In a secret government laboratory at the height of the Cold War, a visually dazzling, emotionally daring feat of the imagination erupts.
From the inspired mindscape of master storyteller and visionary Guillermo del Toro – who gave us Pan’s Labyrinth, Cronos, and The Devil’s Backbone – comes another astounding and mind-blowing cinematic experience: The Shape Of Water.
Del Toro casts an other-worldly spell with The Shape Of Water, merging the pathos and thrills of the classic monster movie tradition with shadowy film noir, then stirring in the heat of a love story like no other to explore the fantasies we all flirt with, the mysteries we can’t control and the monstrosities we must confront.
This other-worldly fairy tale is set against the backdrop of Cold War era America circa 1962 where a lonely lab assistant (Sally Hawkins) is trapped in a life of isolation in the hidden high-security government laboratory where she works, until the day her life changes forever when she discovers a secret classified experiment.
Del Toro opens his tale deep underwater. From there the entire film becomes an act of breathless submersion, plunging the audience into a 1960s world full of things we recognize – power, anger, intolerance; as well as loneliness, determination and sudden, electrifying connections – and one extraordinary creature we do not. An inexplicable biological “asset” of the U.S. government, a mute cleaning woman, her loving best friends, Soviet spies and an audacious theft all flow into a singular romance that surges beyond all boundaries.
This mystery-shrouded amphibious being has not only been hauled up from the dark, watery depths, but seems to have the fundamental adaptive qualities of water – taking on the psychic contours of every human he encounters, reflecting back both aggression and fathomless love.
Within Del Toro’s storytelling, the themes of good and evil, innocence and menace, the historical and the eternal, beauty and monstrosity weave in and out of each other, revealing that no darkness can ever fully defeat the light. Summarizes Del Toro: “I like to make movies that are liberating, that say it’s okay to be whoever you are, and it seems that at this time, this is very pertinent.” It was also paramount that there be an extraordinary collection of actors.
For Del Toro, the passion for simultaneously haunting and enchanting audiences goes back a long way. A native of Guadalajara, Mexico, he nourished himself as a boy on the infinite mysteries of ghost stories, monster movies and fables that ignited his own wildly inventive interior fantasy life. When he started writing and directing films, all those influences twined into a viscerally expressive visual style all his own, one that seemed to tap directly into the human psyche.
Del Toro is best renowned for his three inspired Spanish-language films that reinvent and upend the very notion of genre: the multiple Oscar-winning Pan’s Labyrinth, Cronos, and The Devil’s Backbone. Each a vivid phantasmagoria navigating the moral and physical dangers of a world of corruption, authoritarianism and war. His supernatural action epics are equally as inventive – Blade 2, the Hellboy series, and Pacific Rim, as well as his gothic romance Crimson Peak.
The Shape Of Water follows in that tradition, but this time in socially divided 1960s America on the brink of nuclear war and sweeping cultural changes. Del Toro weaves in the dizzying landscape of falling in love, as a lonely woman with a traumatic past discovers a love so overpowering it defies suspicion, fear and biology.
Del Toro also assembled an extraordinary collection of actors for the film. The talented ensemble includes Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg and Octavia Spencer.
Exploring the idea of love and its barriers, internal and external, was paramount to Del Toro. “I wanted to create a beautiful, elegant story about hope and redemption as an antidote to the cynicism of our times. I wanted this story to take the form of a fairytale in that you have a humble human being who stumbles into something grander and more transcendental than anything else in her life. And then I thought it would be a great idea to juxtapose that love against something as banal and evil as the hatred between nations, which is the Cold War, and the hatred between people due to race, color, ability and gender.”
The fact that the film’s two leads don’t speak, not conventionally anyway, only heightens the love story by stripping away the miscommunications that often stand between humans. “One thing about love is that it is so incredibly powerful, it doesn’t require words,” says Del Toro.
The Seduction Of Monster Movies
Mixing many genres from lush musicals to suspenseful noir, The Shape Of Water particularly revisits and reinvigorates the enduring allure of the monster movie playing upon our most primal emotions of fear, abandonment and danger but also curiosity, awe and desire.
Like many, Del Toro grew up with the dark enchantment of the classic Universal Studios monsters: the Wolf Man who turned feral against his will, the naïve Frankenstein chased by angry townsfolk, the seductive Dracula driven by his unholy appetites, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, an amphibious prehistoric creature who emerged from the sea longing for a companion.
There was something evocative and deeply, strangely relatable about these monsters. They were persecuted by pitchfork-bearing crowds because they were different and forced to skulk alone on the edges of society in remote castles, woods or rivers. All were trapped in a transitional state – part human, part other – which anyone who has felt ostracized can identify with. Perhaps most intriguingly, they were sensual beings, powerless to the unending needs of their bodies and minds.
Of all the iconic monsters, the most heartbreaking of all was the piscine amphibious humanoid from Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954). Directed by Jack Arnold and starring Ben Chapman (on land) and Ricou Browning (underwater) as the inimitably tragic Gill-Man, the last of his prehistoric species. At once dangerous and forlorn, reviled and yearning, the Creature touched audiences even as it scared them.
The Shape Of Water was conceived in 2011 when Del Toro and Daniel Kraus, the director’s writing partner on his children’s book series, Trollhunters, met for breakfast one morning.
Kraus mentioned an idea he had had as a teenager, about a cleaning woman working in a government facility and secretly befriending an amphibious man being held captive as a specimen and how she decides to liberate him. Del Toro loved the idea so much that he immediately said he wanted it to be his next movie – it seemed the perfect sort of fairy tale idea he had been searching for. From that meeting, a deal was made for the pair to collaborate together on a novel and for del Toro to write and direct the film.
At that point, Del Toro was still completing work on his giant-robot/monster blockbuster Pacific Rim, but in rare quiet moments, also drawing from classic monster films such as The Creature From The Black Lagoon, he’d spend time writing the script for the more intimate film that would eventually be called The Shape Of Water.
In 2014, Del Toro self-financed a group of artists and sculptors using designs and clay models to pitch the story from beginning to end to Fox Searchlight. The studio came on board immediately without any hesitation.
The following spring, Guillermo and Fox Searchlight begin meeting with potential co-writers to work on the screenplay with him. They ultimately hired Vanessa Taylor who worked closely with Guillermo on both plot structure and character (particularly the multi-layered lead character Eliza).
Del Toro wanted to upend the conceit of monstrosity with a love story that surrenders fully to making the creature the lead and the human forces aligned against him the true forces of sinister darkness. “In a monster movie of the 50s, Strickland, the square-jawed, good-looking government agent, would be the hero, and the creature would be the villain. I wanted to reverse those things.”
Del Toro also decided to take his monster movie to a different level: the sensual. He wanted an earthiness to counterbalance the fairy tale and to bring it to the edge of a familiar adult reality.
For producer J. Miles Dale, who has collaborated with Del Toro for years, Del Toro is one of the few directors with the skill to create creatures that live and breathe with a fully expressed humanity we all recognize. “Guillermo creates creatures uncorrupted by the ways of the human world. We can look at them as a kind of mirror to what we might be ideally,” says Dale. “This film is not like anything you’ve seen before, but it also feels like a Del Toro movie. It’s so clearly in his voice, but it’s also new and original.”
For the story’s time period, Del Toro purposely chose an American era in which epic fears held sway: 1962, as anxiety over nuclear war with the Soviet Union was peaking, and just before the idealistic, future-focused Camelot of President Kennedy gave way to disillusion, mounting paranoia and social upheaval. “There’s a lot going on in that time period,” says Dale. “There’s the Cold war, the Space Race and the Civil Rights movement. And it’s all the backdrop for a love story you haven’t seen before.”
The period is one that is sometimes glorified notes Del Toro, without remembering its injustices and stultifying dread of human differences. “To me, this is a time when America stopped – it’s a time of racism, of inequality, of people thinking about the brink of nuclear war. In a few months, Kennedy will be assassinated. So in a way, it’s a horrible time for love,” he comments, “yet love happens.”
The futuristic impulses of 60s America play off the primordial creature, recalling Rilke’s words “where something past comes again as if out of the future.” Says Del Toro: “What interested me is that 1962 is a time when everybody was focused on the future, while the creature is an ancient form of the deep past. People are obsessed with what’s new, with ad jingles, the moon, modern clothes, TV. And in the meantime here’s this ancient force, a creature in love, who comes among them.”
Casting the Net
Each of the roles in The Shape Of Water was written for a specific actor — the very same actors who Del Toro asked to appear in the film. “He was honing the script to their voices, rather than vice versa,” comments Dale,” which is an exciting thing to be able to do.”
Del Toro notes that each of the film’s characters, no matter their place in society, is grappling with love in different circumstances. “There’s a pure love between Elisa and the creature, but government agent Strickland is also trying to love, though we experience that his love is brutal, and Elisa’s neighbor Giles is looking for a love frowned upon in that time, and Elisa’s best friend Zelda is in love with a man who does not deserve her love. Even the General overseeing the laboratory has a kind of father/son love story with Strickland.”
As each was approached, all said yes. “This is a very special film,” says Sally Hawkins.
The journey of Elisa from loneliness and powerlessness to a heroine who takes huge risks forms the beating heart of The Shape Of Water, made all the more extraordinary because the role is almost without words. Rendered mute by a childhood trauma, Elisa communicates in American Sign Language (ASL), but she is able to express herself effusively when she encounters the strange aquatic creature being warehoused in the government lab where she works as a cleaning lady.
“Taking part in it has meant so much to me. It’s a story that will forever have a piece of my heart.”
Says Michael Shannon who plays the man who hunted the amphibious creature deep across the Amazon with relentless determination is Richard Strickland,a steel-jawed, righteous, ambitious government agent who views his unusual quarry as nothing more than a ferocious beast to be manhandled into submission – and a ticket to his promotion.
“I was drawn to the picture because I felt it could have hopeful qualities that might inspire people to be gentler with one another — that’s sorely missing right now. It’s really a story about how it is worth having love in your life at any cost. Sometimes love requires you to face your fears, or to make sacrifices, but at the end of the day it’s worth it.”
For Richard Jenkins, who plays Elisa’s neighbor and dearest friend in the world, Giles, an equally lonely, down-on-his-luck ad-man and avid movie musical lover, the film went beyond even what audiences have come to expect from Del Toro. “Guillermo’s filmmaking is like no one else, but this film is also unlike any he’s done before,” he notes.
If I told you about her, the princess without voice, what would I say? Would I tell you about the time…? It happened a long time ago- in the last days of a fair Prince’s reign… Or would I tell you about the place? A small city near the coast but far from everything else…Or perhaps I would just warn you about the truth of these facts and the tale of love and loss and the monster that tried to destroy it all…
Octavia Spencer, who plays a veteran cleaning lady at the lab who has come to not only comprehend Elisa but to gossip, share and unite with her, was all but waiting for Del Toro’s call. “I had met him before I read the script and it felt like I’ve known him my entire life,” Spencer recalls. “As a filmmaker, he’s just an alchemist. He turns human themes into something otherworldly.”
Concludes Doug Jones, who has worked with Del Toro six times, takes on a role that exists on the border between human, animal and myth. Jones, who utilized both a meticulously-designed prosthetic costume and an extraordinary knack for physical expressiveness to forge the creature. Jones has a rare skill set, having worked repeatedly with Del Toro embodying his creations. Jones was the unforgettable Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth, Abe Sapien in the Hellboy series and an ancient vampire in “The Strain.” But, like Hawkins, he never imagined he’d be the lead in a love story.
“In The Shape Of Water, Guillermo goes back to his artistic roots and lets all of his creative juices flow.”