Guillermo del Toro talks The Shape Of Water, Sally Hawkins and making an adult fairytale

We talk to Guillermo del Toro about his beautiful new creature love story The Shape Of Water

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape Of Water finally hits UK cinemas today and it is absolutely worth the wait (just in case all those glowing reviews and awards hadn’t tipped you off…). It’s an adult fairytale that is a beautiful love story, an incredible fantasy, a tribute to great Hollywood monsters and a powerful piece of political and social commentary all at once.

Sally Hawkins stars as Elisa Esposito, a mute cleaning woman who works at a secretive government facility in 1962. One day, the sinister Strickland (Michael Shannon) wheels in a creature from the Amazon (Doug Jones) in a tank and everything changes. Elisa and this aquatic man form a bond that becomes something deeper, but can she rescue him before Strickland decides to cut him open?

We talked to del Toro about the process of making this film, why Sally Hawkins is brilliant in Paddington, and why this is the film he’s proudest of.

What was your first encounter with Creature From The Black Lagoon?

When I was six, they had most of the Universal library on Channel 6 every Sunday in my hometown. So, I was about six years old, and I saw the movie and I fell in love with Julie Adams and I fell in love with the creature. 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.

So, this is a story that you’ve had in your head for a while?

Yeah, I tried to do it, 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. Then 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 in Toronto when we were prepping Pacific Rim and we talked and we were getting ready to do Troll Hunters as a book 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 and I thought that thematically made sense to me.

Was the 1962 setting always a key element?

I knew I wanted to make it about now, not about then, but most of the time the fairytale needs “Once Upon A Time”. So, I thought, “What is the most cherished time in American history, 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 scepticism is born. But when people say “Let’s make America great again” they’re thinking of ’62, I think. But this is if you were a WASP. If you were a minority the problems were horrible.

That comes across with Michael Shannon’s character Strickland, he obviously doesn’t think he’s being as monstrous as he is…

Well, for example his racism is very casual. He’s not an active racist, he’s just casually racist. He is a misogynist, but he doesn’t see himself as such, he sees himself as a “decent” man and he says so. But in reality, his function is horrible, and basically, I’m trying to subvert or reverse the paradigm of Creature From The Black Lagoon where the Creature having the girl in its arms is a beautiful image and the image of the square jawed well-suited armed government agent is the negative one. He is the only kinky perverse character in the movie. The rest of the characters have different sexual lives, but they are all born out of genuine passion and genuine love.

It was refreshing to see a film that follows its characters home and shows us their lives outside of the main plot.

Even though Shannon functions very much as an antagonist, I wanted you to get a sense that he also had beliefs. That he believes in a dream that was very hollow but that his heart is also broken in the movie and he is let down. And I wanted to see Giles and Zelda operating at home, because then you have a multi-strand narrative, you know?

Am I right in thinking that you wrote the characters for these actors?

I wrote it for Sally Hawkins, I wrote it for Doug, I wrote it for Michael Shannon, and I wrote it for Octavia Spencer. Richard Jenkins was fantastic, I had originally written it thinking of Ian McKellen in Gods And Monsters, sort of a James Whale. I thought he could have been perfect, and then when Ian couldn’t do it I immediately rewrote it for an American actor and I went to Richard Jenkins. He was the first and only actor we went to.

What is it about Sally Hawkins that made her the perfect choice for Elisa?

I found her amazing in Fingersmith, and then I found her amazing in Submarine, Happy-Go-Lucky, Blue Jasmine, even something like Paddington. What I thought was remarkable in Paddington was she was looking at the bear as if it was there. 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 specifically and when I pitched it to 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.

What was the process of finding the right creature design like?

Well, the first thing I talked to the design team and I said, look, there are two things we’re not going to refer to. I said “We’re not going to refer to Creature From The Black Lagoon because that’s already in the DNA. We all know it. It’s like you’re designing a giant ape, King Kong is in the DNA, you don’t have to even address it. But the one we’re going to avoid systematically is Abe Sapien, because if you take Abe Sapien from the Hellboy movie and put it in the middle of this film, it won’t work. Because Abe is designed almost with the lines of a car, he’s very straight, very linear, very smooth, he’s painted in primary colours, primary blue, and not a realistic paint job, it’s more like a comic book pattern. The only thing we could take from Abe was the system, not the design, but the system we used for the eyes.

I did think of Abe when I first saw the eggs but Doug Jones is doing something so different.

Yes, of course! Well that’s the first thing I said to Doug Jones, because Abe is sort of a fastidious, Ivy League, preppy guy, you know? And I said of course we’re not doing any of that but you also need to have a very animalistic, very self-possessed centre but it’s not human, so you need to be sort of predatorial, and then when you make contact with her you have to get a beautiful bullfighter pose, or like a Baryshnikov, but in the meantime he’s sort of a beast. Then he goes into this beautiful pose that is very masculine but very unaffected.

When we sculpted him, I was always thinking of Johnny Weissmuller in Tarzan And His Bride. Broad shoulders, slender not bulky, and we sculpted the creature very much to carry that pose and Doug understood that he was a force of nature. Not a creature of earth or of water, it was more of a creature that was a god, that was elemental, and I think he has that power.

It’s a fantasy fairytale but it is adult in its approach to sexuality and violence. Had you always conceived it as having that edge?

Yes, 100%. In a strange way it is my first adult movie and in a strange way 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, and this movie I wanted very much to make it a movie that shows in an incredible natural and not perverse way, that love can take any shape. That love can be 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.

He’s not going to be “civilized”, he is what he is…

Yeah, that’s why it was important, Richard and I agreed that it was important to throw in something like that line “Is he a god?” I don’t know, he ate a cat! He can be both. He can be a god that eats cats! But then you see him domesticated by the movies in the theatre. It’s not a human but it is a sensitive creature.

You made this on a much lower budget than your last few films, but it looks incredible. How challenging was the shoot?

Incredibly difficult. Because we were trying to make a 60-million-dollar movie for 19.5. What is astounding being 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?” and I did shoot faster. Can I shoot better, more mobile with a camera on a lower budget. Can I pack that kind of musical camerawork from a Stanley Donen musical in that budget because it’s very time consuming?

And the answer was yes, in spite of, or in exchange for my mental health and peace, it was a very difficult shoot, it was one of the most difficult shoots we’ve ever had, very unpleasant in terms of anecdotes and speed because we needed to move, move, move, but very fulfilling in terms of actor director relationships, aesthetic choices. Everything was very controlled on the visual aspect but boy was it difficult and very exhausting. 65 days. And to give you a number, Hellboy 2 was 137 days, Pacific Rim 117 days, Crimson Peak 75 days. But I decided to do it because Crimson Peak cost over $50 million and that’s why they had to market it as a horror film to recoup $150, which they didn’t, so I felt “OK, if I want this marketed for what it is, I need to make it for under 20.”

You said that Crimson Peak was a feathered fish, and this definitely is as well….

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 Crimson had it 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.

I was worried when I first saw the trailer that it gave too much away, but when you watch the film, it doesn’t at all,.

It doesn’t, you see one of the things that people say negatively or positively about my movies sometimes is that the plot is too simple, and I’m fine with that. I want the plots to be simple, it’s the details that I like to be complex. Of course, to me even a simple movie like Pacific Rim in terms of course the robots are going to win, of course we’re going to destroy the monsters, of course the hero is an outcast, but the interesting thing to me are the details within that. The story of Mako, that’s what attracted me to Pacific Rim, not the story of Raleigh, the story of Mako. Or something like Pan’s Labyrinth. I make it very clear from the beginning of the movie that the girl is going to die, but then the important thing is what do I do with the fairytale.

The political element to this film is obviously something that a lot of people have connected with.

Well, to me as a Mexican I’ve always had a sort of Midnight Express experience when I go through customs and immigration in the US. 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. The creature, 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], and a dirty slimy thing that comes from South America to Michael Shannon, and it’s all those things for each of them and I think that I tried to show that the otherness actually can pull us closer rather than allowing ideology to tear us apart.

How have you found the experience of showing the film?

Of course, you always worry. 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 then on a secondary level which is incredibly important, it’s how does it connect with people? Of course you feel very happy when it connects with a lot of people but after 25 years the main satisfaction for me with every movie is not how many people it connects with but how deeply a movie connects with people. The first Hellboy connected with a generation of kids that were 8 or 10 years old back then and are now in their late teens or early 20s, and it’s great to see that. I think Crimson Peak connects very deeply with the people that love it, and I think this movie is very genuinely from the heart and it connects at an emotional level.

The Shape Of Water is in UK cinemas now. Read our review here.