Excerpted from Variety senior features editor David S. Cohen's "Pacific Rim: Man, Machines & Monsters -- The Inner Workings of an Epic Film," which hit bookstores June 18.
"Pacific Rim" put Guillermo del Toro back in the director's chair after five years. He was loose, free and in total control throughout a grueling but successful shoot. So why did showing footage from the movie for the first time leave him terrified?
Comic-Con 2012, and the fans have overrun the San Diego Convention Center. A walk of even a few yards is an adventure, both for the difficulty of pushing through the crowd and for the Whovians and Trekkers, Sith and steampunks to be met along the way. Amid this geek tsunami, Legendary Pictures' booth is an eddy. Fans curious about Legendary's upcoming films besiege every entrance. A display showcasing a less familiar Legendary movie, something without a decades-long pedigree or proven fan base, can be seen through a gap in the throng.
EXCLUSIVE: New 'Pacific Rim' Stills and Concept Art
Behind the glass are two rugged, slightly surreal pilot suits from "Pacific Rim," the giant-robots-vs.-giant-monsters adventure from "Hellboy" director Guillermo del Toro. No one has seen "Pacific Rim," which is a full year away from release; the first teaser is about to be revealed nearby. The pilot suits are presented with scant explanation and there is no video of "Pacific Rim" on the booth's video screens. Fans must make up their own minds.
And so they do. Up strides the Batman -- or at least, a man in a flawless replica of the Tim Burton/Michael Keaton 1989 batsuit. He looks the suits up and down, one steampunk in olive drab, another black and glossier than his own, and renders judgment: "That's good armor." Then he is gone.
At an adjacent hotel, at about the same time the fans are approving his movie's pilot suits, Guillermo del Toro is struck by a sudden attack of nerves. Such anxiety is new for del Toro; Comic-Con is family for him. His films alone make him royalty here: horror films "Cronos" and "The Devil's Backbone"; the more mainstream "Hellboy" movies; and his 2006 masterpiece "Pan's Labyrinth." Moreover, he loves comicbooks, science fiction, and fantasy as much as anyone in a superhero suit, and the fans love him for it.
But this day, while he is dressing, "It hit me like a ton of bricks," he recounts. "I grabbed my wife and I said 'I'm absolutely petrified.' "
"You have a beautiful movie, don't worry," she said. That set him at ease -- but only for a moment.
"Rarely has a movie been more important for me personally," del Toro explains. "Not since 'Cronos,' or maybe 'Pan's Labyrinth,' has a movie been that important." "Pacific Rim" is del Toro's child, and she's about to make her debut in front of 6,500 fans in Hall H, Comic-Con's harshest crucible.
Warner Bros. and Legendary's presentation includes teasers for "Man of Steel" and a mood piece for a film about Godzilla. As "Pacific Rim's" turn approaches, "Everybody around me was very happy, confident," del Toro says. "I was shitting my pants." He worries "Pacific Rim" could be judged harshly by the Comic-Con crowd because of the movies he hasn't made in the four years since he made an appearance here, the most recent being an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness," which was canceled at the last moment.
The lights dim and the "Pacific Rim" teaser unspools. Del Toro watches the crowd as they get their first glimpse of the world of "Pacific Rim." "To fight monsters â¦ We created monsters," the titles proclaim. There are glimpses of mortal combat between robots and monsters, striking pilots in those high-tech suits, and their leader making the stirring declaration, "We are canceling the apocalypse!"
As the trailer ends, the crowd roars.
"That was huge," says del Toro "It was completely a life-affirming experience. I was very moved by the chitter-chatter, the hush, the whispers. I felt the room was really, really excited," he says. "That's what affected me in a beautiful way."
After the ovation, del Toro forgets "everything" -- forgets his agenda, forgets to show the trailer a second time. "It's very rarely that I get overwhelmed at a public event," he says. "I was overwhelmed completely."
That night he screens the footage again, more calmly this time, for a few lucky fans at a nearby hotel, taking questions from them after and hanging out with them as they munch on popcorn and hot dogs. This is the Guillermo del Toro they love: exuberant, generous, and warm. But they don't realize that not so long before, del Toro had been in a suspended state. He needed a tonic, something to restore the pleasure of filmmaking and the wonder he'd felt as a boy watching movies in Guadalajara. He had needed a movie where he could feel creative freedom and a sense of support from partners who wanted to make the movie as badly as he did.
He found all that, and more, in "Pacific Rim."
The director of a movie has been likened to the general of a small army. The comparison seems especially apt when the movie has huge sets, hundreds of extras, and several production tracks running simultaneously. But like a good general, an effective director is a leader, not just a commander. A director who handles people well can inspire cast and crew to perform miracles. A poor leader will find few willing to go beyond the call for the sake of the show.
Like the desperate band of misfits fighting from the Shatterdome to save the world, the "Pacific Rim" company found themselves stretching their resources, wrestling with complex technology, and pushing themselves beyond their limits. Guillermo del Toro led them through every challenge. Yet few realized that del Toro, having decided to change his approach to running the set, was in uncharted territory himself.