By Bonnie Laufer
The Shape of Water is the latest fantasy film from director Guillermo del Toro. And it surpasses anything he has every done. Prepare to be flattened… and irrevocably charmed.
The film stars Sally Hawkins as a mute custodial worker who sparks a romance with an amphibious creature being tested on in a Cold War-era government facility.
Hotly tipped to snag Oscar nods, the film has already been widely feted, picking up the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival (where it made its debut) and winning critical raves during its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. The film — partly shot in Toronto where del Toro maintains a residence — is the director’s “most favourite film” to date.
Original Cin spoke with Del Toro in Los Angeles about this extraordinary movie and why he decided to tackle it at this point in his career.
ORIGINAL CIN: This is a very different direction for you. Do you think you could have made this film say five years ago?
GUILLERMO DEL TORO: No, absolutely not. Not in many ways. Technically, mentally I was not in the space to do it and it became a very personal movie as it was developed. I honestly didn't realize how affecting it was going to be for me, how taxing it was going to be and how difficult it was. Just working with all of the water was a nightmare! Every aspect of working on this film was the most rewarding but also the most challenging experience of my life.
OC: I love that you wrote the screenplay with most of these actors in mind.
GDT: Yes, I really wanted to work with this cast.
OC: How cool was it for you to pick up the phone and say, 'Hey I wrote this movie with you in mind. Do you want to do this?’ and they all said, ‘Of course!’
GDT: That was really cool! Honestly, it was really a privilege when you get to work with actors that you've admired through the years. I've been doing this for 25 years and I have been such a big fan of everyone in this film's work. The other thing that was great is that Miles Dale (Guillermo's producing partner) and myself we made it a point to make every head of department on this shoot Canadian. We love working in Toronto where there is such incredible talent. This really was a dream come true for me on so many levels.
OC: You have created so many amazing creatures in your work that include some creepy ones and scary ones but never a sexy one! How did you pull that off?
GDT: Well, the creature in this movie is not a creature, it's not a monster; it's a leading man. He's a star. Plus, he's a god, he's an elemental god from the river so we needed to create a perfect swimmer's body and you need to qualify his face so you can believe they should kiss. He had to have beautiful lips, expressive eyes, soulful eyes. The symmetry, harmony and the beauty in the face was not easy. We spent three years designing and executing the creature and it's a real suit. Doug Jones our extraordinary actor who I have worked with on five of my other films wore a full body latex suit. It's not a CG creature is a real actor with a real suit and real make-up effect. It was quite an achievement
OC: By now you must have quite a shorthand with Doug Jones. There are not very many actors who could pull something like this off. What is it about this man that he actually makes us believe that this character is in some way human? When he had his scenes with Sally Hawkins I honestly never even thought I was watching a fishman.
GDT: What he does is he becomes graceful, powerful and vulnerable as an actor. He does all those things so you forget everything about the creature except that you want him to do well, you empathize. That I think is the biggest leap because if we live in a time where we're demonizing the other the best thing one can do is understand the other and that's what the movie helps you do.
OC: You've been so passionate about filmmaking and creating monsters for your entire life. If you could look back and revisit a young Guillermo Del Toro what would he say about what you've achieved with your life?
GDT: Ha! That's a great question! I don't know but he would be very happy because I have a lot of collectibles and monsters and toys and books and movies. He would probably say can I go home and play? I would say come to my place and play! Have fun!
OC: Sally Hawkins is so extraordinary. It is truly amazing what she does without speaking one word. Why was it her that you wanted her as your leading lady?
GDT: She's more expressive with her face than if she had lines and lines and lines of dialogue. People have the misconception that an actor is an actor that delivers great lines but an actor is an actor that looks and listens and that is present. She does more without any lines and lets her eyes and body do the acting in a way that is more profound and more affecting than if she was saying sweet little nothing's. It's really much more powerful.
REVIEW: THE SHAPE OF WATER
By Kim Hughes
Visually stunning and emotionally direct despite its phantasmagoric premise, director Guillermo del Toro’s drama about a mute and otherwise overlooked custodial worker who falls for an amphibious creature imprisoned in a Cold War-era government facility reminds us that fear of the ‘other’ says more about us than the object of our derision. But the egghead stuff will come later. To see The Shape of Water is to be catapulted into a dream world of dancing raindrops and swirling colours that toggle between scary and cool. Smart money says you’ll enjoy the sensation either way.
Sally Hawkins is resplendent as the caretaker who despite being voiceless communicates the movie’s main message: the heart wants what the heart wants even when the stakes are high and the outcome wildly uncertain. Costars Octavia Spencer (as Hawkins’ coworker), Richard Jenkins (her fatherly neighbour) and Michael Shannon as her nemesis — the agent keen to see Amphibian Man in slivers pressed between slides under a microscope — expertly propel the narrative.
But it’s del Torro go-to actor Doug Jones as Amphibian Man who makes Hawkins’ humanity in the face of the weirdest situation ever seem completely rational. Don’t be surprised if People magazine’s next Sexiest Man Alive has fins.
The Shape Of Water. Written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, Starring Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg and Octavia Spencer. Opens December 8 in Toronto; December 15 in Vancouver; and wide December 22.