Guillermo del Toro discusses creative process, casting, and cinematography behind The Shape of Water

The filmmaker explains how this unique movie came to be

(Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore)

By: Alex Bloom

The Peak was recently invited to listen in on a press conference call with Guillermo del Toro, where he discussed his recently released film The Shape of Water. This film is a labour of love and del Toro has been developing it almost his whole life.

        He started by explained the origins of the concept: “Well, I actually was thinking about it since I was six years old . . . 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.”

When asked about working with cinematographer Dan Laustsen, who del Toro has worked with on past films, he elaborated on what makes them such a good pair, “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 lights; that type of thing gives a movie style but it doesn’t look artificial.” As del Toro mentioned, this is a lighting style that was heavily employed in The Shape of Water, giving it its unique visual flair.

The film, like some of del Toro’s previous works, is set during a particularly dark time in human history. He explained the choice to set The Shape of Water during the Cold War: “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.”

        Del Toro’s films often strive to combine the mundane and the mythical, and do so in a way that is deeply human and relatable. “I thought that . . . the Cold War [was the] perfect setting 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.”

Communication is a major theme in the film, the protagonist Elisa (Sally Hawkins) cannot speak, and neither can the amphibian man that so fascinates her. On having two characters that cannot communicate with each other using conventional methods, del Toro said, “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.”

        Del Toro also touched on working with Doug Jones, an actor that he has worked with on a multitude of occasions, starting in 1997. Jones also played an aquatic humanoid in the Hellboy films. Del Toro, however, is aware of the potential for comparison. In a separate interview, Jones assured audiences that the amphibian man that he plays in The Shape of Water is a very different character from Abe Sapien. For del Toro, casting Jones in this film was an easy decision. “…Doug is a really terrific actor. If I didn’t think that I wouldn’t have given him 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 . . .” Jones began his career as a trained mime, but according to del Toro, matured into a strong actor.

        Both Elisa and the amphibian man are looked upon as the other, and are dehumanized for their inability to speak. This is something that separates them from many people, but it is also something that brings them together.

        Every part in the film was cast with great care, and the part of Elisa was no exception. del Toro said this about his decision to cast Sally Hawkins as the protagonist: “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.”

        If the themes of communication, the Cold War, love, the supernatural, and what it means to be human interest you, than be sure you don’t miss this film.

        The Shape of Water was released in Canada on December 8, and is currently showing in some theatres.