Why Guillermo del Toro is the master of monsters
No one makes monster movies like Guillermo del Toro. That’ because the Mexican writer/director/producer makes his monsters spectacular: creepy (1997’s “Mimic”), wise (2004’s “Hellboy”), whimsical (2006’s “Pan’s Labyrinth”) or warlike (2013’s “Pacific Rim”). His films radiate with wonder and fear, like a livewire just barely vibrating with electricity as you can’t help but touch it. A novelist as well (“The Strain” series with Chuck Hogan), he is a modern storyteller with classical themes and a distinctively haunting visual style. He also usually writes the movies he directs—the complete package. All this makes him a geeky godhead.
And it’s his time to truly shine. His tenth and latest film as a director, “The Shape of Water” is his most personal film yet, a story he began turning over in his head when he was just 6, when he became fascinated with the iconic Gill-man from the 1954 horror classic “Creature From the Black Lagoon.”
Set in the suspicious 1960s, it’s the twisted fairy tale of a mute cleaning woman (a magical Sally Hawkins) working in a top-secret research facility and has fallen in love with the facility’s top “asset,” a unnamed, literal merman She now conspires to break the amphibian man out from under the nose of his brutal torturer (glowering Michael Shannon). Full of the alien and the familiar, the fantastical and the grittily realistic, it may be del Toro’s moody masterpiece, particularly because it exemplifies what Del Toro calls “compassion for the monster.”
“The Shape of Water” has been winning award after award since it premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, where it of course won the Golden Lion for best film. Del Toro has already won the Best Director award at both the Golden Globes and the Directors Guild of America Awards. “The Shape of Water” is nominated for a wondrous 13 Academy Awards, including three for del Toro, who may just conjure up his first Best Director Oscar in March. The incomparable del Toro spoke to Super from Japan, where he is promoting the film. Here are excerpts:
You’ve essentially been preparing for this film since you were 6. How does it feel to finally finish it?
It was quite a journey. Through the decades, I kept trying to find a way to tell the story. When I got the idea from (“The Shape of Water” writing collaborator) Daniel Kraus (“What if a janitor in a super-secret government facility found an amphibian man and stole it—took it home?”), I knew it had to be my next movie. Fortunately, over the last 25 years, I’ve been about to find the right way, the right people and now the right time.
You’ve said that you wrote the movie especially for Sally, Michael and Octavia Spencer. How does that work?
You need the ideal cast. You don’t tell them. You start watching their movies. You take notes. You find which direction to push them. Later, you show them your notes. With Sally, it was a real partnership. It turned out she was working on a story of a character like that. When I approached her, she told me about it and so we collaborated on Elisa, and that’s what you see in the finished film.
Doug Jones has been your chosen monster man for years. Why him and did you ask him to do anything different for “The Shape of Water?”
Doug and I have known each other for 31 years, since we worked together on “Mimic” in 1997. He is a real rarity—an actor who can do suit work. That’s a really rare quality. Abe Sapien (the merman from the “Hellboy” films) moves like a man, like a professor, a mild-mannered intellectual. This one moves like an animal, like he’s underwater even when he’s not. Doug had to learn how to act like a god, an elemental river god, with a sexual element that gives what we have even more complexity.
It’s set in 1962, but clearly tackles modern social and cultural issues, as you call it, a “fairy tale for troubled times.” How does that work?
I knew I wanted to make a statement about today, but if you set it in the present, people will just look past it. I needed a world set in the past. I needed to find a time that’s equivalent to the present, so, Cold War, social injustice and gender discrimination. So I set it in 1962, a time when America idealizes because America is supposed to be doing well, but things aren’t what they seem.
What about “The Shape of Water” is different from the rest of your films?
The greatest difference is that all the same movies in the same vein are sad. They are melancholic. This is about beauty and life. It’s emotional and uplifting. My mentor Felipe Cazals said when he watched the film: “You finally exhaled.” That is what it feels like.
The film is nominated for 13 Oscars. What’s that like?
It feels great. It is a highly competitive situation. It is good to spend time promoting the film because it takes your mind off of it.
Your next two announced films are “Pinocchio” and “Nightmare Alley.” Is that what’s next for you?
I’m taking time off to do other things. I really don’t know what follows this big movie. I don’t want to say just yet.
The sequel for your film “Pacific Rim,” “Pacific Rim: Uprising” is coming out soon. How involved were you with it and how does it feel to have your film become a franchise on its own?
I was going to direct it and then left it to Steven S. DeKnight (executive producer of TV’s “Daredevil”). I’m still a producer on it, but I haven’t really been involved much. I haven’t seen the finished film itself. What I have seen, I like it. It’s good to see someone else’s vision of the same universe. So far, so good.
What has been the best part of working on “The Shape of Water?”
It’s working with the most talented group of actors. It’s finding out, at age 53, that you still learn the craft from your peers when they are extraordinary: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon and Richard Jenkins. What a cast.
Fox Searchlight Pictures’ “The Shape of Water” opens in cinemas on Feb. 21.
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