Steve S. DeKnight Interview

Oscar winning director Guillermo del Toro was at the helm of the original Pacific Rim but for this sequel, Steve S. DeKnight had his name on the back of the director’s chair.  I caught up with DeKnight when he was recently in Australia to talk about how to make a big blockbuster action movie…

Matt:  I’d love to delve into the art of making an action movie – what you know and what you’ve learned during this particular film.  I guess I’ll start out with the special effects and the visuals.  Given so much of what we see on screen is created with visual effects, how do you work as a director?  What’s the relationship you have with the visual effects guys?

Steve:  You have to work very closely with your visual effects supervisor.  I was extremely lucky to have Peter Chiang from Double Negative as my wingman.  I love him to death as a person and he’s brilliant at what he does.  You need to work in tandem with the visual effects supervisor making sure you’re getting the live action stuff you need.

One of the great tools that we usually don’t have time to use on TV is Previs.  It’s basically a stripped down computer animation version of what you’re seeing.  It’s a rough blueprint but it is moving images as opposed to storyboards.  For any of these big action scenes, we plan everything and then we Previs it.  It’s not like the old day where we have a tennis ball and we tell the actors “imagine a giant monster here.”  I always had my iPad with me and Peter Chiang by my side so I could show the actors what’s happening.  It’s a huge advantage and it makes the shoot go much faster.

Matt:  Do the action scenes have to be very well choreographed then?  I guess you don’t have a lot of flexibility to mix things up because of how expensive the scenes are.

Steve:  You have to make sure you know what you’re doing.  In this movie, we had to know what was going on outside the Jaegers because that informed the action inside the Jaegers where the actors were.  For instance, if a sequence called for them to throw a punch, we needed to know if they were throwing right hook or a left jab because once we shoot that, we can’t go back and reshoot that without a lot of expense.  You have to really nail down your choreography before you start shooting.

Matt:  Where do you draw the line between what can be achieved by building a huge set and what can be done in front of a green screen with the background inserted in later?

Steve:  These days, there is no line.  We obviously never built a 270 foot robot that could move.  That was a little beyond our technology and our budget.  That said, there are things in the movie that you could swear that are real but actually are not.  There’s a scene were John Boyega jumps out of his Jaeger and onto its arm, onto the street and then takes off running.  I was reviewing it to make sure the visual effects in the scene were correct and then I realised that none of that was real.  We didn’t build one single real element of that scene.  It fooled even me for a moment.

Matt:  I was looking at some of the scenes were the Jaegers are fighting and the sound effects are so loud, so distinctive.  I have no idea how the sound engineers come up with that stuff.  How do those guys apply their craft?

Steve:  We had an amazing team at E Squared who had worked on films like Transformers and Godzilla.  They’re magicians.  I’d be sitting with them and saying “that sounds great” and they’d be saying “that’s my cabinet door from home”.  For me, the sound and music are equally important as the visual effects.  All three of those go hand in hand.

Matt:  How do you find all these great craftsmen to work behind the scenes?  Some of the guys you’re working with here have some great credits to their name.  Do they lobby you or do you have to go seeking them out?

Steve:  It’s a little bit of both honestly.  For instance, when we were looking for a director of photography, Legendary sent me a long list of people.  I looked for those people who were the director of photography on movies that I’ve loved.  One name that jumped off the page at me was Dan Mindel.  I had loved his work with J.J. Abrams like on Mission: Impossible 3, the Star Trek movies and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  I never thought I’d be able to get him but we met up and he signed on.  This entire movie has been like that.  I had the same reaction to John Boyega as I never thought we’d get him either.

Matt:  One element I always find amusing in big disaster action films is that you have shots of extras screaming and running away from things.  How easy are those scenes to shoot?  To get everyone on the same page, doing what you want them to do?

Steve:  Whenever you’re wrangling together big crowds of extras, that’s under the purview of the first assistant director.  There are rules about what a director can and can’t tell someone who doesn’t have speaking lines.  It’s very convoluted.  So basically, the director has to tell the first assistant director what to tell the crowd.  I had a guy, Nick Satriano, who was brilliant at dealing with those crowds.  He was always upbeat and positive and got them to give it their all.

Matt:  I’m not quite sure what the budget is on a film like this but I’m guessing it’s pretty hefty.  Wikipedia tells me $150 million but I’m not sure how accurate it is.  The question I was going to ask is as a director – how conscious are you of costs?  Is there an accountant looking over your shoulder saying “um yeah, not quite sure we can afford that?”

Steve:  Yeah, of course.  When you get to a budget this big, a little bit extra here or there won’t break the bank but coming from TV, I’ve always had to be very budget conscious.  There were things I had to cut.  Without running anything as it’s in the trailer, there’s a big attack in the Shatterdome where some drones have gone half Kaiju.  Part of that scene was to have John Boyega and Scott Eastwood’s characters get inside Gypsy Avenger and have a fight with one of the Kaiju drones.  It would reach a point where they hit the drone so hard that it knocks its alien brain out, it lands on the ground, sprouts legs, and tries to eat the cadets.  I loved it but it added $10 million to the movie so we had to cut it.  There’s always give and take but you usually end up with something on screen that’s a great compromise.

Matt:  Now I believe that most of the shoot took place at Fox Studios in Sydney but there were some exteriors shot around Brisbane.  I was trying to see if I recognised any places in Brisbane but was struggling.  Is there any particular scene I should keep an eye out for?

Steve:  You have some hope.  There’s a bunch of stuff shot in Brisbane to double as Tokyo.  Also, a good chunk of the opening in the Jaeger scrapyard was shot in a decommissioned factory up there.

Matt:  Now the door has certainly been left open another instalment in this franchise?  Do you know what the plans are?

Steve:  Yes, in broad terms.  As I was developing Uprising, I was jotting down a bunch of notes about what I’ll do in the next movie.  I didn’t want to paint ourselves into a corner and not have anywhere to go.  There is a plan for the next movie which will need some fleshing out but I’m hoping that the audience shows up for this one and it warrants the third part of the trilogy.  I’m also hoping my schedule allows me to be a part of it.

Matt:  And can you tell us what you’re working on at the moment?  What are we going to see from your next?

Steve:  I have a tonne of projects swirling but none I can officially talk about.  I have plans to shoot a small, three-person thriller as a bit of a pallet cleanser and also some other really gigantic projects in both film and television.