Interview: Guillermo del Toro on How Making ‘The Shape of Water’ Helped Save His Life

It’s not all too common to refer to a movie about a sea creature as being beautiful, elegant and one helluva tearjerker, but that’s exactly the best way to describe Guillermo del Toro’s magnificent new film, The Shape of Water. In it, Sally Hawkins stars as a mute woman whose janitorial job at a mysterious laboratory leads to her uncovering of a sea creature being held captive and experimented on. She befriends the creature, then puts forth a plan to save it without being detected by the lab’s relentless security enforcer (Michael Shannon).

Can she save the day?

“The last thing I wanted was to have a passive heroine,” writer-director Guillermo del Toro told Fandango during a recent chat about the film, in theaters now in limited release (before expanding wider). “What is unique and beautiful about the heroine of this movie is that she is the engine of the entire movie. She is the one that is directing the men to do things. She is the one that galvanizes the other woman to help. She is the one that rescues the creature. She is the one that falls in love and tries to free the creature.”

Fandango: What aspect of this movie did you connect with the most personally? The monster movie stuff or the romantic nature of it?

Guillermo del Toro: You know, for me, it’s curious. I never think about what genre they belong to, because I mix so many genres in my movies. War movie, melodrama, musical, spy thriller. But what I can tell you is the theme of the movie is loneliness and love and empathy with the other. So, whatever served that story, for me, that idea, is what I connected with.

Look, I’m 53 now. And when I started making the movie, I was thinking, “What do I want to talk about?” What is closer in my life, on the biographical level right now, is to understand the urgency of communicating. The urgency of seeing the other with a forgiving gaze and not with hatred or fear. And the movie felt very urgent for our times, to talk about love without skepticism, with great emotion. That’s what I connected with.

Fandango: I read that you said this film saved your life in a way, and I’m curious to know how so.

GDT: Well, I think that I was coming out of two very hard releases, Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak, and I wanted to restate what am I doing as a storyteller and as a person. There’s a very contagious humanity in this movie that I wanted to try to make different.

Fandango: It’s also a wonderful love letter to the movies themselves. Is our relationship with the big screen still a romantic one?

GDT: No, I don’t think so. I think that that’s part of the reason I made the movie. I wanted to make the movie not only about loving the great movies but loving cinema. Sunday cinema, the cinema that you don’t quite remember but that is there. The Story of Ruth, Mardi Gras. The little stories that can lift you up when you’re down.

Fandango: The reminder that going out to the theater makes you feel good. It’s good for the soul…

GDT: And I think that it would be a longer discussion, but I think that cinema is losing terrain in the cultural discourse and shifting towards other mediums. I really think that it is important that we remember or remind ourselves that the mythical stature of movies, the generation of mythical-stature images, that’s the only thing we have that is done only for cinema.

Fandango: Speaking of movies… . If you were to curate a playlist of movies for someone to watch after they watch Shape of Water, what would be on there? Perhaps some of the movies you looked to for insipiration?

GDT: I would saying Singing in the Rain, Charade, Written in the Wind. I would also say Best Years of Our Lives or Jezebel or The Letter. I would say … Let me think. Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus, and Tales of Hoffmann.

Fandango: And no creature features?

GDT: Zero creature features.

Fandango: Zero creature features?

GDT: Zero, because they are on my DNA. I don’t need to re-watch anything. I watched it as a religion when I was a kid and when I was young and a beginning filmmaker. I think all that is absorbed. I don’t need to see it again. But the movie is so utterly its own thing that I don’t want to subscribe it to only one genre.

Fandango: What was it about Sally Hawkins that sold you on putting her front and center as the star of the film?

GDT: When I was watching one of her many movies that I admire, one movie called Submarine. I saw that she was a secondary character, but one that seemed to manage to [stand out] in the foreground. We have the misconception that an actor is an actor that delivers great lines. But an actor is an actor that looks and listens. And she looked and listened in such a real, provocative, beautiful way that I thought, “She can do an entire performance without a single line.”

Fandango: Did you write these parts with these actors in mind? Michael Shannon’s role, in particular – that feels very Michael Shannon.

GDT: I wrote the movie for Octavia Spencer, Doug Jones, Michael Shannon, and Sally Hawkins. I wrote it specifically for them because Michael can bring vulnerability to a character. He can bring some strange form of fascination at worst and empathy at best for a villain like this. And that’s why we follow him home. That’s why we have a moment with him and the general in which you feel his pain.

And in the same way that he is unique, [Sally] is one of the most beautiful, luminous faces on cinema, but you can believe that you can find her in a bus stop. And Shannon is one of the most imposing figures in cinema, but you believe that he has his own sad reasons to be the way he is.

Fandango: And about the creature – how long did it take to find the right look and feel for him?

GDT: The creature in itself took three years to develop. And it’s a gorgeous creation, a suit and a makeup that is utterly beautiful and sublime because he’s not a creature. He’s a leading man, he’s a star. And on top of that, it is not a real animal. It is an elemental god from the Amazon River. And that becomes clearer and clearer the more you progress. The true nature of this creature is divine. We needed for the design to be able to inspire awe when the time came.

Fandango: How do you feel about the film potentially being a major player this awards season?

GDT: You know, if it is, it’s a good thing to be ready or unready for. It happened with Pan’s Labyrinth, [so] I know what I’m getting into. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of beauty, also, [and] rewarding contact with people that love your movie. And it carries its own reward, for me.