The following article contains mxdwn Movies’ interviews with Guillermo del Toro, Michael Shannon, and Octavia Spencer, obtained during a series of roundtables at ‘The Shape of Water’ press junket in Los Angeles, CA.
Guillermo del Toro really loves monsters. Since his inspired reinvention of the vampire film with Cronos, in 1993, del Toro has consistently depicted some of cinema’s most iconic creatures: Pan’s Labyrinth’s Fauno, Hellboy’s Abe Sapien, Pacific Rim‘s Kaijus, and now the amphibious humanoid in The Shape of Water. With his eleventh film, set during the Cold War in a shadowy government research facility, del Toro audaciously asks audiences to be swept up in a romance between a mute janitor, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), and a captive gill-man (Doug Jones), a romance that, del Toro believes, is long overdue.
“Monsters were killed for the sake of normal people,” says del Toro. Since 1931, with the premiere of Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein, misunderstood monsters have been unjustly hunted by angry mobs wielding pitchforks and torches. “Monsters became patron saints of imperfection.”
In fact, del Toro characterizes himself not as a monster fan, but an “acolyte” – a devotee. “I pray to them every day because we’re all imperfect,” says del Toro, with a zeal that only seems to intensify with every film. “Monsters never lie. They are what they are. Godzilla is not going to call up your neighbors and go, ‘I promise I’m not going to step on your house.'”
Director Jack Arnold’s 1954 masterpiece, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, holds a special place in del Toro’s heart. “When I was six, I saw Julie Adams in her white bathing suit with the creature swimming underneath her, and I felt overwhelmed with art. I felt overwhelmed with emotions I couldn’t explain. I thought the movie would end well, and they would end up together – but they didn’t. The images stayed with me. It stayed for decades, until 2011,” which is the year del Toro began to write the screenplay for The Shape of Water, his most personal film to date.
Fortunately, del Toro has assembled an unparalleled cast: Hawkins (Blue Jasmine); del Toro’s longtime collaborator, Jones; Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals); Richard Jenkins, in a role originally written for John Hurt; Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man), and Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures).
“If he asked me to be in Michael Shannon’s office, in the background, as a plant that comes to life, I would have done it to work with Guillermo,” jokes Spencer, who portrays Elisa’s best friend, Zelda. “When you work with Guillermo, it’s all about authenticity. He sent me home with a mop because my character would talk while mopping.”
Zelda, for Spencer, is a familiar character. “I’ve played this archetype when I played Minny Jackson [The Help], but I’ve also played another woman from this era, Dorothy Vaughan from Hidden Figures. To have Zelda, as a woman from the same era, in similar circumstances – no civil rights, no agency as a woman of color – it made my day to never have to play those circumstances.”
The Shape of Water, like del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, critiques the pervasive abuse of power by fanatical men, and few actors depict fanaticism more convincingly than Shannon (he was General Zod in Man of Steel, for God’s sake). “I’m really focused on my work and the film itself,” says Shannon, regarding how he maintains his trademark intensity. “I’m just a real perfectionist. The thing I hate the most is waking up the next morning and thinking, ‘Oh, man, I should have done that!’ I’m trying to avoid that.”
Stuhlbarg, who co-starred alongside Shannon on Boardwalk Empire, notes Shannon’s dedication. “I’ve admired Michael forever. Watching him work with Guillermo was one of the highlights of this experience because I really got to see an artist protecting his own character in a way I’ve rarely ever seen before.” Shannon’s Strickland is not a stereotypical mustache-twirling villain, but a troubled man with “a lot of noise in his head,” as Shannon puts it. Stuhlbarg’s Mr. Hottstetler, on the other hand, is a government scientist and Russian spie who defies expectations: he wants to preserve the creature, not vivisect it.
Similarly, Giles (Jenkins), a closeted gay man and Elisa’s best friend/neighbor, roots for the unlikely romance between Elisa and an amphibious humanoid. “If [the film] is going to work, you have to root for these two getting together. I don’t know if [Guillermo] thought it was going to work until he saw it with an audience.”
With the human roles filled by several Oscar nominees and winners, The Shape of Water would have been incomplete without a sympathetic and strangely attractive creature. “We put three years into creating the creature,” says del Toro, spending his own money to finance designs. “I said, ‘There are two creatures we will not reference. One of them exists in the DNA of every amphibious creature – that’s the creature from the Black Lagoon. The second one is Abe Sapien because I’ve done it twice.’ You don’t go by what’s been done because then you’re quoting, and when you quote, you don’t create. When you reprocess, you do.”
The creature design is truly a sight to behold. “He’s really beautiful, and when you first see him, he’s really scary. It’s hard to do both,” says Jenkins, recalling when he first saw the screen test of Jones in the suit.
Like a modern day Lon Chaney Sr., Jones is a man of a thousand faces. “The prosthetics and makeup were nothing new, but the character behind it was,” says Jones. “I’m told I’m going to be the romantic leading male – really? Can that be done? Del Toro said to me, ‘Channel something real with Sally Hawkin’s character. Let the romance bloom from the connection and trust you build with each other.'”
The romance is palpable, and at times reminiscent of fanciful Hollywood romances from the ‘40s. And like every great romance, the audience envies the fateful couple by the end of the film. “The monster doesn’t have to transform by the end of the movie to be loveable or beautiful. He’s accepted. You don’t have to change,” says Jones. “You’re just worthy of that from the get-go.”
In other words, as del Toro bluntly put it, “Perversity is in the eye of the beholder.”
The Shape of Water splashes into theaters on December 7.
Watch the official trailer below: