Opening in limited release this weekend, and going wider on December 8th, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a Cold War era romance fable starring Sally Hawkins as a woman who works in the cleaning staff on a top secret government research facility. Her character, Elisa, was rendered mute as an infant from an injury she sustained, and this has shaped much of her worldview. Her only friends are her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her artist neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins). But everything changes when the cruel Col. Strickland (played by Michael Shannon) arrives with a tank for the facility’s team of researchers (of which, the head researcher is played by Michael Stuhlbarg) that holds a specimen (Doug Jones) that will alter everything Elisa understands about love and humanity.
I had a chance to join a number of colleagues for a short conference call with Guillermo to discuss the film and some of his thought process surrounding this unique romance tale:
When you began conceptualizing these characters did you write them with certain actors in mind, or did you get extremely lucky with casting? I can’t imagine anyone playing these parts other than Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, etc.
No. 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.
I’ve read that you spent a lot of time on the design of the creature that Doug Jones plays. Can you talk about how you hoped audiences would react to him the first time we see him on screen and how the design of the costume contributed to the reaction you wanted to get?
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.
Colonel Strickland is one of the more striking characters throughout the film. We learn quite a bit about his personal home life, his externalized pressures at work. Why was it so important to you that the audience identify with the traditional villain character of the film?
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.
*SLIGHT SPOILERY QUESTION, BE WARNED* Regarding the scene where the monster eats Giles’ cat, was that your homage to Frankenstein with the little girl, or was there some other inspiration behind that? What did you want people to take away from it?
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.
Can you talk a little bit about the visual style of the film? It feels like you went a little more film noir instead of the visual style for which you’re known, but that opulence is still present.
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.
A lot of your films like The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth and now this, they’re set against this war backdrop, but then again they also have this fantastical or supernatural theme to them. My question is what is it about that dynamic that has you continually returning to it?
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.
Entertainment Editor for The Beat covering film, television and the occasional comic book. His work can also be found at GeekRex.com and can be heard on the GeekRex podcast. Also, your go-to Grant Morrison/Love & Rockets/Hellboy/Legion of Super-Heroes expert.