Guillermo del Toro on Turning a Monster Into a Leading Man for 'Shape of Water' (Q&A)

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Guillermo del Toro

The celebrated monster master talks with THR about fulfilling his decades-long dream to create an amphibian creature who doubles as a romantic lead and why Sally Hawkins was "perfect" for her role.

From the depths of his vivid imagination, Guillermo del Toro has brought to the big screen such memorable monsters as the demon hero Hellboy, the ghouls of Crimson Peak and the magical creatures of Pan’s Labyrinth. With his latest, The Shape of Water, the Mexican director finally brings to life the amphibian creature that he’s always imagined as a leading man. The film stars Sally Hawkins as a mute cleaning lady who falls in love with a water creature being held captive in a government facility. After a rapturous premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Golden Lion, del Toro brings Shape of Water to TIFF before the film hits theaters via Fox Searchlight on Dec. 8. He spoke to THR about creating his latest creature, writing the role for Hawkins and how the Trump administration affects him as an artist.

What makes this monster special?

It took three years to design it from beginning to end because I didn’t want to reference either the creature I created in Hellboy based on the character of Mike Mignola or the Creature From the Black Lagoon, which is the King Kong of amphibian men. I would reference Japanese engravings of black carps, I would reference salamanders and natural animals, but at the same time we would reference [competitive swimmer and Tarzan actor] Johnny Weissmuller, swimmers’ bodies and bull-fighter bodies. It took about six sculptures to get the perfect balance. And it needed to be a leading man, that’s the difference. Normally, the creature is in the background or appears now and then. The only other creature that took this long was Ron Perlman’s makeup on Hellboy. In both cases, they are leading men in the movie.

Which character was the most difficult to cast?

I wrote it specifically for Sally Hawkins, I wrote it specially for Octavia Spencer, and I wrote it specifically for Michael Shannon. I met Sally at a party a couple of years before we shot. I said, “I’m writing a movie for you.”

You’d never met her when you started writing?

No, I hadn’t met her. I had only met her in the movies.

What movie made you want to write a part for her?

All of them. The first time I saw Sally was in a [2005] BBC series called Fingersmith. It was a love story between two women in London. It was not titillating; it was beautiful and naturalist. The love between the characters was so beautiful, fluid, nonguilty and joyful. Then I saw her in Happy-Go-Lucky. She brought a purity to that character that makes you eat the entire story up. After Submarine, I said, “I’m writing the movie for her because this is perfect.”

What did you learn from making this movie?

This was a very difficult movie. We were trying to give it a huge scope. I wanted it to look like it cost $60 million, but we did it for under $20 million. It was a lot of resourcefulness that came from having done the TV series The Strain over the past few years. I learned to work faster. I learned to be nimbler. It was an incredibly difficult shoot, very exhausting.

Is this movie meant to be a social commentary?

It was very punctually made to be that, through the love story. It’s a very romantic movie, but it’s a movie that’s not only about 1962 — which is the moment in which the American dream is at its apex and dies with Kennedy and gives way to the disillusionment of Vietnam — it’s also very much about now, not only about politics but about the fact that we live in a time where hatred and division are so easy. To talk about love and belonging … people are almost ashamed to talk about emotions. The idea of the movie is that water and love are the most powerful things in the universe, and they take whatever shape they need to find you.

You’ve been vocal on Twitter about politics in the Trump presidency. Does the current climate affect you as an artist?

The curious thing is that being a Mexican, I’ve been feeling this political climate [from] years and years ago. It never quite went away. That’s the idea [of the film]. The things that were wrong in ’62 — racism and sexism — are still alive. I started writing this movie in 2011 and 2012, and it was already the same story. All I’m saying is we are now able to see it more openly, but it’s always existed. What is astounding to me is that I never thought I would see an openly Nazi rally marching like that in American cities.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Sept. 10 daily issue at the Toronto Film Festival.