Guillermo del Toro interview: The Shape Of Water, shame and perversity

We talk to director Guillermo del Toro about his latest film, The Shape Of Water, shame, perversity and much more...

One of the many wonderful things about talking to director Guillermo del Toro is the sense that nothing’s off the table: whichever direction the conversation takes, he’ll always have an intelligent and considered response. Even within the relatively brief span of 20 minutes, our discussion veered from the pressures of (relatively) low-budget filmmaking to sexuality to classic B-movie monsters.

The common thread was, of course, The Shape Of Water, del Toro’s spectacular new fantasy-romance that is also takes in horror, sci-fi and timely social commentary. About a mute woman, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) who meets and falls in love with a captured aquatic creature (Doug Jones) cooped up in an American government facility, it flips the typical monster movie on its head. Here, the mysterious creature is the oppressed and the all-American government guy – Colonel Strickland, played with typical icy relish by Michael Shannon – is the oppressor.

It’s easily del Toro’s best film in years, and well ahead of its UK release, The Shape Of Water has already been heaped with accolades. What might be surprising to some is that, although the film has the gloss of a classic Hollywood movie, del Toro managed to bring in his lush period romance in for a shade under $20 million. Doing so was clearly tough-going behind the scenes, but there results are plain to see: a heartfelt, sharp yet disarmingly sweet snapshot of the best and worst of human nature.

On the eve of The Shape Of Water’s debut in British cinemas, then, here are the master filmmaker’s thoughts on his film’s making, themes, current relevance – and a brief update on another ambitious project he might have lined up for the future.

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Congratulations on the film. One of the things I loved about it was how integral its setting was to the story. It wasn’t just a backdrop.

It is. Hitchcock used to say movies that happen anywhere matter nowhere. I think that movies that happen any-when never matter. If you say, “Well, this could work now”, well then, okay. That’s boring.

I think this movie’s also about today, behind the bleakness of 1962. Because 62 is important today, you know? For the way we perceive ourselves, and for the fact that we think that it was all good in the past, and it wasn’t. We had the same problems then that we have now. 

Yeah. The point that I read into it was that people who are homophobic or racist project their hatred onto other people. They want other people to feel ashamed of themselves; your movie is about not feeling shame.

Yes, exactly. It’s about celebrating imperfection, celebrating otherness, falling in love with the other, you know? It’s not so much tolerance as it is love. But it’s a very humanistic movie. It’s very life-affirming, which I normally don’t do! [Chuckles] I don’t normally do life-affirming movies. 

Can you talk about how you settled on the aquatic creature?

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The whole movie is rooted in my memory as a six year-old of seeing Creature From The Black Lagoon, and seeing the Gill-man swimming underneath Julie Adams, and falling in love with her. Falling in love with him, and falling in love with him falling in love with her. The way I saw the movie, I was hoping they would end up together – but not only do they not end up together, but they kill the creature. Well, to a point – there’s a sequel and another sequel. But he gets his home invaded and then roughed around, you know?

So I thought, dear lord, what a horrible story. What a beautiful movie, but what a horrible deal for the creature! He was at home, swimming, and these guys barge in. He gets excited, and thinks maybe he’s in love, and then they kill him! [Laughs] That’s the way I see that movie. 

I grew up with that film. I saw it on a little telly when I was really tiny, and it was the hand. It was the image of the hand when I was little. I was mesmerised by it.

It’s amazing. It’s actually one of the few movies, I think, where the creature is actually scary, but beautiful. The scene where he kills the guys in the tent, that was pretty violent for the time. 

What I like too is that your movie peels back the layers at what at first feels like a cosy period in history. It was only a golden age if you were white, fairly wealthy, straight, able-bodied…

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Yeah. And he [Michael Shannon’s character, Colonel Strickland] comes home, and it’s a kind of Leave It To Beaver home. But then little by little you realise that the house is really perverse! He’s kind of a wierdo. He thinks of himself as being pretty straight [but he’s not]. 

I think you’re only weird if you think you’re not weird. If you know you’re weird, you’re not weird! It’s sort of a paradox. But the thing about perversity, quote-unquote perversity, is not in the nature of the act, but the way you go about it. A Victorian kiss on the cheek has so much repression behind it that it’s perverse. After that, any sexual action between two consenting adults is not perverse. Whatever they do, if there’s genuine love, genuine passion, and you’re not under the shroud of purity and sanctity… if you don’t believe yourself to be morally above the act that you’re doing, there’s a beauty to that. I think there’s a vulnerability to that that is gorgeous. 

I was interested to read that you chose Sally Hawkins after watching Fingersmith. Because that story has similar themes, doesn’t it?

That’s what I liked. She falls in love with a woman because she falls in love with a woman. That’s it! There’s no perverse titillation or luridness – it just is. I thought the love story here was going along similar lines. I thought she’s going to fall in love with a creature that is not a real animal, it’s not bestiality. It’s just the Other. It represents the Other-ness, you know? And instead of turning him into a prince, like Beauty And The Beast, he reminds her of a part of her nature that was sort of locked, and he unlocks that for her. But sexuality was very much part of the equation for me in the way that you can see, again, a love story between Richard Jenkins’ artist [Giles] and the pie shop guy. He really loves that guy. He’s really infatuated in a very beautiful, sweet way. The pie guy turns out not to be worthy of that, but there’s a beauty to it – there’s a sweetness that is disarming, on Richard’s part. 

Octavia [Spencer’s] in a relationship with a husband who hasn’t talked to her in ages. Everyone has their own love story, you know? 

What was your thinking behind the creation of Michael Shannon’s character?

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I wanted to reverse two things from the B-movie monster paradigm. I wanted the guy who normally plays the hero in those movies to be the villain. So I thought, he needs to be square-jawed, really well-dressed, and work for the government. He needs to be that guy. Then the image of the monster carrying the girl, instead of that being a horror image, it will be a beautiful image. So that’s the two things. 

So in creating Shannon’s character, I thought, he thinks he’s a decent man. He really thinks he’s doing good. He hates this slimy, dark creature that comes from South America. He finds it repulsive. Then the revelation that the creature may be a god is shocking to him, you know? He hates it. He laughs at it – that’s not a god. Look at it – I can kick it, I can punch it. But he’s full of self-hatred. He wants to dominate.

This decent, square-jawed man is the one character in the movie that I would call perverse. Because he likes this Leave It To Beaver, Barbie and Ken household, but then the way he screws is really dominant and sick. It’s kind of creepy. He’s a very creepy guy, and the way he approaches Elisa, accosting her at work, is really entitled and creepy. But I wanted to do a moment of pure vulnerability, where you as an audience feel for him, so you understand that his heart has also been broken, you know? 

A story is always made more interesting when all the characters have some kind of flaw or vulnerability.

I think it is. And Shannon’s very moving in those scenes where he’s basically being dressed down. I wrote those thinking of meetings I had with studio executives. So I wrote them from experience!

I remember you had trouble with Mimic.

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Yeah! Very bad. And I’ve had other meetings for movies that have been unpleasant. Movies that I’ve developed and then left. I’ve written 25 screenplays, and I’ve done 10 movies, so I’ve had at least 10 of those encounters! 

It seems timely, the entitlement of Michael Shannon’s character, a guy enjoying power and used to getting his own way, and certain people who’ve been in the news [at the time of the interview, the Harvey Weinstein story was just breaking]. I was wondering if you think that we’re at a point now where you think things will change, especially in Hollywood.

Well, it is certainly timely. But there are realities that we dislike, that for me… racism has been part of the fabric of my life as an immigrant the whole time. If you are even remotely critical, you get, “Go back to your country” immediately. “Shut up and go back to your country.” And I think an affectionate relationship with your own country, or any country, is to be able to point out where we can do better. I don’t think it’s a negative – I think it’s an adult endeavour to point out to each other where we can do better. 

In the same way, we’re talking now about sexually predatory people. But if you’re a woman, that’s always been there. This movie’s only timely because the problems it speaks of have never gone away. It’s not a Jules Verne, prophet-of-the-future kind of thing – it’s always been there. 

It amazes me that you got this movie made for – what, under $20 million, I was reading?

$19.5m.

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What was your process behind that? Was it careful planning, or…?

Honestly? I mean, yeah, there was careful planning, but then everything went wrong! But we still made it – we made it under budget. We didn’t stay on budget; yesterday, we were $300,000 under budget. We’re finishing up, and there are people we’re channelling that money to because they need it – they really made huge sacrifices for us. So we’re going to end up exactly on budget. 

How we did it is, I had a really great partnership with [J Miles Dale], my producer, and knowing what to do. I mean, I have 25 years of making movies under my belt, so I think we can plan, we can deliver a much bigger scope.

But it was horrible to shoot.

Really?

Logistically. Artistically, it was great – the actors themselves, the camera, the sets, all beautiful. But every day we were out of time, out of money. If you had a set that didn’t need more than two walls, it was two walls. It was only what you needed. We were constantly maximising, to the point where we only had one Cadillac – normally you have two Cadillacs that are identical so you can crash one, but we couldn’t. We said, if we’re gonna crash the Cadillac, we have to shot it in order, because we had no money to repair it! 

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Oh god. Well at least you didn’t have to worry about continuity errors.

Well, no. But literally, the van, that Giles drives, was so cheap that it stopped working. “It doesn’t move anymore!” I said, okay. Fine, I’ll shoot it like this. There’s a shot, a very personal shot so I won’t tell you which one, that was done looking at the pavement. And all we had was five feet of pavement. That was the set! We couldn’t go back to the location, we didn’t have money to put into location scouting and paying the location rental, so we only had a little bit of pavement, and that was the shot. I mean, you do it with the basics, you know?

I was reading that one of your projects future is Slaughterhouse-Five.

I wish. I talked to Charlie Kaufman, and we came up with an idea on how to adapt the book, but no one’s paying for that yet. I wish they would, but no one’s paying. Charlie Kaufman’s not a cheap writer. He’s expensive, and for a studio to develop it, they need to know I’m making it, and I cannot tell them I’m making it until I have a screenplay. So it’s a Catch-22. Hopefully, if The Shape Of Water goes well, I can pursue that again, and people will get a little more excited about the project. 

I would love to see that.

Me too. I’d love to make it. It’s a difficult, difficult movie to make logistically, because what I want to do is, I want to do the idea that he’s unstuck in time. I don’t want to do flash-forward, flash-back; I really want all time to exist simultaneously, because that is what’s interesting to me. 

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So with that in mind, what’s the secret of creating a believable, coherent world on the screen? Because that’s the thread in your films, for me.

Well, I think the secret is to fail many times, and now and then you get it right! Because you learn the craft. You trust your instincts, and sometimes your instincts lead you to a place that a few people appreciate, or more people appreciate. For me, one of the best movies I’ve done is Crimson Peak. And yet, demographically, it was not a successful movie. But from a cinematic point of view, it’s a beautiful, gorgeous movie – not just in appearance, the way it’s shot, the way it’s laid out, the way it’s staged, it’s gorgeous. But then the rest is demographics; whether people are willing and ready, and whether it’s marketed right, whether it finds an audience or doesn’t. 

The thing I like is, even with the movies that I don’t see connecting on a large scale, they connect deeply. People who love it love it deeply. So that is, I guess, what matters at the end for me.

It seems to me that, for filmmakers working in a certain field, the industry’s becoming more brutal. So we saw Blade Runner 2049 the other day – amazing reviews, but the box office was  less so. What’s the answer to that? 

If I could go back in time with Crimson Peak, I would it make it for $20 million. Because then I put the studio in a better position to market it as a gothic romance. They only need to make $60 million, you know what I’m saying? But if I make it for $55 million, I put the studio in an impossible position to make $155 million, and they have to market it as a horror movie. So it’s not their fault – it’s me creating a situation that is untenable for them. The solution is, can we make those movies for a number that is reasonable? $30 million, under 30, under 20. That’s why Shape Of Water looks like it’s $60 million but it’s made for $19.5. It’s not a big-budget movie.

And you’d never know. It looks spectacular. Guillermo del Toro, thank you very much.

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The Shape Of Water is out on the 14th February in UK cinemas – the perfect movie for Valentine’s Day.