This story about Guillermo del Toro and “The Shape of Water” first appeared in the Oscar Noms Preview issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
Guillermo del Toro has often worked in the rich cinematic margins, making genre films like “The Devil’s Backbone,” “Hellboy,” “Pacific Rim” and “Crimson Peak” that please sci-fi and horror fans but don’t register with awards voters. But 2006’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” was a notable exception, landing six Oscar nominations and winning three of them.
Now comes “The Shape of Water,” a luminous fairy tale that has already led all films in nominations for both the Golden Globes and the Critics’ Choice Awards.
Described by TheWrap’s Alonso Duralde as a film that “transcends mere pastiche to craft a work that feels like the product of our collective filmgoing subconscious,” the film stars Sally Hawkins as a mute cleaning lady who lives above a grand old movie theater and works in a government lab at the height of the Cold War, and del Toro stalwart Doug Jones as the mysterious aquatic creature who is held prisoner in that lab.
Let me guess: When you first saw “Creature From the Black Lagoon,” you were rooting for the creature, right?
Yes. One hundred percent. I was 6, and I was hoping that the creature would get together with the girl and live happily ever after. Wake up every morning, go to the lagoon to work and come back home at night. But the suburban life was not to be. At the end of the first movie, it doesn’t end well for the creature.
When you’re making “The Shape of Water,” then, were you thinking of the 6-year-old boy who wanted to see the creature get the girl?
Not really. I’m thinking about things that are much more adult and complex. You have the emotional movie that you carry with you as a child, but also the movie you’re executing as an adult. But at the end of the day, when the creature walks onto the set, I am that 6-year-old.
Why the fascination with this kind of creature?
There’s a beauty and grace to it. And for what I suppose are very Freudian reasons, I’ve always dreamt of water. To this day, I dream that I can breathe underwater. Some people dream of flying. I dream of swimming underwater.
You never dream of flying?
I’ve dreamt of flying probably three times in my life. But every year at least once or twice I’ve dreamed of being underwater. And it’s always very natural. I sink, and I realize I’m breathing, and I go, “Oh, it’s been a while since I’ve been down here.”
What do you have to do to get audiences to accept what is basically a romance between a woman and a non-human sea creature?
First of all, we designed the creature as what it is. It’s a river god, an elemental river god. It needs to have majesty and beauty without losing its nature.
The second thing is the way you introduce it, the way you hinge every moment so that the audience can transition slowly. We start with a hand against the glass, which is a shock moment. We are afraid to approach it. Then it comes out of the water and blinks, and in that moment the audience identifies with him. Maybe he’s not that dangerous. Then he’s dangerous again, but when he grabs the egg, you see under the hand it’s cute. Each moment is crucial.
Including a moment fairly late in the film, when we’ve come to accept and root for the creature, but he does something completely horrific. You’re essentially saying to the audience, “You may love him now, but remember that he’s still who he was when you were afraid of him.”
Yes. That’s the idea. The thing that rubs me wrong in the “Beauty and the Beast” stories is the transformation. Because I think that it’s much more a matter of acceptance and understanding of each other’s strangeness that leads to real love stories. Not the demand for a transformation.
You financed the first round of creature design yourself. Why?
Because I wanted the freedom to go anywhere. I wanted to go to a studio with the design and the idea for the movie, and basically say, “You guys tell me how much you want me to do it for, and I’ll do it for that number. There will be no negotiation.”
I went to Fox Searchlight, and they said, “Under $20 million for color, under $17 for black and white.”
It’s hard to imagine this movie being in black and white.
That was honestly a battle I was expecting to lose. I was of two minds. On one hand I thought black and white would look luscious, but on the other hand I thought it would look postmodern, like I was being reflective rather than immersed. It’s good, because it got me three million more.
It’s amazing that the movie was made for less than $20 million.
After rebate. Which means that I didn’t get my salary as producer or co-writer or director, except for guild minimum. That bought me a couple of days extra, a couple of cranes, it bought me a couple of costumes.
At that budget, there must have been things you would have liked to have done but you didn’t have the money.
Yeah, but I did “Pacific Rim” for $195 million. Which is moving the zero to the right one space. And honestly, I think I was feeling that way with $195 million. The thing is, your ambitions should always exceed the budget. If you are not exceeding the budget in your own visions, you are doing something wrong.
Having your main character, Elisa, live over an ornate revival house gives the film an amazing setting, but I imagine it’s also useful in setting up a sense of unreality in this world.
Yes. That’s exactly what it does. For the creature to exist in this arena, you need to push the arena maybe a notch and a half above reality.
Why do that with a movie theater setting?
It sets up what’s in her head. We see the opening of the movie and we see that she dreams of water, cooks her food in water, masturbates in water, shines her shoes and goes to work, and lives above a theater. She lives above a place that is projecting light and sound 24/7, so she always has lines of dialogue and the music of the movies in her head. And then she crosses the corridor and her neighbor is always watching musicals. And then you see her alone and she does a little tap dance. That tells you who she is.
To back up for a minute, the sight of her casually masturbating in the tub is not something we’d normally see from the heroine in what is in essence a fairy tale.
No, but it’s something we normally would do, right? So why not see the things we do? And there is no fetishized gauze filter, it’s not backlit with smoke. It’s a gloriously quotidian moment. Very encompassing and naturalistic.
And very unlike your typical fairy tale.
No. I don’t think you’ve ever seen a movie like this before. With “Pan’s Labyrinth,” there were 20 reasons why it shouldn’t work and 20 reasons why it should work. With “The Shape of Water,” there are 50 reasons why it shouldn’t work, and maybe one reason why it should.
It’s an incredibly complicated movie tonally. I’m talking about the actors, the camera style, the production design, the wardrobe — all of this informs the tonality of a film. Your decisions in directing cut across the genres that you are doing. And this is not a single-genre movie. It’s not a sci-fi movie. It’s a musical, a melodrama, a spy thriller, a comedy, you know?
It is crazy to say I’m gonna be able to balance the actors’ performances tonally so the movie can transition from one genre to another. You find yourself directing five movies that need to mesh.
How do you learn to do that?
Well, I’ve done mixes that shouldn’t go together in the past. “Cronos” was a middle-class Mexican vampire melodrama in comedy tone. “Devil’s Backbone” was a Gothic ghost story set in a deserted orphanage in the middle of the civil war in Spain. Those are things that don’t mesh. I remember pitching it to Almodóvar and him saying, “That’s three movies.”
And “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a fairy tale set in post-war fascist Spain. Most of my crew on that movie thought we were doing a terrible movie. They would see the realism of the fascist uniforms and the things that they recognized from history, and then in walks a faun. It’s very disorienting, because it’s two things that in theory shouldn’t go together.
Instead of two things that shouldn’t go together, this movie is six things that shouldn’t go together. So your instincts operate in the same way.
With “Pan’s Labyrinth,” even if a viewer goes in resistant to genre, you allow for an explanation that will make the film work: The fantasy elements are in the mind of the little girl who has created them to cope with the real horrors around her. But “The Shape of Water” doesn’t give you an out like that to take it out of genre — you either resist it or you say, “OK, I believe it.”
That’s why the movie needs to be stylistically, in every way, that notch and a half above reality. I think you’re in or you’re out the moment she masturbates, quite frankly. And if you are not leaving then, you should be leaving when the creature shows up. And if you stay, you stay.
And for me, the reality is, you go by your gut. That gut is right sometimes, wrong sometimes, but with experience it gets to be a finer instrument. I’ve been at this for a quarter of a century — and if you spend 25 years driving a bus, you crash a little less.
There are clearly moments in the film where you’re making points about the inequities in the America of the early 1960s.
Because it’s both much easier and much stronger to articulate a story through a fairy tale or a parable. Every religion understands that when you talk about a grain of mustard or tell a story of two brothers, you are using it as an analogy. To describe something that could be rejected very easily if you spoke about it in real-world terms. You teach more with a story.
Are there ways in which you think this film speaks not to America in 1962 but to America today?
I think the movie may be set in 1962, but the movie speaks about now. About the intolerance and the fear we are asked to believe is intrinsic to identifying the “other.” But I think that when you identify the other, you should be curious, you should be interested, you should be understanding.
To me, I think the most beautiful thing in the world is that we’re different. We are not all the same. And at the end of the day, we have so many common points and the fascination comes from what we don’t share.
When you started out, was this the kind of career you envisioned?
No, I never thought I would leave Mexico. I thought I would only do Mexican films, but then my father was kidnapped in ’98 and I had to leave.
First, I owed a quarter of a million dollars from [his 1993 debut] “Cronos,” personally. So I needed to work at Universal Studios developing a project. Then I paid that debt to my father, and then he got kidnapped and I lost basically anything I had, and I had to go and work.
I did “Devil’s Backbone” in Spain, and then I thought I was only going to do movies in Spain. But I came to the U.S. to do “Blade II,” and I didn’t have any other movies in Spain so I came back to do “Hellboy.” To paraphrase John Lennon, a career is what happens when you’re making other plans.
But at a certain point, you get to where you can steer your own career.
To a point. Under $20 [million], for sure. Above $50, not at all. I think right now I can get a movie made for $20, $30, even $40, $45, pretty much the way I want it. But if it’s $50, $55 and over, it’s more difficult.
And if it’s $100 million and over, you are catering to fiscal responsibility that demands you gross three times your cost. That is a very brutal responsibility. I’ve had it, but the summer is a contact sport. You have other movies that are not going to play nice. It’s hockey. They’re gonna want to bust your teeth, break your kneecap, you know? It’s a highly competitive time. And if you go over $100 million you’re basically a summer movie whether you’re released in the summer or not.
But now you’re not planning to make another movie for a while.
I won’t even prep anything until September. I found myself in a place that is very rare. I’ve never been here. I’m satisfied. I’m happy. I want to enjoy this movie, and I want to see it connect with an audience time and again. I’m at peace.