Creature Comforts: Guillermo del Toro's 'The Shape of Water' envisions a cross-species love story

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A love affair has developed between filmmaker Guillermo del Toro and Toronto—over the past five years, he has shot in the Canadian city four seasons of the TV series “The Strain” as well as a trio of movies that include Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak and The Shape of Water. The morning after returning from the awards ceremony at the Venice Film Festival, where he received the Golden Lion top prize, and attending the Canadian premiere of Fox Searchlight’s The Shape of Water at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, the Mexican filmmaker graciously talked with FJI about the importance of fairy tales and making an unconventional romance between a mute woman and an aquatic creature.

Over the years, del Toro has explored his fascination with fairy tales and monsters in films like Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and Hellboy (2004). “They are a great way of addressing things that are at a larger scale conceptually without becoming discursive. You can literally embody ideas.” This goes beyond a desire to incorporate social commentary into the storytelling. “If you talk about politics in a particular city and a corruption case, you are addressing the particulars: where, when and how. But if you address corruption with a creature that is fantastical and represents corruption, it gains universality and you’re literally talking about corruption [as Edgar Allan Poe did with The Masque of the Red Death]. That’s why one of the main tools for teaching religious and philosophical notions is the parable.”

The ambition to create a tale about an amphibious being in the vein of the Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) was a longtime challenge for del Toro. “Since I was a kid, I wanted to do the story, but I didn’t know how to go into it. You can go into a story in many ways and one of them was to try to turn the classic monster movie on its head. I had notes, but nothing seemed to pan out. Then, in 2011, I was having breakfast with Daniel Kraus, with whom I co-wrote Trollhunters, and he said, ‘I have an idea about a janitor befriending a creature in a super-secret government facility who decides to take that creature to live with her.’ I thought, ‘That’s the way to go in.’ Because you don’t go through the secret agent or the scientist. You go through the janitor. You immediately pay attention because you’re not going through the usual route. It’s like going into a drug-smuggling ring story through a family that needs to sell 10,000 bags or they will lose their house, except those bags are going to be filled with cocaine. You go through the backdoor, so to speak.”

Collaborating with screenwriter Vanessa Taylor, del Toro had a particular leading lady in mind for the role of the lonely mute janitor, Elisa Esposito. “Sally Hawkins is one of the greatest movie presences right now. I had seen her in ‘Fingersmith’ [2004], the BBC series where she falls in love with a woman and they have this pure, beautiful sexual relationship but it’s not titillating or perverse. It’s part of the love story. I didn’t want a kinky movie about a beast falling in love with a beauty. I wanted the sex to be part of their relationship, so I thought that Sally can do it because of ‘Fingersmith.’ Sally can also be incredible with just her physical presence, as was the case with her supporting roles in Submarine and Blue Jasmine. I adore her.”

“I cast the movie thinking of eyes,” del Toro reveals. “The eyes of each actor needed to be intense but different from each other. Sally has these pure eyes.” Octavia Spencer portrays supportive co-worker Zelda. “Octavia has these wonderful eyes that have such humanity to them.” Michael Shannon plays the role of ruthless government agent Richard Strickland. “Michael has these incredible laser-like eyes. I thought, ‘Well, that’s my music right there.’ One of the things that took the longest with the creature were the eyes; they are windows to the soul and needed to be layered both physically and digitally.” It also helped having veteran del Toro collaborator Doug Jones underneath the prosthetic costume and makeup. “You can have a great actor, like Robert De Niro in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, but he doesn’t quite break through the makeup. Whereas Ron Perlman and Doug Jones are able to do so. Doug is both a performer and a great actor.”

Words are almost nonexistent between the two lovers. “Film is made of looks,” notes del Toro. “People looking at each other is one of the most powerful tools in film. It’s also the human device to love and acknowledge each other. I thought it would be great to make it like a silent acting exercise for two actors. I gave Sally Hawkins a Blu-ray kit of Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin. I said, ‘You have to study the state of grace of Stan Laurel, the way Lloyd and Keaton look, and the way Chaplin moves. Try not to copy that but get into the essence of silent acting, and then sign language will give you dialogue. I want you to learn sign language in a way that you can emphasize, underline a word. I want you to be percussive and make noises [with your hands] when you’re making a point. The ‘posing’ for both Elisa and the creature was almost silent cinema.”

Legacy Effects constructed the practical creature costume worn by Jones, which took three years to design and build. “We referenced a lot of animals…and a great Japanese engraving called The Big Carp that has this black fish with color trimmings. I said, ‘Let’s make the fish black. It’s beautiful and symbolically elegant.’ No one has seen a black creature coming out of the river. They’re always blue or green. Then we went into a process of underpainting six or seven layers to create one color. We did all of this because we were not creating a creature in the movie but a leading man.”

Three hours every day was spent getting Jones into the creature costume, which was enhanced with some digital augmentation. “Mr. X, the visual-effects company, found a way to morph seamlessly from the suit to minimal muscular movement, like micro-gestures in the eyebrows and blinking. If you have a 30-frame shot, they could go in for 12 frames and then the suit was there, so it preserved the physical integrity of the suit but gave the creature an incredible acting range. It’s the best creature suit I have ever built or had designed.”

Producing the FX series “The Strain” had a major impact on the director’s approach to making The Shape of Water. “The exercise was to make the movie look like $60 million to $70 million for $19 million,” del Toro confides. “Miles Dale, my producing partner, rightfully says, ‘This is like your Psycho.’ Because that was when Alfred Hitchcock learned to be super-economical doing ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ and used all of the resources from the TV show. Our wardrobe designer is from the TV show and our stages were used between seasons so as to maximize everything we could. This movie would have normally taken me 90 days and I did it in 60 days. We managed to call every favor we had after five years in Toronto and galvanized the crew by making sure that every head of the department was Canadian. Meaning, this wasn’t a film coming in from America using the rebate and leaving.”

Toronto and Hamilton, Ontario stand in for Baltimore during the height of the Cold War. “We did more sets than a movie of $19 million has the right to do,” reveals del Toro. “The corridors, the lab, the apartment, the corridor of the apartment, and the two-tier main offices—all of this was done in exacting detail of 1962. Honestly, I think a budget is a state of mind. When you feel in your gut that you can deliver for a number, you deliver for that number. You can give me $90 million for this movie and it would look exactly the same.”

Clips from musicals appear throughout The Shape of Water. “I tried to show you the inner world of Elisa, because she’s not going to have many lines of dialogue. Elisa and Giles [her gay artist neighbor, played by Richard Jenkins] are basically one character. They love musicals and movies that nobody remembers. It would have been a postmodern cinephile movie if I had Singin’ in the Rain, Top Hat or Citizen Kane. But what you are seeing are The Story of Ruth, Mardi Gras, Hello Frisco, Hello and a Betty Grable musical. The camera moves like a musical. One of the reasons that I made Elisa and the creature silent is because love renders you speechless. The only way you can speak about love is through song. When Elisa cannot express herself, she sings and the movie becomes a Hollywood musical for a second.”