Guillermo del Toro’s latest fantastical drama The Shape of Water might be his best to date.

The story centers on Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute custodian who works at a government lab and ends up falling in love with an amphibian creature (Doug Jones), who has been captured and brought to the facility for further observation. She ends up saving the creature from being experimented on, and the two enter into a very different but beautiful romance. It also stars Michael Shannon as the government baddie who wants to destroy the creature; Michael Stuhlbarg as a scientist who revers it and wants to study it; Octavia Spencer as Elisa’s sympathetic and tough co-worker; and Richard Jenkins as Elisa’s neighbor and best friend who has issues of his own.

The Shape of Water combines cinematic and fairy tale elements near and dear to del Toro’s heart, and the writer/director spoke with us at the press day to share his joy in making this movie. Here are six things we learned from the master filmmaker.

On how real fairy tales are not really for children, hence the R-rating:

Guillermo Del Toro: The reality is fairy tales in their origins, they were not for kids. They were storytellers that went from one town to another and earned their keep by telling a story for exchange of warm fire and a meal and a bed. Most of those travelers are tailors and shoemakers… and they were also soldiers, that’s why there were a lot of soldiers in the stories. They used them in the political climate of the time, wars and famine. You remember Hansel and Gretel, it was a horrible story about famine about parents who can’t feed their kids and they abandon their kids in the woods to die. I think at its root, the fable and the parable are sort of linked. They’re really suited for adult audiences. The main thing is the spirit of the tale and it’s gentle or uplifting or beautiful, moving or terrifying but the fairy tales can do all these things.

On the theme of silence:

Del Toro: The one things love does is make you speechless – and words lie, but looks and touch don’t. And I thought it was beautiful to recognize it. As you see at the end of the movie, the creature and [Elisa] may have more in common than we thought. I wanted to start the movie showing you she has a perfectly content life. She doesn’t go to the balcony and say, “If I ever meet a prince…” She’s not longing for it but he arrives and they recognize each other. They start a contact that is more deep than if it were with words. And I think those two characters have that silence and they have each other.

When I started working with Sally, I gave her a Blu-ray set of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, who I really thought was important. I told her to study Stan Laurel because he does nothing but says everything. She moves differently than the rest of the characters. She moves like a movie character in a way. When she climbs the stairs, I told her do it like Audrey Hepburn. Her hand is ahead of her, running up the stairs. Much like the amphibian man, he moves the same way. And all this without words.

On writing this script for Sally Hawkins:

Del Toro: I wrote it first for Sally and then for Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer and Doug Jones. Because Doug and I really have a long rapport, and I knew what he could do. In the story of Beauty and the Beast, Beauty is a pretty perfect princess that lives on a pedestal. She’s perfect in every way. And the Beast needs to conform into a boring prince for them to get together. [Elisa] is not a pretty princess on a pedestal. It’s clear that she a complete woman, and not an idealized thing. She is someone that is extraordinarily cinematic and beautiful and luminous, but someone you could find at the bus stop. And the Beast does not transform in order to get her. Because love is not transformation, it’s acceptance and understanding. I wrote it for Sally because she has an incredible quality. I think she’s one of the best actresses we have now. Her essence is very pure, not innocent, pure. There’s an authenticity to her.

On collaborating with the cast:

Del Toro: We rehearsed for a long time, and we talked for a long time. I gave them each an eight-page biography of their character. Not to Sally or Doug because they already owned the characters. We’d been working so long and they knew their characters. The rest had different responses. Richard Jenkins said, ‘This is nice but I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ Michael Shannon said, ‘This is nice, not sure if it will help.’ Michael Stuhlbarg took it like the Bible. Octavia Spencer thought it was the greatest thing and she played with it. Different actors have different needs.

On the design of the Creature:

Del Toro: It took three years, and I financed the design out of pocket because I wanted to take the time. The fact I did an amphibian man twice in Hellboy one and two meant the opposite. I didn’t want any of that. If you take Abe Sapien and put him in this movie, it wouldn’t work. What we needed to design was not an animal. He may live in the river but he’s an elemental god. He was worshiped in the Amazon and there’s a reason for it, so I needed to create an image almost of a pagan god, with the perfect, sculpted swimmer body. Perfect shoulder to butt ratio, and that took awhile. Moving the face, millimeter by millimeter. How thick are the lips? And the eyes, which was so important because he looks at her. He’s a physical creature. He’s not a CG. One way they looked evil or sad. Closed, he doesn’t look smart enough. Too far apart, he looks alien. So we moved all those elements for a year until it’s right.

The Shape of Water continues to prove Guillermo del Toro's genius.

On the message of the movie:

Del Toro: It’s about love and understanding. The same thing. Understanding is love, there’s no difference. So that’s why most of the things we hate, we don’t understand. We live in a time where divisions are done by ideology. It makes it easier to control. And they absolve us of responsibility. When they tell you all your problems are them – immigrants, illegals – whatever it is, you say, “Of course it is! It’s not me, the problem is they are taking my job. They’re the criminals.” It’s an illusion. It’s not us vs. them, it’s only us. So if you understand a person, you love a person. You can be with that person.

I think [The Shape of Water] is about taking something completely unknown and seeing how different people look at it. One guy looks at it like a filthy thing that came from South America, and the other guy sees this thing as a miracle of nature and science. Another sees it as a possible god that is doing miracles, and another sees it as an essential part she’s been looking for all her life. That’s at the root.

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