Monday 23 July 2018

DeKnight's tale in a monster world

Steven S DeKnight built his career around cult TV shows. Now he's taking his vision to the big screen

Rinko Kikuchi and John Boyega in 'Pacific Rim Uprising'
Rinko Kikuchi and John Boyega in 'Pacific Rim Uprising'
Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy
Steven S DeKnight

Anne Marie Scanlon

'I love all movies, it doesn't matter what the genre is as long as it's a great story and great characters," Steven S DeKnight, tells me when we meet in London to discuss his directorial debut Pacific Rim Uprising which stars John Boyega.

The movie itself, a follow up to Pacific Rim (2013), is testament to DeKnight's statement.

In bald terms, both films are about giant robots, Jaegers, designed to fight Kaiju, giant monsters from the deep. (Don't worry if you haven't seen the first one as viewers are quickly and succinctly brought up to speed)

It's a genre that could all too easily become spectacle and indeed there are plenty of Godzilla moments, but the film is great entertainment even if 'Monster' films generally leave you cold.

Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy
Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy

"Coming from television, for me, character and story are so important," DeKnight says. "You can have the most spectacular visual effects ever created but, if you don't have characters that are fun and engaging and have an emotional connection, then none of the other stuff really matters." Despite working steadily and successfully as a writer and director in television (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Spartacus) since the early 1990s, DeKnight still exudes gratitude and enthusiasm about his career. His own story too is like a traditional Hollywood tale - the 'overnight success' after years of painstaking persistence in the face of rejection after rejection.

DeKnight comes from the small town of Millville, New Jersey, which developed around a glass factory where both his parents worked. "It was so small we didn't even have a movie theatre. I had to ride my bicycle a half hour to the next town to see movies. The area I grew up in, even as a kid, it wasn't quite where I wanted to be. I felt like Luke Skywalker - if there's a bright part in the galaxy, I'm the furthest away from it," he laughs. "And I just I found so much comfort and inspiration in movies, comic books and TV shows."

The young DeKnight was fascinated by the technical aspects of filmmaking but in Southern New Jersey there wasn't a lot of opportunity for him to learn more. In high school he began acting and "fell in love with it". Deciding he wanted to pursue a career in acting, DeKnight got a place in the University of California in Santa Cruz.

His parents, the director tells me, were extremely supportive of him but could not afford to send him to college and he had to work and take out loans to pay his own way. When he graduated, DeKnight decided to change course. "I felt like I was a good actor but I wasn't a great actor and I didn't feel I would ever be a truly great actor and," he says. "I'm not 6ft 5in, not ruggedly handsome."

DeKnight is a good-looking man, even if he won't say so himself. But then I'm biased as we found ourselves agreeing on so much - especially that NYPD Blue was one of the best television shows ever to hit the screens.

When his degree was finished, DeKnight did a graduate playwright programme and then a further year learning screenwriting with the intention of writing feature films for a living. "I thought maybe six months to a year and then I'll be writing features. I could not get arrested! It took me almost seven years before I got a break. Every day I would go to work and every night I would write, churning out one script after another that nobody wanted to read."

Steven S DeKnight
Steven S DeKnight

Finally, he got a job writing for the MTV teen sex comedy Undressed. While there he wrote a spec script based on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one of his two favourite TV shows. "Imagine how different my career might have been if I'd picked NYPD Blue," he laughs. The script led to a meeting with Joss Whedon the creator of Buffy and Angel who asked him to write an episode of the show.

"The heavens parted," he says, happy and excited still. While his episode was being made Whedon asked him to join Buffy full time. "I'll never forget it. I practically burst into tears I was so happy. It was like a dream come true, like winning the lottery and for me it was really the start of my career. I wouldn't be sitting here right now without (Whedon's) belief in me and giving me the opportunities he gave me. He gave me my first chance to direct on Angel, an amazing learning process."

Despite his successful TV career, DeKnight still felt anxious about directing his first feature film, telling me he was a 'huge fan' of Pacific Rim which was directed by Guillermo del Toro, one of his idols.

"I've seen all his films, seen the DVDs, watched the special commentaries, I've all the books about the making of his movies." Stepping into his shoes "was incredibly daunting. Not only was it my first feature but a huge, huge complicated franchise movie".

Idris Elba starred in the first film as Striker Pentecost and the plot of Pacific Rim Uprising centres around his son Jake. "Trying to cast the son of Idris Elba - who is so magnificent…" was no easy task. When John Boyega was suggested, De Knight was sceptical. "I love him but I thought because he's in Star Wars he wouldn't be interested in doing another huge franchise."

One thing that stands out in this movie is the amount of women in the cast. Is that deliberate, I ask? "Absolutely. I'm from the Joss Whedon camp, I cut my teeth on Buffy and I've always loved strong female characters. I love writing for women... I think the old days of purely male dominated action movies is fading. And rightly so."

'Pacific Rim Uprising' is in cinemas from March 23

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