How Pacific Rim Uprising's Steven S DeKnight raced the clock
I had the pleasure of interviewing Pacific Rim: Uprising co-writer and director Steven S DeKnight recently, and he gave me some really interesting insight into the process of writing a huge multimillion dollar blockbuster -- in just six months.
DeKnight was hired in February 2016 and knew in order to hit the planned release date he had to come up with a script from scratch before shooting began around September. Despite the time pressures on the creators, the finished film is a lot of fun. DeKnight and his writing team add some neat twists on the first film's mythology and give star John Boyega loads of room to show off his natural charm.
Yet it seems bizarre that such a high-stakes venture could hinge on such an eye-watering deadline. To beat the clock, DeKnight put his TV background to good use, drawing on time management skills honed while working on Buffy The Vampire Slater and Angel before creating Spartacus and the first series of Marvel and Netflix's Daredevil. "In TV you can't go over because you finish one episode and you immediately start shooting the next," he told me. "I never could have done this without the TV background."
Interestingly, DeKnight also deployed a TV-style writer's room for Uprising rather than the more traditional movie method of having writers turn in successive drafts. He and his room, a mix of TV and feature writers, broke the story in an initial two-week story conference, and then he split scripting duties between Kyra Snyder and Emily Carmichael. Snyder is hot off writing for The Handmaid's Tale, while Carmichael had various shorts and webseries to her name before Pacific Rim and another big-ticket blockbuster, Jurassic World 3.
Speaking of supporting up-and-coming writers, DeKnight also credits the role of Joss Whedon as a mentor in his early career. As well as providing an education in writing, Whedon gave his Buffy and Angel cohorts a grounding in the nuts and bolts of TV production. "He wanted us to become showrunners," explains DeKnight. "He wanted us to learn every aspect of putting a show together. So we were always in casting and editing, on the set, and he gave a lot of us our first chance to direct." That's a great example of the value of a good mentor.
Something I had to leave out of the published interview - appropriately enough, for time reasons - was our chat about the lottery of movie production. DeKnight had originally planned to make his directorial debut with a small, Hitchcockian thriller, "because I wanted my first movie to be very contained and very controllable." Set up at one of the studios, the film, entitled The Dead and the Dying, had reached the casting stage. "But to make a movie that small at a studio is practically impossible. The studio was fantastic but it was just taking forever. The wheels grind very slowly."
That's when he got the call for Uprising instead - a far cry from a contained, controllable thriller about three people in a house. But DeKnight hopes The Dead and the Dying will still go ahead.
I asked how much of working in the film business is working on stuff that never sees the light of day. "A huge amount!" he laughed.
"For every movie that you see made, especially a big movie, there are hundreds, probably thousands that just never made it through," he said. "The process is like roulette. A million things have to line up to get a movie of this size made and even when we were prepping [Uprising] things would pop where I would go to bed thinking well, that's it, plug's gonna be pulled! Even after you start shooting something can still happen where they pull the plug."
DeKnight also talked about how the production snared John Boyega for the lead and how he approached the film's enormous visual effects while the clock ticked. Read the full interview at CNET here.
For more writer and filmmaker interviews, take a look at the Journalism section. If you want insightful feedback and constructive suggestions on your screenplay, drop me a line about script notes or coverage.