and I just love television. I’ve got a taste for movies, too. Don’t get me wrong.

On the movie side, before Pacific Rim came out, I was in the process of getting, what I thought was going to be, my feature debut. A small, three people in a house, Hitchcock-ian thriller that I plan to get back to in the next few years, which I hope to make my second movie. Making that movie, which I thought was going to be my first. So a lot of things in the works that I can’t talk about for about another two weeks. We’re just finalizing the deal.

Next: Breaking Down Pacific Rim 2's Ending & Sequel Tease

Pacific Rim Uprising is now available on Digital and the all-new digital movie app MOVIES ANYWHERE as well as on 4K Ultra HD, 3D Blu-rayTM, Blu-rayTM, DVD and On Demand from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.

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