Travis Beacham on Pacific Rim
Conjuring mechanoids and monsters
by Scott Essman
Screenwriter Travis Beacham burst onto the scene fresh out of film school with a spec script sale and never looked back. After penning Clash of the Titans, he moved forward with a new spec, this time about giant monsters in the vein of the ’50s-’60s Godzilla films from Toho Studios. With several other assignments already completed, Beacham’s name is foremost among nascent genre writers. In this exclusive interview, he discusses every phase of the Pacific Rim writing process and his methodologies in creating this original work. The Guillermo del Toro-directed film pits giant seabound beasts, the Kaijus, against the human-constructed mechanical combatants, the Jaegers, designed to neutralize the creatures.
[Editor’s Note: For how Beacham broke into Hollywood and his early career, click here.]
SCOTT ESSMAN: What was the very first impetus for Pacific Rim, which is an homage to classic monster films, but made with the most updated visual effects techniques?
TRAVIS BEACHAM: In the abstract, I always wanted to see a big-budget modern summer take on the whole giant mech-giant monster subgenre done with extensive ILM-style effects dead in the middle of summer.
ESSMAN: Was there a defining moment when the basic story came to you?
BEACHAM: As I was on the pier in Santa Monica, off behind the Ferris wheel in the fog, [I imagined] a huge monster rising from the gray surf. That was when I first started thinking this was something that I wanted to see, but also something I could write and have ideas about. I didn’t know what it was until I knew what the story was—the plot, and story, and characters and people; it took two pilots to drive a Jaeger. Suddenly, the relationships matter and it ties the action to the concerns of the characters. That was the conceit on which I built a pitch and an outline.
ESSMAN: Was your idea of having two pilots operate a Jaeger part of the initial story?
BEACHAM: That was shortly after I started thinking about it. There’s a moment in the movie when Newt [a scientist and Kaiju expert character] is talking about the secondary brain of the Kaiju—it’s a famous myth that dinosaurs had two brains. That’s it—the mech is so big that it needs two minds melded together. That was the beginning of that character story. The characters have become so important to me and the story; I just remember watching these movies in my youth, and you can scarcely remember the human characters. As I was writing [Pacific Rim], I was falling in love with them.
ESSMAN: Were there any conscious points of reference from the older films when you were writing Pacific Rim?
BEACHAM: Destroy All Monsters, all of the Godzilla movies, and the cartoons—Voltran and Big O on Adult Swim. I’ve seen so much of it and had been a fan… all of the conventions became really internalized. I’m dropping references without even knowing about it.
ESSMAN: Given that, was it hard to pitch this idea to an industry of the here and now?
BEACHAM: Really early on, the way that I was thinking about it, with the characters and the drift [mental connection between two Jaeger operators], I knew it would be a bit cerebral to pitch it to an agent or exec. I came up with a shorthand: it was like Top Gun but replace it with giant robots and giant monsters. That’s how I would communicate it to people who weren’t familiar with the trappings of the subgenre.
ESSMAN: When did this idea come to you, and how did you take it and develop it from the core story?
BEACHAM: Back in 2007, when I had something resembling this idea, I would make notes and try to outline things and create bios and backstories. Clash came out, and on opening night, I was having drinks at the bar with my manager and agent. They asked what’s next, and I said that I do have this thing about giant robots and giant monsters. Then the gears started going full speed. I sent Legendary [the feature film production company] an outline through my agents—17 or 18 pages—and it wasn’t strictly story, but it began with an intro to the world. From the beginning, it brought you into history already in progress. It had a story beat. Before the end of the day, they said that they wanted it. I’m not entirely sure I’m that good at pitching. When they bought it right away, I said let’s do it this way all the time!
ESSMAN: Was Guillermo del Toro involved at this early stage?
BEACHAM: Almost immediately after I sent [Legendary] the outline and they bought it, within a few days, he had gotten his hands on the outline. He went in with an interest to do that. Even before I started working on the script, I had a meeting at Guillermo’s house and was explaining the broad beats of the idea, not only because he’s a huge fan of monsters, but because he caught onto the human element.
ESSMAN: How did he feel about the concept of the drift connecting the two Jaeger pilots?
BEACHAM: “They should be in love to drive one of these things,” he said. The connection was always part of it. From the beginning, it required two pilots. He grabbed on to the essence of it in a way even more directly than I articulated it in the outline. He comes from a place of emotional earnestness, so he was able to connect with it.
ESSMAN: Was Guillermo attached as director once he got involved?
BEACHAM: It wasn’t certain whether or not he was going to direct it at that point. At the Mountains of Madness was still in play. He was going to be involved as a producer at least.
ESSMAN: Obviously he liked it enough to get involved in developing the script. What was that relationship like for the two of you in the early stages of the writing process?
BEACHAM: He’ll send you off on your own to bring whatever crazy ideas you want into it. Then he’ll take a pass—he has the script for a certain amount of time, and I had it a certain amount of time; two months each on the first draft. After that, it was going back and forth a lot faster. At that time, it was looking like Mountains was not going to happen, and he committed to Pacific Rim as his next project. After the first draft, but before he started doing contributions, we did character bios, and the history, and real estate, and any detail we could think of to make it more interesting.
ESSMAN: Guillermo is known to be a genre fan—did that enhance the co-writing process and how did your tag-teaming on the script work?
BEACHAM: It was a lot of fun. I have always been a fan of genre stuff, and fantasy and sci-fi. You get really wrapped up in the details of the world. A lot of what comes from the real world, the world already exists for you. If you are inventing a world, you have to invent way more than you are ever going to use in the story. In order for a fantasy world to be real, you have to have things in it that you might reference in passing. We dove in with a lot of enthusiasm. In some sense, we were doing that in the rest of the process, as the script was being revised and as we went into production—the mythology being added to the bible—up through the start of production and beyond. Even when he was doing revisions, I worked out stuff with the world. During filming, all of this was given to a company [who produced a printed document] in the form of a glossy bible—one big fat document that could be used for reference in perpetuity.
ESSMAN: That’s an item fans of the film and story would love to view.
BEACHAM: It would make a really nice coffee table book. There is so much story matter as far as the history goes—all the battles, and Jaegers and details of the world—of what’s going on in the culture. You have all of the backstory matter, but you have technical details—how the Jaegers work. It’s an incredibly detailed document.
ESSMAN: Once this early draft was completed, how did the revisions commence—were you working towards a release date as with many studio films?
BEACHAM: Shortly after I turned in the first draft in very late 2010 or very early 2011, the release date that was aimed at was the summer of 2013. That was not set in stone, but certainly it was what we were aiming for. Of all of the drafts, the first took the longest. Neither spent much more than a month on subsequent drafts.
ESSMAN: Can you discuss writing the very opening of the film that comes at the audience in the form of an all-encompassing montage of news reports about the Kaijus arriving on earth, and how humans dealt with them?
BEACHAM: It had been written out, but what you see is not what was written out. I was working on revisions of the script at Guillermo’s house with his props, and a room in the back with drafting tables and computers with his in-house design teams. I was working in the study across the hall. I could talk to the designers like Wayne Barlowe to see what they were doing. There was a lot of feedback between story and design. I found that very helpful. They are so good at visualizing; it helps to be able to talk to them about anatomy and mechanics as you’re writing, and have design be an integral part of storytelling.
At a certain point, when they are putting it together, the lines are written, but it’s finding the shots to work with what is being said. [It was] scripted knowing that it would be edited as needed later. For the opening montage in and of itself, none of the shots being exactly where they are [in the script] is critical. A lot of those were moved around as needed. In earlier cuts, the briefly glimpsed monsters were in different locales. In the next cut, it would be a totally different monster in that shot. The feel was always really important to the story. We both wanted it to have an Apollo-era feeling to it, to set up the history.
ESSMAN: What is the secret to writing a montage as effective as this one?
BEACHAM: A lot is in the execution and delivery. I remember specifically, when you are writing that monologue and opening monologues like it, the language that Raleigh [Charlie Hunnam’s character] is using is economical—fraught with information with images that have to be simple. If he’s talking to begin with, the information has to be as sparse as possible so that the images could be rapid fire. Raleigh is talking broadly about the culture. When you see the game show models on the boardwalk, you can show as much or as little as you want.
ESSMAN: After going back and forth with Guillermo on subsequent drafts of the script, since he will be directing, does your co-writing relationship change?
BEACHAM: At some point, as it gets really close to production, Guillermo takes the reins and I move on to work on other things. The closer we get, Guillermo is starting to take ownership of the process. At that point, my work is petering off or done, and I get to look at the pretty toys and presentations with the studio. The second real phase of my involvement begins into production and a little after production, coming in and talking about the world and the bible that needs to be looked at and revised as production was in progress. Ramping down and in post-production, I became the curator of the details of the world. Warner Bros would call and ask me about specific elements. It was a lot of fun to do. I’m so enthralled with the whole universe of Pacific Rim, I never get tired of it. I could do a sequel or two without ever getting sick of it. It’s a once in a lifetime idea that you never get sick of. Guillermo and Legendary have kept me in the loop, inviting me to set. I could have gone to set half-a-dozen times without wearing out my welcome, but I did get to go to set for a couple times. I saw the inside of the Jaeger’s head on a gimbal, motion-controlled on a platform—I got to see that in action. It was a humbling experience. It’s this thing in your head; then you’re suddenly walking in it. It was a specific, and rewarding and hard-to-explain feeling.
ESSMAN: Regarding specifics in your script, one of the elements of the film that is dripping with symbolism is the wall that some groups attempt to build instead of moving forward with a Jaeger program.
BEACHAM: The wall represents a bureaucrat’s solution to the problem and the plodding inelegance versus the aspirational inventive drive of the Jaeger problem. Taking action vs. withdrawing and crossing your fingers. It’s designed to look like a really stupid idea—a blatantly bad idea. What do Kaijus do? They knock down buildings. I don’t know that it represents anything in particular other than an attitude.
ESSMAN: Of course, one other unique concept is the idea of the drift where the two pilots have a melding of the minds and memories in operating the Jaegers.
BEACHAM: We wanted the subjective reality of the drifts themselves. What does their [the pilots’] remembering look like? What I really like about how he shot it—and I give a lot of credit to Guillermo—I love how it very seamlessly moves from the here and now to the memory. What we were shooting for was that level of fluidity. In the first draft, there were a few more drift sequences. This movie already has three vibes—the giant monsters, the giant robots and people connecting neurally. It was decided that the trippy stuff would be better served as people got used to the world of the robots and Kaiju. With Rinko [Kikuchi, playing Jaeger pilot Mako Mori] in particular drawing from something, and the scene, (a lot of it is Guillermo’s direction and his choreography), and her performance was incredible.
ESSMAN: Among the most powerful scenes in your script is when we see Mako as a small girl on a devastated street encountering a Kaiju face-to-face while it is destroying her home city in Japan.
BEACHAM: In the first draft, she wasn’t in the street. Guillermo really wanted to put her in very immediate jeopardy. This is the sequence where we got to see a big Kaiju sequence at ground level, [with Mako] dodging the stomping feet of this monster. The humanity of it and the stark fear of it, I always wanted that feeling to be part of the script in some way. Your girlfriend finds that she’s strangely moved when she sees it: this unexpectedly human-action story.
ESSMAN: In addition to the Mako story, Idris Elba’s [playing Stacker Pentecost] character’s story is very powerful—he is a clearly drawn as a complicated leader.
BEACHAM: He’s got a father-daughter relationship going on, and he’s terminally ill. I like that as a surprise in the movie—that he’s the one who has raised Rinko. It does add something going into it, knowing that background. It paints the arc of their background. It brings a poignancy to Pentecost’s character. He’s not this general sort of guy. When he has to pull everything to Hong Kong, he’s wearing a suit. None of us wanted to make a war movie. All of us wanted to make an adventure movie and an optimistic movie, people pulling all of their resources together to accomplish this common good. We wanted it to be really sincere in this case and driving everything from the ground up. Not of independence, but of working together and trust.
ESSMAN: In your drafts, was Penetecost described as a person of color? The casting is very specific and color-blind in this film in many of the key roles.
BEACHAM: Weirdly yes. I’m not the kind of screenwriter who labors to picture someone in particular. I do try to include whatever physical details I can to make them seem like a real person. In the first draft early on in 2007, I described Pentecost as a black British guy. I was so relieved when they cast Idris Elba. It was a detail that they could have ignored if they wanted to. I was really pleased with that. And I always wanted Mako to be Japanese.
ESSMAN: In keeping with that thought, a key aspect that elevates this script is the international nature of the primary characters—it gives the story an overall epic quality.
BEACHAM: It was important that the two leads were not both American. What was motivating me from the beginning, [is that the drift] not only became the way to drive the Jaeger, but that the world was coming together to find the solution. There’s nothing really more irresponsible than being casual with the themes and values that you put in the work that you are going to show to this many people. I don’t mean superficial things, but core values and principles that adults live their lives by. You put it out in the world and it always will be out in the world, long after you are dead and gone. It has got to be worth something. You have to want to say something about something. From the very beginning, it was really important about the world saving the world in a variety of backgrounds and voices.
Click here for how Beacham broke into Hollywood and his early career.