pitches giant city-smashing monsters against enormous, heavily-armed robots. But to create the film, writer and director Steven S DeKnight faced an even more menacing enemy: time.
In theatres around the world now, Uprising continues the monster-battling fun of the original Pacific Rim in gloriously silly style, with John Boyega stepping into the lead role. Original director Guillermo Del Toro was off making his Oscar-winning opus, so the producers recruited Spartacus creator and former Daredevil showrunner DeKnight to write and direct. Having planned to make his directorial debut with a much more restrained low-budget thriller, DeKnight found himself in charge of a vastly bigger blockbuster production — and the clock was ticking.
With three prospective scripts rejected by production company Legendary before he was hired, DeKnight had to create a script from scratch in about six months. Armed with a rough outline of a new story, DeKnight turned to his experience working on TV shows such as Smallville, Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel to meet the deadline.
Unlike feature films, which are traditionally written by a single writer or writing team turning in successive drafts, US TV shows are usually written by a group dividing up the episodes and collaborating with each other in what’s called a writer’s room. For Uprising, DeKnight put together a writer’s room made up of a mix of TV and feature scribes, “and we argued and laughed and talked about story for two weeks.”
From that group, DeKnight assignedwriter Kyra Snyder and webseries creator Emily Carmichael to pen one half of the script each. “When they finished a scene, they would send it to me. I would rewrite it while I was also working on other scenes. It was like a frantic dogpile of scriptwriting!” laughs DeKnight.
Fortunately, DeKnight had faced his share of tight deadlines on the small screen. “I never could have done this without the TV background,” he says. “In TV you can’t go over because you finish one episode and you immediately start shooting the next. It really does teach you that vital time management.”
And he credits that experience to another writer-director who’s made the leap from the small screen to big screen blockbusters: DeKnight’s mentor on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel,. “Joss was a masterclass in character and story, and humour and emotion,” says DeKnight. “And also the great thing about Joss is with all of us Buffy writers, he wanted us to become showrunners. 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 — myself included.”
As the clock ticked, the writer of the Maze Runner movies, TS Nowlin, was brought in to help retool the script for incoming star John Boyega.
Boyega was suggested as a natural fit to play the son of the first film’s star Idris Elba, but DeKnight suspected the Star Wars actor would turn it down because he was already involved in another blockbuster sci-fi franchise. Luckily, Uprising’s executive producer Mary Parent had a plan. When Boyega and his producing partners came in for an unrelated meeting, the concept art for Uprising just happened to be pinned up on the wall. “It turns out he was a huge giant monster fan and anime fan just like I am,” says DeKnight, who compares Boyega to a young Harrison Ford.
Not only did Boyega channel Han Solo’s roguish charm, he did it with his own London accent. “It was never discussed not having him use his own accent,” says DeKnight. “Not just because he was the son of [Idris Elba’s character], but for another thing I love about this movie: that international feel. John has his English accent, we have Chinese actors speaking their native language, we have people from all over the world and at no point did I want anybody to change their accent.”
Fortunately, despite the deadline there was time for Uprising’s writers to have at least some fun. “From the start I had pitched in my story document the idea of five action sequences,” says DeKnight, “with the final huge action sequence in Tokyo divided into a mini movie — a beginning, a middle, and end. Then we just started talking about what would be really cool, what would we wanna see up on screen. That’s the fun stuff. That’s little kid in the playground.”
Those huge action sequences meant working closely with the effects team, headed by Peter Chang, visual effects supervisor at effects company Double Negative. “We were attached at the hip through the whole movie,” says DeKnight, comparing their working relationship to the film’s symbiotically-linked two-person Jaeger teams: “We had to be drifting ourselves to make this work!”
Planning the effects to match the acting and vice versa was a big part of the process. Fortunately, modern filmmakers can make use of pre-visualisation, like an animated storyboard on an iPad. The actors and filmmakers can consult the previz animation to see what the shot is supposed to look like, even when they’re acting on a greenscreen trying to picture an imaginary monster coming at them. “The previz tool, it spoiled me forever,” laughs DeKnight. “In TV, you don’t normally have a chance to previz because there’s just not enough time.”
Then when shooting had wrapped, changes still had to be made. “It’s always a bit of a fluid process,” says DeKnight. “No matter how much you pre-plan, once you get into editing you decide, well what if we did this instead? You have to be a little nimble.”
Making changes relatively late in the game meant changing direction for the hundreds of animators, compositors and digital artists in the visual effects team. “There were a couple of times when we decided to make a hard left and Peter would turn white,” smiles DeKnight. “The thing about a movie this size, it’s purely time. You’re running and gunning just to hit that release date because the effects are so complicated. So there’s a lot of horse trading when you’re doing the visual effects.”
It seems strange to rush filmmakers into such tight time constraints when there’s so much money at stake. But as DeKnight puts it with a grin, “That’s moviemaking!”
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