It all started with Creature From The Black Lagoon: “Every Sunday they had most of the Universal library on Channel 6 in my hometown,” remembers Guillermo del Toro. “So, I was about six years old, and I saw it. I fell in love with Julie Adams and I fell in love with the Creature. And I really wanted them to end up together because the Creature was so lonely and Julie Adams seemed to be out of place with the rest of the guys, they were kind of regular creeps! I thought that could be a great love story and it wasn’t, it didn’t end well so I wanted to correct that.”
Forty years and many incredible movie monsters later, and the filmmaker righted 1954’s wrong. Julie Adams may have never connected with the Creature in that way, but The Shape Of Water delivers a wonderful romance between Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaning woman at a secret government facility in 1962, and an amphibian creature (Doug Jones) captured in the Amazon who had been worshipped as a god. It’s a film that only Guillermo del Toro could make: a tender love story that’s violent, sexual and somehow innocent. A work of social commentary that peels back the glossy veneer on America’s golden period. A fairy tale that is profoundly human, and a courtship between a woman and an amphibian creature that never takes its characters any less than absolutely seriously.
“I loved it immediately, I loved the idea,” remembers Richard Jenkins, who plays Elisa’s neighbour and confidant Giles. “But I didn’t see the movie that you see now. I mean, I saw a lot of it but I didn’t see Guillermo del Toro’s imagination when I read the script. I didn’t understand it, I didn’t know that was coming. I thought: ‘How are you going to make this work?’ And I think he thought: ‘How am I going to make this work?’ It’s a very tricky thing to do. He said: ‘They’re either going to go with me on this or they’re going to laugh me off the screen.’ He didn’t say: ‘It’s a love story but it’s with a creature,’ he just said: ‘If you’re in love what do you do?’”
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the challenges, del Toro tinkered with the idea for The Shape Of Water for years. This wasn’t simply a story that had been sitting in the prolific filmmaker’s legendary ‘to-do’ pile. “I actually pitched it as a B-horror movie idea but then when I elaborated on it I didn’t find it satisfactory, because when you go through the scientists and the secret agent it’s kind of boring,” he remembers. “And I tried it with Abe Sapien and the Princess on Hellboy II, a nice love story between different people, but it didn’t work the way I wanted it. And then in 2011, I was having breakfast with Daniel Kraus and he said: ‘You know, I have an idea for a janitor that discovers an amphibian man in a super-secret government facility and decides to take him home,’ and I thought: ‘That’s the way to do it.’ Doing it not through the big doors but through the back doors of service in a huge facility, that thematically made sense to me.”
Enter Elisa Esposito, who cleans the facility with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Her life is rigorously set to a routine, from the moment she wakes up and puts an egg in boiling water to when she clocks out of work for the day. But that routine is disrupted when stern government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) arrives with his strange new specimen, a completely new discovery that could be the element that puts the Americans over the Russians and win them the Cold War. To Elisa, however, this creature is not an asset. He’s something much more important.
That Cold War setting is a gift to the film on many levels. First of all, it’s the perfect way to discuss the issues we face today, with fear, prejudice, paranoia and violence covered under the blanket of strength and patriotism. “I knew I wanted to make it about now, not about then,” del Toro explains. “But most of the time the fairy tale needs ‘Once Upon A Time,’ so I thought: ‘What is the most cherished time in recent American History?’ I thought of 1962 because it’s when everybody is talking about the future, the space race is on and you have beautiful jet fin cars, suburban life, a TV in every house, Kennedy in the White House and Vietnam is starting to escalate. And then Kennedy’s shot, Vietnam escalates and everything kind of dies and skepticism is born. But when people say: ‘Let’s make America great again’ they’re thinking of ‘62. But this is if you were a WASP. If you were a minority the problems were horrible.”
This is an intention that del Toro has carried with him right from the beginning of developing the film, and while the film’s message clearly rings especially true at this moment, the filmmaker explains that it’s always been there. “As a Mexican I’ve always had a sort of Midnight Express experience when I go through customs and immigration in the US,” he says. “Through the years you get a sense of all the things that are not well so I started writing the movie with this in mind, I was already feeling the undercurrent of what is now very above ground.
“But I think what the movie says or what the movie shows is that the ‘other’ can be many things to many people,” he continues. “The amphibian man is a god to Giles, a beautiful recognition of her own nature for [Elisa], a wonderful natural being for Michael Stuhlbarg’s character [Dr Robert Hoffstetler – a scientist with a secret], and a dirty slimy thing that comes from South America to [Strickland], and I tried to show that the otherness actually can pull us closer rather than allowing ideology to tear us apart.”
“He wanted the people in this movie that everyone overlooked,” adds Jenkins.
Of course, once the story was in place, the next piece of the puzzle was Doug Jones. The actor behind the amphibian has been a staple of del Toro’s films since playing one of the creatures in Mimic 20 years ago, bringing the likes of Pan’s Labyrinth’s Faun and Pale Man, Hellboy’s Abe Sapien and Crimson Peak’s ghostly mother to life. However, he tells us that del Toro had some concerns about whether he’d want to take on The Shape Of Water’s leading role: the film’s adult nature. This is not a PG fairy tale, this is a love story that is very open about its sexuality.
“In a strange way it’s my first adult movie and also it’s my first life-affirming movie; all the others have a tinge of nostalgia and loss and they are all centred on paraphrasing my childhood,” del Toro explains. “I wanted to make it a movie that shows, in an incredibly natural and not perverse way, that love can take any shape. That love can have many, many forms, and I thought it was important to show that in this Beauty And The Beast, Beauty makes breakfast, shines her shoes and masturbates in the first three minutes, and that the Beast is not going to turn into the Prince, and yet when they have sex it’s shown in a very matter of fact way. It’s not the centrepiece of the movie, it’s not the reason to be.”
“We were working on Crimson Peak, and he pulled me into his office to present this idea to me of the next movie he wanted to make, a smaller budget movie with some more artistic drive to it, and I was just so tickled pink to hear about that because it sounded reminiscent of our Pan’s Labyrinth days together,” Jones remembers. “He said: ‘The reason I wanted to ask you about it today, Dougie, is, well, you’re a good Catholic boy and I wanted to make sure you’re okay with this.’ Oh boy, oh jeez, here we go, what’s wrong? So, he used a cuss word beginning with f, and he said, he was hinting there was steamy love scenes to be had, and I said: ‘Oh dear, does that mean, wait, the creature and the cleaning lady, right?’”
However, whatever Jones’ concerns may have been, he tells us that they had dissipated by the time that del Toro had laid the story out. “There was an innocence to this and the Catholic boy in me was totally fine with this,” he laughs. “I told him: ‘I don’t even think the Bible has a protocol for animals in the wild getting married first! I assume it’s okay, we’ll be okay!’ So, the innocence of that love really made this one, and he kept stressing to me: ‘You’re the romantic leading male of this film.’ That was a new twist for me, I had never been the romantic lead of any film before, human or monster, so that was a new twist to me and it brought a new element of stress and pressure for me to pull this one off.”
Thankfully for Jones, his fellow actors were very understanding of the strains of his work. “Oh, I was brutal with Doug!” laughs Jenkins. “’Please, I could put a fish suit on and everybody would think I’d be great too. Oh, that’s really hard, Doug.’ The first scene I shot with him is the scene where he’s in the tub and I say: ‘Have you always been alone your whole life?’ And we were waiting to shoot and I was thinking: ‘Guy in a fish suit sitting in the bathtub, I don’t know how this going to work… ’ And then they said action, and he changed. ‘Oh, I get it now.’ Doug is the nicest man ever. Oh my god, I was brutal. He loved to laugh, so I’d just say [incredibly drily]: ‘Oh, that was good. Really good take, Doug.’”
The other half of this silent, beautiful relationship is Elisa. It’s the kind of character that demands an extraordinary performance, and Sally Hawkins is truly exceptional in the film. Not only does the actor convey every emotion so vividly that you’re on the brink of heartbreak or joy at a moment’s notice, she completely sells this determined character who falls for this extraordinary creature.
“I found her amazing in Fingersmith, Submarine, Happy Go Lucky, Blue Jasmine, even something like Paddington,” enthuses del Toro. “What I thought was remarkable in Paddington was she was looking at the bear as if it was there. And then what I found remarkable in Fingersmith is this love story between these fabulous two women was not done in a titillating or perverse way, it was just matter-of-fact. And then what I loved about Submarine was she did a lot of the acting silently, just by presence and looks, and I thought ‘I can write this for her.’ I started writing it for her around 2013 with her in mind and when I pitched it to Fox Searchlight in 2014, I said that’s one of my conditions, the one and only choice for her is Sally Hawkins. I think she has one of the most luminous beautiful faces in cinema today and at the same time you could believe that you could see her in a bus in the middle of a city. She has a reality and yet an otherworldly luminosity to her.”
“Oh yeah, Sally Hawkins is an angel from heaven,” agrees Jones. “I can’t say enough good about her. I’ve never worked with a talent like her ever before. I’ve worked with a lot of fantastic actresses over my 30-year career but Sally Hawkins is in a class all of her own. When action is called and cameras are rolling, something very magical happens where you’re playing a real moment with a real person in a real setting, and all the cameras and the crew and the boom mic and everything, it all disappears and you are just entranced by the reality of what’s being placed in front of you. Connecting with her on film was the easiest thing I’ve ever done.”
While the story and the emotions of these two characters are the centre of the film, it almost goes without saying that it is beautifully made and meticulously designed. From the clinical coldness of the lab to the warm creakiness of Elisa and Giles’ apartments, this is as gorgeous as any film del Toro has made, and that’s purely from a design point of view. The camera work by Dan Lausten (Crimson Peak, Silent Hill), the soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat, the effects work… it’s all stunning. And remember, this was the little personal project del Toro was talking about while promoting Crimson Peak.
“It looked like a classic Hollywood movie to me,” marvels Jenkins. “He speaks in film language, the way he shoots, he understands how to make a movie, what film can do that theatre can’t. That’s what he understands, that’s what he uses and I wasn’t ready for it. I was dying for it but I didn’t expect it. As soon as I saw my apartment, the set, I knew it was going to be something different, something that I always hoped movies would be. I walked into that place and everything was authentic of the time period but nothing was real. It was just… I knew I was in a movie set. It was a piece of art.”
“It was incredibly difficult,” the filmmaker affirms. “Because we were trying to make a 60-million-dollar movie for 19.5. What is astounding is that the movie was made for the exact same amount of money as Pan’s Labyrinth and yet it looks four times its size. And the trick there was: ‘Can I shoot faster? Can I shoot better, more mobile, on a lower budget? Can I pack that kind of musical camera work from a Stanley Donen musical in that budget?’ And the answer was yes, in exchange for my mental health and peace. It was one of the most difficult shoots we’ve ever had, very fulfilling, but boy was it difficult and very exhausting.”
The budget and the tight production schedule were the trade-off that del Toro knew he had to make, not only in order to make the film, but to ensure that it was advertised for what it was. Trying to make it fit into an easy box simply wouldn’t work. “Crimson Peak cost over 50 million dollars and that’s why they had to market it as a horror film, to recoup 150, which they didn’t,” he explains. “So, I felt that if I wanted this marketed for what it is, I needed to make it for under 20. This is a feathered fish but then you can market it as a feathered fish. The problem is marketing a feathered fish as just a fish or just a fowl. I think if Crimson had been marketed as a strange Gothic romance it would have probably been better understood, but I don’t know. I think this movie is the movie I’m the proudest of because it pulls off a very eclectic combination of musical, melodrama, comedy, thriller, spy movie, and yet it feels of a piece.”
He’s not the only one who thinks that they pulled it off. Since the film premiered at Venice, The Shape Of Water has been flooded with five star reviews and awards nominations, and is shaping up to be a strong contender for the Oscars [in the end it had 13 Oscar nominations back in 2018, and won four trophies including Best Picture and Best Director]. As we mentioned previously, given the subject matter, there must have been some concerns about how this was all going to go over, and the answer is ‘extraordinarily well’.
“Well, of course, you always worry,” del Toro nods. “I think that the success and failure at the first level only exists within you. At the primary level, it’s about how much you love the movie you make. But on a secondary level, which is incredibly important, is: how does it connect with people? And you feel very happy when it connects with a lot of people but the main satisfaction after 25 years of career for me in every movie is not how many people it connects with but how deeply a movie connects with people.”
“I knew going in that we had something special,” enthuses Jones. “Going back to that first day with Guillermo describing the story to me, I thought to myself: ‘Hmm, this could be the movie that gets him back at the Oscars again,’ so when I saw those early reviews I was like: ‘Hah, I might have called it!’”
“It’s not finished until somebody sees it, it’s a public art, it’s for you guys,” adds Jenkins. “This connects. You think: ‘I love this but what if nobody else does, does that make me out of my mind?’ Because you always believe that there’s an emotional connection that all people get when it’s right, and when you see a movie that everybody loves you go: ‘Oh, okay, I know why.’ But it’s so hard to do and I think he did it this time. My mother and father would have liked this. It’s a Hollywood movie. It’s a beautiful, beautiful love story. It’s like Frank Capra made a genre movie.”