“To talk about monsters, you need monsters.” Those were some of director Guillermo del Toro’s powerful opening words following TheWrap’s screening of his film “The Shape of Water” on Friday.
“The Shape of Water” is the sort of romantic storytelling that, on its face, seems easy to love and read as little more than a fairy tale.
But del Toro was blunt in saying his film, which is nominated for 13 Oscars, was not about 1962, when it’s set — it’s about now. “The Shape of Water” is a parable that speaks to the fear of outsiders and our divisiveness over knowledge and ideas that were as true in 1962 as they are today.
“I think we are in a very dangerous time right now. We have sacrificed and substituted intelligence for cynicism. We are incredibly afraid of being emotional,” del Toro told TheWrap’s Steve Pond. “We have never been so close and so far apart. And we are told for many, many reasons that the ‘other’ is to blame.”
The monster in question in “The Shape of Water” is a mysterious sea creature straight out of the Black Lagoon. As the amphibian creature proves his intelligence, he and a mute woman named Eliza (Sally Hawkins) slowly grow to love one another.
Del Toro explains that his movie is filled with “others,” those nameless people who are often persecuted today and were certainly on the fringes of society in 1962. In addition to Hawkins’s mute character, there’s an aging gay man and struggling artist played by Richard Jenkins, a scientist played by Michael Stuhlbarg whose hunger for knowledge is ignored, and Octavia Spencer as a woman trying to find her place at home and at work. Together, these people project their needs and their desires onto this creature and fight to save him, only for the monster to reveal himself as a messiah and save them in the end.
“For about two-thirds of the movie, the creature is an empty space where everyone pours what they think it should be, and then it defines itself in the last third of the movie,” del Toro said. “He is as ‘other’ as it gets, and he is saved by the others, by the invisible, the silent, the nameless, coming together to rescue him.”
Ultimately, “The Shape of Water” is a movie about empathy for the other. Del Toro explained why, in a world where discourse is lost after just a few tweets online, a horror movie and fairy tale set in the Cold War era was the best way to convey a message about today.
“In order to avoid that, the best way to create empathy is to say, ‘once upon a time in 1962,'” del Toro said. “Everyone is moving to the suburbs, there’s jet-themed cars, nuclear family, there is a TV in every bedroom. There’s a sense that we belong to the promise of the future. The reality is that if you excavate a little, you realize it’s an incredibly divisive time. If you were the wrong gender, the wrong sexual preference or if you were in the wrong economic standard, you were in trouble. If you scratch a little, you find that, and it’s a perfect way to talk about now.”
2017 was a banner year for genre films. The horror movie “Get Out” was also nominated for Best Picture, and other gems of the genre like “The Babadook,” “It Follows” and more are speaking to audiences about important themes of the day. “The Shape of Water” seems to put a topper on horror’s current moment in pop culture. But del Toro said now more than ever it’s important that we look to the myth-makers and storytellers to address these larger issues through fables and parable.
“Maybe too late we do not get over this as a species,” del Toro said. “It may be too late, and in the last seconds of our existence as a species on this planet, we will realize there was no other. It was all us.”
Watch the full video from del Toro’s interview above.