From his earliest days growing up in Guadalajara, Mexico, Guillermo del Toro has been telling stories about escaping to realms governed by monsters. His latest film, The Shape of Water, continues the tradition that he has specialised in thanks to his earlier films such such as Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth (for which he was Oscar nominated), Pacific Rim and, most recently, Crimson Peak.
Where did this idea come from?
In the 90s I pitched the idea of making an amphibian man romance, but as a sci-fi movie. It was about explorers that go to the Amazon. Nobody wanted to do it. But it remained as an idea in the back of my head. I wanted to make a film about an amphibian creature who changes the life of whoever rescues it, in a magical way.
I co-wrote a novel called Trollhunters and while I was prepping Pacific Rim, my co-writer, Daniel Krauss, said, "You know, I have this idea about the government keeping an amphibian creature secret, and this janitor befriends him." And I said, "I'm buying the idea from you. Say no more." That was four or five years ago. I just thought it was a love story. I started writing and I came up with the idea that it should be 1962, which is the end of the American ideal dream.
Vietnam is in swing, Kennedy's going to be killed, everybody thinks the future's going to be great. It's the moment where, I think, things start to change and I thought it would be a great moment for something ancient and primitive and spiritually powerful like the creature to be. I thought that linked a lot with today.
It’s a monster movie, but the monster is not the guy you think it is.
Of course. The idea was, can we tell the story of a creature in another way? A very classic image is the monster carrying the girl, which normally means doom. In this movie, when he carries her at the end, it’s beautiful. So the idea was to take those conventions and turn them around.
How do you see Elisa’s journey?
To me, Elisa (played by Sally Hawkins) is born in a place that she doesn’t quite belong to, and the essence of the love story and the fairytale for me is that there are three journeys that heroes and heroines take in fairytales: to find themselves, to find their place in the world, or to find their place in an alternate world in which they can live. In those three quests, you can fit almost every fairytale ever written. Elisa does all three. She's an outcast, and she's literally invisible, cleaning toilets and picking up garbage, nobody sees her. She becomes very strong and does things against an incredibly powerful figure. And also, she finds a place where she belongs and a person that tells her who she is. Not by dictating, but by belonging.
What went into the design of the creature?
It took three years to design and execute the creature. A lot of that time I was financing it myself. I spent a couple hundred thousand dollars to create the creature, out of my own pocket. I needed to put at least a year of design in before the creature went to clay. And then, it went to clay in the old-fashioned way. We had three sculptors working on it 24/7. And then we repainted it completely from scratch a couple of times. With the way it is now, I think there’s a moment in the film where you stop seeing the creature and you instead see the character.
You touched on the story’s relevance to today. How much did that weigh on you as you wrote?
It’s designed to be that way. Fairytales came out of really tough times such as famine, war, and pestilence. Every narrative in fairytales breaks into simply two categories -- one that
reaffirms the status quo and one that subverts the status quo. It’s the same in horror and sci-fi.
There’s also a lot of humour in the film.
Even in the design there's humour. Yes, the tone of the film is set by the actors, the dialogue and all that. But, there's also tone in the design, and in the colour, and in the cinematography. If you tonally approach this film with the same cinematography that we had in Crimson Peak, the humour evaporates. If you approach it with a certain kind of realism, with touches of whimsy, it really is there.