Guillermo del Toro is one of the most respected filmmakers in the entire film industry, but his work on his new film, “The Shape of Water,” has taken him to new heights from critics and filmgoers alike. Set during the Cold War and focusing on a mute janitor in a government facility, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), befriending and falling for a humanoid Amazon creature facing similar struggles in captivity. Also starring Doug Jones, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins, “The Shape of Water” is one of the best films of the year, and it’s leading the Golden Globe nominations this year with seven, including Best Picture – Drama, Best Director, Best Actress – Drama (Hawkins) and Best Supporting Actress (Spencer). The Niner Times was fortunate enough to participate in a college sit-down with del Toro to discuss his film.
WARNING: Mild spoilers for “The Shape of Water” ahead.
I’ve read that you’ve been thinking about the premise of the story since you were a child, what took so long to actually make the film?
Well, I actually was thinking about it since I was six years old. Every time I thought about it, I thought about subverting the usual structure, which was a scientist on a boat, government agents on a boat going to the Amazon, finding the creature. I was thinking to use that as the basis, and it never seemed to gel. It really left a lot to be desired for me.
Then in 2011 I was having breakfast with Daniel Kraus, a guy I co-authored “Trollhunters” with, and I said to him, “What are you working on?” He said, “Well, I have an idea. It’s not quite written at all but it’s the idea of a janitor that works in a super-secret government facility and befriends an amphibian man and takes him home.” I knew at that moment that politically, thematically everything would fit because I was not entering through the front door but through the service door into the story. I bought the idea from him and started working on the screenplay in 2012.
Do you have a lot of ideas that are in a drawer somewhere? How do you go about usually cracking those ideas into full stories?
I can tell you, for example, I have an idea that I have 60 pages of called “Saturn and The End of Days,” but I’m lacking the second half of the second act. I know how it ends. Then I have an idea called “Silver” that I have 40 pages of, but I have no second act. Then you wait, you keep them in a file somewhere and then when the time comes, yes, you re-approach them. In some other instances an idea you had for a movie ten years ago and you didn’t use is the key to unlocking a movie you’re doing right now.
This is the third time after “Mimic” and “Crimson Peak” that you’ve worked with cinematographer Dan Laustsen, who shot one of my favorite movies of all time, which is “Silent Hill.” What is it about Laustsen’s shooting style and photographic eye that you think lends itself to “The Shape of Water” in particular so well?
Well, a cinematographer, very much you need to have an artistic empathy with that person. I was with my other cinematographer, Guillermo Navarro, about six times I worked with him, and we had a great empathy. With Dan what is great is that he’s malleable. The style in which we shot “Mimic” was very different to the style in which we shot “Crimson Peak” and is very different from the style we shot “The Shape of Water.” It’s not a constant.
What you want is you know when somebody has a trained eye, is very, very adaptable, you’re going to discuss the movie cinematically and visually and they’re going to be able to keep their own part of the bargain running. Dan and I share a love for what we call single source lighting, meaning most of the light is coming from, let’s say, a window, a skylight, a lamp, and then the rest is you try to model in a very aesthetic but very naturalistic way with bounces, soft lights, rim, rim lights; that type of thing gives a movie style but it doesn’t look artificial. We favored it very much in “The Shape of Water.” So, he has to be involved in the production design stage so we can work the sets and decide exactly what size the window is, where it goes, where the light sources are going to be. I leave the entirety of the light decisions to him, and I decide the camera movement, lens, composition, size and so forth.
Regarding the poem that Giles reads at the end of the movie. Where did you first hear that poem and what do you think about that poem inspired the movie?
The answer may surprise you. Originally, the movie ended with a speech by Giles, but not that one. He went into a monologue, just like the one that opens the movie, and it has a couple of variations but that was it.
Then we were already shooting the movie and it was the first week of the shoot, and I always arrive an hour or two before the crew to the set and I was a little earlier than that. Then my driver says, “What do we do?” When I have any free time, I say “Let’s go into a bookshop.” So we went to a bookshop and I was browsing the shelves and I found this poem in a book about an illuminated poet talking about Allah, talking about God. I thought it was so magnificent, it moved me very much, and I bought the book. And we got the credits in the movie, they’re there at the end, and it became the most beautiful closing I could have imagined for the movie. But I decided already there. That day we recorded Richard Jenkins reading it for the editing and I knew that it was going to be perfect for the film.
You’ve worked with Doug Jones in the past and he’s played a lot of your creatures. I’m wondering of how you think there’s been like an evolution with telling stories through this way that you’ve seen when working with him?
The answer is yes. I started working with Doug in 1997, 20 years ago. He was more a performer than an actor. In fact in many ways he was closer to a mime than an actor. His training was in mime, in mime school. Then we collaborated together in “Mimic” and we collaborated together in “Hellboy.” I felt he was fantastic as Abe Sapien but I didn’t feel he was yet an actor, actor. He was halfway between performing and acting.
Then I called him for “Pan’s Labyrinth” and we had to talk about the characters, what they meant, and the way he delivered the characters in “Pan’s Labyrinth,” entirely different characters, made me realize that now Doug was a full actor not just a performer, certainly not just a mime. He was able to stand his ground with any actor you put in front of him. In “Hellboy II” I gave him more responsibilities. I gave him more characters. I gave him several characters to play.
My admiration for him grew because he really made his character distinctive. They were not just the same characters, the same gestures, the same energies. The answer is, absolutely, Doug is a really terrific actor. If I didn’t think that I wouldn’t have given him “The Shape of Water” in which he needs to hold his own with an actor like Sally Hawkins, or an actor like Michael Shannon, or Michael Stuhlbarg. He is fantastic. Richard Jenkins, who’s really, I think, one of the best actors who works in America today, he absolutely fell in love with Doug as an actor.
You set “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” at the beginning and end of the Spanish Civil War, respectively, but “The Shape of Water” takes place in the U.S. during the Cold War. I’m wondering what feels different to you about the culture of paranoia versus the culture of outright war here.
I think that movies that happen anywhere matter nowhere, and movies that happen anytime matter at no time. You need to as a storyteller choose the place they take place in and the time they take place very, very, very carefully and very specifically. And ‘62 for me is of course the Cold War, the space race of course, but it’s the last fairytale time in America, a time in which America kind of dreams itself into what we conceive as the modern America.
The media is shaping the consciousness and the identity of the country and you have a candidate in the White House be a damage yet to escalate, and you have suburban wealth everywhere; cars in every garage, TV, self-cleaning kitchen, petticoats and hairspray. It was really a time of great hope for the future. In fact the country becomes obsessed with the idea of the future. I thought that and the Cold War were perfect settings to bring a creature from the ancient past and a love story in a time of difficult communication.
Also the movie is a movie about our problems today and about demonizing the other and about fearing or hating the other, and how that is a much more destructive position than learning to love and understand. I thought, well, if I do it about today it becomes too topical about the news. We get it in the news and social media and blah, blah, blah. But if I say once upon a time in 1962 it becomes a fairy tale for troubled times and people can lower their guard a little bit more and listen to the story and listen to the characters and talk about the issues rather than the circumstances of the issues.
It’s really unconventional to have two of your main characters in the film not be able to communicate with each other in a conventional way. What was the decision or the influence behind having that decision?
The first thing is that I think that words can lie but looks cannot. I wanted to have characters that were able to communicate to the audience their emotions and their love through looks, touch, and body language and essence, because it’s impossible to talk about love. You can sing about love but you cannot talk.
The idea is that sadly, the main character, Elisa, and the creature have this in common. They are not looked at as complete beings, and yet they are. They are reduced to ideologies or ideas that are more reductive than their complexity, to the point that the creature is actually read by different people as different things throughout the film. For the antagonist, to Strickland, he is read as a filthy thing that came from South America, for the Russian scientist he’s seen as the magic of nature and science, and to Elisa it’s part of her essence that she recognizes.
Elisa is also read as different things for the other characters. For Octavia Spencer she basically is a listener to her inner monologues, for Giles she’s almost like a daughter, and for Strickland she’s a woman that he wants to dominate, or that he thinks he controls because she’s under his employment, and she’s much more than that. The only one that sees Elisa exactly as she is without seeing her incomplete is the creature, is this elemental God from the Amazon that is as much a singularity as she is. All that is the reason.
There’s also a monologue in the movie that Elisa has, it’s a gesture monologue, a sign language monologue, that plays much stronger when her emotions cannot be channeled by words. Her eyes are more hungry for emotion, her body and her sentiment vibrates through her body, and it is really quite a powerful scene because she cannot talk.
You have this love story that’s told basically in the form of a silent film, which is normally something you see in black and white. Then, we finally get to the scene that isn’t black and white and yet not only does Sally Hawkins’ character have a voice but she is singing and performing. Can you tell us a little bit about the choices that you’ve made in that scene and the choices with going into black and white and not doing a silent film in black and white from the start?
We present the characters through cinema. She lives above a theater. She listens to movie soundtracks and dialogue all day long because it filters through her floor. Then she loves musicals with Giles, to watch them on TV and you see her trying to dance. There’s a magical moment in which her emotions overtake her imagination and she goes to a world in which she has a voice and she can sing, and she can dance and everything is perfect. I think it’s magical because that’s the only way you can talk about love is by singing.
Why didn’t I do it in black and white? Well, the thing that I did do is when I started talking to Sally Hawkins about the part I gave her a Blu-ray kit that had Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and very importantly Stan Laurel from “Laurel & Hardy” because he can convey a state of grace and a purity by doing nothing, by doing very little. Her body moves very much like a classical black and white movie actress, she moves different than anybody else, and the creature moves different than anybody else.
The misconception we have a lot is that a great actor is an actor that delivers great lines. But in reality a great actor is an actor that listens to the other actors and is present and looks at the other actors and makes them come to be, and Sally has that magic. Without her looking at the creature, for example, you could not have the creature feel alive and worthy of love.
Sally and the creature are both these marginalized characters which communicate with language, a language of love that’s not verbal, though. Is that a running theme for you?
A lot of this movie talks about isolation and communication. That is in almost every character in the film. You have the antagonist that wants to control and silence everyone basically except himself and the world needs to conform to the way he sees it. You have the neighbor, Giles, who generally loves Sally, Elisa, but he doesn’t quite understand her. He’s very selfish at one point of the movie and he refuses to think about the present and the problems and be helpful. He lives in the past and the magic of movies and his lost youth, and this also gets resolved in the movie.
What I wanted to show is that all the characters that spoke, Octavia Spencer has a problem communicating with her husband. In summation, the idea was all the characters that talk communicate much less intently or purely than the characters that do not talk. That was certainly the intention in the movie.
“The Shape of Water” opens in select Charlotte-area theaters Dec. 15.