The master fabulist behind The Shape of Water talks sex, movies and what makes a monster tick.
The man who adds a dash of dark whimsy to his every project returns with a Cold War-era fantasy saga about the romantic pairing of a mute cleaning lady and a humanoid fish creature. The Shape of Water is Guillermo del Toro’s remarkable tenth feature, and it has been a long and winding road since his extraordinary debut, Cronos, in 1993. We speak to the iconic director about his fondness for monsters, old movies and underdog outsiders.
LWLies: How do you define a monster?
Del Toro: Rather than defining a monster, let me define the monster movie. A monster movie is a movie where the monster is not hidden or hinted at, but displayed. It’s right there in front of you. Not only as a creature that is a part of a story, but as the story itself. And also, this monster symbolises the creative act of making the movie. There’s part of the final product that is like, ‘Look, we made this gill man, or this Frankenstein, or this killer alien’. And in turn, this affects the design of the movie as a whole. The design work in The Shape of Water is a bullseye. You have the outer core – cinematography, production design, wardrobe, colour palette and all of that. And right at the centre, is the monster. Everything else serves the monster. That’s a monster movie.
What other types of monsters are there?
The real monsters are people who are perverse about their function in life. Like a politician who is supposed to serve the people, and serves anyone but the people. A priest who is supposed to preach peace and solace and wisdom, and is an agent of corruption, brutal morality and destructive guilt. These are monsters for me. An army that doesn’t protect a nation but defends the interests of the rich. A monster is also an extraordinary creature who exists above nature, or below nature. Those are the monsters for whom I have empathy. Unlike a politician, these characters suggest the possibility that there are more things in heaven and earth than your imagination can conjure. Yet the moment they step in, what you see is what they are. Giant gorilla. Giant lizard. That’s what they are.
Do you find there’s a difference when you’re writing male and female characters?
I write it like a human. It’s a human character who is known to me through 53 years of existence. I try to put myself in a place that is not my own. It’s empathy. Always. I write for the bad guy, Strickland, with great empathy. I think he is less smart than he thinks he is. I wish he was smarter. He is in above his head. All he understands is brutality. But I write from my own experience. There’s a sequence where he has a conversation with an army general. I’ve had that conversation with studio executives. With Sally, I see everything she has done. I look and listen, and I try to calibrate the text for her. It’s like writing a song for a singer. If you think of ‘Over the Rainbow’, it’s as if it was written for Judy Garland. But if it’s written for Tom Waits, it’s different.
The recreation of 1962 – what were your primary research sources?
I looked everywhere. Mainly from the late ’50s to the ’60s up to the death of Kennedy. It was crucial that the story happened prior to that date, even if it was months or days. It’s the moment where America crystallises the notion of a dream that never came to be. It’s post-war, monetary abundance, a jet-finned car in every garage, TV dinners, TV in the living room, self-cleaning kitchen, wives with hairspray and petticoats, the Space Race. There is faith in the future of America, and that’s what everyone in the movie talks about. Then Kennedy is murdered, and Vietnam continues, and the dream dies. In fact, the dream lives on, but as a ghost. It haunts the nation. It fans hubris. It’s that ghost which is telling people we should make America great again.
Was the main location – Elisa’s apartment she shares with Giles – always above a cinema?
Yes because I always wanted the light and the dialogue to come through the floor. I thought that was really neat. She always has these movies playing. She’s silent, so I’ve got to give you an idea of what’s showing in her head. And I’ve got to show that she makes eggs, masturbates, shines her shoes and dreams of water. She loves musicals. She has very few possessions. Those things end up defining the characters.
Was there a particular film of Sally’s that made you think to cast her? I, personally, am a fan of Happy-Go-Lucky.
Yes, that was key. The three key movies for me were… Actually, the first one is not a movie. I saw the series Fingersmith, the BBC series, which is remarkable. She falls in love with a woman and they have beautiful loving sex, and I thought, I love the way she did it. There was no titillation. There was no sparkle in the eye. It’s just that she likes to have sex with a woman, and that’s the way it is. It’s a piece of character, it’s not the point. I love that. And I love the way she handled it. I didn’t want to do a bestiality movie that was perversion and schoolyard gossipy salivation. They just love each other. It doesn’t matter that he’s an amphibian man or any iteration of the other. The important thing is that they fall in love and they make love. Period.
Then I saw her in Happy-Go-Lucky and I thought she can achieve this state of grace. She is blissful, but alive. Then I saw her in Richard Ayoade’s Submarine, where she’s a secondary character. The way I cast actors is not through the way he or she delivers lines, it’s the way he or she listens to the lines being spoken by others. Or by the way they look at the the other actor. I just thought, this is it. If I create a great creature and she looks at it like a man in a rubber suit, the film dies. If she looks at it like a creature, it lives. She had such a massive crush on the creature. For real. Sally, not the character.
“There’s no sexual act in the world that is perverse unless you make it perverse.”
It’s strange for you to say “bestiality” as, on a cold technical level, there is that element to the story.
It’s not a term that’s present. There’s no sexual act in the world that is perverse unless you make it perverse. I think there’s much more perversity in a Victorian kiss on the cheek than in a catalogue of positions involving people who care passionately for one another. Perversity is always in the eye of the beholder. It goes beyond questions of good or bad taste. They’re obviously not graphic. They’re done with such love and such belief that it’s the right thing to do. There is no oblique emotional titillation. And it’s the same way that I treat monsters or apparitions – ‘Look, there’s a ghost! Look, there’s a faun!’ They make love. It’s up to you to be scandalised or not. It says more about the person scandalised than the act itself when somebody says, ‘That sexuality should not exist.’ Why not? It’s there. It does exist. Why is it not human? It’s a position I simply do not understand. Unless it’s a non-consensual, violent act or forced. If it’s not that, I think everything is. Sex is like pizza. Bad pizza is still good. And good pizza is great.
In the past your films have had this erotic element to them, but it’s rare that you’ve actually used a sex scene.
I would agree. There is a sex scene in The Devil’s Backbone, but it’s very twisted and painful. There’s a beautiful sex scene in Crimson Peak between Edith and Thomas which I like a lot. It’s different here, because to show a female character masturbating… some men have a lot of trouble with that.
Your film offers quite a damning indictment of heterosexual relationships.
Yes. The idea for me is that there is more power play and more submission in the relationship between Strickland and his wife. He’s screwing her and covering her face. Zelda and her husband are in stasis. She hasn’t talked to him in years. She just cooks. The question for me is: can we find beauty in the alternative possibilities that life offers us?
Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon feels like an analogue to this film. Though it feels unique in the annals of monster movies for the human character to instigate a romance with the monster. She’s never scared.
There’s a difference between saying the monster got the girl and the girl got the monster. That’s what happens in this one. She rescues him. The first time she sees him he has a wound on his left hand side, and is bleeding. Later, she has a wound in the exact same place. They rescue one another. To me, the image that is key in Creature from the Black Lagoon is the monster carrying the girl when she’s unconscious. But that is an image of horror. In The Shape of Water, that same image reflects a sense of great love.
Creature from the Black Lagoon is a very scary film.
Yes, when it attacks the guys in the tent, it’s brutal. But also, what I love about that movie, is the moment when the creature is swimming right underneath Julie Adams. That is beauty. Pure cinematic perfection. I fell in love with Julie Adams and the creature when I was six. I watched that film as a kid – and I couldn’t put it in to words at the time – but it’s a home invasion movie. The creature is happily living in his lagoon, and this bunch of hoodlums come in, invade his house and then kill him. For me it’s almost a metaphor for the transnational invasion of South America. That why I have the origin element in this movie.
Shannon is almost identical to one of the guys in Creature from the Black Lagoon.
That was the idea! The idea of the film was to depict a super-secret government agency, but not show it through the eyes of the scientist or the people in charge, but those who clean the toilets. It is important that the people joining together to save the creature are all invisible. Sally Hawkins is a woman, a mute and a cleaner. Octavia Spencer is invisible because she’s African-American. Giles because he’s a closeted gay designer whose time of peak artistic worth has passed. And the Russian guy can’t even use his own name. His job is to be invisible. Then you see Ken and Barbie and Ken is a dominating, brutal asshole.
At the beginning of the film there’s a cinema owner and he’s complaining that no one goes to the cinema any more. Is there a commentary here?
That’s more or less what was happening in 1962. Families weren’t going to the cinema because the TV was on. I’m trying to say that we’re in exactly the same world. The movie is about today. Racism, sexism, gender issues, discrimination, everything. They had it in ’62 and we’ve got it now. It’s still pretty good if you’re a WASP, but the minorities – no matter who they are – they’re the “other”. You also had the Cold War, which is back now in a big way. And also you had cinema, which was considered dying. And it really isn’t. It’s transforming.
I saw it as the monster experiencing something new. Which might now be considered a rare thing in Hollywood.
Yes, he doesn’t understand what he’s looking at. The scene was a little longer. I wanted to have him point at the screen and ask, ‘What is this?’ in sign language. But for some reason, when he signed, I felt the guy in the suit. I couldn’t risk it. If you do it wrong once, the whole illusion is destroyed. The one person who actually enjoys the movie is the creature. Everyone else is sleeping.
The Shape of Water is released 14 February. Read our review.
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