Mexican-born auteur and filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s move to Hollywood in the 1990s earned him swift accolades in 2000 as one of Time magazine’s 50 Young Leaders for the New Millennium… and this was before he made his third film. Countless creations since – movies, television series, novels, art and museum exhibits – del Toro has earned a well-deserved top spot as a legend in the genres of horror, dark fantasy, superheroes and science fiction.
With his new movie, The Shape of Water (review), del Toro adds a splash of romance, and thus has made, he told me at the recent event, his “favorite film.”
The film follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who works as a janitor in a hidden, high-security government laboratory. Her life changes forever when she discovers the lab’s classified secret: a mysterious, amphibious creature (Doug Jones) imprisoned in an ironclad water tank. As Elisa develops a unique bond with her new friend – and more – she learns that his fate and survival lies in the hands of a hostile government agent (Michael Shannon). She vows to rescue him, and so the adventure and romance begins!
Mild spoilers ahead…
Dread Central: There’s a scene involving a cat and the creature, that had everyone gasping at our press screening. Was that your homage to Frankenstein with the little girl in the original Universal classic, or was there some other inspiration behind that? What did you want people to take away from it?
Guillermo del Toro: From the beginning I wanted this to be a different type of Beauty and the Beast tale, in which the beauty is not a pretty princess in a pedestal, that she has “flaws” and that she is not the traditional Hollywood movie commercial beauty pretending to be a janitor, but somebody that you can find anywhere, and that she has a life, a sexual life, a private life and complexities. The beast doesn’t have to transform into a prince to be loved because the whole point of the movie is that love is not transformation but understanding.
And you come to the scene in which the creature has a divine element to him but it also has an animal element to him, he needs to eat, and when fighting with a predator, no matter what size the predator is, the creature is going to bite. The creature bites off two fingers of Michael Shannon’s character and it readily takes the cat as nourishment because he hasn’t eaten in a while. Therefore, the beast remains a beast, but you can learn to see that it also has a divine spirit in it.
DC: Did you write the script first, or did you write it based on your cast?
GdT: I always wrote it for them. In 2011 I heard the seminal idea that unlocked the movie for me. It came from Daniel Kraus when he said, “A janitor meets an amphibian man in a government facility and takes it home.” I thought that’s the way to unlock this story I want to do. I want this elemental river god and a woman going through the service door, and I thought who can do it. And I immediately went to Sally. I started writing the screenplay in 2012 and I had my agent call her agent and say, “Guillermo is writing this story for you.” And I found out who Michael Shannon’s agent was and I also said the same thing.
Then as the movie progressed to 2013/2014 and so on I started writing specifically for Octavia and specifically for Doug, because I met with Doug in 2014 and I said, “Look, I’m writing this movie and I want you to be the main male character, the protagonist, the star.” He’s never done that of course. I said, “You are truly a beautiful, god-like elemental creature.” He couldn’t believe it, but I knew that he is a terrific actor and that he could pull it off and he could hold his own with Sally Hawkins.
Sally is, I believe, this is my opinion, I’m biased, the most beautiful, luminous presence in cinema today, somebody that can combine the extraordinary, the poetic, the sublime and the ordinary and the quotidian. You can see her on the street waiting for the bus or you can see her illuminating the screen with a radiant, completely genuine emotion.
DC: Tell us about how the creature evolved, and what you were hoping to achieve with his look in terms of audience reaction.
GdT: The first decision was that we’re going to make a physical suit and a physical make-up because before the audience react I needed the actors to react. We took three years, two of design and one of execution, to bring this creature to life; first, alone with a few sculptors and then with Legacy Effects and Mike Hill doing the final design and the final touches, all the way to confection and application in the set.
The way I wanted audiences to react was to have a changing point of view of the character. When the movie starts it starts with a shock, with a hand hitting the glass. It’s a monster moment. Then you see the creature in silhouette bleeding and approaching the glass and haven’t got a sense of is this creature good, bad, what. Then the creature emerges from the water and blinks. It’s gorgeous. It’s a beautiful, beautiful shot. A perfect combination of digital enhancement and physical suit.
I think that’s the moment that the audience kind of falls for the empathy of the creature. Then the creature comes out and growls at Sally, and we feel, okay, it can go both ways. Then the next scene the creature is signing back to Sally, so you understand it’s intelligent and that’s where the communication starts.
It’s an ever-changing perception. My hope is at the end of the movie you have completely forgotten that this is a creature, you have completely loved him as a character and you want him to fare well; you can completely buy that he’s a divine god, an elemental god of the Amazon and that he has that power and that majesty and that he has enormous beauty and grace. That is an ever-changing perception.
DC: Colonel Strickland is one of the more striking characters throughout the film, because we learn quite a bit about his personal home life, his pressures at work. Why was it so important to you that the audience identify with the traditional villain character of the film?
GdT: The idea of the movie is that we need to look at the “other” and not fear the “other” and that is embodied by the creature. But I cannot help but think that if we apply that rule to the creature and the protagonist, you have to apply that rule to the antagonist. So, I wanted to at least give the audience the opportunity to understand what makes him tick, what makes him have his resentment, or what makes him feel pressure, and why his goals need to be achieved in a position to the goals of the protagonist.
Each of the characters actually has a little story outside. We get to see the life of Zelda at home. We get to see the life of Giles outside of the apartment. We get to see the life of the secret Russian agent at his home. It’s a movie that makes it a point to “follow” each of the characters home so that we can get a little glimpse of their lives. Every character that would be “the other” in the narrative becomes somebody we can at least experience and try to understand, because to understand is to nullify fear. This is a movie that says we should not fear the other but embrace the other.
DC: The visual style is really striking… did you take some cues from Old Hollywood?
GdT: Yes. The idea for that is I wanted to evoke actually classical cinema from the ’40s and the ’50s, even early ’60s, if we could; Douglas Sirk, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Stanley Donen, William Wyler, I tried to evoke that and the opulent nature of the color and the cinematography and the design. The camera moves were very classic. I was shooting the movie like a musical, with the camera always rolling and traveling and craning. At the same time this was done because the content of the movie, the twists and turns and the ideas behind it, were so completely unique.
The form are those two things. One is it celebrates classical cinema because the movie is a love poem about love and a love poem about cinema. I felt this could be clear in a formal way through the look of the movie that was not just a look but part of the content, and it evoked those melodramas of Douglas Sirk or the musical crane shots of Stanley Donen, and so forth.
People think about these departments as separate, but it’s a single department; cinematography, directing, wardrobe, hair, make-up and costume are a single department. You need to coordinate them all to give a movie a look that is not just beautiful but is substantial and part of the storytelling.
DC: What is it about the war-time backdrop, and superheroes, that keeps you coming back to explore it?
GdT: I think that the best juxtaposition of the fantastic is to juxtapose it with the real; the extraordinary with the ordinary. An elemental god from a river, but you can take him to a bathtub, that’s juxtaposing the ordinary and the extraordinary. Nineteen sixty-two is the last year of the fairytale idea of America: Kennedy in the White House, Camelot, the space race, post war suburban wealth, a car in every garage and so forth, and at the same time it’s a time of great division and of Cold War.
America will change the year after Kennedy is shot and the war is culminating in Vietnam and it’s almost the inset of the skepticism. It’s a perfect place to set a once upon a time fairytale because underneath all this harmony here is the great division, racial prejudice, gender discrimination, all the problems that we have alive today were alive back then. I wanted to make a movie about today but without making it a contrast that de-merited the fantasy. I needed to go to a time that was magical to some, at least visually, and then show also the ever-present ugliness underneath that, and it was very useful for that.
The film is directed by Guillermo del Toro, written by Vanessa Taylor & del Toro, and stars Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stulbarg, and Doug Jones.
The Shape of Water hits theaters nationwide on December 8th.
In the hidden high-security government laboratory where she works, lonely Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is trapped in a life of silence and isolation. Elisa’s life is changed forever when she and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) discover a secret classified experiment.
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