An unforgettable and gorgeous fairy tale about the most unlikely of romances, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a visual triumph, a beautiful testament to the power of film, and the director’s biggest cinematic achievement to date. At the recent press day for The Shape of Water, Daily Dead had the opportunity to take part in roundtable interviews with a pair of the film’s co-stars, Michael Shannon and Michael Stuhlbarg, whose characters come to blows over the fate of the mysterious creature at the center of del Toro’s timeless story.
During the interview, both Shannon and Stuhlbarg chatted about their respective characters, the allure of collaborating with del Toro on The Shape of Water, and more. The Shape of Water will open this weekend in New York City, and then will arrive in other cities beginning on December 8th, courtesy of Fox Searchlight.
Mr. Shannon, Octavia was just here saying how, as much as you were a kind, cuddly teddy bear on set, there was a sense of you staying in character a little bit between takes. Is that something important for you to maintain that mindset of a character on set?
Michael Shannon: That's interesting. It may not be me staying in character per se. I'm just really focused on my work. I am focused on the film itself. I'm just staying focused so I will go and talk to Guillermo. I look at the footage. Guillermo likes to edit between takes, so I'll watch how he's putting it together, and we'll talk about the scene. I'm not in character, really. I'm just a real perfectionist, and I'm just trying to make sure I haven't forgotten anything or that there isn't an idea we haven’t explored. 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. It's not really me being in character. I don't want to drift away or daydream. I want to stay focused.
Was the big appeal of this film the characters, the story, or working with Guillermo? Or was it just the perfect storm of all of these things coming together?
Michael Shannon: I think the first thing that happened is that Guillermo reached out to us and said, "I want to make a movie with you. I've been writing a script with both of you in mind. What do you think about that?" We both said, "We like that. That's very nice of you. Thank you." And that's how it started. Then, once we got the script, we felt even more lucky, because it was, for me—I hate to say it—I thought it was very funny. I thought there was a dark humor to it that reminded me a lot of Dr. Strangelove, which is one of my favorite movies. That came from particularly our storyline, the interaction between Michael and I. So that's what drew me in, yeah.
Mr. Stuhlbarg, there seems to be a bit of a theme with this film in that figures in it, traditionally monstrous, are presented more sympathetically, most obviously with the amphibian man, but also with your character. Did you see that connection at all?
Michael Stuhlbarg: I don't remember being aware of the juxtaposition—that is something that I'm just discovering during the press process, now. Honestly, I just looked at this guy and where he came from, where his passions lied, what he loved, and the circumstances that he found himself in. Those were primarily what I was looking at.
But had this movie been made 60 years ago, I would have been thought of as the antagonist. Whereas, in this case, his heart is with the creature, and he's stuck between two governments, and all he really wants to do is go home, to take care of this creature, to make sure it doesn't die, to learn about it in as sympathetic a way as possible. He's brought in after he's been tortured and captured by this guy, and he's doing everything he can to try to remedy the situation, and he notices what's going on between it and Elisa [Sally Hawkins], and he wants to get it out of there as fast as possible and does what he can under the circumstances. I think the fatal flaw with him, if there is one, is that he trusted people to get him out of there because they said they would.
How was it for you guys working together here, was it something of a Boardwalk Empire reunion?
Michael Stuhlbarg: Well, I longed to work with Michael on Boardwalk, but we only had one scene together in five years. I was walking across a room and he pointed me out. He said, "Does that guy look tall to you?" while he was on the phone to another FBI agent.
Michael Shannon: Was that in the pilot?
Michael Stuhlbarg: Yeah.
Michael Shannon: We shot that scene forever, man.
Michael Stuhlbarg: I know.
Michael Shannon: That was the scene we shot when my eye started watering and it wouldn't stop, because some woman had been going up and putting powder on my eyelids for like 15 hours. Finally, I was like, "I can't open my eyes anymore."
Michael Stuhlbarg: I've admired Michael forever, and he just makes me laugh. It was so much fun getting to have a bird's eye view of watching what Michael does behind the scenes, as well, because I hadn't had that opportunity in all that time. Not only have I loved what he's produced, in terms of seeing it on screens, but watching him work with Guillermo was one of the highlights of this experience for me. He mentioned how much of a perfectionist he is, but I really got to see an artist protecting his own character in a way that I rarely ever have seen before.
And you both enjoyed your experience working with Guillermo?
Michael Shannon: One of the great things about working with Guillermo is that you can trust him. So if Guillermo says, "We got it," you know you're working with one of the top filmmakers in the world, so you can trust him. And he's not going to say it just because he wants to go home. He cares about it as much as you do.
Michael Stuhlbarg: And he'll stay there as long as anybody, if not longer, to make sure that he gets it. That scene we shot in the rain, we shot that over and over and over and over again. Because we were chasing the night, trying to get it done before the light came up. We stayed there just as long as we could.
Michael Shannon: He was a trooper in that scene. Boy, oh boy.
Michael Stuhlbarg: So were you. You had to do it twice, and you had two days full of rain, too.
You always hear about how much Guillermo del Toro is a cinephile. I just wondered if that manifested at all while he was directing, or did he cite reference points in other films or other performances during production?
Michael Shannon: Well, I will say I was astonished. Guillermo would talk about my filmography in a way that I found astonishing. He would reference movies that I'm fully certain maybe only two or three other people had ever seen. One day I said to him, "You watched that movie? Nobody watched that movie." And Guillermo would be like, "Michael, I have seen everything you have ever done." "Okay." But I don't know how he finds the time to watch all those movies, because he's always so busy. He's always working.
Michael Stuhlbarg: The film itself is an homage to many other films. You get to see glimpses of Shirley Temple, it touches on all the different genres of film that he loves. That encyclopedic knowledge, that cinephile knowledge, is in every frame of the film in ways that I'm sure I have no idea about. If you ask him about it, he'll say, "Oh, that's from this, or that's from that. I'm paying tribute to this. This has a taste of this in it." It's all the way through this film. I can't wait to hear the audio commentary about it, to get a deeper sense of what he wanted in places. But everything was chosen very, very specifically.
In case you missed it, check here to read our previous coverage of The Shape of Water, including an interview with Guillermo del Toro.