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'Pacific Rim Uprising' director got Guillermo del Toro's blessing

Steven S. DeKnight, who directed the sequel to "Pacific Rim", talks about personally visiting del Toro to make sure the original director approved.

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"Pacific Rim Uprising" stars John Boyega (left) and Scott Eastwood flank director Steven S. DeKnight.

NBC Universal

Paintings cover crimson walls in a house jammed with thousands of  specimen jars, toys, movie props, skulls and life-size models of the macabre. "Bleak House" in LA is essentially Guillermo del Toro's massive man cave.

This is where del Toro and fellow director Steven S. DeKnight met for the first time in 2016 to discuss "Pacific Rim Uprising", the sequel to del Toro's 2013 monster blockbuster "Pacific Rim". 

DeKnight, known for showrunning the first season of Netflix's "Daredevil" in 2014 and gladiator series "Spartacus" from 2010 to 2013, had already visited the home of Legendary Entertainment founder Thomas Tull to secure the director's seat.

But that wasn't enough. He needed del Toro's blessing.

"He really liked the idea of where I wanted to take it," DeKnight told me in the Park Hyatt Hotel in Sydney, a city featured in one of the sequel's destroy-everything sequences. "He had a couple fantastic suggestions."

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Boyega and Eastwood are the new stars of the franchise.

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Del Toro's original movie is filled with nostalgia for Godzilla monsters. Mechas called Jaegers are the huge robots piloted by humans in Earth's war against the Kaiju, skyscraper-tall monsters that rise from the foggy sea.

Instead of directing the sequel, del Toro chose to go off and work on a passion project. That decision certainly worked out for del Toro. "The Shape of Water" won four Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture, earlier this month.

"He said, look, I'm going to be busy, but reach out anytime -- anything I can do to help," DeKnight said. "But otherwise I want you to make this your movie."

Del Toro's approval was invaluable to DeKnight.

"I've been a gigantic del Toro fan ever since he came on my radar with "Chronos". I've seen every single one of his movies. I pore over them and study what he did. No one has the artistic eye that he does."

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Cailee Spaeny plays Amara, the youngest Jaeger pilot on the block.

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After the success of "Daredevil", DeKnight began to get offers to direct movies, but "nothing felt right."

That's until "Pacific Rim" came along, striking a chord with childhood memories of watching "Ultraman", "The Space Giants" and the man-in-monster-suit movies from Toho, the Japanese film company that created Godzilla.

"This was everything that I loved."

The sequel is set 10 years after the original. It follows Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), son of Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), the commander of the Jaegers in the first Kaiju War.

The original cast, including Charlie Hunnam and Ron Perlman, were adults. But DeKnight brought in teenagers to play the next generation of Jaeger pilots.

"Once I really thought about it, I realised when you're younger you make stronger emotional connections to other human beings," DeKnight said.

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The diverse cast includes actors from China, Japan, Ukraine and more.

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The Jaegers work using a technology that neurally links two or more pilots. One isn't enough to handle the load. "You make your lasting friendships. As you get older, you start putting up walls and it's harder to make those connections," DeKnight said.

One of those teens is newcomer Cailee Spaeny, who won the role despite little film experience. "We looked all over the world. Cailee popped up literally the last moment," the director said.

Boyega was a no-brainer to play Jake. He loved anime, video games and giant monsters.

"We really bonded over that … For John, no audition necessary."

Something else that DeKnight loves is the "global feel to the movie." The cast is diverse, with British, American, Japanese, Chinese, Latin American, Indian and Ukrainian actors.

"This idea of the entire world coming together to fight a common threat … It was built into the DNA of the franchise," he said. "I wanted the message to the next generation to be it doesn't matter where you're from, who your parents are, the colour of your skin or your religion. Everybody can make a difference."

Back in del Toro's driveway as DeKnight was leaving the house of his hero, he received a text message from the producer.

"Guillermo loved you," the text read. "He thinks you're the guy."

"Pacific Rim Uprising" hits cinemas Friday in the US and the UK, and Thursday in Australia. Read our review here

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