Steven S DeKnight interview

Steven S. DeKnight has been a steady presence in television since the late ’90s, working on shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Smallville, Spartacus, and most recently, Marvel’s Daredevil. And while he directed episodes of most of those shows over the years, Pacific Rim Uprising marks his feature directorial debut.

Earlier this month, I spoke with DeKnight in an air-conditioned trailer on the Universal Studios lot, where he talked about how the movie changed after Guillermo del Toro stepped out of the director’s chair, how his background in TV inspired him to craft a writers’ room approach to this script, the pop culture that influenced him (Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot, anyone?), working with the cinematographer of Star Wars: The Force Awakens to bring this jaeger-sized sequel to life, and a whole lot more.

Steven S. DeKnight PacRim chat

Steven S. DeKnight Interview

Guillermo del Toro has said he originally wrote a screenplay for this and worked on a few drafts before eventually stepping away to direct The Shape of Water. What sort of changes did you make to that script in order to put your own stamp on it?

We basically started from scratch. I put together a writers’ room, very much in TV fashion. Half TV writers, half feature writers. I had a storyline in mind that I pitched to Guillermo that he liked, so I wrote an eight page outline, and from that outline, the other writers helped me flesh everything out. I picked two of those writers to actually co-write the script. We were on such a time crunch, all of us had to take a piece and start working on it.

What was that process like for you and your team? You just literally broke the script in sections and then combined the whole thing?

Yeah, basically what happened was, it was me and two other writers: Emily Carmichael and Kira Snyder. And we broke the script pretty much in half. Emily took one half, Kira took the other half, and as they would finish scenes, they would send them to me and I would rework them to put everything together. So it was a very fast, very TV-esque kind of process.

When you write and direct something yourself, you’re able to write with a director’s eye – knowing what’s possible and practical to accomplish on set. But you worked with a few different writers on this. Were there any moments or scenes that any of your co-writers came up with that made the writer in you say, ‘That’s a great idea,’ but the director in you say, ‘How the heck are we going to accomplish that?’

All the time. Especially in the room when ideas were pitched, fantastic ideas, and I had to say, ‘Look, I love that idea, but that’s an extra $30 million that we are not going to be able to spend.’ Or ‘We are not going to be able to kill the main character 20 minutes into the movie.’

That was on the table?

Everything’s on the table. What I love about the process of a writers’ room is even as the director/co-writer, I throw out a lot of bad ideas. I throw out an idea, and everybody’s like, ‘Well, we don’t like it because this.’ And I’d be like, ‘Yeah, actually, you’re right.’ So poking holes in the story is part of the process, and everybody pokes everybody. It’s fantastic.

What was it about Kira and Emily that made you choose them for this project?

I had worked with Kira before. She was part of my writers’ room when I was developing a sci-fi military show for Starz called ‘Incursion.’ So I knew her really well from that, and I always loved her writing. She actually wrote a script for that and I remember saying that it was the first time I’d ever read a script by somebody else that I wanted to direct that wasn’t my own thing. And Emily I met through Legendary. I saw one of her short films that she did, which I thought was absolutely brilliant. It was quirky, it had great characters.

Which one was that?

It was the one about the two thieves. Really great. I don’t remember the name of it. [Update: It’s called Stryka, and you can watch it here.] But I was really impressed and I felt from a gut level that these two would be the right people. We wrote a whole draft with [Pacific Rim lead character] Raleigh Beckett as the lead of the movie, finished it. And literally the day after we finished it, Charlie [Hunnam, who played Beckett in the 2013 original] – who’s wonderful – announced that he was doing his passion project: a remake of Papillon that shot right in the middle of our schedule. We couldn’t move our shoot date because of the release date and another actor’s schedule. So we had to quickly retool. [Producers] Mary Parent and Guillermo came up with the idea of the son of Stacker Pentecost, so we brought in writer T.S. Nowlin who had written The Maze Runner movies – fantastic guy – who really helped change it from Raleigh Beckett to Jake Pentecost.

A late, breaking development like that seems like something that would throw people into chaos. How did you all keep your heads in such a time of crisis when the release date is already locked in?

You just plow forward. One thing TV has taught me is that you’ll get curveballs, and you’ve just got to say, ‘OK, all right. This is not good, but how do we make it work?’ It always happens. It’s also great as a director because whenever you step on set, you come on to set ready to shoot Gone with the Wind. And then something happens, and suddenly you lose four hours and you have to throw everything you had planned out the window, so you just have to be nimble at all levels of making a movie.

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