I’ve been struggling to write my review, because I want to make sure I do the movie justice, but I’ll go ahead and just say here that Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is my favorite film of 2017, and I’m so excited for everyone to see it and hear what you guys think. Thankfully, the wait is over soon, as del Toro’s latest arrives in theaters in New York City on December 1st, and then subsequently rolls out in other cities beginning December 8th.
A love letter to Universal’s iconic monster “The Creature,” The Shape of Water is a gorgeously crafted tribute to cinema of yesteryear that delivers a poignant and timeless romance about two beings who meet under the most unusual of circumstances, and how their unique love helps them persevere in the most dire of circumstances.
At a recent press day, Daily Dead had the opportunity to take part in roundtable interviews with del Toro for The Shape of Water, and he discussed his lifelong adoration of monsters and the “truth” of these creatures, as well as why he’s been fascinated with the titular being from The Creature From the Black Lagoon for decades now. Del Toro also chatted about making the movies that nobody else will make and how the unconventional romance between a young woman and a “fish man” in The Shape of Water really isn’t so unusual after all.
You’ve said before that films are your religion, but it seems like the same could be said for monsters. What is it about these things in particular that have connected with you on such a deeply personal level?
Guillermo del Toro: Well, in Mexico, we have a very gory Catholic religion. Our saints are only vanquished by the Philippine saints. We have compound fractures, exposed bone. I remember there was a Jesus hanging in my local church that had a protruded bone from the knee, and it was purple and all green. And then they said, "Take the body of Christ," and I go, "Not right now. I'm full. I'm full. I just ate." When I saw Frankenstein's creature, it had the same sort of tragic air to it that the Jesus I saw hanging had, and I thought, “This is a messiah I can understand.” They became really martyrs of normalcy, meaning the monsters were killed for the sake of normal people. Now, I understand the monsters.
But I don't yet, at age 53, know what normal is. I don't understand it. I think it's a standard that is very destructive, because if normal means perfect, I think it's impossible. And monsters became patron saints of imperfection for me, and I pray to them every day because we are all imperfect. The standards we have are so destructive because we go, "Black or white," and really, the only space we have to exist is in the gray. That's the only place we can exist, all of us, because otherwise, we exist in fear. "What am I going to do wrong? What am I going to do?" It's a horrible place to be. Monsters are permissive. I think that monsters never lie. They are what they are. Godzilla's not going to go through your neighborhood and then go, "I promise I'm not going to destroy a single house." No, you're going to destroy it all. I fu**ing know you. You're going to crush a building and you're going to move your tail. They are what they are. The moment they step in, you know what they are. They have a truth.
You're obviously a huge fan of monsters, and you’ve talked about how The Shape of Water was brought forth from your love of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. What was it about “The Creature” in particular that has stuck with you for so many years now, and ended up inspiring you to create this story?
Guillermo del Toro: Well, I've come to the conclusion the last decade and a half or so that I'm not a fan, I'm an acolyte. I'm an evangelist. I really feel a kinship with these things. I'm not a guy that keeps the figures mint in the box, and wants a Spiderman #16. There's a really complex relationship I have with these images, that makes them very, very intimate. When I was six, and I saw Julie Adams swimming in her white bathing suit, and the creature swimming underneath it, I really, really felt almost like the Stendhal Syndrome. I felt overwhelmed with art. I was six, and I felt overwhelmed with emotions I couldn't explain. I understood love, unrequited love, or romantic love from afar. I thought the movie would end well, and they would end up together. They didn't.
The movie, for me, became a home invasion movie. This creature is puttering around in its river, and in come these guys who want to try to capture him and kill him. I go, "What an unfair movie this is. But what a beautiful creature," and it stayed with me. I started drawing “The Creature” every day when I was a kid. I would draw him and the Phantom of the Opera a lot. So, what happens is that it became an image of synchronized, balletic, almost like a musical, love. It stayed with me in my head, and it stayed for decades until I found a way to do it, which was in 2011, and then I started writing in 2012.
Is there a reason in particular that you set this film during the 1960s?
Guillermo del Toro: Because it's about now. It's about today, and it's about gender marginalization, toxic masculinity, dominance, overbearing power, racial divisions. It's about everything we're experiencing now. The thing is, if I do it set in present times, it'll take one ping-pong of arguments to lie ourselves into silence. We would nullify each other really quick. But if I tell you, "Once upon a time in 1962, there was a woman that had no words, and there was a creature that spoke none, either," then you're in. Then you can listen, and you can lower your guard, and listen to the fairytale.
There's a wonderful intimacy shared between these two main characters in this film. It's palpable, and it's undeniable, and you'd never question it. Did you ever worry about audiences getting on board with a woman making love to a “fish man”?
Guillermo del Toro: Not if you do it right, because it's not an animal that exists. It's a god. It's a river god. And God willing, you can make the distinction if you do the things properly, and I think I show that every possibility of sex is fine, if it's adult, consenting, and loving. I think that really, the view of the movie was ultimately about human nature. "Can we break through the barrier of the idea of the other?" If the movie was kinky and prurient, and winking and perverse about it, then yeah, you have a problem, but the movie is so natural about it. It's so the logical, beautiful, magical thing to do.
Perversity is in the eye of the beholder. If you were in Victorian times, touching a knee had more perversity than the entire Kama Sutra in the 20th century. It's because of the repression, and it's because of the barriers, the divisions between people. For me, that's it. The way I see the world is that way.
You have said in the past that this film is probably your most personal movie, your passion project. At the core of this story are a pair of outsiders, those who don't really want to be included in the outside world, which is very dark and bleak. Is this a reflection of you wanting to maintain your own standards, instead of conforming to Hollywood’s standards?
Guillermo del Toro: To any standards. Look, I think that when you pitch these types of movies, it's not easy. But it's not been easy ever since Cronos. I made a middle-class vampire story, set in Mexico, with a protagonist that is 70 years old, where his grand-niece has to help put him in a toy box. Now, most people just aren’t going to say, "Yeah ... that sounds good." Or if I want to do a post-fascist fairytale about the Slovenians, set in Spain in 1940-something, with a faun and a giant frog, most people aren’t going to immediately say, "Fantastic—where do I sign up?" How about when I want to do a Cold War love story between a woman and an amphibian man that is kept in a super secret government facility, and she's a cleaning woman who can’t speak. "Oh, well, that sounds great."
It's not easy, but look: the only thing you can do is do the movies you need to do, because nobody else is doing them. Nobody else is doing these movies. And maybe for a good reason [laughs]. But I got to do them. This is what I do. Whatever fruit I am given from the tree, I'm not going to change anything. For 25 years, I've been hearing the same thing over and over about the types of movies I make. But what is different with this movie, is that it feels more human and more breezy—more encompassing, too. There's a lot more love. The other movies have a sense of loss; this doesn't. This has a sense of loneliness, but it goes into a more vital place than all my other movies.
Guillermo, when you were envisioning the creature, what were some of the challenges of not repeating what's been done in the past, and creating a brand new creature?
Guillermo del Toro: Well, we put three years into creating this creature. One thing I said is, "There are two creatures we will not reference, because one of them exists in the DNA of every creature that is amphibian. That's The Creature from the Black Lagoon, so we will not talk about it. We will not say, 'Hey, let's take this.'" The second is Abe Sapien, because I've done it twice, and I don't want to repeat that. If you take Abe Sapien and you put him in The Shape of Water, it wouldn't work. His primary color is blue and he's made of almost car-like design lines. He's a very “comic book” character. So what we did is we had to go ahead and make something different.
I know it sounds like the simple answer, but you just do something different. You can't go by what has been done. Because then you're just quoting someone else’s work. And when you quote, you don't create. When you reprocess, you do. If you do a musical number, like [Singin’ in the Rain director] Stanley Donen, and like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the look, then what are you doing different? Well, in here, it's an amphibian man and a woman dancing. That's reprocessing [laughs].