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FOG! Chats With PACIFIC RIM Writer and World Builder TRAVIS BEACHAM

There’s a good chance that writer Travis Beacham is going to have a better summer than you or I.  His giant monsters versus giant robots screenplay, Pacific Rim, has been brought to life by director Guillermo del Toro and is being released this July starring Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day and Ron Perlman.  If that wasn’t cool enough, his first graphic novel, a prequel to the film, Pacific Rim: Tales From Year Zero is in stores now with a cover from the inimitable Alex Ross.

Travis was extremely generous to take some time to discuss the film, his creative process and his approach to world building.

How did the prequel comic come about?

When we were creating the movie we wanted there to be a world that was bigger; that it went beyond the boundaries of what you saw. We wanted it to seem very big, that it had history and texture. So in creating the world of the movie we ended up creating a lot of ancillary details and a lot of history and a lot of backstory. Some of which we didn’t end up using in the movie and we knew we weren’t going to end up using in the movie.  But having thought about it in such detail, it gave us a confidence in which we tell the story. So when the time came to talk about doing a graphic novel, I felt rather than do a beat for beat adaptation of the movie, it would be fun to utilize a lot of this story matter that we already created and do something that’s additive to the experience of the movie and fleshes out the universe a bit more.

Were you a comic book fan before working on the book?

Absolutely. Ever since I was a kid, really.

I know that you sold Pacific Rim based on a 25 page pitch and I’ve read that it’s become a 1000 page film bible. What’s the experience been like both working with Guillermo del Toro and seeing your concept come to life?

Guillermo is fantastic. I was really glad to finally get to work with him. He almost did the first spec script that I sold, Killing on Carnival Row, a little while back in 2005. We got really close, like within a hair’s trigger and then Hellboy 2 ended up getting green lit first. When he got interested in Carnival Row and came on board it felt it felt kind of like kismet. Working with him is really fantastic; we’re fans of the same stuff and we have the same language of references and things like that. He comes to it with a really,really earnest enthusiasm for this sort of material and it’s always a pleasure to work with someone like that.

I think the Bible came together because both of us being such nerds in this arena, we’re obviously very detailed at heart. If you’re a fan of something, like Star Wars and you get curious about it and you want to learn more about it. We are first and foremost, fans of the idea of Pacific Rim. So it was fun to sort of create this encyclopedic lore surrounding it. I think it just sort of tapped into the fan section of our brain. Seeing it come together in that level of detail was an extremely rewarding experience and it’s a sandbox that I could play in for a long time.

Both Pacific Rim and your screenplay Killing on Carnival Row feature pretty elaborate worlds that you created. How does he approach this stuff? Does he “build the world” first and then find the story? Or do you construct the story and then build the world around it?

It’s sort of a little from Column A and a little from Column B.  I think the story comes and I think the characters come, first and foremost. But only for me in a very kind of non specific sense. So it’s like first, you know who it’s about and you know what their problem is and then before I get really into specifically outlining beat by beat what happens, I like to have a lot of prep work done about the world in which it’s taking place. I don’t ever think the world is ever the star of it. It’s definitely a necessity. Especially when you’re working in genre stuff. Because real world dramas already have the benefit of having a world. Everybody knows New York City exists. Everybody knows LA exists. You don’t have to explain how the traffic works or how the city was founded, that kind of thing, you take those details for granted.

So in working in the invented world, and putting your characters and story in that invented world, and in order to make that feel like a real experience, you have to have things that are taken for granted. You have to know them in order to take them for granted if that makes sense. People can sense just from the level of confidence that you have in telling a story; they have this subconscious ear for a syntax of a real world and you have to try really hard to duplicate it. And you can’t fake it, you have to do the legwork and really think about “well, how many people live here, and blah, blah, blah”. One thing that I really hate just in the process of writing is you get to someone who needs to drop a line as to how old something is or how big something is and you have to stop everything that you’re doing and figure out exactly what that is.

For me, it helps to have all that sort of information to begin with and to sort of be able to pick and choose from as I please and as I need it so when I get to a line about how old something is or big an object something is, I can be like I’ve already figured that out and not have to think about it.

One of the things that struck me about the Pacific Rim screenplay was the glossary in the beginning, because once that was there the language wasn’t so foreign. I thought it was really fascinating and really well done. It doesn’t feel made up. The language feels very organic.

It’s ridiculous how much time I spend naming stuff. I have notebooks and pages with lists of just nonsense. I’m sure if someone just picked it up and looked at it, they’d say this guy is just nuts. I spend so much time going over and finding exactly the right words and exactly the right connotation to call something.

Does Jaeger mean anything? 

Yeah, it’s German for “hunter”. I spent so long trying to name these machines and come up with some sort of unique name for them. I was looking at different translations for the word hunter when I came across the word Jaeger and as soon as I saw it, I was like that’s it. That’s the one. I like that it means hunter, I like that it sounds like Chuck Yeager’s name and I like that when you look at it, it vaguely looks like the word jaguar, because it reminds me of Jet Jaguar from the old Godzilla movies. As soon as I saw it, I underlined it and knew; they are Jaegers.

The graphic novel covers several important moments in the Pacific Rim universe including the first Kaiju attack and the invention of the Jaegers. Were these moments cut from the script or was this part of the backstory that you had?

This is all from the backstory that we had. You know the original attack in the movie it’s referenced and especially in the first draft of the script it’s referenced sort of in passing and the logic behind having the Jaegers is referenced but as far as the dramatic arc of what that was like, it’s not really a meal that the movie gets into. The movie is sort of a drop in.

 It takes place about a decade after the first Kaiju attack, a little more than that, about twelve years for the most part. And the graphic novel takes place sort of at the other end of that timeline and it shows how our world became the world in the movie. The movie has a very specific character focus and a very specific dilemma and you didn’t necessarily need all of that exposition in great detail.

Nevertheless having come up with it for the world I think we all saw that there was a lot of drama in the backstory that we had come up with. And drama that could in theory stand on it’s own two legs in the graphic novel and be a great tale within in it.

I’ve heard that one of the obstacles of Killing on Carnival Row is it’s cost prohibitive in part because of the detail of the world that you created within it. Is that something that you’d be interested in adapting into a graphic novel? Is the project still in development?

I would love to revisit it in any medium that it could possibly be viable in. It’s another world that I’m really truly in love with and I think it’s the script that learned how to write scripts doing. It’s a sentimental favorite of mine and I would totally revisit it in any way that I could. I hold out hope that it will be a movie someday. It has a lot of good will out there and I’m gratified that so many people appreciate it so much. I hope and in my heart I like to think that one day you’ll see it on the movie screen; it’s just a matter of when the stars align to make that happen.

So what is your favorite giant monster?

In the movie or in all?

In all, what was your inspiration or tentpole creature that you referenced when you were getting into writing the script, and which giant robots, too?

One of the first movies I have a memory of seeing is Godzilla. I think it was the 1985 one (laughing). So he’s always going to be a sentimental favorite, like the T Rex in the dinosaur world. He’s got an iconography behind him and I’ve sort of known him the longest. Design wise that would be a tougher question to answer. I’ve alway loved that sub genre of giant monsters, all of the Harryhausen movies, King Kong, all of the Godzilla movies, Gamera, and the cartoons and anime.

I remember watching Voltron when I was a kid. And I’ve always been a fan of that stuff. And this movie, really comes from that. I was just walking around at one point and thinking when are they going to make a modern movie in that sub genre? Some modern special effects summer movie and then at some point I realized I was the they in this equation. I’m a screenwriter. If I can’t come up with an idea and pitch it for something I love then there’s something wrong.

I know you have coming up Ballistic City and Pacific Rim 2. Is that the only thing on your slate and can you talk about them a little bit?

I can’t say much about Pacific Rim 2. Those are definitely my priorities on my slate right now. We’re definitely having conversations right now about what Pacific Rim 2 would look like and the fun thing is these aren’t conversations that we just started having creatively.

These aren’t just conversations that we just started having immediately when we realized Pacific Rim was going to be a big deal, but as a fan of stuff you wonder what happens when the credits stop rolling; you wonder what happens to the characters that you love, what happens to the world that you love. Even in the writing of the first one and the conversation associated with that there was always some level of curiosity as to what a second movie would look like, so these were just organic extensions of those conversations.

Ballistic City looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s being developed at AMC. It’s sort of a sci-fi/crime drama that takes place inside this generational ship going from Earth to an unknown destination. The focus is on characters who were born in this place. Have never seen Earth. Have never seen a planet and will probably never live long enough to get to the destination. It takes place in totally within the midpoint of this self contained setting in this journey and this Dickensian sort of crime story and I don’t mean Dickensian as in steampunk or anything. But I mean more in the sense of the characters and their dynamics. It’s a fun world to work in. It’s sort of the sci-fi show that I’ve been itching to see on TV for a long time.

What are you currently geeking out over?

I’m really dying to see the new Superman movie (Man of Steel).  I’ve been a firm believer in Superman. Everytime there’s a Superman versus Batman conversation I’m sticking up for “Big Blue”. I’m very anxious to see it; the trailer looks really, really great.

In comics, I’m always interested in anything Grant Morrison writes, anything Warren Ellis writes and I’m also super excited for Joss Whedon’s new tv show (Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) He’s always been sort of an idol of mine.

Pacific Rim: Tales From Year Zero is now available
Pacific Rim arrives in theaters July 12, 2013
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